April, 2012

The Big Ride


Watch in HD over on Vimeo
Yesterday, I joined several thousand others riding around some closed streets of Central London as part of the LCC organised Big Ride. In the week before Londoners vote for who should be the next Mayor, this was a massive protest to ensure that the person who does sit in that office realises that this is a real issue.
Transport is actually one of the few things the Mayor has real power over. Most other things fall either under Parliament, or our locally elected councils. But cycling infrastructure is one thing that can be improved. And I don’t just mean painting a few roads blue. I mean thinking about designing roads and streets from the perspective of those who aren’t in cars. That’s actually a radical rethink, as anyone who’s ever tried to cross the road at King’s Cross might realise.
In the last week we’ve had the chairman of mini-cab firm Addison Lee busily back tracking on some of the views he made clear in his company magazine regarding cyclists. He also wants his cabs to use bus lanes, where taxis, buses, motorcyclists and of course cyclists already reside. He’s managed to lose a government contract over that.
But the point is that too many people don’t really understand that our streets are for all of us.
Anyway, I don’t want to get too preachy here, but do take the time to visit sites like the LCC or ibikelondon for more.
(Incidentally, I wrote “several thousand” above, because I’m really not sure how many people came. I heard rumours of 10,000 but I’m not convinced. It was awfully wet, and I know quite a few people will have thought better given the weather. Anyway, whatever the truth, it certainly was a lot of people.)

The ZX Spectrum at 30

ZX Spectrum-1
While sometimes you have to rely on Wikipedia or somewhere else on the internet to work out how old something is, that’s never been a problem with the ZX Spectrum. It came out in 1982, and you know that because the first thing you saw when you switched it on was “© 1982 Sinclair Research Ltd.”
The Sinclair ZX Spectrum was my first ever computer, and I used my savings to buy the 16k model in 1982 when it came out. Except I didn’t get it on 23 April 1982. There was, of course, a massive shortage of the machines, and it took me several months before I was able to buy one.
There was a 48k model too, but that was just too expensive for me. Most things I needed to do could be done in 16k, and for a long time that was all I needed. A friend also had a Spectrum, while another friend, who’d had a ZX81, quickly moved up to a Spectrum too. We were all Spectrum users.
ZX Spectrum-2
I did eventually send away my Spectrum to be upgraded to 48k. But that was a while later.
In the meantime, I taught myself BASIC – something we were learning at school anyway with first a predecessor of the BBC Micro, and then the archetypal school computers themselves. I read magazines feverishly – in particular Popular Computing Weekly which covered a variety of platforms, but also Personal Computer World and the various Sinclair specific titles, including Ashby-de-la-Zouch’s Crash magazine.
I spent hours typing in the code for the programs that were printed in these magazines. A painful exercise as invariably there would be large arrays of data that were simply numbers that you had to type in. Sometimes these would be hexadecimal numbers. I remember once spending hours error-checking some code that simply let my Spectrum play a Mozart concerto.
I would get the display computers saying stupid – but never rude – things in places like WH Smiths and Boots.
I bought books like Mastering Machine Code on Your ZX Spectrum and Advanced Spectrum Machine Language – that latter title coming from the software house that produced such programs as The Hobbit (I look forward to it being reissued with the film!).
I went to the ZX Microfairs in places like Alexandra Palace or the Royal Horticultural Hall, where a software company called Automata would do deals that seemed too good to be true. The same company had a long running cartoon strip/advertisement on the back of Popular Computing Weekly.
I bought a ZX Printer that only printed on a special thermal paper in a quasi cash-register style (and now we have a spate of not-dissimilar “little” printers coming).
I bought the astonishing The Quill (well a handful of us did together) and got into writing adventure games. I later bought The Illustrator, but never managed to get on with that.
I failed to get a game published in a magazine which was a shame, because they paid cash! However I had not one, but two games broadcast on LBC during Clive Bull’s Sunday afternoon Young London programme. The first game was, in truth, a digital wordsearch. But the key was always for the game they broadcast to be a competition listeners could enter. Yes, you heard right. LBC did indeed broadcast the “loading” sounds of 8 bit computer games. LBC’s rule was that the game had to load in less than a minute. Listeners could record the program off-air with a radio-cassette recorder, and then load it into their computer. LBC tended to rotate which computer platforms they broadcast. My second game was an adventure game written using The Quill, and I was proud to hear the following week that it had led to their biggest ever response for a game. LBC on at least one occassion went further, and broadcast an advert in a similar manner. Lots of pre-promotional spots featuring a Joanna Lumley voiceover threw forward to a Monday evening broadcast. The resulting program was essentially a mortgage calculator from some kind of finance company.
I would spend my pocket money on budget Mastertronic titles available either on the local market or in the local department store.
I ended up slowly doing less programming and more playing of games. Not least from companies like Ultimate Play The Game.
I would go around to a friend’s house where he had a modem, and parents who didn’t seem to mind him using their phone. We would go onto things like Prestel and learn things about phreaking – not that I ever really progressed beyond trying out engineering test modes.
And that’s really just the tip of the iceberg. I loved my Spectrum. And I still do.
The photos in this blog are of the casing of my actual 1982 Spectrum case. I later bought the Keyboard Upgrade Kit, so this shell remains empty. Although perhaps a Raspberry Pi might fit quite neatly inside. Either way, a return to a time when people could program themselves on a widescale, and not just rely on “developers” would be beneficial to the country in a big way.
Happy birthday to the ZX Spectrum.

