Category Archives: Gadgets

Seeing Clearly

Today the Grandads Technology Centre (GTC) received its latest upgrade. A DVD player with the ability to play Ultra High Definition (UHD) blu-ray discs and Super-Audio CDs via its sole UHD television.

This technological advance at the GTC comes at the same time as the BBC are streaming UHD versions of some FIFA football matches from Russia. And have just announced that much of this year’s Wimbledon tennis championships will be shot in UHD (2160 pixels high) with access via iPlayer.

UHDAdventure1However this technological advance only serves to show the weaknesses rather than the strengths of the world’s largest broadcaster. Most UK broadcast channels are transmitted as standard definition (576 pixels high) and even though the BBC’s (and ITV’s) main channels are available in HD (up to 1080 pixels high) the vast majority of the channels on Freeview are not; including those part owned by the BBC. Worse still some of the programmes, for example the never-ending repeats of Dad’s Army, are so old that they are in the square format used in the days of analogue television.

The problem for the BBC is its scale and scope. At one extreme it is using the latest technology – for a very limited audience – while at the other extreme it is providing most tax-payers with broadcasts using standards that are long past their best. Low-tech may be justified for transmissions to distant countries – but not within the UK.

For example, to enjoy the optimum experience of Wimbledon in UHD the BBC says audiences need a 40 megabit per second Internet connection. A speed much beyond what is actually available for most UK viewers at present. And sadly the UK seems extremely unlikely to have a powerful enough broadband network able to provide the capacity needed for everyone to watch Eastenders or Corrie in UHD at 40mps in the foreseeable future.

So for now getting something new and appealing, that will test our 4K TV, will have to be sourced via UHD blu-ray discs – despite them retailing for around £20 each. At least then we can repeat some new material rather than shows that have already been repeated ad nauseam on TV.

You Don’t Have Mail

For those of us that have been using e-mail since the 1990’s the prospect of changing a key e-mail address has very little appeal. With decades of accumulated messages, contacts and web site logins any changeover can easily become major task.

man58_160So this month’s announcement that the Tesco.Net service will be closing in June has triggered the need for wholesale changes by everyone still using their service. And, in our particular case, the loss of Tesco.net is the third time that our e-mail provider has closed down; with first Talk21 (British Telecom) and then Beeb.net (BBC) forcing us to look elsewhere for our e-mail.

Back in 2008 the BBC said that Beeb.net just didn’t fit with its core values anymore – i.e. flogging off licence-fee funded content to the rest of the world. And in the case of Tesco the closure of the service seems a minor consideration amongst all their other corporate cut-backs of recent years.

So for those Grandads with ISP contracts that include e-mail services the only problem should the effort needed to make all the changes. But for those wanting to have an e-mail address that is not tied to sticking with their broadband provider the choice is rather limited. The obvious front runner is the Google Gmail service – almost a given if you are also an Android user. But some viable alternatives are Yahoo mail, Microsoft’s Outlook mail or Apple’s iCloud mail. However all of these services are based in the USA so if you want something more local – in either Britain or the EU – then you need to look elsewhere.

One option from a company with a good track record is the GMX free mail service provided by Grandad’s  German Internet service provider; 1and1. But which ever solution you go for you have until 27-Jun-2018 to complete the move. And don’t forget to check if anyone in your contacts list is still using Tesco.net – since it seems that not everyone with an account has been told of the closure!

2G or Not 2G?

The mobile phone has progressed greatly over the years. And for many seniors the level of sophistication and functionality required is easily met by the sort of basic handset that is widely available at a modest price – from just £12.95 at Argos this Christmas. 2GNokiaThey provide calls and texts in a small package that goes for days without a recharge. Many of these phones use what is known as a 2G network – the first of which was launched in the UK in 1992.

And even though there has since been roll-outs of first 3G and then 4G networks many of the older generation have been happy to stick with their familiar mobile phones. A choice that has previous worked fine when holidaying abroad – and avoided the high data roaming changes often incurred by smartphones. That is until recently.

Travelers from the UK to Australia expecting to use their reliable 2G mobiles will be disappointed – as the main network provider, Telstra, closed their 2G network on 1 December 2016. The second largest network, Optus, did the same in a two stage process completed in August this year. The only remaining operator, Vodaphone Australia, will shutdown their 2G service by March 2018. So visitors to friends and family Down Under still using 2G phones should consider picking up a basic unlocked 3G phone on arrival .. at least that will work while there and probably when you get back home as well. That way you are covered if the UK networks follow and start shutting down their 2G networks soon.

What’s Changed?

