Author Archives: Tim

Huawei P9 smartphone launched in London: first look review

I attended the launch of Huawei’s P9 and P9+ smartphone range in London. This was a global launch from a Chinese company which, like Xiaomi with its impressive presentation at Mobile World Congress, is intent on competing at the high end of the market.

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Huawei also has an important edge over Xiaomi in that its P9 range will be available shortly; from Huawei’s vMall online store in mid-April, or from various UK operators in “early May”.

The review sample came in a smart box with charger, USB type C cable, and white earbuds/headset:

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Insert micro-SIM, switch on, and the start-up experience I would describe as “reasonable for Android”, with a flurry of pop-ups asking for various permissions and agreements to terms and privacy policies; pretty ugly and hard to make sense of, but for this review I tapped OK to agree to most things in order to get what I guess is the normal experience.

I was also prompted to set up the fingerprint reader. This requires several readings of your finger and works well for me. Just touching my right finger on the back will unlock the phone. The phone storage is encrypted by default.

Design-wise, Huawei tried to persuade of the merits of “aerospace-class aluminium”, “diamond-cut edges”, “brushed hairlines” and the like; but while it is decent enough it does not strike me as exceptionally beautiful or nice to hold; of course tastes vary. It is thin and the edges are narrow to maximise the screen space. I am impressed that the designers squeezed a 3000 mAh battery into such a slim, light device.

The camera

Every smartphone needs some differentiation. Huawei has focused (ha!) on the camera. The P9 has a dual lens and the camera is designed in partnership with Leica, a well known and respected brand among professional photographers.

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The back of the P9 showing the dual-lens camera and fingerprint reader.

Both lenses are described as “Leica Summarit”, one 12MP camera is colour and the other monochrome. Dual lenses can help with focus, and in addition Huawei say that the monochrome lens adds detail to an image. You can also take monochrome pictures of course, and this was used to good effect in some of the samples by professional photographers we were shown. Of course you can easily convert any colour image from any camera to monochrome; perhaps the results from a specialist camera are superior.

Huawei also states that dual cameras mean more light and detail in low-light conditions, which absolutely makes sense.

A hybrid focus feature uses “laser, depth calculation, and contrast” and automatically selects the best result, says Huawei.

I have not been trying the P9 for long, but did take roughly the same picture with the P9 and with the Lumia 1020 (the latter famous for its 40MP camera). All settings were default. The P9 is top, the Lumia below, slightly cropped and then reduced in resolution (click for a double-size image):

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The P9 is more vivid and probably most people would prefer it. Here is a zoomed in detail, with the P9 at full resolution and the Lumia reduced to match:

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Of course I am not a professional photographer, nor was I using a tripod; but this is how I use a camera on a phone. My feeling is that the Lumia still comes out well for close detail and I am sorry that Microsoft has not come out with a true successor to the 1020, which will be three years old in July. The sad story of Windows Phone at Microsoft is not the subject of this post however.

There is much more to the P9 camera though. Here is a look at the settings:

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When the camera is open,  there are buttons across the top to control flash, wide aperture (for close-up shots), filter effects, and switching between rear and front (8MP) cameras.

The wide aperture option enables a remarkable feature: the ability to re-focus after taking the shot. Simply take the picture with the wide aperture option. It will be then show up in the Gallery with an aperture icon overlay. Tap the image to open it, then tap the aperture icon below the image.

Now you are in “wide aperture effects” mode. Tap any part of the image to focus on that spot, and enable a slider to vary the aperture after the event.

It really works:

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Now tap the out of focus tulip…

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This is magic and a lot of fun.

You can swipe up for Pro controls:

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In order to get full use of these options (and indeed the rest of the phone) you probably want to download the manual. The Pro controls are (left to right): metering mode (how exposure is set), ISO, Shutter speed, exposure compensation (brightness), focus mode and white balance.

Swipe left for a selection of special camera modes:

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There is also some fancy stuff like voice activated shooting (say “cheese” to take a photo). You can do burst shooting to take a rapid sequence of shots, with the best couple auto-selected. You can take rapid shots (capture the moment) by pressing volume down twice; the screen does not light up immediately but the shot is taken. I got a time from press to photo of about one second using this mode.

Video resolution is a maximum of 1080p, 60 fps, with stereo sound recording.

All things considered, this is an excellent camera, which is why Huawei handed out a book of professional photos taken with the device, which look superb.

