Sep 27

Boxee Box and remote

 I bought a Boxee Box back in August to stream online content to my digital TV. I was fed up watching stuff on my computer monitor and this seemed to fit the bill. The price was £181 on Amazon UK and so far I’m pretty pleased with it with some reservations which I’ll go into later.

Why I went for the Boxee Box

In deciding how to get content to my TV, the first choice I had to make was between a full home theatre PC (HTPC) set-up dedicated to streaming content, or a set-top box. I dropped the HTPC option as it just wouldn’t be the simplest solution for other members of my family who are not tech minded. Besides I don’t really want a desktop PC in my living room. After I listened to a great podcast by Knightwise in which he discussed Boxee software to stream content I knew I was getting close. But I wanted a solution to get stuff to my TV rather than my monitor so I took the plunge and went for the set-top box option – the Boxee Box. I don’t want to go into a full review here – there are plenty on the net. Let’s just say with the Boxee Box you can stream online TV shows and movies and also content from your own network to your TV. There are also currently over 200 apps to let you stream all kinds of content from, for example, tech podcasts to BBC iPlayer to the weather. So far I’ve spent pretty much all my time in the Apps. I guess I’ll get to the TV shows later. You can also add third party repositories to your Apps to stream additional content. I read about the Navi-X repository on MakeUseOf and that’s a great resource for streaming movies – well worth adding to your repositories if you already have Boxee. Here’s another link on adding the Navi-X repository.

Streaming content

The downside of steaming is that you obviously must have pretty good download speeds so as to avoid buffering issues and multiple interruptions as you watch. Living in the country as I do, about 3 km from the nearest telephone exchange, presents some problems for me. Okay during the day, I get download speeds of 5-6Mbps but in the evening that goes down to 1-2Mbps at best and often less than 1Mbps as all my neighbours come home and go online. So streaming movies from Boxee in the evening can be a problem at 1-2Mbps down. No problems during the day at 5-6Mbps down. And some movies seem to stream better than others, presumably to do with the encoding and quality of the streaming file. However, I also watch the BBC’s iPlayer app to catch up on shows and it seems to stream okay in the evening. I’m still learning here and will post again on this later, but just a word of warning to anyone wanting to stream content, use a wired rather than wireless connection from your router to your Boxee Box and preferably have at least 5 Mbps download speed. You can check your download speeds at Speedtest.net. I’ve added Speedtest to my browser favourites on Boxee so I can check download speeds before I try to stream anything.

Any other downside to Boxee Box?

Overall, I’m pretty pleased with Boxee Box. Streaming problems aren’t its fault really and set-up was a breeze. But these points may or may not bother you:

Boxee remote - frontBoxee remote - back

1. The Boxee remote takes a little getting used to, particularly if you’re not tech minded. It’s definitely a step up from a TV remote as there’s a keypad on the back as shown above. The Boxee menu system takes some mastering.  And forwarding through content playing in an app can vary – sometimes you scroll the cursor to the timeline and click on the line and other times you can just use your arrow keys to move a slider on the timeline. Also there are too many clicks to get places. For example, to launch an app, you have to select the app then click a second time to launch it and that’s not necessary. One click is enough. The key pad on the back of the remote is a little fiddly. If you wear reading glasses, it can be difficult to type on the remote and see what’s happening on your TV screen at the same time – unless your sitting about 2 feet away from it! And the idea of using arrow keys to move the cursor around on your TV screen isn’t great – a touchpad on the remote would have been nice to navigate more naturally – doubtless this will come in later Boxee releases.

But in the meantime, if you have an Android smartphone or iPhone/iPod you can now download apps to get your phones to double as Boxee remotes.

2. In the Boxee browser, management of favourites isn’t great. You can’t create folders for these or reorder favourites but I’ve discovered a great workaround at BoxeeBoxTips which allows you to make custom folders of your favourites and access the file through one of Boxee Box’s local media slots.

Anyway, overall I’m pretty happy with my Boxee Box. There’s always plenty of great content to watch and I can really recommend it, particularly if you have good download speeds. Do you stream online content to your TV yet? What do you use? Any comments about using the Boxee Box? I’d love to hear what you think.


Sep 20
A quick look at some 1970s personal tech
icon1 techandlife | icon2 Tech | icon4 September 20, 2011| icon31 Comment »

I know for most of you reading this, the 1970s is before your time. Well it was pretty much before personal tech time as well! This was the era of the LP and single (vinyl records), the cassette tape, the ill-fated 8-track, VCRs  and as far as personal tech is concerned, that was about it. No CDs then (they came in the 1980s), just radios and radio/cassette players. In fact, the words 1970s and tech don’t really seem to go together. But one thing that 1970s tech had was durability. It was built to last longer than today’s tech. Which prompted me to write this post. When I looked around at my old tech stuff still running, I found these two items:

BHS clock and Seiko watch

Coincidentally, I bought both in virtually the same week in 1978. The digital clock still sits on my bedside table and shows no signs of dying after 33 years, just like my Seiko Quartz watch which I still wear. And both still keep pretty good time. Yes I know, most of you guys now use your smartphone for telling the time but I like to be able to glance over in bed and see the time without lifting my head!

