Breaking My Twitter

Over the years there’s been many issues with Twitter. Basic at the start, constant fail whales and then tremendous growth coupled with every brand, company, personality and interesting folk like you and me jumping on. I loved it. Then we saw hashtags, conversations, trending topics, filters, muting, timeline syncing and many many other features driven by third party app’s and eventually (mostly) adopted by Twitter themselves either by implementing and supporting a feature or buying a much love third party app.

Then Twitter needed to make money and grow to try and match Facebook et all.

So in come adverts, messing with timelines and deciding what I should see and in what order, showing my friends retweets…the list of decisions that alienated me as a user was long but that didn’t matter as I could use Tweetbot or Twitterrific to let me use Twitter how I wanted to use it. That only lasted so long.

Twitter fired the first warning shots to third parties by limiting how many users they could support. Then they started changing and updating API’s. That was the first sign that the writing was on the wall for third party apps. From today they are trying to strangle third party apps by shutting down old API’s and limiting what third parties can do. Arse.

While the API’s might be buggy, slow, costly I can understand that issue if it was maintained by a third party but they are written and supported by Twitter. The official mail they’ve sent out to their staff today smells of bullshit:

The User Streams and Site Streams APIs that serve core functions of many of these clients have been in a “beta” state for more than 9 years, and are built on a technology stack we no longer support. We’re not changing our rules, or setting out to “kill” 3rd party clients; but we are killing, out of operational necessity, some of the legacy APIs that power some features of those clients. And it has not been a realistic option for us today to invest in building a totally new service to replace these APIs, which are used by less than 1% of Twitter developers.

They’ve killed the API’s and decided not to replace them. They’ve decided to strangle the third party app’s that have driven so much of what Twitter is now. They quote that less than 1% of dev’s used the API’s killed today but I’d bet that a large proportion of influential and what I’d call power users are making use of these third party app’s that are now being neutered. They also talk about understanding why people use these third party app’s instead of their own. Maybe because you’ve killed them – where’s the Twitter app for Mac? How’s Tweetdeck? They’ve also published a blog about these changes which read’s as a big ‘fuck you’ to any user of a third party app and particularly developers of these services. I don’t think I’ve seen a company shoot itself in the foot in public more than Twitter have recently.

The mess they’ve got in to over the last 2-3 years around how toxic their platform is and the inability to take action on haters, abusers and nazi’s beggar’s belief at times. Despite that there’s so much value on Twitter which I why I stick around. So, what to do?

You could do like many are stating and deactivate your account from tomorrow. You’ve got thirty days to change your mind and it’s about trying to change Twitter’s direction…almost a ‘take back control’ moment which hopefully has a better outcome than the last campaign to use that slogan.

You could also move to another network. Mastodon has been around for a couple of years and is seeing some pretty good growth over the last two weeks thanks predominantly to Nazi’s. Go figure. It’s a bit more confusing to use than Twitter and I can’t see brands, politicians, celebs etc etc moving but it’s got potential for the tech community as has micro.blog which is a paid option for hosting your short form content. Again it’s niche but the conversation is good and toxicity levels low if not non-existent.

I’ll be investigating the latter two options and looking at how best to trim down my Twitter use which will be hard as I still have a lot of time for the platform. I surface great content through it and love the interactions that it offers. If Twitter would focus on dealing with toxic users and gave me some better app options even if that meant paying for, in my eye’s, an improved service then I’d be happy. Unfortunately it looks like a change in leadership is required for any of this to happen as the direction of travel is breaking my Twitter.

Technology Picks of 2017

As the year draws to an end it’s often time to reflect and I wanted to give a quick shout out to the technology I’ve loved this year and would recommend without hesitation. The list is pretty short and covers hardware, software and games. Without further ado:

AirPods

I got my hands on the AirPods at the tale end of 2016 and I’ve loved using them over the last year. When I blogged about them last year I said they were Apple’s most delightful product in years and I still stand by that. I’ve used them almost daily and they’ve been great. Comfortable, easy to use and audio performance that is good enough for me. Despite all the fears from people that they would be easily lost or broken for me it’s completely the opposite. The case is really pocketable, charging on the go is fantastic and I love being wire free listening to music and podcasts.

The only issue I’ve had is with iOS 11. The first couple of months of iOS 11 brought some audio glitches that I hadn’t experienced in iOS 10. Thankfully the latest update has solved this minor issue. Would recommend trying them if you haven’t already especially as Apple will do a refund if you find they don’t fit comfortably for you.

10.5” iPad Pro with Smart Keyboard and Apple Pencil

The 10.5″ iPad Pro is the sweet spot for me in the iPad line up. Portability coupled with performance, this setup has really delivered over the last six months. Prior to this I’d used a couple of older iPad’s and while really good they could never replace my MacBook Air. This iPad Pro with the Smart Keyboard and Pencil do so in spades. Part of that is the power that the Pro now offers, part of it is the screen which looks and feels amazing. Mostly it’s iOS 11 finally delivering an iPad focussed experience. The dock, a files app, improved multi tasking and drag and drop give you a far richer environment to work in. Who’d have thought robbing some of the basic features in macOS and adding them to a touch driven iOS platform would finally deliver an iPad experience to savour.

