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Monday, December 14, 2009

Some minor changes, please update your RSS reader!

I'm beginning the process of "rebranding" myself across all web presences, losing the FlintZA moniker and using my real name. As part of this process, I'm also shifting to posterous as my primary blogging platform. It's been set up to forward posts to blogger, so this blog will still get all new blog post content, but I've switched my feedburner feed to use the posterous feed instead, which may include additional stuff such as image posts.
For anyone reading this on RSS this means that if you're using one of the or feeds, things should stay pretty much the same. If you're using the more recent feed, you'll likely end up seeing some additional content (image posts, etc). If you're not using the feedburner feed, please switch to that as it let's me indulge the bean-counter in me and track subscriber stats :)

An(other) Evernote "Getting Things Done" System

There are loads of great guides to setting up a GTD system in Evernote, but I found none quite suited my needs. In particular, I wanted something that would stand out within Evernote and have all my actions and items easily searchable, but still allow me to use the note-taking tool for the millions of other things it's great at without getting in the way. Here is the solution that I'm finding works well for me, it's a mashup of other solutions with modifications to suit me better.

Folders and tags
My solution hinges on five main notebooks and three (possibly four) tags that have subtags under them. Each of these is prefixed with "." to ensure they stay at the top of their respective lists (and stand out from non-GTD stuff), and kept to a single word for composing searches more easily
.Actions notebook - Where next actions are kept.
.Projects notebook - Where project actions that aren't immediately applcable are kept.
.Maybe notebook - Anything you're note sure you want or need to do (eg. cool project ideas) goes in here.
.Reference notebook - Where items that are for reference rather than actionable.
.Archive notebook (optional) - Not strictly a GTD container, I use this to still have past actions searchable, in case I want to look them up for timesheets, etc.
.Projects tag - While this may seem redundant with the .Projects notebook, it just serves to group all  GTD project tags in one place, so they don't clutter the tag view. These individual project tags can optionally also be prefixed with "." to group them in (for example) the tag editor.
.Contexts tag - Again the purpose here is to keep things uncluttered. All context tags (prefixed with "@") are subtags of this one.
.Waiting tag - Another grouping tag, contains subtags for each entity that is responsible for an action you're waiting on.
.Tickler tag (optional) - This is for those GTD practitioners that like to use ticklers, I did give it a try myself, but found that just setting reminders as events on Google Calendar (which I have everywhere thanks to syncing) suited me better. This is also a grouping tag, with 43 subtags, one for each month (Jan..Dec) and one for each day of the month (1..31).

Collection happens in whatever form suits you. Whatever you prefer, chances are Evernote has a tool to import your captures. For PC based captures, use one of the clipping plugins or the global "Add to evernote" keyboard shortcut. For paper captures, a scanner combined with Evernote's "File Import" settings does the trick nicely. Most other cases should be covered by whichever mobile client is appropriate to your cellphone.

Process & Organize
When processing inboxes or "buckets", consider each item in sequence:
  1. If the item can just be discarded, do so.
  2. If the item can be delegated, do so. If it is part of a broader project and will need to be followed up on, add it to the .Projects notebook and tag it with a relevant project tag (from .Projects) and a tag indicating the person responsible (from .Waiting). Optionally add tickler tags (from .Tickler) corresponding to when the item needs to be followed up on.
  3. If the item can and should be done and will take a very short time (GTD guideline is two minutes) do it immediately.
  4. If the item can and should be done and has no preceding actions or dependancies, add it to the .Actions notebook, tagged with a context (from .Contexts) such as @home or @work and optionally tagged with a relevant project tag (from the .Projects tags).
  5. If the item can and should be done, but has prerequisite actions or dependancies, add it to the .Projects notebook, tagged with relevant project and context tags. Optionally also add waiting and tickler tags.
  6. If the item is just for reference add it to .Reference, possibly tagged with project tags.
  7. If it's unclear whether the item can be or has to be acted on, add it to the .Maybe notebook, optionally tagging it with appropriate project, context and tickler tags.
Weekly review is straightforward. Just select the .Projects notebook and work through the items in it. Selecting one of the project tags will limit the view to items for that project, and if any of the items in the current view have been delegated, one or more waiting tags will be highlighted in the list.
If you're using the tickler tags, daily review is very similar, just select the .Projects notebook and both the appropriate month and day tags and all items you deferred to this day are displayed.

To determine the next appropriate action in any given context, simply select the .Actions notebook, and the appropriate tag in .Contexts. So as an example, to determine what your first task is when you get to work in the morning, select the .Actions notebook and the @work tag. As tasks are completed, simply archive or delete them.
This can be greatly simplified, especially for access on mobile clients (think @shops) by adding saved searches in Evernote. For the above example just add a saved search with the query  notebook:.Actions tag:"@work". Completed actions should be moved to the .Archive notebook or deleted.

Posted via email from Matt's posterous

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

iPhone vs Nokia: Packaging and contents

This is the first in a series of comparative posts looking at the iPhone and how it compares to a typical Nokia Symbian device, the N96. While I realize that the N97 would probably be a closer match, I firstly don't own one and secondly feel that the N96 is a better example of Nokia's common Symbian devices. The N96 is (or was) also positioned by Nokia as a very similar device to the iPhone with regards to functionality, focusing on media, navigation and gaming.

Steve Jobs and his Cupertino company are known for their love of simplicity (much to the chagrin of two-button mouse users) and this apparently carries through to their packaging choices. The iPhone, despite being some 30% larger than the N95 comes in a box less than half the size. Naturally due to this diminutive size the device and accessories are tightly packed and the amount of additional inner packaging is negligible. Nokia on the other hand have lots of breathing room in their box, and the device even rests in an angled display-like cardboard partition, the partitioned compartments housing accessories liberally packaged. Nokia could really learn a lesson here from Apple in keeping waste to a minimum.

In addition to the actual device, both packages include a number of accessories. The Nokia includes a wall charger, USB adapter cable, car charger (a nice touch) and wired hands free kit. The headphone component of the handsfree kit can be swapped out with any wired headset using a standard jack, which is welcome to anyone that doesn't enjoy the feel of the included set. The inline handsfree control has buttons for volume, stop/resume, fast-forward and fast-back, as well as the main action button used to answer or end a call, or to trigger voice recognition (by holding it down for an extended time). The playback controls take some getting used to, but in general do the job.
The iPhone also comes bundled with a charger of course, but it quite smartly makes use of the included USB adapter cable, eliminating the need for an extra coil of cabling. No car charger is included, which is a bit of a pity since it could easily just have used the USB cable in the same way. The included earplug handsfree kit is exceedingly simple-perhaps too much so for such an expensive device. The plugs are basic, but offer crisp and clear sound quality. The inline controls are not as extensive as the Nokia's, and are barely thicker than the earphone cables. The whole arrangement has a cheap feel, and looks as if it would be easily damaged. This is one area where Nokia really wins hands down.

Bundled Software
Whether it be for backing up essential contacts, notes and calendar data or transferring media to and from the phone, software which allows devices as complex as these to interact with a PC (or Mac) are an essential part of the package. Nokia caters for this need out of the box, including their comprehensive PC Suite software on a CD in the box. For Windows users (i.e. the vast majority of computer users) getting everything set up is as simple as popping in the disk, installing the suite and attaching the phone with the provided USB cable. The suite includes, among others, music management software, backup tools, data sync tools and a messaging interface. Internet connected users will be able to download and install the latest maps and software updates to their phone with relative ease (provided they're not behind a corporate firewall, since Nokia still doesn't support ISA servers). The suite also includes all necessary drivers for the phone to be used as a 3G modem, and setting this up is dead simple.
The iPhone, on the other hand, takes it's simplicity a little too far. There is no PC (or even Mac) software at all in the box. The buyer is expected to download and install iTunes for whatever platform they intend to use the phone with. This is a large download, and for users without internet access or with expensive 3G access (not unlikely at all) this is a bit of a slap in the face. Once iTunes is installed, music and other media is of course easily transferred, and data is easily synchronized with common applications, but the solution is nowhere near as robust as Nokia's. Once again, Nokia comes out on top.

Additional goodies
Nokia have begun bundling some decent extras with their phones, and the N96 is no exception. The South African bundle includes the full Transformers movie, a license for N-Gage Tetris and a year's mapping license (more on that in a future post). iPhone comes with exactly zip in this line. For a phone marketed on it's music, gaming and navigation capabilities this is really disappointing. Nokia wins again.

That's it for this post, next up I'll have a look at the phones' general appearance and construction, as well as ease of use.

