Sunday, 30 December 2007

pdo TopSkin

Having had the iPod a few days I began to realise I needed a way to carry it. It's not something I'd really feel comfortable putting in my trouser pockets (I've lost mobile phones when they've fallen out), so a case seemed sensible. There are a plethora of cases on the market and I was looking for one which allowed me to clip the iPod onto my belt. I hit on the TopSkin from pdo which is a flexible cover which slips over the iPod and has a belt clip on the rear. The case also comes with a screen protector.

The TopSkin is relatively unobtrusive in looks and operation although if you have any sort of dock I can see the flaps over the connector being a problem. The belt clip has a ratchet which allows it to rotate to accommodate different orientations on your belt but the clip isn't as easy to use as I'd like particularly when you need to slip iPod on and off your belt. The clip does seem like it might be prone to breaking and the flexible nature of the case means it isn't too ridgid but it is removable though.

At under £8 the case is relatively inexpensive and other than the concerns with the belt clip I'm reasonably happy with it. Time will tell if I can get happy with the belt clip.

Thursday, 27 December 2007

First Impressions: iPod Touch

What a Christmas, lots of excellent books and to cap it all an iPod Touch! I'm sure you've all seen and heard the hype surrounding the iPhone and, whilst I'll admit I was interested, it wasn't a device I'd get as I use a BlackBerry and, with the contract, it would prove to be pretty expensive for the use I'd get out of it. Consequently I was much more interested in its little brother the iPod Touch. Of course if you compare it to the iPhone it does look a little pared down but as I was considering it along side the iPod Nano and some other devices I was coming at it from a different perspective. And I must say I am pretty impressed (bearing in mind this is the honeymoon period I'll probably post something in a few weeks once I've lived with it for a while).

The device is beautiful to look at and the multi-touch interface is very easy and pretty intuitive to use. The initial synch took a little while but I managed to get our entire music collection onto the iPod and browsing through it using coverflow is pretty cool. I'm probably going to thin that out a little as I've got the 8Gb model and I'd like to leave some room for video (plus some of the music collection is more to my wife's liking than mine - and the converse is also true!).

The video is also excellent. I was worried that the screen would be a little small (I'm used to using my PSP for watching video on the train) but having watched it for over an hour solidly I can happily say it's fine and the picture is crisp.

What I was particularly impressed with though was the eyeTV integration. I activated the WiFi connectivity option on the eyeTV software and it converted all the new recordings (you can set it to convert everything but given the number I thought that might be pushing things) to the appropriate format. After allowing access to the relevant port via the firewall you can simply access the recordings via Safari on the iPod Touch through the appropriate URL. The video is clear and crisp and streaming was absolutely no problem with no hiccups or interruptions. This allowed me to watch the Christmas Day episode of Doctor Who whilst my wife was glued to CorriEnders.

So my first impressions are very good but the big test will be to see whether they last in the cold light of day!

Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art

I was lucky enough to get a copy of Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud as a Christmas present and it's a fascinating book. I was a big fan of comics in my youth, going through Battle and on to 2000AD. I must admit it stopped reading them for some while and only rediscovered them, in graphic novel format, a few years ago. Since then I've picked up copies of all the classics - Watchmen, V for Vendetta, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, The Dark Knight Returns, From Hell, Maus, Sin City to name but a few; and have also picked up the Judge Dredd compilations which have taken me back to my youth.

Understanding Comics is a rather different book, it's a non-fiction comic which uses the medium of the comic book to explore the history, nature and mechanics of the comic in order to try to understand their power and success. This style is very accessible and the author uses it very effectively. It really got me thinking and I suspect I won't look at another comic in quite the same way again!

Sunday, 23 December 2007

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Movie

I avoided this movie when it came out as I was afraid it was going to be a big disappointment and so it was with some trepidation that I watched it on TV last night. And I was right to have been worried. If you're a fan of the radio show, the books or even the TV series I think this is going to be a disappointment for you. If you're not then it's a half decent, if a little bizarre, SF movie but might be a little bit inaccessible. Don't get me wrong the movie does have its moments, the special effects are up to scratch and some of the performances are pretty good but trying to cram the original story into this format means compromise. So if you had favourite scenes, lines or images from the previous incarnations some of them will be missing and coming from those it seems a little mainstream. If you haven't heard, seen or read the material before then I'm not sure what you'd think. There is some new material but it doesn't create a impact equivalent to the wonderful moments from the previous works unfortunately.