Performance

The P9 feels fast and responsive. Huawei mentioned a file system optimization which increases performance but I have not got details of this.

I got a PC Mark score of 6387.

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This is ahead of the Samsung Galaxy S7, which scores 5926. Another mobile which is to hand, a budget Cubot with a quad code 1.3 GHz Mediatek, scores 3223.

On Geekbench 3 I got a score of 1725 single-core and 6087 multi-core. This compares to 2170 and 6360 for the Galaxy S7, so it falls behind slightly.

A bit more detail:

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The biggest difference versus the S7 is in the graphics. The P9’s Mali T880 is not quite the equal of the S7’s Exynos 8890 (on UK models).

Audio

A few notes on the audio side. There are a couple of annoyances, one being that the default music app is not much use to me (I use Spotify or Google Play on Android). The supplied headset is disappointing, with no rubber gel so the fit is rather insecure, and a rather bright sound with little bass. No matter, you can use your own headset; and plugging in a high-quality headset left me with no complaints.

The other good news is that the on-board speakers are remarkable. I can put the phone down, play some music, and really enjoy it. Bass is unusually good considering the lack of a proper speaker enclosure, and clarity is excellent.

Pricing

Let’s get some pricing context. The P9 is a flagship device, though from a company not perceived as a premium brand, and is priced accordingly. At £449 for the cheaper, smaller model it is about 20% less than a Samsung Galaxy S7, and about 27.5% less than an Apple iPhone 6S. It is good value considering the hardware, but not a casual purchase. Here is a table

  RAM Storage Size Screen CPU Battery Special features Price
Huawei P9 3GB 32GB 5.2″ 1920 x 1080 8-Core
2.5 GHz
3000 mAh Dual lens camera
Fingerprint
Reader
£449
Huawei P9+ 4GB 64GB 5.5″ 1920 x 1080 8-Core
2.5 GHz
3400 mAh Dual lens camera
Fingerprint
Reader
£549
Samsung
Galaxy S7
4GB 32GB 5.1″ 1440 x 2560 8-Core
2.3 GHz
3000 mAh IP68 Water resistance
Wireless charging
Gear VR
KNOX security
Fingerprint Reader
£569
Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge 4GB 32GB 5.5″ 1440 x 2560 8-Core
2.3 GHz
3600 mAh IP68 Water resistance
Wireless charging
Gear VR
KNOX security
Fingerprint Reader
£639
Apple iPhone 6S 2GB From 16GB 4.7″ 1334×750 2-Core 1.85 GHz
64-bit A9
1715 mAh Fingerprint sensor from
£539
Apple iPhone 6s Plus 2GB From 16GB 5.5″ 1920×1080 2-Core 1.85 GHz
64-bit A9
2750 mAh Fingerprint sensor from
£619
Apple iPhone SE 2GB From 16GB 4″ 1136×640 2-Core 1.85 GHz
64-bit A9
1624 mAh Fingerprint sensor from £359

The table above comes with a number of caveats. It doesn’t cover all the important specifications, it doesn’t tell you about the quality of materials or design, and some details, like the amount of storage, vary depending on the exact offer. The prices are for unlocked phones, whereas most people buy on contract. Apple’s prices tend to be higher than shown, because who wants just 16GB non-expandable storage? With 64GB the 6Se goes up to £439 and the 6S to £619.

First look conclusion

A couple of days with this phone leaves me convinced that Huawei has come up with a true high-end device at a very reasonable price. The camera is outstanding in terms of features though having been spoilt with the Lumia 1020 I would like a bit more than 12MP; I realise though that counting pixels is no way to judge a camera.

On the software side I note that the out of box experience on Android is not great, thanks to incessant permission pop-ups and confusing alternatives for things like music and email. Samsung’s apps are a bit better I think; but if you mostly live in Google apps or other favourite third-party apps, you will not care too much. Everything I have tried so far has worked.

The usefulness of the fingerprint reader is a pleasant surprise, as is the sound quality from the built-in speakers.

For sure the P9 is well worth considering if you are looking for an Android mobile with great performance and an interesting camera. It is excellent value for price/performance.

