Thursday, May 12, 2016

Mr MC on the ATV4

After setting up and using the ATV 4 for about a week I was searching for interesting apps. One of the disappointments was the facility of the two most popular streaming apps, VLC and Infuse. They both worked fine so far as they went but were somewhat limited andin the case of VLC not particularly user friendly.

A lot of people use Plex but apart from the way it wants to organise your media (not always correctly) it also wants to transcode everything before streaming it and it requires a Plex server separate from the media source and player. So what with the media management, transcoding and double handling resulting in doubling the network traffic I am not a real fan of plex.

The first media player I ever used was XBMC on the original XBOX. It has now been ported to many environments and diverse platforms, now including the ATV 4 and has a name change to Kodi. The problem is that you need a developer account, you need to side load it (that means buying a new USB C cable and connecting it to your Apple Mac and loading the binaries from there) and the installation expires after 90 days meaning that you have to re-load it every 90 days.

One of the principal developers of Kiodi for iOS has made his own branch minus a few features and called it Mr MC.

Installation and Setup
As with any app simply search the store and install. It was $10.99 in the Australian store.

I then went into the setup and changed a few settings. I change the Audio Output to 5.1 and turned bitstream on since my amp decodes all audio encoding formats.

I then had to add my media locations using SMB to the Audio, Video and Pictures section. As I added the audio share it asked if I wanted to catalogue my library and I answered yes. That allows it to sort by Artist Album, genre etc.

Apart from that it was ready to go.

I understandably I found it identical to the modern ports of Kodi which I was already familiar with. A first time user would have a steeper learning curve but since I have been using XBMC for well over 10 years, of and on, it was very familiar to me. Apart from the lack of addons there was little difference that I could see.

I had no issues playing lossless music with excellent quality. It is possible to browse music using the file system browser but the music is also sorted by artist album and genre.

I tried various video media and it had few issues with any of the media formats I tried including DVD and Blue Ray rips I have up to and including 1080P, 60FPS DTS HD audio. On the larger files there was a slight amount of stuttering but I put that down to a network issue since I had to use a local USB drive on my Popcorn Hour to play the same media without stuttering. Where the audio needed decoding there was some distortion and have not been able to work out why. Where the audio was bit streamed the audio was flawless since it was decided by my AV receiver.

I found the Apple remote somewhat annoying to use with the MrMC interface but the Blue Tooth keyboard made it much easier to operate. I using the arrow, Enter and Esc keys made it much easier to navigate and the Enter, Esc, arrow and Space keys gave me good control when playing media.

The Mr MC app is so far the best media player I have tried on the ATV4 with no serious issues. The lack of addons I suspect is due to Apple's restrictions on Apps since Apple has no control over addons. Apart from that I think it is a definite winner for me and has now become my default player for local media.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Apple TV 4 Review


I have been using the third gen ATV for several years now and have mixed feelings about it. The inbuilt apps work fine and do exactly want they say on the box however it is pretty inflexible and allows for very little customisation. . I mostly use it for iTunes vodcasts, music, YouTube, and Netflix. I also use it to Air Play from my iPhone 6+ for such apps as Spotify and ABC iPlayer. I rarely use much else but seldom does a day go by without using the ATV. The biggest thing for me is the limited facility of the inbuilt apps.

When the ATV 4 was announced and the Australian pricing I was determined to buy one despite the high price. Last week I bit the bullet and ordered one from Kogan which was about $50 cheaper than the Apple store price including freight.

The ATV 4 is capable of 1080P 60 FPS but not 4K or HDR. The next generation of hardware may support HDR but we will probably not know until it is announced. There are many theories as to why Apple chose not to support HDMI 2.0, 4K HDR. I suspect that it may have been because the standard was only fleshed out mid 2015 and there was insufficient time to design it into the hardware. Even so it was not until this year that the new standard was available in hardware. The other issue is the availability of content. There is still only a few 4K HDR titles and few displays capable of displaying the new standard. Just because a display is 4K does not mean that it will properly display the 4K HDR standard media.

On arrival and opening the box there was the ATV, a UK power cable (Kogan shipped the UK version), a lightening cable, the remote and some documentation. The localisation appears to consist only of the power cord and paperwork. Also in the packaging was a power adapter supplied by Kogan for the British plug so that it could be plugged into an Australian outlet.

I removed the old ATV and plugged in the HDMI, Network and power and turned it on. There was an option during setup to use a Blue Tooth to my iPhone to pull the setup from that to set up the Apple TV.  That did not work, which I suspect was due to a bug in the shipped OS 9.0. Otherwise the setup was pretty much straight forward.  I went into settings and manually added my credentials.

I tried to add a BT keyboard but it would not recognise it. 

I then went to the app store and downloaded my favorite apps including YouTube, Netflix and VLC but ABC iView would not install since it required TVOS 9.1 or later.

I performed a manual update to the latest OS and then went back and downloaded ABC iView.

After the update I was able to pair the BT keyboard so it appears that OS 9.0 has a issue with the BT stack.

In Use

The ATV is capable of HFR 60 Hz which means that it can properly deliver HFR video to the display. Playing a 60 FPS video media file appeared to be flawless. The video I streamed showed no artifacts but ... more later.