Overall not too bad an effort and I can think of worse ways to spend a couple of hours (listening to Vogon poetry for example) but if you want to get into Hitchhiker's I'd recommend the radio or the books and, if you need the visual input, the TV series didn't make too bad a stab at it either. Disappointing.

Thursday, 20 December 2007

Media Centre Project - Part 4: Content

So now I had the Mac, TV Tuner and Storage the next issue was putting some content onto the media centre. eyeTV allows you to record TV programmes and these can be edited to remove the ads. It also allows you to export the recordings into iTunes in either AppleTV or iPod formats (there are other export functions for various devices, like the Sony PSP, too). The latest version of eyeTV also allows streaming of recordings to the iPod Touch and iPhone (but as I don't have either of these I can't comment on them). So that's broadcast video content sorted out.

DVDs can be played straight from Front Row via the built in DVD player but if you want to make this easier (or stream the content to an AppleTV or whatever) you may like to rip the DVD to the hard drive and watch it from there. Please note that I'm not a fan of content piracy - I think you should pay for the content (unless they offer it for free), however I do think that once I've paid for it I should be able to watch it on any of the devices I have. So I downloaded copies of Mac the Ripper, which allows you to copy the files off the DVD in unencrypted format, and Handbrake which allows you to re-encode the files into .mp4 so that they can be transferred to iTunes (DVD Player does allow you to play the copied files direct without re-encoding but it is a little extravagant use of disk space!). I also picked up a copy of MetaX which allows you to properly populate the meta-tags in the files (which is particularly useful for TV programmes as, when these are ripped, they tend to be seen as movies by iTunes). One big issue in doing this is time, particularly for TV programmes as, whilst the ripping is relatively quick - say 40 minutes for a typical DVD - re-encoding and tagging can take a while.

Obviously you can also buy video content from the iTunes store but since I'm based in the UK the range of content is pitifully small and relatively expensive. Video podcasts are also available and are free but vary in quality. Some of my favourites are the tech shows Unwired,, and MacBreak; and the DVD review show Discus but I suggest you trawl through them to see what floats your boat.

I'm also playing about with Joost, which is an IPTV provider but only currently in beta (and it occasionally shows!). It requires the download of an application (which given that I already have eyeTV and Front Row interfaces adds another) and all the content is streamed over the net. The video isn't too bad - it does pixelate periodically especially with rapid movement - but is quite watchable. There are some mainstream content providers available, like Paramount. Of course its still developing but the extra interface is a pain.

As to music things are somewhat easier as iTunes has a built in CD ripping capability for transferring your existing CD library and you can also buy music content from the iTunes store (of course the latter is up to its neck in DRM but there you go).

I've also uploaded all our digital photos into iPhoto and with the help of the slideshow feature I can have these running on the TV via Front Row when the relics come to visit - which solves one of the perennial problems with digital cameras - loads of pictures but no way to easily look at them without printing them out (and getting an overdraft to pay for the ink!).

Monday, 17 December 2007

The Golden Compass

We went along to see The Golden Compass, the movie adaptation of Northern Lights by Philip Pullman (the first in His Dark Materials trilogy). I suppose I should preface this by saying that I haven't actually read the book - so I can't comment on how good an adaptation it is (or indeed isn't). My experience with book adaptations is pretty mixed with very few effectively capturing the novel - you'll have to judge for yourself I'm afraid. As a movie, however, The Golden Compass is jolly good fun. It is visually impressive with some lovely imagery of the parallel earth and some strong performances - particularly Dakota Blue Richards, who plays Lyra. I found the presentation absorbing and it managed to avoid the twee aspects of Harry Potter. On the downside it does feel like the start of something (and with the next instalment not scheduled for release until 2009 that's a little disappointing) and the ice bear fight has a rather brutal ending which is probably unsuitable to more sensitive children. But otherwise a very enjoyable film.

