Et cetera

This category is for personal posts and ‘everything else’.

Two Weeks with Lumia 950 XL

If you know me well, you know I have been waiting for this phone for a long time. My old Lumia 920 stopped working at a time when there were no high end replacements running my operating system of choice. I decided to buy a Lumia 630 to keep me going until there was something I really wanted.

The 630 was good value, but it was underpowered for what I wanted to do with it (skipping the Windows Insider Program wasn’t an option!). Because of this, I took less photographs, listened to less music, and generally found ways to avoid doing anything complicated on my phone. Not cool.

I stuck with it and waited until a new flagship arrived, and boy did it take a while.

The Lumia 950 XL is just what I needed: the operating system I wanted, the same ecosystem I was invested in – but the whole experience is much better.

With that in mind, this isn’t so much of a review of the 950 XL, or even of Windows 10. It’s more about how having this new phone has changed what I can do when compared to the previous handset.

Lumia 950 XL

The 5.7 inch and 518 PPI screen is large, crisp, and bright. It supports the same Lumia settings as other devices, so I can set it to have my preferred warm and vivid colour profile – similar to what can be achieved by using F.lux on a PC.

Lumia 950 XL Screen Comparison

The above picture has a screenshot of OneNote running on the 630 (left) compared to the same page on the 950 XL (right). You can easily see that the information density is higher, as well as the overall size of the display.

Lumia 950 XL Screen Comparison

In this cropped 100% zoomed screenshot, you can see here that the text itself is much larger on the 950 XL (right), making it seem a lot crisper to the eyes. It’s very difficult to make out individual pixels with the naked eye.

The 950 XL also uses AMOLED technology, which is by far my preferred choice of screen for a device like this. Black is black, and each pixel has its own light source. As an astronomer, this is important as 100% red is 100% red, which is great for using Astrolight.

Like most of the other Lumia devices, it supports micro SD expansion. I’m using 64 GB for photos, music, maps and all those things that take up lots of space on a phone. I have set the built in 32 GB of storage to be used by apps only. This means if I need to change the card at any point, I won’t need to reinstall everything.

Lumia 950 XL

The phone itself has a bit of a strange feel to it. You can’t really call it premium. It’s crazy light, has a removable plastic back, and the side buttons feel just a little bit too sharp around the edges for my tastes. It’s not bad, it just doesn’t give the same kind of premium feel of an iPhone.

I do like the understated branding, and I find that the silvered Microsoft logo on the back looks great.

Lumia 950 XL

It’s significantly larger than my 630 and I can feel it in my pocket, but it’s not too large. I’m already thinking that the 5.7 inch mark is probably the sweet spot for me moving forward.

It also has all of the hardware features I sorely missed on the 630 – a front facing camera, ambient light sensor, dedicated camera button and glance mode support. Crucially, it also includes a powerful new camera and flash.

Lumia 950 XL

I absolutely adore photography and, as many photographers know, the best camera is the one that you have with you. With the 630, taking a photograph was a slow process, or impossible with some builds of the Windows 10 preview. The app would simply crash and not let me take the photograph.

The 950 XL’s camera is significantly faster than the 630. With the dedicated camera button on the side, this means that I can pull the phone out of my pocket and take a photograph in seconds.

On the back you can see the tri-colour flash. I’ve not experimented with the flash enough to say for sure that a tri-colour one is superior, but I can say that it’s bright and fast.

Lumia 950 XL Flash Adjustment

Field Notes DDC Dead Print

The built-in Lumia Creative Studio software allows you to change the intensity of the flash after the photo has been taken. This is a really nice feature, but I would say that the post-processing of these images is a little sluggish compared to the usual high speeds of the device.

Overall, the camera is fantastic. I’ll probably end up posting more pictures taken with it over the coming months, as the weather hasn’t been too ideal.

Windows 10 Audio Apps

Audio is also great with the 950 XL. I regularly use Groove Music, Pocket Casts and Audible to listen to music and spoken audio. Unfortunately he device itself didn’t come with any earphones, but I have a couple of pairs already so I didn’t mind too much.

I have a Nokia Purity Headset for listening to music. They are still the best earphones you can get for Windows phones, and I would really love to see Microsoft release a successor.

I also Microsoft Comfort Headset which I use for listening to spoken audio and making phone calls. The Purity Headset has much better noise reduction and sounds really great with the music I listen to, but the bass can be a bit much when listening to audiobooks. The Comfort Headset is also a bit safer to use when walking in the street, as the sound of traffic comes through without being blocked.

