Digital video: renting vs buying, and why Apple is best for buying

With news that iTunes’ share of video sales and rentals are falling against competitors such as Amazon (Prime) Video and other services, I’d like to take a moment to reflect on why iTunes is the better platform for buying movies digitally, despite my brain screaming at me, “Look what happened to the digital BBC Store.”

iTunes offers iTunes Extras of which an increasing number of titles are including the same features as physical media.  Audio commentaries are regularly included, for example.  No other service offers this.

iTunes has one of the best device allowances of any service – and this includes the ability to download the content to a Mac, Windows PC, iPad and/or iPhone.

The UI of iTunes is much better than that of the competitors.  The Apple TV, not so much, but still considerably better than most.  Therefore it’s easier to manage existing titles.  And in all the years I’ve been buying movies from iTunes, I’ve never lost a single title due to film studios deciding to withdraw from the platform.  This could change, of course, but I’m sure if that happened, consumers would be lining up to lynch whoever decided it was a good idea to do so.

In terms of renting, Amazon (Prime) Video very narrowly outshines iTunes. There’s almost always a promotion which allows me to pay far less for renting an HD title via Amazon (Prime) Video than iTunes.  For example, I’ve just rented Hidden Figures (*superb* film) and T2: Trainspotting (also very good) – both in HD – £2.49 for both titles.  Amazon Video is baked into my LG television, making it very easy to access.

Don’t get me started on the UltraViolet digital platform.  It’s a completely useless pile of sputum devised by the film studios to make them look kind and generous by providing a non-physical digital copy of a film.  The truth is that it’s a massive pain in the arse to manage and I don’t bother with it anymore.   TalkTalk’s app (TalkTalk having bought Blinkbox which in turn is an UltraViolet partner) for LG televisions is awful.  I accept that one has to log in again occasionally, but the process is just stupid.  Look at what Google is doing for logging in to YouTube – much, much easier for televisions.  Entering a password via a remote control is the epitome of piss-poor user interface design.  But TalkTalk isn’t the only one guilty of this crime (NOW TV, Amazon, and even Netflix are guilty – but their TV apps allow for significantly long log in times).

BTW, I also hate the Amazon Prime Video UI too – it makes discovery difficult and it seems so random that I rarely watch anything on the service other than the really big TV productions.  I watched the German comedy, Toni Erdmann the other day (very, very funny – especially the nude party scene), but I had to manually enable the subtitles (found under CC for closed captioning – usually referencing subtitles for the hard of hearing – in my case, hard of not knowing enough German to understand the film without English subtitles).

The only other service I’ve purchased films from is Google Play.  I can watch the films on a tablet, my phone and even my TV through the YouTube app.  But those titles are generally either freebies or were heavily discounted.

Otherwise, I’ll be sticking with iTunes for future film purchases.  The next one, in fact, will probably be Hidden Figures because it was just such a great film, and there’s an audio commentary included in iTunes Extras which should give the film even more value.

Controversial move: smart meter installation!

Smart meters are pretty controversial at the moment.  If people aren’t dismissing them due to the potential for data abuse and/or hacking, other people are decrying that they cause cancer due to non-ionising radiation (since the meters contain a 2G/3G transmitter/receiver).  However, Cancer Research UK themselves state there is no evidence to this as yet.

Me?  I don’t think these things pose much risk.  At least not as much as your typical (properly configured) broadband router or mobile phone.  After all,  we practically all have Wi-Fi and mobile phones at home.  Some households multiple Wi-Fi hotspots and mobile phones – I have only one of each.  As for the security of the smart meters, providing they’re not using a global admin password (and the password is of sufficient strength) along with decent ACLs, then there should be little to be worried about.  I doubt British Gas and the other energy providers who are already aware of the potential for criminals to attack the national grid are likely to implement piss-poor security on these things.  Indeed, our very own GHCQ has been heavily involved with the smart meter infrastructure during the earliest stages.

As for the security of the smart meters, providing they’re not using a default/global admin password (and the password is of sufficient strength) along with decent ACLs, then there should be little to be worried about.  I doubt British Gas and the other energy providers who are already aware of the potential for criminals to attack the national grid are likely to implement piss-poor security on these things.  Indeed, our very own GHCQ has been heavily involved with the smart meter infrastructure during the earliest stages.

Anyway, British Gas came round to install my smart meters yesterday.  I’m on their new tariff which gives me free electricity between 9am and 5pm on Sundays – the ideal time for washing and doing hoovering.

The whole installation took less than 90 minutes – with around 30 minutes where the electricity supply was switched off, and about 15 minutes for gas.

Before the smart meter installation – the rotary dial meter was a pain in the neck to read each quarter
New smart meter installation – note the extra doodad in the far left corner. Not sure what that is – maybe external modem?

As soon as the engineer had finished, he set-up the wireless meter reader in the kitchen which updates the figures every half an hour (and sends that data back to British Gas at the end of each day).  It’s full of useful information including (based on my tariff) how much I’m spending on gas and electricity throughout the day in pounds and pence, in kilowatt hours, or by carbon emission.  I can set budgets per day and be notified if I’m exceeding them.

