Monday, 4 June 2018

South Downs Way Walk

I've just finished a pretty extraordinary journey, both physically and mentally, here's the story...

The Short Version - 100 Miles, 4 Days, 2 Charities

This bit of the blog post is a summary for the TL;DR brigade...
  • Starting in Eastbourne on 31st May
  • More or less 4 marathons in 4 days
  • Finishing in Winchester on 3rd June
  • Raising funds for:
    • The National Eczema Society
    • Parkinson's UK
  • You can still donate (please do):
  • We raised over £4500 (more than £5500 including gift aid)

I have made all the pictures available on Flickr in my South Downs Way Walk Album.


The Longer Version

My best mate decided he wanted to challenge himself as a consequence of coming to terms with his 40th birthday.  He called a few of us to the pub a few months back.  We settled on the idea of walking the South Downs Way in 4 days for 2 charities.  I was nuts enough to go along with this idea and I'm writing the morning after successfully finishing the entire route with him.

All done and in the restaurant at the finish
In the car on the way to get started...
The people you need to know about in this story are:
  • Matt Wettone - team leader
  • Me (obviously)
  • Andy McGrath - team super hero
  • Pete and Phil - team members
  • Stephen Warwick - honorary team member
  • Tim - Matt's dad, team logistics
  • Linda - Matt's mum, team chef

All done and in the restaurant at the finish
...all done and in the restaurant at the finish

The reason for doing this has already been much better explained by Matt than I'll manage to come up with so if you're interested in that then head over to our donation page or I've saved a copy of his text at the bottom of this post.  My personal reasons are fairly simple in as much as I'd find it hard to turn Matt down, doing something for charity is always worthwhile and challenging yourself every now and then has to be worth something as well.

It turns out that it certainly was a challenge both physically and mentally.  I'll try to be brief below with a summary of each day...

Day 1 - Eastbourne to Housedene Farm

Vital statistics: 27.4 miles in 8 hours 26 minutes moving time (3.25 MPH, moving average), about 58,000 steps and 3968 feet of elevation gain.


We planned Day 1 to be 24 miles long but ended up doing 27.4 miles.  This was due to starting further back than the documented start of the South Downs Way, we started at Eastbourne Pier, another 1.5 miles along the coast.  Also, the distance charts for the Eastern half of the walk seem to be about 10% out in terms of accuracy so we picked up another couple of miles we weren't expecting.

Matt, Andy and I left Eastbourne in heavy rain.  I think we were all excited and apprehensive but keen to get started.  After the first couple of miles, we climbed up onto the Seven Sisters and for the next 10 miles or so found ourselves repeatedly going up and down each of the 7 cliffs.  That was really hard work, especially in poor weather, and set the tone for the rest of the day as being a really tough day.

We pretty much dodged a bullet with the weather though, the rain cleared up by around 11am and it became overcast and warm for the remainder of the day, perfect walking weather.  The rest of the country seemingly got drowned in thundery showers that day so we were really lucky.

We finished the day in good spirits but with Andy starting to struggle a bit with a knee problem and having picked up a blister along the route somewhere.

Day 2 - Housedene Farm Camp Site to Amberley

Vital statistics: 29.7 miles in 9 hours 5 minutes moving time (3.23 MPH, moving average), about 62,000 steps and 3186 feet of elevation gain.



This route was also longer than the planned 26.5 miles we had in mind for day 2.  We picked up the trail where we left off the previous evening at Housedene Farm and walked to Amberley.  Pete joined us, meeting at the start point in the morning and intending to walk the next 2 days.

Andy put in a heroic effort just to be ready for the start.  From the previous day, all of us thought there was a real danger he may have to pull out for at least day 2, but somehow he managed to be ready and start walking with us again.

The weather was decent enough for walking in as much as it wasn't sunny and the temperature was probably mid teens.  However, we basically spent the entire day walking through cloud.  The most we saw all day was dew drops forming in our hair from all the moisture in the air.  The dampness did make it a little tougher but we found the biggest drawback of this weather was the lack of reward for climbing some enormous hills.  For example, we walked the length of the south rim of Devil's Dyke and none of us have the foggiest (pun intended) idea what it looks like.  Visibility was between 20 and 100 yards all day!

