Improved music while you work

Sometimes in the office I find it helpful to listen to music. Simply the process of putting on a pair of headphones helps me zone out of the distractions of the office, and concentrate better on the task in hand.

My problem was that I wasn’t convinced the quality of music produced by the work laptop, and so I tried to see what I could do to improve the sound quality.

High Quality Streaming

The first thing was to ensure the source of the music was as good as it could be. There are music services like Tidal that offer lossless audio – but they charge double the price of other streaming services, and its debatable whether you can tell the difference unless you have very high-end audio equipment.

I use the Spotify premium service, and they offer a high quality streaming option in their desktop app (see Edit->Preferences). The high quality option doubles the bit rate from 160 kbps to 320 kbps, which should improve the quality of the music.

Better Headphones

Music through a €5 pair of ear-buds is never going to sound as good as through a €500 pair of audiophile headphones. But again, there’s a balance to be made here – and a law of diminishing returns. As you spend more, the incremental improvements get smaller and smaller. As such, I’d say don’t spend over €200 for headphones in a noisy office environment.

When buying new headphones, you’re looking for good noise isolation. You don’t want your music interrupted by the conversation across the room, and similarly you don’t want your music to leak out and annoy your colleagues. Look for closed (or closed back) headphones to avoid noise leakage.

For very noisy offices, you might want to consider noise-cancelling headphones, which alter the audio to try and actively block out ambient noise. They are useful if you do a lot of air travel, as they are designed to block out low frequencies (such as airplane engine noise) – but there are disadvantages to using them. They are often more bulky, they need battery power to operate, and the noise-cancelling effect can reduce the audio quality.

Bulldog clip providing a handy place to hang the headphones
Bulldog clip providing a handy place to hang the headphones

External DAC

Once you have a good quality source of music, and good quality headphones, the only thing that can let down the music is the thing that sits in the middle – the computer. The headphones socket of your PC can often let you down in terms of sound quality, and an external DAC (Digital to Analogue Converter) will go a long way to improve the quality.

I have a DacMagic XS which has provided me with a noticeable improvement in sound quality. It’s tiny – smaller than a matchbox – and plugs into one of the USB ports of the laptop. I then plug my headphones in the other end. It’s small enough to look unobtrusive on my desk, and can also be used to improve the sound output of a smartphone or tablet.

Two months with a OnePlus One

OnePlus One

There’s been a lot of hype surrounding the release of the OnePlus One mobile phone since it was announced just over a year ago.

Even today the Chinese manufacturer still maintains a certain air of mystery and supposed exclusivity by maintaining an invite-only means of ordering. They also run promotions every now and again to enable people without an invite to order, such as the one-hour sale they had at the end of October – and that’s how I got mine.

The OnePlus One is not sold in high street or online shops – it’s only available to order from the manufacturer’s website. It’s also not on sale in Ireland, but you can easily use Parcel Motel to bypass delivery restrictions.

I wasn’t 100% convinced I’d like this phone before I ordered it.  I was worried that the handset would be too big, because it has a 5.5 inch screen – a significant step up in size from my old 5 inch Google Nexus 5. But in actual usage it feels very comfortable in my hand. I can just-about operate it with one hand, but the far edges of the screen are a bit of a stretch. I’d also say that it occasionally digs into me when I’m sat down with it in my jeans pocket.

The screen and camera are both better quality than my previous phone, and everything just seems to run a bit quicker.  But by far the biggest improvement over other smartphones I’ve had is the battery life.  I fiddle with my phone pretty-much all day, and I found that after a year’s usage of my Nexus 5 that the battery was running down by late afternoon.  Not so with the OnePlus One, which has a huge battery capacity.  I’ve never come close to running out of battery, even when I’m out of the house for 12-14 hours.

One other difference the OnePlus One has over its rivals is the operating system.  It run something called CyanogenMod, which is a variant of Android. However, there’s no steep learning curve when switching from other Android phones – it’s just like Android, but with a bunch of extra options and features available.

The price is also a bargain in comparison to other mobiles.  My 64GB model cost £269 (about €360 at today’s exchange rate), but the 16GB version cost just £229 (€305).  That’s compared against €699 for the cheapest iPhone 6 from the Apple store, or about €650 for a Samsung Galaxy S5.

All in all, I’m very happy with the phone, and would recommend getting one if you are able.

4G/LTE Restrictions in Ireland

One thing to note with the OnePlus One is that it only supports a limited number of 4G (LTE) frequencies. It supports bands 1, 3, 4, 7, 17, 38 and 40.  Currently in Ireland, Vodafone uses band 20, Meteor uses bands 3 and 20, and 3 use band 3.

So you should be fine to connect using 4G with Meteor or 3, but if you’re with Vodafone you’ll have to make do with 3G.  Having said that, I’m with Vodafone, and I get download speeds of 15 or 16 Mbps on the 3G HSPDA, so I can totally live without 4G.

