Et cetera

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

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.

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.

Tracking Health & Fitness with Windows

Running Shoes

These days I use a combination of software and hardware to keep track of my health and fitness in a way that I never have been able to previously. There’s no one vender that covers everything I want, but the software I’m using all works fairly well with my Windows devices.

Bing Health & Fitness is an application for Windows and Windows Phone which – as you may have guessed from the name – helps people with tasks related to health, and fitness. This is probably the most used software I have for actively recording information, and I use it every day.

Entering diet information in to Bing Health & Fitness is fairly easy, there are a number of foods built into the database which you can select, or you can add your own with information about carbs, protein and fat – as well as calories. I have been using this on the Windows 8.1 app since it came out, but on the release of the Windows Phone app I’ve started entering the information on my Lumia more often than my Surface. Being able to enter this information on the phone itself is a lot more convenient and the live tile shows me the numbers, which also serves as a reminder for when I haven’t done it.

Health and Fitness apps on Windows Phone

Another feature that the Windows Phone version introduced is the GPS Tracking. Previously I’d have to enter in data about exercises into the Windows app with guess work as to how far I’d gone. The GPS Tracking feature lets you simply start and stop exercise activity, and provides a map as well as statistics on the speed and estimated calories burned. I use this as well as my Fitbit statistics so that I can see the difference between actual exercise effort against normal day-to-day activity.

Talking of the Fitbit – most of the data collected by this device is done with very little input from me. I walk a lot more than I used to thanks to the statistics, but I don’t manually enter any information through the Fitbit app itself – as mentioned above, all the non-passive food and activity data is handled by Bing Health & Fitness. I’m very pleased to say that the Fitbit does a great job of collecting my information without me having to do anything at all.

Fitbit

It doesn’t really matter which app I use though, as all of my information is stored in Microsoft’s HealthVault – an online service which allows secure storage of health and fitness information, which can be shared with friends, family or health care professionals. There are HealthVault apps for both Windows and Windows Phone which allow entry of information directly, as well as a website which allows some pretty comprehensive data exports – if you need them.

Basic information like my height and weight are entered directly into HealthVault itself using the apps, and these measurements are currently done using ‘dumb’ methods – in other words, normal bathroom scales. Maybe in the future I might look at getting wireless scales – or even something more advance than that – though I see very little point at the moment. Every other bit of information collected by both Bing Health & Fitness and Fitbit are synchronised with HealthVault automatically.

Another application that integrates with HealthVault is Health Choices, an app that’s also available on both Windows and Windows Phone devices. It acts as a front-end to the NHS Choices content provided by the National Health Service. This includes details about hospitals, surgeries and other places that are useful to keep track of. When saving these places, the contact and address information will also be saved directly into HealthVault.

Health Choices also induces a A-Z of various treatments and conditions which can also be saved onto HealthVault – I’ve found these extremely useful in keeping track of medical history and medications taken.

I’ve always had an interest in metrics and statistics anyway, and thanks to the technology available today with the Windows platform I’ve been able to really take control of these things. I’ve seen improvements in fitness and motivation, and the information in these applications has helped me make important decisions about where to get treated when I have been unwell.

Obviously, none of this stuff would be as effective as having a personal trainer, nor does it replace having a professional doctor – but being informed definitely helps.

Now that I’ve started keeping track, I’m not going to stop. In fact, I think it’s only going to get more comprehensive over time.

Fitbit One

Fitbit One

In December I got a Fitbit One activity tracker, and I have been using it with my Surface every day since.

So far, I have been really enjoying reviewing the extra information I have been collecting. While I am certainly not the most athletic, like most people I want to keep fit and knowing how I’m doing certainly helps.

By either keeping the Fitbit in my pocket or attached to my belt, I’m able to keep track of the following statistics:

  • Steps
  • Calories Burned
  • Distance
  • Very Active Minutes
  • Floors

The device itself is small and nice in the hand, but people have noted to me how easy it would be to lose. At the time of writing, I have only forgotten to clip it to my jeans once – and I quickly remembered to get it before I went too far.

With iOS and Android the Fitbit One can talk directly to the phone via Bluetooth. On Windows, the device synchronises with the Fitbit service through a USB dongle and some software, though this may be improving through the Windows 8 app. Currently, there’s no Windows Phone software but the rumours are that it will be coming soon.

Fitbit Software

At this time of year it’s quite difficult to do extra exercise, so I’ve actually reduced the default goals which means that with an extra walk every day I’m meeting the goals. With the original 10,000 steps, I’d have to walk around my village twice. While that goal seems reasonable for the future, I figured I’d start off slow.

I spent a lot of time looking around at the various options before deciding to go with Fitbit. There biggest factor was the fact that it synchronises with Microsoft HealthVault – a service that I already use to keep track of my weight and diet intake.

I decided to go for the clip-on style tracker for now, because I would rather wait and see what else could be put on my wrist before giving up my G-Shock. Though I believe that ultimately, using the wrist would be more useful than a clip-on – especially when used sleep tracking.

