Virgin on ludicrous speed..

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.

iTunes & iTunes Extras: A viable alternative to physical media – at last!

One thing I love about buying movies and TV shows on physical media: the extras.  You usually get audio commentaries from the filmmakers along with little featurettes (and occasionally feature-length documentaries) about the making of the film.

But the problem with physical media is having to store it somewhere.  All those cases all add up.  And if higher definition versions come out later, you’ll have to replace the disk, packaging, etc.

Until recently, I had been put off of iTunes movies because I’ve a reasonable fear that the movie studios may pull the movie off the service at any time and remove my access to the movie.  After all, this DOES happen with iTunes music – if you buy a track or album and it’s no longer sold on iTunes, you won’t be able to download it again if you’ve removed the files to make room on your computer or device.

However, I think Apple (and the movie studios) treat movies & TV shows differently.  Given the size of HD movies, they can take up an enormous amount of space on a device.  And the Apple TV has limited storage (we’re talking about the 4th generation here).  So it makes sense that purchases remain in the cloud.   Thus I’m pretty certain that movies & TV shows bought on iTunes will remain a permanent fixture – and even if they don’t, I’m sure Apple would refund accordingly (although I shall bring this up again in another blog post about iTunes in-app subscriptions – what a mess THAT is!).

Anyway, one thing I have come to love with iTunes movies is iTunes Extras.  When movies first started being released with Extras, the offerings were not brilliant.  But more and more movies are being released with DVD/Blu-Ray quality features – and with audio commentaries.  The audio commentary thing is a HUGE deal.  Something that’s traditionally been limited to physical media is now being made available online (or offline if you download the movie to your computer or device).

Even Amazon Prime Video has jumped on the audio commentary bandwagon – offering a few of their TV shows with audio commentary.  It’s essentially a different title because the Amazon Prime Video platform doesn’t appear to offer multiple audio streams.  But it’s a start.  Netflix doesn’t offer ANY audio commentaries for any of their shows yet – so they’ve got some catching up to to.

But there is a downside to iTunes Extras.  They’re not available on iTunes TV shows.  If you buy a series or individual episodes, there are absolutely no extras whatsoever.  None.  Nada.  Kaput.  I hope Apple and the respective studios will put that right.  It’s essential, I think, to do this if Apple has any ambitions to make Apple TV a viable platform.

As for making backups of all the iTunes things – I use one of these, a Drobo.  Lovely device (on loan from work) – it offers full redundancy – up to two disks can fail at once and the data is okay.  But it’s a seriously noisy thing – and one of the disks (the second one from the bottom) is humming like mad.  So it’s on to take backups of my systems, then shut off.

Coming up next on my blog: iTunes subscriptions – is Apple passing the buck? and What movies to watch on iTunes, Netflix and Amazon Prime Video in 2017.

(Return of the Mac) Come on, (You know that I’ll be back) Here I am

Oh, Apple.  What an enormous pain in the bottom you are at times!  Nearly four months away, and I return to discover that your software is just as buggy as when I left.  But, when it works, is infinitely better than that offered for and by Windows / Microsoft.  The last straw was when I created a spreadsheet in Excel 2016 on the Dell UHD laptop, only to find that due to dodgy Windows scaling, the row sizes were all over the shop when the same file was opened on a Mac also running Excel 2016.

  • Importing 8,163 photos and videos into Photos caused Photos to crash half way through.  Thankfully as Adobe Lightroom organises photos by year, I did one year at a time and everything is now inside the Photos ecosystem.
  • Restoring iTunes to a new machine (regardless of platform) while you have an Apple Music subscription is the biggest load of nonsense I have ever encountered from any software company ever.  All seemed to go well – iTunes picked up the freshly copied Windows iTunes folder and organised/consolidated it as it should.  But, alas, while Apple Music was switched on and signed in, iTunes told me otherwise.  A workaround was to browse and/or play something directly from the Apple Music catalogue web site (within iTunes – iTunes essentially acts a glorified browser), then offline stuff could play.  In an attempt to fix the problem once and for all, I turned iCloud Music Library Off (and Apple Music) and switched them back on.  Big mistake.  As soon as that happened, iTunes attempted to reupload music and match, resulting in the duplication of all Apple Music albums and tracks.  At least some 2,000+.  Sorting out the duplicates in the Gilbert & Sullivan 450 track multi-disc album was, to say the least, [censored] annoying.  This was even after nuking the entire iTunes library and letting everything (inc. matched non-Apple tracks and iTunes purchased tracks) download again from Apple’s servers.  This incident has made me extremely nervous of ever having to restore an iTunes library from a backup.  Maybe Apple is promoting Apple Music’s strength as an online service that you really never need to back up to anything other than their servers?  *shrugs*
  • Playing Team Fortress 2 using the AMD Radeon R9 370X is fine and dandy, but things went a bit wonky straight after Steam/TF2 installation, with TF2 and Steam quitting immediately as soon as the game started.  Restarting MacOS seems to fix it.
  • Switching to Apple’s Two Factor Authentication was a pain too.  If you had Two Step Authentication, you have to disable that, create a new series of security questions, then wait a bit before the Two Factor Authentication settings pop up on the iPhone or iPad.  Trying to get the Apple TV to recognise HomeKit involved logging in and out about six times before it finally worked.  Lots of logging in and out across all devices overall.  Apple Watch needed a reboot to get the MacOS unlock functionality working, else the system complained that it couldn’t find the watch.