The keyboard has held up well although I do miss backlit keys. The Pencil works well unlike my sketching but it’s useful for the odd notation or notes that I take. Could it replace not having a Mac for me? Not yet but I can finally see a future where it will.

Day One

Journaling isn’t for everyone but I use Day One all the time. First and foremost it lets me capture a variety of posts in a number of different journals all in the one app. The cloud sync keeps everything together and with IFTTT support I can easily bring in content automatically from other services and review it all in Day One. With nice touches like location, weather and ‘On this day’ reminders it’s a great app and service with full support for images and markdown as well. Looking forward to seeing how audio and video support is added in the future. If you’ve wanted to keep a journal/diary and failed give Day One a shot as it’s always available on your phone and allows for quick and easy updates.

Todoist

Over the years I’ve moved between lots of todo app’s and services but the one I’ve stuck with for longest is Todoist. They have an app for every platform including the web and that seems to rub some Apple folk up the wrong way as it isn’t designed purely for iOS or Mac, but it’s the simplicity and depth that Todoist has coupled with great web services allowing it to integrate with a number of different app’s and platforms. Adding a task is easy, can be supplemented with notes and reminders and it’s got it’s own gamification system for keeping you motivated in completing your actions. A bit of fun, but what’s the harm? Free to try but if you want reminders, file attachments etc then you need to pay £28 a year which for me is cheap considering how much I use it.

Notes

When Apple update Notes in iOS 10 I ditched Evernote and never looked back. Around 18 months later and it’s still working well. I throw everything into Notes and the sync amongst devices hasn’t let me down once. iOS 11 has improved Notes with better support for formatting and tables and you can now pick different paper templates for your notes – still can’t get rid of the paper texture though! You can also scan documents and iOS 11 does an excellent job off aligning the image and giving you a clean scanned document. Improved Pencil support was also added alongside creating a Note from the iPad Pro lock screen. Although other services offer more or their app may look cleaner and support Markdown, Notes does everything I need and is available everywhere.

Nintendo Switch

What a surprise this was. I wasn’t sure about buying the Nintendo Switch but as soon as I unboxed it and started playing Zelda I fell in love. The ability to take games and play them anywhere is compelling. The hardware, despite initial fears, is good enough even though the competition is moving to (pretend) 4k. The battery life can be punishing but then the Switch for me is all about dipping in for some short gaming experiences. Zelda, Mario Odyssey and Mario Kart plus some other AAA titles make for a great line up but where Nintendo really surprised me was their ability to get smaller arcade type titles out monthly, even weekly. The store has great titles and it’s hard to avoid dumping £10-£15 on a game especially as they sit on an SD card and are easily launched and played…anywhere. The main ding has been their poor online offering and retro console efforts which are all pushed back to 2018. Despite that, the Switch is a triumph.

This was the biggest console release this year, and for Nintendo maybe for a decade. They are back, but maybe they just never went away. If you are into gaming in any way then pick up a Switch. My best tech product of 2017.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Early previews were worrying. Vast empty landscapes to roam with nothing much to do. This was some of the early feedback…and that isn’t Zelda. Nintendo needed this to be a great game to sell the Switch…and for many this isn’t just the game of 2017 but one of the best games of all time. The game is vast, and I’ll hold my hands up and say that I only got half way through the main quest never mind the many many side quests and challenges which I hardly scratched. However the graphics, gameplay and story telling that Nintendo crammed into that tiny cartridge, taking the Zelda franchise forward while triggering so many great memories from past titles was a masterclass in what a modern game in 2017 should deliver. This was a pretty great year for games but Zelda easily sits at the top for me.

Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds

This shouldn’t be on my list. It’s buggy, crashes a lot, has atrocious frame rates and has been on the Xbox for only three weeks. But….I love it. Premise is simple in that you need to survive against 99 other players who all drop in on the same map with no weapons. Find a weapon, get some armour and then it’s up to you how you play the game. Hide, get in a vehicle, snipe…whatever.

It’s the randomness that I enjoy…and the adrenaline jump as you get further into a gam. No two games are the same, the map’s huge and I know over the coming year the game will improve and more maps will be added. It reminds me of old Ghost Recon games in some ways, with a different take on what a modern FPS should be. I’ve come close to winning with a few top fives but no chicken dinner…yet. I’m sure the next Battlefields and COD’s will all come with their own spin on this mode but until then give Battlegrounds a go. You won’t regret it.