HTC One X – Some Initial Thoughts

I’ve finally upgraded my by now venerable HTC Desire. In choosing a new phone, I knew it had to do a number of things. It was almost certainly going to be an Android device. It was certainly not going to be an iOs device (If I buy a computer, I get to choose what I run on it, not a corporation on the west coast of the US). It needed to have lots of memory – my HTC Desire was somewhat “challenged” in this department as I’ve written about before. It needed a good clear screen. And it needed a decent camera.
I did like the Samsung Google Nexus phone, and I “trialled” the device we had at work for a few weeks. That certainly sold me on Ice Cream Sandwich. I might well have gone for that, although the camera is a bit lacking, and in many regards the phone’s hardware feels a little inferior to the Galaxy SII. I also looked at the Sony Xperia S, although I was disappointed that it didn’t come with ICS installed at release. I know it’ll be updated in due course, but ICS feels like the current version of Android.
To be honest, Nokia didn’t really get a look in. I’ve heard nothing but good things about Windows Mobile 7 (or whatever they’re calling it these days), and I trust Nokia hardware. I still have a Nokia N82 in a drawer for taking to places where I know that I’m going to struggle with regular power charges. And the camera on that device still puts many current phones to shame.
But in the end the HTC One X did it for me. I actually quite like the Sense UI they add to the base Android operating system, and my Desire never let me down on the physical wear and tear front. Now obviously that was a metal cased phone, and the One X is cased in some kind of polycarbonate. Time will tell. Although I will be looking for a serviceable case of some description.
I’ve now had the phone for a few days, and here are my initial impressions of it.
I suppose it’s worth starting with the phone functionality. And that’s excellent. Nice crisp and clear call quality, and I’ve had no issues at all with it.
HTC sell the device as “Amazing Camera. Authentic Sound.”
So the camera is important. And the first thing to say is that the 8 megapixel camera is fast to use. Very fast. You can even take stills while shooting video.
The lens is f2.0 we’re told – which effectively means that you should get lots of bokah on some subjects. The camera was an important aspect of my waiting for months for a phone I wanted to come out.
I was pretty pleased with the quality of the pictures. Take a look below for some exmaples. The only issue I had was to do with the size of the phone and its thin-ness. It actually makes it hard to hold side on take photos. A case will almost certainly make this easier however. Note that I haven’t post-processed the pictures in any way. Nor have I used any Instagram-style effects. HTC’s camera app comes with a few of these effects, but I’ve not delved into them a great deal.

A nice feature is that HTC has done a deal with Dropbox that gives you 23GB on top of whatever you already have – probably somewhere around 2GB for new users. You can therefore set the phone to backup all your photos and videos to Dropbox for safe-keeping. I’ve enabled this for WiFi only to save on unnecessary data usage. Of course, I also have Google+ installed, and photos get backed up to there as well. Nothing like covering yourself. I suspect that when I reach the end of the 2 years of free storage they’re packaging with the phone, I’ll find it hard not to want to continue and keep the storage going – either by upgrading to another new HTC phone, or paying Dropbox. But two years is a long time in cloud-storage.
The phone also shoots HD video. So the other night, I thought I’d give it a go, and shot some quite low-light video. This example is only 720p as I hadn’t thought to check the settings before going ahead and recording. And obviously I was shooting at night for extra difficulty.
I was going to attempt to edit the video on the phone too, as there’s a pre-installed Movie Editor app. But although it let me trim the various clips, it insisted that I use one of three “themes” and so I ditched that plan. In reality, video editing on a mobile is something that I’m not going to be doing a great deal of. In this instance, I’ve used YouTube’s online video editor. See what you think below. I’ve not used their stabilisation, although the phone has some built in, and it was turned on when I shot this. In summary, decent, but not up there with something like a Sony HX9V.

