New tech at Sainsbury’s

I spent the first part of Saturday returning the Sky Q equipment.  The kit they send you to allow you to return it is okay, but I had to end up taping it up extensively.  The design of the cardboard boxes they send you doesn’t really take into account the three remote controls you get with the kit, so it rattles a bit.

After dropping off the kit at the local post office, I popped along to Sainsbury’s to pick up some sandwiches and a few other bits and bobs.  I tend to buy sandwiches at the weekend rather than buy bread because being single, I find that I don’t make enough sandwiches or eat toast during the week, and I often find that I end up wasting bread.  Yes, I could potentially freeze the rest of it, but there isn’t much left over to be useful. (When I do buy bread, I buy the smallest loaves.)

When I got to Sainsbury’s the first thing I noticed was the usual scanners outside the entrance had gone.  They were placed by a new system called SmartShop, with all new touchscreen scanners.  They’re now inside the store.  I had to register on an Android tablet having scanned by Nectar card.  It’s a bit awkward being prompted for a password in the middle of a supermarket – I’d have preferred to have registered online.  Since I buy the majority of my groceries from Sainsbury’s using their home delivery or buying lunch at work, I’m disappointed they didn’t email to let me know about this new system.   That said, registration in-store was still quick and easy.  Just make sure you take your Nectar card with you.

The old Sainsbury’s scanner has been replaced by a new fancy-pants touchscreen model.

The first advantage of the new SmartShop is the scanners.  They’re now touchscreen.  I also found that the scanning accuracy was better AND faster.  The second advantage is that you don’t need to use the SmartShop scanners at all – you can use your own mobile phone.

I took some time to download and set-up the SmartShop app on my iPhone 8 Plus.  At the expense of having forgotten to pick up the second sandwich(!) – I was too busy concentrating on the new tech!  Typical me.  But as you can see, the app screen reflected exactly what the SmartShop scanner’s list of items in my basket.

SmartShop indeed! But don’t scan using the phone if you’re using the SmartShop scanner – the system doesn’t like it.

The SmartShop iOS app allows you to scan stuff – and it’s even more accurate and faster than the scanner itself – to the detriment that I scanned the same item about 3 or 4 times because of just how fast the app was versus the scanner.  If you do pick up the scanner, don’t try to scan things with the app – as this will cause the shopping basket to get out of sync.   Pick one and stick with it.  Next week I’ll be trying the app only for scanning.

Speaking of the app, you can also create a shopping list for your next trip either by adding items using the search system or by scanning them with your phone.  I guess when you next go shopping, it’ll automatically tick them off as you go around scanning.

I enjoyed the fish pie very much, so now I’ve added it to my shopping list to remind me to buy it again.

Once you’ve done with your shop, you point the scanner (or scan the QR code with your phone, if you’ve been using your phone to scan stuff) and scan your Nectar card.  The system then works as it would any self-checkout.  On my first SmartShop, there was a substantial queue as people were figuring out how it all works.  Me?  Went through the whole process like butter.  Though it did take a little while for the machine to calculate and apply the discount to the meal deal.

It’s always good that bricks and motar shops are continuing to improve technology to make shopping easier (and, hopefully, quicker).  SmartShop is a definite step in the right direction.  I like the choice of using either a scanner or my own phone, and to build up my shopping list from scanning items I already have in my home.

Going back to my roots.. now hosting with Memset Hosting

I spent a very happy 9 years at Memset Hosting as an employee, working my way up from systems administrator to a senior systems administrator and finally to First Line Team Leader.  Changed offices three times (with two location changes).  Dealt with more customers and configurations than I care to count.

Now I’m working for an entirely different company that specialises in e-commerce/e-business platform development, I don’t get the perk of free servers or hosting.  Have to pay for it myself now.  For two months after leaving Memset I moved my cPanel and Ubuntu server to Digital Ocean – mainly to avoid any potential conflict of interest and also I wanted to check DO out properly.  All was good – I have no complaints with Digital Ocean.  I’d recommend them for development or testing stuff, and no doubt I’ll be doing so when I need to spin up a server for a day or two to try something out.

But gradually I’ve been moving stuff back to Memset – this time as a paying customer.  I got a bit fed up with Rackspace Cloud Files and the lack of decent granular controls over containers.  It just wasn’t the same experience I had back at Memset.  So I set-up a pay-as-you-go Cloud Storage service for backing up my virtual private servers.  Interestingly I’m using Nick Craig-Wood‘s (one of my former bosses at Memset)  rclone to push the backups to Memset Cloud Storage as well as Backblaze’s B2 object storage system.  I like some redundancy in my backup strategy in case things go completely awry.  It’s been working great so far.  And since I started the new job, I’ve been exposed much more to “git” and BitBucket, so I now use that to store configuration and automation tools I’ve written for my blog server.

