Monday, 19 July 2021

Dolby Atmos - Spatial Audio and Lossless.

After treating myself to a new MacBook M1 Air earlier this month (For Minecraft Education sessions) I got a trial of Apple News, Apple Arcade and also Apple Music; 6 months in fact, so til the end of November. I know how these things work though and yes, they want me to make it part of my life so I feel like it's a huge loss in November and as a Music lover, I'm keen to explore the service and being a tech-head, I'm especially keen to play with the new Dolby Atmos music or Spatial Audio as Apple are calling it. 

There's only a limited amount of content available in Atmos at the moment, but unless you've had a bucket on your head for the past 100 years, some of the albums you'll likely be familiar with. Like Sgt Pepper for example. To listen to the difference I used my Beats Studio headphones and some V-Moda crossfades, both great headphones although they're getting on a bit now. 

Sgt Pepper was a tremendously produced album to start off with, so it's a good base to show off incredible 'spatial audio' and it is an odd experience. My initial reactions were quite positive, but having come to my conclusions about Atmos, going back to it know, I'm not sure if I wasn't just being blindsided by the effect. Initially I felt I could hear the voices better, they sounded clearer, warmer and better defined. The instruments would burst into life from everywhere and they did feel like there was space around them, each instrument or noise could be pulled out individually. I went back and listened to my 320kbps version and it didn't sound as alive, slightly more flat, but still impressive. I continued with this to-ing and fro-ing from track to track and it was fascinating, and my observations were the same from track to track. Better separation, warmer voices and more detail. The only negative seemed to be an increase in hiss. 

I then turned my attention to the Week'nd and Blinding lights. Again, this is another brilliantly produced track, and the single sounded great, the separation outstanding. Similar observations, but with clearer sounds due to the progress made by recording technology over the past 40 years.

Billy Eilish is another to have had the Atmos treatment and Bad guy sounded great, the vocals feeling far too close for comfort. 

Also the new Ed Sheeran single, also the first thing of his I've liked; Bad Habits. Same observations. 

Then I compared them to their Lossless equivalent and this is where I really got woken from my Atmos daydream. The difference between Lossless and Atmos was night and day. Detail that was missing from the Atmos version was back, perhaps the 'spatial' effect wasn't as clear and details weren't as obvious, but what was gained was more clarity, natural noises that were masked out were apparent, the overall feeling was one of completeness, music sounded more together and how (my perhaps old fashioned head thinks) it should be. 

I then went back and re-listened to everything in Lossless and it all sounded better, everything sounded better. 

In Playback settings in Music you can choose to force Atmos on, force it off or set it to automatic. I've played with it so many times now, auto won't seem to trigger for me (I have to force it on or off). I also can't blast it in Atmos to my surround sound using Airplay as I'd need a new Apple TV... oh and Amp. But the good news is, I don't want to, I've come to the conclusion that although many songs sound interesting, good perhaps, for many, the difference is not great.

Switching to Lossless shows Atmos up for what it is and how it works, it's an over processed gimmick and it would appear I'm not alone, I went looking for other opinions and found a thread on reddit with many coming to the same conclusion I had, although many had the opposite view, but a lot liked it because when you turned your head relative to your iOS device, the music stayed in front (I can only imagine how that sounds, although I guess it's the same as head tracking on the PSVR where the music comes from the screen) but almost definitely a gimmick. 

Spatial Audio Dolby Atmos


Second opinion; just had my eldest listen to a number of tracks and she reached a conclusion without my input much quicker. (I did play Lossless next to Atmos back to back), she concluded it's over processed and sounds more distant. She suggested it might work best with live recordings if you wanted to to feel like you were an audience member. I concur, she might be right. She is hooked to Lossless though and is currently reciting In the Heights at the top of her voice, (it's still hot, the window is open and I hope the neighbours are enjoying it). 

So to conclude, Atmos is a gimmick, but Lossless is tremendous and ironically, come November that might feel like a loss. 






