technology

Encryption – A Failure to Understand

Today in the Telegraph, Amber Rudd, the UK Home Secretary has written an opinion piece (subscription) trying once more to explain the Government’s views on encryption.

Broadly speaking, they’re very upset that it’s really hard to break into terrorist and ne’er do well’s encrypted messages over services such as WhatsApp. It would be much easier if such services didn’t employ strong end-to-end encryption.

While the message does seem to be slightly getting through that encryption actual has a lot of commercial uses, there does seem to be a real failure to understand that it’s actually really useful for everybody – including “real people.”

I’ve annotated some of the column:

Encryption plays a fundamental role in protecting us all online. It is key to growing the digital economy, and delivering public services online. But, like many powerful technologies, encrypted services are used and abused by a small minority of people.

Yes. This is all true.

The particular challenge is around so called “end-to-end” encryption, where even the service provider cannot see the content of a communication.

That’s kind of the point about encryption. If my messages are sitting unencrypted on some kind of central server at WhatsApp or wherever, then they’re vulnerable. We’ve seen a non-stop series of hacks and data leaks of all kinds from everywhere. Unencrypted data is essentially a vulnerability waiting to happen.

To be very clear – Government supports strong encryption and has no intention of banning end-to-end encryption.

Good.

But the inability to gain access to encrypted data in specific and targeted instances – even with a warrant signed by a Secretary of State and a senior judge – is right now severely limiting our agencies’ ability to stop terrorist attacks and bring criminals to justice.

Undoubtedly this is a significant challenge. But either you allow end-to-end encryption or you don’t. And if you don’t, the consequences are vast.

I know some will argue that it’s impossible to have both – that if a system is end-to-end encrypted then it’s impossible ever to access the communication.

That’s right. It’s impossible – at least without access to the devices at either end where the messages are unencryted.

But you either have end-to-end encryption. Or you don’t. The choice is binary.

That might be true in theory.

Not just theory.

Practice.

It’s mathematics.

In this kind of area, there aren’t shades of grey. It works or it doesn’t work.

But the reality is different.

No it’s not.

Real people often prefer ease of use and a multitude of features to perfect, unbreakable security.

Where to begin?

This is a false dichotomy for starters. WhatsApp offers all the features alongside end-to-end encryption. A priori, you can have both.

And who are “Real people?” Are they business colleagues dealing in commercially sensitive data or intellectual property? Or friends and family sharing banking details? People sending naked selfies to each other? People having affairs or relationships they’d like to keep private? People seeking support for sensitive medical issues? Conservative MPs plotting in WhatsApp groups who will be the next PM?

“Real people” actually like a bit of privacy it would seem. There are countless good reasons for this. And encryption allows this.

So this is not about asking the companies to break encryption or create so called “back doors”.

OK – good. Because that would be horrifically dangerous.

Who uses WhatsApp because it is end-to-end encrypted, rather than because it is an incredibly 
user-friendly and cheap way of staying in touch with friends and family?

Um. Quite a lot of people. Encryption makes our lives safer. WhatsApp has managed to be both incredibly user-friendly and provide end-to-end encryption.

Are you asking WhatsApp to remove that encryption then? Because it’s really not clear from any of this what you expect them and others to actually be doing.

Companies are constantly making trade-offs between security and “usability”, and it is here where our experts believe opportunities may lie.

Except in this instance there is no trade-off. It turns out that we can have both! So I’ll take both thanks.

So, there are options. But they rely on mature conversations between the tech companies and Government 
– and they must be confidential. The key point is that this is not about compromising wider security.

Er. Yes it is. You want encryption switched off. That compromises my own security, and that of millions of other users.

It is about working together so we can find a way for our intelligence services, in very specific circumstances, to get more information on what serious criminals and terrorists are doing online.

Let’s think this through. If Facebook switches off encryption in WhatsApp, then do you think it’s at all possible that terrorists et al might migrate somewhere else? And you do understand that encryption isn’t something you can stuff back in the bottle. It’s out in the wild. There are dozens, if not hundreds of messaging services. Many businesses can’t, or won’t, work without full encryption, so you can’t ban the tools. They’re used throughout the world.

I thought previously that it was technical naivety that has led a succession of Home Secretaries to spout nonsense about encryption. But I’m beginning to think that it’s almost purposeful.