Honourable Mentions
As always, there’s some near misses. The iPhone X is great but it’s still early days and I’ve got a lot more out of the new iPad than I have the new phone. If I was choosing something just based on engineering alone then the Xbox one X would be in there. Kudus to Microsoft for delivering such a powerful console in such a small quiet form factor. Shame there were no brand new games that came out to take advantage of all that power. Sticking with games, Super Mario Odyssey is another masterful game from Nintendo that on another day would be in the list above. Same for Battlefield 1 which I really enjoyed. I’ve also been impressed with the Fitbit Alta which replaced my dying and old Fitbit One.

Here’s to more great tech in 2018 because you can never have enough new toys to play with.

Lego Love

I love Lego. When I was a kid it was my way to escape. I had loads of sets but I loved to make my own builds and stories. One recurring theme was space, building moon bases and fantastic rockets to take me there. Oh to go back to those times.

Another love was space, especially the Apollo missions, so when Lego announced a set would be launched to commemorate the moon landings I had to buy it. The Lego Apollo Saturn V is expensive at £110 but is a metre tall and contains 1969 parts. This would take a fair bit of time to build.

So I set aside a weekend and got to work. Of course, I did a time-lapse that didn’t quite come out as hoped but that was a side project to the main event.

Some of the build was intricate but overall it was fantastic to put together. The instructions were clear and the parts came in 12 bags so was fairly easy to sort and work through. Overall it’s a superb kit and the final rocket looks great. It was also nice to get a small stand for the rocket to give you a choice of how you want to display it. If you are into Lego or space in any way treat yourself to this set, I loved it.

Who goes first?

A few weeks ago the New York Times asked the question Which Tech Giant Would You Drop? Did you take the test? If you haven’t then give it a go, it only takes a minute. For me it was pretty straightforward. I would drop in the following order:

Facebook
Microsoft
Alphabet
Amazon
Apple

Since then both Microsoft and Google have had major events, Amazon have released new Echo devices and WWDC is only around the corner. I’ve also been thinking more about what I’d lose if each service was shutdown. These tech giants own so many products. Take a look at what would go if each one shutdown.

Facebook
Microsoft
Amazon
Alphabet
Apple

Instead of choosing between five companies you are choosing between dozens of products. Does it change your drop order? For me it does.

Facebook would still go first. I’ve been a bit harsh and missed out a couple of important products like Facebook Messenger, but Facebook would go despite my love of Instagram. Either people would flock to Flickr (ok, that won’t happen) or Google Photo’s would evolve to take Instagram’s place. Oculus isn’t doing anything that HTC’s Vive couldn’t and you’ve got Signal to take over from WhatsApp.

Originally I had Microsoft in fourth and Alphabet in third but it’s now a choice between Microsoft and Amazon. When putting the graphics together I was going to swap Amazon into fourth but one thing stopped me – AWS. How many app’s and services would disappear because AWS is no longer around? Azure competes really well but when I look at the Microsoft services I can swap them out for alternatives. PSN for Xbox, AWS for Azure, macOS for Windows and who needs LinkedIn or Bing? So Microsoft stays in fourth and Amazon moves to third despite the lure of Prime.

That leaves Alphabet and Apple. For me it breaks down to Apple for the hardware and O/S I use all the time, and Alphabet for the services I use all the time. For years I’ve preferred Apple’s hardware for it’s design and reliability but there’s no doubt that the shine has lessened in recent years.

I use Google services every day. Google Search is still my goto, Google Doc’s drive’s the podcast and has never let us down in six years of usage and YouTube really has no equivalent. However services are only as good as the hardware they run from and for me Apple still wins out in that front. Just. The speed of the iPhone is hard to beat and while the rest of my hardware is getting long in the tooth it’s reliable and I trust when I upgrade devices over the next couple of years I’ll get a great hardware boost.

Whats also helped has been Google (and others) making sure that they are available on all platforms, not just their own, so that all users can benefit and also so they can get access to as many eyes as they can. Compared to a few years ago it’s really a great time for users with the best choice of hardware and services.

So, who would you drop first? More importantly who would you keep until last?

So Long Evernote

I’ve been an Evernote user for many many years and despite looking at alternatives nothing struck me as good in comparison. That’s despite the product starting to get worse, not better, in recent times. The chat/commenting service was of no interest, the related searches were of no use and I found the overall tool getting slower with time.

I stuck by Evernote as I was a premium user and I had so much invested in the platform. I was used to how it worked and a lot of my content over the last few years was almost trapped within it. Exporting from Evernote was poor and basically in a proprietary Evernote format.

This year though a couple of things changed. Firstly Evernote tweaked there prices so I’d be paying more going forward. Secondly, Apple Notes improved and also offered a way to import Evernote content as did Microsofts Onenote. There also seemed to be a lot of grumbles in the many podcasts I listen to about what Evernote had become and how viable was it’s future.