The app store is limited but have all of the usual suspects except for Spotify. I have contacted Spotify but they are tight lipped on the availability of an ATV app. I suspect that there is one in the works but no idea on the release date. In the mean time I am happy with Air Play which works perfectly fine. I downloaded Infuse media player which has a pro version but I have not yet taken the plunge to upgrade to Pro. I also investigated Kodi (XBMC) and there is a pre-alpha release for developers but it is pretty buggy according to the forums. I have to say that this has always been my favourite media player being completely open source and it has a lot of very good features. I have been using it off and on since it was available on the original XBOX and was the first media center I used.

The interface is fine if somewhat confusing. The home page and Apple apps insist on displaying a banner on the top third of the screen that scrolls through what they think you may want which steals from screen real estate and interferes with navigation. This is inherited from the old ATV and I find it distracting confusing and annoying. Would be nice to be able to turn it off.

The Sony TV I have has a bug in its HDMI negotiation whereby with 1080P 30 Hz the screen would initially appear blank and took some fiddling to fix each time the system turns on from cold. The new ATV also does this to my TV which is really annoying. To be fair it is the Sony TV, not the ATV.

I am really pleased with the ABC iPlayer app. It has the option to stream high def video (it appears to be 720p). You still see compression artifacts but not nearly as distracting as the lo-fi version we have been used to. It is almost as good as over-the-air quality. We have been watching iTunes Podcast versions of some ABC shows and they are utter rubbish with very low definition and obvious and distracting compression artifacts. So the new iPlayer is a huge winner for watching ABC shows.There are also apps for Seven, Ten and SBS streaming which vary in the quality of the streaming media but are fine if not Hi Def.

I used two streaming aps to stream video from my NAS. VLC and Infuse. Since my receiver includes the necessary decoders the player streamed the audio in  raw which appears to work up to and including DTS HD. Infuse did not seem to recognise a BD rip but played all of the other formats I tried including a 60FPS copy of The Hobbit TUJ. The one issue I have is that the necessary frame rate conversion for 24 FPS media leaves somewhat to be desired and resulted in distracting stutter. This is where the device (in this case the ATV) has to insert or remove frames in order to match the native frame rate of your display. So lets say for instance you have a 60Hz display and have a 24 frame source which is the most common combination. The frames are sent to the display multiple times to match the 60Hz of the display. Now a proper conversion will send an alternate stream of repeated 2 and 3 frames in order to match the frame rate. This will appear nice and smooth to the human eye. In the case of the ATV 4 they appear to send a bunch of frames 2 times and every few seconds it just skips a bunch of frames to catch up and hope that you do not notice. With static scenes this is fine but when you have on screen movement for instance moving characters or panning you suddenly see the scene jump. This has come up in forums and Apple are aware of it and don't appear to really care. My Popcorn Hour media device does this conversion seamlessly and without stutter but Apple have chosen the easy option it appears. This is independent of the media player. It seems only to happen to high definition media where there is a lot more processing required to perform the frame rate conversion.

I used VLC to try to watch a downloaded TV series. I selected Ep 7 and it started playing Ep 8 then about 5 minutes in skipped to Ep 9 for no apparent reason. This did not happen when I was playing movies. It seems to be a really strange bug. I went back to the PCH to watch that particular TV episode. Infuse appears to work flawlessly. We watched several transcoded videos and except for a reset in the middle of a video stream it worked without a hitch.

Referring specifically to the two streaming apps, VLC and Infuse I found them both relatively easy to use. One of the features I preferred with Infuse is the ability to create favourite shares. With VLC you had to start with navigating through the list of discovered network devices then navigate down through the media to your location which took many keystrokes. With Infuse though you create network favourites which enable you to choose from a list of locations with custom labels. This makes it much faster to locate the media file you want to stream. I created several shares to various locations on my NAS which made navigating pretty smooth. Infuse will also download artwork if available but it will not cache the artwork (which Kodi will do) so it downloads it every time you navigate to a location.
I am eagerly awaiting Kodi (XBMC) for ATV 4. I think that the Kodi interface has the best of every world and I may install the pre-release version. what is the worst that could happen :O.

As mentioned when the ATV 4 arrive it was on 9.0 TVOS which had a number of bugs including not being able to pair with BT devices other than the remote. It took about an hour to update. The update fixed the BT bug, added app groups as per the iPhone, improvements to Siri, and a number of other enhancements and fixes.

The new remote is interesting to say the least. It has a touch pad which is both a blessing and a curse. It means you can scroll easily using the touch pad  and it is designed to give you fine control over video playback. It also has the simplicity and de-clutter of the old remote. However the glass touch pad can be a bit sensitive and takes some getting used to. For those who lack dexterity I can see that it would be frustrating. It came with about a 75% charge but will change via lightening. You can see the amount of charge bu opening Settings and selecting Remotes. The battery will last weeks on a single charge so plugging it in over night about once a week should keep it charged.
The highest definition movie I tried was The Hobbit  at 60FPS 1080P. It was clear and smooth with no apparent artifacts. Short of a 4K movie it should be able to play anything you throw at it.