The Telegraph piece does not make any sense. And it really doesn’t spell out what the Home Secretary would actually like these companies to do.

I suspect it’s to turn off encryption. But that would just leave the vast majority of users globally far less secure while any terrorist with a semblance of intelligence would move to another platform that does offer encryption.

We’re lucky enough to live in a democracy in the UK. Many people don’t. Encryption has proved vital to millions of people throughout the world. But it’s not just dangerous regimes, but personal data that people would just prefer not to share with anyone apart from their intended targets.

At this point, a failure to not understand this must be construed as willful.

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!

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.

Data Protection

It’s a truth that however careful we are with our own data, some company, organisation or government body will probably be hacked and “give away” our data.

Case in point – Carphone Warehouse.

Now I’ve never bought a phone at the Carphone Warehouse. I might have bought the odd accessory, but that’s about it. However last night I got a text from “Carphone.” The text said that I should visit a website.

Reading that site it became clear that one of the websites Carphone Warehouse operates is mobiles.co.uk. And I think that it was through this website that I bought a phone on my current number. At some point subsequently, Carphone bought that website.

I conducted that transaction EIGHTEEN YEARS AGO.

Ever since, when I’ve changed phones, tariffs or even service providers, I’ve done so direct with the operators, or via their retail outlets.

Quite why Carphone/Mobiles.co.uk was still holding onto my data 18 years after I conducted a transaction I know not.

The Information Commissioner’s Office says data shouldn’t be kept for “longer than is necessary for the purpose you obtained it for.”

While I would allow that they may need to retain transactional information for the lifespan of my contract at the time, and that for tax auditing reasons financial data must be kept for six years, it really shouldn’t be kept much longer. And surely keeping that kind of data for 18 years when I’ve not been a customer is outrageous.

In truth I’m not certain that there’s a great deal a hacker could glean from my data. I’ve moved, and I have different card details. My name and phone number of course, remain the same.

Nonetheless, it all goes to show that however careful you might be with your data, you’re at the mercy of just about every business you ever conduct a transaction with.

Predictions 2015

This week’s Media Podcast is full of their contributors’ predictions for 2015. Lots of websites have lots of predictions, but for whatever reason, I’ve never bothered doing something like in the past.

But why would I let that stop me? So I’ve put together a list of some things that I think might happen in 2015. Note that I’m excluding anything I have any direct knowledge of. For example, this year is going to be big for the BBC with a Charter renewal beginning after the election. And goodness knows what kind of government we’re going to have in May. Setting all that aside, here’s what I reckon 2015 will bring, trying to avoid everything that has already come up on the aforementioned podcast. If I remember, I’ll try to revisit these at the end of the year and see how I’ve done.