I think Samsung should worry a bit, not just about Huawei, but about other Chinese vendors with aggressive marketing plans, such as Xiaomi. Apple? On the train back I spoke to a passenger using an iPhone and asked whether she would switch to a mobile that was both better (in hardware terms) and cheaper. No, she said, because everything syncs between my phone, iPad and computer. Of course she could switch to Android and get similar synching with apps from other vendors; but I got the impression she is happy to stay in Apple’s world where stuff (more or less) just works. In this respect, it doesn’t help that each Android vendor wants to make their mark with distinctive apps; for many users that is just additional complication (I have declined to set up a Huawei ID, despite being prompted).

An impressive device though, and a clear statement of intent from Huawei.

Raspberry Pi does Audio at the Wigwam HiFi Show 2016

The Wigwam Hifi Show is an unusual event, in that most of the exhibitors are not vendors with their latest and shiniest, but enthusiasts showing off their own systems. It is a lot of fun, with plenty of exotic and/or old equipment that you will not see or hear elsewhere.

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I have exhibited at the show in the past, and try to do something a little different each time. This year I thought it would be interesting to contrast the many multi-box and expensive systems with something at the other end of the scale. I was impressed when I reviewed the IQAudio Pi-DigiAMP+ for issue 36 of the MagPi magazine, so I took it along.

This unit is a board that plugs in on top of the main Raspberry Pi board.

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It is very simple, the only external connectors being power in, and left and right speaker terminals. It includes a DAC and a class D amplifier, based on the Texas Instruments (TI) TAS5756m chipset. The DAC is based on a Burr-Brown design.

I assembled my unit using a Raspberry Pi 2, the above board, and the matching case and power supply from IQ Audio. The power supply is the XP Power VEF50US15 which means I get up to 2x20w; if you use a VEF65US19 you can get 2x35w (both available from the IQAudio site).

Here it is in the room at Scalford Hall, home of the Wigwam event.

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The speakers shown are the Cambridge Audio Aero 6, though we also had a pair of Quad 11L and tried them both.

The way things work at this event is that you sleep in your room the night before, and the next morning the bed is removed and it becomes your exhibition room. Having tried the system with the bed in place, I was distressed to find it sounding markedly worse (bloated bass) once the bed was removed. With no time for proper experimentation we dragged the mattress back out of the cupboard and leant it against the wall, which improved matters; we also used foam bungs in the speaker ports to tame the bass. Not ideal, but shows the difficulty of getting good sound at short notice in small hotel rooms.

The Cambridge Audio Aero 6 speakers I would describe as a good budget choice; they sell for around £350. Philosophically (as with the Quads) they are designed to be clean, detailed and uncoloured. The choice of floorstanders rather than small standmounts was deliberate, as I wanted to demonstrate that using a tiny amplifier does not necessarily mean a small sound.

Having said that, we also put the Quads on from time to time, which are small standmounts. The sound was not radically different, though bass extension is less and to my ears the 11Ls are a little less precise than the Aeros, with a warmer sound. I preferred the Aeros but as ever with loudspeakers, tastes vary.

The complete parts list as shown:

  • Raspberry Pi 2 £26.00
  • IQAudio Pi-DigiAMP+ £57.99
  • IQAudio Pi-CASE+ £15.60
  • 15v Power Brick XP Power VEF50US15 £25.50

If I were buying today, I would recommend the new Raspberry Pi 3 and the more powerful 19v power supply which increases the cost by about £10.00.

So that is between £125 and £135 for the complete device, and then whatever you choose for the speakers.

For the demonstration I brought along a router with wi-fi, to which I attached a hard drive with lots of FLAC files ripped from CD, along with a few high-res files. The router lets you attach a USB drive and share it over the network, so I configured Volumio on the Pi to use that as its source. In a typical home setup, you would probably store your music on a NAS device and use your existing home network.

Where’s the amplifier?

There was a steady stream of visitors from around 10.00am to the close of the show at around 17.00. The goal was not to be the best sound at the show, but rather to be the smallest and still deliver decent sound quality, and for many visitors I think we succeeded. We stuck the equipment list on the wall and lots of people photographed it with the intention of looking into it further.

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A demo under way: spot the mattress leaning against the wall and the smaller Quad speakers alongside the Cambridge Audios.

A number of visitors knew of, or were even using, a Pi for streaming, but the idea of having the amplifier included on a small board was less familiar; it was fun when people asked where the amplifier was, or whether the speakers were active (they are not). Some were really astonished that you can get respectable sound quality from such a small box.

Volume was more than sufficient for a room this size and frankly plenty for most home situations though of course not for huge rooms or loud parties.

