Which Cloud System

Which cloud system for my day to day use?

I’ve been running Windows 10 since they first released their developers preview versions and have generally liked it. Microsoft also has its Onedrive, desktop and web-based Office stuff, all that sort of thing… so I thought I’d give the integrated Microsoft cloud world a try. So services like Dropbox (and Evernote) for backups, and linking / synchronising my desktop Outlook, documents, and all the other associated services I use together through my Microsoft account.

Like it or not, it did work quite well. Whether Word on the desktop or Word through a browser, Excel, or Calendar in Outlook, everything did seem to integrate in a sensible fashion.

However my love affair with Windows 10 now seems to be wearing a bit thin. It’s one thing for Google, as a service, to be monitoring your activity, but having the whole operating system reporting back to its controller everything you are doing, programs you have installed, even what you say… then there are other irritations like the way Onedrive now works its selective sync, or even a small change in your computer hardware and Windows 10 deactivates itself as it thinks it’s a new machine – and reactivating it can be a real pain. (I’ll be curious to see what happens when Microsoft brings out their Enterprise version of Win 10, I don’t think much of commerce and industry will want an outside organisation to be monitoring what their employees are doing!)

So on my Win 10 installs I worked my way through as many of the (numerous) privacy settings that I can find and sorted them out, and for the time being have switched back to the Big Brother of Google for my calendar, word processing and other cloud based activities.

I will give Google one thing – I do find their cloud services more integrated compared to Microsoft, even though I think Word is a far better word processor than Google’s document editor (likewise for Excel), however Google’s various different services seem to flow together in a far smoother way.

I have no particular loyalty to any one system, I use Apple products, Microsoft ones, Android, a Blackberry Z10 is my main mobile to laptop tethering / hotspot device. In the past I’ve played with Linux and BSD. They are all just devices and services there to do a job. So maybe return to an earlier version of Windows or back across to Apple; a little uncertain at the moment, things depend on Microsoft’s attitude and Apple’s next Mac Mini update.

Giant Squid lavalier or Rode

Giant Squid and Rode smartLav+ lavilier mics.

Recently I bought myself a Giant Squid lavalier microphone. The version I got was the mono, cardioid model and came in at around $(US)40. This makes it about half the price of the Rode smartLav+ (itself around $80, so not exactly expensive). Physically it is a bit larger than the Rode, though I could put it the other way around and say how amazed I was at how small the Rode was. This will mean that, compared to the Rode, this Giant Squid will be a bit harder to hide if you want a your microphone to be concealed and out of view.

Being a cardioid device it will cut out much of the background sounds. One area where this can be really useful and that’s in a room with a bit of an echo to it. This device seems quite good at cancelling out that often rather unnatural ‘hollow’ sound.

Compared to the Rode the overall sound seems warmer, though looking at it the other way I could say the Rode gives a crisper sound. One area where the Rode really does outperform the Giant Squid is outside in the wind. Here the Rode is far less susceptible to that wind noise that can so overpower any outside recording. On the other hand the omnidirectional characteristics of the Rode means that if in a crowded street you may find it hard to hear your speaker’s voice above that of those around you. In this situation the cardioid pattern of the Giant Squid could work in your favour.

The Giant Squid is designed to plug straight into a standard audio recorder (I regularly use a Zoom H1) where the Rode smartLav+ is looking to feeding into a smartphone or tablet device. One big problem here is that the codecs used by phones for recording audio can (and do) vary vastly across models. Far by the best results I’ve had have been when using Rode’s adapter lead which enables the smartLav+ to plug into the Zoom.

Which of these two lavalier microphones is best – that really depends on your own situation, what you want and how you use them. At this sort of price you can’t expect perfection, however for speech recording they both provide a vast step up compared to a camera’s built in microphone.

(When I have some spare time and money I’d like to get an omnidirectional Giant Squid and compare that to these two.)

 

Windows 10 Tecnical Preview

I’m having a play with the new Windows Technical Preview (Windows 10) and find myself pleasantly impressed.

I’ve installed it onto two machines, both around 8 years old. One a Pentium D based device, the other with an AMD Athlon processor, both of which originally came with XP. So we’re not talking about modern hi-tech stuff but rather antiquated hardware somewhat on the wrong side of their ‘best before’ dates.