At about 18 miles Pete wasn't able to continue, having aggravated an old knee injury.  We decided it was best for him to leave the trail and get picked up early so he headed to a nearby road for rescue.  At that point, Andy took the tactical decision to accompany Pete on the journey home to give himself more time and a better chance of recovery to finish the route, leaving just Matt and I.  This was definitely one of the low points for all of us in the team that day.

Matt and I soldiered on through the cloud for another 11-12 miles after that.  We were due to be picked up at the agreed point but due to a traffic accident and resulting traffic chaos, Tim was unable to meet us until 40 minutes or so after our agreed meet time.  Matt and I decided to add some more miles to make day 3 a bit shorter and easier.


Day 3 - Amberley to Queen Elizabeth Country Park

Vital statistics: 25.2 miles in 8 hours 3 minutes moving time (3.13 MPH, moving average), about 54,000 steps and 3287 feet of elevation gain.


Day 3 was a huge mental struggle for me.  We had lost Pete the day before, Andy was with us again and struggling through.  But the main problem was having eaten fish and chips for dinner the night before and not slept a wink resulting from the indigestion that followed, I was both extremely tired and feeling rather nauseous as well.  I kept going, putting faith in my physical ability (physically I felt fine), force fed myself as many calories as I could (I really didn't want to eat) and by around 2pm was starting to feel a little better.

There were a huge number of highlights on Day 3 that really helped:

  • We were joined in a fairly last minute addition to the plan by Stephen Warwick.  It was lovely to have someone new in the team with fresh legs and a different dynamic.  Stephen's used to lengthy exercise having walked some trails in the Himalayas and also ridden from Lands End to John O'Groats.  He really helped me get my head in the right place to soldier on with some good team talks and deliberately poor maths.  "We're half way" he said at 11 miles.  "No we're not, go back and re-sit your GCSE" I replied knowing full well that we'd be the wrong side of 25 miles by the time we'd finished the day.
  • The weather was much, much better.  We could see.  It was warm, not hot.  That was lovely.
  • We'd previously walked from Buriton to Didling during training, about the last third of Day 3.  So there was a point when we reached the part of the trail we knew.  That was a huge moment for all of us.  We stopped there and celebrated with a banana each (we know how to live).  Matt and I had now walked to the point where we knew we'd walked the entire length of the remaining trail into Winchester during training and most of that done in a day.  We started to believe this might actually be possible.
  • Amy, Matt's sister, joined us at Harting Down and walked the last 8 miles or so with us.  That was another huge boost to us - thank you, Amy!
  • Linda also joined us for the last 2 miles into Queen Elizabeth Country Park.  Since she's suffering with Parkinson's, I thought that it was particularly poignant for her to join us.  I'm really glad she did. 
  • Donations were still coming in, we'd had a particularly good donation day on Day 2, and for those people who decided to wait until we started walking - many thanks - you helped keep us going and our spirits up.
The last few miles were really tough for Andy.  Carrying his injury, he hobbled along to the finish, doubtful about whether he could complete Day 4.  Testament to Andy though, he sat down in a disabled parking space in the car park, causing much hilarity.  Other than in quite a lot of pain, I'm not sure exactly how he was feeling, but I imagine very proud of getting this far but also worried about the potential disappointment of not being able to finish the whole thing on Day 4.


Day 4 - Queen Elizabeth Country Park to Winchester

Vital statistics: 24.1 miles in 7 hours 12 minutes moving time (3.35 MPH, moving average), about 51,000 steps and 1972 feet of elevation gain.


The start of day 4 was met with mixed feelings.  We had all stayed at home the previous night, our first night home for the previous 3 nights.  Seeing family and sleeping in your own bed was great.  However, Andy was unable to recover from the previous day in time and we had a message saying that he wasn't going to be able to join us for the final day.  That must have been a very hard decision to take but you'd never know it, having been delivered with the sense of humour and good grace Andy had shown throughout the walk.  We'd miss him but we did have Phil joining me and Matt with his fresh legs for the final day.

Matt and I were buoyed by the fact we'd walked the entire length of this day during training and done so in a single day.  That feeling of confidence and the fact we knew where we were going and exactly what lay ahead at each stage of the walk certainly helped.  It made things a lot easier when we were getting tired during the day.  It's probably due to a mixture of factors but we walked a little faster on day 4 too.

Andy parked in Winchester and walked backwards along our route to meet us and walk into town the last few miles.  Still struggling, that must have been a hard walk for him too but it was great to cross the line with the main team of 3 of us and Phil who joined for the final day.

