24 October, 2009

Windows 7, first impressions

There will be no shortage of comments on Microsoft's new OS.
I hadn't planned to install it, as I hadn't been too impressed with Vista on my review machines.
But Microsoft kindly gave me a French  "edition int├ęgrale" and told me how much better it is than Vista, so I took the plunge. Here are my first impressions.

First of all. It's supposed to be easy to install and not involve too much time wasting. This is not the case when migrating (I don't like to say "upgrade") from XP, because you have to back up all your files first.

Secondly, the question of drivers. In my case I needed a display driver for my Toshiba laptop. According to the Tosh web site, they don't have Win 7 drivers for this machine!  Ensued a frustrating half hour on the Micrsoft web site - although most of the time was spent trying to fill in their feedback form, which the system refused, insisting that I hadn't completed an obligatory question. Added that the site kept switching to French, even though I had clicked on English as my language.
In the end I used Toshiba's screen driver for Vista, which worked. But it doesn't give the impression that they have readied their web site for Win 7, in spite of the splashes boldly claiming that they are Ready for 7 !

Next install the printer. I liked the way it installed (on the second attempt) without having to download a huge driver file. It beats me why you have to install a 54 MB file just to print on my Lexmark T640 from XP, whereas Linux works straight from the box. Anyway, Win 7 worked too.

Now I've got to install my assorted applications: Skype, Acrobat, Word, Digiguide, Final Notepad (this particular one is a nuisance, because the current free version has fewer features than the earlier ones), Network Stumbler, Hachette Dictionary (along with Alcohol, which is the only way I've found to run it without carrying the CD around with me all the time), Firefox, VLC, Thunderbird, Network Stumbler. That's just for starters. The most painful one is Locklizard, which involves ringing up the supplier everytime you change hard drive (or OS). But there will be all the assorted plugins and 'upgrades'.

The thing that gets me about the whole show is having to stay on a permanent learning curve. Not only for the new Windows, but also the new versions of the software that I have had to re-install.
I am getting a strong feeling of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it".

21 September, 2009

Philips Digital Voice Tracer LFH0882

The idea is nice - a digital voice recorder in a mobile phone form factor. Might as well build it into a mobile phone, do I hear you say. Possibly, but this is a high end pro model, with facilities that most most mobile phone users don't need. And many mobile phones do have voice recorders anyway. But pro users will appreciate a stand-alone unit.
One feature I liked was that it uses two AAA batteries, rather than a Lion pack. So, if you do get caught short, you can buy spare batteries anywhere. The rechargeables can be recharged via the USB connector.

The main features are: zoom micro with two zoom settings. The idea is to make the microphone electronically more directive. Great when you're sitting at the back of the hall in a conference. It records in MP3 format and is supposed to work seamlessly with Dragon Naturally Speaking. I wasn't able to test that, as my PC which has Naturally Speaking on it was out of action during the week I had the LFH on test.
The built in 4 GB memory is plenty for long lectures and conferences. Apparently, some people have used it for college lectures, using Dragon to produce their notes. Not a publishable transcript, to be sure, but certainly adequate for course notes.
Stereo and mono recording is possible, so it can be used for music as well as conferences. You can also record from the built-in stereo radio. Recordings can be organised into folders.
The box states that it is compatible with PC and Mac. I found it worked with Linux too.

On the downside, I didn' t find the menu system very intuitive, having to refer frequently to the instruction manual. Also there is no way of naming files and folders, so ironically you would have to keep notes of where your notes are.

17 September, 2009

Lottery coincidence ?

This week exactly the same lottery numbers came up two weeks running. Click here for the story. Just how unlikely an event is that? One in 14 million (assuming it is the standard  6 out of 49 type of lottery) most people would answer. And very considerably higher if the balls had been retrieved in the same order. In fact, this figure applies to what would be the probablity of this lottery on this particular occasion coming up with the same numbers two weeks running. In fact, there are lotteries in many countries round the world and some countries have several draws a week. So there are several hundred lotteries somewhere in the world each week.Multiplied by 52 weeks a year, this comes out to several tens of thousands of lotteries each year. Then over the period that lotteries have existed, the probability that such an event could happen becomes far more realistic. I should add that the lottery that hit the headlines was in Bulgaria. Coincidences do happen and the probability of this particular one is nowhere near as slim as a first look would have us believe. But it would have been more credible if there had already been cases of five of the six numbers comming up in consecutive weeks. Maybe they have, has anyone collected any statistics on this?

