I recently swapped all my Amazon Alexa devices for Google’s equivalent. I signed up for a family Spotify Premium account for one month just to get a Google Home Mini (RRP £49.99, I got it for £14.99 along with a month’s Spotify Premium).

It’s small, cute and stupid as hell – but I like it!

But I was keen on replacing Amazon’s Echo Show which was about as much good as a donkey parade on the moon. It couldn’t play YouTube videos (in fact it was practically restricted to its own Prime Video service), and I had to remember to ask Alexa to ask Hive if I wanted to perform any Hive related functions. You should NOT have to remember syntax with these devices at all. As I had it in my kitchen, I tried to use it to help me with cooking and recipes. That was a disaster. So Echo Show went away.

With the Nest Home Hub, it’s much smaller than the Echo Show. It’s extremely small and cute, in fact. With the just the power cable trailing at the back, the Home Hub is barely there. But you’ll soon notice it – especially as it can work with Google Photos to display a photo album when the Home Hub isn’t doing anything.

Getting my photos from Apple’s Photo service into Google Photos was a bit of a pain, but with the Backup & Sync app for MacOS, I disabled RAW files and other things and just let it do its stuff. And it seems to work well enough. So every time I take a photo with my iPhone XS, it’ll be uploaded to iCloud Photo Library and then downloaded to my Mac when I next use it. Google will then detect the change and upload any new photos or videos to Google Photos.

Controlling smart devices with the Home Hub is a much more pleasant experience than Alexa. I can just ask it to turn the living room lights on or off and it’ll do it. Or ask it to set a temperature and it’ll instruct my Hive thermostat to turn the heating on or off as appropriate. The only problem I stumbled across is that I had the smart plug for the Hive controller in my living room. If I instructed Home Hub to turn off Living Room, it’ll turn EVERYTHING off in the living room – including the plug – and there goes the Hive system. So I moved the smart plug out of the Living Room category and it sits by itself where I can’t accidentally turn it off.

As for other things, watching YouTube is fine. All4 is supported, so I can watch Channel 4 TV shows too. And Channel 5. It’s like having a very small TV in the kitchen. If I were to get to the Nest Hub Max, it’d make for a much better kitchen TV with its 10 inch screen, but for the moment this is fine.

Radio is fine too – just ask Home Hub to play X channel and it’ll do so. The biggest problem I have with the Home Hub is G Suite integration. I’m using the beta integration right now, but like its consumer cousin, the Home Hub is not able to inform you of all-day events.

As for other things, it either works or it doesn’t. I’ve found that the Google Assistant is not intelligent enough to figure out many things and you do need to be very specific in the commands you give it. In that sense, it is at the same level as Alexa’s comprehension. Google Assistant also misunderstands me from time to time and there have been some quite hilarious “conversations” as a result. A simple “hello” translated into “Get You” for some reason.

I’ll give you an example of trying to find information. My dad recently told me the origin of the phrase “time immemorial”. Now, we know this to be something so long past that people have forgotten. But the origin of that phrase comes from 1275 by the first Statute of Westminster, the time of memory was limited to the reign of King Richard I, beginning 6 July 1189, the date of the king’s accession.  Since that date, proof of unbroken possession or use of any right made it unnecessary to establish the original grant under certain circumstances. Wikipedia can tell me that, but Google Assistant can’t.

I think Digital Assistants have got a loooooooooong way to go before they can be considered truly useful. But I have faith in Google. Their Duplex technology looks intriguing (even if restaurants aren’t taking Google identified calls) and they’re going to be making the Google Assistant small enough to work from a mobile phone, so data is never transmitted back to Google. I only hope that the same is going to be said with these devices too – privacy is everybody’s right and processing on the device would go some way to prove Google is being consumer conscious.

On the other hand, I can see how great a device like the Nest Home Hub would be in the office. Assuming limitations are removed by the type of calendar entries it can process, the Nest Home Hub would make a very good personal desk assistant. The Nest Hub Max will feature a very cool video conference system through Google Duo – but I hope Google will also consider supporting Google Meet (for G Suite) as well.

I like books. I collect books. But my small house cannot hold very many, so many years ago I resorted to buying a Kindle and buying my books electronically wherever possible. I now have over 400 books in my Kindle library and it’s constantly growing (in part due to many Kindle cheap deals).

Previous to the Kindle Paperwhite, I had the 2018 Kindle Oasis – fully tricked out with the free 4G connection. It was meant to last me for several years. But alas, as I wasn’t doing as much reading as I had hoped and that I needed the money instead, I had to sell it.

The Kindle Oasis was a great e-reader. It had a 7-inch screen, small bezels, but with an overhanging edge with two physical buttons which allowed for easy handling. The downside was that the 7-inch display was big enough for easy reading, but not as portable enough for shoving it in a jacket pocket.