We arrived in Winchester a bit earlier than any of us might have expected.  But with due warning, friends and family were dotted throughout the last couple of miles to meet and greet us.  That felt amazing, picking up more people as we got closer to the end point.  We were clearly going to make it, feeling extremely tired, but unstoppable at the same time.

We went for food and drink.  Left the building to be driven, a long way home but a shorter distance than we'd walked each day, that felt weird.

We're done.  This is now history.  But please consider a donation, if you haven't already.


Matt's Original Text

"Thank you so much for visiting my page. My name is Matt and this year I will be turning the grand age of 40. I was inspired to take on a challenge to mark the occasion and hopefully do some good while I'm at it. 
On 31st May I will be walking the South Downs Way. This is a walk that is 100 miles long and I will be attempting to cover it in 4 days. This means covering something close to a marathon each day. To help me do this I have put together a team of close friends. They will be joining me for either all (Graham & Andy) or part (Phil and Pete) of the walk. 
Together we are raising money for The National Eczema Society and Parkinsons UK. Here's why... 
I was diagnosed with atopic eczema aged just 3 months and I still struggle with the disease to this day. With the help of my parents, my family, close friends, some incredible doctors and some equally astounding nurses, my skin is in a far better condition that it ever was as a child. In July of 2017 my wife and I welcomed our second child into the world. Sadly he too has been suffering with eczema. 
The work that the National Eczema Society do is vitally important in the development of new treatments, drugs and support for sufferers of this condition. I am passionate to find something that not only helps my life but helps the generations to come (including my son). 
In September 2017 my Mum was diagnosed with Parkinson's. Prior to the diagnosis as a family we had seen her deteriorating. She was walking much slower than normal, she dragged her feet, her right arm developed a tremor, her speech was much quieter and she wasn't herself. 
My sister got married in early September and while helping to setup the day before Mum tripped on a kerb and broke her arm. Having recognised she wasn’t herself, Mum had been having various tests. A cardiologist she’d been sent to contacted the GP to say he thought Mum should be referred to a neurologist because he thought she had Parkinson’s disease. It is very likely that not picking her feet up (due to Parkinson's) caused her to trip and fall. 
Since then she has been given a medication, seen a Parkinsons nurse and a physiotherapist. This has meant a significant improvement and she is now standing much taller (quite a significant given how 'tall' she is), she is speaking more freely, she is interacting with all her grandchildren with a vibrancy that was missing. 
The work that Parkinsons UK do is vital for people with this disease. They provide invaluable support and research that could not be possible without the support of donors. 
I would be so grateful if you would like to sponsor my team and I as we embark on this challenge and help raise some money for some fabulous charities. 
Don’t forget to gift aid your donation so we can get even more from the Taxman."

Last, but very much not least, a great debt of thanks to everyone who has supported us.  Those of you donating your hard-earned cash to our two fantastic causes, thank you.  To our wives and families who we've abandoned to fulfil our own personal challenge, you're tired too from holding the fort while we've been gone, thank you.  Finally, particular thanks to Linda and Tim for the logistical support, you were a part of the team as well and we wouldn't have completed the journey without you.

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Kids Sponsored Walk with Dads

On Saturday 11th November, my 3 year old is taking on a 3 mile sponsored walk.  We're going from Bushy Leaze woods in the next village of Beech to the Bushy Leaze children's centre in Alton.  Basically, a walk across the town in which we live.  It doesn't sound far but it's a long way for little legs with some steep climbs over rough terrain too.

The idea is to raise funds for the centre and in particular to continue running the dad's group.  The group used to get government funding through the sure start scheme but all this funding was cut last year along with a lot of other funding the centre was able to get.  We're going to our bit to make sure the group can continue to run for future generations.  One of our friends has helped set the centre up as a charity so they can continue as much of their outreach work and things like the breast feeding clinics can continue to run too.

You can read a little more and sponsor us at the following web page https://mydonate.bt.com/events/walkwithdad/450291

Please feel free to share the story and donation link as you see fit.

Thanks!

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Moving to giffgaff

Much like moving bank account, it's not very often I move mobile network.  I tend to favour staying with the same provider unless they provide me with a good reason to leave.  My current network, TalkMobile, have just done so by completely shutting down their PAYG service and so are only able to offer me a contract (that I don't want) or a rubbish deal to move to Vodafone (they're a Vodafone MVNO).

