The past couple of weeks have been somewhat challenging. About two weeks ago now, I became rather ill on Sunday – being sick and starting to get headaches. So I went to bed and practically stayed there for four days. I don’t think it was Covid-19, but I wouldn’t have been able to get a test even if I wanted to. Anyway, I’ve perked up somewhat since then, so I think all is well moving forward.

Virgin? Not me, I’m experienced – I’m a previous customer!

But before that had happened, I had placed an order with Virgin Media to get their M500 broadband – up to 500Mbs (actually a bit faster than that) down, 37Mbs up. I was paying Zen a few quid less to get a static IP (which I don’t really need these days) and 300Mbs (though with a better upload speed of 50Mbs).

I went with a self-install, given that I already had Virgin Media in the house a few times. Plus it’s the only network that’s likely to get me up to 1Gbs before anybody else – depending on what kind of investment VM has in this area. 500Mbs is the fastest speed I’m going to get for now.

Alas Mart and Phones

But signing up to Virgin Media wasn’t without difficulty. I went through the online set-up and completed all sections, including credit check, and once that was completed the entire order was submitted.

ALAS!

The bloody Virgin Media web server timed out, returning an Oops, Sorry! message and leaving me thoroughly pissed off. Thankfully, it seemed, the order was still in the basket and submitting that did the trick (without having to go through the rigmarole of completing the form again).

ALAS!

Although I received an acknowledgement of the order, I was a bit concerned that over the following days I didn’t hear from Virgin to confirm everything properly. So I gave them a call.

ALAS!

The phone number quoted in the email from Virgin Media doesn’t work. Essentially you’re put through to an automated voice recording that tells you that due to the Coronavirus, many of the call centres have closed – and that’s your lot. No other option.

So a quick internet search found a more general number (because Virgin Media’s web site has been redesigned as part of the Covid-19 to make it very much harder to find a phone number and forces you to use their online services which aren’t helpful at all). So I gave that a call.

One hour later of being on-hold, I was put through to a very nice lady (not operating out the UK, however) and we went through the problem – the order was there, but incomplete. So we continued through it – and I managed to save a bit of money too. By taking out the basic phone line (which includes Talk Weekends) and a Virgin Mobile SIM only package (which I’ll use for my EE iPad Pro whose contract runs out next month) – it reduces the overall cost to £47.50 – a saving of around £12 against my Zen G.Fast 300Mbs line.

The self-install kit would arrive one day later than what was arranged with the “online” order, and everything was good to go. What I got when it did arrive was a reasonably sized box containing the Superhub 3, an isolator cable that’s supposed to be plugged into the wall socket and the Superhub, and power brick.

I’m not your Cable Guy

Now, I don’t have a wall socket. I have a cable that’s been run in from the outside VM box, and it features a male connector. The isolator cable provider is male to the wall socket. Well, that won’t do!

Thankfully I kept the previous cabling from 2018, and this is what I did:

The TRIS-1002L is an isolator itself

Initially I plugged the isolator cable into the end of the TRIS-1002L unit, and it works – but then again, I thought it seems silly to have two isolators put together like that. So I reached out and got the TV/broadband splitter:

Welcome to the wonderful world of Martyn’s cabling skills

There’s a good chance I may go for the VM TV down the road once they’ve phased out their Tivo boxes – some very interesting developments appear to be on the horizon which may give Sky TV a run for their money. But I can’t do anything for another year anyway.

But the cabling works just fine as is. The Virgin Media network found the hub just fine and everything came up within around 15 minutes. Testing the default configuration demonstrated the speeds possible, and all looked good, so I put the hub into modem mode for use with my existing AmpliFi router (which means I don’t need to reconfigure my Wi-Fi or ethernet set-up for every connected device). It’s interesting that although I use an entirely different subnet from the VM router, I can still access the VM hub via http://192.168.100.1.

One initial problem I did encounter was that initial speeds via the AmpliFi network were scatty – very scatty. I found that by rebooting my Netgear switch, everything sprung into life. Maybe stale traffic on the network was causing all manner of crap which was slowing things down. I don’t know.

When plugging the Xbox One X in (via the AmpliFi router itself), I found that I had to reboot the AmpliFi because one night (ironically when I first started writing this post), the entire network went down. At first I blamed Virgin Media, but no – it wasn’t that. Rebooting the AmpliFi router did the trick. Speaking of which, I’m entirely convinced iOS/iPadOS’ Wi-Fi Private Addresses is a good idea when using AmpliFi as I had enormous problems with Apple’s HomeKit until I had to turn Private Addresses off.

But since then, with my MacBook Pro on ethernet, I’ve achieved some amazing speeds:

Whoosh! Test results conducted via ethernet via AmpliFi router with Superhub 3.0 in Modem mode

When iOS 14 came out, the entire broadband connection was maxed out and it downloaded the entire update in less than 30 seconds. In normal use, the connection does fluctuate as not all internet connections are equal, one is competing with others with endpoints, etc. But generally it does perform better than my old Zen broadband and for £12 less per month, I am very happy.

