Plex and DVR

I’ve been an enthusiastic user and supporter of Windows Media Centre over the years, spending a lot of money for an optimum set up that is able to command WAF (Wife Acceptance Factor). Of course, it being a standout solution that “just works”, Microsoft decided to kill it – much like other awesome tech like Kinect, Windows Phone/Mobile, Silverlight, etc. So we needed an alternative that could provide media streaming of music and films we have on our home network and schedule recording of FreeSat content – all that across the house. Until recently, that was a big ask, requiring technical know how and patience which I simply do not have.

I’ve been using Plex as a media server for a while, not altogether impressed but it has seemed to be a consumer friendly (if sometimes tempremental with connections) solution that was rich and intuitive enough to be able to possible achieve WAF. When I heard that they started supporting DVR (the missing piece) for OTA (over-the-air) television, I thought I’d give it another go on the same machine previously used to run Windows Media Centre. Officially, Plex doesn’t appear to support FreeSat, but on the off chance I thought I’d try adding a LIVE TV / DVR configuration. Imagine my surprise when my device was recognised! (Note that you need a Plex Pass to enable LIVE TV / DVR support.)

The key was that my FreeSat card (a TBS 6981) appeared as a Hauppauge WinTV-quad, which Plex is compatible with. All I had to do was set it up. By selecting options in these three entirely anonymous drop down lists – a frustrating and disappointing user experience.

After trying a few obvious combinations, it became clear that with a channel scan that takes a minute or so before failing, I’d be there for the duration. After confirming that I was actually getting a signal through my FreeSat cable by patching it into an old Humax receiver, I downloaded DVBViewer and used that as a means of quickly identifying the settings. Or rather, trying to figure out what the drop down lists meant.

Using some very basic FreeSat knowledge, I knew that we use an Astra satellite at 28.2 degrees. That was easy. But what about the other fields? One related to the LNB type and one to the what I can assume is the selection of the individual LNB within the quad-LNB I have.

Mapping these settings into Plex resulted in a grand total of 4 channels. None of which I could get. Odd. Tried it again, worked fine. Go figure.

Next came mapping guide data to the channels. This is an incredibly onerous task and immensely dull and can be particularly frustrating if the user interface isn’t optimised to the task, which Plex isn’t. You can’t sort or filter, it’s difficult to see what’s what within a small window and the similar design of the buttons can make it easy to accidentally re-scan the channels – as I did – and lose everything – as I did.

Everything seemed to work after stepping through the process. Firing up a Plex client on my mobile phone and web browser showed “LIVE TV” and I could tune into channels.

There are some limitations, though.

  • You can’t time-slip, so watch whilst a recording is in progress. I used to use this all the time to watch the news slightly late.
  • Not every client has a guide, which makes it excruciating to find programmes.
  • Not all apps have LIVE TV and DVR functionality. My Panasonic TV doesn’t, for example. (yeah, I know. My FreeSat is patched into my PC because the set is only FreeView)

It’s definitely got promise, however. Plex is pretty polished and things do mostly “just work”, which ticks my box.


Would the last user of Windows Mobile please turn out the lights? (2/3)

If you haven’t arrived here from what brought me here, you might want to start there.

Without rehashing what came before, in leaving Windows Phone I find myself at odds with my ecosystem and being pulled back in to Google’s data black hole.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Windows and what it was/could have been. UWP and Windows 10 and x86 apps on ARM are exciting. I dislike Android and respect myself too much to buy in to Apple.

Call me old-school. But I can’t be alone. For a phone, I just want it to be fast, good looking, be easy to use (so a physical keyboard) and be reliable and secure. The industry is careering towards exactly the opposite. Apps suck battery power and require Octa-core performance, all phones I can see are just slabs, no phones (bar one) have a physical keyboard instead relying on increasingly “smart” (annoying) autocorrecting on-screen keyboards and the most secure platforms (Windows Mobile, BlackBerry) are essentially dead in the water. Even the respected brands for build quality and security, Nokia and BlackBerry, have failed and are now retooling as façade-brands whilst the same Far-Eastern-manufacturing-factory-drones as everyone is using are charged with trying to maintain the trust, build quality and heritage of former platforms – but cheaper, much cheaper.

So, I switched.

The industry has failed me, producing nothing interesting, differentiating or exciting. It’s all just a bunch of black slabs differentiated only by the marketing wrapped around what is otherwise the same phone.

Except, maybe BlackBerry. BlackBerry have moved to Android (probably a smart move) and they’ve tried to transition the established trust they have developed in their brand (key of which is security) towards what is the most insecure platform available for mobile phones. They’ve sort of succeeded, too. Add on a physical keyboard and you get to the BlackBerry Priv. Alas, it looks like this was the first and last phone users could trust for build quality, as their production is now handled by the same Far-Eastern-manufacturing-factory-drone previously mentioned. But this isn’t a Priv review.

But, it’s a struggle.

I don’t know how you people manage on this platform.

  • No Live Tiles. Widgets and tiny overlays on a grid of icons just don’t come close
  • You have to turn your screen on to see the time, no ‘Glance screen’
  • Fussy, inconsistent UI. Notifications about everything, delivered inconsistently. Only sometimes do I get told of my email, more often I get told I unplugged my headphones (yeah, I know, because I just did it with my own hands)
  • I’ve had to reboot every day. Rebooting was almost unheard of with Windows Phone 8.1, though became a regular requirement for Windows 10 – but not daily.
  • Things just stop working. APN settings, my primary email account four BlackBerry Hub. Then, they start working again.
  • Settings, settings, settings, everywhere. With great configurability comes great confusion.

