Cheaper isn’t always better

Getting data abroad on EE pay as you go has always been a miserable experience, assuming you’re too disorganised to sort it out in advance. You land somewhere foreign, you just need a few MB to get Google Maps up and find your hotel, and if their captive portal even manages to load, it’s sorely lacking in a button which says “shut up and take my money”. They also apply rather mean time limits – yes, you can have 75MB of data, but it only lasts 24 hours. WTF? I wanted that much for the whole trip.

For longer trips abroad, none of this matters as you can simply buy a local SIM at the airport. This is especially easy for me with my OnePlus Two, as it has twin SIM slots so you don’t miss out on the odd text or urgent call from home.

However, for just four full days on the ground in Seville – much of it spent in an underground hotel conference centre with excellent WiFi – what to do?

Google Maps is really good these days at downloading the surrounding area while you’re on WiFi, which almost solves the problem, but not quite.

However, I remembered that I have an AAISP SIM in my second slot. In addition to its clever SIP pass through, it can also do data roaming. The prices are high – 10p/MB – but it’s pay as you go, billed in arrears by direct debit, and you can set hard limits at their end as well as on the phone itself.

This worked out really nicely, and I used 28.98MB over the four days. Which means I saved 11p vs paying EE their £3, and probably a lot more because I would have needed data over more than a 24 hour period. Well done AAISP.

Memo to self: must ditch EE for someone less annoying.

Abroad with Monzo

I’m in Spain this week for ApacheCon, and Monzo is definitely delivering on the promise – no foreign usage fees, just the MasterCard exchange rate. I got some cash out when I landed, and the rate was €1.16 for a pound. The Post Office seem to require a minimum spend of £400 to give a worse rate (€1.1266 for a pound)  – and who has time to get their holiday money in advance in this day and age?

Getting cash out at the airport

Getting cash out at the airport

As ever with these things, avoid ATM and chip and PIN machines offering to charge you in GBP – they’re highly unlikely to give a better rate.

HPE Microserver Gen8

It was about time I pensioned off the tired old Core2 Duo desktop running as my home fileserver. It sucked up sufficient electricity that it was worth having a Raspberry Pi sat on top of it, to issue a wake-on-LAN before running various tasks (e.g. backups) and turn it off again afterwards. It was also starting to develop reliability issues – who knew buying used-up hardware for a nominal £1 would barely give three years’ service…

HP’s Microservers have a good reputation as a basic home NAS box, and the £60 cashback offer running in November certainly helps: I got the Gen8 with a dual core 2.3Ghz Celeron and 4GB of RAM for £120 after cashback. Here it is:

HPE Gen8 Microserver

HPE Gen8 Microserver

It looks quite swish and is very quiet, especially if you select the power-saving options in the BIOS – it also puts out reassuringly little heat. The BIOS is quite nicely laid out and easy to follow, though it does seem to lack the classic “discard changes and exit” option.

HPE Microserver Gen8 BIOS

HPE Microserver Gen8 BIOS

Disks

It has four SATA bays which are inside the front door and have trays to slide the disks in and out with. They’re not hot-swap apparently they are as long as you don’t use the inbuilt RAID controller!, but at least physically moving disks in and out isn’t a problem: they even supply a little tool to handle the screws with. I put the boot disk from my old server in the leftmost slot, and the two 1.5TB halves of my main RAID array in slots 2 and 3. It booted from the first disk and Just Worked, though the BIOS takes a while to wade through all the checks.

I believe it has some sort of built in hardware RAID controller, but I prefer to stick to good ol’ fashioned Linux software RAID (newer, cooler solutions are also available): you can set up an array on any old hardware, plug the disks into something new and different, and it all comes back to life trivially. Linux is really good at moving to new hardware, and after an fsck* (even that could have been avoided if I’d set the system clock right) it was all ready to go. Try doing that with hardware RAID, where moving disks to a new controller is often impossible without wiping them and starting over.

Network

It has no less than three network ports on the back – two are ordinary dual NICs and the third is for HP’s “iLO” remote management stuff. Since I’ve run out of ports on my router I haven’t had a chance to try that out. Linux recognised the NICs as eth2 and eth3, but that might just be a hangover from the installation starting life on other hardware.

Other thoughts

I’ve only had it a few days, but it’s been solid and reliable so far … here’s hoping it outlasts its Core2 predecessor by a good few years.

*File System ChecK – it’s a Linux command. Obviously.