Overall I am really happy with the ATV 4. The minimal interface is easy to use and negotiate if you can ignore the top banner. With the latest OS the ability to create groups and customise the layout is very nice. The apps are a definite winner but some companies are somewhat behind the time in terms of app development. I am sure over time that we will get more apps and thus provide greater utility. Not being a gamer I cannot comment on games and there does not seem to be a lot of good games as yet.

The only big criticism for me is the stutter on high definition 24 FPS video. This is a huge mis-step on Apple's part IMHO. If they could fix that then It would be the perfect hi def set top box.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Managing music on iOS devices

The Problem
I have had many and varied conversations with people over the years regarding their favourite computer based music player and some have been more interesting than others. The solution I describe here is just one but it may assist in developing you own solution. As far as I understand it this complies with the current Australian law.

When I started collecting music the benchmark was the vinyl record, with some people actually purchasing high quality reel to reel tapes (yes, that was a thing) for an ever higher quality. People would spend many thousands of dollars on the turntable alone, let alone amplifiers and speakers. I had a friend who boasted that he built custom enclosures from concrete and filled them with sand. I never heard them but I can imagine that they would not have lived up to the expense and effort involved. Then in the 80s the CD emerged and to this day there is a furious debate over the efficacies  of either format.

Now there is digital music and as with the past there are facts and there are fallacies and unfortunately the fallacies reign supreme whilst the facts languish amidst the ignorance of those who know enough to be dangerous but not enough to know what they are talking about. In the next two paragraphs (which you may skip or skim if you wish but I suggest you do try to understand if you are at all interested in music).

Digital Vs. Analogue
First let me try to explain the difference between analogue and digital formats. Old formats such as tape and records (shellac and vinyl) record the music in a form that reflects what we would understand sound to look like, waves. Sound is just pressure waves in air and on tape the signal is a varying magnetisation of the tape that looks exactly like the sound waves. On the record there is a groove that looks exactly like the sound waves. When the tape or record is played then your sound system converts these variations into electrical signals which are eventually turned back into sound pressure waves that come from your speakers or headphones. There are serious limitations with both tape and vinyl however. The accuracy of the sound depends on various factors including how accurately the sound is converted from pressure waves into electrical signals, how well that signal is transferred to the recording device and the particle size on either the vinyl record or tape. You can hear it the most with the old shellac 78 RPM recordings where you can hear a constant hiss. You get the same thing with both tape and vinyl but there are ways of limiting its effect, but even so it is still there. There are also limitations in the mechanism that lay the sound onto tape and vinyl and also getting the signal back out. Both of these media are fragile and easily damaged and the sound on tape degrades over time and records can be worn by the stylus or scratched.

Consumer digital started with the release of the CD. There are a number of advantages with digital. The first is that it is easier for computers to process so that you can do many smart things with the digital file to process the recorded sound that are impossible, or extremely difficult with analogue. Next there is no loss to the signal when you process it. With analogue every time the editor processes the track it adds all of the inconsistencies of the analogue transfer and over time this can degrade the signal. Not so with digital. Then there is the preservation of the original sound. Once you have the digital file that represents the recorded sound it cannot degrade (in theory). If you look after that file it never changes and will be exactly the same forever unlike analogue formats. You scratch a record you damage the sound. You keep a tape for too long, get too hot or expose it to too much moisture the sound goes to pot. No so digital. You can copy it over and over and it stays exactly the same.

Digital Distribution
There are now a plethora of digital media, some of which have come and gone but the one that has stuck with us due to its cheap cost is the CD. I read that a factory can stamp out a recorded music CD for 20c per disk. This means that the remainder of the money you pay for the CD goes into distribution less royalties, which is precious little if you buy from your average music outlet. Most of the money you pay goes to the label. Of the sticker cost 13% (or 13% of 90%, there is a 10% deduction for supply chain losses) goes to the musician (more if you have negotiating power such as Madonna or Sting). This sounds a lot but your musician also has overheads so in truth you average musician takes about 0.23% of the CD which if it was a $15 CD, about average these days, (it is only your Madona or Sting  who can expect to still get away with charging $30) you musician only gets about 3.5c per CD. Not a lot to live on for the smaller artist. For your typical CD run this makes it hardly worth while getting out of bed. This has given rise to a lot of independent music distribution sites such as CD Baby, and Blue Coast music which leaves the musician with much more recompense. Even better are those musicians who self publish. Many more new musicians are going down the route of self publishing as the become more tech savvy. Indeed there is one musician I know of, Daria Musk  who streams her concerts live over Google Plus.  She also produces and distributes her music herself but she is very technically knowledgeable and has teamed up with another musician who is her producer. Digital music files are now becoming more popular and are not limited to the quality of CD or two track stereo. Surround and higher bit rates are proving to be more popular now.

