Category Archives: Blog

May Monies

Coming to the end of May and my big cap portfolio is coming along okay.

It’s up a little over 2.5% for the proverbial Mad Month of May. However as nice as that sounds it has underperformed compared to the FTSE 100 (up around 4%). The main problem here for this portfolio was a sudden fall by Tate & Lyle. Despite announcing a healthy increase in pre-tax profits there was only a small increase in sales.This sales performance appears to have disappointed the market so it has punished Tate with an 8% fall over the last few days.It could well be time to say goodbye to them, also possibly to Ashtead which since a peak in April seems to be starting a downward trend.

Looking at the others, Burberry seems to have recovered from its nasty fall in April with the rest generally coming along nicely.

As for replacing Tate and / or Ashtead, then the investment company 3i (III) and the digital payment company Paysafe (PAYS) are on the short-list. Much depends on what happens when the market opens tomorrow.

My income portfolio (up 2.6%) has slightly outperformed my big cap portfolio in capital growth while also providing dividends at an equivalent annual rate of over 3.3%. No plans here to make any changes to this. It is targeting long term income rather than capital growth with a holdings review probably not till December.

iPhone 6s Plus First Impressions.

I’ve had my iPhone 6s Plus for a couple of weeks, so I thought I’d comment on my first experiences with it.

As soon as I got it (from my local 3 shop) it was straight off to Starbucks and investigate. (Come on now, you can’t seriously expect any self-respecting technology-related guy not to want to play with a new gadget like an iPhone as soon as is humanly possible.)

The first thing that struck me was the minimalist (if that’s the right word) amount of documentation that was included, and what was there was of such small print size it was almost impossible to read. Putting the SIM in and powering up the iPhone, it immediately wanted to connect through to an Apple registration centre, but not through its SIM / phone data connection but using Wi-Fi. The first efforts through Starbucks’ Wi-Fi failed miserably. It just would not connect to the registration centre. Next I tried using my Samsung Note 2 as a Wi-Fi hot-spot. That got thing a bit further forward in that it did say it was now connecting, but it just sat there and sat there and wouldn’t go any further.

So out with my lap-top (a MacBook Air, but running Windows 10), and with it tethered to the Note 2 it was off to do a bit of internet research. It appears I’m not the only one to have start-up registration problems, the solution being to connect the iPhone to a computer and then use iTunes. A little annoyed at this routine but at least this did work. However considering this was a brand new latest model iPhone straight out of the box I was surprised to see that it wanted to do a major operating system update.

Oh well, at least it’s up and running, but rather than update in Starbucks I thought I’d wait till I got home and use my broadband connection there.

This is where things got a little bit odd. On energising the iPhone at home it immediately locked onto my router Wi-Fi and started updating through that, but without asking for the router’s password! There was also confusion over PIN numbers relating to different levels of security functions – such as me entering in a 4 digit PIN but then later it wanting a 6 digit number (which I had not given it). I don’t know if it had picked up information or numbers that had been attached to my iTunes account, but it got to the stage where I said “sod this, this is leading me round in circles, let’s wipe the machine and start again”, so factory re-set time.
This time (and not going via iTunes) the set-up went as I would have expected. Passwords, PIN numbers, finger-print set-up etc. all ran smoothly. So at least by the end of the day I had, up and running, a nice shiny new device.

I am suitably impressed with it (as I would expect considering its cost!!!). I have all my essential apps loaded and am bringing on-board a range of additional ones. The fingerprint scanner has worked well and I hope more apps will adapt to using that as authentication. Setting up Apple Pay was simple enough, though the touch system has worked about 75% of the time, which means I don’t yet have the confidence to not carry around my (still using touch where appropriate) other bits of plastic.

The best feature of the iPhone – battery life. I’m so glad I went for the physically larger device (with its suitably larger battery). I can’t give an exact between charge figure as most lunchtimes I cable tether my MacBook Air through it, so each day it is getting around a 45 minute top-up. This does mean that I’m going for a good few days before I’m needing to give it a proper (usually overnight) charging session.

The worst feature – the camera, especially the camera app. The camera itself does take good pictures, however I find the physical location of the lens to be too close to the edge of the phone. This means that when taking pictures (or video) in landscape mode it’s all too easy to move your finger over the front of the lens. Or to put it another way, in portrait mode it makes the phone awkward to hold especially when trying to use the on-screen controls; I really am not impressed with this. The controls are poorly laid out, It keeps on taking multiple pictures when I don’t want it to, the whole thing I find annoying to use. If you just want to call up the camera, take a snap, and that’s that then I’m sure it’s okay. However I would like to use it a bit more creatively, but working my way through the controls is a pain and really slows everything down. There are numerous other apps out there for camera control, but each of these seems to concentrate in just one area (perhaps slow shutter / night time, or its effects-rich, or good for video…) and not suitable for ‘universal’ use. I assume over time I’ll adapt, but this is still no replacement for my Panasonic Lumix ‘point & shoot’ camera.

