Bag of Spoons
Just off the A1(M)

Sun, 09 May 2010

Paranoid Android

I'm not a big mobile phone user, but I do like to consolidate my mobile gadgets. My last attempt at the perfect mobile was a bit of a compromise and didn't work out as well as I hoped. The Benq E72 was cheap, but limited. Operating complex apps without a touch screen was clunky and the proprietary USB audio connector made it tricky to use in the car. I was also still having to use the old Acer n35 as a GPS/navigation device.

I'd been admiring phones based on Google's Android operating system, but most were cost more than I wanted to spend. The HTC Tattoo seemed to offer all the features I wanted at a good price. It actually cost about what I paid at the time for my Palms. It compromises on screen resolution and touch screen technology, but I decided it would still do what I wanted.

It took a while to get the phone as the supplier didn't seem to have stock, but after I called them it was immediately shipped via France and Germany. It's smaller than other smartphones, but that makes it a good size for my pocket. The screen is perfectly usable and readable. So far I love it. I splashed out on a protective sleeve and screen protector to keep it safe. It's working great as a podcast player in the car, but I do need to get a holder to place it somewhere conveniently in reach. There's loads of free and cheap apps available. Some I have tried so far are:

I'm looking into apps for navigation. AndNav uses OpenStreetmap data, but I've not used it yet. I also want something to let me contribute back to OSM.

I'm not a big mobile data user. I don't spend that much time away from either wifi or my home PC. My Virgin PAYG scheme allows me to get data on any given day for 30p, but that's limited to just 25MB. I guess that's enough for a bit of tweeting, email and basic browsing. I could get 1GB/month for a fiver, but I just don't see me using it too often.

[18:11] | [] | Comments | G

Fri, 05 Feb 2010

ebooking

This was prompted by some recent posts by my fried Wulf about ebooks. I've read a few ebooks on my Palms and my phone. These have all come from free sources such as Feedbooks. We still buy books, but mostly for Xmas and birthdays. I have enough to keep me going for a while as I don't find much time for reading apart from in bed and then I seem to be catching up on the interesting bits of that week's Saturday Guardian. I still keep a few books on my phone to fill the time when I'm hanging around somewhere with nothing to do. I've been reading one of Cory Docktorow's books for months now. A colleague has his Windows phone or iPhone on his desk with a book on screen to read whilst waiting for code to compile.

I find my phone adequate for reading novels. There's no need for fancy navigation, search and other features. I have seen some dedicated ereaders, such as the Sony devices. The screens look readable, but I don't like single-purpose devices. Having an all-in-one device is more convenient, but always means some compromises. I've not seen a Kindle.

I would only pay for ebooks if they offer good value. I think they should cost much less than a paper book for various reasons. They have minimal production costs, you lose some convenience in being able to share them with friends, especially if DRM is used and they have no resale value. Similar criteria apply to music, but I have bought a few download albums that were reasonably priced and DRM-free. Both have immediacy in that you can order them and not have to wait for delivery. I can ereaders as being more useful for ephemeral media like newspapers and magazines, but publishers have to find new ways to present their material and perhaps still force advertising on the reader.

The iPad has been mentioned as a medium for reading books. It may be usable as such, but seems too big to carry around with you. I'd be happy just to have a phone with a larger screen as long as it still fits in my pocket. I can sort of see a market for the iPad (crap name) as a media consuming device for the non-technical. Some people don't want to worry about operating systems and files. They just want to watch video, listen to music or surf the web. No doubt people will find other uses for it, e.g. as a control surface in audio/video work.

Something I've heard a few times is that Apple design their devices to be easy to use, but Microsoft try to cram in maximum features and worry about the controls later. My Windows phone is certainly clunky to use. I much prefer the Palm UI, but I don't even have a touch screen on this phone. I'm unlikely to change phones again for a while, so I'll get by with this one, despite the cracked screen. I have other demands on my money for a while.

