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Sunday, May 24, 2015

New Tech - Episode 5

I like tech, and whilst I can't afford to buy new tech on a regular basis, when I see a potential, value-for-money opportunity, then I will grab it.

I did this with the Amazon Fire TV, and wrote about that here.

When the Amazon Fire TV Stick was announced I was intrigued; so I bought one.  Why?  Well, I love the main Fire TV - it's used almost everyday, both for Amazon Prime content, but also for BBC iPlayer.  The kids enjoy playing some of the games too.

So, why get the Stick version?  Well, since the Fire TV can only be watched on one TV, and it's not always convenient to watch when I want, having a second device, means I can access the content in another room.

Why not a second box?  That's a good question, but I suppose it comes down to cost.  The new Fire TV Stick is currently available for £25; so doesn't break the bank.  Also, the stick is small, and doesn't need a table top - so, it's ideal for a wall-mounted television.

It's so simple to set up (although the one downside is that you must have a dedicated power supply - the USB port on the TV isn't powerful enough!)  This is a shame, but not a showstopper.

So, I plugged it into the HDMI port, connected the power cable and within seconds I was asked to select the language, enter the password for my network and away it went.  Since I purchased it from my Amazon account, I was asked if I wanted to use my account on the stick, and then the setup was completed.




The included remote is different to the one supplied with the main Fire TV box; it's not quite as sleek, and there is no voice search (although you can do this via the free Fire TV app, available from Google Play, or App store).

With 8Gb of flash storage, to download apps or games, and a dual core processor, this small stick is not sluggish.

As well as BBC iPlayer, there is Demand5, Vevo, Netflix, Vimeo, Sky News, BBC News and much much more.

Performance was as expected; no buffering, and the picture quality is excellent; as is the sound.  The selections played flawlessly and as it's a cloud based service, it knew the last point I'd watched an episode of a programme, and asked if I wanted to resume.  You can also see photos or videos stored in your Amazon Prime cloud storage.

The question is, should you get one?  If you have an Amazon Prime account, this is a no-brainer.  And having the TV Stick means you can easily move it from room to room; take it away, use in student digs etc.

For me, this is the best way to get the most value for money from my Prime account, and at just £25 (the current offer; normal price £35), means I can consume even more Prime content.

Fab!

Sunday, March 01, 2015

My Top 10 Reasons To Buy a Chromebook

Much has been written about the reasons to own a Chromebook.  There are many.  I bought my first Chromebook at the end of 2014 (it's an Acer C720 and you can read my review here).  However, I spent a long time researching these mini powerhouses before I took the plunge.  My one regret is that I didn't do it sooner.

With, on average, 2Gb RAM and a 16Gb solid state drive, not only is a Chromebook easy to use, but it's quite fast too.



So, what does a Chromebook have to offer that makes it a must-have?

1. Living In The Cloud
We all, well most of us anyway, spends 90-95% of our time online.  Tha't it, we use the internet for most of what we do, and rarely install applications.  If this is you, then a Chromebook will be just the ticket.

2. Relatively Cheap
Unless you're doing graphic design, you don't need a £1000 MacBook, or an £800 Windows laptop.  You don't even need a £400 laptop.  The Acer cost me £180.

3.  No Software Licence Costs
Microsoft are well known for their licence costs, and whilst they do offer cut-down versions from free; with a Chromebook you get access to the full suite of Google Docs, Sheets, Slides included, as well as all the updates...

4.  Talking of Updates
ChromeOS (the operating system on the Chromebook) is updated for Free, on regular cycles.  This means that whenever new functionality is made available, it's delivered to you fast and free.  Plus - software updates on a Chromebook are so quick, you probably won't even notice.

5. Virus Free
Getting caught by a virus is practically unheard of with a Chromebook. So, no anti-virus software to slow you down.

6.  Simple Set Up
When I bought my Chromebook, it was out of the box, powered up and ready to go in less than 10 minutes.  All you need is a Google account and you're done.  If you've already been using Chrome as a browser, then your browser settings are synchronised automatically.

7.  Great Battery Life
My last laptop would be good if it lasted more than 3 hours without needing a charge.  My Chromebook has lasted me a whopping 8 hours away from the plug socket.  Chromebooks are renowned for their battery life

8. Offline Access
One point that people make is "sounds good, but you need to be connected to the internet for it to work".  That isn't strictly true.  There are many apps that work offline, including Docs etc, and even Gmail has an offline counterpart.  When re-connected, everything syncs automatically.

9. Easy to Replace
With most of your documents and photos in the cloud, should anything drastic happen to your Chromebook, it's simple enough to replace.  Turn on, log in and everything* is there.  Magic!

*Everything that's in the cloud - any locally stored documents might be lost!

