How to replace your Sky fibre router

Posted in Computers, Howto, Tech on May 4th, 2014 by Andy
A person having handcuffs put on them

Not keen on paying Sky to do this to your connection?

Whatever your reasons are for wanting to replace your Sky fibre router (and there are a few) the common denominator is that Sky don’t make it easy. These instructions will allow you to connect to your Sky fibre connection using your own router. The model I’m demonstrating is the Asus RT-N66U.

The legal bit

  • You can read Sky Fibre Broadband’s T&Cs here.
  • Your old Sky fibre router is your property, but the software on it belongs to Sky. You’re not allowed to flash the firmware, and selling it could be dubious. Best hang on to it for as long as you’re a customer.
  • If you need to speak to Sky customer services the easiest thing to do would be plug your Sky router back in and pretend to be just like the rest of their customers. They’ll only support the hardware they’ve supplied.

I’m keen! But how?

  1. Obtain your Sky username and password by doing a little sniffing around your router.
  2. Unplug your Sky router and hide it in the back of a dark cupboard.
  3. Get a new router and flash the firmware on it to a Sky-compatible version.
  4. Put your Sky username into the new router and connect.
  5. Win!

Getting your Sky username and password

As you’re no doubt aware, you’re not told what the Sky username and password you use to connect to their network is. But it is tucked away in the innards of your Sky router, and the router does broadcast them when it connects, so if we watch the output from the router we can deduce what they are. I’m assuming you have the standard white Sky fibre router, which looks like this:

The white Sky fibre router

Essentially you need to install software called Wireshark and use it to snoop in on the packets the Sky fibre router broadcasts when it starts up. Full instructions for that are available here:

How to get the Sky Username and Password for the Sky Hub SR101

Set up your new router

I can personally recommend the Asus RT-N66U. It’s not cheap, but it does pack a lot of cool features. You can get refurbed ones for about £70-80 if you keep a lookout. I got mine because I wanted to do things like use OpenDNS to filter content on my network (I’ve got kids and want finer-grained control than the blunt tool of the ISP filters) and run a VPN so I can access my network when out and about. It’s also fast (gigabit ethernet and 5GHz wifi-n) and stable.

To set it up for Sky you’ll need to install a slightly modified firmware. Merlin’s custom firmware for the Asus RT-N66U router is a minimally modified version of the standard firmware. All the changes Merlin has made are open source, if you’re paranoid you can read the source code. Instructions are on Merlin’s site; it’s really not hard and there’s apparently no risk of bricking your router.

Once you’ve got the new firmware installed go to the router’s admin page (which will be at something like 192.168.0.1 in your browser) go to the “WAN” section and enter your Sky username and password into the Special Requirement from ISP > Manual client ID (for some ISPs). Here’s mine:

router

 

Note the single quotes, IIRC they are required, and don’t forget the | between @skydsl and the password. You may need to reboot the router and/or give it a bit before it connects, but it will. Enjoy your new router on Sky fibre!

 

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How to make a Raspberry Pi media centre

Posted in Computers, Gadgets, Howto, Linux, Tech on August 21st, 2013 by Andy
A man wearing a t-shirt printed with "couch potato" and juggling several remotes.

We’re doing important stuff here.

I built a media centre PC a few years back and I’ve been happy with it ever since. It’s been running XBMC, which is an awesome free media centre package. But I reckon it’s time to get some Raspberry Pi in my front room.

Why Raspberry Pi?

  • It’s cheap!
  • It’s fanless (ie: silent)
  • It can push out full-HD video
  • It’s got HDMI (including sound and CEC) so only needs one connection to my TV.
  • It’s very low-power so can run constantly. So no waiting for it to boot up.
  • Customised XBMC builds are available for it, and are well supported.
  • I keep all my media on my network, so my media centre box doesn’t need any storage
  • It’s so small I can just velcro it to the back of the TV, removing a whole box from my TV stand.

How much will it cost?

