Technology

Believe in Worse: Sky’s Streaming Options

You often hear that we live in a digital non-linear TV world. That’s not actually true. We very much live in a linear television world with lots of people watching television live. But why let the truth get in the way of a good story.

But I digress.

It’s certainly true that digital streaming is now a key part of television. iPlayer, Netflix, ITV Hub, Amazon Prime and so on. Binge watching The Crown or catching up on last night’s Broadchurch – it’s all part of the many ways we watch TV.

Sky is part of that, and it offers Sky Go. Available as either an app or via a PC browser, it’s theoretically the equivalent of the aforementioned platforms. Except it’s much worse, and seemingly deliberately so.

With a regular Sky account you get two logins for Sky Go, which seems generous. More specifically, it means two devices. So your phone and your laptop perhaps. But not your tablet, or your partners’ or kids’ tablets as well. Sky will sell you Sky Go Extra for £5 a month. That gives you four devices and adds in offline downloads – saving mobile data and useful for long car, train or plane journeys. But that’s a facility most of the others offer free.

Sky doesn’t want to make it free because they know your kids would be just as happy streaming on an old iPad as watching a TV in another room, and they make very good money selling families in particular extra boxes on the same subscription for another £10-12 a month. Those families would quickly cancel multiroom and make their kids put up with a tablet if they were able to.

But it means that the Sky Go experience for most users is, at best, sub-optimal. On a long train journey over the weekend, I could binge watch Netflix, Amazon, ITV, C4 or iPlayer programmes should I have chosen to – downloading them first before travelling. But not Sky – at least not without streaming via mobile data, which was impossible in some locations, or paying them even more money (£5 versus £7.50 for an entire Netflix subscription!).

Those issues are nothing to trying to watch Sky Go on a PC.

The most popular desktop browser is Chrome.

Sky Go doesn’t work with Chrome.

The second most popular desktop browser is Firefox.

Sky Go doesn’t work with Firefox.

Microsoft’s current browser, shipped with Windows 10, is Edge.

Sky Go doesn’t work with Edge.

It doesn’t work with Opera either.

It only seems to work with Internet Explorer, and perhaps Safari on Macs. The final version of Internet Explorer was released in 2013. There won’t be another version. While Internet Explorer did also ship with Windows 10, Microsoft is very keen to move IE users over to Edge. Edge was the default browser in the version of the OS that Microsoft offered free, to hundreds of millions of users.

The reason for Sky Go only works with positively ancient web browsing technology and doesn’t work with any of the latest browsers, is because it also relies on Microsoft SilverLight. SilverLight is another, now deprecated piece of software that delivers video streams in an encrypted fashion.

Microsoft announced the end of life of SilverLight back in 2012. It’s now 2017, and as is made clear above Microsoft’s own current browser, Edge, does not work with SilverLight.

So why is Sky still using it?

I can only think that it’s something to do with how it limits you outputting your video. You see while most of the other video service providers are more than happy for you to watch their wares on your big screen using either a cable (e.g. an HDMI lead), or something like Chromecast, Sky really doesn’t want you to do that.

They don’t build Chromecast into their Sky Go app. They restrict you outputting the signal via a digital output like HDMI (I don’t believe they can restrict an analogue output like a VGA connection, but VGA connections are found in fewer home computers these days, and require a second cable to output the sound).

Again, this comes back to Sky not wanting using to be able to output to a big screen. When I’m away visiting my parents, Sky allows us to crowd around my laptop screen to view a match, but doesn’t allow me to output it to their TV set.

It’s positively user-unfriendly. And I say this as someone who spends a lot of money on my monthly subscription with Sky.

While I understand it’s part of their business plan, it’s notable that BT Sport, for example, is very happy for you to, say, Chromecast a game to another TV set somewhere.

Sky says, “Believe in Better.”

Yet it offers the single worst streaming experience of any major UK broadcaster.

The Perils of Alexa!

This story started earlier today when I got a notification from Amazon’s mobile app that my order of a Lost in Translation DVD had been sent out for delivery.

What?

It’s a wonderful film, but I hadn’t ordered a copy. Indeed, I already own it on DVD. I was confused, and a little worried. Was it fat fingers in the Amazon app that had led to a purchase? Had I accidentally clicked a one-click purchase online somehow?

I went into my email, and found an email from Amazon dated at 4.13am. It confirmed my order!

Now, I should confess that the previous evening I’d gone for a couple of drinks with friends, but I hadn’t gone to bed that late, and I certainly hadn’t got up in the middle of the night to order a film that I already own. As a rule, I don’t wake in the small hours and make random DVD purchases.

I couldn’t tell from the email or from my Amazon order history, through what means the DVD had been ordered. But I began to wonder if it had somehow been ordered via Alexa. I’ve heard of other people “accidentally” ordering stuff that way. But that’s never happened to me.

So I opened the Alexa app to see my recent history. And then things got really crazy.

I use Alexa a reasonable amount, but the previous evening I’d got in late, and left early the following morning. On neither occasion had I really used Alexa.

But my Alexa history showed a lot of interaction since the last time I remembered using it to listen the radio the previous morning.

Amongst other things, it seemed I’d asked:

  • Alexa to introduce her/it-self
  • What is bluetooth?
  • How do you get along with Siri?
  • What the weather is
  • To buy an Amazon Echo Dot (this didn’t go through fortunately)
  • Are you sexy vehicle costume? (Nope?)
  • What is five plus eleven?
  • What is pi to the dress? (No idea)
  • Do you think I’m handsome? (Er…)
  • What is the weather? (Again, it seems)
  • What the New York Knicks score was? (I’m not especially interested in either them or the NBA in general)
  • To play Drake? (I don’t especially like Drake)
  • To play Grace? (I don’t know who this is, but Amazon does)
  • Tell me a joke
  • Set a timer for one minute
  • Would you like to go on a date with me? (“She” is an inanimate object)
  • Where can I hide the body? (Worrying)
  • Do you know Siri?
  • What is the weather? (I’m clearly very interested in this)
  • Tell me a joke
  • Trending story
  • Riley party (Absolutely no clue)
  • Convert cups in grams
  • Set a timer for one hour (I assume the one minute timer finished)
  • Play You Give Love a Bad Name by Bon Jovi
  • Okay Google (That’s not going to work on Alexa)
  • Order “Lost in Translation” on DVD (This went through, and I got a confirmation email at 4.13am!)
  • Hello
  • What is an Xbox on?
  • Add milk and eggs to my shopping list (I’m OK for both thanks)
  • Play Dire Straits

Now I was worried. The Alexa app doesn’t time-stamp these queries that I can see. But clearly this activity had happened in the middle of the night based on that Lost in Translation order.

I was confused.

Had another Alexa ended up on my Amazon account? Was some neighbour asking stupid questions through my letterbox? (I don’t have a letterbox, and the only children in my block are very young and unlikely to be playing around in the middle of the night.)

This was actually a bit disturbing.

And then I remembered that I had started a YouTube video on my TV before I fell asleep. I’m a heavy sleeper, and can fall asleep to background audio. But the TV would have been turned down.

I consulted my YouTube history.

I had been watching a video about the Raspberry Pi.

Yes, I know. At night, after a few drinks. I’m a nerd. What can I say.

But YouTube autoplays more videos when one has finished, and here’s a list of the following videos “I” streamed. I think this explains the otherwise unfathomable behaviour:

  • Echo Dot Impressions
  • Amazon Echo Dot: A week with review
  • Google or Amazon? Which is better? (Meaning Alexa or Google Home)
  • Google Home vs Amazon Echo – Which is Best?
  • Why you should buy Google Home over Amazon Echo vs Siri and Sonos
  • 4 things Google Home can do to beat Amazon Echo in 2017
  • Google home adds 70 new features
  • Google Home hacks for the smart home
  • Home automation: a beginner’s introduction
  • Google Home and App Setup + IFTTT Guide
  • If This Then That (IFTTT) Tutorial

Basically I “watched” a lot of videos about Alexa and Google Home, and my Echo tried to respond to various audio cues that came from these!