Posted via email from Matt's posterous

Thursday, November 26, 2009

I'm still alive

Believe it or not I haven't dropped off the face of the earth :)
We've been very busy at I-Imagine porting Football Genius. This has left me with pretty much zero time to do anything but eat, sleep and commute-and even the first two of those have suffered. The good news is there's light at the end of the tunnel and things have been easing off. I also  have tons of  new geek stuff to blog about, since I'm prepping to be able to dabble in iPhone development . This of course requires an iPhone (duh) and a Mac (scaly Apple!) so I've kitted out with a shiny new MacBook and IPhone 3Gs 16 Gb. I'm hoping to do a series of posts comparing the N-series and iPhone experiences. Also on the horizon is some Symbian dev, so who knows, maybe a something on that :)
In less Techy news, our broody chicken (yes we have a chicken, keep up) has hatched out an egg -kindly donated since she hasn't had any sordid rooster encounters- which is kind of cool. It amazes me that  her mothering instinct kicks in regardless of the egg's origins. I suppose this is why cuckoos are so successful. We'd actually like to see if this will work with eggs from another species, specifically guinea fowl as I think they would be a nice addition to the garden-and we could still get edible eggs from them.

Posted via email from Matt's posterous

Monday, October 05, 2009

Value for money Xbox 360 gaming

One of the benefits of console gaming has always been that unlike a gaming PC, once you invest in the hardware, you shouldn't need to upgrade for the life of the console (anywhere from ten to five years). Unfortunately this can be offset by horribly expensive games thanks to reasons including the console manufacturers subsidizing their loss-making hardware with a royalty on each game, distributors having to physically import the games instead of being able to burn them locally, and unfavorable exchange rates.
For this reason it's worth spending a bit of time considering which games will get you the most bang for your buck, and I thought I'd list a couple that I've found to be particularly good value for money. This is by no means a comprehensive list, for the most part I've avoided listing games I have not played.

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
This can't help but be top of the list. Oblivion is an RPG set in a huge fantasy world populated with (quite literally) hundreds of locations including 8 cities, loads of little hamlets and tons of dungeons, ruins, mines, Oblivion gates and more. The character and item systems are rich and complex, providing for many different ways to play the game. Besides the main quest (which is lengthy enough on it's own) there are many side quests of varying length, guaranteeing (again, literally) hundreds of gameplay hours for anyone who wants to spend the time exploring every corner of the Oblivion world.
Oblivion was a '360 launch title and still holds on to the number 5 spot on Metacritic's list of all-time high scoring Xbox 360 titles (with a score of 94). It is now a bargain bin game that you should be able to pick up for R300 or less.
A more recent alternative to Oblivion by the same developers is Fallout 3 (which I've yet to play). Set in a post-nuclear wasteland, Fallout 3 should boast a wealth of gameplay similar to that of Oblivion. Fallout 3 scored 93 on Metacritic and is at number 10 in their All Time High Scores list.

Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords
Another RPG, but this time downloadable and with more casual-inspired core gamplay, Puzzle Quest takes the match-3 mechanic popularized by the likes of Bejewelled and adds a more "hardcore" element to it. All actual battles and other tasks in the game are carried out by playing match-3 sessions, but are spiced up with spells and abilities the player's character earns as they work their way through the story. Mounts, magical items and party members all contribute to the strategy.
Besides following the main storyline, many side quests are available to the player. Cities may be besieged and dungeons raided for loot, all contributing to character level and skills. This is another game with many, many hours of deep single player gameplay, but it has the added benefit of a multiplayer component which also works very well.
While not a 90+ scorer on Metacritic, Puzzle Quest eans a very respectable 87 and is cheap at the price of 1200 MS points (about R120).
The recent pseudo-sequel, Puzzle Quest: Galactrix offers similar value for money, but is much less accessible than the original, using a more complex core gameplay mechanic. It scored a 76 on Metacritic.

Guitar Hero / Rock Band
Value for money doesn't necessarily mean cheap. Even with the extra cost of hardware needed for the Guitar Hero and Rock Band series of games, they will provide more than enough solo and multiplayer gameplay to justify the initial outlay. It will cost around R1500 to buy one of these titles and two guitar peripherals (necessary to get maximum enjoyment and value).
The value in these games comes from the many hours of playing through each of the songs again and again to earn better scores and improve your skills, as well as from the many more hours you will spend playing the game with family and friends. The instantly accessible concept of playing along with a band, and the easy-to-grasp mechanic of hitting buttons on the controller as gems pass the time-line make these games easy for almost anyone to start playing. The initial embarrassment of standing up in front of everyone holding a plastic guitar is soon replaced by the thrill of feeling like you're actually making this awesome music.
Just about everyone that has played Guitar Hero when visiting us has ended up buying the game for themselves (many of these are not normally gamers), and when friends come over it's a given that we'll be playing into the wee hours of the morning.
The highest rated GH and RB games on MetaCritic are Guitar Hero II and Rock Band I,  each scoring 92, but any of the games will do. Your best bet is to pick a title based on the track list you'll most enjoy.

Halo 3
Despite the hype by Microsoft, Halo 3 really didn't offer anything significant in terms of new gameplay. It's basically a prettier sequel that plays almost identically to it's predecessors. What the hype did help to deliver though, was an enormous community of online players. While communities come and go for most games, Halo 3 is one title in which you are pretty much guaranteed to be able to go online and find a game to join-and thanks to some really good net' code, even though most of those games will be international, you should have a good online experience. Halo 3's Metacritic rating of 94 is probably way higher than it deserves, but it is a fun shooter, with great multiplayer options that should keep you busy for quite some time if you're willing to replay it on the tougher difficulty levels. It's also a game that you can pick up for a song at most retailers.

There are obviously many other games that offer great value by mixing in multiplayer, long campaigns and replay incentives, but I've found the ones listed here to be particularly good value in my case, feel free to mention alternatives that are similarly worth more than their asking price.

Posted via email from Matt's posterous

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Plugging the trickle and ignoring the torrent

South Africa is again set to get stricter smoking laws, including making it illegal to smoke pretty much anywhere that's even remotely public, graphic warnings on boxes, and other anti-puff actions. As a non-smoker, I'm all for this. I look forward to going to a restaurant in summer and not having the pleasant outdoor areas reserved for those slowly killing themselves off by tarring their lungs. I also applaud the stricter rules regarding smoking around children and heavier fines. There are those who are skeptical about how effective and policeable these laws will be, but then there were skeptics when SA first started clamping down on smokers, and look how our culture has adjusted to the changes.
I really have no complaints about the emphasis being placed on regulating such a dangerous, selfish habit. What concerns me is that something far bigger gets almost no media or legal focus in this country-tackling climate change. Cigarette smoke (primary and secondary) is proven to cause numerous health conditions and shorten lifespans-but how worthwhile will these extended, healthier lifespans be if within a couple of decades we'll be dealing with serious food and water shortages and an onslaught of climate refugees? Will we look back and pat ourselves on the back for dealing harshly with cigarette smokers or will we realize we should have been placing at least as much emphasis, if not a lot more on cutting down emissions to prevent reaching the climate tipping point.
We hear on the news how Eskom is currently reporting back to parliament on their struggles with coal shortages-yet their expansion program focuses on new coal power and the pie-in-the-sky pebble bed nuclear reactor. The SA government even refuses to agree to carbon emission limitations for fear that it would impact this expansion process. Where are the safe, cost effective, renewable and future-proof solar-thermal projects that would go hand-in-hand with emission limits?
We hear of the poor in need of jobs, housing, clean water and sanitation, and that another reason for refusing emission limits is to avoid stunting economic growth. How much worse will their plight become when the price of foodstuffs skyrocket as agriculture is brought to it's knees by a warmer, drier climate in our country and our already limited water sources begin to dwindle. Will their new jobs at newly built coal stations pay enough to cover the cost of bread at record highs?
Our politicians aspire to an Americanized way of life with multiple cars, big houses and an endless cycle of buying and disposing of stuff they don't really need-in turn providing materialistic role models to millions of up-and-coming young black individuals who follow their example. Why when the American lifestyle of greed, waste and excess has brought our planet to the brink of extinction are we trying to emulate it instead of developing and modernizing the sustainable traditional African way of living, with a focus on community instead of personal wealth and advancement.
We have shown through the progressive legal and cultural change in attitude towards smoking in this country that South Africa can be a cultural leader and an example of  positive lifestyle change, now why can't we apply the same effort and enthusiasm to combating the environmental crisis that we face? As John Robbie asked recently on his morning show, why aren't we making "rock stars" of the individuals who are making it their life's purpose to combat climate change? Why can't we pull climate change out of the "funny stories and science bits" end-of-the-newscast status it has and bring it center stage, to be dealt with using strong laws and cultural change? Unless we do that very soon, we will see South Africa face a steady decline as all the gains made over the last couple of years are lost to the effects a changing climate will have on social stability.