Sunday, 6 June 2021

Current Minecraft Worlds - Evaluation and issues.




I've been spending a lot of time looking at some of the worlds available in Minecraft Education Edition. There's a buzz around a number of them and I've downloaded them to play them through so I'll know before students, what to expect. I want to keep notes, but I also thought these notes might be useful for others. 

Adventures in English - Cambridge Assesment https://education.minecraft.net/lessons/adventures-in-english

Very simple play through, but quite long. Play starts outside a Library which is supposed to be closed, this world is unique in as much as the characters not only have dialogue boxes, but they actually talk. There are a number of logical challenges in the game, mostly simple spelling but young players might get stuck near the beginning as letters that need to be found in the library are scattered around, but the last one is hidden in a chest, this took me a long time to find. Perhaps a class might find it quicker and once the location is known other will find it too. Of course, this needs to be downloaded as individual games to every players device, not a shared world. It's under Lessons>>Languages>>Additional, so pupils can easily get it onto their machines after they've logged in. The second stumbling block for me was a room where nine letters can be found to complete a sentence. The first three are easy enough to find, but the mine is pretty dark and to find the other 6 you need to mine through into adjacent rooms, which aren't that obvious. There are different coloured blocks to indicate where to mine, but it took me a while to find them. The last section involves taking a purple torch from a Dragon's mouth. I found this (on a 2017 iMac) to be quite buggy, and although I eventually made it to the end of the adventure, I did wonder if it would work. In a nutshell, it's worth a go, the challenges are fun and will definitely get students engaged, although I wonder if some of the words might be a tad difficult to guess? Would love to hear if anyone runs this lesson in their class and what you and your students thought of it. The world is a staggering build and fantastic to behold, you'll get some 'wow's' from your pupils as the creation is fantastic. 

The Second world I played is the Careers Craft Wales one, with Caerfnafon Castle, Tenby, the Senedd and the Coal Exchange. https://careerswales.gov.wales/plan-your-career/careers-wales-education-resources/careerscraft-on-minecraft

Tenby Careers Craft Wales
This is also staggeringly impressive. I'm pretty sure this one isn't available through 'Lessons' so you will have to get the link to your students via classrooms or email. There's a bug in the Coal exchange where you cannot reset a bad trade. Players are told to exchange coal for the most amount of Gold, but if they get it wrong first time, there's no way to go back and try again (at least not an easy way I found), I would suggest moving on. There is also the Myers Briggs personality test in Tenby which is Fantastic (I used to be INTP, now I'm apparently ISTP)! Definitely the most novel was to bring personality type testing into the classroom. However when you get your result, if you end up on the top level (there are dozens of outcomes) you cannot get back to the carts, there are 2 border blocks in the way, (I found if you jump up onto the RH block, you can get though, but this gap should be on the path). Other than that it is pretty sensational. Talking to the various characters at the Castle event certainly gets one thinking about the various employment opportunities young children could consider when they're older. 

Hope this is useful, if you have done these lessons in your classroom, I would love to know what you think. Also if this type of feedback is useful please let me know and I will post here in future. 