And delving further back into the 1970s:

Slide rule and Casio fx-31 calculator

My slide rule for maths calculations. I originally had a better longer version which we all had to buy in secondary school for our final Maths exams in 1971. Yes, believe it or not that was the era just before personal calculators so as well as learning maths we had to learn how to use these contraptions to multiply and divide! Calculators came soon after I left school and I still remember ‘the calculator room’ in my chemistry lab in college in around 1974. A bench with 7 or 8 mains powered desktop calculators around 6”x6” in size. I later bought the Casio Scientific fx-31  shown above around 1978. The display is VFD (vacuum fluorescent display, I think), and much better than the later LCD displays as you could see it clearly in low light. Again my Casio calculator still works – when I put batteries in it, but nowadays I prefer my much more recent solar powered desktop calculator most of the time.

Do you still use any old tech? Will it still be running in 30 years time? Drop a comment below.


Sep 13

On a few occasions in the past, I’ve ended up overdrawn on my bank account because I wasn’t keeping a close track of the account balance. On each occasion, the first thing I knew about it was a letter the next day from the bank informing me that I had exceeded my authorised overdraft limit and imposing an immediate pretty hefty charge.

Well no more! From Monday last, my bank (Bank of Scotland) finally introduced SMS alerts for bank accounts. As well as being able to get regular (daily, weekly) SMS updates on my account balance, I’ve set a lower limit at which I want to receive a text alert so I have time to move funds from my savings account to top it up and prevent it from going overdrawn.

Bank alerts

A little late, but finally here, this is an excellent tech advance by my bank and I won’t be caught going overdrawn again without my knowledge. If I go overdrawn now it’ll be my fault. In this tech age, banks making money through charges because you have not been kept informed is just not acceptable.

Has your bank introduced low balance text alerts? Check their website to see if they have. If not, find out when they propose to introduce this. If they have no plans, consider moving to a bank that does. Okay so you’ve had this facility with your bank for some time. Let us know how long so I can see just how long my bank has been dragging its feet on this one.


Sep 12

Iomega external hard drive

Just a cautionary tale today. Until recently I was only partially backing up this WordPress blog. I didn’t realise this and thankfully I never had to restore the blog from backups otherwise I would have learned my mistake too late – and it’s just not enough to rely on your blog host to come up with the backups when there’s a problem. Some are better than others but they can’t be relied upon.

So where was I going wrong? Well to put it simply, there are two important things you should be considering in a WordPress backup – your blog database AND your files. I had read enough posts about WordPress backup plugins and I installed one (WP-DB-Backup) very early in my blogging history to backup the database of posts. But that’s actually not enough. If you’re not backing up your files then really important stuff like all the image uploads for each post, your plugins, and your themes (including css and php files) aren’t being backed up and you’ll need these to completely restore your blog quickly in the event of a disaster or your blog being hacked.

Backing up your WordPress blog database

There are different ways to do this but I’ve always used WP-DB-Backup and use the option to download the backup to my hard drive although you can also have it emailed to you. On my PC, I’ve created a new folder called My Sites for my blogs as I already have My Documents, My Pictures, etc and this continues a consistent folder naming policy. I then created the folders Techandlife/Database Backups in this folder. I also backup this database backup regularly to an external backup hard drive so I have a second copy.

Backing up your WordPress blog files

Again there are different ways to do this but I use an FTP client to download the WordPress files to my hard drive and again also backing this up to an external hard drive. The important files on your WordPress blog are all in the directory public_html/wp-content. Again this goes into my My Sites/Techandlife folder. I must admit I don’t back up regularly enough but I try and do it once a month, so at worst I’ve lost just the last month of posts. The FTP client I use, Ipswitch WS FTP LE is a classic freeware product and still works fine under Windows 7. You could also use FileZilla for your file backups.

Another way to backup your files is with the WordPress Backup plugin.

Backup everything at once

I haven’t tried this but understand that EZPZ One Click Backup will backup (and restore) both the database and files but I note on the download page that quite a few people have problems getting it to work. Everything mentioned so far are free solutions but there are also paid solutions like WP Dolly Pro and monthly subscription services like blogVault.