  1. The year of dirty TV. No I don’t mean more Richard Desmond stuff. I mean the dirt and grime of Beowulf and The Last Kingdom. Both of these dramas are set in the Middle Ages, and it’s probably not a coincidence that they some of the less fantastical elements of Game of Thrones. OK – these are two shows that have already been commissioned. And we can add into the mix a UK airing of Outlander which although set later, is also full of grit.
  2. Slow TV. I am genuinely amazed that no UK broadcaster has done this so far. I’m talking about some of the things that Norwegian TV in particular has done in broadcasting a cruise around the fjords, travel along one of their more picturesque railway lines, a log fire or knitting. Why hasn’t BBC2, say, given up an evening for something like this? Aside from anything else, it makes pretty cheap TV, and I think UK viewers would like it. (NB. We’ve done the reverse of course, with London to Brighton in 4 minutes, and I remember a QED where they strapped a camera to an RAF fighter and flew it around the entire British coastline.)
  3. Maker TV. In a similar vein, more about making stuff. Interestingly this year’s Royal Insititution Christmas Lectures were on hacking things. But this isn’t just for kids. With 3D printers, Raspberry Pi’s and websites like Makezine and Instructables, the growth of “How To…” YouTube videos, and the general resurgence of crafting, there’s a massive gap in the market for TV shows along these lines. You’d support such shows with instructions on the broadcasters’ website and perhaps more detailed videos you could follow along at home.
  4. Drones. In particular, more drones being used by programme makers. They’re already out there quite a bit, with lots of broadcasters using them to get cheap aerial shots. But there’s only going to be more of it. Indeed why isn’t there already a daytime show called something like “Britain by Drone” featuring beauty shots of the countryside shot by one man and his remote control? Cheap and beautiful!
  5. Podcasts growing. I’m not alone in thinking that there will be some kind of “Serial effect.” I’m just not quite show how it will happen. There are certainly going to be more producers making more challenging podcasts. But there are still some issues surrounding how these are going to be funded. It’d be nice to think that crowdfunding UK productions will become more of “a thing” in the UK.
  6. Impact of Serial on Radio 4. I’d like to think that the only radio station that has the scale and impetus to learn from what Serial has achieved is Radio 4. I wouldn’t want to see a carbon copy of Serial – in any case such things take a long time to produce by their very nature. But I’d love to see more demanding long-form radio. In some respects in the UK we leave that to TV. A TV documentary maker might spend many months putting together a carefully crafted programme for BBC 2 or Channel 4, whereas you won’t get a multi-part fly on the wall documentary series on the radio. But TV makes more demands for “characters” with lots of “casting” happening before production starts. Radio can cut through a lot of this. On the other hand, I don’t want to see Radio 4 copying some of the lazier traits of US “NPR”-style production. I think we’ve had enough plinky-plonky music and unusual cutting between narrators and contributors.
  7. Advertising/Product Placement and YouTube becomes a bigger issue. The case at the end of 2014 involving various YouTubers and paid for advertising by Oreos was very interesting because it highlighted the fact that mainstream brands are spending significant sums targeting the millions of viewers of these podcasts. But I suspect that the Oreos case was just the tip of the iceberg. I heard some very unusual defences of the practice which all went along the lines of “well where’s the boundary anyway?” Well that doesn’t wash. If we have rules (and we do) then they need to be applied equally to every platform. That means YouTube and that also means Twitter where there’s still an awful lot of undisclosed paid-for product placement.
  8. A national paper closes. And you’ve got to think that it’d be the Indy. It could “merge” with the “i”, except that the “i” is only really successful if it can use the Indy’s resources. How much can Lebedev afford to lose?
  9. Tough year for Local TV. I’ve never been convinced by Jeremy Hunt’s plans for television that he foisted onto Ofcom (and the BBC through your licence fee). London is struggling, Birmingham will finally get off the ground, and Scotland seems to be doing OK (by virtue of being part of STV). But I suspect that we’re going to see more issues as stations shut down. And has the BBC actually used anything from any of the stations so far. That was part of the plan wasn’t it? That the BBC should buy things from them?
  10. New radio brands on D2. When Ofcom awards the second national commercial radio multiplex sometime in the early summer, we will probably be presented with a mix of established and new radio brands. Established brands will be some of those that for various reasons don’t have national carriage (perhaps only being on some local multiplexes). But we should finally see some actual new brands. I think we’ve probably taken this whole “Extra” thing as far as we can. I’m still curious to see how Heart, a station that plays less than 800 tracks can support a spin-off brand. But let’s forget about them, and get something that’s actually new and a bit different. What’d be really exciting would be if someone could make a business case for a commercial station with no traditional 30 second spots (yes, there is Team Rock, but I’m talking about a station that can support an actual business case).
  11. iPlayer Radio introduces downloads. OK. That’s a bit unfair as we know it’s due to happen. It has just been a bit slow. But this will be great for those who want to listen to specialist music shows complete. For example, I love Radio 3’s Sound of Cinema show, but the podcast is just a tease with so much music edited out!
  12. Netflix/Amazon air more UK originated offerings. We know that Netflix has The Crown on the British monarchy coming, with Peter Morgan writing no less. And Amazon has saved Ripper Street. But I think we can expect more to come, with the shows being nearly as internationally saleable as US fare.
