Outlook Premium mail service from Microsoft – first impressions

A while ago I heard that Microsoft was looking to bring custom domains to Outlook, understandable as trying to pick an email address if you have a common name is a bit of a nightmare (I was lucky I beat another Rob Butler to mine but it didn’t stop him trying to open dating accounts etc using my email address, but I digress…)

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I received an invitation from Microsoft to sign up for their Outlook premium service.   The price will be $3.99 a month (unless you have an Office 365 subscription) which is comparable to professional email hosting services – although the support and service isn’t comparable in the least (more later)

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I clicked on the link and setting up seemed to get off to a good start.  Microsoft has partnered up with GoDaddy to give you a free domain (no option to transfer in) but this is only provided for the first year then you seem to be on your own. This didn’t bother me as I chose to bring over my own email address currently hosted on Google Apps (free).

The setup talks you through the settings you need to change (although not how to do them – fortunately I know how to change my DNS/MX entries) to get the service up and running.  So far so good.

Once you have verified your domain you are asked to pick a single email address that you will use.  Don’t transfer over any domains if you use multiple addresses before the @ – you’ll lose them.  Also don’t let Microsoft register a domain if you want to use it for more than just email as this doesn’t seem to be possible at the moment either.

I chose my address and was told it was available – a relief as I can’t change what goes before the @ sign as I’ve been using this email address for years now.  This is where it started to go wrong.  When I try to complete setup I’m told helpfully that something has gone wrong and to try again.  There is no indication if this is my problem or Microsoft’s – and no-one to turn to for help (other than an online forum manned by enthusiasts)op3

This is where I’ve left the service.  There is now no option to go back and use a different custom domain with my outlook.com address and nobody to turn to for support so I’m stuck.  This doesn’t feel like a pilot programme to me but a very early alpha.

The premise might be good for someone who already has an Office 365 account so is getting a little extra value from their subscription, but it is a long way from competing with professional hosting companies who charge a similar amount for a vastly superior service.

I’ll post an update if I ever get this working, in the meantime I’ve reverted my settings so that my mail goes to the excellent (and well supported) Google Apps.

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Samsung Smartthings – my initial thoughts #ThinkSmartThings

I signed up to be part of the insiders project, getting a Samsung SmartThings starter kit for 6 weeks to review and play with.

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The kit itself is well boxed and presented although documentation was a little thin on the ground.  Set-up was fairly simple although for some reason I had to do it twice which meant popping the cap off each sensor and pressing the reset button for the hub to set it up.

The presence sensor didn’t survive this process and the plastic holding in the battery disintegrated.  Support was mediocre and eventually (after nearly a week) I was given a second class label to return the sensor for it to be replaced upon receipt.  This meant a trip to the post office to get a proof of posting, which slowed the returns process down.  Fortunately the sensor was replaced within a few days of posting

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In the box is a hub which is the control centre for the whole system.  It has battery backup using 4x AA batteries (provided).  Also included in the box is a presence sensor, a door sensor (which also detects vibrations and temperature), a motion sensor (which also detects temperature) and an open/close sensor.   A remote controlled plug socket is also included (which also feeds back the energy consumption in Watts)

The limited range of sensors provided mean that it is hard to rig up any meaningful home automation system with only one actuator (the socket).  The hub has the ability to link with other automation kit you might own and it was a two minute job to painlessly link it to my Philips Hue lighting kit.

I’m still yet to find a compelling use case for the starter kit – that makes use of the sensors and devices on offer.  The retail price for the kit is £200 and there are many cheaper solutions that don’t involve smart technology for the use cases I see being tweeted with the #ThinkSmartThings hashtag.  For example I have my hub turning my lighting on at sunset and off at bedtime.  This sounds clever but I was able to do this before using IFTTT.com without the need to buy specialist hardware.  The remote controlled socket is nice but most of the functionality can be replicated by a WeMo socket in the £25-£30 price bracket and again with IFTTT integration.

I do have the system linked to my Foscam security camera so that when the door is opened it takes a snapshot (hoping I have left the camera pointing at the door).  The SmartApp can take a burst of photos if required but I’ve had limited success (it depends on which side of the door the person opening it is stood when the photos are taken).  An example of the typical shot is shown below (it isn’t meant to be broken up):

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The app is available for iPhone and Android which means that iPad users like myself are left with a crappy second best interface (again IFTTT has an iPad app – Samsung take note!).  The Android app is buggy and doesn’t work well on Marshmallow with error messages warning you that presence detection isn’t working (so removing the option of using your phone as a presence sensor to let the system know you are in the house).

