Category Archives: Technology

On returning my Microsoft Surface Pro 4

I’m finally returning my Microsoft Surface Pro 4. I’ve been traveling for a few weeks out the country and so it hasn’t been possible, but now it’s time.

It’s also definitely mixed feelings; I’ve come to almost like the little beastie.

The Surface Pen, and OneNote

The pen on the SP4 is a little glimpse into the future. A few weeks ago, I needed to run a customer workshop at short notice, and I used OneNote to draw on a screen 1300 miles away.

You could do this with a tablet on any machine, sure, but the SP4 was very elegant: I flipped the kick stand and used it like a notebook.

There are frustrations with OneNote, like the SP4 version doesn’t do handwriting recognition, but drawing on the screen brought the meeting alive.

Windows Apps

As a Mac user, you’re a second class citizen when it comes to Microsoft products, and Windows 10 with Office 2016 provides a better experience, especially for search. 

Oddly though I didn’t find myself installing a lot of apps on the Surface, partially because it is a high definition screen and apps often come up shrunk on it. Microsoft still haven’t done a good job of scaling most 3rd party apps.

That Screen

I was doing a remote workshop this week and we used one Dell laptop for the video conference, and the SP4 for sharing PowerPoint.

Wow, the Surface screen is amazing. It’s so clear and sharp and the colors pop. I’d go as far as to say that it’s better than my MacBook Pro screen, although that one is nearly 4 years old…

Windows Hello

Is also amazing. It recognizes me every time, even in low light, and unlocks in a snap.

The only annoyance is I frequently lock my machine and without the keyboard attached that isn’t as easy as it should be, plus Windows Hello will immediately unlock unless you walk away. Grr!

The SP4 is a 21st century device

I’ve got to admit, my MacBook Pro feels like a last-generation device now I go back to it. To be fair, it is a mid-2012 model, but the current model for sale in 2016 is almost identical.

But… The Stability still sucks

It still has stability problems and crashes frequently. I had to disable Sleep because that made it even worse, so you have to wait for it to come out of hibernate to use it.

Honestly that is what makes the SP4 a deal breaker.

I spoke to a coworker who was sent a Surface Book, and it is sat in its box, eschewed by a Lenovo Yoga. For anyone in the market for a convertible, the Lenovo Yoga Pro is a sweet device.

In conclusion

The SP4 feels like a window into the devices of the future, just as the MacBook Pro is a rear-view mirror into the past.

But the key is, I will always prioritize a device I can trust for my primary work device, and I can’t trust the SP4, so it has to go. It’s that simple.

The question is… What’s next? I find myself increasingly using my iPhone 6S Plus (this blog was written on it), and I just purchased a 12″ MacBook for my other half, and it is amazing. Plus there is the iPad Pro, the forthcoming 2016 MacBook Pro, or even a Lenovo Yoga, which I loved when I had one on loan.

One thing is for sure, 2016 will be an amazing year for computing. Happy New Year!

10 tips to make the most out of the Microsoft Surface Pro 4

There are two things that have amazed me about using Microsoft’s Surface Pro 4. First, Microsoft didn’t set a bunch of settings which should have been done by default – or as part of the installation process. Second, the seasoned tech bloggers who write about the Surface don’t have a good understanding on how enterprise customers would use such devices.

With that in mind, here’s my list of SP4 tips.

Get the keyboard and dock

The $130 SP4 keyboard is pretty decent, and don’t bother buying the fingerprint version, it’s a waste of $30 (read below to understand why). It also (if you set it up right, read below) allows your SP4 to switch automatically between tablet mode and PC mode. Neat.

The $188 Surface Dock is compatible with Surface Pro 3 and 4 and supports up to two 4K screens. Microsoft’s documentation isn’t great but I believe they can only be driven at 30Hz, not 60Hz, despite the fact that the Intel Iris graphics card in the i7 Surface Pro 4 supports 4K at 60Hz. Still, that’s pretty decent.

Enable Microsoft Hello

For reasons unknown to me, the biometric login of Microsoft Hello isn’t enabled by default. This enables password-less login using a 3D thermal image of your face, and is amazing. Because it’s infra-red, it works in extremely low light.

You go to Start -> Settings -> Accounts -> Sign-In Options and enable Windows Hello from there. Make sure you use the “Improve Recognition” button a few times to get a great picture of your face.

Setup Cortana

Like Hello, Microsoft’s personal assistant, Cortana, is not properly configured out the box. This means it doesn’t know who you are, or recognize your preferences. Thankfully, Microsoft made this pretty easy to configure.

Select the round dot next to “Ask me anything” on the task bar and the Cortana preferences will come up. You select the second icon down, which is the Cortana Notebook, and make your way through each of the settings. This massively improves the experience.

Install all the updates

Unfortunately my SP4 came with very out of date software. It took 10+ restarts to get all the updates in, and firmware updates for the SP4 come every week that make things better.

In the latest update, battery life finally got better, up to ~6-7 hours, which is a huge improvement. I don’t get anywhere near the claimed 9 hours, but such is life.

If you don’t want to support Microsoft’s Surface Pro 4 beta testing program (irony intended), then hold off buying the SP4 for a few months. They are ironing out bugs continuously.

Disable Sleep and Enable Hibernate

Sleep doesn’t work right on the SP4; instead, if you put it to sleep, the battery will drain. Microsoft are supposedly working on a fix, but in the meantime, you can (fairly) easily disable sleep.

