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Thursday, December 24, 2015

Review - Sony SRS X11 Personal Audio System

I recently purchased a Sony SRS X11 bluetooth speaker system.  In fact, I got two of them, since they came as a pair.  That's not a normal retail package, so I took advantage when I saw it; especially as the cost was only half again for the second unit.

There are many bluetooth speakers on the market, all of varying cost and quality.  I chose these because I have a good history with Sony product, and whilst they may not be the cheapest, you can usually be sure of a quality purchase.

OK - let's have a closer look.  As you'll see from the pictures, it's tiny.  But don't let that put you off.  This pumps out 10w of music.

This cube is 61mm in each direction, and weighs just 215g.  The battery will last up to 12 hours on a full charge.  The build is solid, with a rubbery texture on the top and the back, with a plastic underneath.  The grills covering the speakers look and feel like metal.  Overall, this feels like a quality product.

On the reverse you will find a stereo mini-jack input (if you use this, then you don't need to pair using bluetooth) and there is a micro USB terminal for charging.

The top of the unit contains the controls; the power button.  Press and hold to set the unit into pairing mode.

The volume buttons are on the right.  There is also a button to initiate hands-free calling, using the built-in microphone.  Music will automatically cut out when a call is in progress.

It's simple to set up - just power up (the first time will automatically set the unit to pairing mode), search for the connection on your device.  Just select it, and the pairing will be complete.

You may have spotted the Near Field Communication (NFC) icon on the top.  Tap this with your NFC enabled device and it will automatically switch your bluetooth connection on.

Now, when you play anything on your device, the audio will output from the speaker.  Magic.

One great feature is the ability to daisy-chain two of the units together.  There are two modes available.  Either create stereo sound, or double up, and put each device in a different room.  Now, so long as they are both within the bluetooth range, you can play the same music across a wider area.  Ideal for a party!

Also included is a lanyard that is useful for hanging the speaker; maybe on a branch, tent pole, or just on a door handle.

So - how do they sound?  It isn't hi-fi.  It's not tinny; there is bass, and the volume can be turned up fairly loud (although, of course, distortion will appear at the top!)  If you're looking for pure quality, then you'll need to spend more than this!  However, for general listening; playing Spotify playlists, it's ideal.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Review - Star Wars : The Force Awakens

There has been so much hype for this movie, the pressure on the production team must have felt like a lead weight.

JJ Abrams took the helm; after much discussion.  He admitted that he was tired of doing sequels, but thankfully Kathleen Kennedy persuaded him to sit in the directors seat for this one.  I'm so glad he did, and as a self-confessed fan of the originals, Abrams said this was a film for the fans by the fans.

When the casting was announced, we knew we would see Han Solo, Princess Leia and Luke Skywalker again, along with the newcomers for a new age.  Daisy Ridley (Rey) and John Boyega (Finn) are both terrific in this episode; it's incredible to think this is the first full-length feature for Daisy.

Before I saw the movie, I was careful not to read any reviews that might "give the game away" as I wanted to learn it all as the story unravelled.  So, no spoilers here either.

If you remember seeing "A New Hope" when it was first released in 1977, then you won't be disappointed.  It's no secret that this is not a complete "green screen" experience.  Full size sets were built (including a Millenium Falcon) and apart from 2000+ CGI effects, there are real life explosions, actors in full body costumes and a totally real feel to the movie.  It has soul, it has magic and.... it has the music of John Williams.

Williams, who scored the original, has once again married the action with music perfectly to bring mood to the party.  From the opening chord, to the final note, the master of movie music has done it again.

What about the returning characters.  All now aged by 30 years (since the end of Episode 6 - Return of the Jedi), Harrison Ford looks like he's having a lot of fun (notwithstanding his ankle injury during filming) and brings Han Solo back to like with the wit, charm and sarcastic humour we know and love.
Carrie Fisher, as the now General Organa, brings that feisty attitude she also had in the original trilogy.
C3-PO and R2-D2 also return (indeed, C3-PO is on fine form) and the new robot BB-8 bring a higher level of 'cuteness' than R2-D2 ever could!

Mention must be made of the other "newcomers" to this franchise, as Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, Domnhall Gleeson and Gwendoline Christie are all great.

