Category Archives: Hardware

An introduction to Apple CarPlay (and Android Auto)

If there’s been something that’s never really worked all that well since the introduction of the smartphone, it’s how they integrate with your car.

Perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise as car manufacturers work many years in advance and they want to control as much of how you interact with their vehicles as they can. However, customers have been crying out for them to add support for Android Auto and CarPlay, the systems written by Google and Apple respectively to enable their mobile devices to communicate with vehicles.

Gradually support has improved and most manufacturers now offer both Android and Apple variants. Some (I’m looking at you BMW) are trying to charge their customers an annual fee to access the service (do what?) but most simply include it as part of the package.

And it does make a difference!

Yes, on older cars without Android Auto or CarPlay, you can still plug in your phone via USB or WiFi and see your contacts and sometimes music on the in-car display, however the implementation has been pretty unconvincing. What Android Auto and Apple CarPlay give you is access to the apps you might like to use on your phone while you’re in your car using a familiar interface. They also support Google Assistant and Siri making the whole experience even better. Say what you like about Siri, but when it comes to natural language queries, it’s generally far better than Alexa and therefore much better for when you’re on the move. Google Assistant is also no slouch in this area and is the pick of the bunch for this kind of task.

In the video accompanying this post, I take a brief look at Apple’s CarPlay and discuss it’s merits (and those of Android Auto, although not being an Android user I can’t demonstrate it in the film). I’ve only just started using CarPlay so if you have any questions please post them to my YouTube channel (or below) and I’ll make a follow up film.

Thanks for watching, and don’t forget to hit that like button!

What Mac did I buy in November 2018?

When it comes to buying a new computer, it’s not something that I do every day! Or even every year. Or every 2 years. In fact sometimes I go almost a decade between purchases.

When I bought my first Mac, a Mac Mini, it was 2005 and some people thought I was bonkers as Windows was very much king in those days. However, I’d become a bit disappointed with the annual wipe-and-reinstall that seemed to be necessary to keep Windows XP running optimally. Plus my experience with Windows Phone (on a crappy Motorola filp-phone) had nearly sent me insane. It was time for a change!

I loved Mac OS X Panther so much that 18 months after my Mac Mini purchase I bought a first generation Mac Pro. This was the last Mac to receive an update to Intel processors.

My next Mac came several years later, in 2014. A “trashcan” Mac Pro.

As you can see, my Mac life has entirely consisted of the headless variety. I brought my own keyboard and mouse (in latter years, those offered by Apple were my preferred options). However, in November 2018 I suddenly found myself needing to buy a new machine. The Mac Pro has something of a disappointing recent history and this isn’t going to be fixed until a completely revamped model comes out at some point in 2019, so what was I to do?

In the video above, you can find out what Mac I bought next, and why.

Thanks for watching! Catch you next time.

First steps into the Smart Home

Here’s a video where I look at three options for smart home lighting: Philips Hue, Ikea’s TR√ÖDFRI and Lifx.

I won’t give anything away about which of the three systems I choose. Please watch the video to find out!

Please give the video a thumbs up if you enjoyed it. You can also subscribe to my YouTube channel to be notified when new videos are uploaded.

Networking update – the finished system

It’s been a while since my last blog post (over 2 months) however I’ve been active on my YouTube channel uploading several videos. One of them, is the fourth part of my networking series (above).

In this video I get to the final stage of the process putting everything into the cabinet – very nice!

There’s a follow up video (below) where I take the network to the next stage by expanding it to elsewhere in my home.

Apologies for not posting these films to my blog before now. Please subscribe to my channel on YouTube to find out when I upload new videos.

I hope you enjoy!

iPad Pro 10.5 inch unboxing

Here’s a video where I unbox my new iPad Pro 10.5 inch and compare it with two older generation iPads.

The iPads on show are the 3rd generation that was launched in January 2012 and the iPad Air from 2013/4.

We look at the difference in screen sizes, bezels and thickness (or thinness as Apple insist on calling it). I don’t mention one of the major enhancements in this newer iPad and that is the 120Hz refresh rate. I’ll likely cover that more if I purchase an Apple Pencil (watch this space)!

If you like unboxing videos of Apple products then I have two more on the way before the end of the year. Not huge products, but they’re in a box so qualify as unboxing videos. Please subscribe to my YouTube channel to be notified when the videos are uploaded.

The fourth part of my networking series is on the way soon!