Cheers

Al 

Friday, 21 May 2021

I'm amazed by tech #1

I often reflect back on my childhood and how the devices and technology we're using now, would literally blow my mind. When I was around 14 got my first 'PC'. Although it wasn't a PC, it was an Amstrad CPC 464. Without getting hung up on the staggering difference in storage size, processor speed and operating systems from this and more modern PCs, it used normal cassette tapes to load programs. Albeit from it's in built tape recorder; a cutting edge innovation of it's time. Two curly cords connected the Monitor to the 'Computer' which was built into the keyboard, which again, was staggeringly innovative for the mid eighties. I remember I had a cartridge which plugged into the back of the keyboard with vents in to keep it cool, this had a lead going to a device that reminded me of a berol note writer pen, without a nib. Inside was a small sensor which knew which part of the screen it was looking at. Completely inaccurate, this 'light pen' managed to write on the screen in a program not dissimilar to paint, to draw lines, spots, or fill shapes with colour. There was only one program to use with this one pen. Software was hard to get your hands on, if WH Smiths didn't sell it, you had little hope of finding anything else. There were a couple of versions of light pens though, I had the DK'Tronic unit (linked here). Images I created with it though were pretty useless as home printers weren't a thing. I couldn't email it to anyone, I couldn't save it to the computer as it had zero storage space, I could only really save it to a tape, but then I'd have to know which tape, and what the counter read when I'd finished saving it, so if I were to save other data to the tape in future, I didn't accidentally record over my picture. So I would rewind the tape to the start and reset the counter to 000 with the reset button. I'd also wind the tape with a pencil to the start of the magnetic strip to be certain no data would be lost on the run in from the tape which wouldn't record (because I was a computer expert and thought about these things). I would hit record and play (both buttons needed to be pushed for an export), and instruct the program to save the image. The program would automatically start the recorder, because of how high tech it was and I would then hear the data being written to the tape. Then when the save was complete, I would note the tape counter and write in the sleeve ...

'Badly drawn boat : 0000-0043'

Nowadays the pocket computer I have, (or 'smartphone' as we prefer to call them) has a lightweight built-in 'light pen'. It charges in around 40 seconds (inside the device) and lasts for about an hour. It connects without wires, and lets me operate my handheld, pocket sized, device by tapping on the screen. Or I can  select text by pressing the button and dragging over sentences or paragraphs. In addition, it can also remotely trigger the in built camera.... sorry cameras, plural, three on the back and one facing forward. Software isn't loaded by tape on our devices, every program is already stored on the device, and will load in a matter of seconds. If a program isn't on the device, I can get it from thin air; or games, or spreadsheet programs, word processing, we literally have everything in the palm of our hands, the choice of hundreds of programs. Plus my smart device can also play my favourite trilogy of the time then, and perhaps still now; Star Wars. Even though there is no VHS cassette, disc, or film stored on it. 

I'd be completely astounded if I could talk to myself aged 14,  if we did chat, I think the current me would likely give my past self a bi-dimensional panic attack, but once I was over that, if I mentioned that these devices could watch A New Hope, Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, on one battery charge in incredible clarity (and stereo!), even if I were sat in the middle of nowhere, I would be utterly astounded. And it is astounding when you think about it. What we grew up with, and what we have the capability to do now, the difference is night and day. 

We really do have incredible technology at our fingertips, it's crazy really to think if anyone spent a good deal of time explaining this to their 14 year old self, that the old self could imagine how anyone wouldn't be ecstatic all of the time. Yet instead, sometimes our devices feel like such burdens and they're really not, it's just how we choose to use them. 





Thursday, 28 January 2021

Simple laptop buying advice.

If you're not on a budget, buy a Mac and don't worry about the specs. 

Mac computers are the user friendly alternatives to PC's. They're quicker to learn, more intuitive, and less prone to failure. People may disagree, but I've been using them for over 10 years and they're my go-to solution for everything. 

If you are on a budget, let's keep this simple, if you've found a website that sells laptops, it's likely got some filters on it, here's what I'd set my filters to, if I was looking for the best value for money I could find. For each category, the filter I'd set is in bold. In order of importance. 

Select the Laptop/Windows option. 

Windows PC's do everything a Chromebook can, and more. Chromebooks used to be significantly cheaper, now that seems less like that's the case. Be on the lookout for Windows S though, it only allows apps to be installed from Microsoft marketplace. 

Number one priority

Buy a machine with an SSD (solid state drive not HDD, [hard disk drive]), 128Gb machines should be your minimum for everyday use. Bigger hard disk drives (eg 1Tb+) in cheaper machines are likely to have a speed rating (eg 5400 or 7200rpm), these are normal HDD drives, not SSD drives and I'd urge anyone to avoid them nowadays. The speed benefits of an SSD are primarily what separates the budget machines apart. Some machines have both, which is ok. 

