Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Google Music and Apple hardware

Just read a pretty misleading article on Google music and how it doesn't really 'gel' for people with Apple hardware, so I just wanted to set the record straight. For anyone that read the easy cheap networking post using Apple products, you'll be aware that pretty much most of the networked devices I have are Apple. For this article we only need to consider the 2 x Airport Express (Aex) units and Apple TV (Atv) devices. I also use a Mac an iPhone and an iPad.
I use iTunes on the Mac pretty extensively for arranging and syncing music between the iPad and iPhone. Music I have is a mix of stuff bought through iTunes and MP3 ripped from old CD's. I boot up Google's Mac software 'Music Manager' which uploads my iTunes folder to Google Music. It doesn't offer 2 way sync, so if I delete an album from iTunes, it remains on Google Music. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing (sometimes I regret deleting an album, and as it's not eating into any storage space I pay for or need, it's all good).
On the Mac, I can obviously still use iTunes to stream to either the Atv or either Aex devices in other rooms. So Google musics limitations here, have nil effect. On the iPad, and the iPhone, I use the superb gMusic app. Which is airplay compatible. So, I have no problems streaming the music from either iOS device to any of the networked devices in the home.
Seriously, Google Music really does offer a premium service, even to Apple advocates, that it makes Match totally redundant for me. While Google continue to offer this service up for free, I have literally zero reason at all to consider lining Apple's pockets with any more of my hard earned.
Hats off to Google for this one, I can carry my whole library around with me on any of my devices, so long as I have a decent wifi or 3G connection. Which for the most part, I do.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Creating a flexible media orientated home network, easily and cheaply using Apple Products.

The wireless future was supposed to make sharing films, photos, music and documents easier.

Computers with various operating systems, mobile phones, would all be able to store and share information around the home, streaming from screen to screen or to a networked device from a networked storage device somewhere else in the same building. For many, this hasn't happened as easily as they thought. Setting up a 'workable' and enjoyable home network can be a challenge. But it doesn't have to be, there are easy and cheap work arounds for most of the problems. Surprisingly, many of these come from Apple.

Let me explain my setup before I explain how it works, so that you can decide whether this is what you're looking to achieve. I'll explain the technology I use, the settings or programs I use, where appropriate and the connections between the devices that makes it all possible.

  • We can wirelessly stream music to THREE rooms in the home. Living room, Bedroom and Cinema room. This can be simultaneous if we want so we can have the same music in sync, in every room.
  • We can browse a film library, pick a film or an old home or holiday movie and watch it on any computer, the iPad, or on Apple TV.
  • We have a shared home storage device, which allows us to deposit files for other people to move onto their machines.
  • We have wireless backups for the Macbooks. (Windows machines would work as well).
  • We have a networked Xbox, which is upstairs, away from the main router, but has enough throughput to download HD films, via lovefilm or netflix, or iPlayer or Xbox Movies etc.
  • We have wireless printing on an ordinary (non wifi) printer, which also works from the iPad.


There are also spare ethernet ports at either end of the house for anyting else that we need to connect.

So, if this sounds like something you'd like, here's the equipment thats used.
Standard ISP provided Netgear router. This is the first device into the house and wifi is disabled on it. Fortunately this router model comes with 4 ports in the back, which enables me to hard wire it to a number of key devices. This is connected directly to......
Powerline hub - The first step in order to retain flexibility is to be able to blast this fast data connection around your house. So don't worry if you can't plug these other devices (listed below) where I've plugged them in, having powerline adaptors means you can take your fast data connection to another mains socket somewhere else in the house.
The whole purpose of a powerline hub is to connect it up to another one, this other powerline hub is connected to an older 500gb Apple time Capsule, which I picked up for £130.

This 'dumbell' setup means I have 4 ethernet spare ports at one end of the powerline hub, and 4 upstairs with the time capsule. It also means I can move the Time capsule to somewhere where noise isn't an issue as it can be heard when it starts backing up.

