Computing

Computers, Internet, technology, software etc.

Once you have learnt where the on switch is on a computer everybody asks you for advise on how to do things such as how to make a website that will bring in millions of pounds a day, how to use Microsoft Excel on Windows to print a Document that was written in an Arabic version of Quark Express on the Apple Mac, and how to take remote control of US Satellite Defense Systems. Another among such common questions is the matter of which UK broadband service provider to go with for personal use. I chose one fairly recently so I do have five suggestions here…

Firstly, I don’t believe in less than 4GB usage per month as being worth while, so prices I mention are for packages offering more than that.

1. PlusNET. £14.99/month + BT Line Rental
This service has a 4GB limit during peak hours (4pm-midnight) and no limits outside those hours. You are don’t even have to commit to a year but you have to pay a deferred activation fee when you leave which could be as much as £47. I’m with PlusNET, so if you join them by following this link you will save me a few pennies a month (only pennies).

2. Sky Broadband £20.00/month (£5.00 if you already subscribe to Sky) + BT Line rental
This is a great deal, you get almost unlimited use, you get Sky TV and you pay less than many other companies charge for broadband without the TV service. The actual package is £5.00/month for Sky subscribers and Sky subscription starts at £15.00 for which you can get all the best entertainment and documentary channels. (£20.00 activation fee)

3. NTL/Telewest. £17.99/month
If you don’t have a BT telephone line then cable is the way to go, it’s slower but its unlimited and cheaper than paying for a BT line and broadband on top of that. Cable only covers some of the country, availability is limited. Unfortunately “cable is not available in [my] area”, though it is on the other side of my street!

4. Talk Talk. £19.99/month
It’s almost unlimited and the price includes your BT line rental, you also get great deals on your phone calls. The catch… it’s an 18 month contract and you will be using Talk Talk instead of BT for all your phone related matters.

5. BT Broadband. £22.99/month + BT Line Rental
One of the things about broadband is that when something goes wrong you want it fixed, and the people who are best at getting things fixed when they go wrong, generally speaking, are BT. They are the more expensive option but they are reliable and they are in control of everything you are using, if you use BT and have a problem then it will never be a third party’s fault.

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If you have a computer with a DVD drive but no DVD software you may spend ages searching the web for some free DVD codecs without joy, they all cost money, but there is now a free DVD player that does not rely on third party codecs, that is VLC Media Player. I have been trying to set up the Sonic Cineplayer DVD codec pack on a friends computer for the last few days because I have seen that working very well, but even though the product is registered we can’t get it to work because their activation servers are not responding and their backup email solution is rejecting emails, so I downloaded VLC Media Player and gave it a spin, it’s not quite as user friendly as using Media Player with codecs and I found it a little jumpy, but that is on a 400MHZ PC with a lowly 4MB graphics card, I was impressed that it worked as well as it did, so, to clarify, if you want to be able to watch DVD’s on your computer for free and you have a DVD drive attached then VLC Media Player is your solution.

Link: VLC Media Player

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Ladan, James, Simon and SuzanneFlickr, a photo hosting service with many nice features. Although it is probably still much smaller than Webshots, there are many different ways of browsing through, and finding, interesting photos. I’m using a free account which has its restrictions, but some people send daily posts from their travels around the world. A particularly neat feature of Flickr is its extensive RSS support, If you have software that supports RSS feeds, such as Mozilla Thunderbird, you can subscribe to people’s photo collections or even to the results of a particular search. Webshots seem to be making a few changes of their own to keep up with the improving opposition.

Link: My Flickr Account (elbraw)
Link: My Webshots Account (thenames)

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Some of the very best “free” applications that run under Microsoft Windows, in order of how much I have used them:

Firefox – Popular web browser with useful enhancements
Thunderbird – Fully featured email client
AVG Anti-Virus (Free Edition) – Virus protection for home use
GIMP – Photo manipulation software that rivals expensive packages
MSN Messenger – Quick and easy communication with online friends
Ocean – Quickly search through the texts of all major religions
OpenOffice.org – Complete MS Word/Excel compatiable office suite
Americas Army – An advanced war game with real army training

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There are two new mapping services from Google, both of which are really smart.