About that Priv …

  • Poor screen in daylight. Almost invisible.
  • The radios (particularly Wifi and Mobile Internet) aren’t that great. I seemed to get better reception for both on my Windows Phones.
  • Headphone socket on the bottom of the phone. Even worse, just to one side. Result is I have to put my phone in my pocket upside down to listen on headphones and can’t expect to extract it without the lining of my pocket.
  • Going back to wired charging is like going back in time. And Micro USB to boot.
  • But, …
    • It is secure. So secure I had to factory reset when I locked myself out after forgetting my unlock pattern!
    • The slide is reminiscent of the old Nokia N95-2 (one of my favourites)
    • The BlackBerry software is neat, particularly the Hub. All the things in one inbox. It’s how I like to work. One app to rule them all, and in the inbox combine them.

Next job, trying to recreate my Microsoft ecosystem comfort zone, in someone else’s world

Would the last user of Windows Mobile please turn out the lights? (3/3)

Where am I? Read about how I got here.

Here I am in someone else’s platform. I need to migrate over to Android from Windows Mobile but retain the Microsoft ecosystem that has served me so well. Windows Central recently wrote their own piece on what is fast becoming a frequent task, but that was for switching to iPhone. This is my version, for Android.

Install the Microsoft apps

Microsoft have been busy building for everyone else’s platform whilst their own platform burned. Often, these apps were even better than the Windows Mobile equivalent. Nice. Kick your users whilst they’re down.

There are a tonne of apps available for Microsoft users, and I’ve focused on Office 365 and some consumer apps:

  • Microsoft Outlook
  • Microsoft Word
  • Microsoft Excel
  • Microsoft PowerPoint
  • Office Lens
  • Microsoft OneDrive
  • Skype
  • Groove (though it can’t read music on your SD card!)
  • XBox

I also included the MSN News apps, but quickly realised that without Live Tiles, I don’t have the same pull in to the app.

There’s actually an app “Microsoft Applications” which lists all Microsoft’s applications that can be installed. Well worth a look.

Reacquaint myself with Cortana

A feature I always used on my Lumias was Cortana. She was awesome. Excellent speech recognition, fast, clutter free and integrated in my ecosystem. Android has a Cortana app (one of my red lines) so I was hoping we could reacquaint with each other fairly fast.

Alas, she’s just not the same. She hasn’t got the same over-lock-screen access, she’s a little less available to my fingers and she doesn’t talk to me anymore. (I miss her “Wa-wa-waa”)

Sharing to other apps

Other than that, she’s been fine with everything I’ve thrown at her. She also notifies me on my Windows 10 desktop, as she used to with my Lumia 950 XL. I am counting on Cortana filling that gap between my phone and my ecosystem. She does still let me send text messages from my Windows 10 desktop, but the first message will likely fail because she needs permission.

How it’s working out …

  • I am really liking the Share contract that lets me select Share from any app and select which app should receive the Share. (Another feature killed from Windows Phone).
  • My weekly shopping trip using OneNote as a live-synced Shopping List still works. With the Recent Notes Home Screen widget, it’s actually easier. But the syncing isn’t as slick as Windows Mobile. There is no feedback to the user to indicate that a sync is in progress or that a sync has finished and what the changes are.
  • Microsoft Outlook doesn’t seem to be able to manage my Contacts, which is disappointing considering my primary repository is my Microsoft Account.
  • I’m really liking the keyboard. Much of this blog was written on a physical mobile phone keyboard. Finally, I have freedom from my desktop to perform equivalent actions. No need for Continuum, either.
  • Android Pay is awesome. I don’t think I’ll every use my card again. It’s so slick you actually doubt that the payment has worked and walking off feels far too like being a thief. Microsoft have Microsoft Wallet, but of course (with many things Microsoft), it’s only available in the US.


Ironically, Microsoft have gone to the effort of writing an app, “Switch to Windows Phone“. Perhaps they would have been better creating an app, “Switch from Windows Phone” to try and match what users loved from their own platform but with some degree of confidence in the longevity of the platform.


Would the last user of Windows Mobile please turn out the lights? (1/3)

Nokia Lumias 920, 930, 950 XLOk, I’ve finally given up the good fight. I tried, I evangelised, I contributed development effort, I bought 5 phones; but one man on an island cannot save Microsoft’s total lack of effort or enthusiasm for their own mobile strategy. I was an island on an island.

I’ve endured mockery, lack of support from broadcasters, companies and governments, absence of interest in support from peripherals (try to find a pair of headphones that has inline controls that work on a Microsoft Mobile phone); now even my partner has left (not me, the platform).

What went wrong?

App -gap. I’m not a fan of “apps”. They’re expensive to develop, inconsistent to use and difficult to support. Until the industry realises that the world’s best and most compatible app has always been available (it’s called a well written site on the internet), we’re stuck with native apps and companies who develop on one should develop on them all – or leave a percentage of customers (Windows Mobile) in the cold. Unless your app has good reason to be native, such as games or requiring access to hardware, all you’re doing is replicating what your mobile site is probably already doing – but worse. As app developers came and went, the reason to stay reduced. It was SmartThings what done it, in the end.