Finally; here's something I learned the other day - Daniel Craig is also in this movie.  Whilst shooting "Spectre" on a nearby soundstage, he took the opportunity to pull on a Stormtrooper uniform.

His official designation is JB-007 and whilst you don't see his face, his voice is recognisable during a scene with Rey.

I loved this movie.  It had the right amount of humour, plenty of action and whilst it's possible to see this as a stand-alone story, there were more than enough references to the past to pull this well and truly into the fold.  This is "classic" Star Wars.

And the best part - my two, teenage, sons, had the biggest smile on their faces when the music started.  Priceless.

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Social Media and Me

or.. Why I don't use Facebook?

I recently received exciting news from a friend, via a message on WhatsApp.  I replied directly, congratulating him.  I later learned that the same news had been shared via Facebook.  Of course, here many others posted their messages of congratulations.  Along with the inevitable "Like" thumbs up.

I don't disagree with the sentiment, but I do wonder how impersonal it is.  Surely it would take just a few seconds extra to send a personal, private, message to say "well done", or "great news".

It's a small gesture, but I believe today we are so wrapped up in social media, to the extent that our lives are broadcast in the moment.  Please, don't get me wrong.  I have been guilty in the past of posting photos of days out, birthday messages etc.  I still post on Twitter; but if it's to someone in particular, then I send a Direct Message to them, and them alone.  Or, I send them a text message.  Maybe even an email.

Social media is terrific for sharing; but it gets quite impersonal.  Monotonous even.  The same people, day in, day out; posting photos of their days out, dogs, cats, achievements, children's achievements...

I totally understand that it's exciting to tell everyone some good news; but what happened to the personal touch.  The days when the "bush telegraph" took over and the news spread via telephone - I think it was called gossip.  Now; it's instant...out there, in your face...

I'm not completely anti social media; it has its uses and I do use it; I post occasionally to Instagram, but use it mainly for following people and interests. 
I also use Google+, mainly for the communities. Again,  I don't feel the need to post all the time.

I don't 'do'  Snapchat; I'm not their target demographic and I don't use Foursquare (does anyone, anymore?)

So,  I'm happy with my life outside social media, just dipping my toe in every now and then.  I certainly don't feel the need to post my daily lives to all and sundry - those I want to know, I tell.

And if I send you a personal message, directly,  it's because I value you as an individual.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Amazon Prime v Netflix

Not a day seems to go by when someone, somewhere, is giving their views about which streaming video service is best.  So, I thought, why not me too!

In the name of full disclosure, I am an Amazon Prime member; although I don't have a vested interest in the company, I just give them my money!
My Netflix subscription is courtesy of a gift, for a year, so I've had the opportunity to use both and give my considered opinions.


Amazon Prime and Netflix are just two of the many streaming services, giving you the opportunity to tune in and watch at your convenience.  There is a big differentiator in that Amazon also have their own Fire TV (box and stick) that you can plug directly into your television to watch.  Bizarrely, you can download a Netflix app to the Amazon TV; as well as YouTube, BBC iPlayer and more.

For the purposes of this post, I'll concentrate on the services and not the hardware - a review of which I have previously written.


Let's start with television.  In each case, both offer a wide range of programmes and in both cases they have their own "Original" series.

Amazon has "Transparent", an Emmy award winning series, along with "Red Oaks", and the new "Man in the High Castle".
Amazon have their Pilots season, where, as a viewer, you can vote on programmes that you'd like to see made into full series.  Amazon are investing heavily in their own productions, and this is a terrific way for them to make something that we, the audience, want to watch.
To great fanfare, they also announced they are creating a brand new series of Top Gear, something which I think will ensure more people sign up for Prime.

Netflix are also investing heaving, and also have their own selection of Original programmes, notably "Orange is the New Black", "Daredevil", "House of Cards", and the new Marvel series "Jessica Jones".  Their catalogue of television programmes is very extensive indeed.

With the ability to vote on your favourites to be made into full series, then Amazon wins this round.

Feature Length Fun...

Moving onto movies.  This is where I believe Netflix has the upper hand.  Their selection of films appears to be non-exhaustive, unlike Amazon, which, whilst they have an abundance of films, doesn't seem to offer quite the selection.  I do think this is partly to do with the way Amazon organises its library, which makes it difficult to find something.  According to the filter criteria, there are over 1500 films currently, (and over 1000 TV shows) - so there is definitely something for everyone.

