Category Archives: Computing

Articles about computers and the IT industry.

Apple TV (4th gen)

Yes, I already wrote about the new Apple TV but I had a little more to say now that I’ve been using it a few months.

So far Siri has not been as useful as I thought it would be. The main failing is that we use Netflix profiles a lot and Siri doesn’t understand them. I might tell Siri that I want to watch, say, House of Cards but if it’s currently logged into the kids’ profile it either won’t let me watch it or wants to start it on the first episode. If you’re going to have to switch profiles with the remote anyway…

On the other hand, gaming has been far better than anticipated. The biggest hit so far has been two player Crossy Road. I’m sure my son would enjoy it on the iPhone but playing with someone else, on the big screen, gives it that little extra zing. Not Apple’s fault, but the two player mode feels very much an after thought right now, as it’s not super-easy to activate.

Some other games show a lot of potential, too. Asphalt 8 has the occasional frame rate issue but otherwise looks great. Not that I’m a heavy gamer or necessarily a good judge of these things.

So, overall, still a great set top box.

Synology DS215j

I needed a replacement for a failing Time Capsule, used to back up two MacBooks. The obvious solution would have been a new Time Capsule but I did a little investigation and found that I could get a two disk Synology (a NAS, or network attached storage) for less than the equivalent from Apple. More features for a lower price? Yes please!

The downside? It’s not plug and play in the same way that the Time Capsule is. I had to install the disk, download the operating system, set up the disks, create users… None of which were really hard but still need to be done.

At this point, the Time Capsule and NAS are roughly level pegging. Apples solution is easier, the Synology cheaper. For some that might already make the latter the obvious solution.

But the Synology also does more. I set up a VPN and a Plex server. I configured quotas so that both me and my wife both get 1Tb of space for backups each, rather than 2Tb of space both both of us (where the person with most, biggest backups tends to get the most space). And it switches itself off overnight, saving power and wear-and-tear on the disk.

And while it’s certainly harder than the Time Capsule, the UI is well presented and powerful. The admin interface does so much that I’ve not felt the need to enable to the ssh interface.

It’s easy to recommend as a Time Capsule replacement for the more technical user. For everyone else, Apple’s solution is easier but it might still be worth considering the Synology if any of the extra features might be useful.

Mpow Swift Bluetooth headphones

Buying the Mpow Swift Bluetooth Headphones was an experiment to see if there was a solution to a very first world problem: tangled headphone cables.

Good bluetooth headphones easily go into the hundreds of pounds. These were less than £20 and, considering that, are surprisingly good.

They’re in-ear and block enough sound that I can listen to podcasts on the tube which is my main requirement. The sound quality is fine for music if you’re not too picky.

My main gripes are the colour (bright green) and the battery indicator which drops from a claimed 30% full to zero in milliseconds. In practice I don’t let it drop much below 50% before re-charging.

Overall it’s difficult to argue for the price.

Amazon Fire 7″

The Amazon Fire 7″ falls very much into the “good for the money” category. If you compare it to an iPad you’re going to come away disappointed. The screen is terrible. Viewing angles are not great, the colours are washed-out and it’s low resolution by modern standards. Battery life could be better. The case feels cheap and it creaks a bit when you squeeze it. And the app selection is nowhere near what you get in Apple’s (or even Google’s) eco-system.

But — and it’s a big but — it’s a tenth of the price of an iPad. And, if all you want to do it watch Netflix and BBC iPlayer, it’s perfectly adequate and well worth £50.

iPhone 6s

I wasn’t sure that I wanted a “big” iPhone as I was perfectly happy with the 4” form-factor. But if I was going to get a new phone and the new ones are bigger, I reasoned, I may as well go really big and go for a 6s Plus. On paper it made perfect sense.

Then I played with one in an Apple Store and I laughed. In practice it was comically big. I really didn’t want a phone I could only realistically use with two hands.

In many ways, my main complaint with the iPhone 6S is the same. It’s a lot bigger and I can only just use it one handed. Even a couple of months in, I think I still want a 4” phone.

Which is not to say that it’s not good. The camera is excellent. It’s much faster than my old 5. It’s my first device with Touch ID, and it’s great. Going back to punching in my PIN code every time would get annoying very quickly.

At launch I thought that 3D Touch would be a game changer and that Live Photos were a gimmick. I may have had that the wrong way around. The problem with 3D touch is that it’s not available everywhere, so you quickly forget to use it. This is not entirely Apples fault. Even my own apps don’t fully support 3D Touch yet. Live Photos, on the other hand, “just work” and they do capture a moment in a way that a simple photo doesn’t. They’re good for those serendipitous moments that you wouldn’t try to record a video of.

Overall I like it, but with more reservations than I’ve had with any of my previous iPhones after a couple of months with it.

Technology and Humanities

I read a couple of things about the intersection between technology and the liberal arts today, otherwise totally unrelated but the need for a connection between the two.

What the humanities can learn

The first was in the conclusion of Walter Isaacson’s “The Innovators,” a book about the inventors of the “digital revolution.” He started by talking about how engineers need to understand the arts and humanities (as Steve Jobs insisted Apple did) and moves on to how the opposite is also true:

The converse to this paean to the humanities, however, is also true. People who love the arts and humanities should endeavour to appreciate the beauties of math and physics, just as Ada did. Otherwise, they will be left as bystanders at the intersection of arts and science, where most digital-age creativity will occur. They will surrender control of that territory to the engineers.

Many people who celebrate the arts and the humanities, who applaud vigorously the tributes to their importance in our schools, will proclaim without shame (and sometimes even joke) that they don’t understand math[s] or physics. They extoll the virtues of learning Latin, but they are clueless about how to write an algorithm or tell BASIC from C++, Python from Pascal. They consider people who don’t know Hamlet from Macbeth to be Philistines, yet they might merrily admit that they don’t know the difference between a gene and a chromosome, or a transistor and a capacitor, or an integral and a differential equation. These concepts may seem difficult. Yes, but so, too, is Hamlet. And like Hamlet, eat of these concepts is beautiful. Like an elegant mathematical equation, they are expressions of the glories of the universe.

Most people have a bias one way or the other. You won’t be surprised that I know more about BASIC and C++ than Hamlet and Macbeth. You don’t have to — indeed can’t — know everything, but you can certainly learn to appreciate the other “side.”

What the scientists can learn

The other piece I read was about scientists being “easy prey for jihadists”. The study suggests that terrorist recruiters look for an “engineering mindset” as what’s required are people who are “intelligent and curious, but unquestioning of authority.”

Immunising the Mind – his report – gathers a wide spectrum of opinion in support of the contention that science education fails to inculcate critical thinking in the way that the debates within arts teaching do.

Again, basically the same conclusion but the other way around. Scientists, the report suggests, should understand more about the humanities, in this case learning about debate and arguing varying positions.