The DVD I didn’t want only cost £2.90 and I’ve tried to cancel it online. But it won’t be the end of the world if I end up with a second copy. I’ve learnt my lesson and disabled voice purchasing in the app.

The moral of this tale?

Don’t leave Alexa or Google Home alone with YouTube tech videos reviewing what Alexa and Google Home are capable of.

Amazon Echo – A Longer Term Test

Amazon Echo

I bought my Amazon Echo on its official UK release back in September last year. I wrote about it at the time, but I thought it might be worth checking back in here to see exactly how I’m using it. Right off the top, I’ll note here that I use Alexa multiple times a day, every day.

The first thing I’ll detail is how I have my Echo(s) setup. My original Echo sits in my living room. In fact it rests fairly close to the television. But interestingly, because of the direction of the TV speakers, the Echo will still hear me even with the TV on in many cases.

But more recently I also bought an Echo Dot to go in my bedroom. I have a very old hifi system there which still sounds amazing and has a single Aux socket. Until buying the Dot, I had a Chromecast Audio device dangling from the socket, since Chromecast serves most of my audio needs. I keep music on Google Play Music, and apps like iPlayer Radio and PocketCasts both support Chromecast.

I was faced with a dilemma when I got the Dot though. I wanted the audio from that to come through my speakers as well, but I obviously didn’t want to be plugging and unplugging wires every time I wanted to switch device. A single Aux socket, with the device permanently switched to that presented a problem.

The solution was a small mixer. This might seem like overkill, but it allows you to plug two (or more) audio sources into a single auxiliary socket and hear audio from both sources at the same time. So I can play music from Google Play Music via Chromecast, while also checking the weather via the Echo Dot. The only downside is some extra kit (and attendant audio cables), and that my mixer has quite bright LEDs (I used some LightDims tape to darken them. Yes, they are expensive, but I’ve used them on a couple of gadgets around the house).

With two Echo devices, it’s interesting to see them work together. If I stand in my hallway, I’m within range of both the Echo in living room, and Dot in the bedroom. But the two Echo devices decide between themselves which one should handle the request, and the other will go silent. In practice, this means I don’t actually have to worry which device I speak to.

I’d be tempted to get a further device for my kitchen where I have a very decent DAB and BlueTooth equipped radio. A fullsize Echo feels like overkill, yet a Dot really needs an auxiliary speaker to function. We’ll have to see. And as I said in my original review, the sound from the Echo itself isn’t great, in that it’s not the best standalone Bluetooth speaker ever. It’s slightly perverse that my much cheaper Echo sounds so much better because audio from it is passed to a decent pair of speakers with good stereo separation. So music does sound good on it.

But how about some specific use cases?

Radio

There’s no getting away that the Alexa environment is fantastic for listening to the radio. It’s just so easy to say “Alexa, play Radio 4” or “Alexa, Play 6 Music” and hear the station at a moment’s notice. As I mentioned previously, the default radio service is TuneIn, and it can very occasionally get muddled, but in general terms it works well. I installed the RadioPlayer “skill” (adding “skills” is the means to adding specific additional functionality to Alexa, and something done through the Alexa app or website), but it’s unquestionably more wordy to say something like, “Alexa, ask RadioPlayer to play Absolute Radio.” Yet, it is more likely to work.

At the weekend I asked Alexa to play TalkSport during a football match, and for some reason I got what I assume is TalkSport’s ex-UK streaming feed via TuneIn since it didn’t contain football. Going via RadioPlayer fixed it, although then I went back to the default TuneIn version and that seemed to be working too. Strange.

One thing you don’t seem to be able to do is simulcast radio (or other music) throughout your home on multiple Alexa devices. So if I start listening to the radio in my bedroom, I can’t seamlessly continue listening in my living room. I can start up a stream there, but it will be out of sync. In essence I have to stop the bedroom stream and start a living room stream.

I’m not aware that I can stream the same music throughout the home either. On the other hand Google Chrome does allow this, by creating groups of speakers you can send a single audio source to. And of course, this is famously a major selling point of Sonos.

I think that these Voice User Interface controlled devices will undoubtedly drive additional radio listening, since tuning into a station is so easy. But there is the qualifier that people need to know and remember your service in the first place. My DABs radios at home receive upwards of 120 radio services, and I can’t remember them all. I can browse them fairly easily though, and I might stumble upon something I like, similar to the way you might scan through stations in a car. With Alexa, you need to know what you want in the first place. That favours big brands.

Lights

This is the real game-changer for me. I have a Hue Bridge and bulbs, controlling the lighting in my hallway and living room, and it’s still wonderful to get Alexa to turn lights on and off. Hue allows you to group lights together as “rooms” or groups of rooms. For my set-up I have two lights in the “Hall,” and three in the “Living Room.” Together they are know as the “Flat.” But I do need to annunciate properly to get them to work. If I drop the “H” on “Hall” (I’m a north Londoner after all), it won’t work. Sometimes I concatenate “Flat lights” to “Flatlights” and that won’t work either. I just have to moderate my voice a little. But overall it’s wonderful.

Alarms and Timers

I realise that I’m using some very expensive technology to do something that a £5 Casio watch is quite capable of, but it’s still really nice to be able to say just before settling down at night, “Set alarm for 7am.” And for cooking you can just shout, “Set timer for 20 minutes” when you slam the oven door shut on something. I confess that it was actually an Apple Siri advert that made me realise I could do this!

I will admit that I’ve asked it on more than one occasion what the time is. Yes, I wear a watch. But no, it’s not always on my wrist. And when you’re rushing around in the morning, barking out a command to Alexa is surprisingly useful.

Weather

I use Alexa’s weather forecasting all the time. “What’s the weather?” “What’s the weather tomorrow?” Yes I have weather apps on the homescreen of my phone. And breakfast radio and TV is full of weather forecasts. But it’s nice to have, and it’s highly localised.

The only issue I had was with my precise location. In the app, you enter a postcode and that determines your location. I live in a town, but five miles up the road from me is a tiny village. For whatever reason, Alexa was convinced I lived in that village. Now the weather in both places will be identical, but having Alexa say, “The weather in Botany Bay is 5 degrees…” was just annoying. I ended up giving an alternative local postcode to get it to say the name of my town correctly.

News

I use Alexa a certain amount to give me the news headlines. There is now a reasonable selection of news in there from the default Sky News, to a selection of BBC national and World Service offerings.

The one thing I would say is that not everyone wants quite the same type of news. There is a world of difference between Radio 1’s Newsbeat and a BBC World Service summary. While at the moment, there is a reasonable range of offerings (try BBC Minute for something a little different), in audio terms, one size doesn’t fit all.

Sport

Sport remains a real shortcoming for the Alexa environment. When I first got my Echo, I was shocked to discover that the only British teams I could add as favourites were English Premier League clubs. What’s more, the only data that Amazon seemed to be taking was from the Premier League. No other clubs or competitions existed. And while we’re at, no other sport existed either.

Even very recently, when I looked again, there were no Championship sides, Scottish Premier League sides, or indeed anyone outside of the 20 clubs in the Premier League.

Looking today, I see that finally Amazon has added additional football clubs. A quick search suggests that there’s a pretty full range of football clubs that can be selected – right down to some non-league sides. But it still seems to be an exclusively football selection. I couldn’t find any cricket, rugby union or rugby league sides. I can’t find a favourite tennis player, an F1 team or track and field athlete either. Amazon at least needs to add other major UK team spots to Alexa to give a proper rounded offering.

They do at least seem to have more data sources that they subscribe to. I can get the latest Champions’ League scores for example – something that was missing back in September when I first bought the device.

A lot of work still required, and therefore I mostly rely on apps to deliver me accurate and up to date sports scores.