Saturday, 15 December 2007

Media Centre Project - Part 3: Storage

The 80Gb HDD in the Mini isn't really man enough to manage a proper media centre so I began looking around for external drives. One of my major criteria was noise, or rather the lack of it, as the Mini is very, very quiet and I didn't want to ruin that by slapping some box next to it with a noisy fan. Aesthetics were relevant too as, unless you pop the kit into a cupboard (which gives you other issues like controlling it etc.) it's going to be on show and so the drive can't be too hideous.

In the end I plumped for a Freecom 500Gb USB 2.0 HDD which is available from Amazon for around £80. I went for the one with the aluminium external finish which, whilst it does have a black face, doesn't look out of place next to the Mini. The drive does have a blue (white would have been preferable) light on the front to show it's on and it flickers showing drive activity but other than that you'd hardly notice it was there.

Since I bought my drive I've noticed that prices are still dropping and there are some nice 500Gb drives for a little less - of course my criteria wouldn't change and so a fan is a deal breaker for me.

Obviously it's a shame that Apple didn't put Firewire 800 on the Mini (in which case I'd have been looking for a HDD that supported that) but USB 2.0 seems to perform fine. The only question now is do I need more? Having recorded a few TV shows and transferred a couple of DVDs onto the system I think the answer is going to be yes but how to do it without adding noise?

Saturday, 8 December 2007


I thought I'd try and see how far I could go on a single battery charge on the PowaCycle Salisbury. Turns out it's just over two and a half round trips to the station (around 3 miles each way). The half becomes important when it's just before the major uphill section of the route home! Blimey is it difficult without the pedelec assistance! I was still panting and wheezing when I got home. So I now know to recharge the battery every two days.

Obviously the range is less than advertised for the flat but since I do have a major hill that shouldn't be a surprise. Overall I'm still pretty pleased with the bike as without the pedelec mode it's clear I wouldn't be making the trip by bike at all!

Wednesday, 5 December 2007


I managed to miss 300 at the cinema (our local multiplex never keeps anything I'd like to see for more than about 5 minutes!) but caught it on DVD the other week. I really enjoyed Sin City, which I know isn't for everyone but is an incredible translation, almost frame for frame, from the graphic novel to the screen, so I was really interested to see how 300 turned out.

300 is a film adaptation of Frank Miller's graphic novel of the same name which tells his version of the Battle of Thermopylae, the legendary stand by a small force of Greeks, led by King Leonidas and 300 Spartan warriors, which held off the enormous army of the Persian King Xerxes who was intent on conquering all of Greece.

Clearly the movie isn't intended to be a historical account of the battle and, indeed, nor was the graphic novel. Rather it is a retelling of the legend and so the massive amounts of artistic licence can be forgiven. Some of the accents are a little incongruous and the outfits are a little briefer than I suspect they would have been in reality and as for Xerxes well...

But the visual style of the film and the choreographed action sequences more than make up for some of the more "fantastic" elements. The style is quite different to Sin City but it has a real impact of its own and, as long as you don't watch it expecting a historical account but rather an interpretation of the legend you'll have a blast!

Sunday, 2 December 2007

Media Centre Project - Part 2: TV Tuner

Since the Mac Mini doesn't come with an integrated TV Tuner and doesn't have the option to insert cards I looked around for a USB based device. After a little research I hit upon Elgato who produce both the hardware and eyeTV, which is some pretty nice PVR software.

Since I don't have satellite or cable and my over-the-air digital signal can be a little flaky (we're not scheduled to be switched over until 2012 so it may be a while before that's fixed) I decided to get the eyeTV Hybrid which accepts analogue and digital inputs.

As you can see it's not a big device, about the size of the Apple remote but somewhat thicker.
The dark plastic cap covers a standard USB connector, but given the proximity of the various USB ports and the width of the Elgato device they have helpfully added a short USB extension cable. So installation was pretty simple.

The eyeTV software loaded easily and connected me up to tvtv who provide the data for the Electronic Programme Guide (EPG). This is a subscription service and Elgato give you a year's worth but you're on your own after that. The software had a look and downloaded a couple of updates and was then ready to go.