If Virgin Media should roll out the 1Gbs connection to my area, I may well consider it – though Virgin Media’s faux pas with the Superhub 4 is that it only contains 1Gbs ethernet ports, allowing only a maximum of 974Mbs. Maybe the next revision of the Superhub 4 should come with 10Gbs ports as standard.

Next up: The Apple Watch Series 6 (size 44 Blue Aluminium Case) – a review.

Before the internet entered our everyday lives.. Bob Hoskins convinced us to keep on talking

The one thing about this pandemic and being in isolation is that we’ve never been more reliant on technology to keep in touch with each other.

Ever since I was little and got my hands on my first computer, a ZX81 that my dad borrowed from a neighbour, and having got my mind and grubby little mitts around the Telex system at my dad’s work (he’d let me type them up and send them – often many would go to clients in Japan), I was enamoured with computer networks and communication systems.

When the internet became prominent in the 90s, I started to get heavily involved with web design, I.T. consultation (writing a recommendation for a wireless network system for a national African insurance company – it was actually cheaper than a wired system, believe it or not), and systems administration work. I effectively dropped out of university to work with the internet, helping set-up and run a Norwich-based ISP. All dial-up – ADSL would be a good few years away back then.

Back in those days, social media was barely a thing. Bulletin Board Systems (BBSes) were transitioning from dial-up only systems to the internet – these were the forerunners to internet forums – communities usually formed around a particular theme (such as computing, films, etc.). Usenet was a big thing – a global group of text-based forums where people could subscribe to, create posts, read posts and reply to them. You had to access them via a dedicated program on your computer as they were not generally web-based back then. Arguments about certain topics or people (aka flame wars) were a problem, but they were much less severe than they are now. In fact, everything back then was practically better – the fewer the people online, the less of a problem it was. Email spam was rare, DoS attacks were also pretty rare too. People generally, for the most part, behaved themselves.

Mobile phones were still pretty basic in the 90s – essentially limited to making phone calls, sending very limited text messages and playing ludicrously simple games. Cell coverage was pretty limited too, making it very difficult to get hold of people if they weren’t close enough to one of the few mobile phone masts.

Now?

We’re pretty much a 24/7 day, always on-call, always available society. We have more social networks than family members, mobile phones that are as powerful as our own desktop/laptop computers, superfast home broadband (well, there is room for improvement there), Wi-Fi is practically everywhere. It is fair to say that as a society, we are the most connected we have ever been.

And I’m finding it a bit of a struggle. My attempts to rejoin Twitter and start from scratch earlier this year were a noble one – just stick myself into read mode and post occasionally. Keep it light. Keep it non-controversial. I’d then find I miss particular people, then start adding them back into my feed. And before long it was practically my old account, just with fewer people I’m following, and with fewer followers. And it is still a trigger: so many political posts, so much anger about big and small things. A great deal matters, and yet so little does.

So I’m back off Twitter again. Hopefully for good. I need to keep my sanity about me.

Facebook has also been a bit of pain over the past few years too, but never at the kind of scale Twitter can get to. I’ve never really used it much – even back in the heyday when everybody shared everything with each other. But I will admit that over the past year it’s allowed me to keep in touch with family that bit better – my cousins, my sister, my aunts and uncle, old friends and colleagues – we’re all on Facebook. Even if Facebook is a data mining succubus, it has a genuine usefulness to it. Though with work and being on-call, it has proven difficult to switch off and sometimes I switch off in the wrong direction (e.g. friends and family rather than work) – and for that I am truly sorry. But the past few days on Facebook though have been fantastic, though – an old friend from school has found old cassette tapes that we used to produce for each other – a kind of radio show mixed with music and comedy – and uploaded them for me to listen. It brought back very fond memories, and I have to say that the quality of the comedy is on par with some of the stuff some so-called comedians pump out these days.

As I’ve said – the possibilities of the internet and communication back in the 90’s were so exciting and new. And here in 2020 it just makes me want to become a digital hermit at times, and especially within this pandemic which has promoted all this technology to become our primary method with talking to, and staying in touch with, our friends, family and work colleagues. Working in I.T. has paid off dividends over the years, but at the same time it does kind of extract a kind of toll.

In any event, I’m still here. Blogging, at the very least. I am a proud blogger even if I’m not particularly good at it. I was proud when Neil Gaiman(*) who introduced me to his friends as a blogger at a screening. It gives me a sense of value despite maybe not having such a good grasp on the English language or grammar as I’d like or should do (I blame the educmacation system, D’OH). Nor the patience for pease pudding, I mean proof reading.

Something that I watched recently on Apple TV+ struck home with me: Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet – Quarantine Special. While it is incredibly funny (this is the show that’s keeping me as an AppleTV+ subscriber), there was one moment when Poppy, who is the chief engineer at the game development company that features in the show, breaks down and cries – admitting to her boss Ian that she’s not okay. She’s single, she lives by herself and she isn’t coping very well in isolation. I had enormous empathy for her at that moment (and maybe a tear or three was shed). But as I have always been a bit of a loner, even while I was married, I tend to cope with things a bit better in these circumstances. Certainly I haven’t gotten to that point yet.