  1. Raspberry Pi Model B: £32
  2. Plastic Case: £5ish

Which is less than the parts of my old machine are worth on Ebay. Ka-ching!

You’ll also need a power supply that can put out 5V on a micro-USB (I’m using a Kindle charger) and an SD Card to install the OS onto. I had both of those knocking about, which saves money. I also plugged my old media centre’s wireless keyboard into the Raspberry Pi’s USB port, just in case. In practice we can control XBMC with a tablet or smartphone over our home network, but a keyboard and trackpad can be handy during setup. You could ditch it after that and save a bit of power. There’s always SSH from another machine if you need to do anything fiddly.

Enough waffle. How do we do it?

Pretty simple, plug your SD card into a computer (one running Linux is easiest IMO), and download Raspbmc. Raspbmc is a ready-rolled bundle containing a very minimal Linux operating system and XBMC. Once you’ve downloaded the archive, extract it and run the installer script within as root. Full instructions for your operating system are here. Other similar systems such as OpenELEC are available, but I found OpenELEC to be a bit unstable. YMMV, as lots of folks highly recommend OpenELEC.

Then just plug the prepared SD card into your Raspberry Pi and power it up. Simple.

What’s good, what’s bad?

Good:

  • XBMC for the Raspberry Pi is pretty much identical to the PC version. It’s slick and easy to use.
  • HD video playback is perfect, right up to 1080p.
  • Navigating menus in XBMC is still pretty smooth, despite the incredibly puny hardware.
  • The system updates itself. All you’ll have to do is reboot occasionally.
  • The XBMC remote app for Android allows you to browse and control all your media files.

Bad:

  • The RPi likes to fight with my Samsung Smart TV. I don’t know whether it’s the way Samsung have implemented CEC (aka Anynet+) or the way the RPi does, but I found it far easier to just turn off CEC control in my TV’s settings. After that everything worked perfectly.
  • You can’t power off the RPi with the XBMC remote (this is a hardware limitation in ARM). The easiest thing to do is just leave it running constantly, which is mildly wasteful, but only to the tune of about 3W (that’s about 26kWh per year).

 

 

 

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ZOMG Fibre

Posted in Computers, Tech on July 9th, 2013 by Andy

We’ve got some new shiny, in the form of a new fibre braodband connection.
We bought a nice smart TV a little while ago, and unfortunately our pokey old broadband wasn’t up to the job of streaming video. I think the neighbours could hear us grinding our teeth as it buffered horrendously on even the shortest and lowest resolution playback. The whole problem was that we’re a good mile or two from our local exchange, and the way the streets lie I’d say we on the end of a piece of copper probably twice that length. Basically the bits and bytes were so shagged from the hike from the exchange to us that they just flopped down exhausted at our doorstep and were no use for anything.

But those days are no more! Behold the ludicrous speeds of fibre broadband. We’ve gone from about 3Mb/s down and 0.5Mb/s up to over ten times that. Shwing!

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MicroSD storage madness

Posted in Computers, Random, Stupid trivia, Tech on May 18th, 2013 by Andy

 An giant 19070s hard the size of a man compared to a tiny microSD card sitting in someone's palmThis is a pretty mad picture. I remember the first PC I owned had a 202MB hard drive, a size that just seems laughable compared to that microSD card.

So where does it all end? Will we eventually be able to pack the entire internet into a pinhead? Physics wonks tell us there is a maximum theoretical amount of data you can squeeze into a finite amount of matter,  but it’s a lot. For the microSD card given above it works out to about 567 bits, which is about 6.2 trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion MB.

It turns out that the capacity of hard drives has been growing at an exponential rate over time:

Capacity of hard drives over time. Note the logarithmic scale...

Capacity of hard drives over time. Note the logarithmic scale…

So, if they keep growing at this rate when would that microSD card sized storage device max out? Well, if the biggest microSD you can get currently is 64GB then I make it 132 years. And what could that microSD card fit on it? Well, the entire data storage of Earth in 2013 is around 735 exabytes, and that would take up a smidge over 0.000000000000000000000000000000000000000001% of the space on this “perfect” microSD card.

