Archive for December, 2011

 

My highlights of 2011

I thought, at the end of the year, it was worth picking out some of the things that I’ve found most interesting to write about here over the last twelve months. So here’s my top ten, in chronological order, with a few comments.

In January, I looked at the little things that make a PVR special. Once you’ve had these features, you start to rely on them – and it’s a shame many new models still don’t come up to the mark.

As in previous years, the publishing industry continues to confound people; the sales of eBook readers may be rising, but some of the big companies remain resolute in their analogue ways. In February, it was the turn of Harper-Collins to miss the point, with a suggestion that library copies of eBooks should wear out.

April was an important date for Freeview HD; it’s the date after which any new kit tested and launched on the market should support all the features needed for things such as iPlayer and the new IP TV services being launched on channel 110 and above. That’s when version 6.2.1 of the D-Book became mandatory.

Prompted by an impending holiday, in May I considered upgrading my camera – whether to go digital, and if so, how to do that, and take my existing lenses with me. My holiday was also the inspiration for another post in June, in which I looked at how to get cheap mobile data in Italy. If you’re travelling, I hope you’ll find it useful.

July saw lots of publicity given to an Ofcom map of broadband around the country. It might look pretty, but read my comments, and see if you agree that, for many purposes, it’s actually not very useful at all.

Back in 2010, I started the process of migrating all my phones from the old ISDN line that I had to a new VoIP system, running over my broadband connection, and powered by a software PBX running on a small Windows PC. In September, after I’d been using the new system for a year, I was able to answer the question – was it worth switching to VoIP?

Value for money was presumably on my mind that month, as I asked the same question of robot cleaners, too, after reviewing the latest Roomba model for RegHardware.

Another thing that’s been on my mind is changing my mobile phone, for one that is a bit better at web browsing than my current Nokia E72. But there are some things the old Nokia does very well – and very few more recent phones do. I think. The problem is that most phone reviews just don’t tell me what I need to know.

And finally, in November I was lucky enough to attend an open day at the BBC’s research labs in Salford. There’s a lot more going on there than just the Daleks!

 
 
 

Strictly in 3D – bandwidth

I posted a couple of weeks ago about the impending broadcast of Strictly Come Dancing in 3D, and I thought a few readers might be interested to know how it all worked out.

The 3D broadcast on BBC HD was preceded by a screen explaining to viewers how to set their TV to the appropriate ‘side by side’ mode, which should have been fairly simple for most – on the Samsung set I was using, it’s the first option that appeared when I pressed the 3D button on the remote control. And on the whole – at least until my guest sat on the glasses and broke them – it worked pretty well.

But what about bandwidth? Well, I’ve checked the recording sizes and durations for the 2D and 3D broadcasts on Freeview HD, as reported by the Digital Stream box that I’m currently using for HD viewing.

The 3D recording of the results show lasted 1h 4m 19s, and took up 4.5GB of disk space

The 2D recording from BBC One HD lasted 1h 4m 28s, and took up 4.8GB.

The difference in timing is probably a combination of the response time of the recorder, and slight differences between the flags being updated on the two channels; at any rate, nine seconds over an hour is negligible and we can, broadly speaking, consider each recording to be about the same length.

So, that leaves us with 4.5GB for 3D and 4.8GB for 2D, and I think that’s more or less in line with what I’d have expected, though there would need to be a lot more 3D around to be entirely sure.

The bandwidth on Freeview HD is shared between the four channels, and the BBC ones at least are ‘statistically multiplexed’, which means that if one channel is showing fast changing information, compared to something more static on the other, then the channel that needs more bandwidth can get it – think, for example, Match of the Day vs Great Expectations. Match of the Day will very likely get more bandwidth.

But, of course, for Strictly, it was essentially the same programme on two channels, and so the end result was always going to be pretty similar, and for the short to medium term at least, I think it’s pretty much inconceivable that any 3D broadcast won’t also be accompanied by a 2D simulcast, certainly on the BBC.

Why is the 3D broadcast slightly smaller, though? My suspicion here is simply that it will compress a bit better; 3D using the ‘side by side’ format has two almost identical pictures making up each frame – and in doing so, incidentally, halves the horizontal resolution of the 3D picture, compared to the 2D one – and that means more repetition.

Repetition is what compressors look out for, so that they can save space, so my gut feeling – and if you know more about the intricate innards of broadcast compression feel free to comment – is that the side by side format will tend to compress slightly better than a comparable full-frame HD picture.