Note that despite playing loud throughout the day the amp board did not get warm at all; this is because a Class D design delivers almost all the power supplied as output to the loudspeakers.

A few early comments from the forums:

“The super small Raspberry Pi based system by onlyconnect was a brilliant demo of what can be achieved by something tiny and low cost.”

“I wouldn’t have thought it possible if I hadn’t have heard it… To boot, completely taking price out of the equation, it was one of the better sounding systems at the show to my ears, I enjoyed that more than some far, far more expensive rigs.”

“Highlights. Onlyconnect’s raspi based system, honestly why pay more for music around the house?”

“Onlyconnect’s Raspberry system was impressive and wins the GVFM award.”

“Onlyconnect’s mini/budget system – just amazing how good a £125 raspberry pi setup containing streamer, dac, preamp and 35w per channel amp could sound. I can’t forget how flabbergasted another listener was to discover the total system cost  -” I’ve obviously doing it all wrong all these years”

“I spent a while looking for the amplifier, following the cables etc like everybody else. I was impressed by the sound coming out of the Cambridge Audio speakers, I would certainly put this in the top 40% of rooms based on the sound quality, maybe higher.”

Upgrading a PC to SSD (Crucial MX200)

The trigger for me was Visual Studio 2015 – a large software installation – which I managed to break by installing some beta software. I couldn’t fix it easily, and knew I would have to uninstall it completely and then reinstall, which takes ages.

One thing that speeds up this kind of thing is to use an SSD instead of a hard drive. I already use SSD on my laptop, but my PC had two 1TB WD Black hard drives in a RAID configuration.

I ordered a 1TB Crucial MX200 SSD. While I could have managed with a smaller one, the larger size is worth it for me if only for the convenience of not having to spend time uninstalling stuff and reorganising my existing drive to free up enough space to downsize.

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This 2.5″ SSD drive comes with a spacer and a code for downloading Acronis True Image. I did so, and used it to clone the existing drive. It took several hours but worked perfectly.

This PC is nearly four years old and based on an Intel Core i5. It has recently been upgraded to Windows 10. I am more than happy with the performance of the SSD. Here are the figures from CrystalDiskMark:

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Here are the results from my old 1TB WD Black RAID:

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There are not many upgrades that will get you such a dramatic performance improvement, and for me it made reinstalling Visual Studio 2015 substantially less painful.

I no longer have RAID on the C drive. The SSD according to Crucial [PDF] has an MTTF of 1.5 million hours (170 years or so) and “endurance” of 320TBW, equivalent to 175GB per day for five years. The implication is that after 320TB has been written, the drive will sill work but will be read-only. I don’t take much notice of such claims, but I can accept that today’s SSDs are more reliable than hard drives. If it fails though, I doubt that any data can be coaxed out of it, as you can often do with a hard drive. Even with RAID though you still need a backup strategy, so I will now be relying on that.

Hard drives are still useful for storing lots of stuff in a NAS (Network Attached Storage) but I can’t see myself using them again as the primary drive in a PC or laptop.

Hands On: Xbox One Game Streaming to Windows 10

Xbox One Game Streaming has been switched on for all Windows 10 users and I gave it a quick try.

You need the latest Xbox app of course, as well as a wired Xbox controller (I used a 360 controller). Turn your Xbox on, run the app, make sure you are signed in with a Microsoft account that also has a profile on the console, and hit the Connect button near bottom left.

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Once connected, click Test streaming to verify that you have enough bandwidth, or Stream to start streaming.

I tried Dark Souls 2. It worked pretty well, except that the screen (which is dark anyway for this particular game) was even darker over the streamed connection. With the in-game option set to maximum brightness it was playable. I did not notice any lag though there was an occasional stutter; this is over wireless though and a wired connection would be better.

While you are streaming, all the action displays on the TV connected to the console itself as well as on your PC.

Streaming only works full screen. If you are streaming and press the Windows key you get an odd effect where streaming continues in the background but the Start menu displays.

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If you then run another application, the streaming pauses, but you can resume later. Or sometimes the Xbox app seems to quit. It seems best not to switch apps while streaming.

I noticed that trying to start streaming when the console is on standby does not work; you cannot wake it up. That is a shame.

Otherwise, it all works as you would expect. Although it is not as good as gaming in say the living room with what is probably your biggest screen, this is a nice feature for when that room is in use and you want to sneak off and play a game.