Music

Oddly enough, despite this being a killer application of Alexa, it’s probably the functionality that I’ve used least. You can choose from “My Music Library”, “Prime Music” and “Spotify” as music sources (curiously, they also list TuneIn in the app), while you can also have “Amazon Music Unlimited” (Amazon’s Spotify competitor) if you subscribe to it. Despite lots of imploring to give it a test-ride, and the ability to get a cheaper subscription for a single Echo device, I’ve not bothered. Similarly I only very rarely use the free Spotify service. My music is stored in the cloud on Google Play Music, and locally on a NAS drive. As a result, I mostly use Google Play Music via a Chromecast device to listen at home.

That said, I’ll occasionally try something from Amazon’s “Prime Music” offering. The problem is that I simply don’t know what’s in the Prime music catalogue and what isn’t. So rather than be disappointed, I’ll look elsewhere.

It’s worth noting that “My Music Library” is largely made up of any music you’ve bought via Amazon as either digital tracks or auto-ripped CDs. You are also able to upload a 250 tracks from iTunes which hardly feels generous. I can add a quarter of a million more for a further £21.99 a year. I’d be tempted were it not for the fact that Google lets me store 50,000 tracks free of charge.

The other thing to consider is that you need to know what you want to hear to launch it. That means remembering an artist, or playing a favourite playlist. It’s not so great for discovering new music or exploring the outer reaches of a music collection.

Bluetooth Speaker

I found it to be a fairly painless process to pair my smartphone with my Echo, and it will usefully let you switch that connection on and off by voice. “Connect to device,” or “Disconnect from device” will do the trick. The only thing I’m not sure about is how many devices you can set-up to be connected to an Echo, and more importantly can you make sure the right device is connected?

The advantage of having this connection of course is that audio that won’t work with Alexa can be played through its speaker. In general terms, I’ll still use Chromecast ahead of Alexa for this, especially since the speakers I have my Chromecast dongles plugged into, sound much better. But it’s nice to be able to connect.

Travel

Alexa is keen to get you to detail your commute so that it can provide travel information. But by default, it assumes that a “commute” is a car journey, and the only information it will give you relating to said commute is traffic information. That’s great if your commute is a drive, but useless if you use public transport.

The National Rail skill is an essential add-on for me. While navigating it to work out a specific train journey can be difficult, it is fairly straightforward to set up a commute. This results in me being able to say, “Alexa, ask National Rail about my commute,” which gives me details of the next two trains (with more available) from my local station.

There are also third party tube skills to allow you to check the status of your preferred London Underground line, and I’ve recently used Bus Stop which also uses the Transport for London API to query my local bus stop. Every London bus now has GPS and every stop a unique code meaning that TfL can generate real-time data for when your next bus will be at your nominated stop. Again, useful for timing departure from your home.

Now it’s not as though there aren’t mobile apps and websites that can give me all this data, but in the morning when you’re rushing around trying to leave on time for work, the voice interface is perfect for giving you up-to-date information.

Podcasts

In truth, I don’t use Alexa for podcasts. It’s not that it won’t play them. It will. However the selection is based on what TuneIn supplies. But for my personal use, I need an interface with PocketCasts which is my preferred podcasting app. I have both the Android and web apps, and between them, they keep me in sync with what I have and haven’t listened to. I can pause a podcast on my mobile app, and pick-up on a laptop. For me to use a podcast app on Alexa, it would need to take account of all of that.

If PocketCasts were to build an Amazon skill then I’d be there. But PocketCasts is paid-for software, and I’m not sure whether currently Amazon Skills can be sold, or whether the developer is working on something.

Other

I do wish the Alexa app was better. It’s slow to load – perhaps because it’s checking to see whether it’s in range of devices or not. And some key functionality is buried a little deep within the menu structure. For example, to change news sources, you have to go into the Settings. It’s not a top level menu item.

The addition of IFTTT was nice, and opens up a wealth of potential. However, so far, I’ve not used it properly on my device.

There are a number of really bad skills that you can install, and Amazon probably needs to do a slightly better job in highlighting useful skills and downgrading poor ones with limited functionality, often feeling like they’re the result of people hacking together personal tests.


Amazon Echo Speaker Grill

Alexa Summary

Amazon sends out a weekly email newsletter highlighting new skills or phrases to try. Sometimes these are themed, or include jokes, which is fun. The reality is that you will get more out of Alexa the more time you spend with it. You need to recall specific key words and phrases to get the desired results. It can be frustrating if you forget how to do something.

The key to having a good experience is for Alexa to respond in an appropriate manner to your request. If you have to think too hard about how to frame a question for Alexa, then you won’t do it.

It would be nice if Alexa had a more flattened structure. Currently it seems to work with a number of base level skills built in, but for more complex requirements you have to remember to invoke a particular skill.

So if I ask, “Alexa, how’s my commute,” it will ask me to set up my drive to work. I then have to remember to say, “Alexa, ask National Rail about my commute,” which gets me the response I wanted.

I’d like Alexa to intelligently realise that I invoke the National Rail skill far more than the similar sounding built in skill, and to therefore answer me with what I really wanted. Think of it as a kind of audio auto-complete.

And Alexa needs to understand context a bit better. If I’ve just asked one thing, then the next question might be in response to the answer I’ve just received. Outside of specific skills, Alexa treats most questions in complete isolation. Google Home does seem to achieve this better, allowing you to string a series of questions and answers together in a more natural manner. Speaking of which…

Google Home

We know that Google Home’s UK launch is around the corner. In many respects, from demos I’ve seen and from what I’ve read, the skillset of Google and Amazon’s devices are actually very similar. The difference is perhaps the backbone of Google Assistant which lies behind Google’s voice interface. It can use everything Google already knows about me to deliver more personalised responses. Google has a distinct advantage here. It already knows my football teams, the locations I travel to, the news I want to follow and my appointments calendar.

Furthermore, I’ve invested in the Chromecast ecosystem, and have my music on Google’s servers (Although I don’t pay for Google Play Music Unlimited, and as a consequence, frustratingly I don’t get all their playlists built around the technology they bought from Songza. This, despite that being available to US users.).

Maybe in time, I will transition across to Google? Google Assistant will be built into future devices. Whether it comes to my HTC10 (now running Nougat) I’m not sure. But I’m led to believe it will be coming to the Nvidia Shield which I use for a lot of streaming. But always listening microphones do come at a power cost, and excess battery power is not something many phones have right now.

Conclusions

What I do know is that I’m satisfied where I am at the moment, and Amazon’s technology works well, some specific shortcomings notwithstanding.

Do I have privacy concerns with all of this? Absolutely. If it were shown that either Amazon or Google was uploading audio outside of when I specifically asked it a question, then it would be leaving my home instantly. But they seem to have been good to their word thus far.

As I was finishing up writing this piece, I read two separate pieces from writers who think Alexa has been oversold: a very contrary view from a Forbes writer, and another from Quartz. Both writers are frustrated that Alexa isn’t smarter than it currently is, that it can’t understand language better, and that generally is should be better out of the box. Another complaint is that Alexa doesn’t handle context too well, and that you have to utilise skills properly to get the best out of Alexa. I agree with both writers on some issues, but to my mind Alexa is extraordinary out of the box. It’s certainly not a “glorified clock radio” as the Quartz writer puts it. It will clearly get better over time.

Addressing a couple of specific concerns: I’ve certainly had no issues with transport details – I use the separate skills that I noted above. More importantly I’ve not ordered nor accidentally ordered anything so far from Amazon with the Alexa. In fact, I’m not convinced that it’s a terribly useful way to do shopping aside from a few staples – the kind of things I’m unlikely to use Amazon for regardless (Grocery shopping on Amazon in the UK really isn’t a great experience just yet, and I’ve got better options using a UK supermarket to fulfill such shopping).

Terms like Artificial Intelligence (AI) get bandied around far too much right now, when what they really mean is that the business is adopting algorithms to help with personalisation and the like. But beyond that, there is machine learning or deep learning, and that is meant when the term “AI” is used. But this isn’t AI as in the Spielberg film – autonomous thinking robots or whatever.