I collected a large number of music CDs over the years but the problem is that music CDs will deteriorate over time, especially if stored in damp and cold environments. Also putting a CD into a music player is a pain. CDs are excellent media but they have their limitations. Most of the music I have bought recently has been from the artist either on their web site or from Kickstarter. I have also bought a number of albums from iTunes where the artist does not sell direct.
The old CD distribution mechanism via large record producers is probably the lease beneficial way for the artist to be reimbursed for their work. the next best is iTunes the next via independent distribution such as CD Baby, Blue Coast and the like. Finally the best is from the artist themselves. I choose the options from the last to the first for this reason. There are a few artists whom I support by buying direct from them either digitally or by buying their CDs. So how to manage this music?

Managing Your Music Library
I use iTunes because it is the most convenient way of managing large music libraries and supports all of my mechanisms for playing my music. I have tried a number of different music library managers in the past but I always come back to iTunes.
First CDs. I simply pop the CD into my CD drive in my computer and it automatically imports into iTunes. I have set the default format to Apple lossless which encodes the bits exactly as they come off the CD so you loose no quality. Once the CD is in the drive iTunes goes out and finds the album information (it uses the signature of the tracks on the CD to match it to online databases of CD information). If there are multiple entries, for instance different people have entered the same CD  or different regions or different release dates then you get to pick from a selection. Once it is "ripped" into iTunes you then have the digital copy and it appears in your iTunes library. In Australia this is allowed for in the legislation. If you own the CD you may make copies of it for your own personal use for playing in different formats. For digital media simply drag your downloaded music into your iTunes liibrary and it automatically catalogs it but this does depend on the music format.

Once in my iTunes library I can backup the library. To see where your songs are stored you can look in settings or you can right click on any song and look at Get Info.
Now that you have all of your music there you can do things such as create play lists. There are smart play lists where you specify all of the attributes and iTunes automatically adds music to that play list any songs with that attribute. For instance you can crate a John Mayer playlist and specify artist as containing John Mayer. You can also create normal play lists. For instance create a Christmas play list and drag all of your Christmas songs into it. then when Christmas comes around shuffle play all of your Christmas songs to the endless delight (or disgust depending on your relative tastes) of your family. I created play lists for my children's weddings with several play lists specifically designed for various parts of the evening. You can also see the timing of each play list which helps with the programming.
Once your library is set up you then turn on Home Sharing which enables you to see your library from anywhere in the house. You can see it on your Apple TV, your iPhone, iPad or any other computer running iTunes. You can also selectively sync tracks to your iOS device if you want the music on the go. You can choose to sync in the original format for high quality music or if you want you can select to compress your music which gives you about a 50% reduction in file size for a loss in quality.

Additional Tools
These days I get most of my music via a streaming service but I do still purchase music, mostly from places such as Blue Coast and CD Baby, and even from the artist. In the case of downloads the format is typically FLAC which iTunes does not recognise. In addition I like to play music on other players which do not decode Apple Lossless. To convert between formats I use dBpoweramp. The basic version is free but I bought the license which is a small one off purchase which adds an mp3 license, multi parallel conversion plus more. Major upgrades though do require an upgrade fee but it is not a huge cost. I have a reasonably powerful 8 core PC and I can convert a full CD to/from Apple lossless/FLAC format in under 30 seconds.

The Video Lan Client (VLC) player is free and supports all major audio and video formats and is a great media player. It is available for PC, Mac, iOS, Andriod and Apple TV V4. If anything will not play in iTunes then it will most likely play in VLC.

My PC does not have an internal optical drive so I use an external optical drive to read my media. These are not expensive and are very convenient.

Storage and Backup
There  are many options for storage. You can use external USB drives, internal drives, NAS (Network Access Storage or via your router's USB port. Each has advantages and disadvantages.

An external USB drive is relatively cheap and can store many hundreds of CDs. However unless you keep a copy of the external drive you have no backup and will loose everything when your single drive fails. You can get multi drive external boxes which include data redundancy but this is not a particularly robust solution. There are better ways of storing your music.

You can use internal drives inside your PC to store the music. Windows allows you to use RAID (redundant array of inexpensive disks), in the case of Windows this is specifically 2 disks which store exactly the same data (RAID 1) so that if one disk fails then you still have the data. You can then replace the failed disk and re-synchronise the RAID. I have two 2T disks for storing data on my PC but that is not my only copy.

Probably the most robust solution is what is termed a NAS or Network Attached Storage. This uses a dedicated box, either a PC or purpose built containing several hard drives of (usually) identical model and size with redundancy so that if a drive fails you can simply replace the drive and it will resync in the background. If you are technically minded you can use a free program such as FreeNAS with a standard PC but the better solution for the rest of us is to use a "NAS Box" such as the Thecus 4 drive NAS N4310which is $249 from MSY. You need to then add hard drives. You can use a web interface to configure the system to alow you to access this from anywhere on your network including your smart phone, PC, Apple TV, generic media player, smart TV, the list is endless. You should then still backup the NAS but it is a good robust solution for storing all of your data.

I use iTunes to rip my CDs then dBpoweramp to convert to FLAC when necessary. I store them on my server which is a standard PC with FreeNAS installed and using RAID quality drives.