Lumia 950 XL

For charging and connectivity the 950 XL uses USB Type-C connector and comes with two cables – a standard USB cable for the computer and a fast charge cable for plugging into the wall. I have found that the fast charging really is quick when compared to my 630, it’s a great feature to have.

The cable is too short though, and at time of writing it’s super complicated to find acceptable USB Type-C cables: Microsoft don’t list the official ones in the UK store, and the world of third party cables is complex. One of the adapters I purchased doesn’t meet the specs, so I am not going to use it.

Windows Hello

The 950 XL also includes a couple of new features which I don’t think I have had enough time with. Windows Hello allows biometric authentication using the built in iris scanner, and the Display Dock allows you to connect your phone to a monitor, keyboard and mouse to get a full screen experience. I have tried both, but only in limited ways so I am not sure how good they are yet.

Lumia 950 XL

Overall I am really pleased with the Lumia 950 XL. It gives me with the Windows experience I want on a large and powerful device. I appreciate that this is not a device for every consumer, but it feels like it was made for me.

I would like to see an even more premium Windows device come in the future though, and hopefully a Surface Phone will be around in a couple of years when I replace this one.

Two Weeks with Microsoft Band 2

First off, all the sensors and technology in the first Microsoft Band is still in the new 2015 version, but now we have a barometer too, taking the count up to eleven.

  1. Heart rate monitor
  2. GPS
  3. Accelerometer
  4. Gyrometer
  5. Light sensor
  6. Microphone
  7. UV sensors
  8. Thermometer
  9. Capacitive sensor
  10. Galvanic skin response
  11. Barometer

The real changes are in how the device feels on my wrist.

The screen is now curved and made of glass, the main body is now metal and also curves around the wrist. The band itself is now significantly more flexible (as it doesn’t include the batteries) and the overall experience is one of a much higher quality device.

New Microsoft Band

I didn’t really have any problems with the original device feeling too bulky at the time, but when compared to this updated version it would be hard to go back.

There are other less obvious changes too. The software on the device is much nicer to use – the team has clearly been listening to feedback and made various screens much more useful. An example is pausing a run. The previous version was all too easy to accidently end the run by brushing the screen with your finger by mistake – now you need to swipe across and press the end run button.

The existing sensors have also been put to better use too. You can now set alerts for UV and use a smart alarm feature to wake up at the optimal time. Very handy.

Microsoft’s approach to personal health has changed recently with the shuttering of the MSN Health & Fitness app, and I’m hoping that they bulk up their new Microsoft Health offering with more of the smart insights we were promised – but I’ll save that discussion for another day… hopefully when the long awaited universal version of the app comes out for the Windows 10 desktop. It’s soon, right?

Microsoft Band 2

Using the Microsoft Band has helped me get fitter and feel healthier. The Band 2 does all of that and packs it all into a better looking and higher quality package.

I recommend it.

HP Stream 7

Four Screens

Back in May 2014 I was looking forward to getting a Microsoft Surface Mini as soon as they became available. I already have a Surface Pro 2 set up as a great developer workstation at home, but I wanted a smaller tablet to replace my original Surface RT. However, the Surface Mini wasn’t announced. It seems like it is a complicated story, and one we won’t know all of the details about for a while. But essentially the Surface Mini was indeed real, and Microsoft held it back because the software wasn’t good enough.

I still wanted a small tablet to fill in the gap between my phone and my workstation though. Even if Microsoft’s top class hardware wasn’t able to fill the gap for me. By the end of 2014 I had given up waiting for Microsoft’s hardware and I decided to take a look at some of my other options.

HP Stream 7

While I have to admit I’m still yearning for a high end device with a magnesium alloy case and pen input, the HP Stream 7 is a fantastic Windows tablet with a competitively low price. It’s made of out plastic, and the battery isn’t as impressive as it could be, but like my cheap Lumia phone – it’s certainly good enough.

I have always been happy with Windows 8.1 and because I’m already well established in the ecosystem, all I had to do was log in with my Microsoft account and all my Windows Store applications were there right away. Here are just 15 of the apps I use the most on the device (not including the many games):

  • Flipboard
  • Cover
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • HealthVault
  • Kindle
  • Netflix
  • Skype
  • Xbox Music & Video
  • OneNote
  • OneDrive
  • Bing Wikipedia
  • Wunderlist
  • NextGen Reader
  • The MSN Apps

I haven’t noticed any issues with any of these apps at all, and the device certainly performs better than the Surface RT I used previously. True the device doesn’t come with a keyboard, but the on-screen one is just fine for the kinds of apps I use.

HP Stream 7 Start Screen

In fact I have hardly used the desktop at all, though I have gone into it change some power settings that I couldn’t find in the full screen PC settings application, a problem that is fixed in Windows 10.