Windows 10. Windows 10 was an abomination when it first landed on our computers. Every aspect of its launch was a botch. Overly aggressive deployments of an operating system that was clearly not ready for market do nothing to help users. The idea is a grand one, and one which is appreciated, but some things must remain stable and reliable. Windows 10 is essentially always in beta. It’s much better now (though still wide of the mark of what Windows 7/8.1 was), but that first public version was Vista-in-miniature. The effect on hardware that demands performance and reliability, mobile phones, was even more acute. Older phones were left out in the cold, effectively abandoned; battery life suffered and apps were downright buggy. Yet, the Universal Windows Platform is awesome and very exciting for developers – but why are people like SmartThings not even bothering despite its benefits and ease of development? It’s a vacuum into which Google will fit with its Chromebooks.

Microsoft. I’ve often said there can be no greater curse on a Microsoft product than Microsoft itself (Silverlight, Windows Media Centre). They create awesome platforms and applications which identify key user requirements, yet successfully damage and burn their own products. Windows Phone launched in an aggressive marketplace and had to stand out, and it did. Not always in a positive way, but that would be improved, it brought a unique experience to the market: Live tiles, deep social media integration, Groups, Rooms, Kids Corner, Apps Corner, the list goes on. As the platform struggled, instead of doubling down and making a big deal of these unique selling points, each of these was strategically extinguished. Now, what used to be a unique platform with limited uptake has become yet-another-hamburger-menu platform with an even more limited uptake.

Nadella. Since Satya Nadella took over Microsoft, there has been a fundamental shift in Microsoft’s strategy, and one which is both welcome and exciting. Open-sourcing of Microsoft code with contribution from the community, free development products and cross-platform support of key Microsoft assets such as Office, SQL Server and Visual Studio have all been welcomed by the industry, even by the haters. But it is unfathomable when the apps developed for Android and iOS are better and updated more frequently than on their own platform. They are subscribing to the very same logic that has cursed the Windows Store: there’s not enough people to warrant the development effort.

Of the 10 people I know who have used Windows Phone/Mobile, only one remains with the platform, and I don’t suspect that is down to choice alone.

And now, I’ve left too. I held out, through the Nokia purchase (Nokia phones were always awesome, even before they were involved in Windows Phone), through the marked decline in product quality as Microsoft took hold of the Lumia line and into the “nothing to share” phase; waiting, always waiting for that distant Surface Phone to be realised into an actual product. But why? They want to redefine the Mobile platform, but when and how? All we have to look at is a patent filing. I’m not interested in a foldable phone, or a phone that is a hologram or anything else. I want a phone that works. If a Surface Phone was released tomorrow (or more likely, at this year’s MWC), there would still be a lack of support for it. It’s already dead.

So, I have chosen

Smart things

I’ve had my suspicions about home automation and IoT (“Internet of Things”), where your lights become internet connected (requiring firmware updates), your house becomes even more connected with the inevitable security risks that this brings. Where your family and home have to become accustomed to whatever system you have in place, possibly modifying their routines to fit the technology. My DIY skills are limited, my time even more so. I have what is becoming a niche smartphone and no appetite for fiddling to get things to work. It had to be cheap and – most importantly – it had to have SAS. SAS (“Spouse Acceptance Factor“) was fundamental. Automation invites suspicion from your family, who will be subject to its sensors which suggests a creepiness I didn’t want to have to defend.

SmartThings logoSamsung’s SmartThings has emerged as the best system for my family. It is relatively cheap, is an open system permitting integrations outside the SmartThings immediate ecosystem and has integrated itself into our home seamlessly. SmartThings isn’t restricted to the USA, as other tech. companies tend to. Whilst UK availability is limited, it is there via Currys/PC World and direct from Samsung. As a user, you add Smart Apps to your SmartThings ecosystem which join your “things” together to add useful functionality. Typical examples are turning lights off when there is no motion, raising an alarm when there is unexpected movements, etc.

I’ve set up a few neat automations, such as detecting when the freezer has been left open for a suspiciously long period (hopefully avoiding replacing another freezer-full of food) and turning outside lights on. As with anything IoT, one has to be careful about security so I’m not going to identify my specific configuration so patterns can’t be identified which may actually add risk.

Whilst SmartThings has a distinct ecosystem of branded sensors which include presence sensors, motion sensors, door opening/closing, moisture and power consumption/switching, a purchase win for me was the open nature of its interactions with similar IoT products such as Philips Hue (an otherwise expensive and rather pointless lighting toy) and ZigBee or Z-Wave IoT components such as light switches, thermostats, panic buttons, … the list goes on. This is not just an investment in what is an interesting idea from a single company, it can be extended should Samsung’s support of the system waiver. IoT is too new to go “all-in” on a company on the off-chance, I need reassurance that the product will remain supported and if there is interaction/integration with other components, even better.

Cost-wise, SmartThings is bearable. £200 for a starter system and an average of £30 per extra sensor is fairly reasonable, I’ve bought a few extra bits to extend the reach of my automations. It requires no rewiring, no fixings, no expertise. The consumer is able to pick a pack off the shelf and get started. But will it save money in the long run? It is possible to set up orchestrations that turn lights off when no-one is around (a bug-bear of mine), alert when power consumption is too high or when the freezer door is left open. Integrating with lighting requires expensive bulbs at least, or integration with the expensive Philips Hue system. As with purchasing LED lights throughout the house, are you really going to make the money back through savings? When do you stop buying sensors? The starter pack is almost the gateway drug, offering you the basic tools needed to introduce new ideas of automations – and cost.