I can access all of my music from my media players on my home thaetre, Apple TV, PC and mobile devices.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

The iPhone Encryption Debate - A Personal View

I have read the many opinions and news stories in the ongoing dispute between Apple and law enforcement in the US regarding "that" iPhone. Regardless of the merits of that particular case I think that the implications are much wider than they first appear. But first some background.

Why we need good encryption
I have been working in electronics for 34 years and specifically in IT for 26 years. Hacking has been part of the whole IT environment for as long as I have been working. In the early days it was security through obscurity and we can see how well that worked. Leaked service manuals was all that was needed for the smart and inventive to get into telephone exchanges. That of course made it easy for law enforcement to tap phones of interest, but it also made it equally easy for nefarious organisations to gain access to the same sources of information. Of course this was subject to abuse, just look at Hoover's personal campaign against King for instance.

Fast forward to today and we still have systems that can be hacked. As soon as one hole is discovered and blocked yet another hole is discovered. Just look at the number of major breaches in security in the US alone in the last year. And several very high profile security breaches in the US government. I suspect that these could have been prevented had good security processes been in place. What this highlights is that even the worlds most powerful government cannot protect their data.

Then consider people in countries where they have a corrupt government who are protesting or trying to highlight their government's corruption. There is nothing that they would like more than to spy on the trouble makers.

But what about your personal information such as your credit card details, fingerprint details and other information that could be used to steal your identity or bank details. It may also be important to hide from people such as people who have been in abusive relationships. I heard just this week of an old acquaintance who is hiding from an abuser. Industrial espionage is a huge problem and they use weak encryption to steal the secrets of their competitors.

The list of things that nefarious people would find valuable is endless.

The Solution
What we need is a good way to keep that information safe. What Apple is  doing is implementing in hardware and software a way of keeping your information from people who would misuse that information. To do this they are building in safeguards that would make it impossible for anyone but the owner of the device to get to the data stored on that device. At the present time the best secure access methods are three way. They use something you know, something you have and something you are. Something you know may be a password or pin. Something you have may be an app on a smart phone, a rotating one time code on a secure key or a custom generated key on a USB memory stick. Something you are is your fingerprint, your eye scan, or maybe in the not too distant future your DNA. The current generation of iPhone have two of the three. Something you know, ie pin, then something you are, that is fingerprint. The pair that with the high level of encryption on the phone itself then you have a good system to protect your data.

What about data going to and from your device. The backup can be encrypted so that the device backup to the cloud or your PC can be securely encrypted. On the other hand much of the data that passes externally may not be encrypted. Phone calls, internet data which may include banking details or site logins, SMS, application data including third party messaging apps, location details, personal details from and app. That is why your banking app uses a secure encrypted connection. That is why dissidents use encrypted apps. It is critical that these things be perfectly secure and there be no chance of any of this data falling into the wrong hands.

The Problem
Every time a way into any of these secure devices is created it increases the chance exponentially that the security on the device can be bypassed. So if you give the government a way in (a government who cannot even keep their own information secure) it provides a way in for others that should not be able to get in. So it is with other secure services. Secure web sites, secure file encryption. The US government has been arguing for years for deliberate back doors into all of the se data encryption methods. To the lay person all of this sounds reasonable but for those in the industry this spells disaster for encryption. If the government cannot keep their peoples information secure there is no way these back doors could not be exploited by others. Remember that there are a lot of very talented people trying to find a way around encryption and the more weaknesses there are the more likely they are to succeed.

We must keep our data safe and building in back doors will make it that much easier for criminals, companies and corrupt governments to take advantage of these back doors. Good security is not a privilege it is a necessity in modern life. The world has changed and we must change our attitudes with it. It is no longer good enough to rely on obscurity.

People such as Apple have a duty to their customers to enable good encryption and it is unreasonable for any government to ask them to deliberately break that regardless of the reason.

Monday, February 23, 2015

An open letter to Apple - When are you fixing the buggy Podcasts facility?

Dear Apple developers,
In the old days there was a facility in the Music app called podcasts and it worked reasonably well - all-be-it with the odd bug, but it worked.

Then you decided to create a new app called Podcasts and then the fun began. It was buggy. I do not mean buggy as it had the occasional defect that was exhibited under an unusual combination of circumstances, but buggy as in it had numerous bugs which prevented it from actually operating on many occasions. I did become somewhat better with several updates but it is still the most defective piece of release software I have ever used, and I myself work in IT.

First there are the sync issues which are numerous. I will completely play a podcast after which it is correctly marked as played only to have it return to the same device as unplayed. This may happen to single podcasts or can occur to hundreds of podcasts. This is not an isolated occurrence. I may go up to a week without this occurring but it is rare that a week goes by without some podcasts re-appearing and me having to mark them as played again. Usually many per week.

The sync issues are not limited to individual devices though. I will play a podcast only to have it appear as unplayed on another device. A podcast can appear on one device and not appear on another. Or, just to add variety I will play a podcast, it then appears as played on all devices and then will randomly appear later on one or more devices as unplayed. Some podcast episodes are extremely persistent and will come back as unplayed repeatedly and have to be re-marked as played.

But the sync issues do not stop there. I will partially play an episode then it will randomly reposition the played position to another point within the episode. 

