02/07/2018

The next generation of built-it-yourself Smart Robot is here and it's Smartibot

There are some very clever people in this world and Ross Atkin is one of them. He's more widely known from the BBC TV program The Big Life Fix (with Simon Reeve).

In the past he did a previous Kickstarter project, The Crafty Robot (now with it's own website), over 4,000 robots were sold on the campaign.

Now Ross has launched the next generation of robot, the Smartibot again with a Kickstarter Campaign.

By backing £1 you'll get a PDF so you can print your own mini Smartibot case, though for £35 (£30 earlybird) you get the main board, 2 motors, a battery box and all the components and all cardboard parts to build teabot, AI Bot and Unicorn.

£60 get you the Genius kit which also includes a LED matrix board and distance and gesture sensor.

The most expensive kit is £100 and includes 3 of everything so all 3 bots can be built and a limited edition shiny version cases (gold AI, rainbow Unicorn and silver Teabot - all numbered and signed).

The AI bot (it's not really Artificial Intelligence, but Machine Learning that runs on your phone - beware it can eat your battery) that can do nice things like track an object and follow it.

The main board can actually control up to 4 DC motors and 10 servos all controlled from an app. Microsoft is also involved which will allow Smartibot to be programmed using their MakeCode system (that can be used to program the Micro:Bit used in schools) using a block language or javascript.

Though Smartibot will launch with the two expansions boards (LED/distance) more are planned in the future.

The kits do come with cardboard (cut-out) cases, but Smartibot can be embedded in anything, including a potato. However cases can be 3D printed or even built out of Lego. Of course Smartibot can also be put into existing toys with electric motors and used to control them, so you could make your RC car and give it some smart brains and make it autonomous.

Don't delay and get your Smartibot now

06/04/2018

Burglars around? You can now Blink outside too.

Blink for Home is a nice wireless home security system. It uses a sync module and the wireless camera modules (that record in HD). The cameras are battery powered and should last for around 2 years of normal use (it's not quite clear what 'normal' is, but assume you're not going to be burgled every day).

The cameras are only for indoor use, which might be an issue as if someone's already in your home, it's probably too late.

Welcome to the Blink XT. It's bigger than it's indoor version and it's black (though other cases are available), it's also battery powered, so no need to wire power externally and again it has a long battery life.

The biggest issue installing the camera was getting the screw into the door frame (actually positioning it to get a good signal is imperative too, initially it was installed outside where the boiler was inside - which seemed to block the signals). Once installed it just works.

Various parameters can be tuned sensitivity, how quickly it should re-check, length of clip, should audio be included etc. They are all controlled from the app.

Under the casing there's also a switch which will turn the recording LED on or off (so select that before you install the camera, as the case is watertight it can be a bit of a struggle removing it). You also need to know the serial number of the device to add it to the app, but there's also a QR code printed where the serial number is and the app can scan that rather than having to type it.

The XT also comes with a sticker saying your protected with Blink that you can attach to a window, which might be a legal requirement to let someone know they might be being filmed.

All in all it was pretty simple to install and just works. It's been up for a few days now and not detected anything, which is a good thing.

The Blink XT is available online for around £119.

It can also be purchased as part of a complete system or multipacks.

03/04/2018

Was 8.8.8.8 your default? well there's a new server in town and it's 1.1.1.1

The DNS wars are hotting up (well maybe if there was a DNS war in the first place), but there's a new player in town trying to topple Google's dominance in the domain name serving business.

Up until now, the generic default for putting in your resolv.conf (or equivalent) was Google's 8.8.8.8 public DNS IP service, well now Cloudflare have launched their own public DNS on 1.1.1.1 and it's fast.

The service was announced on April 1st, so many thought it was a spoof, a joke (it also happened to be Easter Sunday and Pesach) but it was real and it works. 1.1.1.1 is actually under the auspices of APNIC (the regional registry for the Asia Pacific region, more specifically their research group) and many a misconfigured service has a DNS entry of 1.1.1.1 - APNIC always wanted to research what traffic was bound there, but every time it was published, traffic overwhelmed whatever network it was pointed to.

Cloudflare offered to handle the traffic and analyse it, and then use it for DNS, which they have done and done it not for commercial gain (though presumably they get a lot of insight into DNS traffic and DNS use) but for the good of a healthy Internet.

As well as supporting standard DNS queries, 2 types of transport layer security are also supported, DNS-over-TLS and DNS-over-HTTPS which are both open standards.

More info can be found at 1.1.1.1

21/01/2018

Humax to the max with the FVP-5000T

The Humax FVP-5000T is the latest (and greatest) personal video recorder. It supports FreeviewHD+ which is basically Freeview and FreeviewHD and access to the various UK TV Internet players which currently is: -

  • BBC iPlayer
  • ITV Hub
  • All 4
  • Demand 5
  • UK TV Play

There's also YouTube and Netflix - though the latter requires a normal subscription and even if you have a subscription that supports 4K, the Humax box only supports standard HD (is that a thing, maybe just HD rather than UHD?).

There are 5 tuners, so 4 programmes can be recorded simultaneously while watching a 5th.