Posted via email from Matt's posterous

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Browsing on a Bandwidth Budget

Despite the recent landing of the SEACOM cable and operators rolling out their own local infrastructure, it's easy to forget that many local users are still severely bandwidth constrained, be it due to corporate policies or restrictive internet packages-if only at the end of the month when we start watching that limited bandwidth allocation tick down to zero.
The good news is that one of the best things that the explosion of cellular internet has resulted in many major websites and services to implement low bandwidth versions of their offerings to grab that precious mobile browsing market share. All a bandwidth-limited web user needs to do is get into the habit of using these mobile versions in their PC browser when bandwidth starts getting tight.
Bookmarks and the All-in-One Firefox Sidebar
Firefox's All-in-One Sidebar extension is a great host for these mobile-formatted sites. The narrow view is very much like the screen they were designed for and the text wrapping logic that often makes them unreadable in a full size browser screen works well within the sidebar's limits.
Mobile website sometimes have crazy URLs hidden behind automatic agent detection scripts triggered when the top level URL is visited, so it's worth storing these in a bookmark once they have been tracked down. I use the bookmark toolbar exclusively for these mini-sites.
In Firefox 3.5 the process is very simple:
1. Visit the mobile page you want to bookmark as normal, by entering the URL directly into the address bar or following a link.
2. Click the star icon in the address bar once to bookmark the page, and then a second time to bring up the bookmark parameters.
3. In the "Folder" drop-down list, choose "Bookmarks Toolbar" and click "Done". The bookmark favicon and title should now be visible in your bookmarks toolbar.
4. Right click on the icon for your new icon and select "Properties" to open the extended properties for the bookmark.
5. (optional) If, like me, you prefer to keep your toolbar label-less (the favicon makes it quite clear which site the bookmark represents), clear the "Name" field.
6. Check "Load this bookmark in the sidebar", and click "Save".
You should now have a simple button with the site's favicon that when clicked opens the site in your sidebar.
Sidebar everything with Google Reader
Some of the biggest browsing bandwidth hogs are the unnecessary stock images and huge banners (ads or otherwise) displayed on many websites. All you really want is the content after all. A great way to cut down on all that bandwidth leeching is to subscribe to the RSS feeds of your favorite sites in Google Reader and use Google Reader's great iPhone version ( or generic mobile version ( in your sidebar as above. Some sites do limit their RSS articles to just be a summary of the main articles, but at least in those cases you're just getting hit for the articles you actually want to read.
Other google services
Google has implemented mobile versions of just about all their services, and direct URLs for some of them can be found here. If there's anything missing, chances are visiting the main URL on your mobile (i.e.,, etc) and then using the resulting URL should work just fine.
Sidebar social networking
Social networking sites often have some of the best mobile website implementations. As an example I find Facebook's mobile version is actually more useful for quickly getting in, checking messages and notifications, and getting out. URLs for some of the popular services include:
FriendFeed (third party):
Ebuddy (for chat across many services):
You'll notice that very often the mobile site url is simply and that's usually a good starting point to track down whatever mobile site you're looking for.

Saturday, August 22, 2009


As fantastic as XBMC is, we found a shortcoming recently when Natz picked up an MP3 player to use at work. XP's handling of FTP servers mapped as a drive is horrible, and since XBMC doesn't implement a SAMBA server there was no easy way for her to access al the the CDs I laboriously ripped to it.

I initially tried to pick up an inexpensive off the shelf NAS enclosure, a Vantex Nexstar LS. It turned out that the enclosure doesn't implement any kind of TCPIP networking, but rather requires the installation of a driver on windows and mac based machines to access it. Funnily enough Vantec spin this as being more convenient than 'complicated network settings'. I suppose they've never heard of DHCP. Anyway, after that disappointment, and with 'proper' NAS enclosures being a bit more expensive than I could justify splashing out on I took @dreamfoundry's advice and checked out FreeNAS.
As it's name suggests, FreeNAS is a free NAS server, supporting an impressive array of sharing protocols, including Samba, FTP, UPnP and many more, numerous data security solutions are included as well. The server is implemented as a lightweight FreeBSD distribution with a web interface to the core components. The entire installation weighs in at a little over 32MB and requires a measly 96MB of system memory to run. The machine I resurrected to install it on is a humble old AMD 800MHz box with 384Mb ram.
The initial installation is basic, simply burn the image available on the download page to disc, and boot the target machine on it. Select the appropriate installation type from the menu presented (I installed to one of the hard drives but a USB is available for machines with USB boot support). After the short installation process and reboot, a menu is once again presented which includes the option to set the IP address (or enable DHCP). From here on in it's time to start up a browser on another machine on the network and continue the setup through the web interface (default username and password are admin and freenas respectively).
By default no drives or sharing services are set up. These must first be added (Disks->Management) and assigned mount points (Disks->Mount Points). Finally, services can be enabled from the Services menu. Each service has it's own required settings, but they're all pretty self explanatory.
The entire setup process shouldn't take more than half an hour from start to finish. For a more complete setup discussion this guide is a really great resource (though the look of the server has changed since it was written). The end result is a NAS solution that just works, and is extendable with a number of addons available from the forums.

Posted via email from Matt's posterous

Thursday, August 13, 2009

We will resume normal programming shortly..

The last six weeks or so have been really rough. Our (as yet unannounced) Xbox title is on the verge of release. As any game developer (and many other programmers) will tell you, end of project is pretty much a time in your life where everything other than work ceases to exist. Things are finally winding down a bit though (though the PS3 implementation will keep us busy), so I've finally had a chance to get some home geekiness done. I'll be at the coast this weekend, but next week I should be able to get a post done on my recent FreeNAS installation.

Until then, the only thing I have to say is: congrats Paulus and Liques, I'm sure you guys brought an amazing little one into the world, and the world is already a better place as a result :) Congrats!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Tech Tuesday.. erm Wednesday: Dell Inspiron Mini 9 Netbook

Natz has long needed a new computer of her own, as she's been using a combination of hand-me-downs and 'loaners' for ages now. She just needed something to do office work and web browsing on, with portability being a plus for presentations and a webcam for Skype use if possible. I've kept an eye out for a system that would meet our budget and get the job done, and that paid off last week when I saw has the Dell Inspiron Mini 9 on sale for a very reasonable R3399. I did the obligatory geek research, and after reading a number of very positive reviews and trawling forums in vain for serious complaints we decided to order one.

The full specs of the machine are as follows (straight from the Kalahari product page, with a few additions ;) ):

  • 8.9" Widescreen WSVGA
  • Intel® Atom N270 (1.6GHz,533MHz,512KB)
  • 1GB 800MHz DDR2 RAM
  • 8GB SSD Hard Drive
  • 802.11 (b/g) & BLUETOOTH
  • 1.3MP Webcam
  • Intel® Integrated GMA 950
  • 4-cell 32WHr Battery
  • 3 USB ports
  • Built in SD Card reader
  • VGA port


My only initial concern was the small amount of storage space, and I imagined myself trawling the web for heavily optimised versions of Windows XP and MS Office (I've tried Natz on Ubuntu and OpenOffice and she just prefers the MS alternatives). So with that worry hanging over me, I set about preparing the new arrival for Natz' use. The initial Windows XP setup was really slow for some reason, which got me worrying about the Atom's performance, but once that was done and Windows itself started up, my concerns began to fade.

Checking the available disk space, I found a little under half of the 8Gb to be available, and disabling hibernation (which I have had endless trouble with and consider a waste of space and energy) freed up another gig.

One big advantage of the limited space is that manufacturers can't clog the system up with bloatware, the only applications I had to remove were the preinstalled MacAfee Antivirus trial (which I replaced with Avast 4 Home Edition) and Adobe Acrobat Reader (replaced with Foxit Reader portable). I also installed VLC Portable as a snappier and more flexible alternative to Windows Media Player. My preference for portable applications was largely so that I could simply relocate as much as possible to an SD card should the need for extra storage arise, but I do find they have other advantages too, such as not cluttering up the registry.

After initial attempts to use the preinstalled IE6, and having concerns pop up again about performance due to it's sluggishness and stability issues, I looked into browser options. With Firefox becoming quite a resource hog of late, and Natz not needing any of the extensions I find essential, it quickly became clear that Portable Google Chrome would be the best choice. The difference was immense, Chrome started up almost instantly, made excellent use of the limited screen real estate and was solid as a rock. There is no portable alternative to Skype as far as I'm aware (at least not one that supports video) so I installed the default version.

To allow Natz to use her phone as a 3G modem when she's not at home, I installed the SonyEricsson PC suite (just installing the drivers and trying to set up a standard system PPoE connection didn't work out too well.. oh for standard Ubuntu tools). The final big install was Microsoft Office 2003, which I was concerned would chew up a huge amount of space. As it turns out, the default installs of Word, Excel and PowerPoint came in at around 350Mb, which I consider perfectly acceptable.

The only additional performance tweak I needed to make was bumping the virtual memory up from the default of 200 Megs to a more sensible (but still tight) 512 megs.


Once everything is set up, this little machine runs like an absolute dream. I didn't go as far as actually benchmarking anything, I was more concerned with perceived performance so I wouldn’t have to deal with "why's it taking so long" issues. Keep in mind this machine is not intended to play games or do heavy multimedia work (we have an Xbox 360 after all).

Boot time into Windows XP is around 20 seconds. As mentioned before Chrome startup is all but instant, and of course it's renderer is blisteringly fast. Word, Excel and PowerPoint all start up quickly and are completely responsive as expected at all times. Browsing files on the SSD or an inserted SD card or USB is fast and problem free. The only app which seemed slow to start up was Skype, but I'd put that down to their overblown interface. Running more than the browser and an office app or two simultaneously probably wouldn't be the best idea, but that wouldn't be expected of a machine like this. Even shutdown, which is notoriously sluggish on XP is pretty quick.