Now we come to the download bugs. Some podcasts download automatically as marked and others do not. I then have to manually download. On the iTunes PC or Mac app the download frequency appears to be random. It would be nice to set the download schedule or periodicity, but no, we appear to be completely at the whim of some random process. When I get home form work I have to manually trigger the download of podcasts, and even them it sometimes does not work and I have to download the episode form the store. But if I do that it creates another instance of the podcast in iTunes which may or may not be persistent. Then that leads to quite a different story of grief. I had to delete one podcast and re-add it and then I had the joy of marking about a hundred of about 300 episodes as played and re-download about 200 to my iPhone which I was in the process of playing. This has happened several times. Not an enjoyable experience thank you very much.

Next are the episodes which I can play streaming but refuse to download. Not a problem? Well, yes it is. I cannot stream episodes from the Apple TV. Only downloaded episodes appear on the Apple TV so I must stream to my mobile device and air-play - which has its own set of issues, or I must watch the episode on my computer.

Finally let me address the stability of the whole iTunes Mac/PC apps. They regularly lock up whereby it is not just a process of re-starting teh application. I have to reboot the computer since there is a persistent background process.

I am what one could call a heavy user. I have several dozen podcasts on the go with many that have daily or weekly episodes. So I accept that my experience would not be typical in scale but from what I have read it is certainly typical in nature. All users that I know of experience these bugs, but not many to the same scale due to my heavy usage.

I can deal with these persistent annoyances being IT savvy but if I was not then I am sure that this would be extremely off-putting and turn many users off to the Podcasts system. If there was a useable alternative then I would use it but here is nothing with the power, facility and ease of use. So it seems that I am stuck with Podcasts and my hope is that Apple will put some effort into fixing these numerous bugs.

It is not as if Apple is some small independent company struggling to make a living. They have the resources to fix this buggy programme, there is absolutely no excuse for this. The Apple help system is not much use. Searching the forums is a complete waste of time. There are many people who have reported these bugs but they obviously give up since Apple do not appear to be interested in fixing them.

At best the iTunes podcast system and apps could be described as in beta testing phase. The old podcast system was buggy but not nearly as bad as the new environment. One can but hope that Apple will spend some of that obscenely huge profit in fixing the bugs in Podcasts.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

My Top Apps

One of the things that the iOS device class has brought to the user is convenience.  Take the iPhone for instance. You now have constant access to the internet, friends using any of the social media services, games, be they stand alone or multiplayer or interactive. This just did not exist in the way it does now before the iPhone.

On the down side for each application type there are a multitude of apps, a multitude ranging from expensive to free, from excellent to a waste of precious iOS memory. How do you decide between them. I often use reviews but that can be deceptive. You could trawl through forums but that can be tedious. You can ask your friends but often they choose an app on a rather arbitrary basis. There are many tech sites dedicated to bringing you comparative reviews of particular app types and this is probably the best way to find good apps.

This is my attempt to help guide you to what I consider to be my favourite apps and why I favour them. This does not mean that they are the best, only that they are the apps that I happen to like in each category.

I have not counted but I now have many hundreds of apps and no longer use many of them but some I use regularly and some several times a day. I have often collected multiple apps in the same category and I sometimes drift between them from time to time due to feature updates of annoying bugs or sometimes because I can. I am as fickle as the next person so you really need to judge for yourself whether an app will suite you. This is my personal opinion based on whatever random felling or questionable logic I had at the time.

Google Earth Free (universal)
One is one the stable of Google mobile apps. Get a 3D view and lay of the land. To see the other Google apps search for Google in the app store.

There are three decent weather apps which obtain their weather from the BOM they are Pocket Weather,  Oz Weather and Weatherzone. I was using Oz Weather until recently and then shifty Jelly updated Pocket Weather to version 3 with a brand new app and now this is my favourite. It looks gorgeous and the new design is easy to use and full of information. There are still some features I like in Oz Weather and indeed both provide excellent up to date coverage but now Pocket weather has slipped ahead.

Google Maps Free (universal)
Maps Internal
The origonal maps app for the iPhone was provided by Google but it was replaced a couple of years ago by the current version based on Tom Tom maps. I have used both Google Maps and Maps for navigation and both are excellent and pretty close to each other in features.I probably use both equally and have few issues.

In my humble opinion the best free dictionary in the app store and amongst the best of the lower end paid for dictionaries. It has an excellent range and word origins which many of the dictionary apps do not.

Ice TV Free
Not in App shopper since it is not in the US store.
This free app provides a free 7 day rolling TV guide to all Australian TV programs. It can also be used to program your compatible PVR such as BeyonWiz, Topfield, Strong or Dvico, but that requires a subscription which is $99 for 12 months (although I wait for the half price specials). The guide by itself is free. Simply download the app and sign up inside the app and you get your personalised TV guide.
iTV Shows 3 Universal $3.79
 iTV Shows allows you to track which episodes of which series you watch. If like us you have wide ranging tastes it is sometimes difficult keeping track of what you have watched. You get 5 minutes into a show and you realise you have seen it. This app allows you to mark episodes as watched. It also synchronises to the cloud so that you can use it from all of your devices and it updates automatically.

