Updates!

For my regular readers, I apologise for not updating this blog for a while as I’ve been very busy.  During the past month, I’ve passed my probation in the new job I started back in August and what with just having gone through the recent Black Friday/Cyber Monday, the weeks leading up to it have been extraordinarily busy.

I’ve cancelled Virgin Media and gone back to Sky for TV, phone and broadband (well, the phone not so much – I’ll be using my EE mobile for the most part and just keep the Sky landline for incoming calls).  I can tell you right now, the difference between Sky and Virgin is like night and day.  Sky Q has improved considerably in the 8 months or so since I originally joined Virgin with their Tivo 6 box.  The Tivo has been a massive disappointment what with TV programmes regularly suffering from messed up imagery/artefacts and I’ve not been able to delete all programs I’ve recorded either – they just end up stuck.  The whole Sky Cinema SD/HD thing was just awful.  So Virgin Media has been given the heave-ho permanently this time.

I’m a tiny bit disappointed that Sky has done away with their Sky Fibre Broadband Pro package which offered a static IP.  As I also work from home on a semi-regular basis, having a static IP makes a big difference when configuring access control lists for various endpoints.  But the max package I’m on is nevertheless not shabby in the least, and the lease times on IPv4 seems long enough – plus IPv6 has been re-enabled (took around 12 days after activation), so I’m dual stack here.

Getting back to Sky Q – there’s a new remote!  Instead of giving everybody two remotes for the main Sky Q box, there is just one.  It doubles as a touch-sensitive remote as well as being a regular clicky one – controllable from within the Sky Q menu settings.  I really like this approach and big kudos to Sky for taking on board feedback from customers.  It’s a real pleasure to use now.  But the biggest thing for me is the voice control.  I ask Sky Q to change the channel (and it will automatically select the HD version of that channel if available) as well as fast forwarding and rewinding X seconds or minutes.   It matches up with the Apple 4K TV just nicely.  If only we had a unified remote that could control both!

Sky Q now offers favourite channels – something that was sadly lacking last time.  It still needs a bit of tweaking: ideally, there should be a favourites button on the remote to take you to the TV guide that compliments the (new) existing feature of allocating favourites to the remote buttons.

Sky Cinema is back in full HD, and still offers a not unreasonable number of ultra HD (4K) content.  Unlike the Tivo V6 which didn’t offer anything at all.  And the best part is that Sky Cinema is only £10 a month for the duration of my 18-month contract.  Let’s hope we can do a deal again when it comes to renewing it!

For me, while I have had a massive speed drop from 300Mbs to 76Mbs (on average around 65Mbs), this isn’t a big problem.  Rarely do I achieve speeds above 150Mbs anyway – mainly because many websites simply won’t go above 100Mb due to bandwidth throttling at the hosting company – take a look at a lot of hosting packages and you’ll see what I mean.  But I’d rather Sky’s speeds with their brilliant Sky Q Hub than Virgin Media’s Intel-powered latency inducing SuperHub 3.

(BTW, not being paid by Sky to say these things – just a very happy customer with one exception – I have continually received “please return our equipment” SMSes and emails over the past month with threats to charge me despite the equipment being sent back with evidence of posting.  I think this has finally been resolved by speaking to an operator who got me to upload a scan of the Post Office receipt to a special section of Sky’s website.  So hopefully that’s that.)

Oh, and I’ve also replaced my Oppo 203 UltraHD Blu-Ray player with an Xbox One X – currently the most powerful console yet, with its 6 Teraflops of processing power.  It also has an UltraHD Blu-Ray player in it, and is much, much smaller than the Oppo.  I’ve been very impressed with it, but not so much with Microsoft Store who mucked up the extended warranty necessitating in two phone calls and a bunch of emails.  I’m not entirely sure the issue has been fully resolved as my account has weird XML related code embedded in the page where the warranty info is.  Let’s say that if I were considering a Surface Pro 2 which can cost up to £3k, I’d be very wary of buying it directly from Microsoft.  If they can’t get it right with an Xbox…

So that’s it so far!

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.

Poll: Can I cancel my Virgin Media package?

This is a letter I’ve received from Virgin Media about a week ago, telling me that the price of my package is about to go up (by £3.99) after my special offer has finished.  Special offers usually apply to new customers, but Virgin do occasionally run special offers for existing customers.  And this is where things become very blurry…

.. I want to leave Virgin Media.  After 7 months use, the Tivo 6 box is pretty rubbish.  Stuck recordings.  Recordings that have failed to record correctly, and so on.  And it’s not just the box – that Virgin doesn’t carry Sky Movies fully in HD is a persistent problem that is not going away anytime soon.  And where is the 4K / UHD content?

Broadband has been fine for the most part, but I question whether I really need the 300Mbs and the contention that I have to fight with on a daily basis to get it.  The telephone service has been okay, but I don’t use it that often. So if Virgin were going to offer a cancellation fee-free way to get out of the contract before the price goes up, I’d take it. I’d look to move to a broadband-only account – no more TV subscriptions. I’ve decided that I’ll stick with the Apple TV 4K and various streaming services. That’s more than good enough for me these days.