Go to Start -> Settings -> System -> Power & Sleep -> Additional Power Settings -> Choose What the Power Buttons do, and change all of them to Hibernate from Sleep. Now, your SP4 will Hibernate instead of Sleep.

This isn’t as annoying as it sounds, because the SP4 wakes from hibernate in 5-10 seconds.

Enable Automatic Tablet Mode

Again (see a theme here?), Microsoft didn’t enable automatic tablet mode. The SP4 can be configured so it knows when you are using it as a tablet or PC. Flip the keyboard over and it can turn into tablet-enhanced mode, which is great.

Go to Settings -> System -> Tablet Mode and change the “When this device automatically switches tablet mode on or off” to “Don’t ask me and always switch”. Yay!

Use Battery Saver Mode

Battery saver mode seems to make the CPU a little less hungry and dims the display a little. If you are on a plane, you can use this and squeeze out 25% more battery with very little downside.

Plus, the SP4 is well over-powered for most of my use cases, so whatever performance degradation the battery saver mode brings, doesn’t hurt me too much.

Use the SP4 on take-off

One of the best things about the SP4 is that unlike a full laptop, you can flip the keyboard over and use it as a tablet during take-off and landing. The FAA rules on this aren’t exactly clear (they state small handheld electronic devices), but I have not been asked to put the SP4 away yet.

Once up in the air, you flip the keyboard over and turn on the kick-stand, and work as a regular laptop. Some airlines like Southwest, and the new American Airlines planes, offer WiFi from gate to gate, so you don’t even need to stop talking to the team online. Even when you lose 15 minutes of connectivity at either end of the flight, you still win ~30 minutes of work back in the day.

Configure the Surface App

The surface app is a bit short on features (more come with each release), but it allows you to configure the pen sensitivity to your liking, and configure the pen as a remote. This allows you to get better handwriting and is pretty neat.

Use OneNote for remote collaboration

I’ve got a workshop on Monday morning and won’t be able to make it in person due to other conflicts. I’ll pull open OneNote tablet version and share my screen with them across the country and start to white board.

Once the meeting is complete, you can switch to the full OneNote desktop version (yeah, there’s work for Microsoft to do to integrate the two versions) and use handwriting recognition to turn your notes into text.

Final Words

I’m still going to be returning the SP4, but won’t manage to get to the store before January due to travel commitments, so I’m going to be using it for a few more weeks.

What’s interesting is that as Microsoft slowly solves the glitches in the hardware and software, it becomes a much more usable device. There are still several serious glitches, but I’ve managed to work around most of them so I have a device which I can make do with. Will I be a convert in the next 3 weeks before the returns period expires?

Either way, I hope these practical tips help you configure your SP4 to be a more useful device. Did I miss any?

 

Gifts for Business Travelers in 2015

Last year, I wrote a post Ten Best Gifts for Business Travelers 2014, and it seemed appropriate to follow up this year with some of the things I’ve seen or purchased to make travel a little easier. So here are my recommendations for gifts for business travelers in 2015

If you have a loved one that you don’t see often enough, feel free to put one of these in their stocking this year!

iPhone 6S Plus

The Apple iPhone 6S Plus is the true business traveler’s companion. It has an all-day battery, is quick as anything, has a great big screen, which means I’ve re-gifted my iPad Mini, and takes AMAZING photos. To add to this, the iPhone 6S Plus is reportedly ruggedized, and can take some beating!

No longer is there a need for an external battery pack, I get a full day of charge with no stress. Plus, Apple have the iPhone upgrade program which gets you AppleCare, and a new phone once a year. It’s awesome.

Bedtime Bliss Sleep Mask

Thanks to Lloyd for this tip, the Bedtime Bliss Sleep Mask is a great $12 gift. It’s the best night’s sleep you will get on a plane and I carry it even for small trips, as it’s great in hotels that don’t have good black-out blinds.

The key with this mask is it’s contoured so it doesn’t touch or bother your eyes, plus it folds up into a tiny package. It comes with some earplugs, but I prefer noise-cancelling headphones personally.

Bose QuietComfort 20i

The Bose QuietComfort 20i headphones are great in-ear headphones for travel. I have the QuietComfort 25, but they turn out to be quite bulky to travel with. In retrospect I wish I had bought the QC20i, which are much smaller.

That said, I’m hoping Bose shortly comes out with a new, improved version of the aging QC20i, which might support Bluetooth? That would be awesome.

Lat56 Red-Eye Garment Bag

I bought the Lat56 Red-Eye a few months back and whilst I don’t carry it every week, it’s awesome when I need it. It measures a diminutive 22″x10″x10″ and I can carry a spare suit, 2 shirts, jeans, 2 t-shirts, spare shoes, gym kit and underwear and come in under 10lb total.

Everyone asks what it is, and I get comments between gun cases and musical instruments, which is a great talking point. This isn’t a bag for everyone, but it has a specific used case – which is the amazing roll-up suit carrier that sits inside it, and allows a suit to come out unwrinkled. Perfect for 3-4 day trips.

Calvin Klein Air FX underwear

Last year I also recommended Calvin Klein underwear, but they have come out with a new Air FX line this year which is an air mesh, and dries faster. This is awesome. They wash and dry quickly in a sink, and pack away tiny.

CK also have a line of other things in underwear, including T-Shirts.