Hopefully Microsoft will produce a watch based device that will work with activity tracking as will as more general things – half way between a Galaxy Gear and a Fitbit Force. I’ve always been super interested in wearable form factors, and as a Windows user I look forward to seeing what Microsoft bring. Currently, I wouldn’t be willing to use my wrist for something as simple as health tracking.

Update

A couple of weeks after posting this I managed to lose my Fitbit One while on a walk, and I was unable to find it even after spending a few hours retracing my steps.

Immediately I realised how important tracking my activity had become and decided to purchase a replacement. I have learned a lesson to ensure that I have secured the Fitbit One in my pocket rather than my belt when doing any real strenuous activities.

But this also goes to show that the Fitbit One is so useful, I’m willing to spend the £70 on a replacement right away.

Windows 8.1 – Ultrawide Multitasking

When I recently decided to set up a new workstation at home, I had a look at the available monitors. Without really thinking about it I assumed I’d just get a standard 16:9 monitor, but then I stumbled upon an article about an LG all in one PC with a crazy wide 21:9 screen. This really sparked my interest. Not in the PC itself – but how these ultra wide screens work with Windows 8.1.

Being a fan of Dell monitors, I decided to invest in a 29 inch Dell Ultrawide – so far it has done everything I’ve wanted, and I’ve been very happy with it.

Dell Ultrawide

Windows 8.1’s snap feature allows you to use up to four different applications at the same time with one of these Ultrawide screens. This extra horizontal space has drastically changed how I use Windows at home.

All of these screenshots are real examples of how I use Windows, and were taken over a few weeks of actual use. Basic tasks like email and note taking aren’t included, as I didn’t want to have to censor the content.


Writing a Blog Post

Writing a Blog Post

  1. Xbox Music
  2. Internet Explorer
  3. Internet Explorer

Arranging Tasks & Calendar Appointments

Arranging Tasks & Calendar Appointments

  1. Mail
  2. Calendar
  3. OneNote
  4. Xbox Music

Finding New Music

Finding New Music

  1. Internet Explorer
  2. Xbox Music

Looking for a Computer New Bag

Looking for Computer Bag Ideas

  1. Flipboard
  2. OneNote

Watching Windows Weekly

Watching Windows Weekly

  1. Twitter
  2. Twit.tv

ultrawide-10

Exploring the World

  1. Bing Maps
  2. Star Chart

The Best PC is not always The Best PC

When I was a teenager and still learning about the computer industry, my friends and I were easily caught up in the marketing of the latest Intel processors or Nvidia graphics cards. But quickly I learned that as long as the software can do its magic, I am contented with the hardware specifications.

I do require a quality user experience though, which is why I tend to get computers and form factors that are ahead of their time, then stick with them until they just can’t perform the tasks any more, and one of the best examples of this was my old Sony Vaio C1.

Sony Vaio C1 PictureBook

I got a Sony Vaio C1 back when they were brand new. Using the Crusoe processor, it was capable of running Windows 2000 and Windows XP without too much trouble. It’s actually running Windows XP beta in the above photograph (next to some early Windows CE based mobile computers).

It was small, very small. Much smaller than any of my friends laptops. Initially it was to be used as a companion to my desktop computer, but it became my primary machine when the desktop eventually failed. It mostly kept up to the task, but the biggest problem was multi-tasking. Once you had some programs running in the background, the machine started to get sluggish. It was difficult to use PaintShop Pro when you’re trying to download the latest episodes of Buffy The Vampire Slayer on Kazaa.

For the size the keyboard was pretty good, and the mouse pointer was certainly acceptable – though the mouse buttons were a little bit poor. The overall the hardware experience was actually very impressive, especially with the built in camera features (example photo below) and dedicated capture button. The extreme portability of this machine enabled me to take it out of the house more often than any other computer I’d owned previously. For me it really was the start of a different kind of computing, as well as my first taste of the kind of disposable photography that we all take for granted on smartphones and tablets today.

More C1's taken with a C1

The rest of the world hadn’t quite caught up though. While this was one of the first wave of computers to have built in Bluetooth (great with the Ericsson T28 as above), it didn’t have built in wireless networking. In fact, it didn’t have any networking built in at all (unless you count Firewire) and everything had to be added on by means of PC Cards. It didn’t matter too much though, as most people did not have wireless at home, and free wireless (like you get at Starbucks) wasn’t a thing yet.

Windows XP on Sony Vaio C1

Using this small and underpowered computer for nearly all my computing tasks taught me something. It doesn’t really matter how powerful the computer is, as long as you are capable of performing your tasks. As long as the hardware and the software can do their magic together, everything is good.

With my recent use of Surface devices I am at the start of another new type of computing freedom. I’m reminded that while these cutting edge devices may not be the ultimate machines in terms of specifications – they certainly can be used as primary computing devices. Like the Vaio C1 back in 2001, the Surface Pro 2 is the best PC for me at this time.