I thought I'd write a similar post about my experience moving to the giffgaff network today to the one I wrote about Moving to TalkMobile back in 2012.  You'll see from that link that joining TalkMobile was extremely painful.  However, I'm happy to report I found the network very solid and reliable with what I can only presume is good coverage (there's always black spots, right?) on the Vodafone network.  Getting them to do anything was always painful as there's little option for self-service so it's more or less always a call to their support staff.  The staff are very polite and extremely helpful but the processes and presumably the systems they have to use seem somewhat antiquated today.

So in comparison to my previous blog post about moving to TalkMobile, moving to giffgaff went a bit like this:

Day 1 (yesterday)

  1. Register a giffgaff SIM a friend gave me and create a new giffgaff account all in one simple guided wizard on the giffgaff web site
  2. Request a PAC from TalkMobile
  3. Go through the number transfer process via another simple wizard on the giffgaff web site
Day 2 (today)

  1. Observe a short outage in mobile service as my number was transferred just after lunch
  2. Happy customer

So now I'm looking forward to years of good service from giffgaff until they provide me with a good reason to leave some time in the future.

By the way, if you want to grab a giffgaff SIM then feel free to register via my referral link as we'll both get a free £5 credit if you do.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

New Thinkpad P50

It's been a while, but true to our 4 year hardware refresh cycle, I've just received my latest laptop - a Lenovo P50.  I've been installing it with Fedora 25 since Friday and configuring and copying data over this weekend ready to swap laptops first thing this week.  I'm looking forward to trying out the new machine although I'm not quite sure why as the specs are barely different from the machine I was given 4 years ago.  It's certainly the best indication yet I've personally experienced of Moore's Law coming to a complete halt as well as many of the other specifications not improving a huge amount either.  The two most noticeable differences are likely to be the more powerful graphics chip and the inclusion of an SSD.  That said, there is twice as much RAM in this machine and I had upgraded my previous machine with an SSD as well so that particular upgrade isn't going to be noticeable for me at least.

My previous machine was a W530 and the one I had before that was a T61p (with a T41p before that) and so I'm well used to this particular line of Thinkpad laptops.

Here's the specifications of the machine I've got, as ever there are variants of the P50 so if you have one or are thinking of getting one the specifications could be a little different but will be broadly similar to this:

  • Intel(R) Core(TM) i7-6820HQ CPU @ 2.70GHz (5433.79 bogomips in Linux)
  • 32GB DDR4 2133MHz
  • Samsung MZNLN512 (PM871) 512GB SSD
  • 15.6" 1920 x 1080 IPS (non-touch)
  • 6 Cell Battery
  • Wireless A/C
  • NVIDIA Quadro M1000M 4 GB
  • Front Facing Web Cam, Mini Display Port, HDMI Out, Headphone, 4x USB3, Smart Card Reader, GBit Ethernet, Thunderbold, Fingerprint Reader
So looking at those and comparing in more detail to what I had before it seems my gut feeling was pretty good.  The CPU benchmarks are more-or-less exactly the same and certainly within tolerances of error as well as other performance increases that will effect the benchmarks such as the memory clock speed.  Here's the comparison between the W530 CPU and the P50 CPU:


The same can't be said of the GPU benchmarks though so it looks like GPUs are continuing to gain in power even when CPU speed increases have run out of steam:

The other noticeable difference I hadn't spotted before is the battery size.  That's very apparent when you pick the machine up as it's actually a little bit thinner (probably also due to the lack of DVD/combo drive) as well as not as deep i.e. it doesn't have the big battery sticking out of the back that has been common place on this line of Thinkpad machines over the past decade or so.  I'm guessing (without having done any research on the matter) that this is probably due to improvements in battery technology so I'd think Lenovo have probably moved over to Li-ion or Li-po batteries.

In terms of running and using the machine, it does seem very nice so far as one might expect.  It's running Fedora 25 very nicely and hasn't caused me any issues at all during setup.  I'm not really expecting any either as most if not all of the hardware seems pretty well support by Linux these days.  I think, in fact, Lenovo even offer to supply this machine pre-installed with Linux if you want.  That said, there looks to be one possible sticking point in terms of hardware support at the moment but this is very minor.  That is, the build-in fingerprint reader doesn't seem to have a driver available on Linux yet.  I did some very brief research into this yesterday and it's not clear why vendor support is lacking for the device at the moment although I did find at least one effort that has gone a fairly long way towards reverse engineering it and starting to write a driver so I would guess within the next year we'll see some sort of support for the fingerprint reader too.