(*) (who made the news recently after travelling 12,000 miles from New Zealand to his own home in Skye – I don’t blame him at all for this given the circumstances and he did explain that he used every conceivable precaution going, but again, given the internet, the reaction was not at all pleasant and much Twitter blocking occurred – hence why I’ve quit, Twitter is far too toxic, and far too easy to enrage people and become enraged yourself.)

Here’s my biggest gripes with this new foldable phone craze:

  • When folded up, the phone’s.. girth.. appears to be considerably more than that of a non-foldable phone. It saves space length-wise, but not thickness-wise. It’ll probably fit in most men’s trouser pockets just fine, but it’ll be bulky:

“Why, is that a Galaxy Z Flip in your pocket, or are you just a pervert?’

  • Easily damageable screens, and potentially easily damageable/limited hinge lifespan. These phones requires far greater care and attention that a regular phone which negates the whole reason for having a folding phone in the first place. You want durability. You want to save space (both in length and thickness). You should not have to pick one or the other.
  • They don’t look that much different from the flip phones (you know, the ones with a physical keypad on one half, and a tiny non-touch screen on the other) from the 90’s and early 2000’s.

In short – foldable phones, in their current state, are simply cute and fluffy Mogwais just waiting to turn into Gremlins. It’ll cost you an arm and a leg at this early stage of the technology, and if you damage your phone, possibly a spleen or kidney to continually replace the screen.

There are two devices that I would consider to be Apple’s greatest achievements over the past decade. The first is the Apple Watch, and the second is AirPods. Both have become daily essentials in my battle to get fit and healthier and to pass the time when commuting (especially when South Western Railway/Network Rail implodes).

AirPods are just so damn useful. You can keep them in your jacket or trouser pocket and whip them out (oo-er missus) when you need audio stimulation (oo-er missus). They are a little bit fiddly, yes, and there is the constant danger of dropping them/losing them. But when you need to listen to something in relevant peace and quiet – they’re much better than lugging around normal size headphones.

Beat(s) *THAT* Apple – You Can Do So Much Better

Speaking of normal size headphones, until I bought my first set of AirPods, I’d been using several of Apple’s Beats headphones for a few years – but I can’t say I’ve been terribly impressed. About three years ago I bought the Beats 3 Solo wireless headphones. No Bluetooth audio lag when watching a video, reasonably portable, very comfortable. But when I took them up to Edinburgh, I found I couldn’t charge them. So I took them to the Edinburgh Apple Store and they took them in for repair, and bought a pair of Beats wired headphones to tide me over. But over the past year or so, I can’t say I’m impressed with the earpads of either set of headphones:

Goodness knows how much I’ve got to pay in order to fix the earpads – they don’t appear to be user-replaceable. I’m quite disappointed in Apple here – and as a general opinion of their “extended| warranties, I do wish they’d offer FOUR year AppleCare/AppleCare+ warranties. Dell gives you a choice. Apple do not. In this case, I don’t have any AppleCare with the above headphones, but I DO have them with the AirPod Pros. And I’ve been using the headphones normally (and carefully).

Getting back on track, the one problem with AirPods is that they let in sounds from your current environment, which can make it rather difficult to hear anything unless you crank up the volume. On the iPhone, the volume is limited in a number of ways, but can be overridden:

Until I disabled Sound Check and turned off the Volume limit on the iPhone, listening to audiobooks on the iPhone was noticeably more difficult than with the Apple Watch (yes, you can upload music and audiobooks to an Apple Watch – providing you pair it with Bluetooth headers/speakers). The Apple Watch volume output was much louder and could be heard against a greater range of environmental noises (mainly trains passing through stations).

The AirPods Pro are different in that they introduce noise-cancelling features and a design which fits better inside your ear, creating a better seal, which should help reduce as much as your local environmental sounds as possible. Plus it can also be used as a kind of hearing-aid – using the built-in microphones, it can relay sounds directly to you, which makes it much easier to hear people talking to you/announcements. Whenever you need to be alert. Noise cancellation can be turned off and be used as regular AirPods. Noise cancellation itself is pretty good for an in-ear device. It won’t get rid of sounds completely, but it’s good enough to listen to music and audiobooks without having to have the volume turned up loud.

The AirPods Pro use silicon tips which keep the pods in your ears and comes with two other sizes. They’re easily replaceable (and if you lose them – Apple will sell you a new set for about $4) – just pull them off and push new ones on. I found that I had to use the larger size to get the most comfortable (and most efficient) fit. Big lugholes require big tips. Oo-er missus.

I absolutely love my AirPod Pros, and the wireless charging case makes things even easier (I’m coming from the first generation AirPods which didn’t have any wireless charging). I almost entirely use AirPods/AirPods Pro when on the phone, and at work – when I want to drown other people’s music out and/or concentrate when the office gets a bit too noisy.

They’re a bit more pricey than regular AirPods – but thanks to EE, I’m able to add them to my phone plan and split the cost over 11 months. I’ve just got to be sure NOT to wash the things – which I did when I left my first ever set of AirPods in a trouser pocket once.