  13. Netflix/Amazon will strike out a bit more. Undoubtedly the pair has done well so far with House of Cards, Orange is the New Black and Transparent. But throwing money at a project does not guarantee success. With the best will in the world, you will experience failures, and these services will have them too. The bigger issue will be determining what they are since neither tell anyone how well they’re doing. So I might be right about this, but I won’t be able to prove it.
  14. Audible shakes up UK audio drama. Last August, Amazon subsidiary Audible launched its first UK audio drama, The Child, starring Andy Serkis amongst others. It followed this up with Six Degrees of Assassination starring Andrew Scott, Freema Agyeman and Hermione Norris. Audible has the clout to commission more of this, and in doing so might give audio drama a bit of a kick. (NB. I’ve heard neither so couldn’t say how good/bad they are)
  15. Another tough year for UK music. The end of 2014 saw a significant fall in downloads revenue, and although streaming revenues are still climbing, it’s not clear that one makes up for the other. We’ve yet to see streaming companies arrive at viable long-term business models, and although some of the big players like Apple and Google can afford to lose money, even they must turn their ventures profitable in the medium term. In the meantime, I suspect we’ll see more artists like Taylor Swift pulling their wares from the store.
  16. And another tough year for cinema. To say that Hollywood has put all its eggs in the superhero basket would be an understatement. It’s all very well mapping out five, six or seven year’s worth of Marvel/DC/Universal characters, but audiences can and will tire of the same old same old. The problem is that even as US and European audiences tire, the money continues to come in from places like China where they love Transformers et al. That also leaves problems as to who your villains are. Because you can’t use people from countries that are your new biggest markets (China, Russia). And nobody is using North Korea any longer because they’re scared. Will it be us Brits again?
  17. Advertisers actually begin to care about rampant online advertising fraud. It’s not a secret, but billions of dollars are being wasted by blue chip companies on advertising fraud, and very little is being done about it. That cannot be sustainable as online becomes the biggest part of an advertising budget. I’ve heard it argued that fraud is factored in to the price that advertisers pay, but I can think of no other media where you’re mentally doubling the effective price you’re paying because you know half the inventory won’t get displayed. There’s still a lot of naivety and an element of the Wild West about online advertising. But that’s unsustainable given the size of the market now.
  18. Sky launches a 4K channel (and quietly closes its 3D channel). This might not happen this year, but it’ll only be shortcomings due to Sky digital hardware if it doesn’t. 4K is coming, and Sky want to be at the forefront. You’ll pay a bit more for it of course. In the meantime everyone knows 3D has run its course. Even Sky has given up covering sport in 3D and that Attenborough show they had over New Year was probably commissioned ages ago. Occulus Rift is more exciting…
  19. Some serious product placement on ITV. Despite all the freedoms, product placement bought, it feels that so far it has largely been buried away in daytime. It would be really interesting if a big glossy primetime show was essentially brought to you by an advertiser. There seems to be a feeling that advertisers will do this sort of thing online – and they will. But it’s ever harder to get cut-through online. You spend money on your YouTube channel and you are up against literally millions of other videos. Even in a multi-channel world, a show on ITV has massive reach. (My idea would be to produce an ad-free show suitable for running in primetime after a big glossy ITV show where they want to shift the advertising minutage into the glossy show. That’s what ITV does with X-Factor etc. And it’s the reason that you get those commercial breaks where you only ever see trails for other ITV shows. It’s not that they couldn’t sell any ads – it’s just that they’ve used up their minutage.)
  20. Someone successfully launches a TV format that involves playing a long at home on apps. ITV of course had Rising Star which was supposed to be precisely this format. But technical issues aside, it was clear that this was a flawed format. But the idea is potentially still strong. It just needs the right treatment (which includes not excluding viewers who don’t play along.
  21. Someone makes a really good phone that is less than 6 inches in screen size. Seriously. Bigger is not always better. Phones have got way too big. I think that a large proportion of the population want something they can use one-handed, can put in their pocket, and won’t have to worry about bending. Also, thinner is not better. Make it a millimetre thicker, but give me longer battery life. I’ll thank you for it. At the moment Google is advertising Android with the slogan “Be together, not the same.” I like that. Apple has become that Ridley Scott Apple ad. But then all Android phones look the same too. 6 inch slabs of glass, metal and plastic. Let’s do something new.
  22. Apple watches won’t be a massive hit – indeed wearables in general will take another couple of iterations. By the sound of things, Apple is putting a certain amount of processing needed for its watch into the accompanying phone. Because watches are still expected to last longer than the two year phone cycle that consumers have come to expect. Could Apple change that? Possibly. But someone who wants to spend £5000 on an Omega expects to be able to maintain core functionality beyond an OS update or two. Elsewhere we’re clearly not there yet with smartwatches. 24 hour battery life is unacceptable (how many chargers do you expect me to carry around?) and there’s still some significant improvements that need to be made with functionality – health monitoring measurements spring to mind to start with. They’ll get there, but I’m holding back for a while.

