» December 6th, 2012
Over at The Register, Tony Smith has just done an article looking at devices on which you can read eBooks, to help you work out which is the best e-reader for Christmas.
I think I probably read more now than before I bought my first Sony Reader, a PRS-505, though it’s hard to be sure. What I do know is that very often, I will read for three or four hours a night in bed. The Sony has been a companion on holidays, where the eInk screen is great in the sun, and on commutes, and pretty much anywhere you can think of.
But, of course, for an eInk screen, you need light – if you’re reading in bed, then you need the bedside light turned on, unless you have one of the new generation of devices that Tony talks about in his piece, with an illuminated display.
Or you can use a tablet, and that’s what I’ve been doing for a while. I bought a Nexus 7 earlier this year, and it’s a great device, for many things. one of which is reading eBooks. I’ve been buying books from Kobo for a while, because they have reasonable prices and you can download in the ePub format, so they’re compatible with the Sony reader.
Using the Kobo app on the Nexus was a pretty simple decision, then – it automatically picked up all the books I’d bought from there already, and I can add any of the ePub books I’ve bought from elsewhere. Yes, some apps have slicker page navigation animations, but I like the fact that I can use the volume controls on the side of the tablet to turn pages.
And that, I thought, was more or less it – the Sony Reader lay dusty on the table, and I did most of my reading with the Nexus. Until an update to Android Jelly Bean on the Nexus caused the Kobo app to stop working for a couple of weeks, while they sorted out a fix.
That, thankfully, is not the sort of problem you get with a dedicated reader, where software updates don’t tend to happen, and the reading is a built in function anyway, rather than an app that relies on the system software. So, back to the Kobo website, I downloaded the ePub file of the book I was reading, and charged up the Sony.
A breath of fresh air
And I realised just how much I miss reading on eInk. Sure, the screen is probably sharper on the Nexus 7 – if you can put up with the flickering that happens in low light (I installed Lux Auto Brightness, which makes things much better) – and page turns are quicker.
But I’d forgotten how light the Sony 505 is; how well positioned the two sets of page turn keys are; just how long it runs for on a single charge – no more having to check the battery on the Nexus during the evening to make sure I’ll be able to read later in bed.
And most important of all, I’d forgotten how much easier on the eye it is to read eInk than an LCD display.
What I’d put down to tiredness was almost certainly a bit of eye strain, which disappeared in the couple of weeks I spent using the Sony Reader in bed, rather than the Nexus. I’m using the Nexus again at the moment, largely to remove the amount of bedside clutter, with Lux making the screen much less bright than it was previously.
But I’m also seriously thinking about buying another eInk reader – very likely a Kobo one, so I can synchronise between devices – because, frankly, if you read a lot as I do, all the bells and whistles offered by a tablet like the Nexus 7 might well be useful during the daytime, but they’re just a distraction when the real job you want to do is settle down for a read. And, they certainly don’t make up for the fact that, as far as I’m concerned, the reading experience with eInk is far superior to a tablet screen.
In a way, I’m glad Kobo’s app broke for a while – it made me go back to my old Sony Reader and discover again what I’d been missing.
» November 21st, 2012
I’ve recently done a roundup of smart TVs for ComputerActive (the 8th November issue, no 384) together with an article explaining to CA readers what ‘smart’ sets can do for you.
In the course of my testing, I actually became pretty disenchanted with some of the interfaces, as I’ve mentioned in another recent post here. As a result of that, I’ve written a piece for The Register, which is now online, and it turns out I’m not the only one who thinks TV makers are failing. Take a look and join in the discussion.
» October 15th, 2012
I’ve just been reviewing smart TV sets for Computeractive – the results will be in Issue 384, on sale on 8th November. There are some clever things out there; Samsung and LG, for instance, are both experimenting with ways of going beyond the traditional remote control. And whatever you think of their current efforts, at least they’re doing something.