ALAS!

As I’ve been told three times now by various phone operatives at Virgin Media, I can’t cancel the entire package without penalty as I’m still within the first 12 months of my contract, plus the fee isn’t going up until my special offers run out next year (they run alongside the minimum contract length).

So have Virgin Media contradicted themselves?  Could I still leave Virgin Media without a penalty fee now?  Could I pay the penalty fee and then pursue them through the courts?  I have no idea.  But when I see a letter like what Virgin Media has sent, it does suggest that I could.

Here’s the letter.  I was testing out the scan document feature in iOS 11, and I didn’t do a very good job of it.  You might need to click on the image to read it properly…

 

Some updates..

Odeon Limitless – I’ve not been to the cinema in months, so this has become a money waster rather than a saver.  I’ve preferred to either watch movies on Sky Cinema, or buy movies on iTunes.

Virgin Media – The HomeWorks 300Mbs package has proven itself a most worthy purchase.  It’s quite amazing to watch things download over 200Mbs.  A 5Gb movie is downloaded in a matter of minutes.  Good Wi-Fi coverage throughout the house.

What’s less impressive is Virgin’s presentation of Sky Cinema.  There are titles that aren’t available in HD, and watching them on the Tivo V6 in SD is probably like watching a very badly pirated movie.  Additionally, Virgin doesn’t update their What’s New This Week movie section daily with each new movie Sky Cinema adds each day.  So I’ve removed Sky Cinema from my package, and upgraded my landline package to Talk More Anytime.

I’ve added Sky Cinema to my NOW TV subscription which costs half of what I’d be paying with Virgin.  The downside is that the LG app only offers 720p resolution, but upscales far better than Virgin’s offerings – and to be honest, you won’t see much difference in quality between 720 and 1080p.  In short – if you want the proper Sky Cinema experience, you’ll really need to take out a Sky satellite package.  But with Sky Q allegedly going broadband only next year, I’d be interested in checking out again then (but keeping the VM broadband).

BT8160 Call Filtering phones – Working like a treat.  VIP numbers won’t be filtered, but everybody else has to announce themselves before the phone even rings.  That’ll stop a lot of automated diallers for starters.   I do find the blue status light on the base station is a bit too bright at night on the handset I have in my bedroom.  Nothing a bit of gaffer tape can’t fix, though.

Virgin on ludicrous speed..

UPDATE (November 2017): Having switched to Virgin Media back in February this year, I’m terminating my Virgin contract early and heading back to Sky.  This involves switching back to Sky broadband (Sky Fibre Max) and Sky Q Multi-Room (2Tb box with 1 Sky Q mini box).  Stay tuned for more blog posts on this.

On Saturday Virgin Media came and installed their new kit.

This included the Superhub 3 (powered by Intel’s Puma 6 SoC which also contains an Atom x86 CPU), a chunky beast with considerably more ports than the Sky Q Hub.  They (for there were three of them) also installed the Tivo V6, a box that’s considerably smaller than the Sky Q Silver box and old Tivo combined.

It’s titchy! But yes, it does have an external PSU..

Superhub 3.0 and HomeWorks (up to 300Mbs broadband)

There are many reports of performance issues with the Superhub 3, all thanks to the Intel chipset.  It mainly affects gamers, so I haven’t had a chance to properly reproduce it – all I know is that I downloaded a 52Gb game file on the Xbox One in super quick time – I was up and running within 10-15 minutes.  More testing is needed when playing multi-player games.  I’ll report back soon.

A speed test after installation resulted in 330Mbs download, 21Mbs upload.  A speed test during the day when things are bit busier yielded a result around 278-286Mbs down, 19Mbs up, which is very reasonable.  A 5am speed test shows great results again.  I’m very happy.  With Sky Broadband Fibre Pro, downloads maxed out at 71Mbs (uploads 19Mbs).

HomeWorks offers a number of benefits to the user – the up to 300Mbs download being one.  The other is non-traffic managed uploads.  I’m currently uploading 275Gb worth of data from my MacBook Pro to Crashplan and it averages around 15Mbs – which is very reasonable given the distances involved (to my knowledge, Crashplan has no European datacentres).  The other benefits of HomeWorks includes next business day engineer visits if things go wrong, access to a general IT support desk, and F-Secure’s internet security suite.

The Superhub 3’s admin interface leaves a lot to be desired, however.  Passwords are shown in the clear when entered, and the whole UI is exceptionally sluggish. Changing the client password was a bit of a pain – the unit enforces a specific password policy which cannot be overridden.  It meant that even though I changed the SSID to match that of my old broadband Wi-Fi, the password had to be changed.  So I had to reset all my gadgets Wi-Fi settings.

Oh, 802.11ac wireless coverage is good in my little place.  Upstairs is covered adequately and there is no need for any extenders.