The remote control is a bit gaudy and 'plasticky', with dedicated big buttons for Freeview+ services, Netflix and On Demand. There's also an Guide (EPG) button as well as normal buttons to control playback and recording, channels, etc.

The EPG gives access to a week's worth of future viewing (7 days).

Recording can be done through the EPG and an individual program can be recorded or there's the option to record a complete series.

For the more adventurous there's an iOS and Android app that can be used to: -

  • Stream live TV from your recorder to your smart device
  • Stream your recordings from your recorder to your smart device
  • Set remote reminders
  • Schedule remote recordings
  • Access the TV guide from the myHumax portal

The actual box isn't huge (280 x 48 x 200 mm) and should fit under or next to a TV.

Looking at the rear where the connectors are, there's an Ethernet port (100Mb/s which is a good thing) though it also supports WiFi.

There's an antenna in (with a standard co-ax connector) and a loop out (to go to the TV). Then there's RCA out (CVBS/L/R), HDMI (1.4a with HDCP), optical S/PDIF and 2 USB ports (one on the rear and one on the side, USB 2.0).

The unit review had a 500GB disk which allows for 250 hours of SD or 125 hours of HD, though 1 and 2 TB versions are available too.

Accessing features is pretty instantaneous i.e. pressing the Freeview+ button or the Guide and navigation is pretty straight forward.

The system can also play content from a plugged in USB stick or over the network from a UPnP or Samba source.

Rather than review the system myself, my mother tried it (she's in her 80's) and to be honest, she has managed to use all the services, including recording individual programs, series and accessing on-demand (this is no mean feat!!!) and likes it. Having big buttons is a bonus for her.

If watching a SD channel where there's a Freeview HD version, the box will prompt you to hit OK to change to the HD channel (it pops up every now and again at the top left of the screen, so it's not too intrusive).

The only unusual; quirk is that sometimes, she has turned subtitles on, then turned them off again and after the unit is turned on sometime later, they have mysteriously turned themselves on again. Not a major problem, but I can be annoying, though easy enough to turn-off again (just entering the settings section seems to set them back to how they should have been set).

Though not tested the system can be used with the Humax H3 Espresso smart media player which can be used to access content stored on the FVP-5000T or live TV (it will use one of the available tuners).

There's also the Humax Eye which is IP-TV camera that stores its data in the cloud and that can also be watched through the PVR.

The 500GB version can be found on-line for £219.

Highly recommended (by my mother) which really is saying something as a general hater of technology.

21/12/2017

Nokia puts the pressure on (your arm)

Nokia Health (as was Withings) has a blood pressure cuff - the BPM, though there's a newer version out now, the BPM+.

The BPM is quite bulky (the newer BPM+ looks quite a bit smaller in the cuff design) with a metal cylinder which has a power switch on the top and this connects to the white (quite stiff) cuff which you uncurl and wrap around your arm. It takes 4 AAA batteries

The cylinder is placed forward and it's recommended that you sit upright with your upper arm by your side and forearm at right angles forward (say resting on a desk).

Initially you have to go into the Nokia Heath app and add it as a device (there's a choice of the BPM and the BPM+), then in future when the cuff is turned on, the app will automatically open and offer to take a reading.

There are two modes when taking a reading, the first will just take a single reading while the second mode takes 3 readings (over 3 minutes). Both your systolic and diastolic readings are stored as well as your blood pressure.

The app can then display a record of the readings over time, to show how progress is being made (for example).

This could be especially useful if you have a medical condition (and results can also be emailed to your doctor).

The BPM costs £89.95 and the BPM+ £109.95 (though they function identically, they BPM+ uses a softer smaller cuff which means it can be put in a bag or similar and taken with you much more easily than the original BPM).

Paragon, allowing users to mount the world

Paragon Software makes software that allows users to mount disks from other operating systems. So say you're a Mac user, then you could mount a Windows disk that's formatted with NTFS and access it normally just as you would a disk that's formatted in a native macOS system. Once installed, the system should be rebooted, then external drives should appear as native drives through the file system.

On macOS Paragon support Windows NTFS and also extFS (used by Linux and supporting Ext2, Ext3 and Ext4 disks). There's also a 'value' pack which contains both and support for older Apple formats such as HFS+.

Windows users are also supported so there's support for HFS+ and Linux ExtFS.

Paragon have just announced Windows support for the new Apple File System, APFS and it's a FREE download. Again it will install so that drives are available through the Windows Explorer (and available to any Windows program). Drives will auto mount on start-up. Currently only read-access to the drive is supported.

The Mac version does work nicely and accessing an old hard disk from a Linux system was painless and fast. An added bonus is that it makes access RaspberryPi SD cards a breeze, use any of the SD card utilities to get Raspbian or other operating system on to the SD card, then access it as an attached disk and modify any of the configuration files before installing it into the Pi itself. Can save a lot of time rather than having to boot up the Pi, log into the Pi and then configure everything locally, reboot, etc.

Though not relevant to home users, Paragon also specialise in making drivers for iOS, Android and other embedded operating systems such as QNX and embedded Linux. There's also drivers for UEFI (i.e. the replacement for the BIOS on systems), so that a system, even before the operating system is loaded, can access various drives.

