2010 - Favourite New Things

It’s been quite a year for new tech and as usual I’ve spent more than my fair share on new software and hardware. Thought it was worthwhile listing my favourites and updating on purchases now that I’ve used them for a few months. So without further ado, my top tech of the year.

1. Apple iPad
Before it was even announced I doubted how useful the iPad would be. I didn’t expect it to succeed especially with so much hype. Yet I stood in the queue at the Glasgow Apple store near the end of May and picked up a 64GB 3G iPad. By far it’s been my best purchase of 2010. It’s introduced a new genre, tablet computing, which despite years of talking from Microsoft and hardware from a variety of manufacturers had so far failed to take off. It’s become the goto device around the house (partly due to my laptop failing) and is a great device for consuming all sorts of content. I’m not totally sold on it as a content creator and with hindsight, 32GB would have been plenty for me but apart from that it has very few negatives.

Apple have had this market to themselves for 6-9 months, competition is limited to the Galaxy Tab at the moment but next year will see many, many devices from Microsoft, Google and RIM and the many OEM’s that will use Windows or Android. Scarily, they’ll be competing with the iPad 2 – apart from camera’s what will the new device bring?

Also have to mention InstaPaper, Flipboard and Reeder. Fantastic app’s for the iPad and are my goto app’s alongside Safari, Mail and Twitter.

2. Mac Mini with Plex 9
Picked up a Mac Mini at the start of the year and I love it. It sits quietly under the TV and acts not only as my media library but my media playback machine as well thanks to Plex 9. Plex, based on XBMC, came out with anew version in the middle of 2010 and it’s a great update that really improves the media library management of Plex. I just love flicking on Plex, picking a movie or TV series and just watching – no worrying about codecs, file management or broadband speeds. Brilliant.

The Mini also takes care of grabbing the content as well, from newsgroups, streams etc. My own Tivo box in other words and it requires hardly any management – it just works. An expensive solution compared to an Apple TV or Boxee Box but a lot more flexible. It’s not even the latest Mac Mini which I think is an even better buy – if only it came with a Blu-ray player.

3. Canon 550D
My first foray into the world of DSLR’s. I had no real preference between Nikon or Canon and for my budget at the time this was the best camera that could be bought, hence I’m now a Canon guy. Really please with my first eight months of usage. Downsides? I’ve quickly realised that:

a) Photography can be an expensive hobby.
b) There’s always a better lens than the one you’ve got.
c) It’s not easy.

Pro’s outweigh the cons though and I’ve a big list of goals for the coming year and a slightly shorter lists of potential lens purchases that I’m finding impossible to whittle down. Help.

4. iPhone 4
Silly to describe this as a phone now as it’s so powerful. It’s also further down the list for me as it’s lost that new tech feeling from a couple of years back. The shape is familiar, the software is familiar but it feels wrong to be so blasé about technology so powerful. The screen is amazing, the camera now truly good enough to replace pocket camera’s for many and the addition of the front facing camera plus the processor jump made this a great upgrade.

The antenna issue that seemed to be such a big problem has, with hindsight, been nothing more than a tech soap opera. There’s an itch though when I look at the current crop of Android phones. Something fresh, new, different and of equal footing. 2011 will be very interesting to see what incremental upgrades Apple add while the rest of the industry tries to leapfrog.

5. Withings Scale
I love this. A set of scales that cost £100 but they are so geeky it makes me smile. The Withings scales came out at the end of 2009 but it took a few months until I made the purchase. They are wifi enabled, automatically uploading your weight and fat measurements to a cloud based tracking system. The software can auto tweet your weight (howfatisian) but that’s not the appeal for me.

It’s the start of a more connected range of tech. Devices that will be wifi enabled and offer so much more to the end user. There’s a price premium at the moment but that will change over time. I see my weight fluctuate daily, I can’t hide my weight anymore so it’s an incentive to manage it better (and variances are pounced upon by Shakeel) but it’s made tracking easy while connecting to other sites like RunKeeper so that training and weight variations can be seen together…with no manual updating involved. Fantastic. Also, they look great as well.