Talking of Windows 10, I’m wondering which version of the Windows 10 UI we will see on the HP Stream 7. The device is essentially a normal x86 PC, and can run the full version of Windows 10. But there’s also a special version of Windows 10 (based on Windows Phone) which is designed to run on phones and small tablets. I’m assuming it will be the full version, but we don’t know that for sure yet.

Update

Just as this post went live I spotted a Tweet from Microsoft’s Joe Belfiore which stated that the HP Stream 7 will get the full Windows 10 experience, including the desktop. I’m unsure if that’s a good thing or not for the way I use it. But it’ll be the preferred option for anyone who uses the desktop.

Feeling Good with Microsoft Band

Microsoft Band

Like the Fitbit before it, the Microsoft Band is now well and truly part of my everyday life. Thanks to the addition of the exercise tracking and the Guided Workouts I have seen some tremendous improvements in my health and fitness since strapping the device to my wrist for the first time two months ago.

I have seen an increase in the number in the steps I do and a huge increase in the amount of time I spend exercising every day. At the same time I have measured a decrease in my weight, and my average blood pressure is a little bit lower too. Most importantly I feel better.

I’ve always been driven by these kinds of statistics and throughout my life I have found that mindfulness is always a key driving factor in making improvements to myself. The Band gives me that health mindfulness on a new level, though the motivation to be better is all my own.

Microsoft Health

Positive results aside, I have some notes on a more technical level to share:

And finally I have one more point, which is probably the most important, when you think about it. It isn’t accurate when measuring lower heart rates. In some situations it literally doubles the reading I’m getting through another device – and this is usually when I’m very relaxed or sleeping. I have tweeted Microsoft, but they haven’t replied.

I’m sure the accuracy of the lower heart rates will improve in time, so I’m not too concerned about it. I do look forward to seeing the kind of insights we were promised when the device first came out, as well as web access to the data. I’m sure it’s coming soon.

One Week with Microsoft Band

I have now had the Microsoft Band for one week, and it actually feels like I’ve had it for longer. This is usually a very good sign for any new technology, and I thought I’d share my experiences so far. This isn’t a review as such, this is just my findings on how the Band fits into my lifestyle right now.

Microsoft Band and Microsoft Lumia

First of all, I got the large version of the Band. When it’s at its tightest fitting it’s very snug on my wrist. This gives me a little extra room to loosen it up if I wish, however I find that it’s perfectly comfortable when nice and tight. After a long session of exercise my skin tends to be more sensitive in general, and I notice the device more. This is no different to how I used my G-Shock, and in fact I’d go so far as to say that I notice it about as much.

The times I really notice it most are when the rubber catches on the sleeve of my shirt, or I forget that I’m wearing it and I put my hand in a drawer or a bag and knock the device. This is no different to wearing a large watch really, so I’m not complaining, but this is a large device and I do notice it throughout the day – just like my G-Shock.

Band

Talking of my G-Shock, I’ve decided to wear my Band on my left wrist in the position that used to be reserved for my favourite timepiece. The difference here is that the screen is on the inside. This is by far the best position for the screen when checking your heart rate or time elapsed when doing any kind of exercise, and was the correct decision for a fitness-focussed device like this.

As well as replacing my watch, the Band has also replaced my Fitbit. I used my Fitbit One to passively track statistics like steps throughout the day. The Band does this and seems to have approximately the same accuracy as the Fitbit. I only have these two devices to compare against each other, and the Fitbit seems to be consistently higher by a couple of hundred steps every day – this may be a false tracking of car journeys. I’m not sure.

The Band also supports more active statistics like actual exercise. This is one of the things I used to do though MSN Health & Fitness on my Windows phone. Now I don’t even need to take my phone on my run, and I still get even better statistics than I did before. Effectively, the Band has replaced two hardware devices I always carried and two apps I always used for tracking exercise.

As well as running (hiking and walking) you can also track other more generic exercise workouts. This is great for recording time, calories and heart rate for strength workouts, or anything where you’re not running.

Microsoft Health

At the moment, there’s no specific exercise tracking mode for things like cycling. This isn’t something I’m doing right now, so I’m not too bothered. However, the Microsoft Health software offers a number of guided workouts which can be selected to help you exercise over multiple days. Currently I’m using a 5K training workout which uses interval running to get up to a 5K run in 14 days.

And here we get to the really important part. The Microsoft Health software is new. Very new. Probably so new it lacks features that I’ve come to expect – for example there is no way of viewing my statistics online without using the app.
In time this will change and Microsoft Health will support more exercises, better ways to access the data, synchronisation with HealthVault and much more. In many ways the Microsoft Band is just a way for Microsoft to get data into their new health platform, and Band 2.0 will no doubt be out before too long.