As to what it looked like? Well, for the bits that I could see, the lovely Harry Judd looked even lovelier in 3D, but like quite a few people, I do find watching 3D a bit wearying, and the standard HD picture was, overall, crisper and a lot easier on the eye.

 
 
 

Strictly Come Dancing in 3D

During last Saturday’s show, the presenters of Strictly Come Dancing made much of the fact that the final will be broadcast in 3D. A look at the comments on the website for the show reveals that quite a lot of viewers are rather confused about whether or not they’ll be able to watch in high definition, so here’s my attempt at clarifying what’s happening (based on my own post on that blog).

I don’t have a 3D set. Will I still be able to watch Strictly in High Definition?

Yes. The normal BBC One HD broadcast will still be happening, so you won’t miss out. The 3D broadcast is on a completely different channel.

I don’t have HD. Can I still watch in 3D?

Only if you go to one of the cinemas that’s showing 3D, or if you buy a 3D receiver (like a Freeeview or Sky HD box) and install it before the weekend, and have a 3D TV. Because 3D needs two pictures – one for each eye – it’s not possible to transmit 3D without using an HD channel, and still maintain good picture quality.

I don’t understand! How can it be in 2D and 3D at the same time?

I think a lot of confusion here comes down to the BBC referring to “The BBC HD Channel” when they’re talking about 3D. There are actually two high definition channels from the BBC; one is BBC One HD, which shows whatever is on BBC One, but in high definition, and the other is just called BBC HD, or “the BBC HD Channel”, and carries a selection of programmes from other channels including, next weekend, the 3D version of Strictly Come Dancing.

So what’s on, where?

Here’s the quick summary:

BBC One, standard definition: The ordinary version of Strictly Come Dancing; find this on Freeview 1, Sky 101, Virgin 101, Freesat 101, or on analogue if you’ve not yet switched over.

BBC One HD: The high definition version of Strictly Come Dancing, in old fashioned 2D. Just like every week. Find this on Freeview 50, Freesat or Virgin 108, Sky 143.

BBC HD: The 3D, high definition version of Strictly. Find this on Freeview 54, Virgin 187, Freesat 109, Sky 169.

What do I need to watch in 3D?

You’ll need a 3D television and access to the BBC HD channel; try the channel numbers I’ve listed above, and see if you get BBC HD. If you do, and your TV is 3D, then put on your glasses, tune in on Saturday night, and you’re all set – your TV should automatically recognise the 3D transmission. If it doesn’t, press the 3D button on the remote, and if you have to pick a ’3D format’, choose ‘Side by side.’

Many 3D televisions will have a built in receiver for Freeview HD; if that’s not available in your area, you’ll need either Sky, Virgin or Freesat, and an HD receiver for one of those services.

Will the 3D broadcast be exactly the same as the normal one?

It’s likely to be slightly different, with some different camera angles – different cameras are used for 3D, and some sorts of shots will work better in one format than another. So, expect there to be some differences betweeen the two.

Will I be able to record the 3D show?

Yes. If you have a digital TV recorder, like Sky+, Freesat+ or Freeview+ HD, then just record the show on the BBC HD channel (see the numbers above), and you’ll be able to watch the 3D broadcast later, just as if you were watching it live.

Why isn’t it in a cinema near me?

Lots of the comments on the BBC site seem to suggest this is poor planning by the BBC, but it’s important to remember a couple of things. First, broadcasting in 3D is still pretty experimental, and secondly, not all cinemas are set up for live 3D, even if they can show feature films in 3D.

Feature films are sent out on hard disks, or downloaded to the cinema in advance, and then shown many times. The Strictly final will be live, and so can only be shown in cinemas that have a suitable link to receive live shows and broadcast them directly to the screen, which not all will be set up to do.

Ultimately, whether or not a cinema is set up for that will depend on the company that owns it, not on the BBC, who can’t pay to install equipment in someone else’s commercial premises. If your local cinema isn’t showing the final, then tell them you’re disappointed. It won’t make a difference this week, but they might realise that there is a market for future events to be shown that way. If you don’t tell them, or just complain about the BBC, your local cinema isn’t going to know they’re missing out on business by not investing in the right equipment.

How does the 3D system work?

For those interested in the technical side, the 3D broadcast will use a system called ‘side by side’. If you tune in to the BBC HD channel and don’t have a 3D set, what you’ll actually see is that the screen has two almost identical pictures, squeezed into the frame. A 3D TV recognises this, and shows one at a time, zoomed to fill the whole screen, and controls the timing with the 3D glasses so that the left eye sees the pictures on the left, and the right eye sees the ones on the right.

