Monday, 24 August 2009

PVR and Freeview Woes

Sounds a bit like I'm an old git when I say things like this but I'll say it anyway, "They don't make consumer electronics like they used to".

A few weeks ago we started to have issues with our Freeview TV reception, certain channels kept blocking and the audio was popping. I took a look in the diagnostics in the Humax PVR9200T box we have and it was reporting bad signal strength and quality on some of the channels. If I tweaked around with the RF cable round the back of the box sometimes the reception would improve and sometimes it got worse, this of course made me think it was the cable so in the first instance I replaced that, unfortunately it didn't make any difference, Now the Humax box is 2 years old and just recently it has started randomly crashing and freezing up (also the series link functionality seems to randomly not work) I had a look at doing a software update on the box but this involves having a null modem cable and a Windows PC with an RS232 port neither of which were easy for me to lay my hands on.

So I decided to replace the Humax and drew up a list of requirements.

1. Freeview only twin tuner PVR
2. Pause and rewind Live TV.
3. Ethernet connectivity (for copying recorded programs off)

After scouring the Internet for products I found only two that satisfied these, firstly was a Dreambox (German company) these are linux based boxes so very configurable but also quite expensive for the features I wanted (400ish pounds) so a no go really.
The second opton was fetchtv ( this is a freeview PVR which is coupled to an online on demand TV service that streams films/programmes over your broadband connection, mostly these are on a pay per view basis but it does offer free access to BBC iPlayer. The fetchtv box also allows the export of mpeg2 copies of any programmes you have recorded and will also play videos you have on your PC. This seemed perfect it satisfied all my requirements and although quite expensive (220 pounds) it was only 20 pounds over what I was expecting to pay. After a little further investigation I found that John Lewis sold them so surely they must be reputable and a good quality product, I took the plunge and ordered.

So next day the fetchtv box arrived and I plugged it in, to my dismay the freeview channels that were suffering interference were still having the same problems, seems I was going to have to investigate that issue even further, I ploughed on and tried all the other features of the box anyway, initially I was quite impressed it was easy to setup, minimal cables fuss, used dhcp and picked up an address on my network straight away, sign up via the fetchtv website was relatiely painfree and once I had done that and upgraded the firmware accessing BBC Iplayer was 5-6 button presses away, hey presto it worked, the interface is a bit clunky (The Internet is designed for full kb's and mice but not TV's and remote controls) but the quality although certainly not HD was pretty good and certainly watchable. I had a browse around the fetchtv pay per view stuff and there is quite a lot of content but it is mostly fairly dated with the exception of a handful of quite new films. Oooops hang on box crash, in true Consumer Electronic of the new millenium style the box hung and needed a power cycle to get it working again, oh well this is hardly unusual these days so I won't hold it against the box. I rebooted and everything was fine again, next I tried playing Video I have stored on my PC at the other side of the house, here I was really impressed the fetchtv box found my pc on the network and was able to play about 80% of the content I had stored on the network, pretty impressive really (I use my xbox 360 for playing this content currently but having everything in one box would certainly be a good thing)
So end of the first evening with fetchtv and we had one crash but lots of positives so was thinking that despite the fact it wasn't the cure to my reception problems I would keep it anyway.

The next day I had a look at the export facilities of the fetchtv box and again I was pretty impressed the box stores all tv shows it's recorded in .ts format this is an mpeg2 transport stream and is a fairly common way to store this kind of content, files are very large though (30 mins was about 700mb I think) there are from what I could see two ways of extracting content from the fetchtv, plug a usb harddrive directly into a port on the box or use a web browser directed at the boxes IP address where you are given a list of recording and the option to subscribe to an RSS feed, pretty intuitive and useful.

So that evening I decided to put the box to more of a test, I set it to record two channels at once and then started browsing the user interface to play a program off the drive, this box must have a way underpowered cpu as when it was using both tuners to decode and record video to the HDD it was so sluggish that it was almost unusable. Ooops another box crash then stopped both my recordings in their tracks. After restart I tried recording one show and then using BBC Iplayer to watch a second, nope this wouldn't work, again the CPU just couldn't cope with this amount of work, Iplayer was all judders and stops and basically impossible to use (at the same time my MAC laptop was having no issues with Iplayer). Ooops then another box crash in fact 3 of them in less than 10 mins. That's when I lost my patience, and put the Humax back in the TV cabinet. The fetchtv has now been packaged back up and is going back to John Lewis for a full refund tomorrow.