Despite being one of the promoted benefits of SmartThings and the possibilities of IoT, I don’t think it’s reliable as a security system – certainly where security is a fundamental aspect of the purchase. I love that you can set it to silently and intelligently arm to differing levels of security based on whether you’re likely to have gone out, or retired for the evening. Even better that it automatically disarms itself if “things start to happen” in the morning, or you return home. We have never had to manually set this and mostly haven’t bumped against this intelligent arming/disarming. Unfortunately, the automatic disarming when you return is based on whether it detects your presence sensor or mobile phones before you “break” the security sensors. If you’re too quick and open the door before your phone logs in or it detects your key-fob, it sets off an intrusion condition.

As a Windows Phone user, and a happy one, (well, until Windows 10 Mobile) any smart-home system needed to support my ecosystem. All too often, devices and developers based themselves around so-called apps on either iOS or Android. The presence of SmartThings on Windows Phone was the clincher. Yes, it was expected that the app wouldn’t be as well rounded as its iOS or Android equivalent and it has mixed reviews, but it is fully functional. I do worry about a system that is fundamentally oriented around mobile phone apps and not offering an alternative interface from the hub itself, but the app has mostly performed brilliantly. Where the gap between big-screen accessibility and lack of app accessibility opens up, a labs tool called SmartTiles adequately fills this gap.

I say “mostly performed” because there was a short period where the app on Windows Phone stopped displaying my “things”. The system itself continued to work, executing my routines and reacting to conditions, but I couldn’t have a look at my “things”, I just got a blank screen. So not terminal, but annoying. I did contact the UK support team and I was very impressed with their response. It was both prompt, helpful and supportive. I was dreading the “we’re working on it” stock response, but received a personal response that was reassuring that despite the smaller app-market, I (along with the others affected) as a Windows Phone user was important. The app was fixed – and actually improved – soon after.

Another attraction to the SmartThings platform was its accessibility for developers to play around with their “things”. As a developer, you use a web-based IDE, editing a small script written in Groovy, atop the JVM. Very little knowledge is required, other than the usual coding techniques such as events, asynchronous patterns and reminding yourself that you might not be in the state you expect to be in. The “things” expose an abstracted API that is a breeze to work against. The SmartThings hub and cloud effectively marshal the messaging and hosting of your app, transparently executing code in the cloud or the hub as it sees fit. I have my first app in private testing already.

IoT and home automation, in my eyes, remains a gimmick. It is still immature, with limited integration across vendors’ products. We’ve still to learn how an increasingly connected home remains secure, both digitally and physically. It’s expensive in financial terms and is fundamentally dependent on Spouse-Acceptance-Factor. If your spouse doesn’t agree to having a key fob or the “app” on her phone (which has to be “Smart” and not a BlackBerry), then the system breaks down quickly. Within these negatives, SmartThings has pitched itself well. It is relatively cheap, has low-impact on the family and widely supported across smartphones and the ecosystem of IoT devices. I’ve had automations running for over a month and they were extremely easy to install, configure and have required no interaction. Disappointingly so, if you like playing and tweaking!  Like Windows Phone did, “it just works”. This is a system I would recommend a non-IT pro user to install.




My Bitcoin experience

Pixelated BitcoinYou’ll have heard of Bitcoin and the possibly cryptically named cryptocurrencies that are generating some interest in financial circles, well, everywhere but the big banks.

Bitcoin and similar schema represents an alternative to “fiat” currencies such as Pound Sterling, Euro, etc. You purchase Bitcoins on an exchange with either a web site or a smartphone, you find somewhere (or somebody) that accepts Bitcoin, they flash you wish a QR code and voila, you’ve debited enough cash to purchase a smoothie.

It sounds simple, but even as an IT professional, I have to admit to struggling to understand it and the paradigm. How can a so-called “virtual currency” be trusted? What about the end user, the consumer who wants to pay for their shopping? Flashing QR codes and requiring a smartphone is perhaps too much for some (including me).

To help convince me, I was treated to lunch at Java Lounge in Douglas, one of a growing number of cryptocurrency-accepting outlets on the island. My host asked to pay by Bitcoin and was given a receipt containing a QR code which was scanned by his iPhone-app and the amount of the bill debited from his “account”. Pretty slick.

Rewind a couple of days

Which is sweet, if you’re an iPhone or Android user. As a Windows Phone user, I’m left with an abortion of an app  which on first execution leaves the user with the screen:


What am I supposed to do with that? Swipe right and I get to “log in”:


… with a GUID! Which I have to type on a smartphone keyboard!

Perhaps I should now mention that the Blockchain site I registered on briefly displayed a GUID which I struggled to later find to be able to enter in these fields. Which failed to log me in anyway.

Ok, maybe I was being dense.

Back to today

As a test, I have a small amount in my “account”. Well, it’s not an account yet, it’s just a QR code.


This was generated using the POS terminal, but is just as easily achieved using an “app”.

I now have to realise this as cash. So I go to the suggested website at Coinkite and “Sign up” to convert the voucher code on the receipt into currency in an account so I can spend it. Except, the web site “Sign up” form doesn’t work except if you use Chrome.

So far, we have a clunky replacement for a widely understood paradigm, complicated sequences of alphanumeric characters which form a check when transferring funds, a requirement to have an expensive smartphone for an optimal experience – as long as it isn’t Windows Phone and web sites which are poorly written and opinionated such that I can only use their preferred browser not my own.

All in all, a failure.

Not so fast

There is a distinct feeling of libertarianism around cryptocurrencies. As was explained to me, the blockchains are self-validating and carry greater strength than the bricks-and-mortar banks. We are going to be able to really stick it to the man, the man who has been bailed out yet continues to transgress in selling scams, rate fixing and the like. It’s certainly an honourable endeavour.