How to overcome “A required drive partition is missing” in Windows 8.1 reset

Here is the scenario: an HP all-in-one PC gets a virus and as a precaution the owner wishes to reinstall Windows.

The recovery drive on the PC is intact, but attempting to use the Windows 8.1 troubleshooting tools to “Reset your PC” (in effect reinstalling Windows) raises the error “A required drive partition is missing”.

This seems to be a common scenario in cases where the PC was supplied with Windows 8 and upgraded to Windows 8.1. The problem seems to be that Windows 8.1 makes some changes to the drive partitions that make it incompatible with the Windows 8.0 recovery partition.

Here is the workaround I used:

1. In Windows 8.1, make a recovery drive. To do this, first connect a USB drive that you are happy to have wiped. It will need a capacity of around 16GB or more. Then run Control Panel, search for “recovery”, and choose Create a recovery drive.

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2. When creating the recovery drive, make sure the option to include the recovery partition is checked. This will copy the recovery partition from the PC to the USB drive.

3. When you are done, you will be able to boot from the USB drive. You could choose the Reset option from there, however you will still get the error. First, go to Troubleshooting and Advanced and select the command prompt. When the command prompt opens, type:

diskpart

Now type:

list disk

You will see two disks (or more) listed, one for the USB boot device, and the others the disk(s) in the PC. Select the internal boot drive. It is normally obvious from the sizes which is which. Select it by typing:

select disk n

where n is the number of the drive as shown by list disk.

WARNING: the next step will delete all data on the selected drive. If in doubt, back out and make a backup of the drive before proceeding. If something goes wrong, your PC will no longer be bootable and you will need recovery media from the manufacturer, or to buy a new copy of Windows.

Once you are happy that it is safe to delete everything from the drive, type:

clean

or

clean all

The first command does a quick removal of the partition table from the drive but does not zero the data; it will be invisible but possibly recoverable using data recovery tools. The second command zeroes all the data and takes much longer (several hours), but it is more secure, if for example you want to sell or transfer the PC.

Once this is done,reboot the PC using the USB recovery drive. Select troubleshooting, then Reset your PC. This time it will work and you will be back in Windows 8.0.

Note: This scenario is common enough that it seems to be a flaw in the Windows 8.x recovery tools. I do not understand why Microsoft has so little regard for its users attempting to recover Windows (and usually highly stressed) that it has not fixed this problem.

Note 2: What if you cannot boot into Windows 8.1 to make the recovery drive? I have not tried it, but in theory it should be possible to create a recovery drive on another PC and copy the recovery drive to it.

DatAshur encrypted drives: protect your data but be sure to back it up too

The iStorage DataAshur USB flash drive is a neat way to encrypt your data. Lost USB storage devices are a common cause of data theft anxiety: in most cases the finder won’t care about your data but you can never be certain.

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The DatAshur is simple to operate but highly secure, presuming it meets the advertised specification. All data written to the drive is automatically encrypted with 256-bit AES CBC (Advanced Encryption Standard with Cipher Block Chaining) and meets the US FIPS 140-2 standard. The encryption is transparent to the operating system, since decryption is built into the device and enabled by entering a PIN of 7 to 15 digits.

Note that a snag with this arrangement is that if your PC is compromised a hacker might be able to read the data while the drive is connected. If you are really anxious you could get round this by working offline, or perhaps using Microsoft’s clever Windows to Go (WTG) technology where you boot from a USB device and work in isolation from the host operating system. Unfortunately DatAshur does not support WTG (as far as I know) but there are alternatives which do, or you could boot into WTG and then insert your DatAshur device.

Normally you enter the PIN to unlock the drive before connecting it to a PC or Mac. This does mean that the DatAshur requires a battery, and a rechargeable battery is built in. However if the battery is exhausted you can still get your data back by recharging the device (it charges whenever it is plugged into a USB port).

OK, so what happens if a bad guy gets your device and enters PINs repeatedly until the right one is found? This will not work (unless you chose 1234567 or something like that) since after 10 failed tries the device resets, deleting all your data.

You should avoid, then, the following scenario. You give your DatAshur drive to your friend to show it off. “I’ve just updated all my expenses on this and there is no way you’ll be able to get at the data”. Friend fiddles for a bit. “Indeed,and neither can you”.

Here then is the security dilemma: the better the security, the more you risk losing access to your own data.