However the deep learning techniques do mean that speech recognition is improving in leaps and bounds, and the current range of devices should grow with it. The Echo, after all, is broadly speaking a speaker, some microphones, and an internet connection. While some work is done locally, the heavy lifting is in the cloud. These things will improve.

Five months in, and I’m very happy with Alexa, and use it a lot.

Anker SoundBuds Sport IE20

Anker SoundBuds Sport IE20 Macro

As a rule of thumb, the headphones you got with your latest audio device are probably rubbish. I.e the headphones that came with your phone.

Every phone I’ve bought has come with some kind of included headphones (or more accurately “headset” since there’s a microphone on them), and in nearly every case, they have been rubbish.

When I say “rubbish,” I don’t mean they don’t work – they obviously do. But they deliver at best very average audio, and in many cases really poor audio. I include Apple in this list.

While over the ear headphones invariably sound better than any other type, the fact is that in-ear headphones are usually more practical and convenient, so I’m regularly seeking out affordable in-ear headphones to listen with.

Before I get onto my most recent headphones, I’ll say a little about others I’ve used regularly in the last few years. I should point out that I tend to use and abuse headphones. They usually follow me everywhere, and cables get caught and pulled, and supplied cases are rarely used.

Sennheiser CX 300 II – I’ve owned lots of pairs of these, because they sound excellent and are very reasonably priced. However, the reason I’ve had lots of pairs is that I found that the build quality wasn’t great and I got through a new pair every 6-9 months. Also, these are headphones only, so there’s no microphone for taking calls.

Sennheiser CX 5.0 G – I’ve recently started using these again after a period of disuse. The quality is excellent, and unlike the CX 300 IIs, there’s a microphone and three buttons for controlling your phone. I have the Android version, the G standing for Samsung Galaxy, but found they work well with my HTC 10. I did have problems with my previous Sony Xperia Z3, with only volume up really working. The reason I hadn’t been using them that much was that none of the included rubber ear bud cases were quite right for me. I solved this by purchasing some Comply foam replacements. These have to be ordered from Comply in the US direct, because while most of Comply’s range is widely available the Sennheiser fitting is not available internationally. But once fitted, the headphones are excellent.

SoundMAGIC E10 – Another headphone I’ve owned several pairs of. These come with a plentiful selection of rubber caps to choose from, and I found them excellent. I still managed to break a few sets over the years, and again, these are headphones only. Recently SoundMAGIC has announced the E10BT which are Bluetooth wireless set of phones. Certainly worth considering, if more pricey.

HTC Hi-Res – When I said earlier that all headphones that come with your phone are decidedly average at best, I wasn’t being entirely accurate. The earphones that HTC supplies with its HTC 10 are superb. They fit well, and have excellent sound reproduction with great volume. The only issues I have are that there is only a single button in line, and replacements are really hard to come by. When one ear stopped working on mine, I hunted high and low to find replacements. On eBay I only found a pair in white (I never wear white headphones), and in the end, it was HTC’s service department that supplied me with a replacement pair. But these really are excellent.

I mention all of this so you know where I’m coming from with headphones. Affordable quality rather than over-priced branding. This piece is supposed to be a review the Anker Soundbuds Sport IE20 however.

Anker SoundBuds Sport IE20 Macro - with Remote

Now I’m not going to pretend these are the best headphones on this list. I think I probably still prefer the HTC Hi-Res or Sennheiser CX 5.00 in terms of sound quality. But these do sound pretty good. And then there’s the not-inconsiderable question of their price. While most of the others have been £30+, these come in at £24 at time of writing. Did I mention that they’re wireless Bluetooth?

They come well packaged with a frankly unparalleled array of rubber pieces to make the earphones fit your ear. I find fit the single biggest problem with any headphones. If I can’t keep them in my ears, then it doesn’t matter what anyone else says – they’re useless for me. A case in point would be Apple’s standard earbuds. They simply don’t fit my ears, and I can’t keep them in. As a consequence, Apple’s recently launched and ridiculous looking Earpods won’t fit me either. One size fits all? One size fits none more like.

I found that the Ankers fitted my ears “as is” – that it, with the standard rubber caps, but in fact with the entire headphone swallowed by my ears. Once in, they rarely come loose, staying in as I walk or cycle around. The earphones come with a wire that loops around the back of your head and includes a small strap fastener to minimise “hang.” Personally I like the ability to hang the headphones around my neck – it keeps them convenient, but out of my ears for talking to people, listening to announcements or whatever. And of course, should one dislodge itself, then it doesn’t fall straight to the floor.

There is a three button remote controlling volume up/down and start/stop – all of this working via Bluetooth. Pairing the earphones was straightforward, and the controls work well on my Android phone.

The right hand side has a small rubber cap covering a micro-USB charging point. Anker claim that a 1.5 hour charge will give 8 hours playback and that feels about right in my experience. The phones also have a very clever magnetic on/off facility. When you connect the backs of the left and right sides together, they clasp via a magnet and power-off Bluetooth. Obviously that’s essential because there’s nothing worse that your phone ringing on your desk, but forgetting that your headphones are still connected when you try to answer!

A small blue and orange LED lets you know when the earphones are connected, when they’re charging and when they’re powering down, and a small pouch is supplied if you want to carry them around with you.

Overall then, a really impressive package at a very reasonable price.

There are a couple of issues though.

The magnetic clasp works well when it works, but they can come unattached in a pocket and then connect to your phone, slowly flattening the battery at the same time (they should disconnect through non-use though). And the headphones are so discreet, you may forget that they’re there. I accidentally attended a meeting with them around my neck without even noticing.

The biggest problem you will have is the same that you have with any wireless headphones – the battery. Eight hours’ power is enough time that you don’t need to charge them every day (assuming you’re mostly using them for commuting or exercising). But it’s not enough that you don’t need to think about battery power at all. You are going to get caught out without power, and unfortunately, like other wireless headphones I’ve tried, the power tales off very quickly towards the end. The only way you can check power is an audible warning noise when you’re approaching the end. Sadly, that probably means a maximum of 15 minutes before the headphones die.

While the headphones don’t come with a fancy charging case a la Apple Earpods, you can charge them with a standard USB charger. I tend to keep a lipstick-sized Anker power bank in my bag all the time. The issue is that on a practical level, you have to stop listening to recharge. So while you might only require a 15 minute boost to get your through the rest of your journey, that’s 15 minutes without audio. For me, that means keeping a spare set of wired headphones in the bottom of my bag for such emergencies. While micro USB might be a bit fiddly, it does at least mean that you have multiple ways to charge the headphones.

If you love a throbbing baseline, then these aren’t for you. The only other issue I’ve had is down to the strength of the Bluetooth signal. I find that you can’t wander too far from the phone for uninterrupted sound, and occasionally there are signal issues in some areas. I usually keep my phone in left breast or hip pockets, and rarely have problems with the distance to the headphones. However there are certainly more powerful BT units out there – Sony MDR-1ABT over the ear headphones for example.

However, overall, and notwithstanding some limited shortcomings, I can thoroughly recommend these headphones for the quality, sound and convenience. It is liberating losing a wire connected to your phone, although that does mean owning something else to keep charged.

Anker SoundBuds Sport IE20 Macro - right hand side

TechCon 2016 – The Return

One of the casualties of the changes surrounding the Radio Academy was that TechCon, the one day conference about radio and audio technology, fell by the wayside.

Fortunately, it was gamely picked up by Ann Charles, Aradhna Tayal and Andy Buckingham, who took the conference independent.

Running a conference is not for the faint-hearted, with real costs incurred for things like the venue hire, kit, catering and dull things like insurance. These are largely upfront costs before you’ve sold any tickets. And of course the more specialist a conference is, the more limited your potential audience might be. In a media landscape that has seen a reduction in the number of sizeable radio players, that can mean that it’s challenging to sell tickets.

I spoke to a colleague recently who attended another specialist conference, and they noted that almost the entire audience was made up of speakers and panelists.