Google Maps

You can search for any location from a typical Google search bar and when you have got your map you not only can you zoom in and out, get directions, and add satellite imagery, but you can also smoothly scroll the map any distance in any direction just by dragging it with your mouse. If you want good satellite imagery of the UK you should stick to Multimap or Streetmap, but positioning the map exactly as you like it has always been a problem with those services.

Link: Google Maps

Google Earth

This is not that different from Google Maps in function, but the user interface is excellent. You have to download the software to access a 3D interface to global mapping data, though the bulk of the best features cover the USA. Try to find your house and zoom in, again satellite data is not as clear as some UK mapping services offer, but then search for Bahai Temple and click on the resulting link, you will zoom out from your home and fly over to Wilmette in the USA where you will fly down to earth just above the Baha’i House of Worship there. Go down the road into Chicago, or another major US city, and you will find 3d recreations of many major buildings in the city, adjust the tilt feature on the navigation panel and you can travel through the city between the tall buildings. The intended main fuction of this service is to enable you to easily locate locations and services in any area, but it is also good fun to try out. I tried looking in Haifa too, the quality is again not very detailed but if you zoom in just south of the harbour you will make out the green of the terrace gardens and the glimmer of the dome from the Shrine of the Bab and the roofs of the Seat of the Universal House of Justice, the International Teaching Centre (I think) and the Archives Building.

Link: Google Earth

Both of these service are in still under development and may not work all of the time.

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It’s been a while since I wrote about VoIP and while things haven’t changed very much there are a few things worth noting. Quality is always improving and for the most part you will not detect much difference between VoIP and land-line calls, though the delay is just slightly greater and you may need to repeat things once or twice in a call.

Pricing

In my last article I stated that the cost of PC to Land-line calls using VoIP was still not as competitive as some cheap telecoms services which use only landlines, such as Call 18866 who allow unlimited duration landline calls within the UK for just a 2p connection charge, or international calls for as little as 2p per minute. Now VoIP is catching up a little, a service which is currently still in beta testing (not fully launched yet) offers free voice to land-line calls to many countries. VoIP Buster will allow anybody to make a 1 minute call through their network using their PC to any of several countries free of charge, or if you buy credit (from as little as 1 Euro) which can be used to call anywhere in the world for very low rates, then your calls to the free countries are of unlimited duration. Of course, PC to PC calls are still free between any two users in the world, but I had problems answering an incoming call using their software. Take note though, their rate card does not always match the special offers listed on their home page, and the rate card lists the tarrifs that they actually charge.

Number Portability

Call 18866 are also available via VoIP software now. Any compatiable phone software can be configured to dial through their network. Again you have to register to benefit from it but their call charges start from as little as a 2p connection fee for an unlimited duration UK call. Call18866 is more generally used, however, from a land-line phone rather than a PC, users therefore register to the service with their main UK Land-line phone number. When outgoing calls are made using the VoIP service that main land-line number is used as the Caller ID, so anybody receiving a call from you with Caller Display enabled, such as mobile phone users, or anybody using 1471 (on BT phones) to check where you called from, will get the impression you are calling from home. This is regardless of where you use the service from, so you could be connecting to the Internet at a friends house or from a hotel abroad and still appear to be calling from home.

The devious of mind may envisage heading off to Paris for a few days and calling in sick from the hotel using their own home phone number as the Caller ID, but this number portability carries a lot of potential for businesses with mobile workers. The portability actually works both ways, for a small fee, or with some services for no fee, you can get a telephone number assigned to your VoIP account which enables anybody to call your computer from a normal land-line, these numbers can be 0870 or 0845 numbers or even numbers that indicate you are in a major city, perhaps even in the centre of a city on the other side of the world if that is the image you wish to portray. That number can be presented on your outgoing calls, made using VoIP, from any location and whenever you hook up to to the Internet you can receive calls on that number and check the voicemail on it.

In the past if a worker was to revieve business calls when working from home a company had set up call forwarding between geographical locations at an extra cost to themselves, now that numbers can be assigned to Internet users who can simply log-in to use them, and the Internet takes care of Geography, it is easy to set people up to use the same phone number from home as they do in the office, and even when they are travelling and away from both.