Another explanation of course is that someone had tampered with the lottery balls, perhaps by adding weights to certain balls. Why do that, if it will mean the same numbers coming up week after week and sharing the winnings with people who play lottery numbers by "form". More likely is that anyone who had doctored the balls had simply left the doctored balls in the machine. So a good place to start looking would be the person or persons who won the previous week.An idea to look into if the same numbers come up again next week.

While I am on the subject of lotteries, just a few words on strategy.Mathematics tells us that there is no point in poring over tables of previous winning lottery numbers. I am also reminded of an Andy Capp cartoon strip, in which Flo (Andy's long-suffering wife) pointed out that the bookmaker always went on more expensive holidays than Andy and Flo ever did. So, in the long term, the organiser is the winner in any lottery. Mathematically, the expectation (figure obtained by multiplying potential winnings by probability) must be lower than the stake, since the lottery organiser takes a cut before distributing the winnings. But that is not always the case. From time to time there is a "rollover", when there has been no jackpot winner for several weeks and the stakes are combined. In that case, the expectation suddenly becomes much higher. Someone else has also pointed out that many people tend to play similar numbers (dates, or by studying "form"), so if you avoid such numbers you would share with few people if you ever did win. 
Finally, as the advert says, 100% of winners have played. The lottery enables people to play an imperceptible proportion of their income in the hope that they may one day win. So in fact, the transaction is simply to buy a dream. If you ever win, that is a bonus.

29 August, 2009

MSI Slim X340

A nice computer
My first comment: the MSI Slim X340 is a nice computer, apart from the fact that it runs on Vista. At 1.3 kg, it weighs in like a netbook, but it is a real computer. It's got a real screen - a 13 inch LCD with 1366 x 768 resolution - so there is no need for sideways scrolling when viewing certain websites. Plus a 500 gigabyte hard drive, although there is a model with 320 GB.
The keyboard is a real one with a good feel to it, unlike my Tosh Satellite 100 whose keys feel "plasticy" and work loose. Very good for anyone who touch types.

This is one "laptop" that can really be used on one's lap rather than really being a portable desktop. It is light in weight and runs cool. It is ideal for my favourite position for working - on a couch with the computer wedged between my tummy and my knees. It is also good in bed. The webcam, inbuilt mike and speakers work just fine with Skype.
Being an ultralight, there is no optical disc drive. I find that the only time I need one is for installing software. That is not something you need to do on the move, so a separate stand-alone USB optical drive fills the bill. I also used a 16 GB SDHC card obtained on ebay for 10 euros as removable storage.

Electricity consumption
Energy consumption is reasonable and the machine runs cool. I got a reading that varied between 14 and 24.5 watts, depending on what the machine was actually doing (wifi, bluetooth, using the hard disc, brightness, percentage of processor power used etc), using an in-line power meter and the computer battery removed. The reading dropped down to 9.5W when the screen switched off to save power.

The battery is a 14.8v Li-ion unit, with a capacity of 2150 mAh (which works out to 32 WH), which gives about 3 hours of normal usage with the wifi switched on. I understand a higher capacity model is also available. MSI has not gone down the path taken by the Mac Airbook, whose battery is built-in. It's useful to carry a spare recharged battery when travelling. Also the life of Li-ion batteries in general tends to be around two years - hopefully the computer will last much longer than that.
Unfortunately there is no restore CD - a recently imposed Microsoft requirement I believe.
But, it will not stay on its own for long. I've just seen the super-slim notebook Sony are bringing out soon,  weighing in at just 700 grams because it uses aluminium and carbon fibre.  I dread to think what the price will be. Pity Sony didn't put in a full size keyboard, even though there is room.