The One That Got Away
The new Macbook Air’s look amazing. They’ve come out at the wrong time for me so I’ve held off on purchasing but that is the future of Apple laptops. Flash based, thin and light and no dvd drives. Only thing missing – backlit keyboard. If it had that it would be a perfect laptop for me. Maybe 2012 for that purchase as next year it’s time to replace the iMac.

Looking at those five purchases, three weren’t even considered at the start of the year. I wonder what 2011 will bring?

Wall Cheer

While I’m quick at picking and moving to new tech, the same can’t be same around the house. I’ve had bare walls for years with just a few bits and pieces but not any more.

The first poster I picked up was from Mondo Tees. They have been running a Star Wars series recently and I was lucky enough to pick up this one.

I say lucky as the posters are limited runs of between 2-400 and they sell out very quickly…as in 5 minutes or less. It’s also an American site so invariably the posters would go on sale at a time that was awkward for buying. Thanks to Boxcar and Notifo on the iphone I got a notification as soon as the poster went on sale as Mondo tweet when new ones become available. A few weeks later and the poster is now looking resplendent on my wall. It’s a shame I didn’t get this one though which looks amazing.

The poster buying wasn’t done there. A new set of comic book locations from Justin Van Genderen caught my eye, specifically Gotham and Metropolis. A short flight later, here they are in location. Lovely.

One mention must go to the delivery – it was awesome. Shipped on Monday 13th from Texas with a delivery date of Thursday 16th I expected it to be delayed due to the weather the UK has right now. Well it didn’t arrive on the 16th…it arrived one day early on the 15th. Well done FedEx! That just left frames to organise for the posters. I was tempted to order frames with the ImageKind posters but that was quite costly. After checking out options for the UK and what I’d seen recommended elsewhere I eventually went for PicFrames. Within 10 days I had my custom frames delivered and posters installed. Very impressed with the range and quality of the frames and most importantly, the price, which I thought was excellent when compared with competition. Best of all – I love how all three look now that they’re in place.

4 Weeks with Virgin Broadband

It’s more like 5 weeks now but I thought I would do a quick update on how I’ve found Virgin Broadband since joining at the start of November.

Raw speeds are still very good. Take for example the speedtest from this morning.

Generally I get that kind of speed so the service is definitely delivering. However there is a lot of throttling of peer to peer and newsgroup traffic. This varies from day to day depending on, I guess, the traffic levels locally. On certain days it makes little difference, on other days you can see download speeds of a few k/s instead of the usual few Mb/s.

However this isn’t new and is applying to more and more ISP’s. Downloading out of peak times is breathtakingly fast. 7-8Gb files are taking 30mins or so. Uploading to Amazon S3, Flickr etc has also been very quick now that the 5Mb upload speed has been applied. The uploads are the only part of the service (on 50Mb) that are subject to caps and if you go over the cap your speed is throttled to a still usable level but it’s worth baring in mind. I’ve scheduled backups to non peak times and it’s working well.

Overall I’m pleased with the service so far. Quick and reliable with no noticeable drops.

Fibretastic

So I’ve switched back to Virgin Media. Back in 2008, frustrated by some IP issues and throttling, I moved from Virgin Media to O2 broadband. There was also the issue of cost. O2 were offering up to 16Mb for £10 a month, Virgin at the time were 20Mb for £37 a month so quite a difference. So after two years why switch?

The main reason is speed. The image above is a test on my new connection this morning. A true 50Mb down but more importantly, 4.6Mb upload. Wowsers. Since leaving, Virgin Media’s XXL package has been upgraded from 20Mb to 50Mb. Nothing else on the market at the moment can touch this for download speed. Speedtest’s are all well and good – how’s the real world performance? Very good over the last week. Video’s, podcasts and, ermmm, ‘other’ large downloads are all delivered in record breaking time. I did some testing with DNS and I’ve kept with OpenDNS as I still find them the fastest option comparing them with ISP’s own DNS and also Google DNS.