One of the consequences of this is that each picture actually has only has as much information as the normal HD picture, because it has to fit into half the screen; you probably won’t notice a massive difference, but that’s why 3D is always used with HD channels – if you tried it on a standard definition one, you’d really notice the difference.

 
 
 

iPlayer on the TVonics DVRs, IPTV on Freeview

I’ve been meaning to blog about this for a while, since the PR people for TVonics kindly send me one of their DTR-HD500 units to play with (I’ve previously looked at the Z500HD for RegHardware.)

Both units have essentially the same software and UI; the difference with the HD500 is that it’s in a rather more stylish case, which you’ll either appreciate or think “That’s just bonkers!”

TVonics DTR-HD500 - unconventional styling

Both models include a two port HDMI switch, so you can connect a games console and DVD player, for example, as well as the DVR, even if you only have the one HDMI port on your TV; unlikely as it may seem to the more techy amongst us, there are still a lot of people out there who will have a shortage of HDMI ports on older TVs.

I won’t go over the main points of the TVonics kit in too much detail – read my review on RegHardware for that – but it’s a fairly straightforward interface that perhaps verges on the bland, but certainly won’t frighten people who are not used to digital TV.

The latest updates to the products add support for IPTV services, including the BBC iPlayer, thanks to support for the latest D-Book version, including the MHEG Interaction Channel.

That means that, essentially, when you’re watching a BBC channel on Freeview, you can press the red button on the remote, and you’ll get iPlayer as one of the options on the menu.

iPlayer on Freeview HD - just press Red

As you can see, it’s much the same implementation as you’ll get on a Freesat box; easy enough to find your way around with the remote control, but lacking some of the fancier touches found on the dedicated apps used by some manufactuers, like the one on Panasonic’s VieraCast, which I talked about recently over on RegHardware. However, this is what the BBC provides, not TVonics themselves, so it’ll be common across a lot of Freeview HD boxes over the coming months.

That’s not all that’s added by the latest software update, however. If you’ve browsed the upper reaches of the Freeview HD programme guide recently, you’ll have seen that, past the porn section, starting at channel 110, there are several new channels listed.

These are IPTV channels, which work using the MHEG-IC functionality on Freeview HD boxes. You can tune in to them on any box, but you’ll see a screen something like this if you do:

If your receiver doesn't support the IPTV channels, you'll probably see a message a little like this

On the TVonics – assuming it’s connected to the network, which is pretty much plug-and-play using an ethernet cable (a wireless adaptor is also available, but I’ve not had one to play with) – then you’ll see the station logo (‘Sports Tonight’ on channel 112, for instance) followed by message ‘Attempting to start video’ and then the picture will appear.

Sports Tonight, on Freeview channel 112

If I had to describe the picture quality, I’d say “VHS”; it’s hard to know if it could be better or not – certainly my broadband connection is more than fast enough, so the limitations are to do with the channel itself, and how much bandwidth it wants to pay for. Also, in the screenshot above, the programme was doing an interview via Skype, so it’s not exactly a fair example of what’s possible.

Some may, no doubt, be wondering why Freeview bandwidth is being taken up by minority channels, but the good news is that these channels really aren’t having much impact. All that has to be arranged is a slot in the EPG, and a very small amount of data, which essentially just provides the loading screen and the logo. The channel then points to the IPTV stream, if your box understands it, and all the programme content is delivered over the internet.

It’s obviously a lot cheaper for channels to get on air like this, and as more TVs come with Freeview HD and D-Book 6.2.1 support, we can expect to see more of this sort of content, including paid events and subscription services, helping Freeview fight its corner against other TV services.

For those who are curious, there’s a reasonable amount of buffering, it seems – it took five seconds from unplugging the network cable in the back of the TVonics before the channel was affected.

 
 
 

Feeling the heat

In common with many people, as the weather’s turned colder, I’ve switched on the central heating. My boiler’s not even two years old yet, and is a pretty efficient Vaillant combi model, but like many such systems, it doesn’t have a built in timer. In fact, some combi installations don’t even have a room thermostat, just an on/off switch for the heating.

Some years ago, I replaced the existing thermostat in the hallway with a Drayton DigiStat 3. Even if you’ve never tinkered with a central heating system before, it’s actually a pretty straightforward job, because in many British heating systems, the thermostat on the wall does just one thing – it turns a circuit on and off; that may be a pump that drives water round the central heating system, or it may be the boiler itself, or something a bit fancier, but essentially, the wall thermostat is just a simple switch; you could, if you wanted, replace it with a light switch.