Thanks for watching. ūüôā

Home office networking progress

It’s been a while since I posted part 2 of my network series, but finally after a short delay, I’m pleased to be able to post part 3 where we really get cracking with the install!

In the video above you’ll be able to see me talk through the final few parts I bought for the new rack as well as see the equipment installed into its new home.

The whole point of this project was to improve my office environment by getting rid of excess cables, extension leads and equipment dotted around different work surfaces. As you will see when you watch the latest part, I’ve largely achieved that goal. However, there is one thing that is going to prevent me from calling this project complete and will mean that I will have to have a “part 4”. Watch the video to find out the reason for this unexpected turn of events.

If you have any comments to make on this project, you can do so here or over on my YouTube channel (click the icon at the top of the page). Thanks for watching!

The home network revamp continues!

It’s time for the second part of my network upgrade series.

This may be extremely geeky, and I’m yet to get to what will pass (even vaguely) as interesting in this project, however if you’re sticking with me over this journey then I’ll show my first purchases and, crucially, unveil the main event – the rack!

There’s not much more to say. Please watch the video to see what I’ve bought.

Coming next will be two supplementary videos in the series where I unbox my new rack mounted switch and my UPS. After that will be part 3 of the revamp series when things really start coming together.

My office revamp. The big cable untangle!

My home office has had more or less the same layout since I first moved into my current home in 2009. Sure, I’ve altered things here and there and slopped a new colour of¬†paint on the walls every¬†so often but the basic layout¬†has pretty much stayed the same.

Until now.

As a project for the¬†remainder¬†of 2017, I’m going to revamp my home office and bring it¬†in to the 21st century. I’ll be replacing the radiator¬†and will¬†have a bright new colour scheme,¬†however¬†the headline change here is the introduction of a rack cabinet.

Racks are more usually found in¬†Data Centres and are in use there because they enable many servers to be stacked in the most space saving way possible along with tidy and organised cable and power management. I’m going to use the same philosophy for my home office. By introducing a rack I’ll be able to put the vast majority of my equipment in¬†one space and greatly enhance my power and cable routing.

The video above talks briefly about my plans and shows the extent of the¬†problem I’m hoping to overcome: lots of disorganised cables and equipment dotted all over my office; some – like my NAS – not in the ideal location!

I hope you’ll join me on this journey as I seek out a UPS, rack mounted switch, PDU’s and the like and re-organise my space to be much more efficient. Please subscribe to my YouTube channel to be notified when part 2 goes live and let me know what you think!

Changing from a Canon cartridge printer to an Epson EcoTank

For the last 6 years I’ve been using a Canon MX 870 printer. It was a good printer, the quality was fine and I liked the fact that it had¬†multi-functions and 2 paper¬†trays. However there was one fatal flaw with the device that meant that it just had to go!

For some time now (years, probably) the printer has suffered from an identity crisis. Sometimes it would happily advertise itself as available on my network and churn out prints. Other times, it would be switched on and active however not show up on any device. Worse still was when it sat somewhere in the middle – advertising the fact that it would accept prints but then blatantly ignoring all my requests to actually do so.

The problem was “error 300”. Lots of people seem to get this with Canon¬†MX series printers. It’s all over support forums on the interwebs and not just for Mac users (although OS X does some to be prone to it).

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After suffering with this issue for far too long, I decided earlier this summer that the printer had to go. I started looking around for an alternative.

Getting on board the tanks
I’d first come across the Epson EcoTank series when it was released in 2015. I like this concept very much. These printers don’t use traditional cartridges, instead they have large ink tanks on the side into which you squirt the liquid that will ultimately make up your prints. The ink is cheap and because the tanks are so large Epson claim that you can do somewhere in the region of 11,000 pages once you’ve filled up. Obviously this depends on how much coverage there is on the paper, but however you look at it, this is considerably more than cartridge hardware can manage.

Because the ink is so¬†cheap, Epson make their money on charging more for the printer. If the EcoTank 4550 was a “normal” printer it would likely be a third of the price but then you’d end up paying more for inks.¬†Even if you use third party options (some of which are pretty awful) the cost per page is still going to be much higher than the 0.5p of the Epson.

Review
I’ve posted a video review of the¬†Epson EcoTank 4550 to my YouTube channel. You can view that here. In it, I unbox the printer, add the ink, set it up with my¬†Mac Pro and then try some test prints before giving my overall impressions of the unit.