Battery life on the Mini has also impressed me. Not having to run disk based storage and a larger screen, the device manages to squeeze around 4 hours of WiFi-connected use out of a full charge. This combined with the Mini 9's under 2kg mass has led to an almost cellphone-like usage pattern for Natz. She typically charges it in the evening, and then uses it the morning and evening while at home, moving it to the kitchen, lounge or wherever she happens to be. In the past, using a full size notebook, she would have typically just used the notebook in her study rather than lug it around.


One of the primary issues I looked out for in reviews and forums before buying the Mini 9 was keyboard comfort. I was concerned the squashed keyboard would make typing extremely uncomfortable. Fortunately Dell did a good job in this case, and while it's certainly not quite as comfortable and intuitive as a full size notebook keyboard, the Mini's keyboard is more than sufficient for online chatting and the odd bit of document work. The screen size is also great for web browsing and even reading documents.

For serious typing work, a USB or Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, and a monitor connected via the VGA port transform the mini into a standard desktop machine. The Mini can output to both it's own screen and an external monitor at it's default 1024x600 resolution, or just the external at more common resolutions. It performed just fine running at 1280x1024 on Natz' 19" CRT refreshing at 75hz.

One thing that struck me about this machine is it's noise level-there simply is none. I have never worked on any PC or notebook this quiet. With no disk based storage and no fans whatsoever, the Mini 9 is literally dead silent. This does come at a (negligible) cost, namely that the machine gets warm due to the lack of fans, but less so than my own P4 which I can't rest on my lap for fear of third degree burns!


I couldn't not test Ubuntu on the Mini with all the discussion currently going on around the perfect netbook OS. Of course with 8Gb of storage dual booting wasn't an option, so I loaded up a USB Live installation created in my own 9.04 install. Load time was painfully slow, even worse than it usually is with a Live CD (though it should be quick with a full installation), but the wait was more than worth it! Ubuntu ran snappily, comfortably running multiple office applications, video player and firefox simultaneously without any sign of slowing down. To put it simply, if this was my machine, I'd be replacing XP with Ubuntu in a heartbeat, especially with the focus in the upcoming 9.10 release being on getting it performing even better on netbooks.


I have had my reservations about the whole netbook market, but the Dell Mini 9 has sold me on the smaller-than-notebooks form factor. This little machine is more than powerfull enough for office tasks and browsing, and paired with a decent monitor, keyboard and mouse fills both the portable and desktop roles beautifully. Ultimately, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and Natz is absolutely loving this device.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Tech Tuesday: Social media integration for gamers

Last week at E3, Microsoft announced they will soon (US Autumn) be updating the Xbox 360 dashboard to integrate with Facebook, Twitter and Last.FM. Some of the integration they’re talking about looks pretty damned awesome, including to most of Facebook’s photo and profile information (Natz will never leave my poor Xbox alone..), posting to Twitter from your ‘360 and, probably coolest of all for those of us that listen to music on our consoles, posting your music listening info to Last.FM. This all sounds really awesome, but while we wait for some console-based social networking goodness, there’s a fantastic service called Raptr that shares info in the other direction.

Raptr allows you to create a single gamer identity that pulls together identities on some of the most popular gaming services, including Xbox Live, Playstation Network, Wii, Steam and World of Warcraft . Once you provide your credentials, each of these services is monitored and when you start playing a game or do something interesting on one of them (such as unlock an achievement) this information is posted on any of a number of social networks. Besides allowing you to do a bit of geek boasting to any of your friends that may pick up on it, this has the added advantage of letting friends who might want to join you that you’re playing. It also acts as a microblogging social network in it’s own right, with the ability to post updates on the site and message other users.

Raptr also keeps track of your activity and does a bit of slicing and dicing, presenting you with an interesting dashboard view of your gaming habits. This information is also used to narrow down players that may have similar interests and might be of interest to you, and also new games that you may enjoy.

Finally, there is the Raptr PC client. In addition to monitoring your PC gaming habits to share them on your networks of choice, the client helps keep track of patches for games and ensure that you have the latest patches for your PC titles.

Raptr is well worth checking out for any connected gamer, if only to get a realistic view of your gaming habits (damn, maybe I DO game too much :p)

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Tech Tuesday: N96 Navigation and Geocaching

One of the focal points of the N96 marketing campaign is it's built in GPS and mapping software. The GPS is a feature inherited from the N95, but unlike the older model the N96 comes packaged with a license for a year's free navigation. While some would argue a feature like turn-by-turn navigation should be a given for any product marketing itself as a GPS (among other things), at current Nokia navigation prices this 'extra' adds just over R900 in value to the N96 package.

The N95's GPS was notorious for taking an incredibly long time (sometimes over 10 minutes) to determine the user's current location, rendering it fairly useless as a means of quickly determining a way home when lost in some dodgy part of town. The addition of AGPS did help somewhat, but the lock on could still be sluggish. This has all been corrected on the N96, and the GPS usually finds the current location in well under 30 seconds, even with online access disabled.

Once a location has been obtained, using the mapping software (Nokia Maps) to navigate to a preconfigured or newly searched-for location is as simple as clicking the middle button and selecting "drive to". Nokia Maps will quickly determine a route according to your preferred settings (highway enabled or disabled, optimal or shortest route, etc). This routing is done on the device if the relevant maps are already downloaded (using the PC based Nokia Maps Downloader, or more direct 'unofficial' methods that unlike the Nokia software can bypass a network proxy). If the map data is not available on the device, and internet access is enabled, the route will be determined online instead. With the 16Gb built in storage there really is no reason to not download the (free) maps for the whole region and remove the need for online access altogether. Routes can be dynamically modified by adding or removing route waypoints. Points can be added from stored favorites, from the map by scrolling to the desired point or through the search interface.

While following an application-determined route, the voice prompts are clear and accurate, and the maps application quickly adjusts to any mistakes you might make by recalculating a new route. Should there be an obstruction ahead, or you wish to modify the route to avoid or prefer highways, the option to do so is literally a click away and the route is recalculated for you. One routing element that is missing in SA is traffic information. This is a real pity, as with the roadworks currently going on along all major routes, locals and particularly visitors would benefit from automatic route adjustment to avoid our plentiful traffic jams.

The maps themselves are accurate and up-to-date. In addition to road data there is a wealth of point-of-interest data. Everything from city, suburb and street names to tourist spots, shopping malls and emergency facilities are easily available through the search bar on the main GPS screen. The search itself could definitely do with some improvement though and strangely enough when using it, less is often more. For example entering "Fourways mall" will return no results, but enter "Fourways" and you'll get a number of results including "Fourways shopping mall". This is not a major gripe, but would be worth improving.

In addition to Nokia Maps, the N96 includes (hidden in the Tools->Connectivity menu) the GPS data applican which will display current location, movement and trip distance information and a handy compass. Landmarks can also be edited manually in the separate Landmarks application. These tools are perfect for pen-and-paper geocachers that prefer to use basic GPS tools to find caches, allowing them to plan ahead by storing cache coordinates as landmarks, and when closer find them with the compass.

Those geocachers who don't mind their tools doing the gruntwork for them will find that Trimble's Geocache Navigator works beautifully on the N96, and provides a great way to quickly locate nearby caches. The application checks the geocache database for caches within a set distance of the current location as reported by the phone's GPS. For each of the resulting caches, the cache description and details can be displayed, along with the associated hint and logs. A map view displays the cache against a map backdrop (sadly the app's street database doesn't seem to include SA), and compass and radar views help to narrow down the cache location. Caches can be marked as found or not found directly from the app, and these logs can be later claimed and modified on the website.

The N96 does an excellent job of replacing a standalone GPS, both for street navigation and for geocaching, and in the latter case is probably a superior choice. The one very serious drawback is that the N96's battery gets drained at a rapid pace while using the GPS reciever, and it's absolutely essential to have a way to charge the phone as needed (the included car charger helps here) or carrying a spare battery.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Podcasts I’m listening to

Thanks to our office move last week and my home ADSL only being fixed yesterday after almost two weeks of downtime (I’m looking at you, Telkom and WebAfrica, I’d better get a discount this month!), the Nokia Music Store and N96 Geocaching and Navigation articles have been somewhat delayed. As a (once again, poor) substitute, in answer to @Fengol’s query, I thought I’d list the podcasts I’m listening to on my new ~45km commute, these are in the (apparently random) order in which my N96’s podcasting application lists them.

Just Vocabulary

Suggested by @tianatweets, this podcast aims to increase your English vocabulary. This could be really helpful for writers and anyone who has to get creative with the English language, and of course an expanded vocab’ couldn’t hurt the average man either.