I finally decided to commit to Memset for my long-term virtual private server needs. I set-up two of them – one for the blog, the other for cPanel.  I have an external cPanel license which I can take with me from hosting company to hosting company, but the downside is that it’s about £3/month more expensive than Memset – so there I’ve made a mistake.  But next year I’ll probably switch to Memset’s cPanel license instead.  I find cPanel to be like the G Suite of the hosting world – I can set something up and it’ll just work.  Doesn’t require too much effort on my part (except for the initial set-up and hardening/locking down).  So I decided to move my blog (which was running Varnish as an exercise for what I’m playing around with now) to cPanel.  That doesn’t run Varnish, but Memcache is still giving WordPress the edge.  There are a few hundred milliseconds in it, but that’s fine.  Everything on one server.  So the old new(!) blog server is retiring next month.  I upgraded cPanel to a better specification (and here’s one difference between Digital Ocean and Memset – you get an extra 2 CPUs at the 4Gb RAM mark with Memset and you do notice the difference).

I’ve had to make just one support query with Memset about the initial set-ups of my servers, and my former colleagues did me proud with a quick turnaround.  The only other problem was that the monitoring configuration was slightly wrong – I guess the CentOS 7 image might need looking at – but it was easily fixed and I’m using the bundle self-managed Advanced Port Patrol to notify me of any problems.

I provisioned each server with 20Gb of block storage, mounting it under /backup and keeping backups dumped there.  If I ever need to re-image the server itself, that block storage will be persistent and I can just restore from the backups stored there.  I also have the Cloud Storage backups too, of course, but this is ever so slightly quicker.

Overall I’m paying £35.50 including VAT for a 4Gb, 4 vCPU, 60Gb SSD Centos 7 virtual private server including the extra 20Gb block storage.  Cloud Storage costs me around 60-70p per month including the backups AND two snapshot images of the server.  Compare that to the £26 I was paying just for my Times and Sunday Times iPad newspaper subscription, it’s an absolute bargin.

(And before anybody asks – no, Memset are not paying me to post this, nor are they giving me any freebies – I’m 100% paying my own way here )

Apple gadgets update: October, 2017

iPhone 8 Plus

Still happy with the phone.  Does what it says on the tin.  The beauty of it is that when paired with an EE contract, you’re getting a good all-rounder.

In many areas I’ve visited, I often get between 40Mbs – 100Mbs 4G connectivity.  When connected to Wi-Fi the device switches to Wi-Fi Calling which is a significant battery saver (unlike Three’s implementation of Wi-Fi calling which will only kick in if there is insufficient cellular strength).  Plus there is the new higher quality HD voice calling – available only through EE at this time.  Haven’t had a chance to give that a go as yet since it requires the other person to also have another iPhone 8 (or better).  Plus EE fully supports Visual Voicemail too.

I had a chance to give the free inclusive London Underground calling function which kicked in automatically as soon as I got to the platform at Waterloo’s Bakerloo line station.  Wi-Fi just kicked in automatically – no need to configure or select the Wi-Fi hotspot – It Just Works(tm).  Really handy.

The quality of the camera is something I’m still undecided on.  Yes, it is better than the iPhone 7 Plus, but many photos are still very “painting-like” in comparison to say, the Galaxy Note 8 or the forthcoming Google Pixel 2 XL.  I’ve enclosed a small sample of unedited photos, shot in the new HEIC format and exported to JPEG.

(Click any of the following photos to get full-size image – but a reminder – all these photos are copyright and I have all rights reserved on them – if you want to use them, please get in touch first)

The video quality looks okay, but I’ve found that with the release of MacOS High Sierra, Photos does not automatically import videos.  If I AirDrop a video to my Mac, it inexplicitly saves it as H.264 – especially odd as one can only shoot in HEVC at 4K 60fps.  I’m hoping that whatever is causing the block in automatic video importing via Photos/Photostream will be fixed in an iOS or MacOS update shortly.   I will say I am particularly disappointed in Apple for not releasing an update to Final Cut Pro X to enable HEVC before or after iOS 11/iPhone 8 was released.

Battery life is good – especially if the phone is using Wi-Fi Calling – and having bought a Belkin induction charger, I just plonk it on the charging pad each evening that sits just under my monitor.  And I can continue to use the phone while it’s charging – and just pick it up without entangling myself in wires.

Oh, and EE’s 6 months free Apple Music and streaming data is good.  One has to make sure that if you have let your direct-with-Apple Apple Music subscription expire, after applying the EE offer, you’ll need to log out of iCloud Music Library and log back in otherwise weird stuff will happen within your desktop iTunes application.