10.  Chromebooks in the Market
Most manufacturers have entered the Chromebook market, from Acer to HP, and Dell to Samsung - so with 1080p screens, others with larger screens, ALL of them run the same version of ChromeOS (although you can choose from 3 flavours - Developer, Beta or Stable)

As I mentioned at the beginning; I've been using a Chromebook for personal and business use since December.  My Windows laptop is gathering dust.

There really is no reason not to think about a Chromebook as your next portable laptop device.

Do you agree with my reasons?  What were your reasons for buying a Chromebook?







Monday, February 09, 2015

Review - Amazon Kindle Paperwhite

I’ve had an Amazon Kindle for quite some time - almost 4 years.

When I first got it, I was a little apprehensive.  I love books.  I love the smell of fresh pages, and the tactile feel of holding the book.  I have always been a reader; with a broad range of genres.

I was concerned that I wouldn't have the connection that I love.  I worried that holding a piece of plastic would take away from the pleasure reading a book gives.

I was wrong.

However, this applies only to the Kindle device (and other specific e-reader) as the screens are designed to make reading easy and less of a strain.  Using the Kindle app on a tablet or laptop does not have the same “je ne sais quoi”!  The glare from a high definition screen or monitor makes it hard work, and less of a pleasure.

The Kindle itself offers a matt screen, which means it can be read in strong sunlight without glare.  It also means, like any other real book, it needs light to be able to see the words.  It’s not backlit, so is useless in the dark.

Roll forward a couple of years, and Amazon released the Paperwhite.

Similar in size, this has a touchscreen (for turning pages and accessing the menu and settings) and an adjustable backlight.  This means that books can be read in any light, at any time.

I upgraded to the Paperwhite during an offer period, and it was simplicity itself in setting it up.  Indeed, it arrived already assigned to my Amazon account, so all I needed to do was turn it on and login to the wi-fi.  My books were instantly available.


I set up my “collections”, which act like a folder system, organised however I like.  I have one for unread books, and the others are set up for authors, or genres.  You can add books to as many collections as you like.  Of course, once I've read a book; I remove it from the “unread” collection!

With Wi-Fi turned on, you can access the store, and if you’re a Prime member, there’s a wealth of books available to “borrow”.  Which means that you can read one book per month, for free, before returning it.  You don’t have to return it, but you can’t borrow another until you do.

There’s a whole host of settings you can adjust; from font size, to brightness and orientation. There’s also the built-in dictionary and the ability to find more about the characters in the books.#

With Wi-Fi switched off, the battery lasts a good few weeks (depending on the brightness setting) but this isn’t affected too much when it’s turned on.




The reading experience itself is quite pleasant.  As I mentioned earlier, the matt style screen means the pages can be read in any light condition, without the glare reflecting (and also not seeing myself reflected in the screen!)  

Whilst reading, it’s possible to see how far into a chapter you’ve gone, how much is left to read, and, this is quite clever, how long is left in the chapter or book - I guess based on how quickly you turn the page?  I’m not completely sure what algorithm is used to calculate this, but at least it’s possible to see if there’s enough time to read to the end of the chapter.

Of course, one of the major benefits of an e-reader, is the ability to carry numerous books with you.  This is a boon for students, who can have all their text and reference material in one place (and saves on heavy bags) but also for people like me, who may want a change from the current book, depending on mood.  Need something light and humerous - dive in and find a comedy.  Murder mystery - where’s the Agatha Christie section?  It also means that I can pre-purchase books and have them ready and available.

Whether an e-reader is right for you, depends on how much you read; but I can guarantee that once you use one, you’ll wonder how you managed without.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Review - HTC One m8

I have an HTC One M8…. Oooh, I hear you cry.  We thought you were a BlackBerry guy?  You wrote all those reviews for BlackBerry apps.  So what changed?
I wrote about this here, so I won’t repeat myself.

This post is my review of the HTC One m8 - my first foray into Android.  It took me ages to make the decision, and I watched loads of YouTube videos, and read lots of other reviews, and comparisons.

Comparisons? Between which phones?  Well, I couldn't decide between the Samsung Galaxy S5, Sony Xperia Z3 or HTC One m8.  I looked at each one.  Held each one, and to be honest, the HTC is not the lightest of them; but, and this was the deal-breaker for me, I didn’t want any bloatware.

That software the manufacturers load onto the device, thinking it will improve your experience.  It happens with laptops and PCs; and it happens with phones.  But, to me, that's just a distraction.  I wanted something that was as close to the vanilla Android experience available; and the HTC does just that.

As mentioned, this isn’t the lightest device, but that’s mainly due to the metal body.  There’s not a lot of plastic on show here.  It feels good in the hand; with it’s brushed metal finish - but it is VERY slippery to hold.  So much so, that even HTC include a generic case to use.