Controlling the device is pretty easy. The software provides both a standard OS X interface and also a full screen menu system which can be entered by just holding the Apple remote menu button down for a couple of seconds (this takes a little getting used to as you can often end up in Front Row by mistake - but you do get used to it). Elgato do provide a separate multi-button remote but as this seems to have to have line of sight on the device it doesn't really work for me (as the Hybrid is behind the Mini - and I don't really want to see it). There is an on screen remote available too but this needs the mouse to operate and so it less hand from the sofa (have you tried using even a bluetooth mouse on your sofa?).

Selecting channels and scheduling recordings is simply a matter of a couple of clicks. eye TV provides playlists to help you organise your recordings. Unfortunately scheduling doesn't take account of the vagaries of the broadcasters and so you need to add some time to the start and end to make sure you get the whole programme - this is a pain but the EPG info isn't live and I don't think they send out any signals (like video+) over digital at the moment.

You can set eyeTV to automatically convert the recording for iPod or AppleTV and it will slot it into iTunes for you. Apparently the latest version also allows streaming to iPod Touch and iPhone, but as I don't have either I can't comment.

A direct interface with Front Row would have been nice but other than that it's a nice all round package. Of course now I'm recording TV I think I might need a little more than the 80Gb internal drive in the Mini...

Saturday, 1 December 2007

Going Green(ish)

My commute consisted of car to the station, the train and then the tube. When I worked out that we were really running a second car just for those trips it became pretty clear it was both an expensive luxury and not really doing much for the environment! So I wondered about the alternatives. Whilst walking to the station is possible it adds to much to an already long journey so that wasn't an option I was happy with. A scooter was another alternative but whilst an improvement still wasn't very environmentally friendly. I looked at electric scooters but they're still an expensive option for such a short trip. What about cycling? Being pretty out of condition I didn't think it was practical and I wasn't keen on getting too hot and bothered before a long train journey and then marinating in it (that's not a good picture is it?)! Then I stumbled on pedelecs - or electrically assisted bikes. With most of them looking a bit naff or ridiculously expensive I was about to drop that idea but then I came across two possible contenders the Urban Mover UM36 UGlider and the PowaCycle Salisbury. Both bikes look like road/mountain bike hybrids and so addressed the image issue but what about price. The UM36 was better looking but also the more pricey (at £750+). The Salisbury was still expensive (at £499) but was well equipped (you can use it for a practical commute straight out of the box). So which to pick?

I made a visit to The Electric Transport Shop in London who showed me both bikes, gave me some very useful advice and allowed me a test ride. On balance I whilst the UM36 was undoubtedly better looking the bikes were roughly the same weight (often an issue with pedelecs) and I was actually getting less for my money. So I ended up settling on the PowaCycle.

I chose the Nimh battery rather than the newer and lighter LPX alternative, partly down to price (the latter is £100 more) and because the former is a tried and tested technology.

The ride to and from the station is now a breeze. With the power assistance on you can ride with minimal effort and if you want to get more exercise you can turn it off (and with a heavy bike it certainly gives you a work out!). Of course the trip is somewhat less pleasant in the wet and cold but I certainly and feeling better for the exercise!

Media Centre Project - Part 1: The Computer

When my DVD/HDD recorder packed up recently I decided it was about time I tried to build myself a Media Centre. What I was looking for was a machine which would allow me to watch DVDs and web content on my LCD TV, record TV, play music and, if possible, allow me to experiment with streaming over my rudimentary network.

Obviously the first question was what to use as the base system. Having used Windows for over ten years the first place I started looking was Windows PCs but I rapidly became disillusioned due to the price I'd need to pay for a reasonably quiet system. In addition, I've had all the usual issues with Windows being a little temperamental, slow to start up and coming with a pretty high overhead if you want it connected to the net.

It was all starting to look pretty expensive and not as easy as standard consumer electronics (i.e. robust and easy to use) so that I could get a sufficient SAF (spouse approval factor). Then a friend of mine introduced me to the Apple Mac Mini.