So a few weeks ago I migrated a chunk of content from Evernote to Onenote and Apple Notes and gave each platform a try. Both sync services worked well and I’ve had no issues with searching. In fact both have been speedy in comparison to Evernote, all with much the same accuracy. One Evernote feature I did miss was saving a webpage into Evernote. This was a one click action that saved a great representation of the page forever in Evernote. Neither rival service offers this so I rely on Safari’s ‘Export as PDF’ on both Mac and iOS to save out a PDF which I can then store in Onenote and Notes.

After trying the two tools I’ve plumped for Apple Notes. The Onenote front end is pretty clunky and I preferred the simplicity in Apple Notes. So I’ve moved all my notes and stored content to Apple Notes and it’s fully synched across all my devices. I’ve also deleted everything from Evernote and shutdown the account. So long Evernote.

So I save a little bit of cash and I’ve got a slightly faster but simpler notes service and one which I’ve got more confidence in over the next few years. Next on the list is photo services. Flickr has been my goto online photo service for years but like Evernote, I’ve no confidence in it going forward. So I’ll be looking at 500px, Google, Apple and Adobe’s services and maybe Smugmug. I’ve got a day emotional tie with Flickr and so much content there…this will be a difficult one.

Blu-ray Ripping

I still buy Blu-rays as it’s the best quality you can get today, especially compared with streaming services that always over compress. I also like to own my media and not rely on Netflix or Amazon keeping a film available on their service. One thing that still irritates though are the forced adverts, crappy menu’s and general slowness when booting up a Blu-ray film. Ripping a Blu-ray is fairly straightforward now but a little more awkward on Mac’s as Apple has never shipped a Mac with a Blu-ray drive. So a few weeks ago I picked up a CD/DVD/Blu-ray drive that works over USB so I can rip my disks.

There are a number of different guides online on how to rip Blu-rays on the Mac but the one I recommend is from Jason Snell – How I rip DVDs and Blu-rays. The software I use is:

Snell’s guide shows how to setup Handbrake to use MakeMKV to read Blu-ray’s but I prefer a two step process. I firstly extract the Blu-ray to the Mac’s hard drive via MakeMKV and then within Handbrake I convert to a more suitable format for storing longterm on the NAS.

Currently I store as MKV’s and use the H.264 video codec. You can see the other settings I choose in Handbrake below. I’ve found keeping framerate constant delivers better results, Quality I set to RF 18, Tune to film, Profile to high and Level to 4.1. I also set the Preset to veryslow which means the conversion process takes longer but you get slightly smaller file sizes.

HandBrake video

HandBrake audio

Handbrake picture

For audio I select Auto Passthru rather than encoding as something different and in the Picture settings I turn off any cropping settings and set Anamorphic to none. Handbrake will take some time to encode a film so I generally run a couple of encodes overnight as a batch or while I’m at work and it’s generally the only time my iMac fans kick in as Handbrake will use all the CPU available.

Plex

What I’m left with is a great quality MKV that I watch via Plex. Inspired by a recent tweet my Marvel movies have never looked better. Over the next few weeks I’ll look at H.265 to see if it offers a better long term storage format but for now if you want to watch your Blu-ray without the hassle of piracy warnings, menu’s and forced trailers I’d recommend MakeMKV, Handbrake and Plex.

BB-8

A couple of months back I bought a Sphero BB-8. When I saw the video of it I just couldn’t resist…despite it being £130. Ouch.

When I got it the first thing that struck me was it was much smaller than I had thought – the size of a small orange…or a large tangerine. Like most things nowadays I had to do a firmware update on first use which took a couple of minutes (unlike most games which need a download or two to get working….Forza 6 and it’s 60 GB download on Boxing Day is the worst yet) but once that was done I was good to go.

The app allows you to steer BB-8 and it was much more controllable than I thought it would be. It was easy to steer around but also easy to steer into walls 🙂 When you do collide with something BB-8 would glow red, spin a bit and make a groaning droid noise. What’s a shame is that the video makes it look like the noise comes from BB-8 itself but they are all generated from the iOS app. You can get BB-8 to do pre-programmed paths – in a circle, square, spin, panic and run etc. The app is also voice activated so you can say “BB-8” and the app will then listen to your voice commands like “Go Explore”, “Go To Sleep” or “It’s a Trap” which is my favourite.

There is a message mode which lets you see holograms but this are displayed on the phone and you can record your own but this is a bit weak. You can also send BB-8 on patrol and he will merrily wander around your home or office while you work away. Neat. This is all done over bluetooth and the range is pretty impressive. Battery life is around an hour for three hours of charging which is also pretty good as you tend to get a bit bored with it before the battery ever runs down.

While there have been frequent app and firmware updates to add features I’m sure that for Star Wars Episode VIII we’ll see a new version which will have better hardware and maybe feature things like in built sound and a camera. Something to make it more feature rich than the current version.

Then I saw this tweet a couple of days ago:

Mind blown.