Connected by ethernet to the main router at one end is.....
Apple Airport Express £60. This is the only aspect of the setup that isn't in the ideal location. I actually use this for streaming to the bedroom, which meant running a headphone cable through the roof into the bedroom. But for the sake of the network, I wanted the Airport express close to the router, to create the first part of the wifi network downstairs. This device CREATES the wireless aspect of our home network downstairs. It's configured through Airport Utility using basic settings.
Also plugged into the router is Apple TV £100 this is connected to the main Amplifier in the living room as well as the TV, obviously?
Sky TV is plugged into the router as well, although this serves little purpose for the sake of the network flexibility.
Finally, plugged into the USB port of the Airport express, is a cheap Canon printer. Both of the Mac's see this as a network printer as this is what the USB port of the Airport Express was designed to do. However for the iPad and iPhones, I need to run Handyprint server, which can be completely hidden, and runs in the background on any or all of the Macbooks.

At the other end of the house, plugged into the second powerline adaptor the Time Capsule extends the network created by the first Airport express. This is made simple by the Airport utility app that can be configured on either of the Macbooks in the house. Also plugged via ethernet into the Time Capsule is;
Second Apple Airport Express. Wifi on this device is disabled as well, as the time capsule extends the network already. 
The X-Box is plugged into the TC too, but for no other purpose than fast internet, it isn't used to enhance our network.
Finally, plugged via USB into the time capsule, is a 500Gb Buffalo USB drive. This model is great because it has an auto wake function, which, when it's not being used, means it just powers down and waits for a USB signal to hit it. Then it wakes up.

The USB drive plugged into the Time capsule can be found in Finder on both of the Macs. Data can be shared at this central location easily on either machine and transfer speeds are fast, no matter where they are in the house, thanks to the powerline hubs, maintaining a great internal network speed.

From the iPad, FileBrowser, available through the app store can scan the network and see the Buffalo drive, which enables it to stream any of the films on the Buffalo USB drive, or music, or photos to the iPad. Furthermore, it supports Apple TV, so films can simply be thrown to the TV.

I use Handbrake to create MP4's from my DVD collections and I use Smart convertor pro (from the Apple App Store) to convert other media types to MP4. Both Handbrake and Smart convertor have Apple TV defaults, so conversion is simple. I rarely run into any problems, and I've noticed of late, Handbrake has also been ripping the 5.1 surround sound properly too!

The iPhones act as a remote, to stream music, either off the Macbooks or Google Music to each or any room in the house. Plus they can obviously stream their own stored content as well. Video can be streamed off the iPhones, to Apple TV and the latest Macbook Air, will mirror to the Apple TV. If you want, you could watch a movie on the iPad in the bedroom, and have the audio coming out of the speakers, using Airplay. Filebrowser is also available for the iPhones and will enable you to gain access to any of the content off the USB drive plugged into the Time capsule. Youtube, or Vevo can be streamed to the Apple TV from the iPhones or iPad.

You can also get a number of Apps from the Android app store that will allow streaming to Airport Express and Apple TV from an Android device.

So, in a nutshell, thats how everything connects together. Everything works pretty swimmingly. If you have any questions. Please ask. There's a diagram below to help illustrate how it all connects together along with a key to show which cables are used and where.