[22:05] | [] | Comments | G

Mon, 11 Jan 2010

Netbooking

I hadn't owned much in the way of portable computers until recently. I've owned a number of PDAs, including Psion 3a, Palm IIIx, Palm Zire 71, Acer n35 and my current Benq E72 'smartphone', but could never justify the cost of a laptop PC. A couple of years back I was given an old Toshiba laptop (Pentium III 600/128MB/6GB) that enabled me to program my house control system. That system seems to have stopped working. If anyone wants to try and do something with it then let me know. More recently I acquired a slightly newer HP laptop that is much more usable and gives me the ability to play video on the TV via the S-Video port. If I can get it networked up then it may find a use as a general media player in the living room.

Ever since the Asus EEE PCs appeared I have fancied one. They have come a long way since then and are now very capable PCs, even though they are a lot less powerful than the average desktop. Their advantage lies in being very portable. I'm a lot more likely to take something the size of a hardback book with me than something that weighs as much as a couple of house bricks and needs a large bag. I went for something at the lower end of the market in the form of a Samsung N130. The price was reasonable and was sweetened by a £20 cashback offer from which I just received the cheque. The specification is fairly standard, N270 Atom CPU, 10" LCD, 1GB/160GB. Battery life seems pretty good, but has not been tested that much yet. The first real use it got was as a DVD player on our skiing holiday. I could have ripped DVDs to the drive, but didn't have time to our new Xmas movies before we departed on Boxing Day, so bought a cheap DVD/CD-RW drive on ebay. The built-in speaker is a bit weedy, so I also got an X-mini speaker. It's only mono, but charges via USB, is pretty loud and very portable.

We were able to watch our DVDs using VLC, which generally worked well, but did give some audio stutters. This was using XP. I really wanted to get a netbook with Linux, but the options are more limited these days. I fully intend to install some form of Linux on it, but have not found the time. I know that Ubuntu has some issues with the wireless, so may consider other distros. I need to do some research. Meanwhile, the Samsung is getting a lot of use as a way of accessing the web in rooms other than the study.

Our other major hardware acquisition recently is a Wii Fit board. This is another clever device from Nintendo. We're exploring the included software that includes all sorts of exercise routines and some games. It lacks the ability to put together a full programme of exercises to form a routine, but I understand the new 'Plus' software can do that. We may buy that if we find we are using it enough. We also got the Mario & Sonic Winter Olympics game that can use the board. I find the Wii games so intuitive as you generally just have to move to play the game rather than dealing with tricky button combinations. I just wish I had more time to explore the games we have, but the kids get a lot of fun from them.

[21:24] | [] | Comments | G

Tue, 03 Feb 2009

New phone

After much procrastination I finally bought myself the phone I had been considering. The price on ebay was too good to turn down. My old phone was falling apart and it's about time I got a bit more up to date. This is my first 'smartphone' and the first with Bluetooth or Wifi. These open up a few possibilities, but may involve further expenditure.

I don't expect to use mobile internet too often. On my Virgin PAYG plan I can get a day's access for 30p, but I don't expect that will be very quick. I've tested it with my home wifi and web pages load fairly fast. Usability is more of a problem. Entering URLs and navigating pages takes a lot of button presses. I may well be missing out on some tricks to improve this. Wifi is available in lots of places now, but cost seems to vary widely. I can imagine that I may want to check email if I'm away from a PC for an extended period and perhaps look something up on the web, but have managed without so far. Let's see how tempted I get to use it.

Bluetooth creates other opportunities. I often listen to podcasts in the car by burning them to CD. I had been considering a new radio that would take flash memory, but I know there are some that can stream via Bluetooth. That may be more versatile and give me hands-free. Obviously I don't want to be fiddling with tiny phone buttons too much whilst driving. I expect to use the phone to listen to music and other audio in other places. I shall need to get a Micro SD card for this. They seem incredibly cheap these days. I'll have to use the included headphones for now as they use a mini-USB connection for which there does not seem to be much in the way of adaptors for standard 3.5mm connectors. Someone blogged about his experiments in getting around this, but he eventually gave up on the phone, partly due to noise issues. I'm hoping the noise is not bad enough to stop me using the phone instead of my old PDA. Part of the reason for getting this phone is so that I don't need to carry multiple devices.