One of the issues with faster download speeds though is that upload speeds have never kept pace and so much of what I do, and want to do more of, is dependant on uploading. Uploading podcasts, uploading photo’s and HD video from the 550D and cloud backups. All take a considerable amount of time when you’ve only got 1Mb upload speeds. Virgin earlier this year announced an upgrade for everyone’s upload speeds so the XXL package now comes with 5Mb upload. Looking at the speed test above I am very nearly getting that and it is making a tremendous difference. Cloud backups and photo uploads are now four times faster. Considering some of the Flickr set uploads can take over an hour you can see how much a difference it makes. It also makes cloud backup a more realistic option. If your using Virgin Media, visit http://192.168.100.1/CmOpConfig.asp (your modems configuration page) to find out what upload and download speeds your modem is currently operating at.

All this speed though comes with conditions. Firstly, £35 a month is a lot more than the £10 a month I was paying to O2. However O2 have recently changed their broadband tiers so I was likely to move to £20 a month with O2. Secondly, all tiers on Virgin have traffic management. During peak periods p2p and newsgroup traffic is throttled to protect other services. A lot of people cry fowl over this but I’d rather have that than a broadband service that is ruined by people stealing content which if we’re honest is the vast vast majority of p2p and newsgroup traffic. I know the complainers point to legitimate reasons for p2p and newsgroups but that just doesn’t wash. I’d rather have fast web, video , voice and game traffic over a totally unmanaged service.

Another aspect of Virgin’s traffic management is that your connection speed can be throttled depending on how much you download and now also upload. The table above is taken from Virgins current traffic management help page. Downloads on XXL aren’t throttled at all but if you have the new upload speeds they are. However it’s only after you’ve uploaded 6GB that the speeds is temporarily throttled back to 1.5Mb. Pretty generous and not going to be an issue for me. Any backups that I do will be scheduled for times when I’m not likely to be using the connection.

Another reason for moving was a deterioration in the service from O2. Not only were average speeds starting to drop but connections were being lost every couple of days. I can accept slow but I hate when the service goes down. The internet connection is used for so much now that I hate unreliability.

Overall I’m delighted with the service but as with all things it’s early days. Over the next 12-18 months Virgin are rolling out 100Mb down, 10Mb up for £43 a month. I’ll see how the cloud backups progress before deciding if it’s worthwhile moving as the speed at the moment is plenty enough for me. It’s interesting looking back to when I first got broadband and it was 1/2Mb down and that was plenty fast. Times change – i wonder what speed (and provider) I’ll be with in 2012?

Togaf

I’ve spent the last week in London on a TOGAF training course. It was an enjoyable course and marks a bit of a change in career direction which I’m looking forward to. Before that though, some thoughts on the course.

The four day course took place in central London, in fact a stones throw from Buckingham Palace in the wonderfully named Stag Place. The venue itself was on the 27th floor which offered fantastic views over London.

Early Morning London

The hotel I stayed in was a wee bit way from the venue, right on Shaftsbury Avenue. If you’ve not been to London before you won’t know the location but it’s right on the edge of Chinatown, Soho and Covent Garden. This meant for great restaurants every night but my room was over looking the street and it just never got quiet. On the first night I hardly got any sleep and picked up some ear plugs so the next three nights were bearable. The room was also quiet small, with a tiny sink in the on suite. The worse thing is that four nights stay cost over £800. Shocking but I guess that’s London rates for you. It was clean and centrally placed – that’s about the best I could say as long as you take some ear plugs!

I have to mention each of the restaurants we visited. All very different and all extremely delicious and all found via Yelp on the iPhone.

The first restaurant was Punjab in Covent Garden. Despite the waiter spilling my beer over the table the meal was excellent and a good start to the week. Just look at that starter above – mmm – lovely.

The second night was at Patara – a great Thai restaurant. The mains were great but again my starter was a real highlight (picture above). Third night was at La Perla – a mexican pub/restaurant that did messy but tasty food with massive portions.

By Thursday I was stuffed what with the big meals at night and the great lunches on the course. We went into Taro which was a busy Japanese restaurant. I swore I wasn’t going to eat much but I did – just look at the sushi – fantastic! My weight will undoubtedly pay for this. It’s a shame that the view and food was let down by the heat in the room. Warm first thing, by lunchtime it was getting too hot but it just couldn’t be cooled. By mid afternoon, especially after no sleep, it was hard to stay awake. Dry subject, little sleep and a really warm room.