All in all then it's a good machine even though it's not a huge upgrade over my 4 year old laptop!

Friday, 23 December 2016

Becomming a Fedora Package Maintainer

Those of you that know me well will know I like Linux.  Don't get me wrong, there's a lot wrong with it and the community can be a pretty harsh place where more or less everyone has an opinion they think is the right one.  I don't get a lot of chance to contribute for various reasons but earlier this year I was (finally) accepted to be a package maintainer for the Fedora project.

Since I like Linux I do tend to use it on the desktop both at home and at work.  I do more or less everything with Linux and Open Source software including photo editing with GIMP.  It bugged me that Fedora ship a library called lensfun which is a library of lens correction data but the only piece of software using it within Fedora was Digikam.  Preferring GIMP I decided to set about packaging and supporting gimp-lensfun for Fedora.

Becoming a Fedora Package Maintainer is a well documented process as there are joining instructions and package review guidelines for the packaging guidelines.  Whilst well documented, there's a heck of a lot of stuff you have to read through and comply with before you can submit your first package review request.  This is further complicated by not yet having any reputation within the Fedora community and so you have to build this up in other ways before your package will be recognised and one of the senior community members agrees to sponsor you as a package maintainer.

I eventually raised my first package review request for gimp-lensfun in April 2013.  Over a period of a few weeks people throw rocks at what you've done according to the various guidelines that you either didn't see or forgot about.  This is actually really good and helpful as it ensures quality and consistency between all the new packages being accepted into Fedora.

What I wasn't prepared for was the length of the wait.  I know this isn't an earth shattering change to Fedora but it took me over 2 years to get noticed enough for my package to be accepted and for me to be sponsored as a Fedora packager.  I think I'd probably still be waiting now but I bugged a few people on IRC to point out my review request had been sitting there for so long.

Finally! My first package was released into the wild for Fedora 21 and 22 and I've been given the chance to give just a little back to the community.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Compiling the 8192eu driver for the Raspberry Pi

I recently had the need to Wi-Fi enable a Raspberry Pi and so bought a D-Link DWA-131 Wireless USB Adapter.  I knew from something I'd read that it was a bit of a gamble in terms of whether it would be supported by the Pi under Raspian.  It turns out there are currently 3 revs of this adapter with different chipsets in each.  The one I got was the latest E1 version identified with the USB Device ID 2001:3319 that requires the realtek 8192eu driver.

Here's how to get it working under the September 2015 Raspian Jessie running Kernel 4.1.7+ for which I found some similar instructions a helpful starter:

1.  Get up to date and ready for compilation

sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get upgrade
sudo apt-get install build-essential git


2. Grab the Driver Source

git clone https://github.com/romcyncynatus/rtl8192eu.git

or from

http://support.dlink.com.au/download/download.aspx?product=DWA-131


3. Patch the driver source for Kernel 4.x

cd rtl8192eu
Apply the following patch to rtw_android.c

diff --git a/os_dep/linux/rtw_android.c b/os_dep/linux/rtw_android.c
index 40ddf07..f7c496e 100755
--- a/os_dep/linux/rtw_android.c
+++ b/os_dep/linux/rtw_android.c
@@ -342,7 +342,11 @@ int rtw_android_cmdstr_to_num(char *cmdstr)
 {
        int cmd_num;
        for(cmd_num=0 ; cmd_num<ANDROID_WIFI_CMD_MAX; cmd_num++)
+#if (LINUX_VERSION_CODE >= KERNEL_VERSION(4,0,0))
+               if(0 == strncasecmp(cmdstr , android_wifi_cmd_str[cmd_num], strlen(android_wifi_cmd_str[cmd_num])) )
+#else
                if(0 == strnicmp(cmdstr , android_wifi_cmd_str[cmd_num], strlen(android_wifi_cmd_str[cmd_num])) )
+#endif
                        break;

        return cmd_num;



4. Grab the rpi-source tool (to download the Pi kernel source)

wget https://raw.githubusercontent.com/notro/rpi-source/master/rpi-source 
chmod +x rpi-source
sudo mv rpi-source   /usr/bin/
sudo rpi-source -q --tag-update