Keeping with languages, but switching to Chinese, ChinesePod offers great resources for learning Mandarin. The lessons on their site range from the basics for newbies, to more advanced users. The radio-quality audio lessons are free, with a premium option making cd-quality lessons and supporting material such as dialog notes available. I have been working through the newbie lessons for a couple of weeks (with the goal of eventually being able to better communicate with my Tai Chi instructor), but only recently discovered the podcast, which offers a somewhat random mix of lessons from different levels. There are other language sites available in the “pod” network, including which was the first I was exposed to and is also excellent.

Slashdot Review

Probably the first podcast I ever listened to, SDR started out as a podcast reviewing daily news on the geek site Slashdot. It has since evolved to include content from Digg and other sites. What I enjoy about SDR is that it doesn’t just cover tech, but also other (equally geeky) topics from these sites.

Talk Radio 702

It may seem redundant to listen to podcasts of a radio station in my car, when I could just tune into the station, but there are some specific 702 features which are on during the workday when it’s not practical for me to listen to them. In particular I enjoy the Green Tip, Naked Scientist and Week that Wasn’t on Redi Direko’s show.

TGN: Reflections

Another one I’ve yet to listen to, Reflections is a collection of daily bible readings.

The Joystiq Podcast

The Joystiq blog is a great place to keep up with all things gaming, and their podcast is a good way to keep tabs on the big news in the gaming industry. It’s also cool hearing an SA accent in amongst the others when @LudwigK pitches in ;)

The Naked Scientists

In my high school days, Bill Nye was desperately trying to make science cool-and failing miserably. These days we have the The Naked Scientists, and I believe they do a damned good job. Besides the short Q&A session on 702, The Naked Scientists do of course have their own show covering new discoveries in science and it’s well worth a listen.

We Your People, Ours the Journey

These are the sermons of Rebecca Clark, aka @pastorbecca, a Methodist pastor in the US. I really enjoy her sincere, sensible and common sense lessons which take cognisance of the world as it is today. If you’re looking for a decent spiritual podcast you can’t go wrong with this one.

The ZA Tech Show

There are a number of local tech focussed shows these days, and many of them are quite good, but I find the ZATS to be particularly entertaining and informative. This is due in no small part to the regular involvement of  Simon Dingle, Jon Tullet, Brett Haggard and Duncan McCleod, collectively some of the best informed individuals in the local ICT industry today-well they do a damned good job of pretending to be at least ;)

[Update 02/05/2009]

I got a call from WebAfrica yesterday, and it seems they keep an ear very close to the ground when it comes to people talking their service levels. They picked up on my mention of downtime in this post and decided to give me a discount on my bill for last month.

Nicely done WebAfrica, once again I’m reminded why I’ve enjoyed using your services for the last 3 years and recommended you to others on many occasions.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Tech Tuesday: Vodacom’s banner injection still a (minor) pain

As I mentioned last week, we’re swamped at work, so this’ll be a super quick post. I’ve been trying for some time to find a good Last.FM scrobbler for my Nokia N96 (since I now use it as my primary music player). Sadly, every app I’ve tried has had network issues (this includes Mobbler, Vodafone Scrobbler, and Strands Mobile Player).

This morning I had a bit of a eureka moment and checked my access point settings (maybe all the talk of Vodacom’s JSE listing led my mind in that direction), and It turns out my hunch was right. It’s been a while since the whole Vodacom Banner Injection debacle, and after switching to the N96 the proxy setting hadn’t occurred to me. This is something of a testament in Vodacom’s favour, since other than the scrobbler issues I’ve really had no web problems. I would guess though that there are other apps out there that might be affected. So if you are having trouble signing in to third party services or applications, try visiting my previous post on the topic and following the instructions for removing the proxy setting, it might just be the fix you needed.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Empty day

We're working towards a bit of a monster deadline next week, so no tech
stuff today I'm afraid. It's quite possible there won't be one next week
either unless I get to it this weekend and delay the post.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Tech Tuesday: Shozu

I am convinced that one of the greatest additions to mobile phones has to have been built in cameras (the next truly useful big thing will be built in projectors, mark my words, but that's a whole other topic). The best camera you have is the one you have on you, and chances are if it's built into your phone it's always handy. One of the advantages of those gorgeous digital prints and videos you take with your cameraphone is that you can share them with anyone, on just about any platform-Facebook, email, Flickr, Twitter, your own website, the list goes on. Unfortunately the task of actually uploading media to all of these sites can quickly become tedious, especially if you want to add metadata such as tags and descriptions on each service.

Enter Shozu, the one sharing application to rule them all.

What is it?

In short, Shozu allows you to upload images and video directly from your phone to any of over 40 different sharing services, as well as to email addresses and FTP servers. I'm not going to list all the supported sites here, but suffice it to say Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Picasa and YouTube are just a few of the better known services in a massive list.

Shozu is a free application available for a large selection of phones. I use the Symbian version on my N96 (and all screenshots in this article will be from that version), but the Java version for other phones works just as well (minus some integration) and of course there is an iPhone version as well.

Why would I want to use it?

There are a number of reasons to use Shozu. First and foremost is that it's an easy way to send your photos and videos to all the services you use without having to first copy them to your PC and then upload them with each site's (often clunky) upload interface. Shozu offers a single, quick, clean interface to easily add metadata (including geotags) and upload items.

Additionally, Shozu is designed to be really data efficient. It can optionally upload scaled down images and each item is only sent over the network once, if uploaded to additional sites the upload happens straight from Shozu's servers. The application also offers smart management of access points, so if for example you have a WiFi capable phone, you can prioritize WiFi connections over relatively expensive GPRS connections.

Finally, as an added bonus, you can use Shozu to keep up to date with many of your social networks. After adding sites like Flickr, Twitter and Facebook to the application, you can subscribe to feeds of friends' updates, comments, statuses and photos.

How does it work?

Using Shozu involves 4 steps: downloading and installing the application, creating an account, adding sites and uploading media.

1. Downloading and installing

The easiest way to download the application is from Shozu's mobile site (, though the download can be fairly large (around 10Mb for the Symbian version) so if downloading on a PC is possible it's worth the effort [removed as corrected by Shozu's Manny]

2. Creating an account

Creating an account can be done by providing new login details the first time Shozu starts up, or by creating an account on I would suggest doing the latter, since the next step is easier that way.

3. Adding sites

There is an "Add Sites" button on the Shozu application's main screen, and in a pinch services can be added this way and immediately be usable from the phone, though uploads will only become available once the verification procedure has been followed for the site by following a link emailed to the user.

The slicker approach is to log in at and add sites there. The process for each service is slightly different, depending on the authentication required by the service (for example Facebook activation requires enabling permissions for the Shozu facebook application), but all are clearly laid out, step-by-step. There is no limit I'm aware of to the number of sites you can add, and you can even add multiple instances of any given service. So if for example you have two Twitter accounts you may want to send different photos to, you can add both of them.

At this point you can specify a 'one click' site, this site is the one that will be integrated into your camera application as I'll discuss in the Uploading Media section.

It's worth mentioning at this point that you may want to add some sites as CC sites rather than as 'main' sites. CC sites don't appear in the Shozu interface at all, but all uploads to 'main' sites are automatically copied to these services, making them perfect for backups.

4. Uploading media

Finally, it's time to upload media using Shozu. If the application is setup to remain on in the background and start automatically, it should integrate into your camera software by default. In this case, uploading photos and videos through Shozu is as simple as accepting the prompt to send to your one-click site after taking the shot.

For a little more control, this functionality can be disabled in the Shozu application (Options->Go to->Settings->Sending), and sending can be done explicitly from the Shozu interface. I prefer this as it allows me to add metadata to the media.

Once the application is open and activated on your phone, you should see a list of the sites you added (if those you added from the web are missing, try selecting "Check for updates" in the menu). Selecting any of these will open the menu for the relevant service, with one of the options being a "Send to .." button. Selecting the "Send to" option shows a list, with thumbnails, of the media on your phone which can be submitted to this service (photos for photo only sites, video for video only sites, and both for sites that can accept both).

From this view it is possible to view a larger version of any item (by selecting it); send a single item (Options->Send); add a caption, description and tags (Options-> Add details) or select multiple items (Options->More Actions->Mark multiple). It's also possible to cancel ongoing uploads.

The "Add Details" screen allows direct editing of the caption and description of the image (these will be preserved across all services that support them) as well as the addition of tags. Tagging is made even simpler by the option to select from a list of the 10 most recently used tags, in addition to specifying new ones.

Items awaiting upload are indicated in the service's send list with the Shozu logo and a green arrow, and those which have successfully been uploaded by an orange Shozu logo.

Uploading to additional sites follows the same procedure, except that items already uploaded via other services are indicated with a greyed out Shozu logo, and will not use bandwidth to upload (other than the request to the Shozu server). As described above, CC locations can be specified through the Shozu website to automatically copy all uploads to additional sites.

What else?

As I mentioned before, uploading isn't all Shozu does. It's certainly what it does best, but for those services that support 'feeds' in the application, it becomes a really powerful general purpose social media application. Accessing the menu for service with feeds implemented (by selecting it on the main application screen) shows an "Add feeds" option below the share option. Selecting this will display a list of feeds that can be subscribed to, and once subscribed these will be updated periodically and be available in the service's menu.