The phone runs Windows Mobile 6. There's plenty of software for it, but I need to find some basic applications to suit my needs. Those I anticipate so far are:

I'm not looking to spend a lot on software, but am willing to pay a few quid for the right application.

I'd like to carry some data around including contacts and calendar. Ideally these would be synchronised with my main databases. I have this information in Kontack on my Linux box, but have been tending to use Google Calendar so that I can access it elsewhere. I've heard that it is possible to synchronise some Google apps with WM6. In fact I am tempted to switch fully over to Gmail rather than just using it to poll my main account for access away from home. I could still use my personal domain as an address. Are there any downsides to just using Gmail?

Having just used simple phones in the past I'm a bit lost in this new world. I've not really kept up with developments in how people use their mobile devices. So what can I have fun with that will not break the bank?

Finally, here's a group shot of the phones I've used over the last 10 years or so, starting with my first, bulky Motorola.

Phone family
[21:49] | [] | Comments | G

Mon, 29 Dec 2008

Gadgets on Linux

A couple of family members got new MP3 players for Xmas. They don't need loads of GB of storage and the budget was tight so I picked out the Samsung U4. It offers 2GB of music plus an RDS radio in a very compact unit. A plus point was support for OGG Vorbis. The problems started when I plugged it into my PC to upload some music. It doesn't use the usual UMS storage protocol. I did get a 'USB Imaging Interface' in Konqueror, but it seemed to be read-only. A bit of research revealed that it uses Microsofts MTP instead.

Someone suggested Gnomad2 might support it. Indeed it did, but could not handle playlists for OGG in the version available from the Ubuntu repositories. I thought things were going to get complicated when something led me to find out that Amarok has a driver for MTP built in. It was merely a matter of adding a new media device and I could simply mark music for transfer then just synchronise. I'm sure I can teach the family how to use that and then they can manage their own music. Another victory for open formats and open source.

To supply them with some extra new music we made use of the Amazon MP3 Store offer of £3 of free music over Xmas. When they first opened I thought it would be unusable due to requiring software to download the music, but they support multiple Linux distributions. The software was easily installed and worked perfectly. I've held off from buying much downloadable music due to most having DRM, but there seem to be multiple stores offering MP3 files now. Prices vary a lot. Some albums are available for as little as £3, but others cost almost as much as a CD. Bit rates of 256 or 320kbit should give adequate quality. I can see myself buying more music like this. I like my CDs, but accept that they generally stay on the shelf once they have been ripped. Downloads can be considered greener too.

We still gained more bits on plastic in the form of several new DVDs and Wii games. Downloads do not fulfill all digital media requirements yet. I've seen some sites saying you can download Wii games on your PC to burn to DVD for a fixed fee. I doubt that these are at all legal.

There is plenty of music available to download, legally, for free. The problem is in finding the good stuff. Via subscribing to a band member's Youtube feed I was alerted to a free EP by Jo Webb & The Dirty Hands. Despite the song titles these are not covers, but are some great slices of pop that I have been enjoying. I may well buy their upcoming album. I also plan to buy some more music by Steve Lawson soon.

[19:11] | [] | Comments | G

Sat, 13 Dec 2008

Smart enough phone?

I'm not a huge mobile phone user. My PAYG account costs me a couple of pounds each month, so there is no point getting a contract that would cost a lot more, but it means I never get a cheap new phone. My current Samsung was second hand and is on its last legs. The aerial is broken and the battery does not last long. I'd like a nice smartphone that would give me some internet functionality, but can't justify the cost of £200+. Yesterday I read about the BenQ E72 on The Register. For around £100 it seems to offer most of the features I would want:

It lacks some things like a big screen and 3G, but I'll accept some compromised for a good price. The reviews suggest it's not great for power users, but they can probably justify the cost of an iPhone or Nokia n99999. I just want to gain some functionality I don't have at all and can live with it being behind the bleeding edge.