That’ll do. I’ve not talked about football rights, the prospective merger of EE and BT or ITV and Channel 5 ownership issues. They’ll all play out too. But let’s see where we get to with these…

19,013 Songs

19000

That is what it says on my Google Play Music account. 19,013 songs.

Look, I realise that all the cool kids are renting their music on Spotify. It might not actually make any money, but it’s so much more convenient paying £10 a month and having access to all your music. Except when the album you want isn’t on it yet. Or the album you listened to yesterday isn’t on there today.

I may be old fashioned, but owning your own music gets around such issues. Plus there are high-tech solutions to give a Spotify-type experience and access to my music.

Which brings me to Google Play Music.

I think it’s a great service. I signed up before you could even get it in the UK (which led to issues over what I could buy for a while later, but they’ve all been sorted). You upload your music – or Google matches your local music to save uploading times. And then it’s safely stored and can later be downloaded. Plus, you listen on your IP connected devices including laptops, tablets and phones.

Pretty much all my music listening comes via Google Play Music now. The mobile app has an offline mode for all those times when you either don’t want to be streaming on your mobile data plan, or are simply out of service (e.g. the underground).

Certainly, its “Instant Mixes” could be better. And it’s not as good as Apple’s iTunes at finding album art, although iTunes is pretty ropey itself unless you’ve given it precisely the right wording in its various fields. Google is working at trying to improve this. They bought Songza and have apparently rolled out mood and activity playlists (except if they have, I’m either being very stupid in not finding it, or it’s more for those who rent their music via Google’s subscription service a la Spotify).

But it’s pretty good. With one big proviso.

There’s a 20,000 song limit.

Now I’m not sure if that’s an agreement that Google came to with the music companies (who really seem to object to people safely storing the music that they themselves bought); or whether that’s a Google imposed limit based on average usage etc. But I’m getting close to the 20,000 limit.

If there are an average of 12 tracks an album (I’ve no idea if that’s true), then I am 82 albums away from filling up my allocation. What then?

I think I’m probably going to hit that mark in the next couple of years!

You will also note that it says I have 70 days’ worth of music among those 19,013 songs. Why on earth do I want more? I can’t possibly listen to everything I’ve already got.

Well that’s true. But one way or another, I’ve accumulated a lot of music – legally – over time.

How?

– I bought magazines, like The Word, that came with monthly cover mounts (and then I’d sometimes buy the albums of artists featured on those cover mounts);
– I’ve bought BBC Music Magazine for many years and that keeps coming with CDs;
– I once subscribed to one of those part-works on jazz, leading to me owning many many CDs of jazz;
– I worked at a commercial radio station that in the late nineties was positively awash with CDs (it tends to be more about downloads now, and I was never really on the list for them);

What you also need to know is that 19,013 songs doesn’t represent my complete CD collection. There are many more CDs still sitting in boxes that have yet to be ripped. These include many of the CDs listed above. Notwithstanding the time-spent-ripping issues, I’d obviously fill my Google Music allocation instantly.

Songs bought on Google Play don’t count towards the total. But I would never want to limit my buying options to one store or vendor.

Now despite loathing iTunes as much as I do (hideous new look in the latest version incidentally, making it ever harder to navigate your music), I do keep all my music locally in an iTunes library stored on a NAS drive. And iTunes has no upper limit. So there is that.

This is all a long way around of asking: if Google is unwilling or unable to up its 20,000 song limit, and I want to Google Play Music functionality, where can I go?

Is there a paid for service that allows me something like this?

Amazon allows you to store 250,000 songs for £21.99 a year. That might be worth experimenting with. Songs bought on Amazon don’t count towards the total either. I’m unsure what Amazon’s player’s functionality is like. But the massively increased size makes it something to seriously consider if Google doesn’t up its limits. And it might get me into a better regime of digitising my life (Currently: photos, CDs, video and magazine articles).

Incidentally, this is all why I was also terribly sad to see the end of the iPod Classic – aka the iPod. I still have a 140GB model. I may not use it very often today, and I was already having to make hard choices over how I filled the device (there are podcasts to consider too!). But roll on somebody making affordable devices that can use dual SD or microSD cards that I can load up with 128GB or 256GB cards with.