Tickle is an app for iOS that allows you to easily build programs for a variety of smart devices. To program BB-8 you select a template, connect to it from Tickle and then you can drag and drop a variety of commands to give you a lot more control over BB-8 than the official Sphero app.

IMG_0402

You can set the colour of BB-8 to almost anything, set it on a variety of paths and loops but also detect events. So if BB-8 collides you can make it shake, change colour, reverse – whatever you want. You can also detect events from the iOS device so depending on how it is tilted or if it’s shaken you can make BB-8 do different things. This is a great extension of what the BB-8 device can do and it’s opened up another avenue that I hadn’t considered.

Digging deeper I found this post on medium – Sphero BB8 robot toy — The Missing Manual. Really useful advice for any current or prospective BB-8 owner with links to a couple of Javascript libraries that allow you to hack BB-8 even more.

Overall I like the Sphero BB-8 but it’s hard to recommend at the price given what it can do although with the Tickle app it’s clear there’s a lot more to this droid than meets the eye and I’m pleased I picked one up.

The Phantom Zone

Since I was a kid I always wanted a radio controlled plane or helicopter. In fact it was always a helicopter thanks to Airwolf. Over the last four or five years as drones have quite literally taken off as a consumer product I’ve came close to buying one as the technology and ease of use has matured and the price dropped to more reasonable levels. What put me off was buying the drone was always just a part of the full solution. Next was a GoPro, then a gimbal…and then connections to iPhones/iPads for your remote. The list went on and it all felt a bit of a faff when I just want a drone and I can go out and fly.

Then Paul posted a video.

The Phantom 3 he purchased seemed to offered all I wanted…so a couple of weeks later I ordered mine. Yes – I have a drone. Arrest me now!

phantom_large

I picked up the DJI Phantom 3 Professional whose main difference with the Advanced is that it will record video in 4k. Out the box the Phantom needs quite a bit of setup. Firstly you need to charge the battery and the remote control. This takes a couple of hours. Whats nice is the remote control can now use an iOS or Android device to act as a screen which will receive live video from the drone. When I priced up the Phantom 2 you needed the drone, a light bridge plus camera but the Phantom 3 has all this built in. So I fired up the drone and the remote control and launched the DJI Go app…which complained that I needed to update the drone firmware and the firmware on the remote. Damn – another hour.

So out the box the drone can take a bit to setup and there isn’t much in the way of documentation. The full manual isn’t included but can be downloaded from the DJI website. More useful was this Phantom 3 Checklist from The Phantom Guide.

With the firmware updates done and an IMU, gimbal and controller calibration completed too I was ready to fly.

First Flight
I was a bit nervous about flying the Phantom for the first time but I needn’t have worried. The Phantom has three flying modes – P, A and F. P-Mode is the default which is positioning mode. This mode will use GPS and the built in vision system (downward pointing camera and infrared sensors) to help maintain position and makes for far easier flying.

I went out very early so I could fly without disruption and also make the most of a good weather forecast. Movement was a bit more rapid and jerky but not too bad for the first time.

You start in beginner mode which restricts you to 30m but I switched that to 120m and….oh boy. The views were fantastic and I was really spoiled for a first go as the weather was perfect.

Glasgow University

Glasgow

The photo’s out of the Phantoms built in camera are excellent and only needed some slight tweaking in Lightroom. I was also impressed with the video. The Phantom + gimbal give incredibly steady video and with some practice in controlling with a steadier hand it should lead to some excellent footage.

I did throw the drone around during these first flights. It moves pretty fast but the movement is predictable so as long as I take some care I should be ok. Landing was also easier than expected probably thanks to the mode I was in. The DJI app has a button to automatically take off and land but I prefer to do that myself. There’s also a return to home button if you lose sight of the drone or the drone loses contact with you. I’ve not had need to use this yet but it’s great that the feature is there.

What did take me by surprise was how quickly it rose. It was easy to lose sight of the drone especially in the bright morning sky. The live feedback from the camera worked well and I didn’t have any issues with the drone going out of range but I wasn’t pushing it on this first go. The app is much better than I expected. You have full control over the camera settings just like a typical hand held camera. You also not only get a live view from the camera but a map showing you and your drones position. After you’ve finished there are full flight logs showing where you were, the photo’s you took and also the control inputs during the flight. Impressive.

QEC
The following day the QEC block was to be barged down the Clyde. With another good day forecast it was a great opportunity to record the event via the drone.

I really wanted to swoop by the block as it passed and spin in front of it but I crapped myself. What if I hit it? What if I lost control. Second day nerves but head ruled the heart on that one.

QEC

There was also a few more people around despite the area I picked being really quiet. Around half the passers by asked about the drone, what it cost, what happens if it falls in the water (obvious really?) and a couple stayed to watch me take off and take some pics. No one was negative about it which was pretty cool.