Perry Ellis socks

I don’t rate the CK socks as high, and the Perry Ellis ones from Macy’s are my pick for travel. They wash and dry easily and you can use a hairdryer to dry them if you’re in a rush (put the clean wet sock over the hairdryer and turn on COLD). Don’t ever use the heat, I melted one sock this way…

Adidas Adizero Boston Boost

You may wonder how I pack gym gear into such a small bag, and these Adidas sneakers are part of the reason. They weigh a mere 8.4oz each, and pack down into almost nothing. Despite this, I can run a good distance because of the amazing cushioning that Adidas have.

Note that the Boston is a neutral shoe and your running style may require something different. Please get advice and gait analysis from your local running store before buying sneakers!

Pocket Monkey

This awesome little friend packs a bunch of things into the size of a credit card. I leave it in my laptop bag (or did, until someone stole it!) and it’s super-handy for tightening glasses, opening a bottle, or fixing/cutting stuff.

It’s TSA-compliant so no worries about getting extra searches during your travel!

Travel-size containers

One thing you will realize when traveling is that you don’t need full-size containers. I can travel for 2 weeks just with a 1 quart 3-1-1 bag from Tom Bihn. But don’t waste your money on travel-size cosmetics.

Instead, buy small containers like these for hand creams, hair gels and pills and spray containers like these for deodorant and starch. Buy them in bulk because they break periodically and need replacing.

iClever USB Wall Charger

Hotels never have enough power connectors, and the iClever USB Wall Charger gives a full 2×2.4A charge to two phones or tablets. With the iPhone 6S Plus, you’ll appreciate the speed it charges with.

Also it’s nice for in the office, so someone else can share a port, when you steal the last charging spot in the room!

Final Words

If you’re buying for a business traveler, don’t just buy them some junk that will add to the weight in their bag. Most blogs on this subject recommend things that are pretty much useless, because they add weight and bulk. Most of us that travel daily want to carry the bare minimum.

If you can find a little gold for people that allows them to carry less, or substitute two things for one, it will make a huge difference to them.

Things which cut the weight of clothes, or like the iPhone 6S Plus mean they don’t carry an extra battery, or combine chargers… these are all amazing gifts for someone who carries 20-30lb around every day of the year.

Happy Holidays!

Microsoft Surface Pro IV – A New Hope

I’ve now been using the Microsoft Surface Pro 4 as my primary system for 6 days, and whilst my first impressions weren’t good, I have to say it is warming on me. Along the way, I’ve come to understand that there’s some fascinating things to be learnt.

Reviewers don’t represent the needs of the enterprise user

Paul Thurrott is a smart guy, but reading his review of the SP4 leaves me thinking how little what he does on a daily basis must have in common with me. Paul is right: the SP4 is a nicely designed device, and a generational improvement over the SP3 (from what I can read, though I never owned one).

I’m not really interested in features and functions though, I’m interested in pure productivity, and that’s where the SP4 caused me problems. Shane commented in my first blog that these were probably Windows 10 problems. Actually, they appear to be a combination of Intel graphics, Microsoft firmware, and Microsoft Windows 10 problems. More on that later, because the SP4 has had significant updates to these in the 6 days I’ve owned it.

The SP4 is a fabulously engineered device…

I love well engineered devices, and the SP4 has a number of engineering miracles. The kick stand is one such miracle – from the tiny but super-stiff hinges to the machined aluminum kick stand, which is machined so there is a rubber insert, which provides a non-slip effect.

Then there’s the keyboard, which looks like a floppy piece of rubber, but is actually remarkably stiff and allows near-laptop speed typing. I’m typing it on this right now, and it’s pretty amazing. The key offsets mean that my left hand is slightly cramped, so I would have concerns about it being my full-time device.

I’d also call out the Surface Connector cable, which is a magnetic power connector which can be connected either way around. What Microsoft have done that trumps Apple, is to combine this with a dock cable, so you can have a screen and keyboard at home or in the office, place your Surface Pro 4 on the desk, plug in one cable and have a full

… but it’s not design engineered like Apple

The pen attaches to the side of the screen via a magnet, which is very elegant, but when it is attached, it blocks the machined cut-out which you can put your fingernail in to pull out the kick stand. So you have to remove the pen, or use the other side.

Also all LCD screens have a polarizing filter attached and the SP4 has its configured so the screen turns black in its default orientation if you are outside and wearing polarized lens glasses. You either have to take the eye glasses off, or turn the display 90 degrees.

Then there’s the fact that the keyboard doesn’t have a magnet to keep it shut, it just flaps around, and when you turn the keyboard over, it doesn’t enable tablet mode. These are minor design flaws which Apple would have ironed out the production process and if Microsoft really wants to play in this market, then it needs to work harder.

Updates are coming thick and fast

It seems clear to me that Microsoft knows that both the SP4 hardware and the Windows 10 software were released too early, because the updates are coming thick and fast. I’ve rebooted the SP4 at least 20 times in the last week, which has been exhausting.

I judge Microsoft for this, because if I wanted to be a beta tester, I would have joined the Microsoft Insider program. Microsoft have an extremely mature development and test management organization and they will have known the maturity of the SP4 before they released it. They knew it wasn’t ready. But…

The latest updates seem to make a big difference

There are two key updates which have been installed in the last 24h. First, is the 1511 (November 2015) release of Windows 10. Microsoft have copied SAP in using the two digits of the year and two digits of the month to determine the release name, which is a sensible naming convention.

The 1511 release is what I would have called a RTM release: it contains a huge 1816 fixes over the Windows 10 initial release. Wow. It seems to have solved a lot of the annoyances of Windows 10, like the unpredictable on-screen keyboard or the general usability. Everything feels better. This is the release which Windows 10 should have been.