Key features have yet to be implemented (despite being labelled as arriving soon for over a month) such as OpenAuth to connect to external services like IFTTT.  Account sharing isn’t implemented yet either so you can’t add your spouse or partner to your system – you all have to be logged in as the same user…

Configuring the system is a pain – whilst it isn’t impossible to work, it does lack the ease of use of comparable systems like IFTTT, and uses a combination of SmartApps and Routines to work your SmartThings hub.

Where Samsung have missed a trick is the sharing of recipes showing how to achieve certain events – I worked out how to turn my lights on and off on a routine but others might not.  Without wanting to sound like an IFTTT fanboy, they do have this licked with their recipe sharing system.  I have reached out to other insiders and browsed the SmartThings community but have yet to find any must-have uses for the system.

The availability of compatible sensors could be the making of this system but availability is limited in this country and the prices are usually higher than comparable SmartThings additional sensors (which start at £30 each).

I still remain to be convinced that Samsung SmartThings could be useful and I’ve tried hard to make it work for me.  I would advise potential purchasers wait until Samsung has implemented a full feature set and there is an established user base with some good usage scenarios.

Why I'm tweeting my speed test results every day – @virginmedia

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I’ve had slow speeds for well over a year now.  I’ve reported them to Virginmedia but unfortunately they are unable to help.  The reason being that there isn’t an actual fault with my hardware or my connection.

The reason I’ve been getting slow speeds is what Virginmedia call a utilisation fault.  A utilisation fault isn’t caused by faulty hardware or equipment, it is caused by signing up more customers than your network can support. Unfortunately this type of fault isn’t very easy to fix and requires investment in network infrastructure and bandwidth.

Virgin have assigned a fault reference to this problem (F002970318), presumably because they can give it to people like me who phone up wondering why they get nowhere near their promised speed.  I’ve been given a total of five dates for this to be fixed and it keeps getting pushed back, the date given now is mid-November, but I have no faith in Virginmedia to fix this problem.

What frustrates me even more are sales calls from Virgin offering me packages including 100Mb broadband.  If they can’t deliver 50Mb, there is little chance of delivering 100Mb or greater.  While this problem goes on Virgin media continue to sign up new customers who are oblivious to the fact that they will not get their promised line speed.

I’m told that Virgin can offer up to £7.50 a month rolling credit to those affected, which is little consolation to those getting speeds of 5Mb at peak times (or worse).  If you are in the Nottingham area then you will have to forget about connecting to the city of speed and accept that your connection will be subject to slow speeds until Virgin complete the investment that is long overdue.  You might also want to phone up customer service and ask for a discount, and share your connection speeds with others so that Virgin stop signing up customers with the promise of a service that they can’t deliver.

Feel free to get in touch if you are experiencing similar problems with your connection…

Six weeks with the Nexus 6

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Having spent over a year with a Nexus 5 I was itching for a new phone, something bigger (as the five inches of the Nexus 5 didn’t feel over-large) and had considered an iPhone 6+, a Samsung Note and a Nexus 6.  A month of dithering was cut short by the announcement that Google had dropped the price of the Nexus 6 to just over £300 so I bit the bullet and ordered.  This turned out to be a good move as the Nexus 6 has since returned to £479 on the Google store.

The first thing that struck me as I held it and tried to power it up was the sheer size of the beast.  It was remarkable difficult to hold in one hand and using it one handed seemed virtually impossible.  I’ve always been a user of phone cases to help with grip (and the protection makes a good backup to my accidental damage insurance) and I ordered a couple from Amazon.

Fortunately a case solved the slippery case problem and the phone felt safe and secure in my hand although it is now larger and slightly harder to slip into my pocket (I’m far too old for skinny jeans which would not accommodate the frame of the Nexus 6).

The screen in gorgeous and I soon got used to the size and quality of the display.  An extra row and column of icons on the homescreen have yet to be filled but the space is welcome when reading text in emails or social media.

Battery life is much improved over the Nexus 5 and I find I rarely have to charge the phone, even with bluetooth media playing and moderate use.  My Nexus 5 was usually dead by 3pm so having a USB charger in my office became a necessity.

Software on the phone is virtually the same as both are Google Nexus phones with stock Android and none of the nasty skins that plague the phones from other manufacturers.

Notifications are an area where the Nexus has lost some functionality with the removal of the Notification LED below the screen.  Together with the Lightflow app I could pick up my phone and know what notifications had come through without having to wake the phone (for example red light for GMail, green light for work emails).  This functionality has gone from the Nexus 6 but instead the screen does periodically wake and give a black & white display showing the lockscreen notifications.  Not quite as good but useful anyway.