Accessories
As with all new gadgets you always have a need for accessories. The must have for the Phantom is a battery. It comes with one but that gives you a maximum flight time of 25 minutes, more likely 20. However a spare battery doesn’t come cheap – £124 for one extra battery. Ouch. When I picked up the Phantom 3 I went for a package which included an extra battery, extra charger, spare props and landing gear, larger SD card and a bag for carrying the drone. Overall the package saved me around £200 and the battery and extra charger are really useful – charging can take quite a while so being able to charge the two batteries at the same time is great. Over time I can see me picking up at least one other battery but the two are fine for now.

There’s a massive aftermarket for the Phantom drones and I’ve picked up a couple of extras to protect the camera and gimbal. The supplied gimbal protector is a bit of a faff to fit and doesn’t protect the lens. So I picked up a 3D printed gimbal holder and lens cover which fits a lot better. I also picked up a gimbal guard which attaches to the drone and should protect the gimbal which looks pretty fragile when landing. Probably a bit OTT but piece of mind is no bad thing.

Apart from the battery I’ve got my eye on another couple of accessories. The iPad screen is almost unreadable on a bright day so I was running for shade a few times. I’ll pick up a sun shade at some point although it’s not an immediate need. I’ll also look at getting an ND filter or two for the camera especially for those dawn and dusk shots.

For Your Consideration
I’m thrilled with the Phantom so far but there are a few things to think about if you are interested in buying one. I went for the Professional but the Advanced would have done fine as the 4k video is really a nice to have. It also makes for much longer video editing and large files. The quality is stunning though. Video editing is also something new to me. For photo’s I love Lightroom and know how to get the best out of it but for video’s I’m a bit lost. New skills ahead!

The main consideration is flying legally. When flying in the UK you need to keep the CAA rules in mind. You don’t need a licence to fly a drone if you are doing non commercial work but when you see the speed and power in the Phantom I can see there being a call for all users to be trained/licensed in some way. Two main points are keep under 400ft (120m) and keep 50m away from people and buildings…which is actually quite difficult to do.

One last point is that this is an expensive hobby. The drone itself costs a fair bit (£1200) plus the accessories but there is also the knowledge that at some point an engine, rotor or worse the camera/gimbal will be damaged or need repairing/replaced. None of the main parts are cheap so have that in mind when buying a Phantom.

Fun!
I can’t finish this write up on a negative though. The Phantom 3 is a great piece of kit and it’s so much fun to pilot. I’ve loved the outings with it so far and the images and video’s have exceeded my expectations.

I’ve got a list of places that I want to visit over the coming months but I’ll bide my time as I want to try and get the right weather conditions for some of them. However I’ll be getting the drone out again even just to fly around and practice. I’m also looking forward to upcoming software updates that will allow you to pick a point of interest and the drone will focus on it as you fly around and also the ability to set waypoints so you can pre plan flights.

I can’t wait.

Cloud Cover

The cloud. All our data should be in it. It makes backup easy. It makes your life simpler as it’s one less thing to manage. But are you in control? It sometimes screws up. Who should you trust your data to? This is all Apple Music’s fault. It’s not really but it did get me thinking about how I manage my data especially as it only ever grows.

Data has been a problem for me for quite a while. I bought a Drobo back in 2009 which wasn’t one of my smarter buys. Proprietary drive format and also hit a nasty update bug upgrading from Leopard (I think) which meant the drive was toast until it was reformatted. Not what you want from a storage/backup device. Since then I’ve relied on internal iMac storage and a 3TB Firewire drive and shuffle data around other older drives. I looked at Thunderbolt but was never convinced about longevity of the format and the price was always way more than USB equivalents. Also my current Mac’s are USB2 only which make for slow access compared to Firewire and USB3…and I didn’t want to buy another Firewire drive as that technology is dying.

That left NAS and Cloud. I had a 2 bay drive a few years ago but was frustrated by fan noise and slow performance. It was also relatively expensive to setup a NAS solution. However when looking at Cloud options I have 2 main misgivings. Firstly is the lack of control of my data. Ultimately I’m in someone else’s hands when accessing my data. Secondly, it doesn’t always work. Also, Cloud has been trumped up as some miracle solution…it’s just off-prem storage and services. Although I do use quite a few Cloud services I can’t rely on them and they are used as fallbacks. I want my data local and I want to be in control of it with options to back up the data to the Cloud via a variety of services. So NAS it is.

The NAS would be primarily a home for my photo’s and video’s and also my movie and music collections as well as documents, software and other media. I also wanted the option of running a variety of software packages at various times of the day (mini server) and it would also be the home for my Mac backups.

Synology 415+
I looked at a variety of vendors but kept coming back to Synology mostly down to the large community, great software options and hardware which generally gets favourable reviews. After looking at a couple of options I settled on the Synology 415+. It has a couple of USB3 ports although the easily accessible port at the front of the NAS is USB2 only. It also has dual network ports and although theoretically you can bind them in practice it does’t yield much benefit. It’s also an Intel chipset which I was keen to get and has built in encryption so if I do encrypt some of my data it won’t kill the CPU.