But I struggle to see how we can pitch this to the regular guy on the street. For me, QR codes, restrictions based on what smartphone you own, complexities of understanding the procedure (which QR code do I scan) and the trust people need that their money is safe creates barriers to entry. Acknowledging the evils of the banks and the iron-like grip companies like Visa have over our payment methods, it’s a well known paradigm that has lasted since the old mechanical clunk-clunk credit card “machines” that created an imprint of your card on some tracing paper. Since then we’ve had magnetic stripes, Chip and PIN, card security codes and now Near Field Communication payments – all using the same paradigm (now Apple are finally on board with this, cryptocurrencies might have an even bigger hill to climb). Hand over your card and swipe it, insert it or wave it wherever you see the “Visa” sign – which is, ahem, everywhere. Banks also have established account numbers, sort codes, IBANs, etc. I can remember these because they’re simple. 8 numeric digits is much easier than 34 mixed-case alpha-numeric characters representing my “address” (I understand one doesn’t “remember” this code, just like one doesn’t remember serial numbers on a bank note. My point is it’s displayed within apps therefore takes a slice of our attention).

Bitcoin et al. has many advantages. It is cheaper to use, it transfers the control of your money to you (or apparently, your smartphone) and it is “liberating”. But you can you really pay your mortgage using it? I look forward to seeing someone attempt to pay their mortgage (which is somewhat akin to risk) using a cryptocurrency at a bricks-and-mortar bank that it competes with. I can perhaps buy a smoothie, or a pint at some selected (though increasing) outlets. Maybe it could ultimately replace cash, considering people tend to carry small amounts of cryptocurrency around on their smartphone. Seems a similar approach to risk as carrying wads of cash. They just need to make the transaction simpler.

As I said today, we need to see the payment paradigm simplified. Requiring certain apps on certain smartphones and web sites on certain web browsers is not good enough. I was shown a debit-card style card that one can use much like a Chip-and-PIN card so the paradigm is getting closer – but I can’t use my Visa card in the Bitcoin terminal or vice-versa. Even American Express uses the same terminal as Visa!

In conclusion, I do like the idea – but it’s way too complicated.

QuietPC Mambo Windows Media Centre – almost silent!

Whilst Windows Media Centre is a fantastic addition to the living room, it does need an adequately specified PC which is often not the easiest to procure. UK users, in particular, suffer from a distinct lack of Media Centre-oriented machines from the likes of Hewlett-Packard and are left with building their own. Building one’s own Media Centre is not for the faint hearted, either. I thought I knew what RAM to buy, what CPU was best, what graphics card to use, etc. Not anymore. Whilst the architecture behind PCs is often quite simple, the combination of components such as chipsets and even RAM modules can contain hidden gotchas which will cost in performance.

I came across QuietPC, which is a company that specialise in quiet PCs, including a line of Windows Media Centre machines. I went for their Mambo, which housed a well specified and optimised, custom-built PC within an unassuming case specifically designed to sit within a living room without fuss.

  • Streacom FC9 Silver Full Aluminium Fanless Chassis
  • Streacom SC30 Internal USB3.0 Cable for Streacom Chassis
  • Gigabyte GA-Z77MX-D3H LGA1155 Micro ATX Motherboard
  • Intel Core i7 3770S 3.1GHz 65W Quad Core CPU
  • Corsair 16GB (2x8GB) XMS3 DDR3 Memory
  • picoPSU 160W picoPSU and AC/DC adapter block
  • Intel 180GB 335 Solid State Drive SSD
  • WD 2TB 3.5in WD20EARX Caviar Green Quiet SATA 6Gbs HDD OEM
  • Streacom Sony AD-7640S Slot Load DVD+/-RW Drive
  • SOtM SATA SSD/HDD/ODD Electrical Noise Filter II
  • SOtM SATA SSD/HDD/ODD Electrical Noise Filter II
  • Microsoft Windows 8 Professional 64-bit System Builder Edition
  • Streacom ST-IRPB IR Receiver PCB only, no Remote Handset
  • Sapphire ATI Fanless HD5450 1GB GDDR3 PCI-E HDMI
  • TBS 6981 Dual Satellite HD Low-profile PCIe TV Tuner Card DVB-S2

Specifying and ordering the components was really simple, with explanations given for each option. This was invaluable for some of the more esoteric components such as the noise filters which supposedly suppresses EMF from disks from interfering with the audio circuitry. The processor is cooled through heatpipes routed around the case, which itself acts as a heatsink. I opted for an SSD for the primary disk so I not only got silent operation but also that “[almost] instant on” effect which one expects from living room appliances. I had to admit to being a little reluctant to opt for Windows 8, having 3 perfectly good licenses already, but due to the enhanced driver support for the TV card and HD content it was a no-brainer. It is worth making sure that you get the Windows 8 Pro SKU and post-purchase, download the Media pack which only costs £6.99 from Microsoft using the Windows Features option in Control Panel. I was pleasantly pleased with the ability for the TV card to handle 2 HD inputs and find the whole system very responsive. Those second delays between remote control press and action can create resentment.

I was really impressed after ordering I was contacted and asked if I was prepared to wait a few days before the machine was built so I could take advantage of Intel’s new Haswell chipset. I know from previous experience that Intel chips are power hungry and can run hot, making it even more difficult to keep noise levels down. The Haswell chipset is the latest enhancement by Intel to improve on their record on power efficiency, therefore heat efficiency and ultimately, noise levels of fans, etc.