The second was a barrage of firmware updates which all got installed at the same time. Thurrott discusses these in detail in his blog, but in short, they seem to improve reliability and help with the power on/off issues that I had previously.

But we’re not done yet

Since starting to write this morning, I’ve had to do two hard resets on the SP4. It seems to happen after it goes to sleep, and I leave it for a while. If I come back to it quickly then it’s less likely to happen. Not being able to reliably power on a device after sleep is a deal breaker.

I’ve been using the Microsoft Answer service to try to get this fixed – it has techs that you can chat to online, and share your screen. They have poked around and changed some settings, but that hasn’t fixed it.

On further investigation, I found that it is caused by the display card, which is a problem experienced by a lot of other people. Microsoft claim to have fixed it, but that isn’t the case for me, and now the Surface Pro 4 has started freezing sporadically.

Final Words

The latest updates have definitely improved the Surface, but in the end, how long will it be before I get fed up with having to hard-reset the device 5 times a day, and return it?

It also reminds me that for me, computers are like sausages. I like them, but I don’t want to visit the sausage factory. I don’t want to be applying tons of updates a week and fiddling with obscure settings, and that seems to be what Microsoft expects of you.

Might be time to return this one and wait for the Surface Pro 5?

Microsoft Surface Pro 4 First Glance – a heart breaker and a deal breaker

As those that know me will know, I’m a big fan of Apple products. Some call me a fanboy – but my view is that I like them because they work. I’ve owned my Mid-2012 MacBook Pro 15″ since… Mid-2012, and have barely lost a day of productivity. The last time the MBP was out of action was when I dropped it on the corner onto granite, and dented it. Apple took it in and replaced nearly everything, a process which took a few days.

That said, 3 years is a long time in technology, and the MBP has seen better days. It’s out of warranty and some of the connectors have stopped working, and it’s getting a bit slow. It’s time for a replacement and the rumors are that Apple will have a new machine in Q1 of 2016.

And here it is that I find myself browsing the world of computers.

Why not the iPad Pro or MacBook?

I love the new MacBook, it looks great. But, for me it is underpowered and the keyboard is a little cramped, and I’m certain that it’s not well built enough to survive the pounding that anything I own will go through. I went through 3 MacBook Airs before I was smart enough to move to the Pro, and those light machines can’t handle it.

As for the iPad Pro… it’s just a big iPad. That will suit some people, and the screen and battery life are glorious, but I can’t download 20GB of email from Office 365 locally, or curate complex documents. A few of the reviews have said the same – the iPad Pro is an awesome consumer device, but it’s no laptop replacement.

A Mid-2015 MacBook Pro isn’t an option – it’s way too incremental an improvement over what I’ve already got. So Apple… you’re out!

Then it must be the Microsoft Surface Book?

The next logical device is the Microsoft Surface Book. On paper, it looks like it’s the ultimate laptop convertible. There seems to be no downside to this thing! It’s a laptop… it’s a tablet… with 12h battery life and no downside.

My take on the Surface Book is that it’s very much a first generation device. Is it the future of computing? Hard to tell. Certainly, it appears to offer the best of both worlds, but the battery as a tablet is very limited, for example, and it can’t charge from base station to tablet – you have to be plugged in. I also heard various problems with docking and undocking the base.

I walked into Best Buy and they admitted that whilst they did have Surface Books in stock, I couldn’t see one because their demo device didn’t power on any more and they were awaiting a replacement from Microsoft. That sealed the deal.

Microsoft Surface Pro 4

And so it is that I find myself writing this on a Microsoft Surface Pro 4. I’m sat on the sofa, tapping away on the keyboard on my lap, with the kick stand propping up the screen. The keyboard case is remarkably stiff and I find myself typing remarkably quickly, though I’m still not quite used to the offset keyboard, so accuracy is off.

For the last week I’ve been traveling with both my SP4 and my trusty MacBook Pro, so I can be sure not to lose productivity. I’m not ready to make a final conclusion yet but I think you’ll find the initial findings interesting.

It is conceptually amazing

The concept of the SP4 is amazing. It’s light, it’s a tablet, and it has a detachable keyboard. It claims a 9 hour battery life and Windows 10 is convertible-friendly, so you can switch in between use cases on a dime.

The screen is fantastic – detailed and crisp with great colors, and the kick stand means you can get comfortable on any surface. Microsoft Edge is a good browser and is quite effective in tablet mode, which is very nice browsing on the sofa, where you can detach the keyboard and save all that weight.

I’ve got the i5 version so it’s not got the raw power of a MacBook Pro, but I find it responsive and speedy enough for my needs. I figured the i5 version would have better battery life, and it’s far less expensive. Office 2016 is also awesome, and can be downloaded via your Office 365 subscription.

It excels at some things

The SP4 absolutely excels at some things. For example I just ran an off-site, and I used OneNote with the pen to take notes, taking pictures of white boards with the camera, and it was awesome.

Same with being used for email in a café or train station – you can pull it out, and the keyboard is remarkably good to get out content quickly. I used the iPad Pro keyboard and was much less impressed. It can’t match a full size keyboard like the MacBook Pro, but it’s not far off.

It misses the mark in the real world

I’ve been trying to work with the SP4, but so far it’s not met my expectations. See, there are deal breakers.

First, the Wi-Fi is flakey. This is well documented on the web, and running all the updates in (which takes 4 reboots and over an hour) helps. But I still can’t access my iPhone hotspot, which means I get no internet on the go.