However, the on-screen navigation makes it easier to find on Netflix, so they win this round.

Bonus Point

There is one extra feature that is only offered by Amazon Prime.
The ability to download and watch offline.  When this was announced, Netflix immediately stated that this is not something that their customers would be interested in - as streaming is so straight-forward today, and it would mean helping people to free space on devices!  Really? Personally, I think they're wrong.
Having the functionality available to download a film or TV show, for me, makes this a winner.

Amazon gets an extra, bonus, point.

How much?

Last, but certainly not least is the cost.  This is where it really gets interesting.

Amazon - £79 per year.  For that, not only do you get access to a large library of films and TV, but you also have Amazon Prime Music, unlimited next day delivery, unlimited photo storage and, if you have a Kindle, access to the lending library too.
If you're not already a Prime member, you do get a 30-day free trial before they charge you.

Netflix have a range of options; starting at £5.99 per month, for standard defintion video; up to £8.99 per month for HD quality and multiple screens.
Again, they offer a 30-day free trial before they start charging.

Bear in mind that Amazon charge the entire year in one go; whereas Netflix charge on a monthly subscription basis.  This has the added benefit that you can stop at any time, without penalty, and also upgrade/downgrade at any time.


So there you have it.  A (brief) look at two of the major streaming services available in the UK.

There are plenty of others, that may, or may not, meet your needs.

Comparable in cost, on an annual basis, for me, it's easy.  Whilst I can see the benefit of Netflix, and its simpler-to-use menu structure, as I'm already a Prime member, and therefore taking advantage of the other services on offer, all for an annual fee of £79, then that makes the most sense.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Star Wars - The Saga Is Back

There is much anticipation for the new episode in the saga - Episode 7; The Force Awakens.
Much has been written.
A lot.
A complete smorgasbord of information about the making of the film not to mention the theories about the story and the characters.

At the end of April 2014, we were treated to this black and white publicity shot, as the cast were announced.  This was the first time we officially found out that Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill would be reprising their roles - and the excitement was palpable, as you could see them here, with the new generation of Star Wars cast.

The cast announcement of Episode VII - The Force Awakens

It was in a cinema, far far away (OK, the Gaumont Cinema in Bournemouth) when I first saw Star Wars, Episode IV, A New Hope, when it was first released in 1977.  I remember seeing it as a 9 year old and I totally remember the opening scene, as the Star Destroyer entered overhead.  The sound was startling and so were the images.  I, along with millions of others, were witnessing the birth of something special.

Ever since that day I have been fascinated with the technology used, not only in those early days, but also how they achieve the effects in the latest films.  I don't just mean Star Wars; but cinema as a whole.

I remember reading about how the lightsabers were created, how blue screen was used to shoot models of the various vehicles and the stop motion animation used too.  Compared to today, it was so antiquated.

Star Wars was a turning point in cinematic technology.  Indeed, Industrial Light and Magic; the special effects company, was created especially for Star Wars - it has since gone on to be a powerhouse in movie magic.
In fact, much of the technology was invented to make Star Wars.  The computer controlled camera, that allowed for multiple runs, to rehearse, the sequences.  There was the matt-painted glass, amongst others, the scene where Obi-Wan was turning off the tractor beam - in reality he was just a few feet off the ground; quite unlike the supposed metres high that it appeared in the film.

One thing I haven't been too keen on is the various versions of Episode IV that have been updated.  The first cinematic release didn't have an Episode title; that came later.
As did additional elements that were digitally super-imposed - such as the creatures as Mos Eisley spaceport.  All added when the technology became available.  Call me a purist - but that kind of ruins the sentiment made of the original.

The more recent episodes (1 - 3) were less "real" and made using almost pure green screen.  That is, much of the scenery was digitally imposed after the main shoot was over.  Personally; I think this was a shame.  Whilst there should always be room for creative licence; asking the actors to work in a plain environment I think somehow hurts them.  The same can be said the the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films.  Epics in their own right, it adds extra pressure on the actors.

However; notwithstanding all this technology; I also concede that without it, we wouldn't see the spectacular space dog-fights and effects that are so entertaining.