When the kit arrived, it was all built and prepared and ready for plugging in. Not only that but all the extra bits and pieces from the motherboard, etc. were included. After 24 hours, the system was configured and achieving good GAF levels! (Although after the Panasonic FreeSat+ device we were using, this wasn’t too hard.) The machine is pretty much silent, too, earning it the highly sought after living room position. The only sound you hear is an occasional ‘click’ of the disk heads on the secondary disk.


If I was to highlight issues, there were only a few. Firstly, I asked if adding the graphics card would route the audio of the onboard sound through the alternate HDMI socket on the graphics card. I was told that this would be the case. However, on installation, this seemed not to be so. Luckily, my Onkyo receiver is able to combine HDMI video with the SP/DIF from the sound card into a single output so this wasn’t an issue once I’d figured this out. There was an oddity with the Windows 8 licence, too. I bought the Windows 8 System Builder edition, which comes with the product key on the bottom of the machine. Upon entering this, the Windows installation finalisation process couldn’t recognise the key. Further, when ordering the Media pack, the presumed product key already installed did not match the product key sticker! This has been resolved satisfactorily, however.

Finally, as I am moving from a consumer-grade FreeSat+ platform to the underlying satellite channels, marrying the data with the actual channels was particularly arduous. With around 1,500 channels, some live, some not broadcasting whilst configuring, some not working and some scrambled, this turned out to be challenging. Though we did have some fun discovering some pretty whacky content out there! The team at QuietPC were again very helpful with the final steps of this, which involved re-locating the HD channels for BBC One, BBC Two and Channel 4. They sent me to a site with all the details on and it was up and running within 10 minutes.

Overall, a very positive experience both in terms of product quality and service. The Windows Media Centre is happily working in HD, with dual tuners, with my music and picture library with two XBox 360 Extenders allowing viewing/listening of content in other rooms in the house. Perfect!

I’m giving my old Windows Media Centre machine away, with a licence of Windows 7 Home Premium.

I’m investing in Windows RT, not Windows 8. Here’s why.

Steve Ballmer and SurfaceIt can’t have escaped your attention that Windows 8 has finally been released. Microsoft previously held 90% of the PC device market, which under Steve Ballmer is quickly collapsing. Microsoft are being slated for their slow response to trends set by other companies and a significant paradigm shift is probably their only way to slow down the user drain.

But under Bill Gates, Microsoft was actually first with modern ideas and devices. Embedded computing using an enterprise operating system was ridiculed as “Windows for Toasters”. Look in your set-top box and you might find a version of Windows Compact Edition. The first tablet computer was not released by Apple, it was released by Microsoft. Unwieldy, yes, but they were before Apple. Smartphones, while not innovated by Microsoft, were largely powered by Windows CE on an iPaq or similar.

If there has been any innovation that has come from Apple, particularly with regards to their tablet, it is their user interface. This is why Microsoft have fundamentally shifted their user experience in the direction of touch – whether that is appropriate for your immediate device, or not.

Windows RT (Windows 8 on ARM chips designed for tablets) is a beautiful OS. It’s smooth, fast enough to be usable and shines on good hardware, and the Surface RT is very good hardware. Battery life easily lasts all day given frequent use, the screen is excellent and the keyboard surprisingly usable. The balance between “modern UI” apps and Office apps is just about right, with most of your time being spent browsing through the apps using the slick and punchy user interface. If you need to work (something that is not quite as possible on the iPad, etc.), the device acts as what netBooks should always have been: quick, simple, small. If there’s one thing I have to gripe about, it’s the touchscreen keyboard. For some reason, it looks like Windows Phone 7/8, but works completely differently. Now I’ve got used to the really smart and slick keyboard on the phone, I now have re-learn another set of techniques on Windows 8. There is no reason for this other than sheer incompetence or ignorance internal to Microsoft. The irony is that it’s probably because the Windows developers are still using iPhones so haven’t seen the alternative that would have created a consistent experience.

Windows RT is where Windows 8 works best.

Windows 8 (sitting on the beige box under the desk in your office) is also a nice OS. It’s faster, smaller and looks very swish. But that’s where it ends. If you aren’t using it on a touch device, it’s challenging to use. If you think the Office Ribbon furore was loud, wait till you hear the pushback for Windows 8. With no Start menu, hidden “hot” corners that are difficult to find and even more difficult to use in a terminal or multiple-monitor scenario, frustration is high.

Except you probably won’t hear any pushback, you’ll just see enterprises continuing to use the excellent Windows 7 operating system until the very end of the support contract Microsoft provide, which will give them sufficient time to investigate, test and implement the successor to Windows 8. And it won’t be Windows 9. With a Windows version averaging every 3 years or so, the technology world could have changed unrecognisably (look how far Touch has come, from an unexpected genesis). Perhaps it will be Google Apps, or some other thin-terminal cloud based platform. Perhaps it will be a Minority Report gesture sensitive 3D holo-space high resolution immersive user experience.

We expect Apple to be arrogant; “you’re holding it wrong”, or “you’re doing it wrong”. But Apple is Apple, they have a following and that following is sufficiently loyal to absorb idiosyncracies in design and software. Microsoft is an enterprise-class operating system vendor, and I fear they’ve just angered their biggest customer. The customer who needs to get the job done using existing skills and kit.