One month without any posts while enjoying a holiday in the sun. So has anything happened while the keyboards have been silent?

Heckerslyke_160Well last Friday saw the flurry of political activity in London and Brussels linked to the announcement of a major milestone in our attempts to leave the European Union. Every effort has been made since the news broke to make the limited progress made sound like some modern equivalent of the Magna Carta. At this rate Whitehall and Westminster are certain to win another Whitehall Farce Award. Oh what a mess they are creating!

Elsewhere the snowfall over the weekend meant great fun for the grandchildren – at least in some parts of the country. It also was fun for the Grandads remembering how many times the author of Snowfalls are now just a thing of the past has been proved wrong since The Independent published the article some seventeen winters ago.

On the technology front Microsoft gave us all the chance to test our patience again while waiting for Version 1709 of Windows 10 to trundle on – Grandad’s laptop has been downloading and installing for the past six hours. Meanwhile Wikipedia keeps ask us for money to help keep itself afloat. A request that seems a bit rich given that much of their content has been created for free by volunteers – many of whom, like us, have to pay for their Internet access. And worst still there are plenty of US tech companies in such strong financial positions that they could easily fund the entire operation without denting their bottom line.

Another Year, Another Windows Update

StocksD_120Little did we know, back in the 1980s, how much time we would all have to spend installing software updates.

Back in 1986 when Grandad installed Windows 1.0 on an Intel-powered PC it was only one or two megabytes of optional software distributed on floppy disks. Now 31 years later much the same process is being repeated as the Windows 10 Creators Update multi-megabit download runs in the background while this post is being typed.

Officially this latest iteration is version 1703. And at times like this it feels like large chunks of my life have been spent installing everyone of them. Hopefully this latest code monster will not  bite – and this does not turn out to be the last before the crash …

The Year of the Smart Meter?

The government expects that smart meter installations will rise sharply in 2016, when all the final common standards come into force, and that 20 million meters being fitted between 2016 and 2018. So goes the prediction on the official promotional website for the planned gas and electricity monitoring network. A project to scrap all conventional meters for an estimated £11,000 million by 2020. One promoted as a free service but where the costs are being actually added to your gas and electricity charges. See our earlier post ..

Man1Now organisations like British Gas have been promoting the switch to smart meters for three years or more – and have had some takers. However the smaller energy suppliers have not been so active. And a quick check around the UK suppliers shows that most have installed very few. Some saying that they are waiting for some new technology promised for later this year. Which seems to tie in with the Government statement about final common standards. So clearly something is pending in the world of smart metering technology – but none of energy suppliers spell out exactly what that will be. So time for Grandad to do some checking.

As any careful electricity user will know, monitors showing current consumption and even costs have been around for years. One is sitting next to this PC. But what more is possible?

Take just one system – the Loop Energy Saver. This is a subscription service made up of an electricity and gas monitoring kit and access to your personal energy data through your own online account. Now this is not the only product on the market but Loop has been awarded a best in class by Which? Magazine and has got some good feedback from Amazon purchasers.

LoopEnergy1The system consists of two tiny Loop readers that are easily installed – no tools or batteries are required. The Electricity Monitor simply clips around your meter cable and the Gas Monitor sticks on to your meter. [Grandad’s current electricity monitor needs a total of six batteries that have to swapped out for recharging all too frequently].

Once the readers are in place the system makes use of your existing broadband connection. It can then show the energy you use straight to your PC, tablet and smartphone. It can also show you how much your actual electricity and gas consumption costs since it knows your current supplier’s tariffs. It can also send you details of any better deals from your current supplier or competitors; using your usage stats. So how does all of this cost? Well the dual fuel option costs either £50 one-off or a £3 per month direct debit. With a 45 day free trial as part of a current promotion.

LoopEnergy2So is the Loop offer worth taking up – when the energy suppliers are planning a big smart meter push in 2016? Yes it probably is. Why? Because Government IT projects rarely come in on time (or on budget) and the official smart meters need a new, untested infrastructure before they can work. And even if this grand plan comes together then its aims are very different. The Government’s objectives include enabling the energy companies to monitor and control your energy usage. This means the smart meters need to be much more than clever meter readers. They need to be permanent, tamper-proof  units that the supplier can use to both bill you and, if required, turn off your power remotely – for any reason from national emergency to late payment of a bill.

Clearly the Government scheme is going to be much more expensive – since systems like Loop are self-fitted, make use of your existing Internet connection and your tablet, smartphone or PC. Plus they don’t need expensive replacements for your existing meters. However the information provided by the Loop service is just as helpful as a smart meter for saving energy – and money. In fact you could find that its comparison service enables you to switch suppliers when and if there are savings to be made. An option and a source of savings that meters fitted by suppliers are unlikely to offer ..