Second, the claimed 9 hour battery life is simply not true. In very modest use, it’s 3-4 hours of browsing and email. I don’t understand how a consumer product company is allowed to make statements like this. I guess you might be able to get 9 hours of video playback with the screen turned off.

Third, the usability is off. I put the SP4 down and then pick it up some while later and open the keyboard flap. It doesn’t turn on, you have to press the button for this. And depending on how deep it has gone to sleep, you have to wait several minutes for it to come to life. Or sometimes it doesn’t come to life at all and you have to hard reset.

I’ve taken a hard line – I must try to use the SP4 first, and use the MBP as a backup device, but too many times I’ve got frustrated with the SP4 because I had actual work to do, and pulled out the MacBook Pro.

Fourth, the tablet mode isn’t quite right. I had a Lenovo Yoga, and that converted automatically between tablet and PC mode when you flipped the keyboard. Not so with the SP4, you have to manually switch, which is frustrating. What’s more, many apps (Slack, for instance) aren’t tablet-enabled, so they aren’t responsive and the on-screen keyboard gets in the way. Slack is my primary messaging tool, so that’s another deal breaker.

And last, the so-called lapability factor of the SP4 is off. The kick stand means that the keyboard is 3″ closer to you than in the MacBook Pro, which means that the SP4 is horribly uncomfortable on an airplane or train, and because it doesn’t have a hinge, the keyboard and screen don’t support each other. On a flat surface, it’s awesome, but elsewhere, it’s really unpleasant.

Final Words

I’ll be traveling with the MBP and SP4 over the next few weeks and I’m hoping I come to like the SP4 more. Perhaps it will come into its own in situations I haven’t encountered yet.

But for a fourth generation device, the SP4 has too many deal breakers.

The ten reasons I still hate Microsoft Lync

Around two years ago, I wrote The ten reasons I hate Microsoft Lync the most. It’s either a sad reflection of my blog, or a sad reflection about what people think of Lync, but it’s the most popular article on here. Either way, I read a marketing blog on the SAP website about Lync and figured it was time to update this.

1) No improvements

In the last 2 years, there has been no discernible innovation in Lync. Microsoft released Lync 2013, but it didn’t make anything work any better. Despite the cries for help from customers, Microsoft haven’t done anything measurable to fix the product. Instead, they seem to have invested R&D in extending the product to create more broken features. Great.

2) Mobile is still unusable

In the last 2 years, mobile devices have become pervasive – I don’t know about you, but I do around 50% of my work on a tablet or smartphone. I did try installing Lync 2013 on my iPad and iPhone, but it’s unusable. In a world where the tiny startup Viber has produced an app that works on all my devices on any network, the fact that Microsoft can’t do the basics in mobile is sad.

3) Messages don’t sync across devices

When I get a Viber message, it appears on whatever device I’m on. When I read the message, it appears read on all devices, obviously. Not so with Lync. If I am desperate enough to sign into Lync on my iPad, I inevitably end up with a pile of messages that I find a few weeks later.

4) Notifications don’t work

Notifications don’t even work, either on Mac, iPad or iPhone, losing yet more messages. And whilst we’re there, if Lync signs you out, which happens every time you lose network connection, then it closes all the windows and you lose the messages.

5) Screen sharing and sending of files don’t work

I have a high-resolution screen, and Lync 2013 doesn’t scale, so if I can get screen sharing to work, I have to sit and squint at my screen to see what’s going on. Maybe Microsoft can make a line of magnifying glasses to hold in front of your screen? But then 2 minutes into the call, you lose screen sharing anyhow, and that’s the end of that. My solution – a join.me subscription, which works great on any device and network.

6) Call quality

I’ve used plenty of other systems, and phone quality is never a problem. But with Lync it’s usually a problem. The most reliable way is to setup a call, and then dial in from my cellphone, but this has a lot of background noise. I’m unable to reliably join on a PC connection, despite having excellent Verizon FIOS internet at home. But I regularly talk to colleagues and friends in Europe and Asia on Viber and FaceTime Audio – even when driving on a cellphone.

7) Lync doesn’t work at all on Mac OS X Yosemite

Yeah, it just crashes.

8) No chat rooms

You can argue that Viber is a consumer app, but they have a tiny R&D budget and they have innovated way beyond what Microsoft has done. Probably my favorite feature of Viber (WhatsApp have this too) is the ability to create rooms, which work across devices. For projects this is great – we add a bunch of people to a Viber chat room, and everyone is up to date. And I just checked, and managed to send a picture just fine with Viber.

9) The increasing pervasiveness of Lync

Despite the user experience, Lync seems to be gaining ground in the market. This is horrible because it means that I get and send Lync meeting requests from other companies. Since it doesn’t work in my organization, the idea that joining meetings from other companies is comic.

10) The comments on my last blog

One of the things that disappointed me were the comments on my last blog. On the one hand, it was nice to know I wasn’t alone with Lync misery, but the sad things were the comments from what appear to be Lync administrators – mostly telling me that my company was doing it all wrong, some being plain abusive. But we have a pretty good IT team, and we employed a specialist consultancy for the implementation, and we’ve had it reviewed. I don’t believe it’s our implementation that’s the problem.

Final Words

It’s sad that two years on, Microsoft have done nothing to address any of the concerns I wrote about before, and it’s clear that many people feel the same way that I do – the comments below are testimony to this.

The only people that seem to think that Lync works well are the people who install and configure it. Many of them feel passionately that Lync is a good solution. To them, I suggest they listen to feedback from the people who use it.

Lync sucks.