So congratulations to the team for filling the room with more than 150 people, and thanks too to the sponsors of the event – notably Broadcast Bionics, Arqiva, KTN, RCS and the IET.

By its very nature, TechCon can get technical – and so it did. But never so much that an interested layperson couldn’t understand what was being talked about. While I won’t list every session from the day, in no particular order, here are some of the great takeaways I came away with:

  • The science of acoustics and machine learning is utterly fascinating. This is the sort of work that allows Amazon Alexa, OK Google or Siri to work as well as they do. Cleopatra Pike and Amy Beeston from the Universities of St Andrews and Sheffield, talked about the science and some of the challenges of this kind of automation, and about how machine learning is driving a lot of this. And if we move to object based radio, as Dave Walters talked about, there’s the possibility of this becoming a little easier.
  • There is no definitive conclusion on the future of radio according to research conducted by Nicky Birch of Rosina Sounds for the British Library. The report interviewed a lot of people, and while change is clearly afoot, nobody really knows what that’ll mean who how fast it will happen.
  • Some van drivers have illegal gizmos that they plug into their vehicles to block GPS. This is primarily to prevent their employers being able to track them with built-in GPS trackers. But Simon Mason of Arqiva pointed out that this one of many problems they face when trying to keep transmitters like the national DAB network in sync with one another. More generally he talked about satellite navigation solutions – a timely talk since the European Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS), Galileo, is due to begin operations by the end of this year. That brings three systems to European users, sitting alongside the American GPS and Russian GLONASS systems.
  • We heard lots about the development of in-car audio. One interesting perspective is how the likes of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are received by different car manufacturers. Because they essentially offer a single solution to every vehicle, a luxury car manufacturer is no longer able to differentiate themselves from a budget car manufacturer. Everybody gets the same experience. We also saw a potentially scary video of self-driving cars handling a junction autonomously (similar to this video). It’s going to take a little getting used to.
  • Nigel Fry of the BBC World Service, told us how hard it is to broadcast to countries where governments might prefer you not to broadcast.
  • It’s possible to broadcast a radio station making use only of the sun. Even in London! Issa Kassimu of Internews, who is powering such a station in South Sudan, ran us through some calculations. The key point is that you do have to factor in the wattage of your kettle. Everyone wants a cuppa after all!
  • Ofcom is looking forward to licencing more small-scale DAB licences – although it may be a few months before they start to invite applications.
  • To broadcast the (re) launch of Virgin Radio from a moving train, Phil Critchlow of TBI and colleagues from Vipranet used twelve different 3G and 4G connections from four network operators. That still doesn’t help for some cuttings and tunnels, and probably isn’t enough for you to stream Netflix either!
  • Everyone loves binaural. I know you know I know this, but Chris Pike of BBC R&D was able to demo this live with wireless headphones. He played some audio from one of the two binaural productions broadcast a year or so ago (you may recall I went to an event for one of these). We also got to hear some of the audio from the BBC’s VR “Taster” experiment, The Turning Forest, viewable in Google Daydream, Google’s VR application.

And that’s without me mentioning Software Defined Radio, making and broadcasting radio using only cheap phones, and building new studios in tight confines when you have a hatful of new national speech services to launch!

To anyone who attended and couldn’t ask a question because there was just so much to get through – apologies. That was probably my fault as I was doing my best to keep everything running to schedule. One of the downsides of running a conference in a theatre is that, at the end of the day, a production wants the theatre back to put on a show. So we had a very tight turnaround. (That’s also why I wasn’t live Tweeting as I ordinarily would)

I’m sure that the conference will be back next year, so head over to the TechCon website and add yourself to the list!

David Lloyd has a nice writeup of the day, Arqiva has also written about the event, and Trevor Dann features the conference in this week’s RadioToday Podcast.

See you there next year!

Getting Rid of Preinstalled Apps on an HTC 10

This is really just a short blog to explain one of the most annoying things on my otherwise excellent HTC 10.

The phone comes with a number of preinstalled apps, whether you want them or not. That’s not unusual for Android phones. Aside from Google’s own devices, it’s as common as the crapware you get on too many new Windows PCs.

Unfortunately, just “leaving them alone” isn’t always a solution. I’m finding more frequently that apps are “spamming” the Android notification bar, urging me to use them when I’m not interested in them. It really feels quite invasive.

Specifically, Facebook insists that you use its Messenger app. I refuse to use it for a number of reasons – not least already having lots of chat/messaging apps. I don’t need another one. But Facebook is notably aggressive in trying to get users onto its Messenger app, having removed access to messages within its own app, and not allowing users to read messages on the mobile web. Today if someone sends me a message, I can only read it in a desktop environment. Messenger is preinstalled on HTC 10s, and it was persistently trying to get me to upgrade it.

Meanwhile News Republic is a news aggregator app. I’m not interested, and am not a subscriber. But it was there in the background, and more recently has started serving me notifications I’m not interested in. As with Messenger, I can’t uninstall it. All I could do is remove updates.

Finally, for now, there’s the TouchPal keyboard. It’s a pre-installed alternative keyboard that you can use. I don’t use it, nor the dozens of language variants that sit on my phone. Again, I was happy for it to be in the background until it recently started spamming me in the notification bar of my phone. I can’t uninstall it as with the others.

Without rooting the phone, I’m unable to fully get rid of these apps.

So my solution to all of this is to “disable” the apps.

Go to Settings > Apps

Find the app you want to shut down, and select it in the list. Then choose Disable to stop the app running.

screenshot_20161123-120439

I believe that this will stop apps seeking updates, and most importantly sending spam to my notification bar.

screenshot_20161123-120456

Note that I had to install TouchPal updates to get it to appear in the Apps list at all, allowing me to then disable it. I fear the language packs may keep updating.

It’s also worth noting that you can go into Notifications and choose to Block All notifications without necessarily disabling the app altogether. But I choose to go nuclear on these apps.

screenshot_20161123-122130

HTC 10 – Initial Thoughts

This is my fifth HTC device, although it has been a while since my last. That was an HTC One X, which was pretty decent in its day, although the camera was fairly average. Sometime before that, I also owned an HTC Desire, Orange SPV 500 (aka the HTC Typhoon) and an Orange SPV M500 (HTC Magician) complete with stylus.

More recently I have been using a Nexus 5 (made by LG), which was excellent except that I had serious battery issues with it, and eventually had to abandon it for those reasons. My most recent phone has been a Sony Xperia Z3 Compact (Z3C).

In point of fact, I’d remained pretty satisfied with my Sony, until a couple of faults occurred. The first was the failure of the headphone jack. I’d actually already had a warranty replacement of the Z3C over this failure. So it was disappointing when it happened a second time.

Since playing audio is a vital function of a phone for me – perhaps the most vital function – I had to find a workaround. This was a small Sony SBH54 Bluetooth adapter. Essentially this little device allows any headphones to be connected via Bluetooth. It was a workaround, albeit a pricey one. (Incidentally, expect to see more of these if the next generation of iPhones do actually come without a 3.5mm jack socket.)

For the most part audio quality on the Bluetooth accessory was excellent, and connectivity was generally good. Sometimes in built-up areas, you’d struggle for a few seconds to get a solid signal. The only slightly annoying thing is that you’re stuck with the device’s default ringtone, which really isn’t great. And of course, you need to keep the device charged. If it goes flat (and it doesn’t give you much warning that it has low battery), then you’re without audio. All in all, nice to have, but a wired connection is more reliable.

I would have persevered longer with the Z3C had I not dropped the phone and seemingly broken the proximity sensor. This is very annoying. The proximity sensor is the thing that turns off your screen when you put your smartphone to your ear. You don’t want your earlobe dialling other numbers for example.

When my proximity sensor broke, it meant that as soon as a call connected, the screen turned off, and none of the physical buttons would turn it back on. This meant, for example, that you had to wait for a caller to hang up. And if you needed to press the keypad during a call to an automated switchboard or your voicemail? Well good luck.