Backup Windows Live Writer

If you compose your posts in Windows Live Writer, you can back up your settings, recent posts, drafts and plugins with Windows Live Writer Backup.

I’ve never had to restore my blog from backup yet so I’d love to hear your experiences with backing up and particularly restoring your WordPress blog. Did it work for you? What did you learn? Which backup plugins do you use if any? We all want to be fully prepared for this disaster waiting to happen and know that we’re in good shape to get going again as quickly as possible. Drop a comment below with your experiences, good and bad.


Sep 8

DuckDuckGo1

Search is synonymous with Google. For most of us, when we search, we google and we don’t give a second thought to trying or using any other search engine. Why would we? Google is just fine isn’t it? I’ve been online since about 1998. In those days, I used to read (paper) computer magazines to get the low down on all the best tech products and services to use. I seem to remember them recommending Alta Vista for search when I started, then I think around 1999-2000, Google became the recommended search engine and I switched to that and honestly I haven’t used any other search engine since then.

Why not just use Google?

Frankly, since the introduction of Google+, I’m a little worried that Google is heading to take over almost everything we do online, and collect masses amounts of data on us in the process. Apart from that, I believe Google needs competition to keep it on its toes and the competition needs to be encouraged especially if it’s providing a good service. So I thought it was time to look around and see if anyone else comes close to Google in search. Spurred on by very encouraging recent articles on DuckDuckGo by Rich Menga at PCMech, and Scott Nesbitt at Make Tech Easier, I decided to shun Google search for a couple of weeks and use only DuckDuckGo just to see if it was a viable long term search alternative for me.

So how does DuckDuckGo shape up?

Well DuckDuckGo is actually very good. I like the cleaner, uncluttered interface and better privacy. Definitions when presented are pulled from Wikipedia and shown in a red box at the top and the search results overall are fine for me and I’m sure for most people. Specialist searches are a little different though and actually very good. Here’s my experience:

I’m actually a freelance editor and often have to research published medical reference details. Authors tend to get the detail wrong here or miss out stuff so it’s left to the editor to sort out/check publication details like page numbers, volume number, year of publication. Very often I would just paste the article title into Google and it would come up with the full reference details usually on the first page of results – PubMed is a great source for these details. But when I tried this procedure in DuckDuckGo, I couldn’t get the details I wanted in the results – because in a general search, DuckDuckGo doesn’t go to PubMed. But then I discovered what they call !Bangs, or specialized site searches. There are a whole bunch of these specialized searches as listed here, including PubMed and to launch this, you just type!pubmed along with your article title and it usually pulls up the result. Not strictly true as it actually launches the link and opens PubMed with the result in the DuckDuckGo window. Which brings me to my next point.

Customizable

Settings are great in DuckDuckGo and it’s very customisable. You can elect to have results open in a new window, which is what I prefer. But in the case of bangs discussed above, they open in the same window. A click on the back arrow is needed to get back to DuckDuckGo. So I sent feedback to DuckDuckGo about this last weekend – and got a reply that same weekend – something you wouldn’t get from Google I might add – you can’t actually contact them! They responded:

…there is a strong case that a bang command is an external page by definition and should open in a new window. I’ve added it as a defect in our bug tracking software so I should get to it sometime soon!

Very impressed. Another minor change I made was to turn off highlighted (and clickable) results when you move over them. I often like to copy text straight from the results page and you can’t do this with highlighted results – once you click on the text it follows the link. To turn this off, go to Settings, Color Settings, and turn Highlight from Green (default) to off. Incidentally, once you have DuckDuckGo set up the way you want it, you can save the URL parameters so it will always load that way. I have DuckDuckGo loading in a tab when I start Google Chrome and I’ve added those URL parameters. You can add your own customized parameters in Chrome. Go to Wrench, Options and add it to your start up tabs.

Do you use a Google alternative for search? Bing, Blekko? Have you tried anything else? Or are you happy to stick with Google for the long haul? Drop a comment below.

Incidentally, if you are interested in reading about other Google alternatives, not just in search, here’s a great article on Techie Buzz.


Sep 1

Chrome extensions

If you use Chrome, you’ve probably come across this problem before from time to time. You click the button for an extension and nothing happens. Click again, still nothing. It worked last time you opened the browser but now nothing. And some extensions are more prone to this problem than others. For me it’s Diigo.

So how to get the button working again. Well I guess you could try restarting the browser but that takes time. I’ve found that disabling and re-enabling the extension is quite quick and usually works for me. To do this, just right click on the offending button and chose Disable (not Uninstall). Then open the Spanner menu and navigate to Tools, Extensions, go to the extension you’ve just disabled and click Enable. That should do the trick. If not, try restarting the browser.


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