5. Install the Pi kernel

sudo rpi-source --skip-gcc


6. Build and install the driver

make ARCH=arm
sudo make ARCH=arm install
sudo bash -c 'echo "options 8192eu rtw_power_mgnt=0 rtw_enusbss=0" > /etc/modprobe.d/8192eu.conf'
modprobe 8192eu

Friday, 14 November 2014

Tackling Cancer with Machine Learning

For a recent Hack Day at work I spent some time working with one of my colleagues, Adrian Lee, on a little side project to see if we could detect cancer cells in a biopsy image.  We've only spent a couple of days on this so far but already the results are looking very promising with each of us working on a distinctly different part of the overall idea.

We held an open day in our department at work last month and I gave a lightening talk on the subject which you can see on YouTube:


There were a whole load of other talks given on the day that can be seen in the summary blog post over on the ETS (Emerging Technology Services) site.



Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Snooker Cue Maintenance

A slight departure from my usual sort of posts but these are "my notes" so what the heck.

Last Christmas I treated myself (or strictly speaking was treated to) a new snooker cue.  I've always dabbled with snooker, not particularly good, but I can do enough to get by.  My old cue (18th birthday present) was getting a bit tired.  I decided to go with a really nice English make, Peradon, from Liverpool.  They are reasonably priced but the real treat is the quality of the craftsmanship and since I'm quite keen on making things from wood I really appreciate that side of the cue as much as anything else - it's clearly one that's far above the level to which I actually play the game.  I eventually settled on the Ascot ¾ cue.

With such a nice piece of wood I was surprised to see a complete lack of advice on how to care for and maintain it.  I wrote to Peradon for some help and what follows is their advice, and hence the reason for keeping it on my blog so I'll stand a chance of finding it again in the future...

The method is quite simple:

  1. Rub down with a very fine steel wool (I use Liberon 0000) and wipe away any residue
  2. Apply raw linseed oil (I use Liberon Raw Linseed Oil) with a lint free cloth and leave for 20-30 minutes
  3. Buff the cue with a lint free cloth
  4. Repeat if necessary (you can also heat or dilute the linseed oil for multiple coats)
It seems to work very well.  Peradon recommended I do this every couple of weeks which seems to be to be rather on the excessive side so I'll probably opt for "every now and then" and since this is the first time I've done it, it looks to be an annual event although I may do it more often now I've got all the gear.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Nexus 4 Red Light of Death

I've written a few times in the past about various poor or laughable customer experiences I've had when dealing with technology and the companies making or retailing them.  Things usually work out well in the end of course as we're well protected as consumers here in the UK.  However, when my Nexus 4 went wrong late on Saturday night I thought I was in for another world of pain, I couldn't have been more wrong.

The short version of this post is that my phone died late on Saturday night.  On Sunday morning I raised a support call.  By Tuesday morning I had a brand new phone in my hand, delivered to my door, all under warranty.  I need not have worried it seems, Google appear to have customer support really very well sorted out.  I only wish the vast array of companies out there who are terrible to deal with would learn the lessons of having satisfied customers even when things go wrong.

The slightly longer version of the story is that my phone completely ran out of charge on Saturday and when I went to plug it in for an over night full charge before going to bed, I noticed the LED was solid red.  I've never seen this before but left it for a few hours and tried turning it on, nothing.  I left it on over night and it still wouldn't turn on the next morning.  I tried a few other things, like a separate wall outlet and another charger and cable but still all I got was a solid red light and no ability to boot the phone.

I phoned Google at 10am on a Sunday in the hope that they ran a call center on Sundays or that I would be connected to an international person who would be able to help.  I think that's probably what happened as it was an all-American experience from start to finish.  Benjamin answered the phone, asked me some questions and got me to do a couple of things with the phone, it was still dead.  He was first class, easy to understand and took ownership of the issue straight away, I can still email him directly about the problem now.

After Google support (Ben) realised the phone was dead, there was no quibble, no problem, no hoops to jump through.  He told me that he'd send the issue through to the warranty department, they would send me an email with how to order a new phone and when I receive it I should send back the old one in the same packaging (standard practice for the tech industry).  We parted company, and I'm thinking this is all a bit too easy and something will go wrong later.

A couple of hours later, I get an email from Google warranty.  It has a link to click which allows you to order a new phone at no cost (the link is only live for 24 hours).  I set about ordering the phone, it was Sunday night by this time.