Spread of WiFi

WiFi is the service that allows you to connect to the Internet without plugging in any cables. This is becoming increasingly popular in homes, businesses, pubs and cafes, meaning that in order to use the Internet, and therefore VoIP, you do not need to be near an appropiate socket and run a cable between that socket and your computer, instead you can just switch on from where you are seated and make and receive your calls. As WiFi coverage increases a computer can also be used as a very large mobile phone which can make and receive calls from every location that it is able to connect to the Internet. Of course, most (though not all) public WiFi hotspots require some kind of payment for access, so this does increase the cost of using VoIP in this manner.

More Hardware Options

Keeping your computer on and wearing a headset may be the perfect way of working for many companies, but for the average individual these are not ideal ways of using a phone. If you’re looking for something to hold to your head there are a now wider selection of USB phones that plug into your computer and either imitate a standard desk phone or mobile phone in their design and sometimes in their features. There are also an increasing number of phones which connect directly to a router, and some which connect to wireless routers using WiFi, which can be used to make and receive VoIP calls without leaving a PC switched on. These WiFi phones will also work in free to access “open” public WiFi hotspots but will not function in ones where a device has to register via a web interface before it can be used. Furthermore there is software that will turn a PDA, such as a pocket PC, into a SIP or Skype phone and, as many of these are WiFi compatiable these days and will also be able to register with commercial WiFi operators, these gadgets can already be used as portable phones both in and away from the home and office. WiFi VoIP phones start from about £100 at the time of writing, if you already have a wireless standard phone then a slightly cheaper alternative is to get a VoIP analogue telephone adaptor which will allow you to use any existing telephone to directly dial through your Internet router using VoIP, there are also cheaper versions that connect your home phone via USB to a PC for the same purpose.

Below are a couple of links to the kind of equipment I am referring to here, if you’re interested in buying then ebay is also a great place to look, but be warned, prices are often higher than from the distributors below (once you add postage) and there are a lot of phones around which look like they have LCD displays but just have a piece of plastic on the front that does nothing… this is not a problem, but the picture may lead you think your phone will have more features than it really does.

Near Future

Communication technologies have been merging for a long time, I often check email from my mobile phone (using wapmx.com) and occasionally make phone calls from my computer. I expect that very soon there will be a wide selection of portable devices which are both mobile phones and wireless computers, for which software will be available that can detect wireless networks and calculate the most economic routing for a call, checking whether your recipient is currently available via their own VoIP device or will need to be called via land-line and choosing between VoIP and the mobile service provider to make the call. Increasingly people will be able to talk to others around the world for next to nothing not only from home or the office but also from the train station, the cinema lobby or the cafe.

When I last wrote about VoIP I was impressed to discover how good it had become, with this update I am impressed to discover how well it is developing. If you do not currently have a Skype account I suggest you get one, just to reserve a name of your liking on the system. I would not predict that Skype will be the main VoIP system in the future, but at this stage it is probably the easiest to use and configure and is well integrated into a lot of VoIP hardware, so reserving a name and seeing which of your friends you can find with Skype accounts may be prudent. I would also recommend looking at VoIP Buster if you want to cut your call costs and some of the providers I mentioned in my last article of you a interested in number protability with VoIP.

Links: Skype, Gossiptel, FreeWorldDialup, SIPPhone

There are some areas I have touched on here where a hands-on guide may be of more use to you, if you think you need more leave a comment.

My previous article on VoIP can be found here.

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The pendulum swings toward SIP

pulver.communicator – Download!:

From their site: “Using pulver.Communicator/XP, subscribers to the FWD Communications Network can enjoy Instant Messaging with their SIP contacts, as well as with their buddies on the four most popular IM networks as well (AOL, Yahoo!, ICQ, and MSN). And not only that, but pulver. Communicator supports multi-party chat across the different IM networks”

I couldn’t get this to work very well but it is only in beta. This new SIP client has some good new IM functionality which may help promote VoIP among the current IM community. Messaging functionality was a distinct feature of Skype but now they are only really ahead on free voice conferencing. See here for more on VoIP.