One nice part of the week was the distance between hotel and course. Far enough away that the walk was meaningful but not far enough away to force us onto the underground. That was only used on arrival and it was a pain due to closure of circle line – our train was swamped with people and it was so damn hot. While walking around I was surprised by how many Boris Bikes were in use. Looks like a popular scheme and one thats easy to use.

As for the course itself, it was good but TOGAF is a fairly dry subject – have I said that already? The best parts of the course were the group exercises although our team was helped by having a powerpoint and sales guru on the team – not my area of expertise! Our team even one the prize – a pen each. Easily pleased.

All thats left to do now is to do the exam in the next few weeks and I should then be TOGAF certified. Eh? Enterprise architecture is the path I’m starting to follow which will be heavily influenced by TOGAF. A long way to go and much work to do but I look to have a pretty interesting couple of years ahead of me. There’s a lot to sort!

Tracking My Weight

Anyone thats known me for a few years will know that I’ve recently lost quite a bit of weight. From Sept 07 until around Mar 09 I lost just under 6 stones. The weight has been pretty constant since then, if anything starting to creep back on. Crap.

Now when I say creep back on, I really mean a couple of kilo’s over the space of 18 months. When I say a couple, I mean 5-6 kg’s. Crapper.

This wasn’t part of the plan. I wanted to get down to under 90kg’s, which while still heavy would be a great weight for me and something I’d be deliriously happy with. But this year has seen me go from 92kg at Christmas to around 98kg a few weeks ago. I then started feeling sorry for myself, and also fell into the usual trap….these scales are wrong. Even as I write that I feel embarrassed.

However, there was no need – they were wrong! A sneaky weigh in on another couple of scales proved me right. I swapped over the batteries and it made no difference. So there you go – I need a new set of scales which was the perfect excuse to order the Withings scale – the first wifi body scale. I’d been itching to get it since I first heard about Withings at the turn of the year but the main reason had always been the fact I had a perfectly good set os scales already. Also they cost a pretty penny – I paid £107 including shipping. Ouch. I’ve now been using them for over a week and it really is a lovely gadget.

So as scales go, they look good but the really nice feature is that they are wifi enabled, automatically uploading your weight, fatty mass and BMI to the Withings website. The weight tracking works for up to eight people from one set of scales so your whole family should be covered. The website is Flash based and lets you track your weight and add notes when certain events (curry!) have impacted on your weight. So far, so good. There’s also a free iPhone and iPad app that allows you to track your weight from the comfort of your iOS device. These are pretty straightforward but give you everything you need to know.

As it’s all automatic it means I can track my weight daily. Total overkill but it’s part of the new weight strategy – track all inputs and outputs. Track weight, exercise and calorie intake. Withings also make sharing information really easy with a number of options available. I can publish my data on the web via a link or an iFrame. I can also share my data with other users who can access via an e-mail address. I can also link Withings to a number of other accounts – Google Health, Runkeeper, even WeightBot on the iPhone. Finally, I can auto tweet my weight after each weigh in. No where to hide 🙂

It had to be done – a new twitter account has been setup just for my weight. Special. I’ve also hooked Withings into RunKeeper. I track all my hill walks on RunKeeper and also now track my efforts on the bike. Having all that info in one place plus the weight is really nice. Also, I’ve paid for one years access to RunKeeper elite which gives me more detailed graphs, stats etc.

The final piece of the jigsaw is to now track calorie intake. Couple of iPhone app’s are worth considering and I had myfitnesspal.com recommended so I’ll give those a try. The up shot of all that is that I’m a couple of kilo’s heavier than a year ago which isn’t too bad as I’ve not been doing the same amount on the bike. I’ll be stepping that up between now and Christmas so hopefully I’ll lose a little in the next couple of months – not long until Santa’s here now.

As for Withings – great gadget, expensive and a bit over the top but I love it.