Six weeks on and one handed use is still not easy but with practice and the excellent Google keyboard it is possible to send simple texts and status messages.  I don’t have the largest of hands but users with smaller hands will struggle with one-handed use.

Camera is excellent but the app is slow to load and slower still to focus.  I’m still hoping that software updates will improve this but unless you need to quickly capture a fleeting moment it is possible to live with this delay.  An example of the camera quality is shown below

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Another feature I find myself using is the always listening “OK Google” detection, although it took a couple of factory resets to get in working initially.  It isn’t a must-have feature or deal-breaker but again it’s useful to have there when you need it.

Six weeks in I love my Nexus 6 although I came very close to returning it initially as the size took some getting used to.  Of course now using the phone is second nature and I wouldn’t go back to my Nexus 5 (which feels like a toy phone in comparison)

Feel free to get in touch if you have any questions or want to share your experience of using the Nexus.

The failings of Ultraviolet and the movie

There are many reasons that people pirate movies and software.  Cost is one of them but convenience and portability is another.  How many DVDs have you watched that forced their piracy propaganda down your throat? How many movies do you have on iTunes or Google play that you want to watch on an incompatible device?

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I’ve just upgraded my pc and reinstalled the Blinkbox app.  It flashed up a notification telling me it had upgraded my library with ultraviolet (which lets you watch your purchased movies on other services – after all you have paid for them).

As you can see that doesn’t include all the movies in my collection – MY collection that I have PAID for.  Blinkbox isn’t a bad service and I’m sure it will continue to stick around under TalkTalk – but what’s the point in a service if movie makers don’t sign up to it.

Unfortunately they seem more interested in milking us for all they can than making us happy repeat customers.  No wonder the pirate bay hasn’t seen a decrease in traffic – I’m sorely tempted too!

 

Are you aware how much Google knows about you?

I like to think I’m quite technology minded.  I know that Google scans my inbox for spam/security and for advertising purposes.  I’ve opted to let Google keep a record of my internet searches in their web search history (note to the paranoid – they have this information anyway and could hand it over to the security services if required).  I know that Google Now looks for ways it can help me based on my web surfing – for example surf for a place on my computer and my phone offers me directions and journey times without being asked.

I’ve opted to give up a certain amount of privacy in order to get maximum benefit from the other services Google offer – I’m fine with that.  You can see what information Google holds about you by looking in your Google account under the account history tab.  You can see the sort of information they keep below:

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You can glean some interesting facts from these options, for example I search Google more on a Sunday…

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I was a little surprised by how much information they hold about my location.  I check into public facing services like Facebook but hadn’t given a thought to the fact that my phone checks my location several times a day and that Google actively stores your location on their servers.  Have a look and see where you have been over the last thirty days – it certainly opened my eyes.  This is where Google has tracked me over the last month.

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I won’t be changing the way I use Google or starting to wear a tinfoil hat but I do think that as a user you should be aware what information Google holds about you.

 

Disclaimer – I’m sure the same is true of Bing and other internet services to a certain extent, but as I don’t use them as much as Google, they won’t hold as much information on me.

How to have a second phone number to stop nuisance and sales calls

When I switched to having an internet-only phone I had to get a new landline number.  This gave me the opportunity to start again with my phone number knowing no cold callers would have my number.

As well as getting a number for incoming calls, I decided to get a second number for putting on application forms, insurance quotes etc where I wouldn’t want to speak to someone. Instead when someone calls this number they get a message (from me) and get to record a message.  This message is then emailed to my mailbox (and thanks to a filter in gmail it gets forwarded to my partner too).

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I chose Flextel to provide my phone number but other choices are available.  Calls to the number (and emailing of voicemail messages) is free but other paid options are available including forwarding to a landline or receiving faxes (remember those?)

Instructions on the Flextel site help you chose a number and set up voicemail (including recording your own message).  Hint – turn off the call notification emails otherwise you get an email every time someone calls the number regardless of whether they leave a message or not.

So does this work?  Yes! Use an insurance comparison tool, put in your new number and wait for the voicemails to come in.  I’ve also given it to salesmen when looking for quotes and they simply assume that you are on the phone and so leave a message.  We only give out the main phone number to people we might actually want to speak to (for example doctor, dentist) and everyone else gets the voicemail only number.  No more running to the phone to speak to sales reps, and you can listen to the messages on your mobile phone (assuming you receive email on it).

Feel free to get in touch if you want to know more.