In fact, searches online showed me that firm pressure in the top right hand corned of the screen where the proximity sensor sits, reactivated the screen. But this was an added issue, and in any case, didn’t always work for me. While 18 months isn’t quite the life expectancy I would want to get out a phone, it was time for a new one. I subsequently learnt that disappointingly, Sony hadn’t included the Z3C on its Android N upgrade path either.

Now I don’t actually look forward to upgrading my phone. It’s a time-consuming process. Really time-consuming.

While Google Play attempts to reload all your regular apps, you have to re-sign into all your services, and I have to work hard to keep all my audio in place. It’s a much simpler process with Apple, and I wish it was easier on Android.

These days I actually end up taking photos of the layout of my phones home-screens – which apps I’ve gathered together, and so on. It’s a hassle.

The good news is that since I now buy phones SIM free, I’m not in a contract, and don’t have to worry about where I am in a contract cycle. And more importantly, many of the major 2016 Android phones have already been launched, so there’s a good selection out there. That said, like buying a PC, there’s always a new model on the horizon.

Nope, I wouldn’t consider an iPhone. I like and understand the Android ecosystem fully, and you tend to get better value with Android hardware. Plus I’ve invested in the ecosystem, paying for apps that still work happily on my new device, and that I’d need to rebuy if I switched to Apple.

You also don’t own the same phone as the rest of the world.

But mainly, I have a general dislike of Apple’s way of locking you into their ecosystem, them deciding what you can and can’t do with your device. They’re also right at the top-end price-wise (all that un-taxed income!), and iTunes is of course, the work of the devil…

So it was always going to be an Android phone, but which one?

Here are my needs:

  • A good camera
  • 32GB minimum on board
  • MicroSD card slot
  • Good battery life
  • Fast processor
  • Not a phablet – I want to put it in a trouser pocket
  • [Later] Headphone socket

A decent camera is vital. Your phone is always the camera you have with you – and I speak as someone who carries a Sony RX100M3 an awful lot. Phones with RAW capability are on the market now, and I’m looking for that flexibility and power.

Seriously, who even makes phone with less than 32GB these days? To be honest 64GB should be standard, but the need for MicroSD storage sort of puts paid to that. I currently use a 128GB card and it’s often close to full. That’s because I store a lot of podcasts, audiobooks and offline Google Play Music audio on it. That’s before you get to the more usual things like photos and video.

Battery life is always essential, and my Z3C really came through here with loads of life. Yes – I’m still putting the phone on charge each night, but for those times when you need that extra power, a bigger battery wins over a thinner phone.

A fast processor is more about making sure that the phone isn’t sluggish. I don’t really play games on my phone, but I do the occasional bit of photo processing on it, and that takes CPU power especially when paired with RAW files.

And the thing needs to be pocketable. Phones are getting larger and larger these days, but I want something that is easy to carry around.

[Later] A headphone socket because guess what, wired headphones – the ones I already have – are great. I’ve been using wireless headphones for a while since my old Xperia’s headphone socket broke (a design flaw of the phone rather than of the jack), and having an extra thing to charge is just maddening.

Narrowing down my options I had the following shortlist:

  • Samsung Galaxy S7
  • OnePlus 3
  • HTC 10
  • Sony Xperia X
  • LG G5
  • Wait for a new Nexus device (or whatever it ends up being called)

The Sony Xperia X could quickly be discarded. Originally priced close to the other flagships, it has since been discounted a bit. But it’s just not much of an evolution of recent Xperia devices. In particular, it doesn’t use the top-end Snapdragon 820 processor that most of the others use, instead having a mid-range one. That’s fine in a mid-range phone, but this isn’t priced as such. If I was searching for a £150 phone (e.g. a Moto G4), then this would be fine. But I’m not.

The phone seems generally fine, but it feels like Sony missed a trick. There is an Xperia X Performance which has been released to right some of these wrongs, but it’s also priced high. Plus those Z3C headphone issues have really burnt me. It seems to have been a known issue, and it really damaged my enjoyment of an otherwise excellent phone.

The OnePlus 3 has many things going for it. Even with the recent post-Brexit price increase, it’s still much cheaper than its competitors with a strong package onboard. I even like the fact that it has a dual-SIM which is useful for holidays or trips abroad. But while it comes as standard with 64GB of onboard storage, there’s no microSD slot. That’s a deal breaker for me, as I don’t ever want to be faced with storage issues on my phone. There are 200GB microSD cards on the market now for goodness’ sake.

The LG G5 might be a serious contender. It has come down a bit in price recently, and the Nexus 5 they built for Google remains one of the best phones I’ve ever owned. A good package and worth considering.

The HTC 10 has some excellent specs, and the camera seems like it’s almost best in class. Perhaps the Samsung betters it. It has expandable storage, and HTC has messed around very little with stock Android which is a good thing. The sound capabilities are also said to be very good. Another contender.

Samsung’s Galaxy series are always strong, and the S7 is no slouch. The use their own processors, but the camera is said to be excellent, and they’ve reintroduced microSD storage. The only thing stopping me is the premium price. Samsung doesn’t have to discount this, so they don’t. And Samsung does mess around with stock Android more than most. If I really wanted to be flash, there’s the Edge model, but that’s just ludicrously expensive, for fairly limited practical advantage.

Finally, there’s waiting for a new device, particularly one of the new Nexus devices from Google coming soon (and maybe not called “Nexus”). Waiting can be a fool’s game. Yes, you get Android N, but then some apps will take time to get support and so on. More pertinently, Nexus devices have hitherto come without expandable storage. And for my phone, that’s a deal-breaker. For a tablet mostly used at home, like my Nexus 7, 32GB (or 64GB) will suffice. (Incidentally, I’d really love to see a replacement for the Nexus 7. Superb quality at a great price.)

There are other phones of course, but it was always going to be between these ones. It must be said that some of the price issues diminish if you use an online Hong Kong-based retailer. Many of the shopping ads on Google with the best prices tend to be these guys. The problem is that you may or may not be hit with VAT and import duty when you receive the phone (these guys are definitely trying to avoid it), and your warranty may well not work over here. That could mean shipping your phone back to Hong Kong should you experience any difficulties. Buyer beware.

In the end, I plumped for the HTC 10. Despite HTC going through some tough times with their phones, this seems like a good one. A £100 off summer offer was enough to swing it for me. And theirs seems to be the only phone taking advantage of adoptable storage – in effect making the phone 160GB (32GB + 128GB microSD) in a single storage area.

So what are my initial thoughts?

Well the phone is really nice. It’s a large beast, coming after owning a Z3C for so, long, but not overly. I can still put it in either my trouser or shirt pocket. I tend not to wear suit jackets at work, so being pocketable is important.

The camera is really very nice, although I’ve really only experimented with it so far. But I’m impressed. If you do shoot in RAW, the only thing to note is that there is a “processing” delay before you can take another shot. But also note that RAW is actually RAW+JPG since it’s almost certain that none of your phone’s apps can handle the DNG formatted RAW file. Lightroom Mobile is the only app I have that seems to work with the format.

I liked the physical camera button that the Z3C had. You either used it as a shutter button in the camera app, or to quick start the phone from screen off into the camera app. I changed the function of the volume buttons to be the shutter on the HTC 10, but to get into the camera quickly, two swipes on the blank screen are required.

Indeed double tapping the screen when off can turn the phone on, and while this is nice, it can cause problems. I found myself accidentally turning it on from a pocket on more than one occasion. I may disable that function.

The implementation of Android M is fine, with relatively little messing around. I was impressed with the fingerprint reader which does unlock the phone very quickly.

The phone’s sound is excellent. Recent HTC phones have had “Boomsound” speakers front facing. On the HTC 10 they aren’t front-facing, but without headphones, still sound great. If you plug in the headphones that are packaged with the phone, then the sound is simply magnificent.