As for the freeview reception issues they were almost solved by installing a signal booster but we still have problems with BBC1 and BBC2 (along with CBBC and BBC3 which we don't really watch) these channels are all on the same freeview Multiplex and it appears something changed to reduce the power a few weeks ago. It seems the solution is a new aerial so that is getting fitted shortly.

So I am back to thinking that Humax make the best PVR's although I wish my 9200T would not crash periodically and the series link would work properly, if there was an easy way to extract shows from it and play network content like on the fetchtv it would be a massive improvement. A basic improvement would be to add folders to the directory structure for browsing shows so at least we could file all the kids tv in one place.
Maybe someone from Humax will see this and make notes for their next product release :)

Monday, 29 June 2009


In may I went to a music festival called ATP (All Tommorows Parties) in a Butlins holiday camp in Minehead, a rather bizarre setting you might think but in fact it was ideal for this kind of thing, plenty of accommodation, food outlets and multiple music stages. ATP organise these festivals 2-3 times a year and they are usually curated by a specific band/artist they are responsible for choosing the bands who play and generally get involved with the things that go on over the weekend, at this ATP it was the turn of the Breeders to be the hosts. For those who don't know the Breeders are an American indie rock/pop band who's lead singer is Kim Deal (who is/was also part of the Pixies) I saw lot's of bands both old and new over the weekend but here is my top 5

Throwing Muses
Blood Red Shoes
Gang of four

Despite them being very very old bands, Gang of four and Wire were very new to me, but extremely good.

Non music events also happened during the weekend such as an Art exhibition but most notably "Kelly Deal" (Kim's sister and also in the Breeders) was giving Knitting Demo's at lunchtime in the pub, Kelly is a prolific knitter and even has a book on the subject "Bags That Rock: Knitting on the Road with Kelley Deal" I didn't attend the knitting sessions as it's not really my thing but when I bumped into Kelly later on I did try and get a copy of the book for Cath as she is really into knitting, Kelly didn't have any with her but gave me a hug to take back home with me.

So all in all ATP, it's not Glastonbury but we really enjoyed ourselves and I will definitley keep an eye out for more of them in the future.
I have put some pics up here:

ATP Day 1
ATP Day 2 and 3

Friday, 15 May 2009

Going away for a few days

Seems it has been a month since I last updated here, I keep telling myself I should do it, but time has been in such short supply over the past few weeks (After time spent on Family and Work all that was left was sleep) it has just been very difficult. Today I am going to ATP (All Tommorows Parties) curated by the Breeders at Butlins in Minehead, it's a large music festival where all the bands are chosen by "The Breeders" my favourite band of all time "Throwing Muses" are playing tonight so am very excited. At the same time it's pretty hard to leave Cath and Emma again (I just got back a few days ago from a work trip to the RIPE meeting in Amsterdam) however we have made sure that we've had some really good quality family time together this week. Hopefully things should be a little more sane when I'm back next week, so hopefully more updates then. I'll write a post on ATP when I'm back on Tuesday/Wednesday. No blogging or photos while I'm away though as I am (shock horror) leaving laptop at home (hopefully this will ensure I have a really good break and feel re-charged afterwards) I will have my iphone with me and will be updating how things are going via twitter

Sunday, 12 April 2009

Why do you do your job?

I am very lucky because for nearly 15 years now I have been in employment that didn't really feel like work, what I mean by that is that my interest/hobby and work have merged into the same thing. Don't get me wrong I (as everyone does) have those days when I hate the job I do, I have those mundane tasks that are just a pain, and let's say I won the lottery (with slightly more than the ten pounds I achieved this week) then I certainly wouldn't continue working, though I would probably maintain an interest in the things that I currently do. However all that said, a fair percentage of the time my work doesn't feel like work :)
This kind of came about by accident I didn't originally work with computers, it (luckily) just worked out that way in the mid 90's when a position came up in IT in the non IT company I was working in they took a chance on me. It was around 1995 that my interest in The Internet really took off but it took until 2000 before I managed to get a job in an ISP, since then I have worked in two isp's a Regional Internet Registry and currently at Nominet the .uk registry. The thing that really drives me is that to me the Internet seems to be the most important worldwide development that will happen in my lifetime it has the potential to touch and change billions of people's lives so being able to be involved both from a technical and policy/governance angle is very very interesting. I hope that makes sense to some of you.
What do you do for a living and why do you do it?