So clearly things can get even smaller, and store even more. Watch this space.

 

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World of Tanks: panzer fun for the masses

Posted in Computers, Random on August 14th, 2012 by Andy

Most massively multiplayer video games let you play as an elf, or a soldier, or a wizard. World of Tanks one let’s you play as a tank. Yes!

A German panzer moves down a road in a  rural setting

Achtung! Very large Panzer!

World of Tanks is a freemium MMO wargame from Russian treadheads Wargming.net. The game is a 3Gb download (Windows only), and it’s completely possible to play totally for free, tightwad players aren’t nerfed. Gameplay is team-based deathmatches, mostly a 15-a-side capture-the-flag scenario.

So what’s it like? Fun and hard. Combat is very tactical, you’ll have to make use of cover, concealment and scouting to survive, and teams that mutually support each other tend to wipe the floor with those that play as individuals. Even very tough tanks can be taken down by coordinated teamplay, and running around madly looking for trouble is generally a quick way to wind up with your panzer a flaming wreck.

You’re allowed several tanks in your garage. This is essential as if your ride is knocked out (which it will be, a lot) then it’s not available for use until that game ends, which can be up to 15 mins. Tanks of all types, tank destroyers and assault guns, and self-propelled artillery are all available, and the arty is actually quite fun to play as it gives you an aerial view of the battlefield. German, Russian, British, Russian and US vehicles are available, and teams will be a mix of nations.

The tanks themselves are initially early or pre-WW2 models, and as you progress up the tiers they tend to work their way through the war years, with puny early war Panzer I’s giving way to the mighty Panther. All the famous vehicles are there: Shermans, T34-85s, Tigers, StuGs and even some Cold War heroes like the M48,  T54 and T62 at the top tiers. In addition there are quite a few prototypes that never saw actual combat in the World of Tanks lineup.

Several tanks lined up in a field

Actual in-game shot showing the UI. You’ll have to keep track of ammo, relative team composition and strength, and the minimap to avoid becoming flaming wreckage.

Injecting some cash into your account can buy you extra spots in your garage, better ammo, bling for your tank, or even whole new tanks. Some of these aren’t available through the normal tech tree, but all premium tanks suffer the fairly significant drawback of being unable to take upgrades. I haven’t bothered to pay for anything myself, but what’s worth doing is to slog your way through the tutorial battles, as you’ll be given a premium tank and a good crew for your trouble. This gives a nice insight into what combat is like with a better vehicle than you’ll have initially. You can use that premium tank to train crews for other vehicles.

Experience is scored in battles for damaging enemies and for spotting them, which rewards reconnaissance as well as violence. XP can be spent on upgrades, eventually unlocking new vehicles. However, I’ve found it’s not compulsory to pick up better vehicles as soon as they’re available. Some of the lower tier vehicles are excellent fun to play, and shunning the upgrade gives you the opportunity to concentrate all XP into improving the crew’s skills, which is just as important as having a good tank.

Observation and scouting play more of a role in World of Tanks than most games, as you can only see enemy that yourself or an ally in radio range have spotted, and they can vanish completely if they give you the slip. A well-concealed tank destroyer can easily lie in wait and ambush unwary foes, and a safely distant artillery piece can engage targets under observation by scouts without those scouts having to give away their position. Using cover and terrain well will give a tactical advantage that will win firefights.

A T34-85 tank painted like a New York taxi

This T34-85 used to be around the corner from where I lived. They didn’t let me drive it or have go on the guns 🙁

The number one mistake I see in the game is the tendency for people to charge at the start of the match, generally the folks who do this end up dead within a couple of minutes, with the more cautious and clever fighters claiming their scalps. Retreating is a valid tactic, pushing on against a disadvantage rarely pays off, as the teams are generally closely balanced. Since neither side has an overall advantage the only option is to try and create local mismatches. Tactical errors will be ruthlessly exploited but battles are normally a simple matter of attrition, as a successful flag capture tends to only happen once enough of the enemy have been knocked out to allow several tanks to advance onto the objective together. Cheeky loners slipping through the lines don’t tend to live long unless their team mates reward their impetuosity with immediate reinforcements.