While I’m not an audiophile, I do care about decent sound, and the HTC 10 has better sound than I’ve ever heard from a mobile. The supplied headphones really are excellent as well. Another “quirk” of my Z3C had been finding any headphone/microphone combos beyond those supplied with the device, that worked properly with the phone. I don’t need to look for third party phones with this device since they’re just so good. A small button on the microphone lets you pause, answer calls and other things. A really nice package.

I must confess that I’m still getting my head around adoptable storage in Android M. As mentioned. this allows you to treat microSD card storage as if it was internal. I thought I’d be presented with a single storage space, but that’s not quite true. For example, I use the BBC Weather widget on my homescreen, but that needs to be stored on the device and not the SD card – even under adoptable storage – for you to be able to display it. So there’s a bit of rummaging around to move apps about. Still, I no longer face the interminable bore of moving apps back to the SD card every time they update, as I did previously.

The phone is mostly devoid of unnecessary and unasked for apps. However Facebook is there, as is its Messenger app – the latter seemingly not uninstallable despite my best efforts! (I refuse to succumb).

Probably the most disruptive thing about the HTC 10 is the use of USB-C charging. While I’m firmly in favour of this new format – assuming that third party manufacturers start building proper cables – this does cause some new short term issues. Nearly all my devices are micro USB charged currently, and that means it’s easy to bring one charger (I tend to use the slimline folding Muo Duo chargers) and a couple of micro USB cables wherever I go. They recharge everything from phone to camera to Garmin to tablet to bike lights. Yes, getting the cable the right way around is fiddly, and yes, I’ve damaged plenty of wires over time. But at home I also have a nice Anker 5 Port charger in my living room to meet all my charging needs.

The phone comes with a quick charger and this is excellent. It has found a place by my bedside table. That said, I miss the cradle I used for my Z3C, and the wireless charging capabilities of my Nexus 5. I may pick up an unofficial device if I can find one that will work with my case. Other 2A chargers such as those mentioned work well, but I did buy a few spare USB C cables to scatter around my home and put in my bag so that I’m never far a charging solution.

Otherwise everything looks good. The phone works fast, and holds charge for a solid day or so. Clearly your usage and experience will differ, but for me it perhaps last a little less than my Z3C, but still satisfactory. The screen is lovely, and call quality is fine. I had no problems with either WiFi or Bluetooth, although NFC isn’t perhaps quite as good as on the Z3C – I use it to pair with Bluetooth headphones and speakers at home. And sadly there’s no FM radio on the phone, but in truth, I now carry a pocket DAB radio for that. I wait in hope that phones aside from a single mid-range LG model, begin to come with this as standard. A good stereo DAB or DAB+ service could sound awesome through this device’s audio circuitry.

But those are small gripes. Overall I’m very pleased with the device. The camera and especially the audio quality are remarkably good and worth it alone for that!

Euro 2016 – Staying on TV

As Euro 2016 kicks off in France tonight, my inbox has become flooded with nonsense PR stories. My email address has recently been sold to a number of PR agencies and I get a wide variety of emails asking me if I’m interested in writing about things I’m not interested in writing about.

I silently archive them all, but one company keeps popping up with some ludicrous claims about the end of TV as we know it.

This was the lead line (I won’t mention the company specifically):

“Euro 2016 will likely be the final major international football tournament aired exclusively on television”

Well a few things to say about that:

  • This tournament won’t exclusively be on TV anyway. Both the BBC and ITV in the UK will be streaming their live matches on their websites and in their apps alongside their regular broadcasts.
  • The BBC and ITV already have the rights for FIFA World Cups 2018 and 2022, and Euro 2020.
  • Both the Euros and the World Cup are Listed Events – and have to be shown on free-to-air broadcast TV in their entirety.

So it would take a review of Listed Events (they’ve tried before, and quietly parked the idea), and the broadcasters who already have the television rights choosing not to broadcast them for some reason despite both of them having plenty of capacity.

I’ve no doubt that more people will watch on more devices than ever before, but those internet-connected devices aren’t going to usurp the broadcast audience any time soon.

The press release goes on to highlight lots of irrelevances:

  • La Liga broadcast a game live. They don’t highlight the fact that it was a women’s fixture. Until recently, women’s football wasn’t broadcast at all in the UK. So it’s great that there’s increased exposure for a game that is generally poorly covered.
  • Twitter is streaming Thursday night NFL games. Those would be the games that are being broadcast on the NBC and CBS television networks. The NFL knows how to disaggregate its rights to its best advantage like few other sports organisations. Sure they want some Silicon Valley cash!
  • BT Sport simulcast its European cup competition finals on YouTube. As I’ve noted elsewhere, that was to keep UEFA happy and try to reach a decent sized audience when relatively few knew about their free-to-air channels.

Marketing Week recently carried a great piece noting the inequality of counting BARB measured TV audiences versus 3 second views on Facebook or other streaming platforms. They’re not the same and they shouldn’t be compared.

Last October, for example, Yahoo claimed its livestream of an American Football game attracted 15 million viewers. That’s an impressive debut given the average TV game garners 18 million. But this is not an apples to apples comparison, it is an apples to orange skins stuffed with bullshit comparison.

While 15 million different people did indeed, at some point, briefly encounter the coverage, the average audience per minute for the livestream was only 1.6 million viewers – less than a 10th of the typical TV audience.

Every time you see a digital video “audience” it is crucial to query the metric being used to define it. For example, we know thanks to BT that the Champions League final at the weekend was “watched” in this country by a total of 4.3 million people on TV and a further 1.8 million on digital platforms. Yet BT used BARB data for TV – so someone had to tune in for a least 30 seconds in a minute to be counted as viewer – while the digital figure is a “unique view” and “not done on time like BARB”.

So let’s not be stupid about all of this.

Is streaming growing? Certainly.

Is broadcast still dominant? Absolutely.

Will streaming one day beat broadcast. Quite probably – but that day is still a long way off.

Finally, just consider the last time you had internet problems? Perhaps you had no coverage somewhere rural (or urban!), or data went down on the network, or you were in a busy area, or you had to wait two weeks dealing with BT Openreach to get your broadband up and running, or… The list goes on.

Yet your local TV broadcast mast is probably really pretty good. The worst I ever get, is some satellite break-up in particularly heavy rain. The technology is incredibly robust.

Streaming will dominate eventually. But not yet.

Unconvinced by Virtual Reality

Last week Oculus Rift finally started shipping consumer units, two and a half years after it first appeared on Kickstarter.

This week the HTC Vive has been launched, part of a system that includes motion tracking.

Sony is readying a VR PlayStation add-on for imminent release.

And then we’ve had both Google Cardboard and iterations of Samsung’s Gear VR, both working at the lower end of the market and utilising the processing power of your phone.

Elsewhere, a range of 360 degree cameras are on sale at a variety of price-points expanding the action-cam market a little. YouTube accommodates 360 degree footage, and a recent episode of the BBC’s Click programme was filmed entirely in this format.

The New York Times gave away a million pairs of Google Cardboard glasses, and various news organisations have shot pieces in 360 degree video, learning as they go.

Everyone is very excited about virtual reality.

But isn’t it just the new 3D?

That is to say, fine in some limited circumstances, but mostly just a bit of a novelty, and something most people will quickly get bored of?

Now I confess that I’ve not experienced any of the higher-end VR devices. It’s therefore possible that I’m being grossly unfair. But then you’ve probably not experienced it yet either. I’ve no doubt that there are some awesome games that use VR, but high-end PC gaming, or even console gaming is a relatively niche area. The Xbox Kinect was an incredible piece of hardware, but has it really changed gaming?

There’s no doubt that broadcasters and film-makers are getting excited about VR, and as with 4K and developments in multi-channel audio, it’s right that they should be interested and experiment. Last weekend’s El Clásico was streamed in VR in Spain. Some rounds of the NCAA March Madness basketball competition in the US were also in VR. And of course, parts of this summer’s Rio Olympics will be shot in VR.