I’m not going to go into too much detail here about the sets I reviewed – though I have plenty to say about some of the manufacturers, which I’ll post after the review in Computeractive hits the streets.
For now, I’ll keep to more general ideas, and say I really do wonder if many of the smart TV makers are going in the right direction. They’re throwing as much as they possibly can into their TV sets, and frankly the results aren’t always pretty. Sometimes, they’re a complete dogs dinner.
If you read about online TV, you’ll probably have come across this article last week. iPlayer is one of the biggest online video services around, yet while there’s a lot of viewing from the iPad – an expensive, premium device – there’s very little from connected or ‘smart’ TV sets. Other research has suggested that a lot of smart TVs aren’t even connected to people’s home networks.
There are various reasons for that; some people won’t connect a set if it doesn’t have WiFi, because they don’t want to mess about with more wires. Others will try WiFi and find that it’s a horrible experience, entering passwords, and then discovering there’s so much congestion and interference that you can’t watch reliably.
And others will, frankly, try the experience of using a so-called smart TV and run screaming in horror from the room. Some of those specific horrors I’ll address next month, but for now let’s just say that there are elements in some smart TVs that make Symbian look like a paragon of good UI design.
They want control
I think one of the problems is that many of the TV manufacturers have realised that smart TV might give them a chance to be the ‘gatekeepers.’ Instead of people relying on what they get through their TV, or the content they watch via a DVD player, with smart TV, there’s a chance for the TV makers to push people in certain directions, by choosing which content they put on the TVs.
And so they believe they can be deal makers, pushing some catch-up services here, and other film on demand offerings there. Somewhere in the deranged minds of the people who make marketing decisions, there’s money to be made by foisting certain choices on the people who buy their TVs.
I think that’s a load of crap, frankly; it’s the same short sighted nonsense that saw Panasonic TVs saddled with adverts in the EPG for years; those have thankfully now gone – not even people at Panasonic UK seemed to like them, but it was a decision made elsewhere.
When it comes to smart TV, too many TV makers are trying to get between you and what you want to watch. Want to link your TV to flickr? Just create an account on the TV maker’s web site, link that to your flickr account, and then link the TV to the manufacturer’s web site. I’m sure they have a marketing wonk to explain that this makes things much easier; but I don’t think it does. Instead it gives them control, and information, and they think that will bring them money.
What I think it does is turn people off using smart TVs. We don’t want to jump through unnecessary hoops to access content, and we don’t want TV makers to be the gatekeepers of what we watch. Some of them have tried this sort of stuff before – with exclusive periods for some Blu-Ray releases on certain brands of player – and I don’t think there are many people who are desperate enough to fall for it.
And, in doing all this, the smart TV makers are pushing people to their own interfaces, with their own registration systems, and making it much fiddlier and complex to use services like iPlayer than it really needs to be.
Every set that I’ve just tested had Freeview HD on board; the latest Freeview HD specs mean that they were all IPTV capable. All could show, for example, the ConnectTV streams like CCTV. And that means that they could all, if they wanted, have BBC iPlayer on the red button, just like my Digital Stream Freeview HD recorder does.
That would mean that, to get to iPlayer, you’d do it in the same way on any capable device – on a BBC channel, press the red button. If the box detects that it can do iPlayer – as well as the technology, it needs an authorisation key from the BBC – then the service is the first option highlighted on the red button menu, so just press OK, and you’re at the iPlayer start screen. Two button presses, and that’s all it would take.
But none of these TVs does that. They all insist on adding iPlayer to the list of ‘content’ available via their smart TV portals. So it’s different on every brand; and on some, it’s downright quirky; on none is it as straightforward as ‘Red button, then OK.’
And they call that smart?
» September 14th, 2012
London to Berlin by train, a set on Flickr.
Over on Flickr, you’ll find a few photos and notes about my recent trip to Berlin by train. It’s slightly off-topic for this blog, but if you enjoy travelling and hate flying, as I do, you might find some of the information useful.