The future is always just around the corner…

[Update – February 2015: Well Google must have listened to me! Yes – I’m sure that was it. They’ve just upped the limit on music from 20,000 to 50,000 songs! I reckon that I’m safe for at least another ten years or so. And no need to switch to anyone else just yet.]

Installing Plex Media Server

Note: Just to be clear – I’ve installed Plex on a DS210j and not a DS214se.

This is going to be a bit dry, but it may or may not help others.

I now have a couple of Synology NAS drives. I first bought a DS210j about two or three years ago when I started to get a bit more concerned about how well backed up my data is. In particular I was worried about music, video and mostly photos.

Since getting my first NAS, I was pretty happy. There are 2 x 2TB drives in a RAID array to give me redundancy. I also instigated a regular “offsite backup” another simple Seagate external drive which I kept at work in my desk draw, regularly bringing home to ensure that the NAS was backed up in another location (sadly a former colleague once had his hard drive stolen in a house break-in even though the value of the hard drive was probably quite low).

But even being fairly ruthless over what photos I keep, my NAS was getting dangerously close, so earlier this week I decided to invest in an additional Synology DS214se. It’s the cheapest drive they make, but I don’t need it to do a great deal. Mostly it’s going to be storing photos. I installed a couple of WD Red 3TB drives, again in a RAID array, and I was away.

The first thing I wanted to do was spread the load. That means moving photos to the new drive and leaving everything else on the old one (I say “everything” but clearly I have a whole pile of other hard drives in cases and loose. But the important stuff is on the NAS drives). But the photos alone that I wanted to move came to 1.1TB.

The first thing to realise is that it’s not wise to do a move of this size via a PC. Something will break. I’ve just rarely had a good experience of a large file move in Windows. So I used the Synology Filestation app and set up a copy direct.

All you need to know is that it took about 48 hours – so not fast. But it did the job first time with no errors. In Lightroom – my photo software of choice – I just re-pointed the top level directory to the new drive location and all was fine.

The other thing I wanted to do was install Plex. For various reasons, I’ve always shied away of using some kind of media centre software. I did once play with Microsoft Home Media Center on a cheap PC, but it was all a mess, and I went no further.

But I liked the idea of installing some software on a NAS drive – removing the need to leave a PC on. And I knew that there was a Synology app for Plex.

My first disappointment was to learn that it’s not supported on the “cheap” DS214se. Seemingly it’s because the specs of the processor on-board aren’t high enough. But it actually seems more powerful than my older DS210j. However, it actually suited me to use the older drive anyway.

The next problem was by far the biggest. I just couldn’t get Plex running. I repeatedly tried the official version via Synology. But in spite of installing, it just repeatedly gave the error message: “Failed to run the package service.”

I went through dozens of both Plex and Synology forums searching for a solution. I removed and reinstalled. I rebooted the NAS. I deleted other apps (that I wasn’t using) that might have been a problem. But nothing. I installed a direct Plex build. I used SSH to connect directly to the NAS and look to see if there was a problem there. Still no joy.

In the end I finally stumbled across the problem. For whatever reason, the Plex installer was not creating a “Plex” Shared Folder. Simply manually creating a new folder – “Plex” without quotes – did it. And it ran perfectly.

The reason I chose Plex is because there are plenty of apps for it on devices I own. The first one I actually got working properly was on my Sky Now box. This is a device that Sky were selling for £10. A complete bargain for iPlayer alone. It’s basically a rebadged Roku box. But Sky has limited the number of apps you can install – clearly they want you to use their Sky Now service. In truth Sky Now is unnecessary for me because I subscribe to Sky anyway, and have access to those sports and film services.

Anyway, if you switch on Developer Mode, you can install Plex via a PC.

Then I installed the Samsung Smart TV app, and that worked pretty seamlessly too. Just for fun, I also installed the Android app, and that happily works with my Chromecast. Lots of ways then to use the service.

The only thing I had to watch was that Plex took a bit of a while to sort itself out when I added programming to it. And sometimes the Samsung app can take a while to find graphics and metadata.

However playing back a variety of files hasn’t been a problem, and it’s certainly easier than my old method which involved lots of USB sticks. In particular, I’ve suffered no transcoding issues with any of my devices regardless of file resolution. I suspect that Plex does push my DS210j quite a bit, but it will certainly suffice.