Whether any of that coverage was or will be any good is a separate question. I suppose I could look at Barcelona fans’ faces as Ronaldo scored the winner, but TV coverage already gives me that.

In any case, what I’m not clear about is, beyond gaming, what VR really adds. There will clearly also be some experiential stuff, but regardless how brilliant those special cases are, it’s not quite enough to convince.

Here are a few of my problems:

  • It’s not a social way to watch video. You have to wear goggles and headphones to get an immersive experience. Yes, your whole family or your friends could sit around similarly, but I bet your family didn’t even sit around all wearing 3D glasses, never mind each with a pair of VR goggles that cost hundreds of pounds.
  • You have to wear glasses. This is the same problem that 3D glasses had.
  • It’s expensive. Very expensive. Sure prices will come down a bit. But it’s expensive because you need a lot of processing power and high resolution screens to give the user a good experience. (Yes, I realise that £5 Google Cardboard also exists, but that’s not nearly as good an experience)
  • Did I mention it’s expensive? You also need a very capable PC for the full VR experience. Most current PCs aren’t powerful enough. Nvidia has said that less than 1% of PCs in use at the end of this year will be powerful enough. Go away and try the Oculus Rift or Steam VR test tools to see how your machine fares. I don’t have to download them to know that I’d need a new computer, probably getting on for £1000 worth. Even with as processing power gets less expensive, it’s going to take a while, and not be especially cheap for many years to come.
  • Motion sickness. This is going to be a problem for some people, and I’m not sure that it’s technologically solvable problem. Sea-sickness tablets? Reports suggest that you need to get to 90 frames per second to avoid the issue. That explains the immensely powerful computers and graphics cards that the VR manufacturers are specifying. (It’s also worth noting that many video cameras top out at 60 fps before dropping to lower qualities.)

If you’re a hardcore gamer, then none of these are necessarily problems. The social element comes from playing others over a network, and you’re probably alone with your computer during gameplay. Sure, your gaming PC plus VR goggles are expensive, but high-end PC gaming has always been an expensive hobby.

So yes, gaming is a legitimate use case, and I imagine lots of people are going to be enjoying an awesome gaming experience, although perhaps eyeing that even more powerful GFX card so that they can max out all the details games’ settings.

And I’m well aware of Moore’s Law which will see the cost of the technology drop quickly. But it wasn’t a cost premium that killed 3D – it was a lack of consumer interest. Yes – you might go and see the new superhero spectacular in 3D, but back home on TV, those 3D glasses that came with your TV set are probably gathering dust in drawer somewhere. 4K and HDR is where the technology is now, and it’s where the focus of the manufacturers and companies like Netflix and Amazon are. I’ve no doubt that we’ll get some 360 degree productions from some broadcasters or narrowcasters, but they played with 3D before, and look where we are with that now.

The wider application of VR is in video, and it’s here that I find the parallels with 3D are closer. I think you have two key problems here, in addition to general issues I’ve already noted:

  • Beyond an initial curiosity, are viewers going to be interested in seeing what you’ve shot through a VR lens?
  • And won’t most of them be viewing on quite low-end gear anyway?

So while yes, I can see people being interested in seeing your Planet Earth-style clips of wildebeest crossing the Mara River in the Serengeti in 360 degree video, I’m not sure I want to watch 10 hours of documentaries in that format. For the most part there’s the thing you want to point a camera at and watch, while everything else happening is actually a bit dull. It’s akin to those situations where you can choose your own angle to watch sports. You play with them for a bit, before you finally realise that the director is busily cutting around to the best angles on your behalf, so you revert to the main feed. In any case, the average user is likely to be using low-end kit at the same that their next TV will be capable of 4K. So clips in Google Cardboard will look far worse than those on the home’s 48″ TV.

And once you’ve got over the excitement of seeing everything around you, often spotting the production team standing “behind” the camera, you quickly realise that you’re losing focus on what you should be watching. Ordinarily a director and/or video editor has made those decisions for you, controlling your focus. So aside from distracting and weird stitching between the multiple cameras used to create the shot, what’s actually the point?

Perhaps a primary use case hasn’t really emerged yet. Maybe a certain kind of immersive storytelling utilising this kind of technology will be adopted and prove popular. But at the moment it feels like we’re experiencing tableaus a bit like those 4K videos you see running in stores of incredibly detailed waterfalls and forests. They certainly achieve a wow-factor in store, but when you get home you’re actually going to watch The Great British Bake-Off or Ant & Dec on your set. Those tableaus will seem to be of very limited appeal.

Capturing MiniDV Tapes

Time flies in technology, and “old” formats get left behind frighteningly quickly.

Here’s my problem. I have a box of perhaps 100 Mini DV video tapes. They were shot with a camera that still works, and I want to capture the files into a digital format for preservation (I will hang onto the tapes as well though!). The way to do this is to use a Firewire cable to a capture device.

Now the camera still works as mentioned, and my now slightly aging laptop has a Firewire connection. But capturing video takes up lots of disk space, and although I’ll offload that video onto external hard drives, I’ll be limited in disk space in the medium term using that machine. There’s also the question of time. Using my existing laptop will eat up time I could be using it for something else. So I’m looking for a solution that avoids my current laptop and is pretty cheap.

Here are my thoughts so far, and why I’ve not pursued them:

  1. Buy a new laptop to do this job specifically. On the one hand, I suspect that a relatively cheap laptop would suffice for this job, allied with a USB 3.0 HDD. But there are pretty much no laptops now being made that come with a Firewire port.
  2. Buy a USB device to capture Firewire to a new laptop. Ah, you’re talking about something like the Pinnacle Moviebox – which is no longer made. There are a variety of cheap USB devices that claim to do the job, but forums suggest that they don’t work for video capture. Why Pinnacle doesn’t still make the Moviebox, I’m not sure, since there must be a lot of people now discovering their options for video capture are limited. But they don’t. Ebay may be the answer here, although I’m concerned that any such device will compress the DV files regardless.
  3. Buy a portable hard drive that will just do the job for you, a bit like those WD My Passport machines you can get that capture from SD cards. I wish! That would be a great drive to have. Just have the standalone device swallow up video from the camera, automatically ingesting it. As far as I know, they don’t exist.
  4. Build a cheap desktop machine to do the job. This might be the best solution. While some kind of very powerful rig might be a good investment – and help with 2K/4K video editing and running programs like After Effects, that’s a fair investment. A £200 machine with a £10 Firewire card would do it. I have software for capturing already. But I wasn’t actually after another desktop…
  5. Buy a cheap small form-factor PC. There are a range of these machines, and they don’t take up much space. I suspect that they are powerful enough to do the job, but I can’t see an easy way to add a Firewire port to any of them.
  6. Buy a cheap Chromebox, install Linux and capture via that… somehow. Er, well. No. I suspect that there’s no easy way to get a Firewire connector onto such specific hardware, and then capturing Mini DV in Linux isn’t straightforward either. And Chromeboxes aren’t actually that cheap in the UK from what I can see.

I suspect that building a cheap desktop machine is the way to go. I could perhaps even pick up a used machine from Ebay or a computer fair. Pop in a Firewire card, hook it up to a monitor and keyboard and get cracking.

1 hour of DV video takes up about 13GB of space.

13GB/hour x 100 tapes = 1.3TB of video.

So a 2/3TB hard drive inside the machine would do it.

Anyone else got any thoughts? Is there a small form-factor PC I could use? Any other devices that would do the job, or something I’ve not considered?

[Update] A suggestion on Twitter was that I should simply buy a cheap old laptop with a Express Card slot and do it that way. In fact, I’d meant to consider that option. Laptops don’t come with Express Card slots any longer, so it’d be an old one. And at that point, I might well find one with a Firewire port and use that. Something with Windows 7, a modest amount of hard disk space (I can shuffle off captured videos every 100GB or so), and powerful enough to capture video. I wouldn’t even need to worry about the battery being a bit rubbish since it’d be sitting on a desk somewhere slowly ingesting in real time.

Is there anywhere aside from eBay to be looking?