Amazon Echo

I’m not often one to buy the latest gadget without letting them work the kinks out, but I read and heard enough good things about the Amazon Echo to give it a go. If nothing else, it’s a decent Bluetooth speaker for my lounge for the price, and the rest is a futuristic bonus.

Alexa, you don't look out of place on the coffee table

Alexa, you don’t look out of place on the coffee table

Setup

The packaging is quite nice. Once unboxed you just need to connect the power (proprietary, not USB). Then you plug details and connect to WiFi and your various accounts via their app, which worked first time on Android, though it’s a bit cluttered.

Playing music

This is mainly what I got it for, and is rather neat. You can tell it to play artists, albums or playlists from Spotify or Prime Music, and it can even hear you over itself when you say “pause” or “stop” or “shuffle”.

News and traffic

It’s a bit of a gimmick but quite neat to have the news read out to you. I’ve only asked what my commute was like once, and it gave me as good a time and route as Google Now ever does. Disappointingly it understands but refuses to answer queries about how long it takes to get to other places, claiming not to know your speed.

Hive integration

This is a “skill” provided by the Hive developers. It works, but has a couple of flaws – it always seems to end up back in “off” not “schedule” after a boost done by voice, and I could do without a machine saying “good call, it’s hot in here”.

IFTTT

The glaring omission from the UK version of the Echo is support for IFTTT (If This Then That), which would allow interfacing with lots of other services. By the looks of it, it would also allow me to bypass the dodgy Hive skill and make the heating do what I want. Sort it out, Amazon. It’s allegedly coming soon but a date wouldn’t go amiss.

Verdict?

” I spoke to the future, and it listened more convincingly than ever before “.

Blogging on the Kindle Fire

I thought I’d hate doing this on a device with no hardware keyboard (why did I sell my netbook? Remember when they were cool?), but it’s workable for short bursts. Now stand by for some real content, because in a week where the news has not been all good, I’ve attempted to cheer myself up with some new toys…

Wood burning microserver?

Wood burning microserver?

Monzo

Monzo is something I’ve been keeping an eye on for a while, and having been at the top of the waiting list all summer, I was straight off the mark when they finally launched on Android on Thursday.

At the moment, they’re providing pre-paid debit cards (chip and PIN + contactless) with a really nice app and an API. I handed over my initial £100 top-up late Thursday, they posted my card on Friday (notifying me through the app, naturally) and it arrived today: so far, so efficient. The fact that these are non-personalised pre-paid debit cards helps, as they don’t need to stamp your name onto the card: they can just take one off their pile, note the numbers and post it.

The card is a loud orange/pink colour, but that’s more than made up for by reliably instant notification on my phone (and watch) of transactions being made. As others have blogged, the phone often buzzes with the notification before the retailer has even handed the card back to you. As someone increasingly frustrated by the way some transactions take 3-4 days to show up on the app for my credit or debit card, this is much more like it and appropriately 21st century.

They also don’t charge extra fees for usage abroad; they simply pass on the MasterCard exchange rate. This is another serious annoyance of both my credit and debit cards, and something I look forward to trying out when I travel to ApacheCon next month.

The API also promises the possibility of being able to securely and in near-real time pull details of payments into my budgeting app instead of having to wade through a pile of receipts and enter it all by hand at the end of each week. I haven’t tried that yet, but will report back.

They’re aiming to get a banking licence and run a full current account in this style – a delicious prospect, though I hope they’re thinking about the details as I can imagine instant notifications of every standing order and direct debit on the first of the month being information overload.

Hive door sensor

Since launching Hive for heating remote control, British Gas have rolled out quite a lot of other products which work in the same app and use the same router-connected hub to talk to their end. They all feel quite pricey for what they are, but I decided to try the door/window sensor. Here it is attached to my front door with the supplied sticky pads:

Hive door/window sensorAt the moment, it’s limited to doing push notifications to your phone when the door opens and/or closes; you can specify time ranges within which you do/don’t want the alerts. It’s interesting to see a log of when I leave for work and get home, and given that I’m not the only one with keys to North HQ (I have cleaners), it’s useful to see any other comings and goings.

The alerts are usually (but not always) instant, and show up nicely on my Android Wear watch too.

First week with the Huawei Watch

My Huawei WatchI have myself a Huawei Watch (W1). This is one of those areas of tech that I’ve been quietly sitting out, but having read a few reviews and seen a few friends finding them useful, I decided to have a go.