So blog posts have been a little sparse over the past few weeks. The reason behind this is that I have been studying for an exam, I took this on Wednesday and passed (with a score of 75%) and hence am now a VCP (VMWare Certified Proffesional) This required a week long intense training course, another weeks worth of self study and also a lot of hands on work. The exam was 75 questions and covered all aspects of the VMWare product range but with a focus on ESX 3.5 it was pretty hard and I was very relieved when I got the passed message at the end. My general view on these kind of qualifications is that they are much more valuable when you are younger and are trying to make a name for yourself in IT, as you get older and more experienced I think they are less important as experience counts for much more than qualifications (but both together is obviously even better)

Monday, 6 April 2009

Coming soon VMWare technology posts

Following on from my weeks worth of training on VMWare and some intense work I'm doing in that area I do intend to do a series of posts on the different features of the product, probably including:

Virtual Center
Upcoming release features

However current level of work is preventing me from attaching any priority to this, I think things will calm down later in the week so hopefully then I will get time to write the first one.

In the meantime we visited Waddesdon Manor at the weekend have posted some pictures here:

Sunday, 29 March 2009

A week in London in the Company of VMWARE

So last week I was on a VMWare fast track extended hours training course. Some blog posts on specific VMWare features will follow during the next few days but for now a general overview of a very very busy week.

Was up extremely early Monday morning (6.15 and left the house at 6.45). I got the train from Didcot but unfortunately it was delayed so I was about 20 mins late into London. Why oh Why do the trains from Oxfordshire arrive at Paddington which seems to be the arse end of London, it takes far too long to get anywhere from here.
My training was on Threadneedle street which for those who don't know is in the City (close to Liverpool Street and Bank), I finally got there at 8.45 which was 45 mins late but I guess I can't blame all of that on the train, mental note made have to get up half an hour earlier the next morning (gah 5.45). Despite my lateness I hadn't really missed much beyond basic introductions so apart from it being a little embarrasing it was ok. First day started off with basic introduction to virtualisation and the options available along with a more indepth view on the networking features available in vmware. As expected the day finished at 6.30 and I got home at 8.45 and was back in bed at mmm 10.30.

Tuesday as planned I left home 30 mins earlier and did atcually make it to the course on time, although the first 30 mins not a lot seemed to happen so rushing did seem a little like a waste of time. Got out of class a little earlier which was quiyte good but when I picked the car up at Didcot it started to make strange noises and lights were flashing on the dash that really shouldn't be flashing. I ended up getting home about 8.15, Catherine had kept Emma up so I could see her this was a really nice surprise as I thought I wasn't going to see her all week which was quite hard to take in to be honest.

Wednesday I left for Didcot slightly nervous that the car wouldn't make it all the way but this worry was unfounded it was still makign strange noises but did make it with no problems. This was to be my last ultra early morning as I was staying in a Hotel on Wed and Thu nights. Another interesting day of training was finished off with a couple of pints and a curry with Jamie (who I hadn't seen for ages)

Thursday it was a joy to have a lie in until 7am, although as usual I did not sleep well in a strange bed. Another intense day of training, I find IT training a strange experience it's either extremely challenging and difficult or very very easy, this course was mainly very easy but with the odd bit of challenge, this is hardly surprising though as I've been using VMWare products in some form or another for about 8 years.

Friday, final day woohoo it's been an interesting and enlightening week but I was glad it was drawing to a close. At lunchtime today I decided to go for a walk to Spitalfields market and see what I could find for lunch (we were given luncheon vouchers each day) when I got there I saw that one of the restaraunts was spit roasting a pig outside and selling 'pork sandwiches' for a fiver a go. So I asked the guy if he took luncheon vouchers, no problem was his reply. Off he went and carved me some very succulent looking pork and dropped it in a lovely crusty bread bun, my mouth was watering by now, so I handed over my vouchers at which point he said "oh better just check with my boss" who then decided no we don't take them, couldn't believe it could almost taste it (stil can now), it was so close. Friday did finish early which was nice and I treated myself to a 1st class ticket home (which was even nicer) and to round the day off nicely the car didn't breakdown on the way home either.

It was a very good week all in all but it was very nice to be home with Catherine and Emma for the weekend.

I'll try and blog a little this week about the cool stuff I atcually learnt about VMWare last week.