Overall the gameplay is varied, and rewards a range of tactics. Some tanks are extremely quick and make good scouts, while some have powerful guns but are slow or weakly armoured. Some are genuine monsters that strike fear wherever they go, but these also attract a lot of unwelcome attention, and no one is invulnerable. The maps are good, with terrain varying from street fights, desert, mountains, coastal and maps with a good mix of terrain. Just driving around can be fun, and there’s plenty to look at.

If you can spare a couple of hours, swallow the 3Gb download and go take a panzer for a drive.

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Ubuntu for Android: could you use your smartphone as a PC?

Posted in Computers, Gadgets, Tech, Ubuntu on March 7th, 2012 by Andy

“In every dual core phone there’s a PC trying to get out”

Or so reckons Canonical, who have been showing off their Ubuntu for Android system at Mobile World Congress. In a nutshell, a phone with Ubuntu for Android turns into a desktop PC when docked to a monitor and keyboard, and a mini media centre when docked to a TV.


It’s a pretty cool idea. There’s already starting to be quite a crossover between phones and tablets, and the latter have been eating into some of the laptop market too. The proliferation of desktop-type Android apps in the market suggest getting access to a full desktop environment when you dock your tablet would be pretty popular. I’m a bit more sceptical that even fast new quad core phones and tablets would be able to produce smooth HD video for a TV, so I think it’s best to take the media centre idea with a pinch of salt. I’ll believe it when I have an Ubuntu for Android machine in my hand and see it working.

You can’t buy a phone with Ubuntu for Android on it yet, you can’t install it like other Android apps and nobody has announced any dates. I think it’s definitely worth keeping an eye out for.  This could well be the next big step in the rise of the smartphone and tablet.

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How to upgrade the wifi on your Eee PC

Posted in Computers, Gadgets, Howto, Tech on September 4th, 2011 by Andy
Two giant clusters of antennas poking above some trees

Here's one I upgraded earlier

Wifi comes in different speeds. The latest and fastest is 802.11n, or wifi-n. It’s pretty quick, but what if your Eee PC is an older model that only has wifi-g? Upgrading is actually really easy, and besides more speed should give you better range.

You’ll need a new wifi-n mini-PCI Express card, I used an Intel 4695 AGN because Intel are really widely supported. You can pick them up for tuppence on Ebay. You’ll also need a third antenna, which you can get here.

  • Remove the battery and pop the bottom cover off your machine
  • Disconnect the antennas, remove the two screws and remove the old wifi card.
  • Route your new third antenna along the front edge of the inside of the case. The orientation of the antenna is important, and luckily there’s plenty of room for it if you run it under the RAM stick.
  • Fit the new card and attach the antennas (the new one goes on post #3)
  • Power up and enjoy.

I’m running Ubuntu, so it all worked as soon as I switched on. If you’re on Windows you might need to download some drivers from Intel and do the little Windows next > next > next > reboot dance. If you do have any problems booting try clearing the CMOS (remove the battery, remove the RAM and short out the two copper patches underneath it).

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It’s official: Internet Explorer users are stoopid

Posted in Computers, Linux, Mac, Stupid trivia, Windows on July 29th, 2011 by Andy
A graph show IQ vs browser

IQ vs browser choice, showing trends over time

The browser you choose these days has become a bit of a fashion accessory, and poor old Internet Explorer has become like the manky brown corduroys of the net. Sure, IE users area  bit old-fashioned, but are they actually dumber than folks surfing on Opera or Chrome? Well, yes actually.