This is a shame, as the phone shouldn't be hidden away.


The build quality is great.  It feels solid, all the buttons remain in place; there’s no ‘give’.  There’s a single mini-usb port on the bottom, for the charger, and a headphone socket located next to it.  On the side is the rocker button, for volume control.  On the top, the power button.

Some people have mentioned the physical size of this phone.  It’s taller than its counterparts; making one-handed operation less easy.  However, this isn’t  show-stopper and you should not worry about this unless you have really small hands.

Once it’s switched on (and, let’s face it, it’s incredibly difficult to turn a phone off these days!) the 5” screen blazes into life.  It’s crystal clear and easy to read.

I use a PIN to unlock my phone, and the only gripe I have with this, is that I need to press OK to continue, once I’ve tapped the 4 digits.  Why can’t it automatically unlock when I press the last number?  It’s a small thing, but would make a huge difference.

I’m not going to go through all the specs - there are plenty of other sites more suited to that; but I will mention the main functions; starting with the camera.

This has been given short shrift in some quarters, because it boasts 4 Utra-pixels.  What this means, in reality, is that in low light, this camera is amazing.  In daylight it’s also very good.  Colours are vibrant, and the number of settings and modes are, like others, too numerous to mention.  Suffice it to say; I am not disappointed with this camera.  It’s not a 35mm, and zooming in does lose quality.  But, and this is the main point, for everyday, social media use, it’s ideal.
Even the video camera works well; and includes additional software for slow-mo recording.

Speakers.  HTC boast Boomsound in their promotional blurb.  There are two, front facing speakers, which quite frankly are superb.  They live up to their expectation and give great audio quality; whether for video or music.

Battery life is amazing.  In fact, I have been constantly impressed in the way I can make it through a working day, with more than 20% of the battery remaining when I return home.  I don’t use it particularly heavily, and I do listen to music on my commute, and use Twitter and Google+ quite heavily.  There is a battery saving mode; but I’m not convinced that it does anything - maybe I should persevere with it; although I currently don’t see the need.

The transition between screens is seamless; and the integration with Google services is, well, bang on…  it’s one of the main reasons I moved to Android.

I should add that I am running Lollipop - the latest version of Android.  I’m loving the new notifications and I haven’t noticed any lag or issues running apps or using the phone.  I know there is a 5.0.1 on the way; but I’m not crying out for it.

HTC has been touted as the “underdog” in relation to smart devices; with Samsung leading the way with Android.  I have to say, this is an unfair, and inaccurate, position.  HTC, with the one M8, and their Desire range of handsets, has a strong following in the market.  Already, people are excited about the M9!

So, for this relatively short review; based purely on my experience using it as a daily driver, I am very happy that I chose this over the Samsung or Sony.  If HTC continue with the build quality, and refrain from adding bloatware, then I can see myself staying with them as I continue my Android life.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Review - Breaking Bad

I'm a little late to the Breaking Bad party… I totally missed watching this when it was broadcast; and to be honest, wasn't all the interested.  But - when your parents are the one’s to tell you how good it is, well, you have to listen. Right?

What’s more, it was my parents who bought us the box set!
So.  No more excuses.  
No more reasons (I don’t have Netflix, and it’s not on Amazon Prime)!

Not forgetting to mention my eldest son.  He’s been almost begging me to watch it; and I promised him that once I’d seen the first episode, I would write my review.  Ethan - this is for you.


For those of you who don’t know what the story is about; allow me to enlighten you.  Walter White is a chemistry teacher, who one tragic day receives some life-changing news.  Not wishing for his young wife, unborn baby and son to go without, he decides use his training to cook and sell crystal meth, in partnership with one of his former students.  That’s the brief synopsis - there’s so much more.




The box set contains almost 50 hours of the full five series and bonus material, across 21 discs!  I have watched the first 3 episodes… so I still have some way to go.  Other reviewers have also mirrored my own feeling, that the story-line is just too weird!  Which may explain my reticence to watch this at all.

I also agree that, having watched the first episode, I couldn't wait to watch the next.

Bryan Cranston, as Walter White, plays the part wonderfully well (he did win an Emmy Award back in 2008 for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series) and he portrays this sorry character with real empathy.  I have no idea what’s coming up, but I expect he will grow as the series continues.

The first episode is 55 minutes (I thought it would be less, given the US television predilection for “commercial breaks”) so I was pleasantly surprised.  The following episodes were 45 minutes a piece, so with about 34 hours to go; either I need to take a week off work to watch them all, or at one episode per week; this will take me just over 6 months to complete!


Have you seen Breaking Bad? Did you enjoy it?

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