It's also well worth it to spend some time configuring Shozu to your liking and to make optimal use of your available connections. This will ensure you don't ring up a huge data bill from feeds and uploads.

Final word

In case it hasn't been obvious up to this point, I'm a huge fan of this application. It's a well written, user friendly application that implements sharing the way device manufacturers should out of the box. It is highly configurable to suit your exact tastes and genuinely useful. I can't recommend it highly enough and I guarantee once you start using it, everything else will seem inferior.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Tech Tuesday: Nokia Music.. oh dear.

I had two options lined up for today's post: navigating on the N96 or a review of the all-in-wonder, have-to-have application Shozu. Well, Nokia still haven't sorted out my mapping license, so no joy there (had a jol on the weekend with Geocache Navigator though). As luck would have it I'm having trouble at the moment with Shozu too, and I didn't want to blog on the app until I got those issues sorted out.

As a poor substitute, Nokia Music launched in SA over the weekend and I can give my initial impressions on that. To put it bluntly, I'm not at all impressed. I was seriously looking forward to the service, as I'm keen to find a site I can easily and legitimately buy digital music from, and doing this direct to my phone would have been perfect. As it turns out, I'll have to keep waiting for that one great service.

The bad
The first glaring failure (in my eyes) is that Nokia have opted for WMV as a format, and DRM crippled WMV at that. Their PC client does give the option of burning bought music to CD, which can of course then be ripped back to a DRM-free format, but that really shouldn't be necessary. Even iTunes is finally freeing it's users of the shackles of DRM, so surely a new service like this should be DRM-free?
Second up is that their 'mobile optimized' site weighs in at a hefty 250kb per page. In other words, on typical SA out-of-bundle data rates of R2/meg, browse four mobile pages on and you've already spent R2, with no music to show for it. Granted, sensible users would be using a data bundle (contract or once-off) to download music but besides the bandwidth cost issue, these pages are also (unsurprisingly) very sluggish. This makes browsing for music tedious even in 3G reception areas. The search feature isn't that effective either, I gave up after a couple of attempts, and will try again when I have some time on my home WiFi network instead.
The PC client looked like it might have some promise, but sadly I've been unable to get it to connect to the Nokia store through our proxy due to a lack of proxy configuration options. It's quite possible our firewall is the problem, but no information is provided for dealing with that, so this is another one that will have to wait for a go on my home network. This is hardly surprising, since Nokia's other software (such as Map Loader) also tends to struggle on corporate networks.
At this stage the mobile and PC interfaces to the store have been serious barriers to use and purchasing, so I have yet to actually buy any music from the service. Price-wise, Nokia have settled on R10 per song and R100 per album. This isn't bad, if one considers the price of CDs these days, but I was really hoping to see a price around the R7-R8 per song mark.

The good
So with all these negative points, surely Nokia must have got something right? It's a small plus, but I have to say I'm impressed with how locally focused what I saw of the store was. It's refreshing to see a multinational like Nokia paying such careful attention to what is locally relevant.
The PC client also has a pretty decent (and obviously iTunes inspired) music player component which seems to have good support for locating similar music in the store (unfortunately grayed out because I was disconnected).Default filters include the expected artist, album and genre, and search functionality is available as well Music can be transferred between the local library, a connected phone and user created playlists. It's mini player could do with some attention to make is more 'mini', but for most users it should get the job done. Nokia would definitely do well to replace the music player in PC Suite with this application sooner rather than later.

In summary
Perhaps when I have tried the mobile site on a WiFi network and the PC client on a more open network my view of the service will be improved, but considering the majority of users are likely to access the services as I did - using GPRS for the mobile site and their work PCs for the desktop client - that really shouldn't be necessary. This is one service I believe Nokia will have to give some serious attention to before it really is ready for- and relevant to- the SA market.

[Update: 28/05/2009]

I have since managed to browse the store using the PC client through the firewall (by setting the music store site as trusted in IE settings) and it seems to be a really great source of music, even some of the obscure stuff I struggle to find in physical format locally. Again the focus on localized content is quite strong (I had to chuckle at the "Double Idols Winners" banner) and Nokia are obviously making an effort to keep content locally relevant. Sadly it's not possible to stream the sample clips or download purchased songs behind the firewall, as it's impossible to provide proxy credentials to the app.

With Telkom and Webafrica finally sorting out my home ADSL this week I had another go at the mobile version of the site over my home WiFi network. While the large pages still keep the overall service fairly sluggish, I no longer had the dissconnect issues I experienced over 3G and managed to download some music. The downloads themselves are also a bit slow (internationally hosted?) but once the music was downloaded I definitely couldn't fault the sound quality. Despite the speed issues I'm sure I'll be using the service to buy more music.. particularly once Nokia removes the DRM as they have committed to doing later this year.

Nokia Music SA has been quite active on Twitter as @NMS_ZA and I managed to get an email from them I could send feedback and questions to. I posed questions about the large size of their mobile pages and the inability to stream or download audio behind a proxy requiring authentication, my email to them follows:

First of all, thanks for getting back to me on my queries. Also, my apologies for publicly replying with the issues, NMS_ZA isn't following me on Twitter so I can't direct message you.
The two issues I wanted to bring to the development team's attention are:
1. Music store mobile page sizes
This is obviously a site designed to be accessed on a mobile platform, on which people typically pay a premium for bandwidth. I understand the ideal is that it be accessed over WiFi, but the market reality is that most customers will be using a GPRS/3G connection without a data bundle, meaning their bandwidth could be costing them up to R2 per megabyte. As it currently stands, music store pages weigh in at a hefty 250kb or more (the landing page is almost 300kb). In other words, before even buying and downloading any music, just browsing 3-4 pages of the store could cost the user R2. This also makes the pages quite slow over a (non-3G) GPRS connection, slower browsing = fewer sales.
By way of comparison, here are some other mobile optimized sites which include images and some of their typical page sizes: 10kb 11kb 13kb 9kb
2. PC Application does not include proxy authentication settings
The PC application currently does not allow the user to specify proxy settings, most importantly proxy login details. There is an obscure workaround for users to actually browse the store by adding the music store as a trusted site in Internet Explorer settings, but this does not affect actual downloads. As a result, neither previewing music nor actually downloading music from the store works if the user accesses the internet through a proxy, a VERY common setup for corporate workers. The ideal may be that users access your site from a home PC without these complications (and indeed Nokia support's suggested fix is to do just that), but the reality is many will try it at work, fail, and never look at the store again, costing you sales. Consider the number of individuals accessing social networking sites such as Facebook from work and you will realize there is huge potential for sales to bored office workers.
It's worth noting that this is a common problem with a number of Nokia PC applications. The Nokia Software Updater and Nokia Map Downloader applications both fail to work when accessing the internet through a proxy server and thus are useless for individuals that would use them at work in a corporate environment.
For reference, the error received when trying to download a purchased music track (observed by hovering over the "X" in the current downloads queue) is: "The remote server returned an error: (407) Proxy Authentication Required".
I really am excited about the Nokia store in South Africa, I happily use my N96 as my primary music device when not at home and will welcome the ability to buy my music directly in a digital format (especially once the store goes DRM-free). I hope you'll seriously consider correcting the above issues to make the experience more pleasant for myself and other Nokia users.

They got back to me today on these issues, and I’m sorry to say the impression I got wasn’t that they really have any intention of improving on these issues:

Hi Matt

I got the feedback from our technical guys at NMS_ZA and below are the responses to your queries - I am not sure that the answers are exactly what you wanted, but this is where we are and how our service runs

1. In order to offer the richest and nearest to "full web" experience on mobile as possible, it is neccesary for the pages to be of the size that they are as they include rich content, imagery and security features.

2. Nokia Music Store uses the Internet Explorer proxy settings. The suggestion is that the user confiigures the Internet Explorer proxy connection and points it to the right server. This can be done by opening an internet explorer session, then doing the following: Goto--> Tools-->Internet Options--> Connection--->LAN Settings---> tick "Manual Proxy" and enter the settings.

I’ll leave it up to my response to them why I don’t feel these are acceptable answers, note that the attachment referred to is simply a screenshot of my IE/Windows proxy settings which point to our office proxy server (and which, of course, don’t specify login credentials):

Hi Tania,
Thanks very much for getting back to me, I hope you don't mind but I intend to post this response (and my answer) on my blog?
1. I'm afraid that answer doesn't make sense to me based on past experience. I use numerous internet services on my mobile, including those that require high security (mobile banking) and those with a lot of media (social networking) and a combination of the two ( mdeia [yeah..oops] content and secure payment). I would understand if pages were reasonably larger (maybe double or triple the size) but almost 20 times larger than the worst case mentioned below seems really extreme.
2. As illustrated in the attached screenshot, I have manually set my proxy in windows Internet Settings. The problem is that this proxy requires authentication, and windows does not provide a means to permanently specify these credentials. When browsing (through IE, Firefox) a user is prompted for these credentials, which can then be remembered for future sessions. I assume Nokia Music is using the native IE engine for basic browsing, and as such that works fine once the user has authenticated through IE, but downloading and streaming use some other (obviously secure) mechanism which does not allow for the user's credentials. Other applications get around this by allowing a user to specify proxy credentials which are then passed through to the proxy by the application.
I look forward to further feedback.