I was really impressed, it's only 6.5" square and 2" high with a DVD drive, HDD, Intel processor, built in WiFi and Bluetooth and most importantly, it runs almost silently. Now, having not looked at Apple machines for many years, my first question was how much is it? Expecting a PC busting number considering the form factor I was rather surprised to find it only starts at £399! Of course that is a little misleading as that's the BYODKM (Bring Your Own Display Keyboard and Mouse) but since I was going use the TV as the display that doesn't add too much overhead.

In the end I decided to up-spec it a little as I was worried the basic 512Mb of RAM might not be sufficient (and you can never have too much RAM can you) [BTW a recent upgrade now gives the £399 model 1Gb of RAM] and the DVD burner (as the base model only comes with a DVD reader).

The machine plugs straight into the PC input on my LCD TV and auto detected the native panel resolution thus giving a pretty nice picture.

So what about media centre software? Well Apple bundles their own Front Row software and remote with the machine so no extra needed there. Front Row allows you to access your music library (from your iTunes library), play DVDs, stored video and photo slideshows (from iPhoto - also bundled).

So it's relatively inexpensive and does most of what I want - what about the downsides? Well, the Mini is pretty much self contained with no easy way to open it up and modify it or expand it within the box. It does, however, have four USB ports and a Firewire port on the rear. But it doesn't have a TV tuner built in.

Obviously moving from Windows to OS X requires a feww adjustments, but not as many as I was expecting. It's not as crash proof as Apple might have you believe but it's a heck of a lot more robust than Windows and much closer to what you need for a living room device.

So a pretty good start - next getting a TV tuner.

Thursday, 29 November 2007

Sanyo Xacti VPC-HD1A

My two big bugbears with our Canon MV600i DV camcorder were (i) its size and (ii) the tape motor noise (which always seemed to intrude on any quiet scene). So when it packed up and I was looking for a new camcorder I was keen to get something smaller which recorded on to an HDD or memory card.

So I came across the Sanyo Xacti VPC-HD1A which is larger than a compact digital stills camera but way smaller than the Canon (it fits quite neatly onto my belt). It records to SD and SD HC cards for both video (up to 720p) and 5 megapixel stills. A 4Gb card will give you about an hour of video.

This isn't going to be a camera for everyone (especially left handed people) but it does everything I need and it means I'm happy to carry it around. And that's the most important thing for me; there were so many times that I missed opportunities to record things simply because I couldn't be bothered to lug the Canon around. Of course the limited capacity does mean you need to swap out cards but how many times have you actually shot continuously for more than an hour without any opportunity for a break?

The HD1A has now been superseded by the HD2 which takes 7 megoapixel stills.

Welcome to WebWitter

I have always been interested in technology and I wanted somewhere to post my odd thoughts and views on tech and other topics, like movies, tv etc., somewhere outside of TheWargameShed, my gaming blog. So here it is. I suspect the frequency of entries may well be somewhat unpredictable as the mood takes me.

So what's my tech background? My first computer was a Compukit UK101 which had a 6502 processor and the expanded 8Kb of RAM! It didn't even come with a case just a bare PCB with the keyboard soldered straight on to it. It ran BASIC and you loaded and saved programs to cassette tape and used a standard TV as the display. At least the keyboard had some travel unlike the Sinclair ZX80 and ZX81 machines (plus the RAM didn't fall off the back if you were a little overzealous with the typing!).

I graduated to a BBC Micro (the Model B) which had colour, graphics capabilities and you could even have a floppy disk drive (and they were floppy in those days!). The BBC Micro introduced me to some great games like Elite and Chukkie Egg - which though not great graphically by today's standards really had the basics right with the gameplay experience.

Eventually I moved on to a PC (an Amstrad PC1512) initially with only 2 floppy drives but ultimately adding a 32Mb hard disk card. With that setup I actually ran a BBS called PsychoBabble Opus for a couple of years on FidoNet but eventually my PC packed up and I had to call it a day.

The Amstrad was replaced by a PCAT clone which I had until a few years ago despite superseding it with a Pentium based PC. I even managed to run the original Windows on the AT but the limitations of the 286 were made pretty apparent. At that stage I was running a small Novell network for my office which was fun but as I moved to larger firms they had their own IT departments and the computer side fell back into a hobby.

As to my current set up - I'm sure that'll be the subject of future posts!