The doodad that does it all – no more trying to figure out dial meters ever again!

Already I’ve seen an interesting spike for electricity around midnight.  I suspect that it’s the variety of gadgets (Tivo V6, for example) performing nightly maintenance tasks.

Only time will tell if these smart meters save me money, but it IS making me think about the energy that I use.

Harry Potter turns 20.. I reflect on my experiences on the movies..

There isn’t much to tell, to be honest.

I started working for The Moving Picture Company shortly after the first Harry Potter movie had finished.  The proceeds from that went into expanding the company’s offices through the appropriately named “Shower” entrance (since beforehand it really was a shower – the wall had just been knocked down to allow entry into the office beyond, and it would be used pretty extensively for all subsequent Harry Potter movies, until the great department reshuffle sometime around the 5 or 6th movie when rather than whole projects working together, the company was split up into departments based on disciplines).

It was all quite exciting of course, but WB was constantly throwing challenges my way as a production systems administrator, not least a VPN which initially was a PITA to get going again (our endpoint broke – the kit supplied was now obsolete and we didn’t have a decent VPN endpoint until I converted the Checkpoint Firewall to a Netscreen appliance).  Things improved immeasurably when Sohonet completely kitted out Leavesden Studios with a decent IT infrastructure (Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone had to make do with an ADSL line and motorcycle couriers for data transfer).

I did get to visit Leavesden Studios a few time to set-up new workstations and to firewall off our kit from other vendors.  It was lovely having a VFX editor there who knew the VLAN layout of the local switches, which made my knees and not-so-slim frame very happy.  Whilst out at Leavesden having finished work, my colleague and I got to enjoy a mushroom burger overlooking the Dursley’s home (and street) at one point.

Day to day stuff was the same old thing – nothing to report there.  You did get to see bits and bobs that were being worked on.  It was quite a thrill to see us working on the opening for one of the films – incorporating the famous WB shield – as well as an entire Quidditch match (that I believe we won from Sony Pictures Imageworks – quite a coup!).  Then there was the artwork – absolutely beautiful conceptual art that if you visit the Harry Potter Studios Tour, you’ll be able to see some of it.  The best things, however, were the life scale maquettes of the creatures – Professor Lupin as a werewolf and Scabbers the rat.  The werewolf’s head was detachable and was occasionally spotted being used as a hat in the production office.

I seem to recall that Voldemort’s rebirth was a difficult scene that caused quite a few arguments at one point.  It’s one of the highlights of the movies, in my opinion, but apparently getting there wasn’t so easy.  Computer imaging, in the eyes of the public, seems easy.  But it’s absolutely not.  It requires a HUGE amount of human labour to get what you see up on the screen.  People with mathematics degrees and physic degrees.  Artists.  Systems administrators.  Vendors.  It’s very labour intensive and costly.  So having to re-do stuff isn’t cheap (yet you’ll find in the VFX business that changes are expected within the bidding price, which ultimately knocks down the profit margin of the VFX company every time a client wants to make a change).

After leaving the VFX/film biz, I’ve been to the Harry Potter Studio Tour.  It’s remarkable how much they’ve tidied the place up.  But it’s a definite recommendation of mine if you’ve loved the movies.  And I got to see the big castle “bigature” that I spotted whilst working on another movie – Wimbledon (starring Paul Bettany and Jon “Jungle Book/Iron Man” Favreau).  I was working at Shepperton Studios and spotted a sound stage with one of the doors open, and this massive big castle which looks suspiciously like Hogwarts.  Given I drove past two trailers for David Thewlis (Lupin, but can now be seen in the new Wonder Woman movie and the superb third season of Fargo) and the late Alan Rickman (Professor Snape), it had to be Hogwarts.  So being able to see Hogwarts castle up close at the Harry Potter Studio Tour was the highlight for me.

I’ve also been to Alnwick Castle back in April this year, which is where they shot the first broomstick flying lessons for the first Harry Potter movie (it also turns out, having seen the trailer, that it’s also where the new Transformers film was partly shot too).  And I’ve been inside the Elephant House where J. K. Rowling started writing the novels.  I also bumped into the Hogwarts Express at the Railway Museum at York Station (before they moved it down to Leavesden).

I’ve only ever been involved with Harry Potter in the tiniest way imaginable, but I am proud to have been part of it.  It helped pay my salary for a good few years (along with the other film productions, of course), so I’m grateful to J. K. Rowling for writing it, and for David Heyman for producing.

And I absolutely loved Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.  I sincerely look forward to seeing the next films in the series.

I’ve got a brand new combine harvester washer-dryer..

.. and I won’t give you the key unless you pay me £3 a wash.

Last weekend, the Indesit washer-dryer that has lived in this house for the past eight years or so, died doing what it loved – washing.  It was making some pretty odd noises during the drying process before attempting a new wash where it just sat there doing nothing.