Informant $13.99
This app provides a calendar, todo list, and contacts. It synchronises with whatever service you use including your internal lists. This is on the expensive side but I bought it on discount. I have been using this for many years, ever since I owned a Pocket PC, maybe 2004 at a guess. It is a big improvement on the internal calendar.

eBudy XMS Free iPhone only
This like SMS but free and many more facilities. All of your friends need to use it as well. There are also clients for Android, Windows Mobile, Nokia, blackberry and as a web client on your PC. So whatever smart phone platform your friends use you can communicate using XMS.

Life360 Free iPhone only
This app tracks your friends and family and tells you where they are. Some people are spooked by this but I think it is fantastic. Liesa and I use it to track each other (how else would I know where she is :). Our children also use it to keep track of their children. It gives them great peace of mind. In the free version you can set two way points where you can alert when people arrive or leave. You can also set groups of people so that each group can be private.You can also set avatars, chat check-in and send an alert in the case of an emergency. A circle (group) can pay an additional US$5 for unlimited waypoints expanded history plus a few other features.

DVD Profiler $9.49 (requires paid app for PC or web synchronisation) (universal)
DVD Profiler is one of the best DVD BluRay cataloging programs (PC only). I bought it to catalogue my hundreds of DVDs and now Bly Rays. The iOS app allows me to synchronise with my PC app and also have my entire catalogue on the run. When I buy a ne Blu Ray I scan the bar code on my iPhone, enter the purchase date (today by default) location and cost. I can then synchronise with the PC app and it also allows online synchronisation so that I never loose my catalogue. 

Olive Tree Bible Reader Free (universal)
This is my favourite bible reader for the following reasons
  • Most versions available for purchase
  • Many additional resources available
  • Free app for the Mac and PC
  • Can synchronise books between any platforms meaning that you only have to purchase a book once.
Dropbox Free (universal)
Dropbox is an online free backup facility that gives you 2G free online storage. It has a PC or Mac app that automatically synchronises your Access your important files. The iOS app can access these files so that you can view or edit them whenever you have your iOS device with you and you have internet access. You can also share files and folders with other dropbox users or make them public if you wish. There are a host of applications that utilise Dropbox such as KyPass (see below).

Evernote Free Universal
This is a great note taking app and has been around in various guises for a long time. It was one of the first of its type and it is still amongst the best. You can categorise notes, add pictures, format notes. I use it constantly for keeping random things such as grinding wheel sizes, shirt size, random lists of stuff I need to buy at Bunnings, the list is endless. Notes synchronise between devices so you have you notes wherever you have a device. It is available for PC, Mac, and most hand held devices.

KyPass 3 $7.49 (universal)
I use KeePass to store my passwords. It uses high level single password encryption with an optional secure key. There are several iOS apps that can access a KeePass password database but KyPass seems to be the best of them. Using Dropbox I can access the same password database from any Mac, PC or iOS device. Thus I can have my passwords with me wherever I am and all with a single master password. The PC application also has some nice facilities such as auto type to automatically enter your credentials into a web page for instance.

eBuddy XMS Free
It is like SMS but more powerful. It allows you to chat and send photos with text stickers all for no cost. 

IMDB Free (universal)
On line movie database - need I say more :)

iSip Basic $0.99, Full $6.49
Use this to connect to your favourite VOIP service from your iPhone to save a ton of money on interstate and overseas calls. Two such services are Pennytel and MyNetFone.

As I said above, do your own research and look up comparative reviews on the various tech sites do see which apps provides the features you want.

Password Management - One solution

The Problem
I was reminded recently how important it is to manage passwords properly. One of my friends has a lot of trouble remembering their vast number of passwords and sets insecure passwords which they then immediately forget. They also re-use other people's passwords, and use those same passwords across multiple accounts none of which is particularly secure.
Below is a short instructional on how to manage passwords and your various options. I am providing one solution but as with lengths of string, password management solutions are many and varied. However I think that this is a good option and one that can give you a sense of security and is fairly easy to implement. The expert will most likely already have a solution in place but even so this may give you some additional ideas to improve password management.
The Requirements
These are the requirements for a good password manager.
  • Available on all platforms including portable devices, PC and MAC
  • Able to store multiple pieces of information including URLs notes and secret questions
  • Able to integrate so that you can automatically enter passwords (this option is not available on iOS due to the OS restrictions)
  • Able to access from anywhere in the universe (assuming a network connection of course)
  • Free
As I said above there are many solutions but not all are free and not all are particularly secure. The solution I suggest meets all of these requirements, although the Mac and iOS versions do cost.