The phone’s screen is simply stunning, with a 1280×720 resolution. With the powerful quad-core processor, videos look absolutely gorgeous. I’ve yet to make use of HTC’s “Watch” movie service, although I can’t see myself paying to watch films on even a 4.7″ screen (films demand large screens – that’s why we have TVs). But I’ll certainly try a few things on it.
As for the sound part of the HTC package? Well HTC bought a majority stake in Dr Dre’s Beats Audio. I’ve never owned a pair of their headphones, and while lots of people are wearing them, I can’t help thinking back to the 80s when twin cassette deck “ghetto blasters” would have “Bass Boost” buttons on them. I’m sure it’s all about the quality, and not a fashion statement…
Perhaps that’s unfair, but to put this in context my go-to headphones are Sennheiser CX300 II in-ear headphones which are excellent, if poorly built (I’ve been through multiple pairs, with the average set lasting 9-12 months before no amount of superglue means that I have to replace them). I also recently invested in a pair of AKG K450 over-ear closed headphones, which are great to commute with, and were chosen on the basis of a What HiFi magazine award. My final pair of headphones, which I can only use at home since they’re open, are Grado SR80i headphones which sound simply wonderful. The clarity is exceptional.
In any case, I can’t compare a set of Beats headphones with any of these, since the set that came in the box are no-brand standard phones with a microphone for hands-free calls. It now seems that HTC isn’t bundling Beats branded phones with their current phones. The device does employ Beats hardware, and to be honest, it does give some really good sound. Indeed, I would say that it sounds better than my iPod Classic. That said, I’ve only really tried rock and pop music. How it would cope with something a little more nuanced, I’ve yet to discover.
My HTC Desire, and N82 before that, both featured FM radios. Unfortunately, the Desire’s radio was barely usable. The various other radios within the phone caused far too much interference for the FM tuner to give a satisfactory signal anywhere, even listening to stations with strong FM signals.
Therefore, I was pleased to discover that the FM radio built into the One X is quite decent. It automatically drops back to mono if the signal’s not strong enough for stereo, and uses RDS to determine station names. It’s nothing extraordinary, but perfectly usable. I’d still recommend a portable DAB/FM radio for serious on-the-go radio listening. But at least it gives a decent listening experience. Note that unlike other audio apps, I didn’t notice a way to enable Beats Audio in the radio application. Have I missed something?
Incidentally, the phone also comes with the TuneIn Radio app pre-installed. There are pros and cons with this. The cons tend to be that the directory is not the greatest, with some very odd sorting of stations. But the pros are that it does work. When I struggled to listen to some football over Easter via the Five Live website (we’d failed to find a pub with Sky TV*), I was able to listen via TuneIn.
I’m not a massive gamer these days, and had pretty much no games on my last phone. But the lovely large screen does mean that games could be on the agenda again with this phone. Let’s just say that I enjoyed Angry Birds Space more than I thought I would.
The big question with any phone like this is battery life. And it’s certainly a shame that HTC has decided that the battery should no longer be user-removable. That means that you don’t have the option of carrying a spare around. I realise few users did this, but it now means that I need to carry something like a Duracell portable USB charger if I think I’m going to be travelling for a significant period of time, where I’m going to be using the phone a lot, but where there’s no power socket (most trains, for example).
What I couldn’t definitively say is how long the battery will last. That clearly depends on usage. I think you can get through a day pretty comfortably unless you put the phone under heavy usage. I tend to have a charger on my desk and use it during the day. Clearly if you’re streaming lots of audio or video, you are going to eat power though. I would say in general, that the battery life is no better or worse than usual. As the phone is new, I’ve been using it quite a lot. From listening to podcasts to watching videos. They all undoubtedly put a strain on the battery.
One issue that some app developers might want to address with phones like this, is a better way of dealing with the large real estate on screen. With no single standard sized screen on Android devices, you have to be creative sometimes to fill the screen. As a result, at least a couple of apps have odd spaces where the screen has been filled in a peculiar fashion.