» September 4th, 2012
According to a tweet from a516_digital, transmitter operator Arqiva has bought IP TV outfit Connect TV. This might sound like dull corporate shenanigans to many but it’s potentially quite interesting for Freeview. First, though you need to know who these people are.
Arqiva operates the terrestrial transmitter network in the UK. They have their fingers in other pies, but that’s the important thing here. They play an essential role in bringing Freeview to your home, and anyone who wants to get on air will likely find themselves dealing with them.
Connect TV operates some channels that are available over the internet and specifically via Freeview HD. They don’t broadcast traditionally, but instead have a channel number from 110 and up, which effectively launches an app on Freeview HD kit, telling the box where it can find the stream on the internet, as long as the box has an active net connection. So, it looks like any other channel on the platform, but is actually delivered via the internet.
Right now, ‘low rent’ might be a charitable description of the channels in that part of the EPG, but that could all change following the purchase by Arqiva. Companies that want to get on the EPG will now be dealing with one of Freeview’s major players, which may give some more confidence to take the plunge.
And it’s a shrewd move for Arqiva too; with Freeview potentially going to be affected by 4g phone signals and little extra capacity available post-switchover – in fact, some of my sources suggest a loss of capacity over coming years – this gives Arqiva a way to ensure a presence on the Freeview programme guide for more people, even if broadcast spectrum is scarce.
Of course, little will change overnight, but to me this strengthens still further the case for only considering kit that has Freeview HD on board when you’re buying, and up to date software.
For the less technical, I’d say that amounts to “if it won’t give you iPlayer on the red button, don’t buy it” – if you can get iPlayer that way, the box will work with Freeview HD’s IPTV channels.
update: now confirmed at Broadband TV News
» September 4th, 2012
I’ve written before about the sorry state of Orange’s billing systems, back in 2010, and it would be nice to think that they’d sorted them out since then. They’ve presumably been too busy with the merger with T-Mobile, creating Everything Everywhere, to actually do anything that might help out customers.
Yesterday, I thought I’d best check the bill for my Orange account, as I’m going abroad soon and don’t want to get cut off for forgetting to pay – sometimes I do pay quite late in the month. So I signed in to the billing system for my business account, and this is what I saw:
Call me naive, but I rather expect the number in big letters, in bold, in the box labelled ‘your current balance’ to be the amount that I actually owe Orange right now (leaving aside the oddity last month where I was told I had an overdue balance of £0.00 and so couldn’t access all the features of my account; curiously similar to issues I’ve had before).
But that’s weird; I’m sure I remembered paying this month’s bill. So I checked with my online banking and yes, I paid £22.75 last week, so how come it’s still showing as due? Very peculiar. Next, I clicked the billing section and requested a PDF of the actual bill; it’s the same as this screenshot below, showing the ebill version, which only became available today:
According to this screen the amount due is £1.63, which is also the amount that was shown on the PDF version. How did that happen?
Look more closely at the bill and you’ll see there are payments credited to my account of £45.50 last month. Now, that’s odd. I don’t remember paying so much. But look closely – the balance brought forward was that mystical £22.75, and twice that is £45.50. So I must have paid the bill twice.
And, it turns out I did. Looking back through my online banking information, it turns out I made a payment of £22.75 on the 30th of August (told you I often pay late). I did that because, again, the main screen told me I had a balance of £22.75. But that’s despite the fact that I actually paid the same amount on the 14th of August too – so two weeks later, in spite of my paying all that was due, Orange’s online billing system was still claiming I owed them money, so I paid.
That’s sneaky, underhand and despicable, in my book. If you’re going to display a balance figure, make it accurate – not two weeks out of date, in the hope that people will check and decide they need to pay again. It’s at least a few days out of date this morning, in fact, as I also paid the £1.63 yesterday, to bring me right up to date – but I’ll grant that they might not have processed that BACS payment, since they’ve clearly not managed the one from the 30th of August yet.