Techo stuff
Screen: 13.4 inch WXGA
Processor: Intel SU3500 1.4 GHz
Ram: 2 GB
Built-in webcam: 1.3 M
Connectors: 2 x USB, HDMI, mic inb, headphones out, VGA, ethernet, memory card
Pity there is no analog TV connector

Price: can be found for under 700€ if you look around on the Internet.

28 August, 2009

E28, one month later

One thing that amazed me about this dual mode phone was the senisitivity of its wifi receiver. I was able to make SIP calls from my a hotel room three floors up, where my other wifi phones could pick up no signal at all. On the downside, the phone occasionally refuses to place a call, neither SIP nor GSM. A reboot cures this, but rather inconvenient, especially if you want to make a call in a hurry. The battery life is not very good if the wifi mode is switched on, but it is easy to switch on or off. Another downside is that even with the keyboard locked, the phone can switch on in your pocket and so run the battery down even more quickly. However, this phone's main drawback is that in spite of its sensitivity it has trouble locking into certain wifi networks. This is not a matter of signal level, as it occurs even with the access point in the same room. It is particularly unhappy with the wifi signal from Freeboxes. Pity.
As for web browsing, there is no way of changing the size of the tiny characters, far too small for my ageing eyesight, so I have not made much use of this feature.

20 August, 2009

Carton Rouge pour France Telecom

The first of this year's red cards goes to France Telecom for its tactics during the summer period. The incumbant has had to face pressure from the alternative operators in its historical area of land line telephone services. This summer, it sent out its bi-monthly bills to customers in early August as usual. But what has changed this year is the length of time it gave its customers to cough up. It was shortened to just ten days, running from the date at the top of the invoice. Taking postal delays into account, this is barely more than a week. Significantly, the final date falls just before the 15 August holiday week-end. So, as well as hitting the French who take the month of August for their annual vacation, it also hits the significant number that takes the month from the 14 July national holiday to 15 August. This year August 15 fell on a Saturday, so many people came back at the end of the week-end.
For many years France Telecom has been issuing its bills in early August, reasoning officially that the way the dates fall is a matter of luck and people should take that into account when going away. But the way the company has shortened the deadline for paying the bill this year is really suspicious. Anyone would think they are deliberately trying to catch people out. Surely not!

23 July, 2009

Twin Tact / E2831

The E2831 is a neat little touch screen dual mode (GSM/Wifi) Linux-based smart phone made by the Shanghai based manufacturer E28 Ltd. Features include Opera web browser, IPTV and SIP support, as well as bluetooth and a 1.3 MB camera. Importantly, can now be had for little more than a handful of peanuts.

A customised version was marketed in France by the Internet provider Neuf (or N9uf) Telecom as part of a quad play package that coupled mobile phone with VOIP. The Neuf software was designed to be easy to configure via the "Neufbox", Neuf's combined ADSL hub/modem/IPTV box. The VOIP identity was the same as the subscriber's GSM number. The handset can be used to watch TV via the Neuf portal. Since the Wifi connection is used to browse the net and connect to the portal (GPRS is also supported, but is expensive and slow), watching TV on the mobile is free via free hotspots. Interestingly, it also worked abroad, which means that the IP address is not used to restrict viewing geographically. TV viewing is, however, restricted to subscribers to the N9uf twin mobile service, who have to generate an ID code using their subscriber details.
Neuf has now merged with the mobile operator SFR. Or more accurately, SFR has completely swallowed N9uf. SFR was not too keen on the VOIP service. No doubt it was concerned that people would spend time and effort to hunt out free hotspots before placing their calls - something not borne out by observation! Be that as it may, SFR has stopped marketing the service and trying to "persuade" subscribers to migrate to new packages with a different price structure. They are now marketing various HTC handsets, though. The HTC handsets will have access to the forthcoming "Everyworld" portal including streamed TV. SFR has removed the web page that enables configuration files to be generated. many SFR-sponsored support forums have also disappeared.
Twin Tact's can now be picked up on Ebay.fr for around 30 to 40 euros. They may or may not be sim-locked in to the SFR operator. A real bargain for what is tantamount to a PDA with TV playing facilities as well as a cell-phone.
Finally, the so called software CD that Neuf supplies with the phone is a joke. All it does is point the user's browser to Neuf's download site, supposedly to "check for the latest version of the software". The CD itself contains no software or drivers at all. So Neuf/SFR can keep their hand on where the software goes.