Does Verizon Fios Quantum 300MB really exist?

I’ve had the need to download a large volume of data over this last week. I had the Verizon FIOS 50/25 service, which is now quite outdated and has been replaced by a 75/75 service for the same price. So, I thought I’d get upgraded.

As it turns out, the Motorola wall box that Verizon provided 5 years ago doesn’t support this, so Verizon kindly offered to upgrade me to a new wall box free of charge, the next working day (it normally costs $100 but they waived it, presumably due to being a long term customer). They also said they had to upgrade me to 300/300 and then downgrade me back to 75/75.

300/300 costs over $200/month, but I thought it would be fun to test: do you REALLY get 300/300 or is it just “theoretical”. What does $200/month get you?

Step 1 – 90Mbit

Two friendly Verizon engineers came by this morning to do the upgrade (precisely on schedule), and 60 minutes of downtime later, I went and retested the internet. I got 90Mbit both on wired and wireless connection. That’s a bit too convenient, and I suspected there might be a problem in the long wire that went from my Apple Time Capsule (3rd Generation) to the Verizon wall box.

So I moved the Time Capsule to a short 3m cable next to the Verizon box, in the hope it might get a Gigabit Ethernet connection.

Step 2 – 180Mbit

This made a dramatic difference, and even with the old Time Capsule I got 180Mbit wireless networking, which is quite amazing. At this point, my ThunderBolt Gigabit Ethernet adapter blew up, so I wasn’t able to test wired networking.

I also knew the Time Capsule was on its way out – it’s 3 years old and has a hard drive inside and gets extremely hot. Some redundancy is good at home so I thought I’d go and buy a new AirPort Extreme. Don’t bother with the Time Capsule… just attach a hard disk to the Airport and save $100.

Step 3 – 320-350Mbit

After I replaced the Time Capsule (802.11n) with the Airport Extreme (802.11ac) I now get the full 300-350Mbit, and it is more reliable with the ThunderBolt Gigabit Ethernet adapter (thanks to Apple for replacing this free of charge).

What’s real world performance like?

It’s pretty amazing. I’m getting a comfortable 60GB/hour of downloads going on, which I happen to need for a work project I’m working on under deadline. Ping time to Google.com is just 4ms and we can all browse the internet and watch movies even whilst downloading several threads at 60GB/hour.

Would I pay $200/month for the pleasure? No, I’m sorry but this is an excessive luxury that I can’t afford and don’t need. But, I am thinking of downgrading to the $129/month 150/150 rather than the $89/month 75/75.

Final Words

Just because you buy 300/300 internet, it doesn’t mean you will get it. You need devices, wireless adapters and wireless routers that can shift that sort of bandwidth and may have to invest some additional dollars to get what you paid for. And if you really want super-reliable internet, you do need to move to a wired connection – it reduces latency and improves browsing performance.

Either way, kudos to Verizon and Apple for awesome customer service and good quality products.

Now, I just need to find a database big enough to load the 18TB of data I just downloaded. More on that later!

Review: Bose QuietComfort 25 – The Silence is Deafening

It seems odd that there are no good reviews of the new Bose Quiet Comfort 25, or QC25, out there. I hope this helps you – I bought these on the first day they came out and have been living with them for a short while now.

I’ve always been an audio fanatic, right from my childhood. The audio world has changed enormously in the last 15 years. Gone are the days when I would frequently sit at a desk at home with a CD player and listen to music on wired headphones. Gone are the days when I frequently sit at a desk at home listening to music!

These days, I mostly listen to music when traveling, in inhospitable locations and carrying a heavy load. Back in 1998 I bought a pair of Sennheiser HD-600 headphones, which have exquisite sound quality. They’re useless in this post-modern age of commuter flights because they are open backed, which means your music leaks, and the world leaks into your ears.

My last pair of noise canceling headphones were lost and so in early September 2014, I walked through an airport terminal and spotted the QC25 on a shelf. They are understated, subtle, and very compact. I was immediately drawn to them.

QC25

 

Noise Canceling

I headed over to try them on and was somewhat underwhelmed – then I realize that the Active Noise Canceling (ANC) was switched off. I hit the switch and the world turned off. Gone was the loud terminal noise, and I was in a small quiet world of my own. Incredible. I listened to a few tracks of music and realized these would make my long weeks of travel much more pleasurable.

For that is where the QC25 excels: commuters, in planes and trains. It completely destroys hums and groans and aircraft engines and air conditioners. For people and voices, it’s not as strong, but no ANC headphone is. But it is better than any other headphone on the market at ANC. The silence is deafening.

Sound

I’ve never been a huge fan of the Bose sound and the QuietComfort25 is no surprise here. The music is “OK” – the saxophone on Dire Straits’ Your Latest Trick comes out nicely, and the coins clink melodically in Pink Floyd’s Money. Turn up the bass a little with Faithless’ God is a DJ and the Bose is in its comfort zone: HiFi, this is not.

But then you sit down in a seat of a plane and flip the switch, and the world turns off again. In that moment, you forgive the slightly brash mid-tones and slightly wooly base. This is a world of trade-offs and the QC25 delivers a wonderful balance.

The crucial point is because it is so quiet in your cocoon, you can turn the music down and hear details that you never hear from regular headphones. They sound much better than they have any right to sound when you are in a public place.

Living with the QC25

The packaging is exceptionally easy to live with, they fit into an 8.25″x5.75″x2″ box which fits nicely in a laptop bag, and it fits an airplane adapter and a spare AAA battery. Bose say it lasts 35 hours, but I’m not counting. One spare battery is enough for a week away from home.