From starting the install process (via DVD) to having a running system took between 20 to 30 minutes. No crashes or hiccups, in fact these were some of the smoothest installs that I’ve done in ages.

The AMD processor’d device is a HP machine which came with on-board graphics; this I had quickly upgraded with a base model NVIDIA graphics card. The support for this specific card ended at Windows Vista, and when I installed Windows 7 onto this machine the graphics did give problems. When I then went to Windows 8 the graphics moved from ‘a problem’ to that of a real pain, though I did get it sorted. However with this new Technical Preview the default graphic drivers worked the card without any real problems, and when I did my first run of Windows Updates it automatically installed some NVIDIA drivers which got the card working nicely.

The only drivers I had to specifically download was for the HP’s audio. As with the NVIDIA card, the support for this machine’s particular Realtek on-board sound ended with Vista, but downloading and installing the Realtek Vista drivers sorted that out.

Perhaps the best thing for many people is that there’s a real ‘Start Menu’. Initially it appears like a blend of the Windows 8 live tiles combined with the more conventional menu system. However it can be quickly configured to the style of earlier Windows (or if you prefer, to the look of Windows 8).

I’ve installed the usual round of programs (Microsoft Office, Firefox, Chrome, Dropbox, Evernote, VLC…) and all (so far) have run without any problems. No delay in opening programs or speed issues that’s made me think I’d want to go back to using an earlier system. I’ve played briefly with the virtual desktops (about time Widows had this feature built-in), being able to snap application windows to corners / sides of the screen is handy and helps to keep things tidy. It is slightly annoying how the control settings seem to be split across the new PC Settings and old Control Panel. As someone who has always configured his screen layout to have a look and feel of a basic Windows 95 desktop, I’d class this Windows Technical Preview as a case of ‘familiar but different’.

It’s still early days and I’ve not yet done anything too demanding or stressful to the either of the two systems. That will come once I’ve built up a little more general usage time (and confidence) in their operation, but first impressions are definitely very favourable.

 

RØDE smartLav+

The  RØDE smartLav+ is a huge improvement over the original.

I got the original RØDE smartLav earlier on this year and was so disappointed with it. As I’ve already commented on that in an earlier blog I won’t go on about it here. However recently I got hold of their updated model, the smartLav+, and am suitably impressed with it especially considering its price. I still might question their claim of “broadcast-grade” but if you want a general purpose lavalier microphone, then this is now worth considering.

I’ve tried it across various different smart phones and operating systems (iPhone, Android, Windows, BlackBerry) and all have worked well. A clear sound with none of the problems of the earlier model. Using RØDE’s own SC3 adaptor lead it also worked really well into my Zoom H1 recorder.

What did surprise me was how well it coped with being out in windy conditions. I firstly tried it under three layers of clothing (under a t-shirt which was under a hoodie which was under my coat). As might be expected they acted as a wind shield while the speech sounded a little muffled, but was still perfectly workable. I then tried it clipped to the outside of my jacket, yet despite being out in quite windy conditions it gave surprisingly good audio with no real wind interference.

This really does provide a cheap alternative for those wanting to record their audio separate from their video stream. No need for fancy expensive recorders, each person has one of these smartLav+ mics and uses their own phone as a recorder. Yes, work will have to be done in post to equalise and balance out levels, but when you’re on a tight (or no!) budget then you have to adapt. Even if you do have all the nice equipment, then something like this as a backup in case of problems with the main system (what, did you say ‘save’, I thought you said ‘erase’…)

BlackBerry Z10

I’ve never taken BlackBerry that seriously.

It’s main feature has been based around (secure) messaging, and the amount of messaging I do (secure or otherwise) is quite minimal. For me my mobile phones are primarily used as portable computing type gadgets, with an emphasis placed on internet-related stuff. (If my phone rings I totally freak out – using it for calls is its least used function.)

However it’s been this ‘internet-related’ bit that that got me looking at them. I wanted a fast 4G connection device suitable for lap-top and tablet tethering, but already having a really nice smartphone I didn’t want to spend large sums of money replacing that when the only gain would be 4G, so I was looking for a budget-end device to compliment this high-end phone.

This is where the BlackBerry Z10 came in. The cheapest 4G devices I could see were a couple of Nokia phones, but they had rather poor screens and would only tether as a Wi-Fi hotspot. I wanted this feature but I also wanted to be able to tether via a USB connection and these would not do that.