Flashing the firmware
Doing anything at all outside the SFR box is really awkward on the Twin Tact firmware. SIP settings cannot be modified by the keyboard; the only way to change them is to change the update file and upload it to the phone. Either that or connect to the phone by telnet over the wifi link. I couldn't do the latter because the phone refused to work with my Freebox wifi. As for the former - finding the right drivers is a nightmare. Especially after all the files had been removed from one of the support sites.
The original E28 firmware, called Smarcore, enables multiple SIP accounts. It also leaves the IPTV module intact, but I haven't found how to enter the account to enable TV.

The procedure for flashing the firmware is set out here. However, the links to the files are not (at present) valid. The files to download and install the firmware are currently available here. Briefly, for those whose French is not up to it or in case the site disappears, the procedure is as follows:
Download the files: OMAP73x.inf, usbio.inf and E2831_080131_STUN_REL.tar.gz. Decompress the files into one directory and double click on flasher.exe. Switch off the Twin Tact, remove and replace the battery. Then (while it is still switched off) connect it to the PC with a USB cable. The software will then automatically install the new firmware. If necessary, use the Windows wizard to install the drivers first.


Open Twin This is the best overall site for hackers. It includes a wiki, forum and files section. In French

Neuf's Twin portal, exactly as it appears on the screen

Download files Includes software to unlock the Twin Tact via Telnet, the Smarcore firmware, N9uf's firmware and software for organising your media.

Videos to download for Twin - no longer operating.


Twin News

Journal du Geek

22 July, 2009

Wifi phones galore

Over the past couple of years I've tested quite a handful of PDAs and phone handsets for making calls from wifi hotspots.

Why use a wifi phone?
Some wifi handsets have been marketed for use as a cordless home phone. Personally, I can't see a great deal of point in this, other than eliminating the phone base unit. On the other hand, when out and about, it can make a sizeable cut in the amount you pay to the mobile company. However, many recent mobile packages take away the need for a wifi phone and the hassle of finding a free hotspot. In short, wifi phones are useful for people using pay as you go packages or international travellers who want to avoid exorbitant roaming fees.

Compaq iPaq PDA
My experiments started some years ago with an elderly Compaq (now HP) PDA running Windows Mobile 2 (?). I eventually managed to shoe-horn X-Lite (or was it SJ-Phone?) onto it and made satisfactory calls using a Wengo VOIP account. Unfortunately, when I upgraded the Windows Mobile to a version marginally more recent, I found that HP no longer provided support for the Wifi cards. I downgraded the Windows Mobile, but new projects to play with and the demise of the battery meant that the retirement of this decidedly chunky gadget, made even clunkier with the external battery pack.

Neither a phone, nor strictly speaking a PDA, this gadget is in fact a "travelling computer". Its relation to a real laptop computer is much the same as that of a magnetic or peg chess-board to the full-blown thing. Moreover, it also makes a very good PDA. Skype is pre-installed (except for the cut-down SFR badged version, but it is easy to install) so you can video chat from a bar or by the side of a swimming pool. You can also buy Skype-out credit to call phones for a reasonable price. But you might feel a bit silly talking into a computer in a pub. I took a 7 inch linux version with me on trips to Brazil, Turkey and London and it came in very useful indeed, for surfing as well as calling. The wifi antenna is very sensitive.
But in particular, it doesn't look like a phone. So it will really bring attention to you in the street. I also installed a couple of SIP clients, including Wengophone, but none of them worked as well as Skype. Lack of Linux support seems to be the problem.

The next few posts will give more detailed accounts of my encounters with other units: the Pirelli DP-L10, known in France as the "Free Black"; the Free White, the E2831, Benq and another badged N9uf.