Beinn Luibhean

So yesterday should have been a walk up another munro – Beinn Ime, taking in Beinn Luibhean on the way down. It would have been quite a long walk but the views from Beinn Ime would be worth it. However the weather was quite a bit worse than we expected and our route following was crap!

View from Luibhean

Firstly we marched off from the car park down the wrong path, realising only when we’d walked a mile. So we walked back to the road and made probably our second bad choice of the day. We decided to tackle the corbet, Beinn Luibhean, first and then onto Beinn Ime. The ground was pathless, boggy and quite heavy going. After a couple of hundred metres it started to get very windy. In fact we were blasted by 40-50mph winds for the next hour before we finally made it to the top of Beinn Luibhean. We were wet, cold and faces were red raw from the wind. Welcome to summer hill climbing in Scotland.

We found some shelter and decided not to carry on. Ime, like Luibhean, was shrouded in cloud with zero chance of any view. We were also pretty bushed already as the heavy ground and fighting the wind had taken it’s toll. On descending the cloud broke a little and the rain went off so at least I got a few photo’s. Also stumbled across a muddy and broken path which helped but not by much. In fact it was a slog back down which was pretty slippy, especially with lots of small logs lying underfoot which I think caused all of us to slip/fall one way or the other. Thankfully no injuries!

Luibhean Runkeeper Stats

The RunKeeper output from yesterday shows our mistake at the start and also the odd route we took up and the more direct route down. One app I might try for next time is Trailhead from The North Face which allows you to download routes to your iphone prior to the walk so you can track how close you are to the recommended route. Would certainly have helped yesterday. One other note – battery life on the iPhone 4 is much improved on the 3 and 3GS. Used just under 50% of the battery while using RunKeeper which is excellent for a 5 hour walk.

The full set of photo’s are available on Flickr. Used a new camera bag yesterday, the Kata H-10, which proved very useful in the rain and wind. I had it hooked onto the waist strap of my bag which felt quite comfortable and kept the camera fully protected. The rain cover that comes with the bag was invaluable!

So a couple of lessons learned yesterday:

  • Check your bearings before setting off. We had compass and maps but failed to use them properly.
  • Tackle the munro first, then worry about other surrounding climbs.
  • Respect the weather. Mountain Weather Information Service provide accurate forecasts, and winds gusting to 55mph are not to be sniffed at.
  • Weather in July and August can be cold, wet and wild in Scotland. We cancelled a walk at the start of July due to 90mph gusts and yesterday got pretty cold in the wet and biting winds. Be prepared for all weathers no matter the time of year.
  • I need a bigger bag 🙂

Just a shame we didn’t arrange the walk for today – glorious weather by the looks of it. We’ll keep Beinn Ime for one of those days.

Beinn Ghlas and Ben Lawers

It’s been a funny year for walking. The first few months was difficult due to the severe winter we had. So much so that we couldn’t do much walking at all without crampons and an ice axe – something I’ll be picking up before the winter season kicks in this time. The last walk was The Cobbler, which was excellent but a few feet short of a munro. So 2/3rds of the year gone and no munro’s…until now. Beinn Ghlas and Ben Lawers are two adjacent munro’s that can be tackled in the same day. Another benefit is that the starting point of the walk is 400 metres so your almost half way just by getting out of the car – excellent!

Jim on Beinn Ghlas

There is also an excellent path leading from the car park and now that I’ve done it, I can say it’s an excellent first munro for anyone looking to get into walking. As for the views, I’m sure on a clear day they are spectacular, but for us what looked like a promising day turned into one lacking any view at all. Low cloud rolled in as we climbed meaning we got zero view from either munro. In fact it got pretty cold at the summits so it wasn’t a day for hanging around. Just a quick mention on weather – we originally planned this walk for the first weekend in July but had to postpone due to 90mph winds. I’m glad we did as we got talking to a couple of other walkers who were trying Bheinn Ghlas for a second time as they had attempted it that weekend but had to literally crawl down the hill as they got near the summit – it was that bad. Despite it being summer, the hills can be still unpredictable so you do need to carry waterproof just in case and it’s also worth checking the mountain forecast rather than the MET office site as they give very different results.