The Force Awakens is the 7th episode; continuing 30 years from the end of Return of the Jedi.  We know that Han Solo and Chewbacca are back, as are Leia and Luke (although they haven't featured too much in the trailers).  The scene is set for an explosive return for one of the most famous soap space operas of all time.

I, for one, am very excited...

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Review - Amazon Prime Music

There are a number of different streaming music services available; from Spotify, Google Play Music, Apple Music and Amazon.

As a member of Amazon Prime, when this launched I was more than interested in finding out more.

Lots has been written about Amazon Prime, and the benefits that are bestowed upon you; to recap, they are:

  • Unlimited Next Day Delivery
  • Prime Video - Up to 15000 movies and TV shows to stream (including Amazon Originals)
  • Prime Photos - Unlimited photo Storage
  • Prime Early Access - 30 minute early access to Lightning Deals
  • Kindle Owners Lending Library - Over half a million titles to borrow on any Kindle device

Finally, Prime Music.
Over one million tracks available to stream / download, with no ads.
What more could you ask for.  Admittedly, the music available is not as extensive as Spotify or Google Play et al, BUT, and this is the point - that’s OK.

There is a huge back catalogue, and recently added albums include the latest from Little Mix and One Direction; in fact Amazon recently announced a deal with Universal Music Group, introducing artists such as Katy Perry, Maroon 5, The Weeknd, Ellie Goulding, and Jessie J.

For me, Amazon Prime Music offers the right balance, as I am quite happy with the selection available and the features also available.

There are hundreds of pre-determined playlists; of course you can create your own, you can skip tracks whenever your want, and it's completely ad-free.

I like the fact that their x-ray feature displays the lyrics to the songs (where available), which is an extension of the x-ray offered on their video offering.

With Prime Music, it’s possible to create playlists, change the order tracks within the playlists (something I was surprised to find lacking on Spotify), you can download tracks to your device (and select the location; internal memory, or external SD card - again, something that I wasn’t able to achieve on Spotify).
All of this is synchronised with the cloud, so your playlists can be accessed from all your devices.

If there is one feature I would really love, it's gapless playback, if not also cross-over.

So; as an Amazon Prime member, for the grand total of £79 per year (just £1.52 per week) you get ALL the above. If you have the Amazon Fire TV and/or the TV Stick, then you have a sublime entertainment experience.

What do you think? Do you have a favourite music service?

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Cubs - The Start of a Great Adventure

Are you at a loss about something for your son to do; outside of school?

Is he driving you mad, just sitting in front of the computer all evening, and not doing anything creative?  Does he take part in sports?  Does he have interests?

Are you looking for something to do, that takes your mind away from work?  Maybe you have skills of your own you'd like to share.

Next year, Cubs celebrate their Centenary. 100 years of Cubs, around the world.  From the age of 8, through to 10 and a half, boys (and girls) enjoy a really eclectic mix of education, action and adventure.

My personal story began back in 2008, when my oldest son, Ethan, started.

Scouting, in general, has seen a steady resurgence, and when my oldest son turned 8, he joined our local Cub pack.  As a parent who never went to Cubs or Scouts, I really didn't know what to expect.  At all.  So, I was pleasantly surprised to see the programme, and the activities the boys got up to.

I first helped out when we went on our annual camp.  The "main event" in the Scouting year, I was amazed; totally blown away by the organisation and preparation that goes into making a Scout/Cub camp successful.  You could liken it to a a small army - everything is brought to the site, and when we leave, it's as though we were never there!

It was very hard work, but extremely rewarding.  The boys had a fantastic time; and not an electronic device to be seen.  I was hooked.  I soon became a more regular helper at the weekly meetings, and at the following camp, I was invested as a leader.

Almost three years ago, I took over as Akela.  The leader of the pack.

Why is Akela the name for the Cub Leader?

If you didn't know, Lord Baden-Powell, the creator of the Scouts, was friendly with Rudyard Kipling, and so asked if he could use the characters from The Jungle Book as names for the Cub leaders.

I get such a buzz from seeing the boys grow and develop; and, as they get older, move on to Scouts.

Running a Cub pack is no mean feat.  I have the most amazing team in Shere Khan, Baloo and Bagheera; as well as three Explorer girls, who turn up each and every week to help run the meetings.  The parents get involved too.