My free Monster Purity HD headphones for the Nokia Lumia range

In deciding what to do about getting a new Windows Phone 7 phone, in particular, investing in Nokia, a key element in the decision was the Free Monster Purity HD Headphones offer worth £199. A phone for £350 plus a free pair of headphones mitigates the risk of missing out on an upgrade of the phone to Windows Phone 8. After some headaches in applying for them, they are here, and …

… the headphones are excellent. I’m no audiophile, but I can appreciate a solid, rich sound and these headphones definitely deliver that. This time, the marketing superlatives on the back of the box stand up. “Amazing”, “incredible”, “quality”, “rich” and of course, we cannot forget “dynamic”. Okay, maybe this is just some marketing executive justifying his salary in difficult times. Once on, background noise is minimised. Equally, and more importantly, unless driving the headphones at exceedingly loud volumes, there is no leakage. When you are working in an office, this is essential. You don’t even need to “drive” these headphones, a perfectly adequate and safe listening experience can be had at 14/30 on a Nokia Lumia 800. If I was to have one complaint, it is the inteference with the radios of the mobile phone itself running through the wire, resulting in the inevitable blipbippbipibipibpbibibippbip. This, however, is more likely due to the design of the phone. Again, the Lumia 800 may be a beautiful phone, but elements of it just don’t work. Screening of the audio hardware seems to have been neglected.

Headset offer

I mentioned “headaches”. The offer certainly put up “barriers of eligibility” which challenged you legally and emotionally to make sure you that you were not only eligible for the offer, but could also be bothered to complete the process. Cashback offers from HP Servers have a similarly typical onerous process, requiring all documents in place and submitted correctly for the offer to be processed. After having started the final stage of the application, by entering my IMEI into the offer web-page, I was told that the “IMEI is not valid”. Alarm bells. I then called Nokia Customer Services, who although they tried their hardest, I suspect their hardest was really nothing more than blocking my call and passing it off to another department. With the greatest respect to out-sourced call centres, this was an abonimable experience. I was told, in a heavy Indian accent, that I was speaking first to “Mike” (indeed, the only person in the entire team with that name) and then “Sophie”. After failing to explain the simplest things, including coming up with my own phonetic alphabet in a desperate attempt to spell my name (“Panda-bear”, “Language”, “Elephant” … ok, maybe I was just enjoying winding dear “Sophie” up), I was just told it would be “processed”.

As with most things regarding customer service, you just need to speak to someone who knows what they are doing, have access to the correct systems and procedures and cares enough about their brand to take ownership of the problem. So I tweeted @NokiaHelps, and they took it on. Indeed, 5 days later, I now have the headphones! Lesson to all companies: if you use out-sourced call-centres do not insult my intelligence by giving people English names and make sure they are well versed with the entire customer service requirements. And make damn sure you have an alternative channel of support, in this case, Twitter.

But why are they offering this rather generous promotion?

Clearly, £200 is a retail value and Nokia would not be paying anywhere near this amount to provide this promotion. But, the company is still in dire straits both financially and with regards its increasingly insignificant market position. So how can they afford it?

Maybe it’s factored into a percentage of Lumia sales’ profits. Some people will buy the Lumia with no knowlege of the offer. A smaller percentage would buy the Lumia and although they know of the offer, they do not opt to use it. A smaller percentage again may apply but for whatever reason pull out, possibly due to disqualification or maybe due to the onerous requirements of the offer. That leaves a relatively small number of people whose applications may be financially viable.

Another possibility could be the proximity of the Windows Phone 8 devices. Nokia have done an awesome job of marketing Windows Phone 7 and grabbing people onto their phones as opposed to the more established models of their competitors. All this, knowing that Windows Phone 8 is around the corner and probably also knowing of the limited upgrade opportunities for the current generation of handsets due to the different OS core. While the headphones are compatible with other operating systems, they are distinctly aimed at Nokia Windows Phone 7 devices – a nice change having to wade through hundreds of i*-only products. By enticing users into a distinctly Nokia-based experience and branding (even down to the 90-degree angle on the 3.5mm plug on the phone-end), maybe they are hoping to secure users’ upgrading to a Nokia Windows Phone 8 rather than a competitor’s model?

Lumia 800 – my hands-on

It’s here. It’s in my hand. The reputed saviour of Windows Phone 7 as a platform. The Nokia Lumia 800.

If you hadn’t guessed, I’m a big fan of Windows Phone 7. (See the tiles on the right hand side?) I feel like I’ve been the unofficial, unrecognised and unrewarded one-man marketing department of Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 on the Isle of Man due to the shocking support previously shown by our local Telco’s. Microsoft are crap at blowing their own trumpet, and it took someone like Nokia – and the precarious position they are in – to jump in and back the platform, despite the naysayers. And they have done a really good job, transforming even the idea of a black-slab Smartphone to a chiselled, striking and robust design. Now we have hardware as great looking as the operating system!

Throw away your prejudices of Microsoft’s mobile phones, and close the “technical journalists'” blogs that spout doom for Redmond’s efforts. Empty your mind, and just have a play with the phone. You might not like it, but you cannot deny it is striking and is just what the market needs.

I was practically sitting on the doorstep of Manx Telecom’s shop when Windows Phone 7.0 was launched and soon bagged myself an HTC HD7. Not having used an HTC before, I was dubious. I was also dubious of the total touch-screen interface, but the device and the operating system were a dream. But, after 18 months of heavy use (including being dropped through the TT Grandstand seating from 10 foot up onto concrete) it was time to move on. Besides, the curves on the Lumia were … curvy.