Ian and Ben Lawers Trig Point

Bheinn Ghlas is reached first and if your not careful it’s easy to walk by as it’s a tiny cairn that marks the summit. It’s then about a half hour to 40 minute walk to Ben Lawers summit. This is more substantial, marked with a cairn and trig point but as mentioned, zero views for us. Despite the easy walk you are now just 17 feet short of 4000 feet so quite a height. We decided to take the same route back to the car park although you can descend and go around the base of Bheinn Ghlas, but it did brighten up a bit so we wanted to keep some height…and it also meant that climbing back over Bheinn Ghlas counts as another munro climb, no?

Runkeeper Summary

As ever I used RunKeeper to track the walk and I’m pretty pleased with the pace we kept up throughout. I don’t really bother stopping the clock when I start taking pictures or we take pauses for breath so actual time walked is probably about a half hour less. I almost forgot to mention one thing. Fucking midges. The car park was swarming with them – I covered myself with jungle insect repellant and ended up with around 6-8 bites which is a lot better than on Ben Lomond last year. If you do go out walking around now make sure you take some sort of repellant. Can’t wait until it gets a bit cooler and they will be gone for the year.

So thats munro 5 and 6 done. Hopefully get another 2 or 3 done before the end of the year – weather permitting!

Lessons Learned

Thursday night was the best to try and view the Perseids meteor shower. I’d not tried the Canon at night – in fact I’ve not done any night shooting before. I’ve always wanted to take pictures of the moon, stars etc but been let down by two things. Firstly, having a camera and lens that could take good clear pictures. Secondly, and most importantly, is the light pollution in Glasgow. The orange glow from streetlights is only managed by that of the fake tan parlours in Partick.

So with that myself and Shakeel set off off for…where could we go to escape the light pollution. We ended up heading to Whitelees where we knew it would be dark and also we could have easy access to an open space. This was the first mistake of the evening – missing a glorious sunset. If we’d got there a half hour earlier we would have had some great pics…instead we missed the sun but still saw the fiery sky left behind.

Sunset

We then waited for the sky to get dark which took another hour or so. I’ve picked up a remote trigger but no matter what I did, I couldn’t get it to work so I had to give up on that and use the normal shutter button. Frustrating as it introduced a bit of vibration and I wanted to use bulb mode on the camera, which keeps shooting as long as I hold the shutter button. For a couple of shots I wanted to have exposure lengths of 2 to 3 minutes but that just wasn’t practical without the remote. More frustrating – I realised the next day that I had the cable between the camera and receiver the wrong way round. Lack of preparation had let me down.

Night Sky, low Iso

So the pictures we were getting were good but didn’t seem to be picking everything up that we could see with our eyes. Asa test we then tried capturing one of the turbines by increasing the ISO while keeping the exposures long. That gave us some pretty dramatic shots.

Turbine, high ISO

We then used the higher ISO settings on the sky itself. This seemed to give better shots when reviewing them on the camera screen but with hindsight the lower ISO settings would have given a clearer shot of the sky so should have varied that a bit more. Looking at the shots I managed to get of Perseids meteors, they are pretty faint against the not so black night sky. A wee bit more patience would have paid dividends here. I should have reviewed the pictures on the iPad to see more clearly the shots I was taking.

Perseids

Compare that to these shots on Flickr – I’ve got a lot to learn. Another important lesson is location. We waited patiently for the last remnants of the sun to go but there was still a glow from Glasgow. Despite being well outside Glasgow the glow from the streetlights was getting in the way of some of the pictures. Wispy cloud that we couldn’t see appeared as orange streaks in our photo’s which was disappointing.

But let’s not be too negative. It was my first attempt, I did manage to get some shots of the meteors and it was a good learning experience. In fact I’m really pleased to have tried night shooting as we are planning to visit Galloway Park which is one of only a handful of dark parks around the world. We’ll visit during winter as it’s dark a lot earlier. I also plan to hire out a large lens to make the most of the visit. At least this time I’ll have a remote trigger that will work and also understand the impact of ISO settings a little better. Practise makes perfect.