The DatAshur does have an additional feature which mitigates the risk of forgetting the PIN. You can actually set two PINs, a user PIN and an admin PIN. The admin PIN could be retained by a security department at work, or kept in some other safe place. This still will not rescue you though if more than 10 attempts are made.

What this means is that data you cannot afford to lose must be backed up as well as encrypted, with all the complexity that backup involves (must be off-site and secure).

Still, if you understand the implications this is a neat solution, provided you do not need to use those pesky mobile devices that lack USB ports.

The product tested has a capacity from 4GB to 32GB and has a smart, strong metal case. The plastic personal edition runs from 8GB to 32GB and is less robust. An SSD model offers from 30GB to 240GB, and larger desktop units support SSD or hard drive storage from 64GB to 6TB, with USB 3.0 for fast data transfer.

Prices range from around £30 inc VAT for an 8GB Personal USB stick, to £39.50 for the 4GB professional device reviewed here, up to £470 for the monster 6TB drive or £691 for a USB 3.0 external SSD (prices taken from a popular online retailer). The cost strikes me as reasonable for well-made secure storage.

More information on DatAshur is here.

On Bitcoin and the future of digital currency

Last week I attended the Pioneers Festival in Vienna. One of the topics was Bitcoin, a peer-to-peer digital currency based on cryptography and distributed transaction records. The number of Bitcoin is limited to about 21 million, of which over 14 million have already been “mined”. The word mining is somewhat deceptive; miners do not discover bitcoin exactly, rather they are rewarded for solving hard mathematical problems that confirm the validity of a block of Bitcoin transactions. The system provides for a decreasing number of Bitcoin to be generated until 2140, following which miners will be rewarded by transaction fees; at least, that is the idea as I understand it.

Bitcoin is interesting on multiple levels: mathematical, political, financial and practical. The currency has real value, but this tends to be volatile; it is widely enough accepted to be useful, but not enough that you can be sure of its future. There are intense debates even within the Bitcoin community about what should happen to it technically (forks are under discussion) and the extent to which it is safe from manipulation. There is a strong incentive to get in early on any Bitcoin alternative since it would be so profitable.

At Pioneers Bitcoin evangelist Roger Ver spoke and gave away $125 worth of the currency during his talk; he also gave me $5.00 when I spoke to him later. He describes himself as a Bitcoin investor, meaning one who invests in Bitcoin initiatives as well as hoarding the currency itself. That Ver predicts a bright future for Bitcoin is as surprising as the sun rising; his world depends on it.

Ver is also a libertarian who did jail time for selling explosives on eBay and renounced his US citizenship; you can read his own account of the incident here, where he adds:

Currently, I am working full time to make the world a better, less violent place by promoting the use of Bitcoin. Bitcoin totally strips away the State’s control over money. It takes away the vast majority of its power to tax, regulate, or control the economy in any way. If you care about liberty, the nonaggression principle, or economic freedom in general you should do everything you can to use Bitcoin as often as possible in your daily life.

The implication is that if you believe that taxation and regulation are not entirely evil you may be wary of Bitcoin, either because of worries over its use by criminals (it is commonly requested for the payment of ransoms by the purveyors of ransomware like Cryptolocker, for example), or through concerns that regulators, banks and governments may try to make it an illegal currency if its usage grows, or try to find ways of regulating it that remove its advantages.

Another possibility is that Bitcoin will be replaced by some other digital currency and lose most of its value.

Nevertheless, the ability to send digital cash to another person anywhere on the internet without involving a bank or a currency exchange is a powerful and disruptive concept.

Bitcoin in practice

What about the practical aspect of Bitcoin? If you want to try it out you can take a look here. There are several problems confronting the ordinary person who wants to get started, including which Bitcoin wallet (a means of holding Bitcoin) to choose and how to acquire some currency. Lack of regulation means that you either have to trust a web entity to hold your Bitcoin for you – perhaps losing it if the site gets hacked – or hold it yourself, which requires good backups and strong security since your own computer might get hacked and your Bitcoin stolen. Alternatively you can maintain low balances so that not much is lost if the worst happens.

Once you get set up though, Bitcoin is useful. Using Bitcoin, you can make payments with either zero or very low fees either for sender or recipient. Payments are non-reversible by design. Bitcoin is ideal for micropayments, and some companies prefer it for that reason. At Pioneers I met Parkt, which runs a scheme enabling one or more retailers to pay for your parking if you shop at their stores. They like Bitcoin because it is cheaper for them.