One other indirect side effect. As I put apps onto this 6S the Apple eco-system keeps on trying to put the same version apps onto my old iPhone 3GS. The install process starts, then grinds to a halt half way through. On the 3GS I have to then delete the app, go directly to the app store and select the app from there. The store will say that I can’t install this app because my 3GS is too old, but offer me the most recent version that was compatible with this device. That install will then naturally work without any problem. Why it can’t use the correct version to start with I don’t understand. Oh well, never mind. I can live with this.

So overall a thumbs up for my new iPhone 6s Plus.

iPhone Upgrade

I’ve just updated my mobile phone to a new iPhone.

As much as I love my Samsung Note 2, it is getting left behind technology-wise. Finger print readers, contactless payment systems, 4G connection speeds, camera quality and so on has made my Note 2 somewhat dated – though it’s still quite a powerful machine. The obvious natural choice would be to move up to a Note 5 (though for some reason Samsung seems very slow in releasing it in the U.K.), however for one specific reason I’ve shifted across to the iPhone.

I’ve got rather fed up with the Android operating system update routine.

Google goes through its usual announcement of the next major operating system release. Naturally the phone manufacturers then announce their support for it too. We then have, sometime later, it arriving on one or two of the Nexus devices. The other manufacturers will announce which of their new phones may get it, they may release it as an update for some very recent models (while still bringing out new models still running the old version), and though the manufacturers may have released updates there is still the local carriers, your Vodafones and all that crowd, to decide if and when they will put out the update. Rumours circulate, companies say one thing, then a couple of months later say the exact opposite, networks aren’t interested…

Then there ‘s the problem with those models (like my Note 2) which are no longer front line devices, and as such no longer make money for the suppliers and manufacturers. They may or may not at some time in the near or distant future get a full or partial upgrade depending even on what region of the world you are or are not located in.

This even means that you can have a nice new shiny model but with this system and its delays you may not get your upgrade until the next upgrade cycle is already happening!

Compare this to Apple. You get operating system upgrades announced. Sometime later they’ll announce actual dates and to which models it will apply to. Then you have it released around the world at the same time. Yes, there are problems and bugs and things don’t go as planned, but then this happens with Android, Windows and everything else. However at least with Apple you know where you stand. A certain range of models will get the update, others won’t.
That’s that. (If you really want to there is the possible option of jail-breaking older devices to force an update onto them, but that’s another can of worms altogether.)

So it is because of this that I have moved (back) to Apple for my latest phone improvement. I’ll still have my Note 2 with its stylus (which I really like) as my secondary or stand-by device with a pay-as-you-go SIM in it, but right now I’m busy getting my apps sorted out and seeing what this iPhone can actually do.

Evernote thoughts

What’s happening in the world of Evernote?

Came across an interesting article in Business Insider about the ups and now downs of Evernote that highlighting their recent laying-off of staff, and I’m afraid I do agree with the overall conclusion that Evernote, unless it gives itself a big kick up the backside, has had its day.

I first started using Evernote a bit over 4 years ago and found it a really useful cloud storage cross platform note taking application with a versatile screen clipping function. However as time’s gone by Evernote seems to have stood relatively still whereas other providers have either tweaked their existing services or brought on-board newer more comprehensive applications. Google Docs has vastly improved since its conception, Microsoft has developed OneNote and its other OneDrive services, Dropbox (as well as others) can seamlessly cloud store your documents as you work on them. It was only when I read this Evernote article that I realised how little I’d been using it recently. Not any conscious decision to avoid it, but just finding other services so much nicer to use such that Evernote’s usage just naturally fell away. One problem with it is that it’s yet another application that I need to be logged in to. I use various services from both Google and Microsoft (even when I’m using my Apple products) so I have to be logged into them. It’s a bit of a pain but I accept that it’s now part of my computer related life. As they provide overlapping / greater functionality to that of Evernote I really don’t want to be logging into another application to do something I can already do.

I suspect in reality it’s been Microsoft’s recent expansion away from concentrating its services just on Windows to encompassing Apple and Android that’s changed me. That cross-platform expansion then got me looking at Google’s services in greater detail. As much as I like my MacBook and iPad I find the Apple world too restricting considering I also use Windows both at home and at work, so at the moment I am writing this (in Starbucks tethering via my phone) using Google Docs on my MacBook, which incidentally is running Windows 10.

I do hope Evernote can develop itself and compete with the other players in the field. Competition (and choice) is good, but at the moment my choice is not to use Evernote.

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 I’ll stay with Windows 10, perhaps move back to an earlier version, or return to Apple; a little uncertain at the moment. Just have to see how things develop, especially looking to Microsoft’s new Surface Pro and / or Apple’s next Mac Mini update. After all both of these will be able to ‘cloud out’ for services and storage to whoever I choose. Though I think at the moment, regardless of operating system, Google is winning my cloud war.

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.)


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