RAM

8Gb should be your starting point. Try and avoid 4Gb if you can, but deselect this option to bring the costs down, 4Gb is ok for home learning.

Processors

i3, i5, i7 etc, these are the processors to buy if you can stretch to a machine with one in. Or Ryzen chips (3 or 5 are good starting points). Celeron and Athlon are the lower end, so machines with these in should be much cheaper, if you're looking at machines with Celeron or Athlon processors, look for the speed rating, the higher the number the better. 

Screen and size. 

This is down to personal preference, 15" Laptops look great, but can be a handful, and quite heavy. Go for Full HD and get the highest resolution screen you can, if you want the best screen technology OLED offers outstanding clarity and depth, but LCD is much more common. 

Brand

The big names are Asus, Acer, Dell, Microsoft and Lenovo. I'd personally avoid Huawei at the moment (although they make great machines) because of the uncertainty with American business and UK data infrastructure. 

Finally

Look at the reviews, especially the negative ones. If a machine has a high number of reviews but a low score, I'd avoid it. If a machine only has a couple of reviews and the negative ones are a variety of reasons - for example, couldn't connect to wifi, couldn't transfer files over bluetooth, it's possible those might have been one off's that they'd have encountered due to a lack of knowledge, check other sites for reviews by putting the model number and 'reviews' into google.

I hope this is useful, let me know if there's something I've missed or that's confusing. 


 

Saturday, 23 January 2021

You should love the S21 ultra; but you probably shouldn't buy it.

Ok, so I admit, the features the Samsung S21 Ultra has are great. Let's look at them

The handset has a beautiful AMOLED screen. For those of you who haven't upgraded to the latest iPhone you may not know that OLED screens look amazing. Individual pixels can be turned off completely, this means it's much better for battery life than an LED screen. Blacks looks blacker and you also get the 'always on' feature that allows you to see your clock and notifications even when your phone is off. Very cool. 

Edge to edge display. This too is a great feature, a lovey design I like it a lot.

A wide angle lens, a telephoto lens and a normal lens on the camera. Superb for snapping creatively. 

Support for the S-Pen. having a pen on a smartphone can make workflow much much easier. Taking portions of screenshots, and annotating them is also really useful. 

A big battery, anything north of 4500mah in an android phone is going to give you genuine all day functionality. 

A fingerprint sensor under the screen in the front. Really useful, great for unlocking your phone easily. 

128Gb of storage on board. Great, but there's no expandable storage which is a bit of a drawback. 

For me, these are the useful features it has  that I value and appreciate in a phone, but Samsung make a phone for less than half the price, with all of these features (including the S-Pen). That phone is the handset I currently use, and it's the Note 10 Lite. On sale for £529 from Samsung and even less from other places, if you're a student registered with Unidays that drops to below £450*. That's £620 *(or more) less than the Ultra! If we were allowed on holiday, that saving could be an extra passenger! 

Ok, they are not the same handset, but the differences aren't as big as you might think. Of all of the features above, there are compromises, but in my mind, genuinely, they're really not important, and the Note 10 still scores some points over the S21 Ultra. (Starting with the lovely pearlescent back). 

Firstly, the big (perhaps only) compromise with the S21 Ultra. The S-Pen - there's a slot in the Note 10 lite... but none on the S21, so if it want to use one (and you really should) then you'd have to purchase a special case for it if you own the £1000 plus handset, but in the Note 10 Lite, it slots neatly in the bottom. 

On paper, the Note10 Camera options also appear better, all of the Wide/Zoom/Normal cameras are 12mp, where as some of the camera's on the S21 Ultra are only 10mp. I know the MP don't matter that much, and the S21 has 2 dedicated Zoom camera's which reach far further than the Note 10 Lite, but the options on the cheap choice are enough to keep the average user happy. I'm not arguing that the S21 Ultra camera isn't loads better, it is, but the Note 10 camera isn't shabby either. 