8:30am Tuesday morning and Parcel Force knock at the door and deliver my new phone.  Inside the package is a return envelope, exactly as described by Ben at Google and exactly what the warranty email said would happen.  I printed the RMA note attached to the email, packaged everything up and it's ready to go back to Google - we're still less than 5 days from the start of the issue at this point.

Quite simply, brilliant.  I thought I should say so (or more so).

So would I buy a new Google hardware product again?  You bet I would.  Software updates come regularly, I'm always at the latest Android level (unlike the Transformer Prime tablet we have in the house which is stuck on 4.1 because Asus dropped support after little more than a year), I don't suffer from the Apple single vendor lock-in issue, and now to top it all off it seems the warranty support is first class.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Android Clients for Twitter

I've been a long time fan of Tweetdeck as a piece of software for social management, certainly long before it was bought by Twitter.  I've used it everywhere via the Air Desktop app, on the web, the Chrome app and on Android too.  That is, up until now.  In their infinite wisdom Twitter appear to have realised maintaining two clients across a wide range of platforms doesn't make sense (begs the question why the bought it in the first place but I wont have that argument here) any longer and most versions of Tweetdeck are being phased out leaving only the web version or the heavily-based-on-the-web-version Chrome app.  So for the fans, what's next?  Which Twitter client should I be using on my mobile device now?  I've been assessing a bunch of them for quite a while now and I know I'm not the only one facing this decision so here's what I've learned.

First of all to put into perspective my thoughts on each client, here's a list of things I want or that I'm concerned with in an Android client:

  1. I should very easily be able to get to different content streams from my main Twitter stream, my mentions, searches, lists, to my direct messages.  A column interface (similar to Tweetdeck I guess) is ideal for this with a swipe gesture to navigate between them.
  2. It should support multiple Twitter accounts and switch easily between each account.
  3. It should be slick, fast, nice to use and be configurable in terms of its look and feel, notifications and ideally offer per column filters.
  4. It should ideally support push notifications and Twitter streaming. When notifications are pressed in the notifications bar the client should open directly to the Tweet being notified.
  5. It should not contain adverts.  It doesn't matter if I have to pay for the app or pay to get rid of the adverts, paying (within reason) is fine.
  6. It would preferably be free (as in open source) but I appreciate many of them are not and indeed to get the best Android clients at the moment it's less likely to be so.

So onward, to the apps...

Twitter (official client)
I guess the main critique of a post such as this is to ask what's wrong with the official client.  Well for me I find it takes ages to get to the content I read regularly.  Twitter lists take 3 taps and a scroll-down to find (for each list) so the official client fails at point 1 in my requirements list.  It doesn't do particularly well at points 2 or 3 either.  However, it does have the beefed-up mentions column they're calling Interactions that also includes favourites and new followers which I really like so I'm likely to keep it installed just for this until some other clients catch up.

Scope
Requires a special Scope account in order to login.  Screenshots appear to indicate a lack of column support so I didn't even bother signing in and got rid of it straight away.

Slices
An interesting take on reading Twitter and may once have provided lots of useful extra functionality on top of the basic Twitter.  However, with the introduction of Twitter lists there seems less point to Slices ability to carve up your social content into chunks.  The UI I found to be really rather confusing and difficult to navigate.  I quickly got rid of it after some investigation into its features.

Carbon
One of the slickest and nicest looking Twitter clients I think there is, this one really excels at want list number 3 with its fancy animations and cool look.  However, in the end it's still a button based UI that takes far too many taps to get to each piece of content you want to read.  That makes it slow and confusing to navigate so it's a sad farewell when uninstalling this one as it does implement swipe between columns but you can't configure your own columns to swipe through.

Tweet Lanes
This one does everything I want more or less out of the box with zero setup.  All I did for this app was sign in and a carousel swipe interface is loaded with all my tweets, mentions, lists, etc. and more can easily be added.  This app also appeals due to its free and open source mentality so is good for want list number 6.  However, it was left by the original developer (who no longer maintains it) somewhat feature incomplete with no notifications or sync although it does handle multiple accounts rather nicely.  Other developers have hacked in a few of these missing features here and there but there's still no driving force behind the project any more.  I wouldn't be expecting regular updates so the amount of life left in this app without someone taking up the reigns is probably quite short.  If it wasn't for the fact it's in a state of limbo I could seriously like this one but in the end lack of attention to detail such as pressing a notification in the notification bar and it merely starting the app rather than dropping you to the right place are just annoying.