(Incidentally, what got me thinking about this was a friend in the US who has bought an Amazon Fire TV which he’s got Plex on. The device – not yet on sale in the UK – is quite smart, although were it not for the fact that Amazon Prime Instant Video isn’t on UK Roku boxes, I’d say they’d serve you fine.)

Blaze Laserlight – A First Look

Back in November 2012, I backed my first Kickstarter project – the Blaze Bike Light – and today it arrived fresh from manufacture in China.

Blaze Laserlight – A First Look from Adam Bowie on Vimeo.

Now known as the Blaze Laserlight, its description basically explains what it does. It’s a regular bike light with a laser alongside that beams an image of a bicycle onto the road in front of it. The bike light is a fairly traditional type that offers either 100 lumens or 300 lumens output making it pretty bright. But it also comes with a green laser that projects a cycle image on the road ahead of you.

Having only got my device today, it would be unfair to call this a review because really I’ve only had a chance to use it getting home this evening. Think of this as a “first look” then.

The first thing you notice is the manufacturing quality which is gorgeous. The casings are all beautifully made in anodised and sandblasted aluminium, although the manufacturing speed means that they’re shifting to someone else after this initial batch. And it’s a weighty thing, coming in at just over 180g.

Out of the lovely box, there was already some charge in it, but I spent the afternoon using its bespoke USB charging cable to give it a full charge. While in some respects micro-USB would have been nicer as we all have lots of cables already, the magnetic charging device means that they can weather seal the light better. Other rechargeable bike lights I have rely on a plastic screw on cap to keep water out.

The main light offers a flashing 100 lumens mode, as well as constant 100 lumens and 300 lumens modes. Once a light mode has been engaged, you can choose whether to turn the laser on, and whether you want it to flash or to remain constant. In my brief usage, I tended to use the constant mode.

There are stickers aplenty around the outside warning you not to shine the laser in someone’s eye. The laser is quoted as being <5mW with a 510-525nm wavelength in case that's important to you.

What I can say is that it’s perfectly visible even in well lit central London streets. I should also add that a safety feature means that the laser is inoperable unless it’s on the mount. Obviously I went through a brief panic when I failed to turn on the laser when first getting out of the box and not reading the enclosed manual. I’m a bloke clearly.

The device comes with a mounting bracket and three thicknesses of rubber so you choose what’s best for your mounting situation. The design means that it overhangs back towards you rather than towards the front of the bike. And Blaze even supply a hex key to help you fit it. The mount isn’t quite as solid as I’d have liked – perhaps because of the weight of the light, I detected a small amount of movement. But in the scheme of things, that probably doesn’t matter. A trigger allows you to quickly remove the light from the mount. You won’t want to be leaving this light on your bike when you pop into the shops.

Incidentally, I had no problem attaching it to my S Type Brompton handlebar.

What you notice is that like any other mount, vibrations from the road surface will cause the laser to bounce around a bit. The very clean image is really only viewed when you’re completely still or if you’re on an incredibly smooth road.

Blaze suggest projecting the image about 5-6m ahead of you, and obviously depending on the height of your bike, this will affect the angle of the light. What I will say is that the light is much brighter than my existing Brompton’s lights, and I remain completely visible to oncoming traffic.

It should also be noted that although I left the light in a forward facing direction, you can tilt it left and right a bit should you wish the projection to be offset.

So what’s it like to ride with?

Well the first thing you’re going to have to get over is the fact that you will receive attention. I heard a few people comment on the laser as I rode around (although others were oblivious to it). One cyclist did pull over to have a chat about it, and I’d anticipate plenty such chats with fellow cyclists until there are more on the streets!

I did notice that in some circumstances when I was close to a cyclist in front of me, the projection jumped ahead of them, and I wondered if that might be off-putting.

Part of my route home is along a separated cycle path and I switched the laser off for this because there really shouldn’t be a need for it. Although ironically at one junction it might have prevented a motorist pulling out into the cycle lane had he seen the light.

My home stretch is on busier roads with few other cyclists and more traffic, and you know what, in a non-scientific single journey, it did feel like I was getting a bit more room. That may be my imagination, and time will be the only true test.

So in summary:

– It works well
– The light itself is an incredibly good and bright model
– The mounting seems to fit most bikes
– And it looks beautiful

The only problem you now face is getting one. I believe that Blaze is now taking orders for delivery in March priced at £125.