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Atom Films has some funny content, here are a few animated music videos that I had to watch a few times over:

Star Wars Gangsta Rap SE

The Real Hussein 2: “Iraq Without Me” (sequel but watch first)

The Real Hussein (preceded “Iraq Without Me”)

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I love to travel, though my heart and wallet are somewhat at odds with each other over where to go, my heart says South America, India, Asia, Africa and my wallet reminds me that there are plenty of interesting places and beautiful views within a short walk or drive of my home. These are some of the links that I use to convince my wallet that travel needn’t always be expensive.

Flights

The first places to look for medium or long haul flights:

  • SkyScanner – flight finding service that seeks out good deals
  • Thomas Cook – not the most intuitive design for flight only searches, but competitive  fares.
  • Travelocity – flight finder by the owners of Lastminute.com
  • Opodo – another flight finder
  • Kayak – offers some very nice fine-tuning options
  • eBookers – allows you to search for and book the cheapest flight on their database.
  • Expedia (UK) – search for and book the cheapest flight on their database.
  • Cheap Flights – this site helps you search other flight finding sites.

The above sites don’t generally include fares from the so-called “cheap” airlines, and even with the regular airlines the fares are often cheaper booked directly than through an above agent. Don’t assume that the no-thrills airlines will have the best prices, in my experience it is rarely the case unless you are flying mid-week or require a one-way ticket. My favourite airline for any journey is British Airways, even though the food and service on their domestic routes does not match their long and medium haul services, that said there are of course many I haven’t flown with yet, including Virgin. When looking for a flight also remember to think about the cost of getting to and from the airport at each end and any parking fees you may have to pay, there is no point choosing a flight that is 10 pounds cheaper if the extra requirements for petrol, parking and food are going to cost you another 40.

  • British Airways – So many routes at such competitive prices too, their own web site makes it clear when you should travel to get the best deal.
  • Ryanair – Really cheap prices if you fly at the right times.
  • easyJet – You pay them, they fly you, that’s it. Genuinely thrill-free service.
  • flybe – An airline that has some cheap flights, for a cheaper return consider using a different airline in conjunction with them.
  • BMI – Always ofering fairly reasonable prices.
  • KLM – Often have cheap flights to European destinations or via Amsterdam to the rest of the world.
  • Lufthansa – Fly to Germany or connect there for longer haul journeys.
  • Virgin Atlantic – Often have good sale fares on their site.

If you’ve never flown an indirect route before be warned that airports can be very boring places. At best you will have the chance to buy snacks and eat them on a comfortable chair, most likely you will only be able to sit on a metal chair for hours on end and try to find some interesting shapes in the dull architecture of the building. Direct flights, or flights that only have domestic connections in your own country, are worth a little extra. Don’t pay too much attention to the reputation an airline had for service several years ago, they change, the ones that are behind catch up and the ones that are ahead can fall behind, if you’re taking a long flight and there are several companies offering good deals ask around for recent expereinces of the airlines on offer.

  • BAA – Flight information, parking facilities and other aiport details for most UK airports
  • Luton Airport – As above, for Luton airport
  • Manchester Airport – As above, for Manchester

Finally on the subject of flights, British Airways have a Courier flight programme offering a limited number of flights at highly discounted prices to New York, Miami, Bangkok and Tokyo. Couriers must carry an envelope of paperwork on BA’s behalf for the duration of the flight, they must be over 18 and dress smartly. For more information call the British Airways Travel Shop on 0870 606 11 33, Mon – Fri 9am – 5pm. There is no longer a recorded message on this number outside these times.

Feet nearer the ground

Orville wished that he could fly, but he couldn’t. Keith Harris though that Orville could fly, but he couldn’t. Not to worry…

  • National Express – timetables and booking for coach travel in the UK and Europe
  • UK Railways – UK rail timetables and boking service
  • Deutsche Bahn Travel Service – impressive European train timetable database.
  • Eurostar – Not cheap but fairly fast, direct, and offer good prices on package deals.
  • MultiMap – Great site giving street maps of UK towns and cities
  • UK Street Map – Not as thorough as MultiMap but larger maps of London possible

Local Information

Sometimes it helps to do some research about a place before you travel there, if nothing else it is good to check for known scams that take place at airports… for example in Cairo it is said to be a common scam for taxi drivers to claim that your hotel has been closed for refurbishment and then kindly offer take you to another hotel of similar quality from which they will get a percentage for your stay.