So I had to replace the Oasis after selling it, and the obvious choice was the Paperwhite. It has pretty much all of the features of the Oasis, but with a 1″ smaller screen and bigger bezels. The screen itself is, I think, a little less bright than the Oasis, but not by any significant amount.

The Paperwhite 2018 introduces a couple of features from the Oasis, including IPX68 waterproofing – this means it can be immersed in fresh water up to 2m deep for 30 minutes without damage. The other feature is the ability to play Audible books directly – though you’ll need a pair of Bluetooth head/earphones for this.

I bought the official waterproof case to go with it, and it doesn’t look at all bad if I do say so. It keeps it nice and safe, and the overall size also ensures that it fits in my jacket pocket just fine.

Currently reading: The Accidental Adventures of the Hundred-Year-Old Man

I opted for the 32Gb version to ensure that I have a significant number of books at my disposal if I am ever outside the reach of easy Wi-Fi access. I’m not entirely convinced the free 4G option on Kindles is entirely worth it if you’re not moving outside of common travel routes – many phone companies offer EU and US/Canada roaming included. The Amazon free 4G is incredibly slow in the UK, that’s all I can say about it. And it can drain the battery if it’s left on.

I’m very happy with the Paperwhite – perhaps more so than the Oasis. I’m getting my reading groove back, and even starting making use of my Goodreads account again (which is also a feature within the Kindle OS).

No, Nighthawk. I’m not receiving you. I’m sending you back to Amazon!

My British Gas smart meter and Hive system went offline – again, and I’m putting the blame firmly on the Netgear X10 Nighthawk router – the one that looks like Hela from Thor: Ragnarok.

On Saturday morning I awoke to find that the British Gas Smart Meter had taken itself offline along with the Hive thermostat and receiver (and subsequently the app). Another call to Hive support eventually got things going again, but this time I was informed that the signal strength was all over the place.

However, I have a bone to pick with Centrica and Hive support – they’ve moved their support pages without setting up 301 redirects. The result is this – a massive SEO fail:

One problem I did have after getting the system back online was that one of the Hive lightbulbs had stopped responding. My living room’s front light. So I had to turn the lighbulb on and off 7 times before it reset and was able to be picked up by the Hive system again. As these lightbulbs act as a signal booster, I was wondering if these things had any part to play in all these problems. Whenever there have been a problem with the Hive system, the lights on my Netgear ProSAFE switch were constantly flashing – all at the same time – and in time with each other. Rebooting the Netgear Nighthawk fixed this, and things settled down to their regular on/off blinking.

So I decided to send the Nighthawk back to Amazon. And this is an odd thing. Amazon sent the thing via DPD. In order to return it, I have to drop it off at a Hermes drop-off place, or via the Royal Mail. It’d be nice, given the heft of the product, if Amazon could pick it up.

I’ve been using the Fritz! Box again for the past couple of days and haven’t had any dropouts from the British Gas smart meter or Hive. I am going to try the Amplifi HD mesh system which costs slightly less than the Netgear router, but should – hopefully – be a considerably better performer. The manufacturer of the system, Ubiquiti Networks, is a highly respected company within the networking community.

In fact, I specified and arranged the purchase of their UniFi system at work. And all that was based around on the antics of MarzBar (Alex Brooks) who, at the age of 18 set-up an entire WISP (wireless internet service provider) and uses Ubiquiti kit extensively. And here’s Alex explaining how the Amplifi system works:

A small section of my Blu-Ray/UltraHD Blu-Ray collection

With the news that Samsung intends to stop making any more Blu-Ray players, people are wondering whether this is a signal that physical media is gradually coming to an end, particularly with streaming and catch-up services becoming more and more popular. Netflix titles will forever remain on Netflix, right? Providing that you keep paying the subscription?

I would argue that the world still needs physical media. Film and TV studios still haven’t assured consumers that content they buy wholly digitally will remain with them for the rest of the lives (and beyond), and that you can play them in a format that is reasonably open and fair. I can vouch that this is a legitimate worry – I had bought a fair number of titles from the BBC Store when it was alive and well, and even then there was a very big problem:

Access to the BBC Store content was a mixed bag. If I recall correctly, you (eventually) had to use a dedicated BBC Store app. BBC iPlayer apps across different platforms could access it, but for the most part, I couldn’t view the content on my LG TV or any other device that directly connected to my TV. I couldn’t cast content to the TV unless I had a Chromecast. Which I didn’t. I’m pretty sure the platform was more open at the beginning and then slowly killed itself by limiting itself to certain platforms.

By the time BBC Store had decided to shut up shop, at least the BBC had the good grace to provide a refund or voucher for use with a rival service. But this didn’t make up for the fact that not all of the content was available elsewhere. Had I bought the content on DVD or Blu-Ray (albeit for a more substantial price), this situation would never have occurred.