So be warned – just doing nothing and letting your energy supplier give you a free smart meter might turn out to be a very costly mistake.

Replacement Windows

Windows10_1Starting at the end of this month Microsoft will be rolling out the latest version of its Windows operating system. And every Grandad with a modern PC should already have had a notification to Get Windows 10.

It was only in October 2013 that many hours were spent downloading and installing Windows 8.1 on two PCs at Grandad HQ. Since then a new laptop and tablet have joined the network so that’s four major updates to work through. And with 5 million Insider users expecting to start updating on the 29th of July the world’s network traffic could see a substantial peak. It may be worth waiting a few days before making a start … Once on Windows 10 you will loose the option to defer or avoid OS updates – they will become automatic.

Anyone planning to upgrade should also be aware that Windows 10 is not just about adding new features. Some widely used options are going. The most obvious being the removal of the Media Centre functions and the need for separate playback software to watch DVDs or Blu-rays for all previous versions. Windows 7 users will loose their desktop gadgets and floppy disk users will need to install extra drivers separately.

But luckily there are no Windows phones to worry about at Grandad HQ – as Windows 10 Mobile has yet to prove stable enough to risk a general release. Considering that Microsoft has recently announced that over 6,000 jobs will go in its hardware division (i.e. Nokia) along with a write-off of over $7,500 million then the days may be numbered for Windows on mobile phones. Certainly with less than 3% market share it would be no surprise to see a switch to Android. A move that could increase sales and avoid the efforts that will be needed to get their Windows Mobile software up to Android’s level of acceptance amongst consumers and app developers.

Today’s Phrase for Future Eurocitizens
Können Sie mir helfen? (ker-nen zee meer hell-fen)
= Can you help me?
Sponsored by: Sauerkrauts of Saxony

Big Apple

AppleCarplay1This week Apple reported its financial results for the first quarter of 2015. And few companies could even dream of the figures revealed. In just thirteen weeks the corporation received $58,200 million in revenue but amazingly made some $17,700 million in operating profit. Not only is that 30% up on last year but it means that Apple has a surplus of around $200 million every day to spend on … anything it fancies. And this cash avalanche is before the over-subscribed Apple Watch hits the high street stores.

So what new product line will get some Apple reimagineering next? One rumour predicts that Apple will build a game-changing domestic motor car – most likely electric powered. But others say that would be a step too far. However the Apple Carplay (right) is something that has already been seen at car shows for over a year. And that might just be one more step towards a car and a corporation where desktop computers are just a memory …

Feedback

Cleaning Windows – First for those who did not recognise the photo and the clues it was George Formby that appeared in the previous posting. And rather than explaining who he was it would be best if you take a look at Frank Skinner’s fine Formby documentary from 2011. It’s here on YouTube ..

Second this latest posting comes courtesy of Windows 8.1 and signals that we have almost reached the end of the upgrades, conversions and re-installs on two PCs. The combination of faster hardware, the latest software and cleaning away old left-overs has made some noticeable improvements – but getting there did use up a lot of time. And NetObjects Fusion may have gained some new bugs with the latest update – since on the convenional web page George’s image jumped to the left despite still being laid out on the right. However switching from HTML 5 to HTML 4 fixed the problem. Elsewhere there are other reports of bugs with – sound output via HDMI stopping, system fonts going missing and usb wifi dongles slowing to a crawl. These could all be due to third party software not being up to date but Microsoft have still been busy issuing important 8.1 updates every day to try to stem the flow …

Cleaning Windows

After three hours of downloading and updating the first of Grandad’s PCs is up and running on Windows 8.1 – and, so far, things seem to be functioning OK. Now we are at the cutting edge – using the latest 64-bit version of an operating system that was first used, as DOS add-on, back in 1986. man7Then Windows needed 256K of memory or greater and MS-DOS 2.0. Soon this minimum memory was expanded to 320K and then up to 512K – when 640K was the memory limit. But in practice most serious software ignored Windows and ran directly under MS-DOS – for obvious performance reasons. It was not until 1992 that we started moving to applications designed for Windows – then just upgraded to version 3.

Now all traces of MS-DOS have been cleaned away – and Windows is striving to become a vehicle for pushing products and services our way day and night. But it is still possible to turn most of the advertising off and stop many (some) of the nosey parkers from spying on your daily life. Better still the sheer power of the latest hardware means that Windows’ massive code burden can be largely ignored. Version 8.1 has only had a few hours of use but seems to have Turned Out Nice Again …