Embedded Linux is used in a lot of systems like Network Attached Storage (NAS) and the drivers allow the NAS to access content on external disks or SD cards in not native formats. QNX is used in a lot of system that use a Real-time OS and again the drivers allow access to non-native disks.

Pricing varies, ExtFS for Mac is £29.00, NTFS for Mac is £15.95 or the UFSD value pack (allowing NTFS and ExtFS on Mac and HFS+ and ExtFS on Windows) is $49.95 (oddly only seems available in dollars).

19/12/2017

It's a tablet with re-markable electronic ink display that almost feels like paper

The reMarkable tablet is an e-ink device (and pressure sensitive stylus) that is meant to be a replacement for pen and paper. While it's not quite there, it actually does a pretty remarkable job. The stylus is pressure sensitive (with 2048 levels) and tilt is also detected, allowing the pencil tool to emulate a real pencil (and other tools thinner or thicker lines dependant on pressure).

The unit is well made with a aluminium back and the e-ink display (monochrome) has a special coating so the stylus does feel somewhat like pen on paper. The black and white contrast is very clear with a 1872x1404 resolution (226 DPI) on a 10.3 inch screen. The whole unit is 6.9 x 10.1 x .26 inches and weighs 350g. It also comes with a wallet that holds both the device and stylus and spare nibs for the stylus (and a tool to extract the old nib).

Battery life is pretty good and it will last a few days, though if not using it turn it off rather than putting in standby) having a capacity of 3000 mAh. It has a standard micro-USB for charging (which can also be used to connect to a computer and then access through a web browser to access the files). Internal storage is 8GB (claimed 100,000 pages) and 512MB of RAM coupled with a 1GHz ARM A9 CPU which makes the system pretty responsive. It runs a mobile version of Linux (Codex) which has been optimised to drive the e-eink display.

Though the tablet can be run by itself, it can also be used with the reMarkable web service, so documents will be automatically sync'ed and then can be made available to the desktop (macOS/Windows) or mobile (iOS/Android) clients. It's also possible to import documents into the clients, then they'll be upload to the tablet when it next goes on-line.

Currently the software understands ePub and PDF documents. A nice feature is that PDF documents can be imported, then a new layer created and then use the new layer to annotate etc. Then the document can be exported again with the annotations.

There are several ways to list documents, but in the start-up mode the tablet will have a rM (access to settings etc), then below that and My Files, then Notebooks, Documents, Ebooks and Bookmarks.

Notebooks are where you create documents., which can also be organised into folders. Each page can support multiple layers and there are several templates available (plain pages, isometric, ruled, dots, etc).

It's possible to delete Notebooks/EBooks etc from the device.

A slight oddity is with Quick sheets which is a single notebook that's always there. Multiple pages can be created and functionality is identical to a Notebook, though there doesn't seem to be anyway of deleting them, so once a page is created, though it's possible to erase the data of it, there's no way to delete the actual pages themselves.

The 3 keys at the bottom of the tablet are for navigation, left button goes back a page, middle is home and right goes forward a page.

At some point in the future there will be a system to convert hand written text to text, but that's not there yet and there's no timescales for when it will be implemented (there's been no software updates for the device since it arrived).

Should you get one? It's a really good idea and it's transportable i.e. you'd use this instead of a pad of paper. However there are quirks and the software could do with improving. It's nice to be able to annotate existing documents or use it to draw (if your writing is illegible with a pen, it will be just as illegible on the reMarkable). It is nice to be able to export straight to a PDF of JPG.

Pre-orders were heavily discounted but it's now shipping for £579

07/12/2017

Get your SIGFOX fix, for free

SIGFOX is the the narrowband radio technology that runs in the license exempt 800MHz band (868-869MHz).

It's a closed protocol but there's lots of equipment available for it and it's being rolled out in lots of countries, a device can send up to 140 messages which have a payload of up to 12 bytes per day. Note the payload can be zero bytes, which will just indicate the device is alive. The network can send a maximum of 4 messages to devices per day and the payload is up to b bytes.

In the UK the SIGFOX network was run by Arqiva, but they didn't move very quickly and they didn't understand start-ups particularly well, so now WND UK has taken up the reigns with a very aggressive roll-out plan, with a fully funded commitment to cover 94.8% of the UK by end 2018.

Even though the roll-out is aggressive, some areas may not be covered and this may not suit someone developing a SIGFOX solution, so WND is now offering small companies who are developing IoT proof-of-concept solution a FREE SIGFOX gateway and licenses for up to 100 devices to access the network. This actually works well for WND, as every gateway added increases network coverage and even if multiple gateways cover an area, they are mainly receiving messages so the network would sort that a message is a duplicate.

With LoRa networks already springing up (generally piggybacking on generic home or business connections), this gives SIGFOX the ability to do the same and may get some customers who are still awaiting solutions from the mobile networks with their LTE-M or NB-IoT solutions slowly coming on-line.

The WND contact for a SIGFOX PoC solution is Tim Harris.