Netflix and Amazon, on the other hand, are available on pretty much everything these days – even ancient Blu-Ray players. The problem that Netflix now finds itself is in interactive content. Its Bandersnatch interactive episode works with modern Netflix apps, with a few notable exceptions – the main one being Apple TV. I seem to recall reading that Apple doesn’t allow the use of Javascript within tvOS apps which is the reason why Bandersnatch isn’t available there.

Another indication that physical media is being looked over is that TV companies are seeming not bothering to make Blu-Ray versions available of their TV show season boxsets. Fox, or as I like to call them, 18th Century Dodo (because they are nearly always stuck in the past) released the first season of their excellent sci-fi/comedy series, The Orville, on DVD only despite broadcasting in HD. DVD is not high definition. Why on earth would anybody want to buy something that’s lower quality than what was originally broadcast?

Channel 4 has done the same with a season 1-4 boxet of their excellent comedy, Catastrophe. Yet you can stream it via HD and buy it in HD on services like iTunes. But there is no Blu-Ray release. Neither is there a Blu-Ray release for Danny Baker’s Cradle to Grave. A DVD release, yes, but if you want HD, you’ll need to buy it digitally from iTunes.

Now let’s talk about iTunes for a moment. It’s by far the best ecosystem for non-physical media if you like movies. Not so much for TV programs. iTunes offers movies (many of which now come in 4K resolution – albeit if streamed via an Apple TV – no 4K on Mac, iPad or iPhone) that come with the kind of extras that you’d see on physical media such as behind-the-scenes documentaries and audio commentaries. iTunes for TV shows rarely does this – if at all. The only TV show I have bought on iTunes which come with extras and audio commentaries was Breaking Bad – the Deluxe Edition (seasons 1-6), and even that was problematic. I had to disable Dolby Surround to listen to the episodes which have audio commentaries. You can only listen to them when the audio output is set to Stereo. This is not a problem for iTunes movies which set the correct audio channel through the use of a special menu which comes with the movie.

But even after all that, you’re still not guaranteed that the movies or TV shows that you’ve bought through iTunes are yours to keep forever. There is always the chance that a studio or broadcaster could remove their content from the store, and thus your library. A similar situation to Amzon’s Kindle books (which has happened, BTW). And this situation can apply to any digital movie or TV show retailer. There is nothing in the terms and conditions to stop a company from removing content from your virtual library. And nothing to say that you wouldn’t be compensated, either.

So if digital media is on the rise, it seems that it’s because we like the convenience. For me, this is true. I DO like the convenience it offers – especially iTunes. I can stream to my TV, iPad and iPhone without faffing around too much. I have over 348 movies on iTunes along with a few TV shows that I’d like to watch from the iPad or iPhone if I’m travelling. So I am heavily invested in it. But I’m equally invested in physical media too. I have an UltraHD 4K player from Sony which I think is marvellous. I have an extensive collection of Blu-Ray, UltraHD 4K Blu-Ray and DVDs. Some of which cannot be purchased digitally (Studio Ghibli is one such company which has never released its content on iTunes, for example). I did have an Oppo 203 UltraHD Blu-Ray player which was discontinued as they were moving away from the audio-visual industry. It was the leading 4K Blu-Ray player of it’s time, winning many awards.

But it’s disheartening that TV studios – and maybe even some film studios – don’t seem to care about what the consumer wants. I understand that mastering and duplication of physical media is expensive. But the consumer deserves a choice. A choice I didn’t have when HBO’s Silicon Valley stopped being made available via Amazon on Blu-Ray. DVD only. I had collected seasons 1 and 2 on Blu-Ray, and now future seasons weren’t going to be available in the definition that I want? Outrageous.

What I don’t understand is that it is easier to rip the likes of DVDs than Blu-Rays – they don’t take up much space. So why hasn’t efforts been made to phase out DVDs and replace them with Blu-Rays? Much effort has gone to publicise Blu-Ray as a superior quality format. It’s backwards compatible with DVD, so people’s collections will continue to work. Is it case that people don’t really care about resolution or quality? Why bother with 4K at all in that case? Should we just laugh at 8K and future resolution updates?

Are we in the battle of VHS versus betamax again? It sure as hell feels like it at times. In any event, I express my bitter disappointment at the likes of 18th Century Dodo (Fox), Channel 4 and HBO for their decision to release content on DVD only. I doubt they will be the last to do so, but one can hope the industry gives itself a bit of a kick up the arse to show commitment to all formats. I despise piracy, but I know that piracy isn’t going to stop regardless of whatever efforts are made. But if the TV and film studios don’t do something, the pirates are not only going to give people what they want, in the format that they want, but they’ll probably do a better job at presentation too.