General impressions

It’s quite handy to have around. My phone (OnePlus Two), like most modern smartphones, is quite a large object, and not one which I carry around the flat with me at home. I also prefer to leave it on my desk at work when in meetings elsewhere on the same floor. All of which means that reminders for my next calendar event, texts, notification and incoming calls often go unnoticed.

The watch fixes all that (as long as I’m within bluetooth range of the phone), and is a nice discrete means of picking up on the important stuff. You can see the caller ID and answer calls using the watch, but you still need your phone to talk into and hear the caller out of. It’d work really nicely with a headset, though, and means you don’t need to dig the phone out of your pocket to hang up on an unimportant call.

The watch also does voice-activated stuff, triggered by the “OK Google” magic phrase. Simple things like creating reminders or sending a text can be done all on the watch – it’s really nice to be able to shout “OK Google, text Bob Smith saying I’ll be there in five minutes” when stuck in traffic, without taking your hands off the wheel or doing anything illegal (driving without due care still applies, of course).

More complicated actions (like a Google search) open the relevant app on the phone, but it can still be a timesaver.

I’ve bought the Pujie Black watch face for it, which allows lots of customization and means I can see a nice visualisation of the day’s calendar and instantly check how many events/meetings I have left today. It also shows both the phone and watch battery status.

It has all sorts of fitness and step tracking stuff which I’ve yet to really get to grips with.

Battery life

Conveniently, the Saturday after I got it, I went to London and went out all night, finishing up with breakfast at midnight [not something I’d do every weekend, but it was kinda fun to do it once]. The watch still had 60% of its battery when I plugged it in to charge at 2AM after unplugging it at 8AM the previous day. And it’s not as if it had had a light day: I’d been showing it off to people and playing with it for much of the time. So that’s quite impressive and suggests it could go two light days without charging.

Downsides?

It’s too soon to tell if the battery will wear out rapidly, but hopefully by the time it does, mobile phone repair shops will be able to swap it out using a soldering iron and a steady hand, much as they can for most phones with an “unreplaceable” battery.

Navigation isn’t quite there yet: the screen is too small and the Google Maps app too immature to be useful, so I reverted to my phone. No doubt it will improve.

As with one’s phone, it takes a couple of very carefully enunciated “OK Google”s before it picks you up. Unless you’re describing the voice capabilities to a friend in a noisy pub, in which case it works perfectly and starts sending the text message you were using as an example.

As with the phone, all the speech processing is done in the cloud, so it stops working if your phone lacks a data connection.

The charging dock is proprietary (and at £29 for a spare, I’ll have to remember to take it with me when I travel) – shame it couldn’t be micro USB or USB C, but I can see it being aesthetically difficult to fit a port of any size into the watch. It has three discrete contacts on the back which line up with pins on the dock when it magnetically snaps in. The dock itself is USB powered, which fits nicely with the fact that I’ve replaced lots of double socket face plates in my flat with USB charging ones.

It requires bluetooth on the phone to be always on, which inevitably affects battery life.

Overall, I’d say Android Wear is worth a punt, and this variant has the advantage of being a classy looking watch in its own right too.

Sip2Sim and the OnePlus Two

Andrews and Arnold do an interesting service where they supply a SIM card which connects to VOIP at their end. Annoyingly, they don’t have a sensibly usable set of 07… UK mobile numbers they can route onto VOIP to go with the service, but since my OnePlus Two has two SIM slots, that seemed like a way to give it a punt…

Double SIM carding it ... like a pro

Double SIM carding it … like a pro (this is the drawer from the OnePlus Two)

The particular variant of SIM I ordered (O2/EU Voice) doesn’t push out to Nano SIM, instead requiring a pair of scissors and a steady hand (or a proper tool, but who has one of those?) As you can see from the picture, I got away with the scissors and it even worked afterwards:

Custom network name and two signal strength indicators

Custom network name and two signal strength indicators

Android has some pretty impressive native support for more than one SIM, and shows two signal strength selectors as you’d expect. As you can see at the top left, the SIM networks (operator names) are shown with a pipe separating them. For some reason you can’t fiddle with this on the control pages, but you can set it when ordering and contact support to alter it.

I ordered a London number on AAISP’s VOIP service to go with the SIM, and that all works as expected. Texts are a bit clunky (presenting as from “SIP2SIM”), but it looks like that may be configurable/changable.

Mobile data appears to go via NAT and emerge from an IP address registered to Manx Telecom.

The two things I really wanted to play with are setting up my own Asterisk again, and using the roaming to get decent data on the train up north. I’ll report back when I’ve had a play.