415

Next decision was how much storage to add. The 415+ is a 4 bay NAS and while I could have plumped for a couple of drives to get me going I wanted to get four in and give myself plenty of growth headroom. Drive prices have settled down again so I ended up going for 4 x 4TB Western Digital Red HDD’s. This would give me 16TB of storage which I would configure as Raid 5 so giving me around 12TB or so of usable disk while giving me the redundancy I was looking for – one drive could fail and I wouldn’t lose any data.

The 415+ is quite compact for a 4 bay NAS but this is down to the large external power brick that comes with it. Installation of the drives is very easy. Pop open the cover, lift a tab and slide out a drive mount. The 415+ doesn’t need screws for the drives, instead using plastic guides that click into place where the screws usually go. A nice touch is that the guides also have rubber grommets which should help to cut down on vibration. You then slide the drive mount back in. Do that another three times, plug in a network cable and power and you are good to go.

A couple of other hardware thoughts. Fan noise is always a bugbear for me but it’s not a big issue with the 415+. You know it’s on but it does a good job of keeping get drives and NAS cool without being overly distracting. The fans are also always running (at a slow speed) unless you switch of the NAS. It’s also all plastic although looks good with the logo’s either side doubling as air vents. It won’t win any design awards but it’s good enough.

Setup
When you first switch on you’ve a couple of options. You can install the Synology Assistant software on your Mac/PC or visit find.synology.com from your browser. This finds the NAS on your local network and starts the setup process. First steps are to create an admin account and download the latest version of DSM – Diskstation Manager. You then format and create a volume and are good to go. From out the box to disk available took less than 30 minutes.

dsm desktop

control panel

One of the advantages of Synology is DSM. It looks like an O/S when accessing from a browser and has a lot of capability out of the box. You can easily see status of your NAS, setup e-mail or text alerts for significant system events, create volumes, folders and shares and manage user access amongst many other features. Via DSM you can also install a number of Synology applications that have companion app’s for iOS and Android. There are obvious ones like Download Station to help manage downloads, Audio Station for music, Photo Station for images and Video Station for movies. Unexpected apps are Note Station – basically Evernote lite but you manage the data and Surveillance Station – hook in to a home alarm system and the NAS can manage

synology packages

Some of the app’s are simple but a couple are really good including Photo Station and Video Station which is basically Plex Lite. While there is much to be gained from these app’s the real power comes via the third party app’s that Synology make available via DSM. There are some app’s for syncing to and from third party cloud providers and media options including iTunes and Plex. Depending on your needs and broadband connection you could self host WordPress, Git, Wiki and also e-mail via the supplied packages. There’s a lot that the NAS can do but be careful as the more you add, the more chance the NAS will be always on and you will start to use up resources as the 415+ only has 2GB of RAM.

backup

business

media

utilities

These are just the app’s supplied by default by Synology and not always the latest version, more on that later. However you can add in packages from third parties. One of the better resources is SynoCommunity which allows you to install Python and a variety of newsgroup and torrent managers amongst other things. You can add packages in manually or by adding new package sources. So for SynoCommunity login to your NAS and go to Main Menu, Package Centre, Settings and set “Trust Level” to “Synology Inc. and trusted publishers”. Then in the Package Sources tab, click Add, type “SynoCommunity” for the Name and “http://packages.synocommunity.com/” as Location and then press OK. Now when you visit Package Centre you will see a Community tab where you can browse and install packages from SynoCommunity. A comprehensive list of package sources can be found on the Synology Forums.

Before installing any packages I assigned an IP address to the NAS so I could guarantee it’s address going forward. There’s a variety of ways to assign an address either within the NAS itself or via a DHCP reservation within your router. I chose the later using the MAC address of the NAS to guarantee it always receives the same IP address.

Copying Data
With the setup complete it was onto copying the data from the firewire drives and iMac to the NAS. I created a movies folder share on the NAS ensuring that guests do not have access and started off the copy. Accessing the NAS on the Mac is easy if you turn on “Enable Mac File Service” on the NAS. Once this is done it will appear under Shared. If not then in Finder click the Go menu and select Connect to Server.

Macintosh_HD

It was early Saturday and I was out for the day but 8 hours later and it was still copying data. It was only 1.5TB so it shouldn’t have taken that long. Next was TV shows and again performance was awful. I messed around for an hour looking for reasons why the NAS was so slow but it turns out the issue was on the Mac side. I was using Path Finder on the Mac and copying to the NAS using Path Finder induced terrible performance. Swapped to Finder and it flew so it didn’t take too long to get the rest of the data onto the NAS.

Photo’s
I’ve moved my photo’s to the NAS but left the Lightroom library on the iMac. On launching Lightroom the library complains that the photo’s are missing but you just point to the folders (right click on folder and select “Find Missing Folder”) on the NAS and the library updates without issue. Lightroom handles a NAS well. If it’s off for whatever reason it doesn’t remove photo’s from the library, just states that the photo’s are offline.