Finally, to prove that the software is lacking features, I haven’t yet found a way to use the galvanic skin response or skin temperature sensors. They are in the hardware, but there is no way to access the data through the software. Yet.

So far my experience has been very positive and I’m looking forward to seeing what comes from unlocking the Band hardware and expanding the Health software in the near future.

Using Microsoft Band in the UK

For a while now I’ve been paying a lot more attention to my fitness by using technology. I’ve been using a Fitbit One to track my passive exercise and MSN Health & Fitness to track active exercise. All this gathered information is then collected into Microsoft HealthVault, along with other base metrics like weight and blood pressure.

Microsoft Band

The Microsoft Band will expand on my current tracking, and replace some elements with better data and more coverage. Hopefully things will still synchronise with HealthVault, and I’ll be able to continue my journey to a healthier lifestyle with a new motivation tool.

I’ve only just got the Microsoft Band, so it’s going to take a little while for me to really understand where it fits into everything, but here are some initial observations:

  • The size and the weight is just fine for my wrist
  • The screen is just fine for normal use, even with its “low” resolution
  • I decided to wear it on my left wrist, with the screen on the inside
  • The GPS, heart rate, and other fitness features work really well
  • I don’t think I want a notification for every email, so I’m turning that off for now
  • Cortana integration is most helpful for setting reminders
  • Sleep tracking seems more accurate than the with my Fitbit
  • Make sure you can run the Health app in the background to enable sync
  • Most importantly, the Microsoft Band works perfectly in the UK

I will get more thoughts down on the Microsoft Band in the coming weeks, but I can say this is a pretty impressive piece of equipment, and I’m really going to enjoy using it as a motivation tool.

Update…

The Microsoft Band is now available in the UK from the Microsoft Store for £170.

In my opinion it is well worth getting.

Lumia 630

Sometimes technology fails at a bad time, and in my case – my Lumia 920 died when there are no true flagship Lumia phones on the market.
 
I decided to get the exceptionally good value Lumia 630 phone without contract and I’m now using it as my main phone.

Lumia 630

There are a number of things I miss from my Lumia 920 – the high resolution screen, the dedicated camera button, the automatic brightness adjustment and lots more. But where the Lumia 630 excels is in everyday use.
 
The core experiences of the Windows phone are exactly the same on this cheap device when compared to my old higher-powered device. This is a testament to how well the Windows Phone 8.1 operating system performs on the limited hardware. Very impressive really.
 
I’m also impressed with the battery life and the overall size, weight, and simplicity of the design. It’s a great little phone and will serve as my backup device as soon as I get another flagship device.
 
Fingers crossed that a Lumia 1030 isn’t too far away.

Is this the end of HealthVault?

MSN Health & Fitness

As part of the rebranding to MSN, the fantastic Health & Fitness app gained a number of smaller features, and lost one big one: synchronisation to Microsoft’s HealthVault medical data backend.

HealthVault first started back in 2007 in the United States as a medical storage system designed for families to share data with doctors and medical institutions. It expanded in 2010 to include the United Kingdom with grand plans to integrate the service into the UK’s National Health Service. It seems that these grand plans were never realised, as I’ve never been able to get access to my NHS data this way.

HealthVault for Windows Phone

I have been using HealthVault for years though. It’s my central repository for all my health information including steps from my Fitbit, blood pressure, emergency contact details and, until now, calorie intake and exercise statistics from Health & Fitness.

In my opinion, today’s removal of the HealthVault synchronisation is probably for technical reasons, but it may signal the beginning of the end for the service. I can’t imagine Satya’s Microsoft keeping two competing health platforms up and running for long. Especially with new competitors outside of the company from the likes of Apple’s HealthKit and Google Fit.

I was involved in a small private beta of the Health & Fitness app for Windows Phone in an effort to try and reduce the serious amounts of crashing that would occur on the app when tracking exercise with the GPS. It’s also no shock to anyone that has used it that entering information and waiting for it to synchronise was a slow process.

MSN Health & Fitness for Windows Phone

Synchronisation is super-fast on the new Health & Fitness app and the newly designed Azure-powered backend is probably a big factor in that speed, especially when compared to the aging HealthVault platform API.

The diet and cardio information entered into the app is also available on the new MSN portal that launched today. This is also super-fast and responsive. It’s no wonder they’ve made this decision for end users.

Finally, there is a possibility that MSN’s new cloud backend will eventually end up synchronising directly with HealthVault, rather than going through the device-based clients as it used to. But it seems doubtful based on my understanding.