The next cheapest I could see was in the Carphonewarehouse chain which was selling the BlackBerry Z10 (unlocked) at a very competitive price. I did my research, read various reviews (which generally rated the phone quite highly, but at its original price rather over-priced) and then went ahead and got one.

From the moment I switched it on I was impressed. A really nice screen (1280 x 768 at 356 ppi, compared to the latest iPhone 5s at 1136 x 640 and 326 ppi) and gives crisp text and great colours. An operating system that I found quicker to learn and more intuitive that either iOS, Android or WP8, and with its ability to run most Android apps as well as native BlackBerry ones, no lack of app functionality. The browser is probably the best phone browser I’ve come across in a mobile phone, opening up difficult web pages faster and more completely than any other. Scrolling across screens is smooth and fast, apps open up quickly, the microSD card slot lets you add additional memory; it’s just a really nice device to use!

If I was going to ask for one improvement, then that would be battery life. It does give me a full day’s use but it would have been nice to be able to squeeze two days out of it. Naturally it will do my Wi-Fi and USB tethering. (It should tether through Bluetooth too, though I’ve never bothered with that.)

This has just been such an unexpectedly pleasant experience its got me re-thinking quite what I expect from a mobile phone or tablet type device. I suspected that Microsoft’s Windows Phone 8 system will become over the next year or so far more popular, and where a few weeks ago I really could not have cared as to BlackBerry’s future, now I hope they do manage to get their problems sorted and give Microsoft a good run for their money at the alternative to the iOS / Android duopoly.

Some YouTube Z10 thoughts.

Rode smartLav

sadly disappointed with my Rode smartLav mic.

I had always associated Rode with quality, I’ve used their products before and always been very happy with them. However I find myself sadly disappointed with the quality of my recently purchased  Rode SmartLav lavalier microphone. They advertise it as “a professional-grade wearable microphone” but I found it far from that.

The first thing I noticed was a physical problem, the foam cover / windshield was not properly attached to its frame. That got sorted by fully removing the cover and then the application of some superglue to re-attach it.

The microphone did come with a tie-clip which does quite a good job of holding the device and keeping the cable secure. The microphone itself is quite small, somewhat thicker than a toothpick, a lot thinner than a pencil. Assuming you could route the cable out of sight then it could go totally unnoticed if attached to the side of a monitor or to one side of a desk. Its omnidirectional pick-up pattern means it does not have to be pointing at the speaker in order to pick up speech.

The device is advertised as a smartphone device, I did try plugging it into my Zoom H1 recorder and also my video camera but (as expected) it didn’t work with either. I’ve tried it with three different phones. Using a Nokia Lumia 520 it gave an audio file that sounded a bit wooly with a loss of upper end frequencies. Using a Samsung Galaxy Note 2 gave a very tinny sound with loss at both the lower and upper frequencies. My iPhone gave the best overall sound in terms of frequency response however I still class it as ‘poor’ and far from the ‘professional-grade’ that Rode claim. There was also a noticeable background hiss all the way through and an intermittent crackle just to add to the distraction.

The one area where it did perform better than other microphones I’ve used is outside in that it picked up less wind noise than most. This does not, however, compensate for its overall poor quality of performance.

Sorry Rode, the phrase “could do better” springs to mind.

Link to my YouTube test of it.

Google+ and Windows Phone 8 surprise

Google forcing Google+ onto YouTubers has had an unexpected result for me.

I do use (and now rely on doing things through) the cloud. Whether e-mail, word processing, spreadsheet work or general video or photo storage, it’s all done remotely and for some time now I’ve been happy enough using Google. However the way they’ve handled this forcing of YouTube commenters to use Google+ has irritated me in the extreme. The result of this was to go and look around at alternative cloud sources including Microsoft’s SkyDrive. Up till now I had rather ignored it but was pleasantly surprised to see how they had integrated Office functionality into it. This in turn got me thinking about mobile cloud access.

For years I’ve had two phones on me. One working through an on-going contract, the other (an elderly iPhone 3GS) working off a PAYG SIM (and on a different network). This means that if my contract network is out of service or the phone battery flat I still have internet / cloud access through the PAYG device. (It also provides me with an alternative mobile number for when I don’t want to give out my personal one.)