The Note 10 lite also has expandable storage, where as (previously mentioned) the Ultra does not. 

The S21 Ultra battery is 5000mah and it's only 4500mah in the Note 10 Lite; I can live with that. They're both big. 

The edge to edge display is 89% on the Ultra vs 86% on the Note 10. It does look like the bezels are a bit thinner on the S21, but it's barely noticeable from the front. 

So why is the S21 Ultra well over
£1100 when the Note 10 is only £529. Well, if you use your phone for gaming, you're going to notice a big difference. The RAM is twice as much, but 6Gb of RAM is still likely more than enough, 6Gb is enough, 12Gb is exceptional. Will you notice? Only if you game. 

The processor is twice as fast, measured in nm, the lower the number the better. It's 5 vs 10, again, unless you're a power user or gamer, you're unlikely to notice. 

The main camera on the S21 Ultra is 108mp, so it can zoom in far closer without losing detail and the lenses on the S21 are much higher quality. But you can still take lovely pics with the Note 10 Lite. 

The fingerprint sensor although it functions in the same way, is ultrasonic as opposed to optical. (No, I don't care either). 

I could go on, but the fact remains, if you want a phone with the key features that you will likely appreciate, (large display, choice of zoom settings, AMOLED screen, s-pen, big battery, etc) then you can get all of these, with the reassurance of the Samsung brand, in a much, much cheaper package. No, they're not the same phone at all, the components in the S21 are far newer, much higher spec and the handset will be quicker and much more responsive, (I haven't mentioned the display hz, or the higher resolution screen and the water proof-ness of the S21) but these things aren't important to most folk. If they are for you, perhaps they're deal breakers. 

I don't have a £4000 gaming PC, for the same reason as I don't have a top of the range phone. I don't need it. I research and I shop frugally, and for most people like me, the Note 10 Lite, with most of the 'cool' features are mid range bargains in the same way the Acer Swifts are generally great mid range laptops. 



Tuesday, 29 December 2020

Aerial Photography & Video in 2021

In 2021 UK drone regulations are changing in a significant number of ways to bring them more in line with the EU. 

With a number of caveats, Permission for commercial operation (PfCO) is no longer strictly required, although to acquire aerial images and/or video, insurance will be. The law still requires that pilots of larger drones, without PfCO, maintain 50m clear of buildings, people, property (such as cars) and 150m clear of urban, built up areas and do not fly over crowds of people ever, however if the drone is under 250g those rules do not apply, quote 'for short periods of time'. 

Verbatim, from the CAA "The (new) rules are based on the risk of the flight; where you fly, proximity to other people and the size and weight of your drone"

Pilots who have previously passed courses and flight tests might well find that their insurance quotes are significantly less than those who have no experience or qualifications. I have had a quote for one days work which has encouraged me to write this blog and share it with people with whom I've worked in the past. Having acquired an incredible drone that weighs less than 250g that's capable of half an hours flight, has return to home functionality will record super clear imagery in 4k at 30fps, or 60fps at 1080p and relays those images back to the controller at 720fps we are very much back in the aerial imagery business. 

This makes a lot of sense and is incredibly welcome news. The risk from a responsible pilot from flying a drone under 250g within a ceiling of 400ft and within Visual Line of Sight. (VLoS) is ridiculously low. For estate agent work, or a business/school just wanting a picture or incidental B roll footage for a 15 minute flight, passing the tests I did and writing and renewing a 40+ page operating manual seemed like overkill, which is why I left it behind. Although there was a risk the drone may have caught the wind, lost all contact with the controller and flown towards Broughton Airbus, the probability was almost nil. I did always have Hawarden phone number handy though. 

This means any keen videographer or photographer now has the ability to add aerial imagery to their repertoire, and honestly should. My advice to any potential client hiring a pilot, in order to stay legal, you should ensure that your pilot/photographer is insured for the day you want them to work.