Update

Since writing this article, Microsoft Health has been announced. Microsoft has confirmed that backend data from this new health insights engine will be able to export to HealthVault. I can only assume that MSN’s Health & Fitness data will be updated to feed into Microsoft Health, and eventually into HealthVault. At the moment, this isn’t happening, but I’ll update the post if/when it is up and running.

Watching Gravity on Xbox Video

I don’t own any movies on DVD or Blu-ray. None at all. I gave up on DVD at the same time I stopped buying CDs, and I have never been interested in getting myself a Blu-ray player for movies either.

Most of the movies I watch are on Netflix, but once in a while a new movie comes along that I want to watch as soon as I can. In previous years there weren’t any decent (legal) ways to do this, but these days there are a number of options for getting movies online.

As a happy user of Xbox Music, I thought I’d give Xbox Video a try.

Xbox Video

Xbox Video is a streaming video service that lets you either rent or purchase movies, and watch them directly on your Xbox, Windows device or in a web browser.

The only video I’ve purchased on Xbox Video previously was Mean Girls – but that’s a 10 year old movie and didn’t include any of the fancy extras you get with SmartGlass.

When Gravity became available I purchased the HD version for £14.99. Because it’s purchased, rather than rented, I can watch it as many times as I want, including the SmartGlass extras.

Gravity

In Gravity, Dr. Ryan Stone is a mission specialist on a Space Shuttle mission to Hubble, when an accident causes the rest of the crew to perish.

In a slightly unrealistic-but-more-realistic-than-most-movies turn of events she finds herself at the International Space Station, then to a Chinese Space Station in an attempt to get back home.

SmartGlass on Windows Phone

Through Xbox SmartGlass you get access to special content – which I believe is also included on the Blu-ray release. I have the option of accessing the extras through either my Windows Phone, or my Surface tablet. There are also apps available for both iOS and Android too, but I don’t have either of those devices.

My favourite part of the extra content was actually the video short, however I couldn’t get it to play full screen for some reason. Bit of a shame.

Xbox SmartGlass

In “Aningaaq”, we see the other end of the radio conversation that Stone has while in the Russian space craft. Aninqaaq, a fisherman in Greenland, is also dealing with death in his own way. This time we are provided with a translation for his side of the conversation, which is a great little extra to the movie.

Overall the Xbox SmartGlass experience was good, and more interesting when I watched the movie for the second time. I don’t think I’ve ever purchased a movie specifically for the extras before, and I’m not going to start – but it’s a good little bonus.

Gravity

Using LEDs for Monitor Back Lighting

Dell Ultrawide monitor with LED Backlight

I recently set up a new development workstation for my Surface Pro 2 to plug into when I’m at home. The desk is a lot more comfortable to use for long periods when when compared to using my old MacBook on my lap. The biggest part of my desk setup is the 29 inch Ultrawide (21:9) Dell monitor, which is significantly larger than the 10.6 inch screen on the Surface Pro 2, and much nicer to use when writing software.

I have to say it has been really fantastic to have such a big, bright screen – but eye strain is a very real problem when working with computers for a long time. In my flat it’s especially problematic at night, and just about any time of the day in the darker winter months. Unsurprisingly, I’m more likely likely to be sitting in front of the computer at these times of the day, so something has to be done.

In the past I have used software solutions to try and reduce the potential for eye strain; I highly recommend that people try using F.lux to change the colour temperature of the display. Changing the colour of the screen to a warmer glow is certainly easier on the eyes, but it comes at a cost of changing the colour temperature of everything the screen is displaying. I don’t mind the colours being warmer in certain circumstances, so I use F.lux all the time on my work laptop.

I didn’t want to set it up on my Surface Pro 2, simply because the colour reproduction is really gorgeous on the tablet’s screen. So this time I thought I’d try a new approach to solving the eye strain problem.

Dell Ultrawide monitor with LED Backlight

I’ve attached LEDs to the back of the monitor to give the screen some back lighting. There are two strips of white LEDs which are powered by the two USB ports on the underside of the monitor. I tried a few different arrangements of the strips, and I found that having the strips quite high up ended up with the best result, while the distribution is obviously greater at the top – it looks absolutely fine when you’re sat in front of the screen.

The white LED back lighting is certainly on the blue-end of the spectrum when compared to the warm ambient light of the room, but it matches the cooler glow of my Ultrawide Dell monitor really well. Coincidently, the power LEDs on the monitor and sound bar also match the white back lighting. It’s a small detail, but it certainly helps the overall look of the setup.

Less than a month in, and I’m already thinking that this will factor into my plans for all my future workstations. I feel like having good lighting around the computer really helps with concentration and reducing eye strain.