iPhone 5 vs Sony Xperia Z

The Sony Z is the current hottest Android handset on the market. There's no doubt on paper the unit trounces most of the competition. But does the best of Android beat the best of Apple? Well, for starters, there is the size difference to consider. The iPhone 5 is clearly much bigger than the older 4s. The 4s and all of the other handsets were marketted on the fact that you could use them with one hand. That is to say, you could still comfortably reach the upper left hand side of the screen, with the thumb on your right hand. The same can be said of the iPhone 5. Yes, it is a little longer, but it's no wider. So the one handed promises Apple made are still true. Not true of the Xperia Z. Not true at all, it's vast by comparison and it can only be described as a two handed machine. If texting while holding a pint is high on your agenda, you shouldn't even consider the Xperia! On the other hand, if you want the highest screen resolution, then perhaps surprisingly, (considering Apple's superior method of marketing Retina displays) the Xperia Z is much clearer. Don't get me wrong (at all) both of these units have fine, fine displays, but there are times, when for example you see a rendered sphere on screen, when the 'invisible pixels' claims of Apple simply scream of hype. The Z boasts a whopping 440 Pixels per inch on it's screen, where as the iPhone 5 has but 326. Having said that, both of the screens look exceptional and for normal everyday use, and even film watching in HD, you'd be hard pushed to notice a difference, certainly not a difference that would trigger buyer remorse.
The Camera's on both of these units are good. Nothing that would concern either one buyer that they've bought the wrong unit. Both are capable of producing great looking pictures. (The MP race doesn't interest me, and I applaud HTC with their upcoming ONE for looking at pixel quality over resolution. Time will tell if they've produced a better camera as a result. If you need convincing, the Macbook pro 15" with it's retina display is 4MP and no one complains that it's 'blocky'... do they?). Anyway, these both have good camera and video. Lets leave that one there.
The Z worries me with the sheer volume of water liquid ingress stickers that lie underneath every slightly poorly fitting seals, it's as if Sony don't have a great deal of faith in the phones ability to repel water. The phone is being marketed as water resistant. Indeed, I've seen the unit submerged on a number of Demo's and it does appear to have better water resistance than pretty much everything else out there. But it doesn't look like a handset designed to be waterproof from the outset. Not only that but the clauses for the water resistance aspect in the user guide state things such as salt water isn't covered. The touchscreen won't work underwater and there are no dedicated keys to trigger the camera, or video underwater. This is NOT intended to be a phone for use IN water. This is where I believe Sony have missed a trick. Instead of simply adding a few rubber sealed flaps onto what is essentially an ordinary smartphone, they should have designed something more JCB like in its construction, capable of genuine underwater photography and video. I've a £50 Kodak camera for specifically this purpose and we've captured some of our best holiday footage on it! This would be an incredible USP for Sony, but this phone.... isn't it. The most I would recommend the Z for is, perhaps, taking a call in the rain, where as, with the iPhone, you'd have to leave it, or slide it inside your hood. The Water resistance doesn't swing it for me either. So we've established that these two units are pretty different devices and you're sure to have your favourite operating system. If you can't make your mind up, consider these options.
If Malware worries you to a degree where you're paranoid, buy the iPhone.
If being able to use the device in one hand is high on your priorities, get the iPhone.
If you have Airplay devices all over your house get the iPhone 5, if you have DLNA equipment all over your house, get the Z.
If processor speed, screen resolution and bragging rights are your thing, get the Z.
If you have an incessant habit of getting phones wet, get the Z.
If you prefer the design of the Z, get that one, otherwise, if your prefer the iPhone looks, get that one.

These really are two completely different handsets, and I appreciate no easy decision when comparing between one or the other. My choice, would be the iPhone 5, but I do appreciate, other people will disagree. If the Z was properly waterproof though, things would be different.


Nokia 820 Windows Phone

I like Windows operating system. Both of my young kids are using windows phones and they just seem to know how to use them. One has the HTC Radar and one has the Nokia Lumia 800. In all honesty, the Lumia gives us the most headaches with the seemingly unfixable turning on/off bug that makes it nigh on impossible to switch back on after the battery becomes fully depleted, having booked the phone in for repair, it seems to be ok now; touch wood. The Radar, on the other hand, has been pretty much faultless. The Lumia 820 is a lovely unit though and so far, we've yet to hear of any similar software glitches. In the hand it feels like a high quality product. Again though, this new trend of 'bigger is best' makes it just a smidge too large for it to be comfortably used with one hand. Not only that, but the matt edges don't allow for a good grip and it's a heavy unit. So I suspect one to two may have been inadvertently 'launched'. The new Windows OS is lovely to use though, and the kids corner is a great idea to let your kids stay entertained whilst knowing they're not going to delete all of your contacts. Nokia Maps remains as one of the strongest USP's, it's free, it's excellent and the competition really should be challenging them. The best thing though, without a shadow of a doubt is the wireless charging system. My suspicion is before long this will become the new standard which will allow for more innovation in the coming years. Just drop the handset on the optional charging pad and hey presto, your phone is charging. Whats more this charging pad also works with other handsets that have wireless charging abilities. So before long you'll have furniture that has a charging pad on top (or two). Desks at work, tables in restaurants, everywhere you would logically place your handset to rest, could wirelessly charge your smartphone! In that respect, the 820 is revolutionary!