This means that if you want something a bit more sophisticated than a mechanical thermostat, it’s a simple job to replace your existing one. The Digistat 3 that I’m currently using is powered by two batteries, and as well as reacting to the temperature, includes a clock. It can be programmed with different temperatures for different times of the day – morning, daytime, evening and night – and days of the week.

That gives you a lot more control over your heating (and energy use), and combines both the function of a time switch and a thermostat. And it’s possible to add something like this to just about any central heating system because all you have to do is turn on and off a single switch – the boiler doesn’t care why it’s being told to turn the heating on or off, whether it’s time or temperature. The Digistat is just a relay, powered by batteries, and controlled by it’s clock and sensors.

Modern technology

While a programmable 7 day thermostat is perfect for a lot of people, it’s not always ideal for me. For example, sometimes I’ll be working in someone’s office, or spend the day out of the flat. On those days, it’s actually going to be a bit wasteful to have the heating running when I’m not here; it could be turned off, or the temperature turned down a few more degrees, saving more energy.

But, smart though the Digistat 3 may be, it has just four buttons and a small display. Making a change for a single day is a bit fiddly and so, like many people I suspect, I don’t bother. So, whether I’m working at home or not, the heating carries on with the same program.

One solution to that – and perhaps I’ve been talking myself into a new gadget here – is a thermostat that’s remotely controllable via the home network. By providing a web or app interface, it’s suddenly much easier to control than fiddling around with those buttons. It’s even possible to set things up to give me remote control, so I could turn on the heating when I’m just leaving the office, for instance, or stop it coming on if I’m going to be working late.

I’ve been thinking about this because it looks like the faithful old Digistat is on its last legs; last week the relay appeared to be stuck in the ‘off’ position, and this week it died completely for a few hours, prompting me to search for a WiFi thermostat.

WiFi thermostats?

Yes, some of you are probably wondering if the world’s gone mad. But a quick search online revealed that there are several out there, though many are made for the US market, and while they may be available in the UK, or by mail order, that’s not ideal.

One of the main reasons for that is that in the US, systems that incorporate both cooling and heating are much more common; wireless thermostats tend to be a fairly high end product, and so they support all the options. And from a bit of cursory reading, it seems that as a result, the connections to a thermostat in the US tend to be a little more complicated. Of course, you can buy a fancy thermostat that supports aircon as well as heating, and tell it you just have a simple on-off control, but that does seem to be a bit of overkill.

And, you’ll still run into wiring issues; a wifi thermostat isn’t going to run on batteries. The US models that I’ve looked at expect there to be a 24 volt supply available through the thermostat wiring, and that’s not going to be much use to you in the UK. (Though oddly, there are terminals in my boiler that the manual indicates would provide the required power; they’re marked “not to be used in the UK”.)

Wiring up

Fortunately, there are WiFi thermostats available for the UK market too, including several models from Heatmiser, which I’ve been looking at; there’s even an app for remote control.  I was sorely tempted by one, with WiFi, 7 day programming and a touch screen. But there’s one sticking point – the need for a 230 volt supply.

Heatmiser thermostat

Heatmiser's WiFi thermostat

To make the Heatmiser WiFi stat work, you’ll need at least three wires, plus earth, coming into the back of your existing thermostat. Then, when it’s connected up, two of those will supply live and neutral to the thermostat itself, and the third will feed back the live supply to the boiler when heating is required.

If you have three core plus earth cable, then you’re all set; you might have to adjust some connections at the boiler end, but at least you won’t have to run a new cable through.

Unfortunately, I don’t. Since my previous thermostats have only ever acted as a dumb switch, the wiring into my thermostat is standard mains cable – two cores, plus earth. I suspect that an awful lot of people are in that position.

It would be possible to replace the wire; it’s not buried behind plasterwork in my flat, but it does run along skirting boards, behind fitted kitchen cupboards, and through the back of a fireplace. Ripping out the existing one could be done, but it’s the sort of DIY that is just a hassle, even if it doesn’t involve the replastering and repainting that many people would find necessary.

Fortunately, it turns out that Heatmiser is working on a new version, which uses WiFi to allow control of the thermosat, but a separate wireless circuit for the actual switching. That means that the bit that actually turns the boiler on and off can be sited right next to it, and the touch screen panel WiFi unit replaces the existing wall thermostat.

Since it’s controlling the switch by wireless, all it needs is power, live and neutral. Which means that the existing two wire connection can be reused to do that, and I won’t have to spend hours trying to coax a new cable out from behind the kitchen cabinets.

They’re going to send me a unit to test, and I’ll write more when I’ve got it.