The fit is sublime with a “protein leather” (an artificial, leather-like material that absorbs some sweat) covering. The 6.9oz cans fit comfortably on the head for long periods of time – say a 3-4 hour flight, or a noisy office day.

There’s a replaceable 4’8″ cable with a microphone for phone calls and a volume/call switch, which is useful if you want to listen to music on your iPhone and don’t want to switch cables when a call comes in. You can turn off the ANC during phone calls so your voice doesn’t sound weird.

Bose make a big deal about this because the headphone continues to run even after you run out of battery (unlike the QuietComfort15) but the audio kinda sucks without the ANC, so I’m not so certain how useful that is (unless you want to make a call!).

QuietComfort 15 Owners

I suspect a lot of people who own QC15s are wondering if they should upgrade. I’ve used both headphones – a lot of airlines provide QC15s on long haul flights, and they are most excellent. The QC25s are easier to live with – they are smaller and more comfortable – but if I had spent good money on QC15s, the difference between the two models is not worth the price of a new pair.

Negatives

One negative I found was that sometimes the headphone can motorboat – it starts to make a weird noise in the right ear. This must be an unintentional side-effect of the ANC technology, and may be a teething problem with the first few pairs. If it continues, I’ll call Bose.

There’s also a slight air pressure thing going on when you wear them. ANC headphones change the air pressure around your ears, and that can be bothersome.

Conclusions

If you are a traveler, commuter, spend time on a plane, or in a loud office, or outside, then go and try these out. They are the gold standard in Noise Canceling Headphones. They trash Sennheiser, Beats (yuck), Parrot and everyone else in this respect.

You pay for that luxury with a slightly mediocre audio experience. But when you are basking in the silence that envelops you with the QC25 on your head, in your own private world where nothing can disturb you, you’ll put up with an average sound. Besides, I don’t know about you but I listen to music on an iPhone, not a $1000 CD player.

But if you listen to music in a quiet place and want audiophile quality headphones, then don’t waste your money on the Bose QuietComfort 25. They’re not for you.

Garmin Vivofit vs Fitbit One – which is the better wearable?

I think that my first sports computer was in 1995, with a CatEye cycle computer. It was great, the battery lasted forever. It was great until it, and me, ended up at the bottom of Broxbourne Lake.

Since then I’ve been through many personal fitness devices – from an orange phone which attached to my bike (even worked as a speakerphone whilst cycling) to the Garmin Forerunner 405 watch. Most of them ended up in a drawer when I got bored of charging them.

In fact, the only devices that I regularly charge are my iPhone and laptop. Most other things I have end up in a drawer. And so for fitness, I’ve been using the Polar H7 Heart Rate Monitor, attached to my iPhone and using the Polar Beat app. I’ve had it a year and haven’t replaced the coin battery yet. Love it.

Anyhow, my other half was given a $100 Fitbit One as a gift from a project team she worked with, and it obviously didn’t get unpacked and sat in a drawer for a few months. I was working on a healthcare project at the time and I needed some personal health data, so I hooked up the Fitbit and started recording my data.

The great thing about the Fitbit is it’s super easy to use. You charge it up, power it on and there is a getting started button on their website that takes you through a few simple steps. If you install the Fitbit iPhone app, then it automatically syncs and uploads it to the website. Awesome.

The trouble is, the Fitbit is now powerless and sitting on the counter. The reason for this is that it’s a hassle to use in the real world. You have to remember to charge it once a week via a proprietary charger, and it needs to be in your pocket, which means you need to constantly move it around. Worse, if you want to record sleep patterns then you have to put a wrist band on at night and set the time you slept manually.

For your troubles you get a vibrating alarm, which doesn’t wake your other half up (unless you flail in shock and hit her in the nose), and some pretty cool analytics about the length and quality of your sleep. I don’t know how Fitbit do it, but it’s very clever. The web interface is great and you set step goals to meet.

Wearables was a big topic at the CES 2014 show, and so I was looking for something that would suit my needs better – maybe with a heart rate monitor and a wrist band, that didn’t look too ugly.

There’s a lot of choice! The Nike+ FuelBand (nice looking but just a glorified step counter with 4 days battery for $150), The Fitbit Force (ugly and since recalled for skin allergy problems), Jawbone UP24 (nice looking but no display) or the Withings Pulse (a slightly glorified Fitbit One). None of them really excited me.

Then I saw the Garmin vívofit (yes, it has a silly accent on the i). This looked like the perfect wearable for me. For a start, it has a coin battery that lasts a year! Wow! It syncs wirelessly to your phone via Bluetooth and it has a heart rate band for exercise. So you never need to take it off, and it’s made by Garmin so there are no allergy concerns (just made from plastic).

Unfortunately they were available for pre-order only, so I signed up for one right away, and it arrived a few weeks ago. I thought I’d use it for a while before penning a review. Here’s what they look like together, with the Fitbit begging for attention “WALK ME JOHN”, “LOVA YA JOHN”, “HELLO JOHN”.

WALK ME JOHN

First up, there are two interchangeable bands (one large, one small) so it’s pretty comfortable to wear 24/7. It’s waterproof to 50m so I don’t take it off in the shower, and I’ve had no problems so far. Garmin know how to make wearables.

In terms of style, it’s not bad. It’s not going to set you on fire, but it’s nicer than the Fitbit Force, if not as cool looking as the Nike or Jawbone. People notice it everywhere and ask about it.