Tivo V6

Xbox One S (and through the pass-through HDMI port, a Google Chromecast), an Apple TV, a Tivo V6, and an LG smart TV – all you need to stream anything from anywhere. If not, it’s not worth knowing about.

Back when I originally had a Tivo from Virgin Media many moons ago (we’re talking about 3 years ago, just when I was going through the divorce), I found it to be the most sluggish thing ever.  And that’s why I moved to Sky.  Four years later and I’m back with Virgin, and the Tivo V6 fixes all the sluggishness.  It’s now super, super fast.  Navigating anywhere is a pleasure.  With Sky Q, it was the biggest pain in the arse imaginable.  Nothing has changed in 12 months – shame on Sky.  Even Sky’s internet based NOW TV (which I use to pick up Sky Atlantic stuff now) has a better UI than it’s premium satellite sister.  Madness.

The Tivo V6’s UI is the same UI as seen on the older Tivo.  Coming from Sky Q, it’s all a bit strange and new, but as I say, it’s about 65,000 times better than Sky’s offering.  With the Tivo, it’s not a case of downloading on-demand content – it’s streamed in real time via the Superhub 3 (live TV comes in via the co-ax cable).  Older Tivos had a dedicated 10Mbs cable modem connection for on-demand stuff – this one doesn’t need it other than for live TV.  10Mbs these days means nothing in the 4K / UHD world, so it makes sense to get on-demand and internet related stuff from the Superhub.  I am interested to see where Virgin takes 4K TV, however.  Will it be live via co-ax?  Will it be live streamed over the internet?

The Tivo V6 does come with a few problems, however.  I’ve come across a couple of super scrambly, artefact-laden picture quality issues which tend to go away if you pause/unpause playback.  It seems to affect on-demand – I haven’t come across it on live TV yet.  It’s not happened often, but I’ve definitely experienced it. A few others have noticed it on the Virgin community forums, so we’ll see what Virgin has to say about it.  Not a big issue for me as yet – but I’m keeping an eye on it.

The second problem is video output.  By default the unit will attempt figure out what modes your TV supports.  In my case, it knows its a 4K TV and sets it to 2160 resolution.  However, some content (notably standard definition (SD)) appears blockier than usual, and some 4K content (under Tivo’s Netflix app) looks to add weird motion oddness that’s not present on the TV’s own Netflix app.

Tivo V6 offers a number of pass through modes that forces the TV to do any upscaling and other fancy video doodads, but I’ve found that occasionally – especially when using YouTube which can offer 4K, HD or SD content depending on the uploader – the TV loses the signal and I have to turn the TV off and on to get the picture back.  Again, I mentioned this on the forums – it seems that it is a bug, and the Tivo is due a 4K firmware update at some point.  I’ve left the unit in 2160 mode, no pass through and will just use the TV Netflix and YouTube apps which work perfectly.

The Tivo V6 is still new, and there are gremlins.  Just as there were (and still are) gremlins in the Sky Q system.  They aren’t bad gremlins, as it so happens, and doesn’t affect my overall enjoyment of the device.  My favourite thing about the Tivo is the remote.  It makes the Sky Q remote look like a simpleton’s plaything.  I had to stop using the Sky Q touch remote because I found my thumb was aching a lot, and it was too responsive, resulting in too many mistakes.  So I gave up and went for the more sensible remote.  But even the Sky Q sensible remote wasn’t that sensible.  The Tivo remote has a proper home button like the Sky Q, but more importantly, has a Guide button that takes you to the TV guide.  And it’s so easy to filter the guide from the remote.

In short: the Tivo V6 is everything Sky Q should be, but isn’t.  Better UI, better remote, super quick access to everything, and super fast.  It lends itself better to discovering content more than Sky Q does.  With Sky Q the Top Picks were just not relevant to my tastes.  I can find and discover stuff much faster with Tivo.

Phone Line

I’ve gone for a Virgin phone line.  So far, my experience is better than my previous Virgin phone line in that whoever had the number last was the target of phone spammers galore.  Fingers crossed his new number (which I love, BTW – they did a good job in picking it) will be spam free.

Virgin Mobile

As my contract with EE is at an end in April, I thought about consolidating everything with Virgin.  But the ordering process for Virgin Mobile when signed in as a Virgin Media customer is the biggest pain in the arse in the universe.  It told me that I had no Virgin Media kit installed (I do) and refused to give me the offer of 20Gb for £15/month (better than my £19 for 16Gb with EE, which runs out in April and goes up to £34.99).  So I try to call, but end up running around in circles with the operator.  This clip from the cartoon, The Twelve Tasks of Asterix, sums up my experience:

Just as well I didn’t go through with my Virgin Mobile order, however.  It turns out that they don’t allow mobile tethering – something vital for my job.  So I’ve found a great deal with Three (30Gb tethering – unlimited data on phone) and will be moving to them soon – I’ll be porting my number from EE, so that number will not change.  For my iPad SIM, I’m considering pay as you go.  I don’t use anywhere near the data I’m currently paying monthly for, so it seems a bit of a waste.