There are plenty of badges to earn; from  Personal Safety to DIY, Cooking to Pioneering and Digital Citizen to Hiking and the great outdoors.  There's something for everyone, and it's an education too.

I've not even started to scratch the surface about what Cubs and Scouts is about.  There is so much; run by an organisation that I'm proud to be a part of.

If you are looking for something exciting and rewarding, where you get out just as much as you put in; where your son or daughter will learn new skills, increase their confidence and make new friends, then contact your local Scout group to see if you can help.

You won't regret it.

Take a look at the Scouts website for more information

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Pocket - How I Save The Internet

How do you consume your news?  Do you buy a traditional newspaper?  Do you just read the free newspaper on your daily commute?
Or, do you use your phone, tablet or PC to read the news?

I rarely read a newspaper; but I do read the news on my phone; each morning, as I wend my way to work, I flick through feedly and find articles of interest in my curated news feeds.  I also use Flipboard for more in-depth articles of interest.  When I find something I want to save for later, I add to Pocket.  This is how I "save the internet".

It's not just feedly.  It's possible to save articles from almost anywhere; especially by using the "share" feature, I select Pocket, and away it goes.

The next time I fire up the Pocket app on my mobile, or the site; all my saved articles are ready to ready to read.

Once I've added tags, I can then select tags to read, see where the videos are, or pictures.  Articles I want to keep handy I mark as favourites, others, when read can either be deleted for good, or simply archived.

Saving the internet has never been so easy.

Do you use Pocket?  Is there some other way in which you save articles for reading later?

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

New Tech - Episode 6 - Fitbit Fit

I will start this post by telling you that I am not, repeat not, a fitness fanatic.

It's been years since I went to the gym, or took part in any organised fitness activity.  I don't run.  I haven't been swimming for ages.  In fact, the only exercise I do is walking.

For a while I've been contemplating losing weight, and thought I'd get myself a pedometer - measure how far I walk, in an effort to concentrate my mind.

You can track various attributes such as steps, stairs,
calories burned and more...
Then I heard about Fitbit.  I did some research.  Thought about it.  Continued my walking and thought some more.  There is a range to choose from, from the small Fitbit Zip, to the top of the range Surge.

Now, that's a little over the top, but the Zip wasn't enough (even though it's exactly what I was looking for in a pedometer).

I opted for the Fitbit One.  It's a small device that can easily fit into a pocket, or clipped onto a waistband using the supplied clip.  It tracks a number of things:

  • Steps (that's the obvious one)
  • Floors climbed
  • Distance walked
  • Calories burned
  • Sleep
There's even a little plant that grows or shrinks based on how active you are!

Used in conjunction with the app (available on iOS or Android) and the web interface, the entire Fitbit philosophy is about getting fit, losing weight and keeping fit.

The website dashboard is where you go to log your food and drink.  There is a database of almost every food type, as well as ranges that can be purchased from supermarkets.  You can also scan the barcode on the packaging and most of the time it finds it.  This is a little hit and miss, there have been a few occasions where my food isn't recognised.  It's not a major issue, but it would be nice if the database was kept up to date.

Fitbit Dashboard
The Fitbit dashboard shows how you're doing
against the targets you've set

At night, slip the Fitbit One into a sleeve and wear it on your wrist. Set it going as you fall asleep and it tracks how soundly (or not) you sleep.

It's an activity monitor in reverse, recording times when you wake or are restless; and giving you an efficiency rating of your sleep.

Should you go running, cycling, roller-skating, play tennis; or any other physical activity, then you can set the timer off again, and it will record it as active time.

As I mentioned right at the start, I am not a fitness fanatic; however, using my Fitbit One is driving me to better my tracking scores each day.  Increasing the number of steps I do, watching what I eat and seeing it all reported on the website.  For the very serious, for a premium, you can get a whole host of reports - the first week is free, to try them out; and they are very detailed.

If you so desire, there's also a whole community to join in with, and compete against!  This isn't something I do, but I can see the benefits.  The website also hosts a great forum, for asking all sorts of questions.

Overall, my Fitbit One has seamlessly become part of my dress code, and I am often joked at for scanning barcodes and capturing my eating habits!

The last laugh will be on me, as I reach my goal.

Do you use a fitness tracker?  How has it helped you?


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