The main issue I can see is with the headphones. I use my PDA for music, but want to be able to get by with carrying just one device. For the rare times I need GPS I can take the Acer. I also ought to look at syncing data to my PC. I think that the newer Windows Mobile the BenQ has is supported on Linux. So is there any reason not to get one?

[16:12] | [] | Comments | G

Sat, 20 Sep 2008

What's connected?

I recently subscribed to the Audiophiliac blog on good old Cnet. I used to get my computer news from them many years ago. I was just interested to see what was going on in the AV world. Not that I can afford to splash out on new gadgets. I was reading this post that asks what people have hooked up to their AV receivers. In my case it would be:

So my old Yamaha receiver is not being overwhelmed with connections. It can route video too, but only composite, so I never used that feature. I have enough connections on the Toshiba TV to use component video for the DVD, RGB SCART for the Pace and composite for the Wii. I also have the Pace feeding audio to the TV via optical digital. I've aspired to getting better quality cables, but have resisted apart from the component, but that was low end. Everything looks and sounds fine anyway. I'm constrained by having to keep things simple enough for the family to work it. They seem to manage. It's just a shame that my nice Logitech multi-remote died so that we have gone back to using multiple remotes.

I don't actually spend that much time in front of the TV. I spend more at the PC, but get to watch a DVD once in a while. The last couple of things I watched with the family were King Kong (recorded from TV), the new Peter Jackson version that was pretty good and looked excellent, and the new Merlin series on BBC1 that may be fun. There was a good documentary about Roxy Music last night, but I watched that on the PC via MythTV. I'm still on my old 19" CRT, but fancy a 24" LCD one of these days.

I'm not that bothered about getting HD. It requires too much investment and I don't think that most TV would benefit that much. I'm sure some nature programmes look stunning, but they look fairly good on our old TV. I don't feel the need to subscribe to cable or satellite and free HD is a few years away.

I was listening to the Digital Planet podcast where they were talking about Super HI Vision that delivers 16x the pixels of HD and 22.2 sound. Apparently they can squeeze the signal down a 1Gb link. So it's a few years away from the home. Maybe my kids will have it when they grow up.

[21:58] | [] | Comments | G

Fri, 01 Feb 2008

You can listen to the wireless

5 points if you can name the comedy song the title is from, minus 10 is you have to Google it.

I have finally entered the wireless networking age. Although I ran CAT5 cable throughout my house when I built it four years ago I have yet to make use of it. All my computers have been in the study and within reach of my router. My old router was playing up a bit and I needed a way to get the Wii on-line. A good friend had a spare Linksys WRT54GS that he has passed on to me. These seem to be highly rated, partly because you can replace the firmware. I have looked at some of the alternatives, but I don't see any reason to change it just yet. My networking needs are fairly basic. It has the usual web-based set-up screens with loads of options. I made the essential changes to the passwords and it seems to be working, including the Wii which is in the next room. This configuration will also give me more options for where I use my work laptop when I have it here.

I know I could open up my network for others to use, but I'm not sure that there would be much demand. The neighbouring houses are not too close and those who need internet probably already have it. I would have to be very sure of not compromising my own network security before taking such steps.

Getting the Wii on-line was just a matter of finding the router and setting the password. This now gives me the following possibilities:

So what else can I do now?

The other recent networking change is that I now have 20Mb broadband instead of 4Mb, but am not noticing much difference. My rare big downloads may be quicker, but general internet seems much the same. A reason for changing was that I also get more free landline calls that may actually save me some money on the phone bill.