Seesmic
A really popular client at one point, even if it's not now.  However, I really didn't get Seesmic at all.  It's a button based UI similar to the official Twitter client that takes lots of taps to get anywhere.  Lets count how I read a Twitter list: Profile Button -> Lists -> List Name, that's 3 which is too many in my book.  So it fails in the same way the official client fails at point 1 in my want list and doesn't do well at points 2 or 3 either.  It also has ads that I could pay to get rid of but why pay when it doesn't work very well for me anyway?

UberSocial
Not a bad column-based client that allows you to easily add the columns you want and arrange them in the order that suits.  It's easy to switch between accounts too.  The big problem with this client is that it's a battery-eater, I've no idea what it's doing but presumably polling quite a lot as when installed and in use on my phone it was one of the top reported apps in terms of battery usage where none of the other clients are anywhere to be seen.  If you want decent battery life then don't bother with this one.

TweetCaster
A not particularly easy on the eye button based app which, like other similar apps that limit the columns you're allowed and don't swipe between them, makes it rather awkward to traverse all the various parts of Twitter that a modern user might expect.  I really don't see the advantage of TweetCaster over the standard Twitter app.

The Winners Are
These three are all very good indeed and for me and my list, worth a shot.  I've not yet completely made my mind up which way I'll be going but it will definitely be one of these.

Janetter
With the default theme, this client can be a bit "oh my eyes" with its jet black text on bright white background.  Not much imagination in the colouring and shading of the interface except the bright lime green.  However, when switched to the dark theme it's much easier on the eye and you can start to look at the functionality a little more closely.  It manages multiple accounts very well, returning you to the same account you left when you start the app but making it easy to move between the two accounts - perfect for when you have a major account and other minor accounts you don't read that much.  The interface itself is the typical column/swipe style interface and the columns are easily configured, edited and arranged.  It also has another feature that is becoming more important in the management of busy columns, the idea of muting certain keywords, hashtags, user accounts or apps.  The free version has adverts built in but if this is the app I end up going for then it's a one-time £4.99 purchase to get rid of the ads and unlock a couple of other features.

HootSuite
Really easy to use from the off and has a nice separation of accounts that allow you to read content from any particular account with ease.  Accounts are separated so you can only scroll through the columns for a particular account that's active.  However, switching between accounts feels a little awkward to me as you have to remember how to navigate back to the main start page which isn't done using the most obvious (and normal for Android) method of clicking the button in the title bar.  Other than that, once you've got an account selected it's really quite nice to browse through all the different content and with no ads either, for free.  If you want more than a certain number of accounts (I'm not sure how many) or you want to unlock some particular features (that I've not found the need for) then you need to pay a fairly staggering $9.99 per month to use the pro version of the app.  That sum plus the features you get in the paid version clearly indicate HootSuite is aiming to make money from commercial users of Twitter where lots of different people might be maintaining lots of different accounts, a marketing department perhaps.  Because of that the free version is really good, as I've said, but I do wonder if one of the other two of my favourite apps will win out with a slicker user experience overall.

Plume
I'm really liking Plume at the moment, along with Janetter it's quite slick at the way it handles navigation and moving between accounts.  However, it does have a couple of annoying "features" that can't be changed.  The worst is that every time the app is started it shows a feed of information from all of your accounts configured in the app.  Unlike most apps, Plume doesn't separate content from different accounts, they're all shown in the same columns and colour coded to match a particular account.  That's great except that most of the time I want to read content from my main Twitter account and only occasionally do I want to dip into content from other accounts.  Hence, at the moment every time I start the app I have to tap a couple of buttons to select my main account - how hard can that be to add as an option?  Many users have asked for it and as yet it's not been added.  The free version is supported by ads so you you need to shell out the small sum of £3.73 to get rid of them.  Another similar feature to Janetter is that you can mute certain things from column content, either accounts, hashtags, keywords or apps.  This highlights another annoying Plume buglet in that not everything you ask to be muted actually gets muted, or at least it seems mutes only apply to the main column and not to specific columns or all columns as you might expect.  This is a really excellent Twitter client and if you can work around the few annoyances I've highlighted then it's a real winner.  For me, time will tell whether they sort it out enough for me to be able to live with it on a daily basis.