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

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

“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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My new fusion-powered house

Posted in Green, Tech on March 1st, 2012 by Andy Duffell
Solar panels on the roof of my house

The sign of the modern-day sun worshipper

Powering your house with million-year old dead trees is so last century. What you really want is a toaster that’s fuelled by a massive ball of nuclear fusion!

With that in mind, I’ve had a 2kWp photovoltaic array nailed to my roof. The roof needed work anyway, and the window of opportunity for the government’s more generous level of Feed-in Tariff was about to close, so we thought “what the heck!” and got the cheque book out.

So far I’m really pleased with the amount of power it’s producing. It’s designed to produce 2oooW of power on a sunny summer day, but you get somewhat less if it’s cloudy or winter. Nonetheless it’s been putting out well over 20kWh of energy a week, which is pretty good going for Feb IMO. According to PVGIS it should produce about 1600kWh per year, and the idea is to try and grab as much of that as possible for use at home. That can be easier said than done, on a sunny day it easily outstrips what you can use at home. That’s not a biggy though, you get paid for all the power you produce, whether you use it yourself or not. As an investment I feel pretty happy that it should pay out quite well in the long run, it’s basically a government-backed, index-linked income for the next 25 years which is a lot better than you’ll get putting your cash in the bank these days.

Really happy with our installer too, both the PV dude and the roofers were excellent, so if anyone in Kent needs a roofer I can recommend a good one.

All-up it gives me a warm fuzzy feeling to be micro-generating, and it’s got my brain ticking over about knock-on projects. First up is a decent power monitoring system, probably a gnarly DIY solution like this. After that I’d like to look at optimising our use of the power we’re producing, probably something along the lines of automatically using hot water storage as a dump load. That could be bit tricky though, as we’ve got a combi boiler. Open to any suggestions on that one…

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Review: Pure Sensia internet radio and streaming media player doodad

Posted in Gadgets, Tech on January 16th, 2012 by Andy Duffell
The Pure Sensia media player

It's pretty sleek

A new gadget landed in my kitchen over the festive season, an all-signing, all-dancing DAB/FM radio with network media playback and internet streaming functions, disguised as a Martian rugby ball.

Sounds like a mouthful, but it basically takes music or audio from anywhere and boshes it out. Available sources include:

  • FM radio
  • DAB radio
  • UPNP/DLNA media servers on your network
  • Internet radio stations
  • Pure’s “The Lounge” content service

It comes with a touchscreen and a small RF remote. The latter is perfectly good for adjusting volume, but not much else. Actually switching sources and browsing is done on the screen, which is adequate, but often a little sluggish. TBH we’ve got used to better touchscreens in the last few years and this one isn’t quite up to par. Changing volume is particularly fiddly, and I haven’t even got fat fingers. Overall that’s a relatively minor inconvenience, and it’s not so bad you’ll be smashing it in rage.

Setup is very easy, it will find and connect to your wifi easily, and if you’ve already got a UPNP media server sloshing out music across your network connecting to it is straightforward. Likewise “The Lounge”, which provides a web interface you can log in to from any computer and subscribe to podcasts and the like. There’s also full access to all 6 bazillion internet radio stations, and a nice search tool to cut through them to find what you want.

Overall it’s very easy to hook up to a vast amount of content, which is exactly what we wanted for a device like this. But don’t fool yourself, this machine will not replace your main hifi. Sound quality is to be honest a little disappointing. It’s perfectly good enough for some tunes to cook or wash up to, but it has neither the volume nor the quality to do your favourites full justice.

On the plus side power usage is negligible, and the screen has a nice cheerful clock on it when you turn the radio off. There’s the obligatory nod towards “apps” but beyond some basic Twitter/Facebook/Picasa integration there’s not much going on in that department, and who actually wants to stare at their radio reading tweets anyway?

In general this gadget has the right idea, too many internet/radio mashups are missing critical parts of the picture. But the Pure Sensia does include the important bits: FM/DAB radio, internet streaming, network streaming, integrated speakers, and a decent sized touchscreen. Sure, some of those features need a bit of work, and if you want them ironed out your should probably wait for the new Sensia 200 to hit the market, but I’d still recommend the current Sensia as a massive upgrade from your current kitchen tranny.

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How to Track Your Home Energy Use

Posted in Green, Howto, Websites on November 24th, 2011 by Andy Duffell

First of all, I admit it: data is geeky. But it can also save you a lot of money and reduce your carbon footprint.

As part of my drive to improve the energy efficiency of my home I’ve started tracking my energy usage through the site iMeasure. It’s a very handy site and free to use, plug your power and gas meter readings into it every so often and it’ll generate a load of stats about your usage.

After only a few readings it will have enough data to forecast your usage for the year, but by far the most useful trick it pulls is correlating your usage against data from the closest weather station. The point of this is that the amount of energy you’re using for heating is only really relevant if it’s compared to how cold it is.

A chart showing energy use against degree days

This iMeasure chart shows my actual gas usage at various temperatures. The blue regression line shows how efficient the heating system is. A more efficient system will have a shallower slope

It’ll also tell you how much CO2 you’re emitting through your energy use, and what your costs are.

Where the site really shines is if you’re making changes to improve your efficiency. There are ways to predict the effect of most measures, but there’s nothing better than seeing the change reflected in your actual usage.

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Is your house leaking money?

Posted in Green, Tech on November 4th, 2011 by Andy Duffell

Draftproofing your home is just as important to keeping it warm as good central heating and insulation are. Sorting your air leaks out can save you money and reduce your carbon footprint. But where to start?