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Bitcoin is also good for international payments since it is internet-based. There are some win-win scenarios, like the ability to purchase Amazon gift vouchers at a discount, said to be around 20%. The way this works, I was told, is that some workers for Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service (perform tasks for payment into your Amazon account) have difficulty converting their Amazon balance into cash. They can buy Amazon gift vouchers though, and sell them at a discount for Bitcoin.

How is Bitcoin doing? Its value has been stable since the beginning of the year, but it has fallen in value substantially since its peak in November 2013. Here is the chart for the past year:

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At this point, all you can say for sure is that the future of Bitcoin will be interesting to observe.

Cloud storage sums: how does the cost compare to backing up to your own drives?

Google now offers Cloud Storage Nearline (CSN) at $0.01 per GB per month.

Let’s say you have 1TB of data to store. That will cost $10 per month to store. Getting the data there is free if you have unlimited broadband, but getting it all back out (in the event of a disaster) costs $0.12 per GB ie $120.

A 1TB external drive is around £45 or $58 (quick prices from Amazon for USB 3.0 drives). CSN is not an alternative to local storage, but a backup; you will still have something like network attached storage preferably with RAID resilience to actually use the data day to day. The 1TB external drive would be your additional and preferably off-site backup. For the $120 per annum that CSN will cost you can buy two or three of these.

The advantage of the CSN solution is that it is off-site without the hassle of managing off-site drives and probably more secure (cloud hack risks vs chances of leaving a backup drive in a bus or taxi, or having it nabbed from a car, say). Your 1TB drive could go clunk, whereas Google will manage resilience.

If you consider the possibilities for automation, a cloud-based backup is more amenable to this, unless you have the luxury of a connection to some other office or datacentre.

Still, even at these low prices you are paying a premium versus a DIY solution. And let’s not forget performance; anyone still on ADSL or other asymmetric connections will struggle with large uploads (typically 1-2 Mb/s) while USB 3.0 is pretty fast (typically up to 100 Mb/s though theoretically it could be much faster). If you have the misfortune to have data that changes frequently – and a difficult case is the VHDs (Virtual Hard Drives) that back Virtual Machines – then cloud backup becomes difficult.

The Watch

I am in San Francisco so naturally I looked into the Apple Store to see the Watch.

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The poor old Apple Store is stuck behind a crane and a lot of fencing but there was still a good crowd there.

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There are watches behind glass, watches you can play with that are firmly attached to the counter, and watches in drawers which you can try on under the guidance of a rep, but which are disabled (the buttons do nothing).

A few observations.

It is a lot of fun. I found it easy to navigate using the main menu (a heap of icons, as you would expect), and zooming/tapping to explore.

There are two physical buttons, the crown and a pushbutton. The pushbutton only does two things (I was told by the rep), one press for the contacts app, press and hold for Apple Pay. Can you configure this? Apparently not.

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The crown is a  select button if you push it, zoom (or something app-specific) if you spin it, and Siri if you press and hold.

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Most of the features are things you can already do with a smartphone, excepting the fitness sensors of course, but this is on your wrist and therefore handier.

Maps is useful; it might be worth it just for that.

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Note that the watch is largely a remote for an iPhone. If you don’t have an iPhone (or it is out of charge) it is not much use. The rep thought it would still tell the time but wasn’t sure.

I tried on a couple of models, one the Sports with a cheapish strap ($400; the base model is $349), and another with a stainless steel band ($700). Both were comfortable and I was especially taken with the stainless steel edition.

There are plenty of things about the gadget that are annoying. The need for daily recharging is one, the dependence on an iPhone is another. However it is elegant and delightful so I imagine all will be forgiven, among the Apple community at least.

How do I buy one? Online only, I was told, and delivery maybe in July.

Quick thoughts on Surface 3 from a long-term Surface user

I’ve been using a Surface as my usual travel PC for a while now – mostly Surface Pro (the first iteration) but also Surface RT and Surface 2. Microsoft has announced Surface 3 – is that a good buy?

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Note: this is not a review of Surface 3. I intend to review it but have yet to get my hands on one.

First, a quick note on how I have got on with Surface to date. I love the compact size of the devices and the fact that I can do all my work on them. I find full-size laptops unbearably bulky now – though slim ultrabooks or small netbooks still have some appeal.