I can only hope they do come back with something positive in response.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Tech Tuesday: Getting social on Symbian

In this post, I’ll discuss what I currently use on my N96 for social network interaction. Most of the apps mentioned should work fine on any other recent Symbian device and in the case of Java apps, on most  non-Symbian devices as well. The three social networks I use most frequently are Twitter, Facebook and Flickr, so I’ll focus on these.


Twitter is the current darling of the social network world. Far simpler than the more populous Facebook or MySpace, Twitter simply asks users “what are you doing right now” in 140 characters or less (see my previous post on Microblogging). Twitter’s greatest strengths are it’s simplicity and the huge ecosystem of clients and services that have erupted around it’s open API. When I first joined Twitter, the service included free SMS updates to users around the world. Unfortunately, a couple of months ago this was scaled back to only include US users. As such, the mobile version of the site ( and third party equivalents and applications have become essential to non-US Twitter users.

Up until very recently, there have been no native Symbian applications, but within a few days of each other two such applications were released. Gravity and Twittix are both high quality native Twitter clients, with support for multiple Twitter accounts, and all common Twitter activities such as replies, direct messages and favourites. The problem is, at around R50 for Twittix and R100 for Gravity, I just don’t believe their features set them apart enough from free Java based alternatives to warrant pulling out my credit card. Apparently, I’m not the only one.

Which brings me to my (free) preferred choices. If I happen to be browsing the web already (with the native browser, or the excellent Opera Mini), I’ll just use the standard mobile Twitter page, otherwise I start up Twibble. In all the months I have been using it (I first discussed it here), I’ve yet to find another mobile Twitter client that justifies switching. Twibble includes support for all the basics as well as submission of images via TwitPic (present in Gravity, but missing from Twittix). It also includes GPS support, allowing tweets to be prefixed with your geographic location, but this is somewhat obscure functionality that I’m yet find a real use for -and no, as cool as the Twitter/Google Maps mashup TwitterVision is, I don’t consider it a real use. The focus of this application is undoubtedly keeping things small and efficient -as is evidenced by avatars being disabled by default- and it weighs in at a measly 100k.

Another application I use occasionally for Twitter is Shozu. Since I last covered it’s use for Twitter, the clumsy per-contact view has been replaced with a more sensible timeline view. It also has support for TwitPic, which benefits from Shozu’s ‘upload once, send anywhere’ approach to media uploads.


I have little doubt that Facebook is the uncontested king of social networking in South Africa. It allows users to connect with past schoolmates, colleagues and just about anyone that will accept a friend request. Activities on the site are hugely varied (thanks again to third party extensibility), but I stick to the basics: status updates, wall posts, messages, photos and occasionally instant messaging. Most of this functionality is more than adequately covered by the mobile version of the site (, with the two exceptions being instant messaging and photo uploads.

Shozu once again comes to the party for image uploading, allowing easy uploads of photos direct from the phone over any connection. I actually find this preferable to copying photos from the phone to a PC and then uploading them, especially when in the vicinity of a WiFi network. Shozu also has feeds of friends updates, though these are organized in a somewhat inconvenient manner.

Facebook Instant messaging functionality (along with just about every other kind of instant messaging AND voip) is handled perfectly by Nimbuzz. This great universal messaging software allows you to add your facebook ID and chat with other online facebook users in a clean, easy to use interface. Fring is another popular application that does the same job, but I find Nimbuzz to be more reliable and prefer it’s interface.



As popular as facebook is with the masses for sharing photos, I still prefer Flickr. Probably the best of the Yahoo! owned websites, Flickr places great emphasis on photos as the building blocks of a community. It includes fantastic ways to organize photographs, including massive amounts of additional information for each image, both added directly by users as tags and extracted from metadata within the image files themselves. It’s easy to lose oneself on Flickr, meandering through it’s many “explore” views which showcase some of the great photos users of the site have taken. Viewing content on Flickr is again best performed using their own mobile site (, but uploading is better handled by third party apps.

Two good options exist on recent Nokia Symbian devices to upload content directly to Flickr. The first is Nokia’s Share Online, which is preinstalled on the phone. This is an incredibly easy way to upload photos and short videos to Flickr, with a shortcut on the standby screen (which displays new content notifications) and sharing options available in the gallery as well. Share online also downloads comments left on your photos, and can be used to view recent uploads by contacts on Flickr. This is an excellent addition by Nokia, and it’s only real shortfall is that it currently only supports sharing to Flickr, Vox and Nokia’s own Ovi.

If it supported facebook, and used the same bandwidth preserving approach as Shozu, I might be tempted to use Share online in Shozu’s place. As things stand, for Flickr my choice is once again Shozu. Flickr is one of the standard available destinations, and feeds are available for comments and recent uploads as well.


That’s all folks

These are just a handful of the methods that exist on modern phones for interacting with social networks, and I am by no means claiming they are the best, but they are the best suited to my needs right now. Ultimately, I would still like to see a native Symbian application that leverages it’s native advantages to integrate Twitter and Facebook messaging into the default messaging system, display friend updates on the status screen and facilitate efficient uploading of media to all sites from the standard gallery.

This weekend we’ll be heading out to the lowveld for a bit of R & R. Hopefully I’ll have an opportunity to put Nokia Maps to use and do a bit of geocaching. If so, I’ll have a post on it next week. Otherwise, expect a full review on Shozu, which is long overdue if I look at how heavily I use it.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Tech Tuesday: N96 - Media

I have no doubt that when Nokia design the N96, media was one of their top priorities. If the 16Gb of built in storage plus MicroSD expansion slot weren’t enough of a hint, the two sets of dedicated media keys definitely drive the point home. The original N95 (and particularly the 8Gb variant) was already a media powerhouse, so lets see how it’s successor does on the media front.

Media transfer

A portable media device isn’t much good without a means to copy media onto it. The PC Suite and drivers that are included on a CD in the phone package allow the phone to be connected to a Windows PC by bluetooth or by USB. When connected by bluetooth, media can be copied directly to the phone using the Windows shell extension or the PC Suite’s Video Transfer and Music Transfer applications. Transferring over bluetooth may be convenient, but it is fairly slow and quite draining on the battery, and USB is a far better alternative for larger files or collections.

Of the four USB connectivity modes, mass storage mode allows windows (and other operating systems) to treat the phone as a simple mass storage device, and music and other files can simply be copied to the desired location. Media Transfer mode allows the phone to be detected by third party software for media management and syncing. I initially tried using Songbird to manage music on the phone, but after numerous failed attempts settled for Windows Media Player 11, which worked flawlessly with the device. In PC Suite mode, Nokia’s Video Transfer and Music Transfer applications can be used to easily copy media to the phone-though neither has any advanced media views so managing a large collection this way will be challenging to say the least. Both applications can be set up to convert files to formats better suited to the phone before copying them. This can be particularly useful for videos, which will be converted to the phone’s native resolution of 320x240, more often than not significantly dropping the size of the file. I did have trouble with recently encoded xvid files, with Video Transfer unable to find matching audio codecs. The last available connection mode is used for transferring photos from the phone and isn’t relevant to this discussion.


General media functionality

Despite the variety of applications used to consume media on the N96, play control is generally very consistent. When the phone’s top slide is closed, the media control keys around the navigation pad are lit and make for easy track navigation and pausing and resuming media playback. Opening the top slide dims these keys and lights the top slide keys instead. This duplication of functionality really does seem to be overkill and I can’t think of a logical reason for including two sets of media buttons. If the top slide buttons had been indented or had some other kind of tactile separation I would have understood their use as controls to be fiddled with in a pocket, but with their flush finish they need to be seen to be used. The playback controls on the hands-free kit provided with the phone are small and similarly flush, and this affects their use as well, though the kit is still handy and a better option than having to pull out the phone and control playback directly.

Free Image Hosting at www.ImageShack.usAnother common aspect of all media software on the phone is it's support for the standby screen. Regardless of the source of audio, minimizing the application will cause current track information to be displayed on the standby screen below the calendar entries section of the display.

Navigation to the various media applications is kept consistent on the N96, all of these are easily activated by pressing the silver shortcut key to the right of the navigation pad and navigating to the relevant menu. The TV & Video and Music menus contain shortcuts to each of these apps, obviously grouped by video and audio respectively. In the case of audio playback, once media is queued up, it can be started immediately by simply pressing the play button on the phone's face.