I was a bit concerned that performance would be poor but it works really well. You can also move files/folders from within Lightroom itself which makes for a quicker workflow. In fact my future workflow will be to import and work on new photo’s on the iMac and when edits are complete then move to the NAS.

One thing I do have to sort is making better use of the various cloud photo options. Google Photo’s is very nice as is the new Photo’s service from Apple but I still pay for pro account at Flickr….and hardly put any photo’s or videos on it. This is something I need to sort over the coming months so I can have one place online that holds all my photo and video content.

Plex
I love Plex and it’s my main media manager allowing me to access films, tv and music anywhere. One of the main decisions when it came to the NAS was whether to buy one that would enable me to do 1080p transcoding which needs a meaty processor and a lot of RAM. I decided it wasn’t required as for mobile usage I very rarely access Plex from afar and locally my Plex clients can all now playback original content so no need for transcoding. I still had a niggle that the NAS would struggle though.

Although Plex is available via the package manager it’s best to install manually as Synology doesn’t do a good job in making the most up to date packages available. There’s an excellent support article from Plex that takes you through the installation steps but it’s really straightforward. Add Plex as a trusted publisher, download the Plex package and then install it on the NAS by doing a manual install. It takes a couple of minutes and before you know it you’ll have a Plex installation up and running.

Everything is configured via a web interface for Plex and the Synology package supports all the usual Plex options including Plex Pass. Once up and running you point Plex to your media libraries on the NAS and it indexes it adding posters, film info etc. For my modest library the indexing was pretty speedy and before long I had my Plex library up and running again but this time on the NAS.

Playback performance has been excellent which is a relief as it was my main concern. I rely on a wired network for playback on TV’s around the house as wireless just doesn’t cut it but I still had a niggle that the NAS wouldn’t be powerful enough but it is. Remote access to the library also works well. I can be anywhere in the world and access any media of my choosing. Plex makes this process really easy but I have found one issue – hibernation. With Plex running the NAS would fire up it’s disks every 20-30 mins, basically meaning it was always on. Without Plex it would sit in standby and fire up only when asked. Mmm.

I disabled most of the settings in Plex for auto updating metadata, library refreshes etc and this make zero difference. I then stumbled on a post on the Plex forums – Plex preventing hibernation once again. I enabled SSH, logged in to the NAS, found the offending file and dusted of the vi skills to comment out the offending line of code. Bingo. Plex now runs and is available from all clients at any time but the disks go into hibernation, only starting up when required. If I know I’m not using the NAS I’ll have it switched off but over weekends when I’m dipping in and out of data I want it to hibernate properly so I’m pleased to get to the bottom of that issue…and hopefully the Plex team will deliver a proper update sometime soon.

Music
I’m lost with this at the moment. I blamed Apple Music for the move to a NAS but it was just one of a variety of reasons. I’ve got a fairly large library of music and one thing I won’t be doing is deleting it from any computer and relying on a cloud version only. However both Apple and Google have copies of my music library so I can get to it from anywhere with ease….but I don’t trust the hosts. Apple Music has dabbled with my local library changing some album art, metadata and also mismatching titles. If this was cloud only I’d be frustrated. However this is with my local content – don’t fuck around with my content Apple!

So I will undoubtedly put all the music on the NAS but not sure if I will use the Synology iTunes server package, rely on Plex or look to something different. I’ve also got a fairly large collection of lossless that I don’t put to good use. Decisions decisions.

Backups
For backing up the Mac I’ve always relied on SuperDuper! rather than Time Machine and moving to a NAS does give me some options that I didn’t have before. SuperDuper! was used to create a bootable image, something you can’t do with a NAS. However following this guide I’ve got a regular backup to the NAS via SuperDuper! and it all happens automagically. I’ve accessed the image file created and all is well but I plan to keep my eye on it as it is a different method than I’m used to and I don’t want to trust it and find it has issues when I actually need it.

For backing up the NAS I’ll be looking at CrashPlan by using this user maintained CrashPlan package. The other area still to investigate is using the NAS as a Dropbox copy so I always have local access to that data rather than it being solely in the cloud.

Conclusion
I had no idea when I started this post that I’d end up rambling for so long. One thing is clear since I started this and also got the NAS – I’m really happy with the Synology 415+ and I’m probably using only 5% of what it can do but that 5% is working really well. Sleeping the NAS can be a pain though and the more I add to the NAS the more frustrating I can see this being.

I also feel in a much better place with my data in that the primary source is local to me, has redundancy built in and will soon be on various cloud services to reduce risk even further. It’s not the cheapest solution but I don’t want to lose my data and still don’t have enough trust in going cloud only. With that I’ll finish. Thanks for getting this far and I hope it was helpful!