The Solution

What I use is KeePass. It is in effect a tiny database manager The feature list is quite extensive but the more important features are,
  • Strong security. It has a master password with an optional key file. The key file is simply a very long bunch of random characters that unlocks the database along with an optional pass code (not the master password). This key file supplements, but does not replace your master password. You can store the key file independently on a memory stick, and/or Dropbox for instance and the database is inaccessible without that key file.So if any one cracks your master password they still need that key file to open the password database. (If you use Keepass on iOS the key file needs to be in dropbox along with your password database which sort of defeats the purpose of the key file.)
  • Multiple databases. For example you can store work and private passwords independently.
  • Password history. It can retain old passwords for you just in case.
  • You can run form your PC or even run it from a portable USB key. There are also iOS, and Android apps to access the database.
  • You can transport the database using USB or dropbox or any other mechanism so that you can have your passwords wherever you are.
  • Windows and Mac versions can auto type your username/password combo to make easy password entry to most web sites or applications.
  • It can auto generate strong passwords for you so that you do not have to remember your passwords. Just copy and past or auto type.
  • Flexible management. It can have folders and sub folders, You can store URL, notes, auto type options, custom fields, and  auto expiry notification for your passwords.
To set up Keypass you need to ...
  1. To be able to access the same password database on all devices you will need a cloud storage option and the one I like is Dropbox. If you do not already have an account go to Dropbox and set up a Dropbox account. They give you 2G free which is more than enough for your password database plus lots of other stuff. Because your database will be stored inside dropbox this should be extremely secure so choose a secure but easy to remember password for Dropbox. Make sure that this password is unique and especially not the same as your Keypass master password.
  2. Download Dropbox for your PC/Mac and set it up. This produces a shared folder on your PC or Mac. This will synchronise anything in your Dropbox with that folder. You can place things in that folder and its sub-folders and they will be synchronised across all of your devices that are using Dropbox.
  3. Download the iOS Dropbox app on your portable devices. This is not absolutely necessary but it does make managing Dropbox easier. 
  4. Download Keepass for youer PC/Mac and install it. The PC version is free but the Mac version I prefer is KyPass Companion which costs. You may download the stand alone version for PC that you can run off your USB device if you so wish. I also use an add-in called KPEnhancedEntryView. It is free and comes with install instructions. Once installed it adds an additional window that shows all of the selected entry's fields in a separate window that allows the user to easily add, delete and edit fields.
  5. Start up Keepass and create a database in the Dropbox shared folder under a sub-folder called crypted. You can give this database whatever name you wish but if you intend to create multiple databases give it a meaningful name such as Private.kdbx or Business.kdbx. If you so desire generate a key file and save it in crypted as well since you will require this file to open your Keypass database. Make the master password secure and easy to remember but different from your Dropbox password. If you use the optional key file it is a good idea to have good backups of your key file but make sure they are secure. A good idea is to give a copy of a USB stick with your key file to someone that you trust.
  6. Download the iOS version of Keepass (there are several options here (scroll down) but I use KyPass 3 since it is updated regularly and supports all of the Keepass functions. It is not free but all of the iOS Keepass apps I have researched are paid but it is a one off cost. Before purchasing an iOS app look at the regularity of the updates (check it in and the feature list. Also make sure it supports V2 of the database and Dropbox folders.
  7. Link the app to Dropbox and them open the Keepass database. Not all of the Keepass database fields may be supported in the iOS version but the critical fields of username and password should be there.
  8. Finally store all of your passwords in your Keepass database. Make sure to keep your Keepass folders nicely structured with subfolders. Some folder names you may use are Banking, Web Sites, Forums, Social Networking, Computers, &etc.
I suggest that you tell someone you trust your Dropbox and Keepass passwords in case of emergency. If you have given someone power of attorney then they should be given your key file and master passwords with instructions of how to respond in the case of your disability or death. Our digital presence is now becoming much more important so what happens to your accounts after you die is becoming more important but is by and large not a consideration. This whole discussion is for another time however.

Password Management Suggestions
With so many sites being hacked and user's passwords being stolen password management is more important than ever. Below are my top hints for password management.
  • Use secure passwords. Do NOT use Pa55word, John, Fido, M4r1 or similar. Make them look like nothing. People think character such as ^%$ make it more secure. They do not. $ for s is about as secure as no password. You can use your password app to generate random passwords for you which is as secure as you can get.
  • Do not use other peoples passwords. If Mary uses Af1a1fa do not use it yourself. Get your own stinkin passwords! Also do not re-use your passwords. If that Russian mafia group hacks your Apple password they will then try it out on Facebook, Google and even your banking site. Each login must use a separate password.
  • If 2 factor authentication exists - use it. Many sites now allow you to use such things as an pin sent to you via your SMS, fingerprint reader or an independent code generated in a separate app in addition to your password. If the options are there, use them since it will make it that much easier to crack your accounts.
  • Make your secret questions random. If it asks for your mother's maiden name make it Superman, or your favourite pet, QuincyJones then store these in your Keepass database. If you use real answers then people can usually find them out.
  • Do not click links in your email that direct you to your bank or online service. These are called Phishing emails and are scams that will steal your information then drain your bank account. Open a new window and then manually type in the site address. You can usually tell by hovering over the link with your mouns, not clicking on it - and observe the link in the footer of your browser window. If it looks like this -> then dead cert, it is a scam. If it looks genuine then it is probably dodgy.
  • Set a pass code on your phone. If you have fingerprint recognition - use it. 

Finally be wise. Think about what you are doing. We are all pretty smart so use your smarts when it comes to online security. Think of the worst case scenario  and imagine that it could happen to you, since it very well could.