The video was recorded in June 2016 and added to YouTube on 10 September (I take my time editing, clearly).

Other EcoTank models are available with different features to the model I review. Check out the Epson web site in your local country for details. I mention special offers in my review, both of which have now ended.

I am not writing this review or posting my video with the knowledge or support of Epson. I purchased the hardware as a consumer using my own money and my comments are entirely down to what I think of it. You should always take on board a variety of opinions and decide yourself what to do before making any purchase.

Changing from an ISP supplied router to an Airport Extreme

Like many people, for some time¬†I’ve been using the router that has been given to me by my internet service provider (ISP) and, mostly, it’s been something that I haven’t given an awful lot of thought to. However, network problems are not unusual so perhaps the time has come to think again.

When I¬†made my first faltering steps onto the internet back in the early 1990’s you had no choice but to buy the hardware to enable you to do it. You even had to install and configure the software¬†– something that on my Amiga 4000 took several days¬†to accomplish. Even when use of the interwebs became more commonplace it wasn’t unusual for a service provider to expect you to have your own¬†equipment.

Fast forward to the present day and modems¬†have been replaced by routers and¬†some ISP’s insist that you use their own hardware and won’t entertain the thought of you using anything else.

Luckily for me, BT Business (who supply me with my FTTC – fibre to the cabinet – connection) are happy for¬†me to use whatever hardware I wish, however they will only support use of their own if you experience problems. When I¬†moved to BT they sent me a BT Business Hub 3 which I later upgraded to a BT Business Hub 5. (Both of these are the same as their “home” counterparts – it’s the firmware that’s slightly different.)

Picture of BT Hub 5

BT Business/Home Hub 5

Using both the Hub 3 and the Hub 5 has generally been OK, apart from occasional wireless problems and sometimes (especially¬†with the Hub 5) broadband would die completely for some time necessitating a reset of the router to factory settings (and the subsequent manual re-applying of various¬†settings). Apart from the latter problem, I thought that intermittent wireless issues were normal. Luckily, I use ethernet cables for most of my network so for most of my time with BT the problem hasn’t been a huge one. However as I purchase more and more mobile gadgets, the wireless infrastructure I need becomes more critical so this was starting to¬†turn into a very real problem.

It was then that I decided to take the plunge and look into purchasing a third party solution. Conversations with BT were not all that helpful (they did their best, but seemed inclined to blame my local network for problems rather than consider the idea that their hardware is not up to scratch). There are many third party options out there and prices vary widely. As I have a predominately Apple based system, I decided that an Airport Extreme would be the one to go for. This is a mid-priced solution for an 802.11ac device so was well within the budget for this project.

Installation
I ordered it direct from Apple and the installation was pretty smooth РI had more problems extracting the box from the cellophane! You can see me unbox the new device in the video that accompanies this blog.

The main advantage to switching from the Hub 5 was that I was able to go back to using the BT Openreach VDSL modem. The Hub 5 has a modem built in, so if you’re replacing a device with an integral modem with a¬†third¬†party router then you may find a problem here. If you don’t have a dedicated VDSL modem then you can either purchase one, or use your existing router in bridge mode. How to do this is beyond the scope of this article or video.

In the video you can also see me set up the device using Apple’s OS X based application Airport Utility.

This is a different approach to most other routers out there that pretty much universally use a web browser to adjust their settings. Having an OS X application does mean that if you’re using a Windows machine then you’re out of luck (unless there’s a Windows version of Airport Utility that I don’t know about).

The one problem
In my video I mention a problem I had with my set up. And this is one that anybody changing to a third party router could stumble across.

My BT Hub had a static IP address of 192.168.1.254. The Airport Extreme uses 192.168.1.1. This small, but significant difference means that you may need to update devices on your network to request their IP address (and route their traffic) via the different gateway IP.

I needed to update several devices on my network to point at the 192.168.1.1¬†including¬†my VOIP telephone, Cisco switch¬†and¬†Synology NAS. Once I’d made the change, my internet connection and network all came to life.

Summary
In the half hour video above I go into detail about the unboxing, installation and, in summary,¬†whether it’s worth upgrading from a free router to a paid one – and a paid one that costs a pretty penny!¬†Has it been worth it? Have my network problems disappeared? Watch the video to find out!

UPDATE: Since making the video I’m pleased to report that the issue where I had to reboot the Openreach modem has not happened again and I’ve been running successfully for several weeks now.