In use it is very simple – just one button which cycles between Time, Date, Heart Rate, Steps Today, Steps Until Goal, Miles and Calories. That’s it! Hold down the button and it will Sync, hold it longer and it signals you are going to sleep. It figures out when you woke up based on movement.

Again, to save battery, there is no backlight and you can only see what’s on the screen with some light, but I just use my iPhone to light it up in the dark if needed. Also, if you sit still for 60 minutes, the vivofit has a red bar, which then prompts you to dance for a while. The bar grows then every 15 minutes, and I found this is a nice reminder to get up and be active during the working day.

I found the Mac software a disappointment, because I first installed Garmin ANT Agent, then Garmin Express before I got it to work. It’s not clear from the Garmin website how to set it up so I ended up in a muddle. And it requires a USB ANT+ stick, even though it has Bluetooth – I’m not sure why.

Fortunately the iPhone software is much better. Unlike other devices, you have to sync manually to save on battery life and it takes maybe 30 seconds. That’s an acceptable trade-off for the battery life as far as I’m concerned.

Unfortunately, I wasted an additional $40 on the Heart Rate Monitor, because I already have an ANT+ HRM from my old watch, and this is the same model! It’s horrible and plastic and unpleasant to wear compared to recent models, and you can buy the much better Garmin Heart Rate Monitor from Amazon for $50. I can only assume Garmin did this to keep the price down but it was a big mistake. Spend another $10 and get the better HRM.

What is great though is the HRM on the watch, you can set it to HRM and just keep an eye on the number as you train. I like to keep my heart rate below about 170 when running and that’s really helpful. Here’s what it looks like with me pushing hard up the last hill back to home! The number on the left is the “Zone”, which you can setup manually for your body.

Garmin Vivofit

Also unfortunately, the Garmin Connect App is nothing like as good as say Polar Beat, and it doesn’t use the iPhone GPS to plot where you are when you’re running and recalibrate the step. It has a badge system but it’s not very sophisticated. But then Garmin have never been great with software so this is to be expected. Here’s what it looks like, and yes, I was lazy on Friday :-)

Garmin Connect

The other thing I noticed is whilst Withings, Nike, Polar and Fitbit have APIs that allow you to build software, Garmin haven’t done this yet although someone has part-documented the API. It’s fair to say that Garmin are light years behind others in software.

So overall, I love the Garmin vivofit and I don’t think I’ll be returning it. It’s the first wearable device I’m happy to wear and leave on and the 1 year battery life is awesome. But, I am left feeling that the market hasn’t quite settled yet and there will be much better devices in 2015.

 

Why Amazon Prime isn’t worth $99 for me

Friend  Jarret Pazahanick called me out on why I wasn’t willing to pay $20 extra for Amazon Prime. I’m going to do my research and maybe change my mind!

In 2013, I was a reasonably heavy user of Amazon Prime, and I paid $79. I placed 54 orders – on average over one a week. It’s worth noting that I did make a bunch of those on similar days and I wasn’t careful to group orders together. In addition, because I had Prime, I did order a bunch of things that I wouldn’t have ordered if I did not.

The guaranteed 2-day shipping has worked every time in practice for me, and it was particularly appreciated around the Christmas period, when I was very busy. The service was excellent and I think only let me down once.

However I’m struggling with an increase in price to $99, because I was barely happy with $79. If Amazon want me to pay more, they want to offer more. They wrote me an email justifying their increase, so I may as well rebuke it. Here are the major elements:

Even as fuel and transportation costs have increased, the price of Prime has remained the same for nine years. Since 2005, the number of items eligible for unlimited free Two-Day Shipping has grown from one million to over 20 million.

Sure, but since your sales have increased massively, you also have massive economies of scale, and I’m sure a lot of Prime users don’t use it at all. I’m sure this more than offsets rising costs of transportation. In addition, Amazon has a bunch of local hubs for many items, so I’m certain the miles/delivery has gone down by an order of magnitude in the last 9 years.

We also added unlimited access to over 40,000 movies and TV episodes with Prime Instant Video

Yes, but I almost never use it because you don’t have recent movies or the TV shows that I like to watch – especially the most recent seasons. For this to work, you need to increase the catalog and get the rights to the latest movies. Netflix kills you on this and I see almost no value in Amazon Instant Video.

Also, whilst it works on an iPad well, it doesn’t work on the Apple TV or Chromecast, so it’s not usable on a big screen.

and a selection of over 500,000 books to borrow from the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library.

Yes, but I don’t own a Kindle, and this doesn’t work on the Kindle app on the iPad, which is the device that I use to read. Therefore I have never borrowed a book from the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library.

Amazon Cloud Drive

Amazon also have some cool services including Amazon Cloud Player and Cloud Drive, but these are not included in the Amazon Prime subscription. Why on earth not? This has almost zero cost to Amazon to include, but they instead want you to pay extra.

Instead, I use Google for this, which is much cheaper.

Amazon… if you want $99 from me next year

So if Amazon, you would like $99 from me when my subscription renews in 2015, then you need to make me an offer which has increased value. Here’s my suggestions:

  • Work on Amazon Instant Video so it has the latest releases and more seasons, plus HD
  • Build out Apple TV and Chromecast apps for Amazon Instant Video so it can be broadcast to the big screen
  • Provide the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library Books to iPad owners
  • Bundle Cloud Player Premium
  • Provide some extra Cloud Drive storage for Amazon Prime customers – 50GB would be great

If you did this, you would make Amazon Prime a no-brainer for me, and many others. Good Luck!