But which Lumia? 800 or 900? Get the 800 and the price would be marginally cheaper but the phone was smaller than I was used to. Get the 900 and pay full whack at launch, but then even Siri agreed it was the Best Smartphone on the market. The elephant in the room is Windows Phone 8, which is due out at the end of the year. As a developer, I “need” to get hold of one of these phones, but that would immediately cut 6-months of life off the phone I was about to buy. The seemingly endless delays to the 900 coming over due to he huge demand in the US was also causing me concern. So, I decided to go for the 800, which has had time to be bug fixed and dropped in price slightly, and redeploy it to a grateful owner in 6 months time.

Nokia Lumia 800 phonesOverall, I’m very impressed with the phone. It is sleek, damned sexy and it just wants to be held. No operating system could look as good on the device, and no other device looks as good with the operating system. It is a perfect match. A problem Microsoft may find in their [rightful] clamping down on customisations and modifications to the OS, however, is that as all phones will essentially only be differentiated by slight hardware differences or external appearance, the urge to upgrade an existing Windows Phone 7 is somewhat reduced.

In the same breath, if a user upgrades their Windows Phone 7 handset to another Windows Phone 7 handset, they should expect a very similar experience. Bar a few OEM apps and hardware modifications, there should be no difference.

Alas, not so with Nokia – and not in a good way. I left Nokia because they had made a perfectly good operating system (Symbian) into a hideous mess after taking a controlling interest in it. But making a hideous mess isn’t necessarily going to mean the death of the platform (look at Android); failing to realise what the market is crying out for will. Their phones were largely incompatible (“app” writing was often in C++, a fairly high barrier of entry that other platforms didn’t have) and the processors in the phones often performed extraordinarily poorly after a few months’ use. On the other hand, they did get one thing right which still eludes Smartphones: battery life!

Letting down Windows Phone 7

Using the Nokia Lumia 800 has been mostly a pleasurable experience, but for one thing … and this is the killer as far as a pleasurable Windows Phone 7 experience is concerned: the display has a tendency to lag. Swooshing and swiping those tiles and feeling the inertia as you hit boundaries is a fundamental part of the Metro experience. As soon as your finger disconnects from this [almost] kinetic experience, the feeling is lost. And when the screen does not work at all for touch? Well, the phone is now totally useless. This tends to happen after a day’s use, often when plugging in the power on an evening. I suspect this is to do with the synchronisation with Zune Windows Phone 7 does transparently in the background when plugged in with a known WiFi connection. But this is transparent, and should not be noticable to the user. It certainly wasn’t for the HD7. The only thing that has changed is the handset.

Reliability of the phone is also less than great. I know a three others with Lumia 800s and while they praise the phone’s look and feel and operating system, they all have similar – or worse – experiences:


After just 4 days’ use, the phone crashed. My HTC HD7 crashed once in 18 months, and even then it was with a Beta version of the “Mango” operating system – and you expect that to crash! With the HTC HD7, it’s simple, you pop the battery and you’re back up and running again. But the Lumia 800 is a sealed unit, and as such, you cannot pop the battery – or anything else for that matter. So it was straight to me HTC HD7 to look up on the internet how to reset my Lumia 800. Ah, good old black slab HTC HD7. Sexy you are not, but sometimes the most unsexy is the most reliable.

The touch-screen occasionally fails to respond. This seems to be due to a CPU issue, as it sometimes comes back to life once it has completed processing whatever it was doing. Now don’t get me wrong, Android users; this is NOT due to a single-core processor. The same operating system works flawlessly on my HTC HD7 and the HTC Trophy. It is a hardware deficiency. Now here’s the problem for Nokia: my HTC HD7 had a 1GHz processor, but the Nokia Lumia 800, has a 1.4GHz processor. Something is very wrong.

Nokia Lumia 800 phonesOverall, the phone has crashed about 6 times in the last 3 weeks. I have now turned off Wifi synchronisation when I plug in the power and the phone is a lot more reliable. So, Nokia, you broke something.

Person #2:

Equally impressed with the phone, this user was keen to take it out and road-test it by tracking his progress around his many hikes on the island. While he does have frustrations with regards the task switching – or lack of – in the navigation apps he uses, he has a largely positive experience. But then, the phone crashes. His phone has crashed a number of times, probably occurring about once a month and typically when using GPS applications.

Person #3:

Having switched from BlackBerry, this user was expecting great things from Nokia and Windows Phone 7. Initially very pleased with the device, he was keen to show it off to help me in my own buying decision. Then, the phone stopped updating his social media updates. He tried rebooting. Now the phone is completely dead and is requiring to be switched out by the operator.

So, Nokia, that is 3 out of 3 failures. Based on users I know who are succesfully using HTC, LG and Samsung devices, this is a horrendous record. I left Nokia because of their wrecking of Symbian. And now it seems they are about to take a perfectly good operating system and wreck that, too. Maybe it’s a symptom of having rushed the Lumia 800 to market. It certainly was not without teething troubles, but these were swiftly addressed through software updates.

But I need to be clear. The phone is very nice and the Lumia 900 has gone down a total storm around the world. The Nokia Drive application is brilliantly simple AND FAST. I was very pleased that Nokia jumped on board the Windows Phone 7 wagon, it was the push it needed to succeed and I’ve evangelised about both Nokia and Microsoft’s contribution since launch. More importantly, this in no way implies anything about the quality of Windows Phone 7. The beauty of having a “locked down” OS is that the experience should be the same across handsets bar minor customisations. It’s about setting expectations, and maintaining those across not only difference mobile phones, but with XBox 360 and Windows 8. Now, I feel I have been let down and I have let down those users I suggested look at Nokia and how they have received a negative impression of an awesome OS.

But if you’re still undecided, check out my  “No sexiness required” guide.