And, again, I’m sure Orange will tell people there’s nothing wrong with their billing systems. But when you can’t get a consistent figure for how much you owe, and even the customer service people tell you that you should try texting ‘balance’ to 150 – which as of this morning was correct, at £0.00, unlike any of the online systems – I would contend that the billing systems at Orange really are not fit for purpose. And they’ve been this way since at least 2010.
» August 28th, 2012
My Google Nexus 7 review is now live at ComputerActive. I thought I’d add a few quick bits of extra commentary. Firstly, if you are buying one, I strongly recommend that you buy from a UK based retailer, or web store, rather than directly from the Google Play store. I wrote earlier about my problems with the delivery, which only got worse after that post. Google has yet to respond to my last two emails regarding the delivery problems. Effectively, if you buy from Google, you will be paying for a delivery service that is beyond a joke, with crap customer service, and dealing with a company that shows little interest in resolving issues. Buy from a UK retailer and you’ll get the same product, with the same Google Play Credit, but are almost guaranteed to get better customer service, and very probably free delivery too. I’ll say it loud and clear – Google’s customer service stinks. Don’t buy from them.
That aside, I’m very happy with the Nexus 7; it’s a much more comfortable size than an iPad for me, and I use it to read an awful lot in bed – using the Kobo app, since that happens to be where I’ve bought a lot of books recently, and it means I could get started with them quickly, and the in-app buying is pretty straightforward.
It’s a little disappointing that it won’t connect to an ad-hoc network, but I’ve partially solved that by using BlueVPN, though it’s not 100% perfect; some apps still won’t run because they don’t detect a WiFi connection, and they’re just looking for that, rather than a working TCP/IP connection (so, not a clever way to program your app, guys…).
But, though I’ve only had it a few weeks, I can say that it has made a big difference in how I use technology at home. Now my laptop almost always stays in the home office, rather than ending up on the sofa in the evening. If I do want to check email, visit a website, or tweet about something, I have the Nexus 7, and it’s a lot more comfortable using that leaning back on the sofa than hunching over the laptop keyboard; given the problems that has caused with my shoulders in the past, I think the cost of the Nexus will be more than covered by savings on the extra trips to the osteopath that using a laptop would cause me.
I’ve also taken advantage of finally having a tablet of my own to revisit the design of one of my web sites, and make it more touch-friendly; I’ll write a separate post about that later, but it was clear that some aspects of the design, including icon size and the use of pop-up info boxes when a mouse hovers over something, really don’t suit a touch-based interface.
I’d still like to find a really good email application, though. I use ProfiMail on my E72, which is a great, and there’s a version for Android, which can import the settings from my phone. That made setup really easy, but I think I honestly prefer ProfiMail with a keyboard to drive it, and the interface is a bit quirky on Android – not to mention the fact that it costs $19.99. There is apparently a version with a more Android interface coming, so I may revisit it. But I suspect that at the end of this week when the trial runs out, I’ll go back to using the rather basic Android email app, until something better comes along. People have recommended K9 mail to me, but having played briefly, I really didn’t feel its handling of IMAP folders was good enough for me – I have hundreds of mail folders, split across three email accounts, and I want to be able to access them quickly, and easily – one long list doesn’t cut it. ProfiMail at least has collapsible sub-folders, and you can hide the less often used ones. In K9 setting a folder’s ‘class’ is a lots of taps for each one, and the lack of collapsible trees is very annoying.
If anyone can recommend something that might fit the bill, do let me know. For now, I suspect that, despite its small screen, the ease of driving it with a real keyboard will keep me using ProfiMail on the E72 as my main way of doing email when on the go.
Overall, for the price, the Nexus 7 really is a great deal; perhaps it’s not going to be as good for creating content as the iPad, but for me it’s a much more comfortable size, and has the tools I need – and that, far more than quasi-religious wars about iOS vs Android, is the most important thing.
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