Et cetera

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

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.

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.

Windows Phone’s Driving Mode

My alarm is usually set for either 6:27, or 7:00 in the morning, but if I ever do wake up before my alarm then I usually set off to work anyway.

And here’s the problem: The most annoying thing my phone ever does is start playing my morning alarm while I’m driving my car. It’s way more frustrating than a phone call while driving, because I can’t just ignore it – it will keep getting louder and louder until I turn it off.

Unfortunately, turning it off is not simple when it’s in your tight jeans pocket, and you’re trying to drive. In fact, I’d say it feels like I’m being punished for getting up early – not very good psychologically.

Windows Phone Driving Mode Setup

Windows Phone’s new Driving Mode has come to the rescue. Quite simply it’s now one of my favourite features about the operating system, and here’s how it works:

When you first enable Driving Mode you step through a wizard which asks you to select your car’s Bluetooth device and choose if you want to ignore phone calls and text messages. (I ignore everything!) You can even set your phone to automatically reply to text messages, if you like that kind of thing.

Once you’re all set up, your phone will simply let you know it is enabled by vibrating in your pocket when you set off on your journey, and you’ll get no notifications at all while you’re connected to the car – no ringtones or vibrating text messages… and no alarm clocks! But don’t worry, you can continue to listen to Xbox Music through Bluetooth or use HERE Drive as expected. It just works.

Windows Phone Driving Mode On

To get Driving Mode you need to have the GDR3 version of Windows Phone 8. If you’re an app developer, you can download the Preview for Developers app in the store.

Surface 2 & Surface Pro 2

As expected, Microsoft recently showed off two new Surface tablets, both next generation replacements for their existing offerings. The Surface 2 offers updated specifications and thinner body aiming at personal productivity with Windows RT 8.1 and the Nvidia ARM platform, while the Surface Pro 2 caters more for the professional with Windows 8 Pro and the low power Haswell based Intel Core i5. Both offer a new two position kickstand, which apparently makes it more stable to use on your lap.

Personally, I find the Surface Pro 2 very compelling, and I’m certainly considering it as a possible successor of my old MacBook as my personal software development machine. Though even with the updated lapability, I’m not sure if I would be productive on one as a laptop – when not using a desk.

Surface Pro 2 offers the portability and simplicity of a tablet when you want it…

Surface Pro 2

…and the power and flexibility of a laptop when you need it.

Regardless of if I decide to buy or not, both products look like good solid updates to the line. The real new stuff is a little more subtle though – the updated accessories really fill out the Surface experience, and a clearly the differentiator that puts Microsoft’s tablet into a league of its own. A few worthy of mention are as follows…

Docking Station

This was going to happen, and I’m glad it did. Personally, I’d love to have a setup with a Surface Pro 2 and one of these fancy new Docking Stations – my biggest problem with that is that I don’t currently have the space – though that’s something I’m thinking about changing in the near future. I’m glad they have finally made this accessory, and it would certainly factor into my plans if I decided to get one of these devices.

Power Cover

As well as updates to both the Touch and Type covers – that include backlights, thinner designs and better performance – the Power Cover also includes a large battery that’s meant to increase the life of the new tablets. Personally, I think I’d really have to need one of these before I got it. Maybe even being caught powerless a few times before investing.

Arc Touch Mouse

The Surface Edition of the Arc Touch Mouse interests me quite a lot. I still have mine and I still use it regularly. But the single thing that interests me the most – is the fact that this thing is Bluetooth now. Why wasn’t it already? I don’t know. Also, I find the design way cooler than the Surface Edition of the Wedge Touch Mouse which they previously released.

Surface Music Kit

Surface Music Kit

Finally, this is the cover that interests me the most. It’s a sign of change, a real differentiator on Microsoft’s part – they’re designing a pressure sensitive touch surface that’s tailor made for music tasks. Specifically around their Surface Remix Project. I see a bright future in these kinds of accessories, and I’m looking forward to see what comes next.