Having found this SkyDrive was unexpectedly good I thought I’d give a try with Microsoft’s Windows Phone 8 as a back-up mobile system (my current main phone is a Samsung Galaxy Note 2, so therefore Android). So went out and got a Nokia Lumia 520 as a PAYG upgrade which was the cheapest Windows Phone 8 that I could find.

I was absolutely amazed by it. Despite being a low specification / bottom of the range model the screen was nice and clear, apps and programs opened quickly and ran smoothly, there was no hesitation in scrolling, and from an initial charge it gave me three days use (and even then was still at 25% battery level). I really had not expected such a positive experience both from the phone itself and from the operating system. Where the icons and tiles on a desk-top Windows 8 machine annoy me (and I always switch across to the standard old style desktop) here they suit the environment really well.

The Windows Phone App store is nothing like as well populated as its Android or Apple counterpart, however almost everything I want is there. As for anything that I’m not happy with I can always access it from its web page anyway, so that’s not a great problem. The one irritation with the phone is that the screen does seem like a magnet for finger prints and smudges. I must see if I can get a screen protector for it which may improve this, but it’s not really a big issue, after all this is as smart phones go about the cheapest one on the market. I can quite see why I’ve seen reports that in parts of the world it is the best-selling smartphone!

So from being almost a Google fan-boy – Chrome, Gmail, Google documents / Drive, relying on Google Calendar,  Android user –  from their poorly executed action of forcing Google+ upon its YouTube users (me) I’ve ‘discovered’ a whole new alternative cloud structure which I’m slowly moving across to.

Thank’s Google.

My YouTube thoughts on this and the Nokia 520

Bit Rate Settings

A while ago I rendered out a video at 1080p and then again at 720p.

As expected the 720p file size was considerably smaller than the 1080p one. However I thought I’d play a bit more with this as I was a little ‘uncertain’ with the results I was getting, after all not just image size (1080 / 720) had changed, but bit rate too. On play back both videos looked ‘good quality’ and even stretching the 720 up to fill a 1080 size window didn’t noticeably reduce its viewing quality.

So I took a short 20 second clip standing on a street corner which started with the camera held still (so a mix of non-moving buildings but with cars and people going past) and then at the 10 second point panned the camera around so everything was now moving relative to the camera.
Then it was a case of rendering this out at 1080p various times, the only thing being changed between each session being the bit rate, working up from around 800 Kbps to 32Mbps.

Down at the low bit rates stationary items looked all right, but moving items (people, cars, the buildings when the camera was panning around) were of very poor quality. At the high bit rate end of the scale everything looked crisp and nice, however both rendering time and file size had also grown.

What was also apparent was that the choice of playback program was significant. Different players, VLC, Windows Media Player, QuickTime, all will play back the same clip differently. Same applies to using different browsers as a play-back engine – they are not all equal. Also what you have recorded makes a difference. A clip with little movement and few colours will be very different from a clip with lots of movement and activity.

Then a matter of working up from the bottom to find the bit rate cut-off point between where a clip was unacceptable and one was watchable; and coming down from the high bit rates and at what stage starting to notice a degradation in quality. Then finding an overall mid-point balance between quality and file size .

So what this really means is that there is no one ideal bit rate setting that’s going to cover all situations. For my set-up, with my camera and my editing software and thinking of uploading to somewhere like Vimeo or YouTube, then I’ll be thinking of working at 8 Mbps for indoor videos where there’s not a lot going on, and 12Mbps for outdoor videos full of colour and movement.
But this just my experience. You will need to do your own experiments to find your best compromise settings that will suite your equipment and set-up.

Rode Videomic Pro

I’ve had my Rode Videomic Pro now for around the last two and a half years.

It was bought to give my Panasonic GH2 an improved sound quality when I was out and about videoing. My previous video device, a Canon HF100 has a non-standard hot shoe / accessory slot, so for that I had to get the Canon microphone especially for that camera, which of course was incompatible with my GH2. However I must give Canon their due, it’s a great microphone and did everything that I asked or expected from it.

This Videomic Pro has also been a great device. Although I don’t use it that often it has still suffered a fair amount of misuse and abuse, lived in holdalls and generally travelled around with me, but has always done the business when needed. It has been a bit of an irritation in that the rubber strips which provide the sound and vibration isolation between the microphone itself and its frame often detach themselves from their mounting positions, but I can live with that. As a video camera microphone I like it and I also often put it onto a small tripod and use it as a desktop mic. In this set-up sometimes feeding it directly into my camera, sometimes feeding it into my Zoom H1 and use the Zoom to record the audio.