Smoke drifting in the dark

A little bit of smoke could help keep you warm this winter

Leak testing

All homes are supposed to be tested for air leaks when they’re sold these days. Basically a dude comes to your house and fits a giant fan into the doorway, then measures how much the pressure inside changes due to the air leaks. The result goes on your Energy Performance Certificate, which rates the home’s carbon footprint. You can pay to have this done, but you’re looking at £200 or so, which is unlikely to be worth it.

You can approximate the procedure yourself if you have an extractor fan:

  • Close all windows and vents, mask over any remaining vents and air leaks with tape.
  • Turn off your heating and crank the extractor fan up to maximum.
  • Slowly go round your house with a smoke pencil or jos stick
The smoke will be pulled away from any air leaks which are letting air into the house. In particular check for:
  • Badly sealed doors and windows. Sort these with stick on draft strip.
  • Gaps around pipes under the sink, in the bathroom, and where any other pipes disappear into walls and floors. Squirt expanding foam into these.
  • Unsealed wooden floorboards are a carbon footprint nightmare. A mixture of wallpaper paste, newspaper and floor stain can fill the cracks.
  • Open chimneys or flues. If these aren’t being used seal them with a chimney cap or balloon.
Doing all this is cheap and easy, and just as important for your carbon footprint as more expensive and labour-intensive jobs like insulating your loft or getting cavity wall insulation or double-glazing. I recently went round and sealed up leaks I estimate were costing me £60 per year in heating. To do this I used a £5 can of foam, £5 worth of draft strip and about £10 worth of materials to seal my floorboards. Easy money, and a smaller carbon footprint.
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How much can a smart thermostat really save?

Posted in Gadgets, Green, Tech on October 30th, 2011 by Andy Duffell
A stuffed polar bear wearing a scarf

Keep warm and save polar bears this winter

Here comes winter again, time to crank up that central heating. But if you’re using an old-fashioned manual thermostat, you could be burning a lot of money for no good reason.

A programmable thermostat differs from a regular thermostat in that you can set it to provide different levels of heat at different times or on different days. They’re generally a straight swap for your old one, and cost about £50. Fitting it should just be a matter of unscrewing the old one from the wall, and switching the two wires that control your boiler to the new device.

Having fitted one of these beasties, you now have full control over exactly how warm you want the house and when. That means you can have it automatically warm up in time for getting out of bed or home from work, and cool down to save money (and polar bears) when you’re not in or asleep.

Will it save money and/or the planet?

Yes, if you tell it to.

For example, having it automatically lower the temperature by 5º overnight when you’re safely tucked up in your duvet can save you about £15 over the course of the winter. Which doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s money for nothing, and it would save about 70kg of CO2 emissions (or about 200kg if you use grid electricity for heating). It’s also a lot cheaper than fitting a more efficient boiler.

A programmable thermostatIf you’re at work Mon-Fri you could save even more. Setting it to frost protection only for 7 hours a day could save you £80 and 335kg of CO2 over the winter compared to leaving the heating at 18º. And that still leaves plenty of time for it to warm back up before you get home.

So you can see that even if you’re heating your home really comfortably, using a smart thermostat to avoid heating it when you don’t have to can pay for itself easily. Sure, you could achieve some of the same savings by manually turning your stat up and down, but having it done automatically is much easier.

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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 Duffell
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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How to combine Facebook with Google+

Posted in Howto, Websites on September 2nd, 2011 by Andy Duffell
A combine harvester cutting a field of wheat

Combining stuff is cool

There’s a lot to like about Google+, but if you’ve spent a lot of time on Facebook it’s a pain to change networks. So it’s nice to know you can mash them both together.

You’ll need to install the Start Google Plus extension:

Chrome: SGPlus

Firefox: Start Google Plus

This not only allows you to post to both networks simultaneously, but will squeeze all your FB content into your G+ page. There are some other extensions that will add Facebook as a separate tab, but this one can seamlessly weave both sites together. Nice.

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Does making the battery for a hybrid car take more energy than the car saves?

Posted in Green, Random, Tech on April 13th, 2011 by Andy Duffell
A Humvee

Some folks on the internet have actually tried to claim that a hybrid car uses more energy than a Hummer. Lol!

I recently heard someone trot out a factoid i’d heard before a couple of times:

The battery on hybrid cars takes so much energy to produce that it’s actually greener to drive a normal car.

As a Prius owner myself I wondered; could this be true?

Toyota have been rather tight-lipped about the exact details of Prius battery manufacture, although this is probably just because they consider their Hybrid Synergy Drive technology commercially sensitive (at least while they’ve got such a lead in the hybrid market over their competitors)

So let’s take a guesstimate at some numbers and see how it stacks up:

A new Prius starts at about £20,845. Let’s be generous to the sceptics and say that making the battery is a whopping 20% of the sticker price of the car (it’s likely much less than this). That means it costs £4169 to make a battery. Again, lets humour the sceptics and say that 90% of the cost of the battery manufacturing process is energy and that Toyota pays the equivalent of 5p/kWh. That puts the energy consumed during manufacture at 270GJ. That amount of energy is equivalent to a little over 1800 gallons of petrol. Toyota rate the hybrid drive as offering an improvment of about 25mpg over a standard drivetrain (using figures from the Auris vs Auris Hybrid), even if that’s only 15mpg in reality then a Prius would only take 27,200 miles to make back the energy used making the battery. Remember, those numbers I chose are extremely pessimistic, it’s likely that the real break-even point was much sooner.

Toyota’s warranty on their hybrid batteries is eight years, so unless you don’t think you’re going to put 27,000 miles on the clock in that time, a hybrid will reduce the amount of energy your driving consumes.

So bottom line: even a rough calculation of the energies involved does not support the claim that building batteries for hybrid cars is more wasteful than driving a conventionally powered car.

If you want to play around with the numbers, you can download this spreadsheet.

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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 Duffell
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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