Apple Watch Series 3 with Cellular (LTE)

Very happy with the new series 3 watch.  It’s faster than its predecessor (app switching and general app usage is now usable!), has more storage, and the new cellular capability means that I can make and receive phone calls in the toilet(!) or on the way to the local supermarket to pick up lunch whilst leaving my phone at my desk.  Yes, the watch is still tethered to one’s iPhone, but it gives the watch a much bigger range away from it.  One problem I’ve noticed is that whenever I enter and leave the Wimbledon branch of Sainsbury’s, I always set the alarm off.  It can’t be the watch, surely?

Apple TV 4K

As a 4K/UHD owner, getting access to 4K content can be a little tricky.  So Apple’s foray into the 4K space was always going to be welcome.  Especially the free upgrade to 4K streaming of existing iTunes Movie library content.

The first thing I noticed was that ALL video had significant motion blurring.  This was because my LG 4K TV has a number of picture “enhancements” that I had to find and turn off.  I’ve had the TV for over two years and I hadn’t even noticed them buried within the myriad of options.  But turning them off – including disabling 4K upscaling on my amplifier/HDMI switch – did the trick.

I don’t have HDR, so the video output from the Apple TV 4K is always 4K SDR.  And with the TV’s motion enhancements out the way, the picture quality is excellent to the point I’m using the Apple TV’s Netflix app as my default, along with NOW TV (whose app is now looking a little decrepit now and isn’t near as useful as that on the LG TV, but Apple TV’s performance is far better) and BBC iPlayer.  Like NOW TV, the BBC iPlayer too is looking a little long in the tooth and really should get an interface update to make it more like other platforms.  That said, Apple probably enforces UI policies on these things, so there’s that.

Are 4K iTunes movies worth it?  The answer is: yes.  They do look better to my eye than HD.  I do not care about HDR.  My TV doesn’t support it and even if it did, given the age, it probably wouldn’t support the right type.

I’ve relegated my forth generation Apple TV to the bedroom which is ruddy useful as I can pick up where I left off upstairs or downstairs – whenever or wherever I feel the most comfortable at the time.

MacOS High Sierra

It’s okay-ish, but shutting down the 2017 MacBook Pro attached to the LG UltraFine 4K monitor results in the monitor showing a cyan screen every time.  Automatic Time Machine backups are rather spurious – I have to untick and tick the automatic backup flag to get it to work, only for the backup to complete and the Time Machine Systems Preferences panel telling me the next backup will only happen when the disk is next connected.  It’s almost always connected!  Then there is the issue of Photos and iCloud Photo Library’s Photostream.  Not all photos transferred automatically from the phone, and absolutely no videos transfer.  I have to AirDrop them and import.  And using AirDrop to High Sierra does not result in HEVC video files for some bizarre reason!

High Sierra is not Apple’s finest moment, I have to say.

To boldly go.. where Klingons chew wasps

Star Trek Discovery is a rather interesting show.  It fits more within the J.J. Abrams Star Trek universe than it does the original Gene Roddenberry one – with fancy computers, holographic communication, and a decidedly non-kitsch set dressing.

Even the Klingons have been given an upgrade – long gone is the Cornish pasty forehead and in comes a ton of rubber and latex and extraordinary false teeth.  And while it looks good, the actors clearly can’t speak properly with their falsies in, so it’s just as well they’ve given the Klingon actors lines entirely in Klingon.  If you’ve never heard of the Klingon language, it’s has a very guttural sound to it.  Bob Carolgees and Spit the Dog were naturals (well, Spit the Dog was – absolutely fluent in Klingon – he just never knew it). I’m quite surprised that none of the actors are covered in each other’s spit and drool at the end of each scene.  And as for the Klingon costumes – they’re so rigid looking, you might as well be dealing with Daleks.  Daleks with Austin Powers teeth.

The albino Klingon called Voq (pronounced *coughs up hairballs* Vochhhhhhh *spits*) partly resembles one of the Prometheus/Alien Covenant engineers.  The prosthetics defining facial muscle tone and shape that without the ridges and bumps, you’d practically get an Engineer.

As you may be able to tell, I think they’ve ever so overdone the Klingons this time around.  It’s as if they’ve put them in the oven, went off on a 24-hour bender, then come back to an overcooked dinner.  How the actors deal with all that stuff is quite remarkable.  The overall effect DOES look great – but practical wise, let the poor actors can’t form words properly without looking as if they’re chewing wasps.  There’s only so many teeth one can hold in one’s mouth.  And give them clothing that doesn’t make them look as if they’ve added 60 tonnes of starch to their laundry.

The latest episode of Discovery resembles a mash-up of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy meets Dune.  At one point I was sure the crew of The Discovery were going to initiate the Infinite Improbability Drive and all end up as penguins or missing their limbs floating in space.  As for the “navigator” – very spice melange if I may say so.  Very spice melange.

All in all, it’s an interesting journey so far.  Well presented (albeit the Klingons do need to go to the dentist and look for better stylists) and entertaining.