If you're thinking your business might benefit from owning a drone to complete the occasional task then to be clear, none of the above is legal advice and you should definitely familiarise yourself for your own satisfactions with the 238 page CAP722 publication from the CAA which can be found here.

Insurance can be obtained from specialists such as Coverdrone. A brief overview of the changes being introduced is available from the CAA publication CAP2005

Monday, 7 December 2020

Google are losing all of their Unique Selling Points.

There was a time when you were looking for a technical solution that Google had a handy and convenient answer. 

Music, Photos and Files. Google had the solution, but as time has passed, all of these solutions are now past their best. Let's have a look at what they were and why they're no longer worth our time. 


Google Music

This used to be a great way to sync/backup your music collection and stream to your mobile device without eating into any of the storage on your phone, Great when storage was only 8 or 4Gb. You could also stream audio, from your laptop or device to your Chromecast plugged into your hifi at 320kbps and browse your collection with ease. 

Google Music is dead though and has now been replaced by the much more inferior YouTube music service. Much like Apple Music and Spotify, primarily it is now a streaming service you pay for. While you can transfer your files across from Google Play Music, the interface is aimed at the subscriber, and limitations on bit rate and streaming make it impractical for the audiophile who prefers to own their digital music collection. Searching through your music is difficult and presents you with the music video or youtube version of songs you already own. It also renders your Chromecast devices useless unless you pay for the service. 

Conclusion

We were conned into thinking Android users had a music USP over Apple. Storing music on your phone again and synchronising with your PC is now the best way to look after your digital collection without paying, buy a big memory card.


Google Photos

Like Apple Photos, Google Photos backed up your entire photo collection to your online storage space at photos.google.com however, come June next year, the storage you had will now be frozen and your allowance will be taken from your Google Drive. 15Gb (the free allowance you get) could last a year or so if you use your android device like most people, you're either going to have to delete your memories, or pay for more upgrade space. 

Conclusion

Again we were conned into thinking Android users had a USP over Apple, and sadly people's precious memories are likely entwined in a service that is soon to become an archive. 


Google Drive

This has been the biggest disappointment as it's been a vital, useful and essential tool for me and some of my work colleagues over the past few years. But by gawd they've created a monster. If you work with people now and you have a large workload, for goodness sake, think twice about how you share it. The complexities of a shared folder are immense. I left a partnership earlier this year and they, and myself are still encountering detritus which doesn't show in the usual 'shared with me' or 'My Drive'. I have removed myself from folder shares, but still have access to all of the contents of items within that folder. I have removed myself from shared items and found others have lost access too. I have removed items owned by other people from my own drive (everything still shows up in 'storage' and 'search') and found it's caused problems for others in the share. It really is a mess. Drive is cheap, there's no doubting that, and for short term sharing, projects that are time bound and can be deleted and moved on by 2 parties it's ok. But for teamwork, it's atrocious, Unless you buy a G Suite package for your work and control multiple logins for each user (giving each user corporate logins instead of their own) then it's hopeless. For freelancers and cohorts it's dreadful. 

Although it's pricier, I suspect Dropbox might manage folder and file permissions better, does anyone have experience of using Dropbox professionally, it is better?

As for Google, I have been an ambassador in the past. For many many years I've pushed their services. Back when I worked in Sales I explained to a fellow music lover who was buying a phone how great Google Music was, he agreed but said something that stuck with me, he said

"It does look great, but just wait till they've got you and they start charging for it" it would appear I'm not as cynical as I thought I once was, in fact I was far too trusting. It woud appear we can no longer trust Google at all. 

Conclusion

You get what you pay for, the shambles that we're given isn't a professional tool, it's chaotic when you come to 'un-share' complex folders with other professionals. It came so close and much of the functionality still works for schools, and business establishments with a G Suite domain. But folder hierarchy complexity makes it impossible for any geek to recommend to a cohort of fellow freelancers, it's just too goddamn infuriating to undo. It's like Brexit, only digital.