Accomodation

As the day nears an end you will want somewhere to rest your head and fall asleep, preferably in the style of a king but within the budget of a pauper. Most of the sites above have links to accomodation, one of the very best is Expedia, sometimes it is worth typing the name of the hotels with the best deal on Expedia into Google to see of they have a web site that offers an even cheaper price, or ask a travel agent on your high street for some good hotel names, maybe pick up a brochure, and then look for them online, you may have to email for an up to date quote.

All-in-One

If you just want to visit one place and there are no really cheap flights available then the next best deals are often available as a hotel and flight package. I end this post with just a few links to help you find a package deal, there is another really good one for European breaks that I will add when I have found it.

  • Expedia (UK) – Usually has some very good deals
  • Eurostar – Offers package deals within its destinations
  • British Airways – Hotels and tourist acitivities can be booked online as well as flights
  • Thomas Cook – “Don’t just book it…”, Holidays and late deals
  • Thomson – “Thomson look after number one…”, Holidays and late deals
  • lastminute.com – Easy to browse lists of late deals to popular tourist destinations.

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VoIP

Free calls using Voice over Internet Protocol

I have recently been looking at voice over IP and thought I would share some information on the facilities that allow you to talk free of charge to other computer users over a broadband connection.

There are two popular technologies available at the moment, SIP and Skype. What they have in common is that they both offer reasonable quality phone calls between any two computers with an Internet connection, for free, so long as the computers have either a sound card with a microphone and headphones (or preferably a headset) or a phone is somehow attached (VoIP phone adapters and phones that plug into a USB port or the sound card can be purchased). Both technologies offer much higher quality than was previously available using software such as Microsoft NetMeeting, MSN Messenger, ICQ etc for voice communication. They also offer pre-pay services to call normal telephones around the world at “reduced cost” using the same technology – however I am not convinced that the price or quality of this service is quite as impressive as some of the cheap telephone to telephone services available such as OneTel or 18866 (from the UK). With any VoIP service you are able to use your number anywhere in the world that you can set up the software or connect your computer to the Internet.

Skype

Skype’s main advantages are that it allows for instant messaging, online status checking and most impressively voice conferencing for up to 4 additional contacts free of charge, you can also add non-computer participants to a conference so long as you use their pre-pay service to pay for the call. If you are familiar with messaging software such as MSN Messenger or ICQ then this software is very similar but for the addition of voice communication. The only real drawback of Skype is that it cannot be used to communicate with the growing number of SIP VoIP networks.

Links: Skype

SIP

There are many networks that use SIP, among the most popular in the UK are FreeWorldDialup and Gossiptel. With these services not only can you call out to other VoIP users on their computers free of charge and other normal telephones for some small fee, but you can also have a standard 0870 telephone number that can be used to call you on your PC (some alternative SIP services can offer you a US number instead). Gossiptel, which is a fairly new player in the market, also has the very big advantage of offering free customisable voicemail, so if you are away from your computer, your computer is off, or you simply fail to answer a call, it will go through to a voice mailbox, voicemail is sent by email and can also be checked using the VoIP system or by calling the service through an 0870 (BT national rate) number . I am not aware of any free voice conference facilities using SIP. You can call between SIP networks (such as FreeWorldDialup and Gossiptel) quite easily.

Links: Gossiptel, FreeWorldDialup, SIPPhone

So far I have only tested the services calling my wife and myself at home and by using features provided by the service providers. My views on PC to PC VoIP are widely supported by others who have reviewed the technology but I do not know if my hesitance over computer to land line calls is so widely shared.

In a nutshell then, if you want to call between friends or colleagues free of charge by making the most of an Internet connection then VoIP is coming of age, quality is greatly improved and delay, between computers at least, is down to a minimum. Skype has the advantage of offering Instant Messaging features and conference calls free of charge, Gossiptel has the advantage of offering voicemail free of charge. Skype and SIP technologies can exist alongside each other on the same computer.

I have a number on both services. Email me if you want to know the details.

USB phones can be found on ebay by searching for the keywords voip usb and phone.

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