Its one failure has been out in windy conditions. My Canon mic with its dead cat windshield handled windy conditions really well. I got the Rode made windshield for this Videomic Pro assuming that getting the proper branded item would give me good performance, however I’ve been very disappointed with its abilities to reduce wind noise. Where the microphone was money well spent, this Rode dead cat windshield was a total waste. A shame as Rode usually produce good products. I’ll just have to look elsewhere for a windshield.

My new Kindle Paperwhite.

A couple of days ago now I went and bought A new Kindle Paperwhite which had recently been released.

It’s not the first Kindle I have had. Just under three years ago I went down to John Lewis and bought what was then a 3rd generation Kindle and I remember being there wondering what am I going to make of this.
I do like my books. I like the action of turning the page, the feel of it, the cover, the fact that as you repeatedly read it it ages in changes in character. You might get a slight rip on a page or finger marks or splash of coffee on it. That all goes to making up the on-going reading experience, so what was I going to make of doing it electronically?

By the end of the first day I knew I was going to love it to bits. No worry about when the novelty wears off it’ll end up on the shelf just collecting dust. I really do like this as a reading experience and far better than using my iPad. That’s a great device where graphics are involved and for colour magazines that sort of thing. As a reader it’s not that bad a reader, but if I’m using it for more that about 40 minutes I’ve kind of had enough and want a little break, where using my Kindle I can settle down for a good evening’s read and immediately feel myself involved with the book, where using my iPad I always know I’m looking at an electronic device.

About six weeks ago my old Kindle developed a fault with some corruption up in the top quarter of the screen. This basically made it unusable. There was no hesitation or second thoughts, I immediately knew I wanted a replacement device. A quick look on the internet showed that a new model was due out fairly soon so I decided to wait. The reviews of the new Paperwhite model were all favourable so when it came out I headed off down to my local Waterstones book shop and got one.

I really do like it and am so glad I’m back with a working device again, I think these Kindles are great examples of things that just do one thing only but they do it really well.

My new Kindle Paperwhite does not have a physical keyboard but is a touch screen device and so uses a virtual keyboard. This I prefer to my old Kindle’s physical keyboard which I found a bit irritating to use – the buttons were too small and fiddly for my liking. However there’s one thing I do prefer with the old model and that’s for page turning it actually has physical buttons down the side where this new one requires a touch of the screen to turn the page. I prefer the buttons, but that’s just my personal view on that.

With my old model I did pay extra to get it with 3G functionality, but in reality in the 3 years I’ve had it I don’t suppose I’ve used its 3G more than half a dozen times. Wi-Fi at home means that I can use that for downloading books, and for direct transfer use its USB connection. When out and about there’s plenty of locations with free Wi-Fi or I can set up my mobile phone as a local Wi-Fi hot-spot. So when I got this new model I didn’t bother paying the extra for the 3G version.

The other difference with the new model compared to my old is that this new one has a backlight. I tend not to have it on for normal usage however it is really useful when in poor lighting conditions. I can see this making life a lot easier where you bedtime partner wants the lights out but you want to keep on reading!

Another thing I really like about the Kindles which does give them an advantage over your paper book is that when you come across a word that you don’t understand it’s so easy to look it up (and without disturbing your reading routine in the way that having to put a paper book down, go and find your dictionary, look up the word, then get back to your original book and pick up reading again does). Just being able to touch the word and have a pop-up definition window appear is really nice.

The old model specifications talk about a month out of the battery for ordinary use and I found that was quite realistic. With this new model they’re talking about two months out of the battery so we’re able to go away for holidays and that sort of thing not having to worry about cables and chargers, though it will charge off any USB connection.

Would I upgrade to this new Paperwhite if I had a working older model? That depends on the importance to you of having the backlight. For me personally I was quite happy without it, however my upgrade was forced upon me with my old one’s screen fault, so going to this model was a natural choice. If you’ve got an existing one without a backlight then you’re going to have to make a decision here yourself, is it worth it or is it not. All I will say is old or new, I do love my Kindle. As I commented on earlier it’s one of those devices that just does one task and it does it really well.

So I’ll happily say thumbs up for my Kindle Paperwhite.