Help couriers and delivery drivers find your location with PinLogic

PinLogic are an Irish company based in Co Mayo that are trying to help couriers and delivery drivers locate their customers easily and efficiently.

pinlogic-205638-h900The service makes use of the GPS location tracking available in smartphones to pinpoint exactly where a customer is located, so that delivery drivers don’t waste time and fuel driving around trying to find an address.

The delivery driver uses a smartphone app to send an SMS to the customer.  The customer then clicks on a URL in the SMS, which opens a web page. The web page then uses the GPS in the phone to find the location, and sends it to the delivery driver.  The exact location is then plotted on a map in the driver’s app.

It’s quite a simple idea, but an effective one – and it could be especially useful for rural deliveries, or where a driver isn’t familiar with an area.  And with Ireland’s supposed new postcode system not showing any signs of appearing soon, this is a great solution.

However, I would like to see the service expanded to include more customer information. At present the service is focused on providing an accurate location to a delivery driver.  But as anyone who’s ever waited in at home for a delivery knows well, it would also be great if the customer could track where the delivery driver is located.

Hailo seem to do this two-way information quite well.  The taxi driver gets an accurate pickup location when the cab is booked, and the passenger can also track the approaching taxi and keep an eye out for it.

Why I won’t by buying the Nexus 6

I’ve been a fan of the Google Nexus phones for a couple of years, and have written in the past about getting my hands on a Nexus 4 and a Nexus 5 before they were available in Ireland. And like of lot of other fans, I was quite excited to learn what was coming next.

The major attraction of the Nexus mobiles is that you were able to get a top-performing phone at a discount price, but with the new Nexus 6 announced yesterday, you’re still getting a top-performing phone but it’s now got a premium price tag attached. And, let’s face it, the screen is way too big!

With the Nexus 6, they have deviated from a winning formula, and potentially upset a lot of fans.  The whole point of getting a Nexus 4 or Nexus 5 was that you could ditch those expensive mobile contracts, buy a reasonably-priced smartphone SIM-free for about €350, and save a fortune over the life of a phone.  The Nexus 6 price is more likely to be cost €650 SIM-free in Ireland – almost double.

It’s interesting that Google still intends to keep selling the Nexus 5, which is still a strongly performing phone, even if it is a year old now. It understands that a lot of people are not interested in the ‘phablet’ sized Nexus 6, and so have kept the Nexus 5 available for sale.

But here’s the thing… I’m an early adopter of technology, and I like to feel that I have the ‘latest and greatest’ technology, and have got used to replacing my mobile every year. But at the moment, I have no upgrade path. I have no motivation to put my hand in my pocket and hand over some money.

So for now, it seems I’ll be keeping hold of my Nexus 5 – which will probably come as bad news to my wife, who had plans to take it off me once I upgraded.

Cloning Remote Control Fobs

In my apartment block there’s an underground car park that’s accessed using a remote-control key fob. We have one allocated car parking spot down there, and as such the management company for the block only issued us with one key fob.

My wife uses the key fob for her car, but I also have a requirement to get in and out of the car park, because that’s where I lock up my bikes.

When we moved in around 18 months ago I approached the management company of the apartments to try and get a second remote control. And despite me explaining the situation, they refused to issue another one to me – even though I offered to pay the €70 they said it would cost.

After some discussion they reluctantly agreed to give me a key to the pedestrian gate, which I’ve been using ever since – but the inconvenience is annoying.

But then I was on the internet one day and found that you can buy cloning remote control fobs that can copy existing fobs, they’re less than a ten quid to buy, and they work perfectly!

Remote Control Cloning Key Fob
Remote Control Cloning Key Fob

I got myself one last week from an ebay seller, but they’re also available on Amazon and other places. The initial programming can be a little tricky to be begin with, but after that it works like a dream.

Obviously in order to clone a key fob you need an existing working fob for the gate/door:

  • To start the programming, press and hold the top two buttons (A and B) together for between 5-10 seconds, until the light blinks rapidly, and then release. This action puts the fob into learning mode, and also wipes any codes already stored on the fob, so if you want to program a new button you have to start again and program them all.
  • Touch the two key fobs together, and press and hold the button you want to program (say the A button) at the same time as the corresponding button on the original fob that you want to clone from. You may need to move the fobs around at different angles to pick up the signal in the cloning fob (end to side seems to work), and when you do the light will flash rapidly to say it’s finished learning. Then simply repeat the process for any other buttons you want to clone.
  • Timing can be an issue during the programming process, as the fob only stays in learning mode for so long – so you need to be fairly quick. Have everything ready to go, and have a few practice goes.
  • I actually stood next to the car park gate to do my programming, so that I could check the original fob was working (it was opening the gate correctly) during the learning process.

If you get into trouble, take a quick search on YouTube for key fob cloning tutorials.  When I first got my fob I thought it wasn’t working, but that’s because I wasn’t programming it correctly.