Stored Music

The most commonly used media functionality on the phone will undoubtedly be it’s music player, used to play music and podcasts stored in the massive internal memory or on an SD card. The player in the N95 was already more than capable, and Nokia have been smart enough to not fix what aint broke. Free Image Hosting at www.ImageShack.usThe built in player supports meta tags on music files and uses these to organize music according to artist, album, genre and (oddly enough) composer-all of these filters are available from the player's start screen. Podcast episodes are conveniently separated from the rest of the library, so no more podcast episodes unexpectedly butting into your randomly selected playlist. Playlist support is as robust as ever, with easy addition of songs (or any grouping of songs) to new or existing playlists. One serious criticism of the music player is that navigation through lists and menus in it generally seems sluggish with large amounts of music on the phone, which is curious considering the N96 was supposed to be designed with that in mind.

Free Image Hosting at www.ImageShack.usThe main player screen displays all the expected track information, elapsed and remaining time, loop and random status and has full support for album art (though the art doesn’t always copy correctly when third party software is used). The player supports custom equaliser settings, playlist shuffle and looping of individual tracks or entire playlists. Additional options include balance control, loudness boosting and the excellent stereo widening effect first seen in the N95. One of three dynamic visualizer effects or the track’s album art can be displayed 'fullscreen' instead of the usual media information. It is a pity that the visualizations haven’t been updated since the N95, as it would have been nice to see some Milkdrop-esq effects being used. Finally, for those that prefer to have their music going in the background and keep using the phone for other things, hiding the player causes the play status and current track to be displayed in the phone’s standby screen. Of course incoming calls and other events fade out and pause the music, which resumes when the call is over. Most commonly used file formats are supported, including AAC, AAC+, eAAC+, WMA (including Windows DRM) and MP3. OGG is not officially listed as supported, which may disappoint linux users.

One element I did find lacking in the native player, considering other social media aspects of the phone, was support. Thankfully Mobbler works perfectly on the phone, and will provide an adequate substitute to native scrobbling support for junkies.

For those that want to play their music out loud with the phone’s built in speakers, they are satisfyingly loud, though there is some distortion at higher volumes. At a pinch they will definitely do, but an external speaker set would obviously be a better choice for regular 'public' use.

I was really pleasantly surprised by the battery efficiency of the N96 while listening to music. On a full charge the phone will quite easily last a full workday -and then some- if used as a music player. Other activity on the phone will obviously have an effect as well (particularly anything involving data transfer), but the music itself does not cause an unreasonable strain on the battery at all.


Streaming audio, podcasts and FM radio

With the N96's excellent connectivity options (Edge, HSDPA and WiFi are all well supported-more on this in a future post) it makes sense for the phone to have good support for online media, and it does.

Free Image Hosting at www.ImageShack.usThe Podcasting application provides a simple way for users to subscribe to podcasts, set them up for manual and automatic download, and listen to them. The application includes a number of podcast directories for casual users, but also allows more advanced users to manually add podcast urls. Free Image Hosting at www.ImageShack.usOnce downloaded, podcasts can be listened to in the Podcasting application itself or in the music player (in which they appear in a separate folder for easy access). Settings include the default access point to connect to, update regularity (manual is an option), as well as storage location and size limits. The Podcasting app has all the options necessary to make it a competent tool, and no unnecessary frills.

Free Image Hosting at www.ImageShack.usInternet radio is equally well represented by the creatively named Internet Radio application. As with the Podcasting app, it includes a directory of stations (organized by genre, language, country and Top Stations). Text search is also available, and works well. After finding a station, it can be played immediately or added to a list of favourites. Once playing, the Now Playing screen displays whatever track information the station provides, as well as the current bit rate.Free Image Hosting at Station information and track history are available on a separate screen. The few available settings allow control over the default access point, and bit rate (and thus audio quality and bandwidth utilization) when connected via GPRS, 3G or Wi-Fi. This is another simple but highly effective application that does it’s job well.

There is a good chance that the N96 will be the device that first introduces some of it's users to the world of internet media, thanks to these simple to use and highly accessible applications. This is an area where Nokia has done a sterling job.

Free Image Hosting at www.ImageShack.usFor those that prefer more traditional broadcast technologies, the N96 includes FM Radio support. The radio application remains largely unchanged from that in the N95. As before, the headphones are used as an aerial, and FM radio won’t work without headphones (or something similar) plugged in-though once connected the loudspeaker can be manually activated. The app includes a station directory though I could not get it working over Vodacom gprs and had to settle for manual tuning. With manual tuning, the application is simple enough to use: just enter a frequency and listen. Stations can optionally be saved as favourites and easily switched between with the track forward and back buttons. RDS is supported, though again I had no luck with it, despite tuning into stations which I know implement the format. The Visual Radio button does the basics well enough but it seems like some testing with South African service providers is in order to get the frills working.



The N96 inherits the N95 8Gb's larger 2.8" screen (as compared to the original's 2.6") and keeps the 240x320 resolution. This may not quite match the likes of the iPhone, which can utilize a much larger screen due to it's touch interface, but it's more than adequate for displaying videos clearly. The picture is crisp and clear and colours are vivid. The ample storage easily allows multiple full length videos to be stored and played back, and the TV-Out functionality even allows these to be played back on a TV if so desired.

The built in video player is very simple. Playing video can be paused and resumed, fast forwarded or rewound, and volume can be adjusted. The player is supposed to support resuming playback from where a video was last stopped, though i have found this seldom works correctly. File format support is extensive, with various avi encodings, mp4, wmv (again including DRM infected) and real media all supported. The one missing format I would particularly have liked to see is flv.

Free Image Hosting at www.ImageShack.usThe player forms part of the Video centre application, in which all local and internet video access is handled. This unified approach is quite handy, and a similar approach would have been a good idea in the music application as well. The My videos section of the Video centre organizes all locally stored videos, including downloaded videos and videos captured with the N96's camera. The Video feeds sections contains feeds the player has subscribed to. The Nokia Nseries feed is the only default subscription but others can be found in the Video directory. The obvious popular feed choice here is YouTube Mobile Videos, though a handful of others are also available. I would have liked to have seen a wider choice of video feeds, though in all fairness advanced users could always rather subscribe to vodcasts with the Podcasting application instead.

Free Image Hosting at www.ImageShack.usFree Image Hosting at

Whether feeds are streamed or downloaded and stored seems to be dependant on the stream itself. YouTube videos seemed to download first, but were not accessible from the My videos area, whereas Reuters videos were downloaded and permanently accessible. Application settings include the ability to disallow downloading while roaming and while connected to GPRS, so Nokia has taken some care to ensure ignorant users don't get surprised with big bills at the end of the month. Parental control is available as well, though what an underage user would be doing with such a high end phone is beyond me.

The Video Centre is another application that does what it needs to and no more, and since video use is likely to be limited outside of novelty value and reviewing captured videos, this is understandable.


Mobile TV

It has to be mentioned that one of the selling points of the N96 is it's support for DVB-H mobile TV broadcasts. Unfortunately DVB-H is only in a trial phase in South Africa and limited to the Sagem MyMobileTV, so this functionality isn't really of much use as yet. One can only hope that once trials are completed, the technology will be made available to a wider variety of handsets.



Both the N95 and N96 claim UPnP support as a feature. Unfortunately while it is technically supported, using it is clumsy and unreliable. I run XBMC (which implements a UPnP server and client) on an old Xbox, and also have an Xbox 360 set up to consume media from the XBMC machine. Using the Home media application which is hidden deep in the phone’s tools menu, I was able to locate the XBMC server and browse it’s contents. However when I tried to play the media locally, it failed repeatedly and when I tried to play it on another device, neither XBMC nor the Xbox 360 showed up as renderers.

Free Image Hosting at www.ImageShack.usSharing media from the phone was slightly more successful, with XBMC detecting it on the network as a media source. I was able to add it as a media source to the music, videos and photos sections of XBMC. Browsing and viewing photos worked reasonably well, albeit very slowly and some videos could be played as well (typically very small ones, larger files seemed to fail in streaming or copying). I was unable to get any music at all playing from the phone. The Xbox 360 didn’t detect the N96 as a source at all.

Many of the more commonly used media applications, such as the music player, allow direct playback on UPnP devices on the network, but again I could get neither the Xbox nor the Xbox 360 to show up as renderers, so this functionality was useless.

This is one area which needs a lot of work. I’m not sure whether the issues lie in Nokia’s implementation of the UPnP standards or elsewhere, but in it’s current state UPnP on the N96 is pretty useless. Rather than rushing out a solution to be able to tick the UPnP compliance standards box, Nokia should either leave this stuff out entirely or spend some time testing and perfecting it to make it usable by the average person.



In closing, the N96 shines as music device and does a competent job on video as well. The huge amount of storage (and expansion capacity) combined with dedicated media controls and an impressive array of software dedicated to media discovery and consumption, not to mention comprehensive connectivity options, make this phone an excellent choice for anyone that wants to enjoy their own media on the go and have access to all the great media on the web as well. Some of the more obscure areas of functionality like UPnP need work, but I have certainly found it to be a far superior all-round media device to it's predecessor, and no longer have any need of a separate portable media player.


Note: Nokia’s music store is not yet available in SA, though according to MyBroadband it should launch here within a couple of days. As such I didn’t see much point in even looking at that functionality, and will update this post or write a new one dedicated to the Nokia store when I’ve tried it out.


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