So I bought a new one from ao.com.  It arrived Wednesday, but not without a few problems.  The first is that ao.com delivery folk are uninsured.  So if you’ve paid for installation/disposal, just be aware of this.  The water taps under the sink were pretty stiff and the delivery lads (as nice as they were) were just going to leave it as they didn’t want to damage the taps/pipes.  I said that if this wasn’t going to be installed, the whole lot can go back to ao.com.   They didn’t have any tools but managed to loosen the taps and get the old machine out and the new one in.  They did a quick test and left.

Look how far washing machine tech has come – yet there’s still no app for that..

.. but alas .. they left me without any water to the bathroom and the sink was leaking.  So I called my bank’s home emergency service and got a plumber out who identified that the incorrect tap had been fiddled with – which restored hot water and water to the bathroom.  The leak was actually caused by a rotten waste pipe.  That didn’t classify as an emergency, so I will have to pay for that – and the bloke that came on Wednesday came back out on Friday to fix everything.  Not sure of the total cost yet – still waiting for an invoice by email – but it had to be done and I don’t think it’ll cost that much.

The new washing machine is taking a bit of getting used to.  Dials have been replaced with buttons and a display.  But one thing is definitely noticeable – it’s very, very quiet in comparison to the almost neanderthal aged washer-dryer I previously had.  It also takes a bigger load too.  Yet the overall size makes it a little smaller than the previous machine.  I’m very happy with it so far – not bad for £379.

Will I use ao.com again?  I’d like to – but I’d really like to see the delivery folk fully insured and carry the right tools.  But I may stick with John Lewis who is usually my go-to place for electricals.

iPad Pro 10.5″ is getting closer to replacing your computer

I am a big fan of Apple’s tablet range, and having owned the previous generation 12.9″ iPad Pro and the 9.7″ iPad Pro, they were pretty decent beasts.  But they were not enough to replace my laptop.

A year and a bit on since the 12.9″ iPad Pro was launched, Apple have jazzed up the the iPad Pro range with a new 12.9″ model, and a brand new 10.5″ model replacing the 9.7″.

I have just replaced the 9.7″ with the 10.5″ model which now comes with a staggering 512Gb of storage.  I’ve already filled it with 200Gb of TV shows (ready for my upcoming cruise).  The A10X Fusion chip that’s driving the new 10.5″ and 12.9 iPad Pro is nothing short of remarkable.  The benchmarks alone put this thing up into the MacBook Pro processing range for some tests.

But what’s particularly special about the new 10.5″ and 12.9″ iPad Pros is the display.  The ProMotion 120Hz refresh rate is nothing short of a revolution in tablet display tech.  Heck, even most modern monitors can’t achieve this level – not unless you go for specialist gaming or creative monitors costing many hundreds of pounds.  “Smooth as butter” is probably the aptest description I can give to anything utilising 120Hz refresh.  Swiping between pages or scrolling up and down in Empire Magazine’s app gives you a whole new experience of reading material on this device.  The Times and Sunday Times electronic newspapers are similarly impressive when scrolling through articles or swiping through pages.  The additional inch of screen real estate also makes reading electronic comics much easier too.  And the whole thing – especially as Apple no longer provide back covers for the iPad Pros – feels lighter than the previous gen. It feels very comfortable in one hand.

The 120Hz ProMotion feature also comes into play if you’re drawing or writing with the Apple Pencil.  Latency has been reduced to 20ms, and it’s as close to instantaneous response as you’re going to get (well, until the next generation of ProMotion at least).  I can provide a better signature with this thing.  Writing on the iPad Pro with an Apple Pencil is a much better experience.

The only thing I would mention is that everything feels a little too big when it comes to icon arrangements on the home screen.  I’ve made the text smaller, but there’s still a lot more space between the icons.  I’d like a feature like the iPhone Plus 7 where I can condense the space a bit more.  Similarly, the smaller font I’ve selected makes the tablet font rendering in some apps look a bit odd.  At times it feels like I’m using .. da da daaaa .. Android.  So I think Apple has got to do a bit more work smoothing out font rendering a bit more.  That said, this problem may go away in iOS 11 – an OS that will take iPads to a whole new level (seriously, this WILL make the tablet looks and feel like a proper computer from what I saw during the live WWDC video stream) .

(Note: the 10.5″ Ipad Pro’s display is a little too large to read novels, so I’ll always carry my e-Ink Kindle with me, but it’s ideal for reference material.  As I have taken advantage of a few Humble Bundle reference books over the past couple of years, I have quite a few O’Reilly and other technical books which render fantastically well on this device under iBooks)

So to the naysayers that thought the iPad had run out of steam.  Oh no.  No, no, no.  Apple have only just started.  I am delighted with the 10.5″ iPad Pro.  The storage space, the display, the lightness, AND with the leather pouch (ooer-missus), to protect both the device and the Apple Pencil will ensure that it’ll be a brilliant second computer to carry around with me – and will be used daily.