Android devices are always going to be harder to develop for given the broad range of hardware out there. So a recent launch like Instagram, did not initially recognise the camera in the HTC One X. But within a week, they’d rolled out something like three upgrades, including one that fixed the HTC One X issue. That Facebook billion has clearly not stopped the developers working!
The microphone is worth mentioning too. This is the first Android device I’ve owned with something resembling useable audio recording functionality. I wouldn’t claim it’s anything other than ordinary, but you can at least record at 44,100 kHz and get something decent out of it. I imagine that having a half-decent microphone is more a by-product of video recording than anything. That all said, it’s still very average. The microphones built into iPhones seem far superior.
There are a couple of practical things to consider with the phone. As ever, it’s a fine line between surrounding an object of desire in an ugly rubber case of some description, and letting the phone take knocks that come its way. I’ve got a cheap case coming but might head down the Case Mate route when I can get one, as they tend to make a decent compromise of style and protection.
The other issue that niggles a little is the placing of the micro USB socket for charging and syncing on the side of the phone rather than the base. I’m not sure if that’s the best place. Clearly it won’t work with either of the two docks I had for my Desire (one for home, one for work). That said, there are also charging pins on the lower right of the phone’s rear. So perhaps some reasonably priced docks will become available. In the meantime, I find the micro USB socket slightly tight and wonder if it’ll become an issue over time.
A few other things I’ve noticed and experienced.
Having loaded up with sundry apps, and dutifully grouped them into themed folders, I did find that the phone was very sluggish loading the homescreen up when I left apps. Changing Scenes didn’t really help. I was a bit frustrated by this at first, until I eventually thought I should do what I’d do with any PC in a similar situation, and do a restart. That fixed it.
More seriously, the G-Sensor stopped working. I didn’t notice it at first, until viewing a YouTube video led to frustration when I couldn’t make full use of landscape viewing (YouTube videos look absolutely gorgeous incidentally. Especially if they’re in HD). Attempting to Calibrate the G-Sensor in the settings led to the calibration repeatedly aborting. Then I attempted to play Teetor, an HTC game preinstalled on the phone, which is one of those “get the ball in the hole” games that uses the G Sensor to detect “tilting”.
Searching forums, the only people with matching problems seemed to be those with hardware issues. I was concerned.
In the end, I had to perform a soft-reset of the phone, something that was achieved by holding down the power button for several seconds. A bug report was sent to HTC as part of the process. That fixed the issue.
At time of writing, the fault hasn’t occurred again. So I assume it was a software rather than hardware problem.
Finally, HTC add their own keyboard which is pretty decent. Certainly better than the Froyo stock keyboard I ended up with previously when memory issues meant I had to uninstall anything else(Aside: please, keyboard app writers, don’t include multiple languages in a single installer!). Despite the HTC keyboard having Swype-type functionality, I prefer Swype overall. However some kind of bug exists when you use the Google search widget to find something. After a search, the resulting keyboard the phone’s left with is smaller than it should be, and there’s no option that I can find to resize it. So you end up with the keyboard just filling the bottom left hand corner of the screen. The only way to get it back is to choose the HTC keyboard again, and then change back. Annoying. Particularly as it seems to be harder to change keyboards in ICS than it was previously.
In summary then, I love the phone. It’s very fast, and handles everything I throw at it day to day, without any problems at all. It seems to latch onto WiFi and mobile data networks much more speedily than my old phone. And I like the Sense that HTC’s added. I prefer the phone to the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, so think I’ve made a good choice with this phone. But once I’ve had it a little longer, I’ll write a bit more.
*Yes, there is the Sky Go app, but it strangely only works with a very select number of handsets. And while I would hope and expect that the HTC One X will make that list, it’s not there at time of writing. It does work with the HTC Desire however!
Disclaimer: Yes I did rail against the feverish excitement that means that some people rush to get their devices updated on the first day of release. So I must admit, here, that I did upgrade on the first day the HTC One X was out. In my defence, there was no queue at the shop I went into, and nobody else had even been into the shop enquiring about the phone the morning I was there.