I just heard a newsreader refer to the 'Information Superhighway'. Does anyone say that apart from newsreaders and politicians?

[22:04] | [] | Comments | G

Fri, 18 Jan 2008

What's in your pocket

Jeff Atwood on Coding Horror posted an update about what's on his keychain. He carries a flash drive, a multi-tool and a mini torch. All that's on my keyring, apart from keys, is a Tesco barcode tag for when I buy fuel. I do, however, have certain things in my pockets when I am out and about.

I carry a phone, an ancient Samsung V200, but don't use it very much. I have a wallet for cash and a few cards. In a pocket of the wallet I have a guitar plectrum and my old 128MB flash drive. It's a very flat one, so doesn't make much of a bump. I always wear a watch out of habit. It's currently a solar-powered Casio Wave Ceptor that should always have the correct time due to picking up a radio signal every night.

I like to have a PDA with me as my phone doesn't do much in that area. I used to use my Palm Zire 71, but have been trying to switch to the Acer n35. I got the Acer for it's GPS for Openstreetmap, but it's also a better audio player than the Palm. I just haven't got around to moving all my address data across yet. Synching a Pocket PC to Linux is not so easy. I keep thinking that I should get something newer, but can't justify anything expensive. Maybe there's a cheaper phone that would give me most of what I want so I could just carry one gadget. Mind you, one the train last night I was surrounded by several suits all twiddling their Crackberries. Two had audio players as well even though I would expect the 'berries to be able to handle audio. I know that combining gadgets involves compromise, but you just run out of pockets.

For listening to audio on the Acer I have some Sennheiser earbuds. I've been listening to lots of podcasts lately. I've not been travelling far enough to run out of battery lately, but I could use my Freeloader if I had a USB power lead. Whatever gadgets I buy in future should run from USB power. It means you don't need as many power supplies and I spend a lot of time near a PC.

I see some people blogging about all the gadgets they carry around, usually requiring a bag. In some cases it just seems excessive. If they get mugged that's a lot of stuff to lose. Mine probably all cost a few hundred when new, but is not worth much now. My financial situation helps my anti-consumerism to win over my GAS.

That's enough of my rambling. Anyone else want to list what they carry?

[16:41] | [] | Comments | G

Tue, 25 Dec 2007

Wii wish you a merry Xmas

Well it's Xmas day, we've watched Doctor Who and eaten too much cake. The hit of the day is our new Nintendo Wii. We thought we might not have one by now due to the general shortage of units in the shops, but one came up in a charity auction at work and I won without paying much over RRP. So far all we have is the standard pack withe Wii Sports plus the Wii Play games that came with an extra remote.

I've not played much with consoles of the last few years and so am very impressed. The motion-sensing remotes are very intuitive and the graphics look fine on out old TV even though it's only using composite video. Sound is in Pro Logic through the surround system and sounds good. The games are fun for all the family. I look forward to getting something more involved, but fear that this will eat up all my free time. There are annoyances such as the safety warning screens that keep appearing warning you to use the wrist straps and take breaks. They get boring fast. I bet their lawyers insisted on them.

I've not been reading up too much on what is available and worth getting for the Wii, so I am open to suggestions. I know a few of my readers have them. Leave comments or email me if you prefer.

I'm still messing with the bass. I've found some good sites for instruction and inspiration. These include:

I've still not done any recording due to on-going problems with Ubuntu and my hardware, but today I discovered that I could record in Audacity as it was using OSS rather than ALSA for input. I might try doing something with that in my days off this week.

I did a few updates on this site recently. I removed some non-working external links and fixed my favicon that was being diverted by the static page plug-in. On the static page front I have added a few more about my music, computer and green activities. Only the first has much content for now. I shall write up the others as I find time. Those pages also allow for comments if you want to use them. I'm happy to take emails, but comments can make the site more useful if they contribute information on the topic.

I'll probably write again soon, but I'll say happy new year now anyway.

[22:02] | [] | Comments | G

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