Otherwise, I am enjoying the Retina display, the quad core processor, and super fast SSD drive.  I’ve come to the conclusion that Windows is not ready for 4K/UHD and above displays.  Not until software developers start making the use of it.

But I will remain a Mac/iPhone/iPad user for the foreseeable future.  The alternative is good, but for me – and despite all the problems with Apple’s software division – it’s not enough. Apple have won.  I surrender.

Apple Music Redux: MUCH better now

Or: How Apple Got Its Groove Back

A while back I wrote off Apple Music as “buggier than a buggy thing in the land of insects” and gave up on it (and Apple) due to the sheer frustration of the thing (along with the bricked iPad Pro that stayed bricked until I spent £50 getting the blasted thing replaced at the nearest Apple Store in London).

Anyway, four months later I was curious to know if Apple finally got their act together after hearing that they were making substantial improvements to Apple Music in iOS 10.  Well, it turns out they have.  I think in part this is due to not having iTunes Match enabled.  iTunes Match allowed you to upload your music library to Apple’s servers and listen to your music on any device supporting iTunes.  Then Apple Music came along and mucked it up on a scale I can’t describe as it involves a large number of expletives in a row.

Without iTunes Match enabled, Apple Music actually works as intended.  I can listen to my complete music library from my Windows 10 PC, my work Mac and my (soon to be retired) Android phone running Apple Music – downloading tracks to the other devices for offline listening, if necessary.

There have been relatively few problems – the only big one has been with the release of iOS 10 in which Apple’s servers were under siege from everybody downloading the latest versions of iTunes (which provides a beautiful new and much-improved user interface) and iOS.  But now that everything’s calmed down again, Apple Music is a pleasure to use.  I’ve terminated my Spotify subscription and have gone back to Apple Music full time.

My musical tastes are eclectic, that's for sure!
My musical tastes are eclectic, that’s for sure!

The Great Apple Break Down

It’s been an absolute pain in the arse this past month for all things tech-related.  We’ve had Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7 recall shenanigans, and now Apple’s new IOS release caused temporary bricking as soon as it was released due to a corrupt over the air image.

I was pretty miffed when I updated the 9.7″ iPad Pro OTA (over the air) and found it wanted to be connected to iTunes.  Apple advertises this as a standalone computer.  A standalone computer shouldn’t need another computer to be able to fix update problems.  Does Apple expect us to own two or more computers as a consequence?  Even if you had two iPad Pros, it wouldn’t have fixed the issue – it must be a full on desktop machine (MacOS or Windows) running iTunes.

Except because when I got home, Apple’s iCloud services were in a mess.  In order to perform a manual update/restore of the iPad, iTunes had to download version 9.3.5 of iOS first.  Took well over an hour.  Couldn’t update iTunes via the normal means because Apple’s servers were completely borked.  But thankfully when 9.3.5 downloaded and was applied to the iPad Pro via a USB cable connected to the Dell, the iPad eventually sprung back into life and all settings and data was preserved.  Unlike last time, when the hardware was completely knackered and I had to get entire iPad replaced. So a big phew! there.

As iTunes (with a vastly improved interface for managing Apple Music) wasn’t updating, it was actually quicker to download the installer file from Apple’s web site and update it that way.  I could then update both iPads to version 10 of iOS.

How I do wish Apple would take better care of iOS releases.

To ease the pain somewhat, I discovered that Apple has added practically every single Studio Ghibli soundtrack album to Apple Music, and spent a very happy evening listening to some classic Joe Hisaishi music.