That’s the controversial result from a study (PDF) by Canadian brain-wranglers AptiQuant Psychometric Consulting. It turns out Opera users are the smartest surfers out, Chrome users are marginally smarter than Firefox users, and that you can apparently boost your IQ by a whopping 40 points just by installing Chrome Frame into IE6. Although from the numbers it looks like IE6 users would probably struggle to do up the buttons on a shirt, let alone install new software.

These results should probably be taken with a humungous pinch of salt, but they do provide a great opportunity for smugness if your choice of software marks you as one of the master race.

But what does it mean?

Well, the point of the study wasn’t really to make people feel bad about their choice of browser, it was the look at the link between resistance to change/upgrades and IQ. Browser choice was used as a proxy for that resistance to change, because people using Windows that resist change are more likely to be using the default browser, and more likely to be using an old version of it.

That’s actually an important insight. What it tells us is that defaults matter. A significant percentage of the user base won’t be changing the defaults regardless of quality. So if you care about user experience, you need to get them right. It also suggests that OSes that ship without a good set of default applications are causing a lot of stress for some users. A lot of users would be more happy to be given a Linux distro that bundled a good set of default apps for a wide range of uses (browser, word processor, IM client, email, music player) and that the absence of these apps on commercial OSes like Windows and OS X is probably a bit of a hassle for them. Moreover, these are not users that Linux traditionally targets itself at. Traditionally Linux efforts have either tried to go for (presumably) high IQ power users, or offered very minimalist experiences (eg: Xandros, Linpus) for mainstream use. This study suggests that what they low-IQ end of the PC using population really want is a good set of default apps, preinstalled and with an automated security update system that they don’t have to get involved with.

Stupid people may be an easy target for ridicule, but their money is worth the same as anyone else’s, and they’ve got just as much right to drive a computer as the rest of us. And as a casual glance over a newspaper shows, there do seem to be an awful lot of them.

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The Natty Narwhal now nears!

Posted in Computers, Linux, Ubuntu on April 10th, 2011 by Andy

The next version of Ubuntu is coming soon
The unicorn of the seas approacheth! Ubuntu’s 14th version of their free operating system for PCs is due out 28th April.

Named after the somewhat improbable Narwhal, this release sees the rollout of the new Unity interface, which is a major overhaul of the traditional Gnome look that Ubuntu has been wearing since it was first released back in 2004.

Unity is a completely new interface, written from scratch over the last few months at a breakneck pace. It’s probably going to have more bugs in it than it really should, but if you don’t like it the standard Gnome desktop is still installed, just log out and switch to “Gnome classic” at the login screen.

Apart from Unity, there’s the usual grab-bag of updated packages, and a few other changes:

  • The default music player is now Banshee
  • Libre Office has replaced Open Office (it’s pretty much exactly the same)
  • Firefox 4.0

Loads more info here:

http://www.ubuntu.com/testing/natty/beta

Jump in and help squash the last few bugs if you’re game, otherwise grab the final version when it’s released later this month.

 

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How to get your Sky broadband username and password

Posted in Computers, Gadgets, Howto, Tech on February 11th, 2011 by Andy
A padlocked door

Just say no to pointlessly locked technology

Sky broadband is a pretty attractive package if you already subscribe to their TV, but it does have one annoying snag. Sky insist that you connect using the router they provide, and enforce this by locking the box down with custom firmware that obscures your actual username and password. This means you can’t connect using any of your own hardware.

While this might sound great if you’re a Sky first line support monkey, it’s a pain for the customer.

Sky have used several different boxes over the years, and cracks for all of them have been published, which is a good enough reason to think twice about using the hardware they supply.

Get the tools:

If you have a Netgear or Sagem router: https://www.cm9.net/skypass/

If you have the new D-Link router: http://pathogenrush.blogspot.com/2010/10/dsl-2640s-password-extractor.html

Note that although the T&Cs say that the router Sky sends you does become your property, you should keep hold of it, as Sky are unlikely to provide tech support to you otherwise.

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