The main annoyances with my Surface Pro are the small SSD size (I have the 128GB model) and a few technical difficulties, mainly that the keyboard cover (currently the Power Cover) plays up from time to time. Sometimes it stops responding, or I get oddities like the mouse pointer going wild or keys that auto-repeat for no reason. Detaching and re-attaching the keyboard usually fixes it. Given that this is Microsoft hardware, drives and OS, I regard these bugs as disappointing.

Surface power handling is not very good. The Surface is meant to be running all the time but sleeps so that touching power turns it on or off almost instantly. That’s the idea, but sometimes it fails to sleep and I discover that it has been heating up my bag and that the battery is nearly flat. To overcome this, and to save battery, I often shut it right down or use hibernate. Hibernate is a good option – fairly quick resume, no battery usage – except that about every third resume it crashes. So I tend to do a full shutdown.

I find the power button just a little unpredictable. In other words, sometimes I press it and nothing happens. I have to try several times, or press and hold. It could be the contact or it could be something else – I don’t think it is the contact since often it works fine.

The power cover has stopped charging, after 10 months of use. It is under warranty so I plan to get it replaced, but again, disappointing considering the high cost ($199).

A few grumbles then, but I still like the device for is portability and capability. Surface Pro 2 seemed to be better that the first in every way. Surface Pro 3 I had for a week on loan; I liked it, and could see that the pen works really well although in general pens are not for me; but for me the size is a bit too big and it felt more like an ultrabook than a tablet.

What about Surface 3 then? The trade-off here is that you get better value thanks to a smaller size (good) and lower performance (bad), with an Atom processor – Intel’s low power range aimed at mobile computing – instead of the more powerful Core range. Here are some key stats, Surface 3 vs Surface Pro 3:

  Surface 3 Surface Pro 3
Display 10.8″ 12″
Weight (without cover) 622g 800g
Storage 64GB or 128GB 64GB-512GB
Processor Intel Atom x7 Intel Core i3, i5 or i7
RAM 2GB or 4GB 4GB or 8GB
Pen Available separately Included
Cameras 8MP rear, 3.5MP front 5.0MP rear, 5.0MP front

What about battery life? Microsoft quotes Surface Pro 3 as “up to 9 hours of web browsing” and Surface 3 as “up to 10 hours of video playback”. That is a double win for Surface 3, since video playback is more demanding. Anandtech measured Surface Pro 3 as 7.6 hrs light use and 3.45 hrs heavy use; the Surface 3 will fare better.

How much do you save? A snag with the Surface is that you have to buy a keyboard cover to get the best out of it, and annoyingly the cover for the Surface 3 is different from those for Surface, Surface 2 and Surface Pro, so you can’t reuse your old one.

A quick look then at what I would be paying for the Surface 3 vs Surface Pro 3 in a configuration that makes sense for me. With Surface 3, I would max out the RAM and storage, because both are rather minimal, so the cost looks like this:

Surface 3 with 4GB RAM and 128GB storage: $599
Keyboard cover: $129
Total: $728.99

Surface Pro 3 with 8GB RAM, 265GB storage, Intel Core i5, pen: $1299
Keyboard cover: $129.00
Total: $1428.99

In other words, Surface 3 is around half the price.

Will I buy a Surface 3? It does look tempting. It is a bit less powerful than my current Surface Pro and perhaps not too good with Visual Studio, but fine for Office and most general-purpose applications. Battery life looks good, but the 128GB storage limitation is annoying; you can mitigate this with an SD card, say another 128GB for around $100, but I would rather have a 256GB SSD to start with.

However, there is strong competition. An iPad Air, I have discovered, makes an excellent travel companion, especially now that Office is available, provided you have a good keyboard case such as one from Logitech; you could get an iPad Air 2 with 64GB storage and a keyboard for slightly less than a Surface 3.

The iPad comparison deserves some reflection. The iPad does have annoyances, things like lack of direct access to the file system and non-expandable storage (no USB). However I have never encountered foibles like power management not working, and as a tablet it is a better design (not just because there are abundant apps).

It is also worth noting that there is more choice in Windows tablets and convertibles than there was when Surface was first released. Some are poorly designed, but ranges like those from Asus and Lenovo are worth checking out. In a sense this is “job done” since one of the reasons for Microsoft doing Surface was to kick-start some innovation in Windows hardware.

I hope to get some hands-on with Surface 3 in the next few weeks and will of course report back.