Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

July 30, 2014
by Neil Turner

App of the Week: Overcast

Screenshot of the Overcast app on an iPhoneThis week’s review is of Overcast, a free podcasting app for iOS.

Up until iOS 6, support for playing podcasts was included as standard in iOS, but a couple of years ago Apple decided to spin this functionality out as a separate app, reviewed here at the time. So for the past couple of years new iOS devices have not shipped with a built-in podcast app. Apple’s own app is popular, but not highly rated with an average of 2.5 out of 5 on the app store. I’ve personally had issues with it and seems poorly designed when compared to Apple’s other iOS apps.

Overcast has been developed by Marco Arment, who is best known for creating Instapaper and being the lead developer of Tumblr in the early days, but is also a podcaster himself. As you’d expect from Marco, it’s a nicely designed app which manages to have a unique feel whilst still fitting in with the overall iOS 7 design aesthetic.

When you first launch Overcast, you’re asked to create an account. The reasons for this are explained in the FAQ, but the main benefits to you as a user are that it will use less battery when checking for new episodes and your subscriptions and progress can be synchronised between your devices. You’ll then need to add your podcast subscriptions, as sadly these can’t be migrated from iTunes or Apple’s Podcasts app as far as I can tell. Thankfully its search feature means that you should be able to add these without resorting to copying and pasting URLs. Alternatively, if you use another app which can export your subscriptions as an OPML file, Overcast will be able to import this and vice versa.

You can combine podcast episodes together in a playlist, should you wish to listen to multiple podcast channels for an extended period of time.

What sets Overcast aside from other apps are its Smart Speed and Voice Boost features. Smart Speed can automatically edit out sections of silence from podcasts, essentially condensing the podcast down to make for a more efficient use of your time. This is great for less professionally-produced podcasts that can sometimes have several seconds of silence, which can add up to a couple of minutes over time. Voice Boost applies an equaliser to the podcast to amplify voices, making them more distinct from background noise.

You can also play back the whole podcast at a faster speed – up to twice as fast. This isn’t like fast-forwarding a cassette tape and does not make everyone sound like chipmunks, but reduces the gaps between words to make the podcast play more quickly. This wasn’t so useful on podcasts like BBC Radio 4′s Friday Night Comedy Podcast, as Sandi Toksvig already talks quite quickly when she’s in full flow, but could be useful for others.

Finally, Overcast will download your podcasts in the background for you, and notify you via a push notification when new episodes are ready to be listened to.

Overcast is a free download but works on the freemium model. All users can subscribe to podcasts and make one playlist at a time, but to unlock unlimited playlists, Smart Speed, Voice Boost and the ability to download podcasts on cellular connections (rather than just wifi), a single in-app purchase of £2.99 ($4.99) is required. I think this is fair – you can try the app out and get a feel for it for free, but then a single payment unlocks all of the other features. And I feel they’re worth paying extra for.

So far my only gripes with Overcast are that you can’t listen to a podcast until it has fully downloaded, whereas others will enable streaming to listen to podcasts as they download. I also have not yet found a way of marking episodes as listened to without actually playing them, as sometimes I end up hearing that episode somewhere else first or aren’t interested in that week’s episode. You can delete podcasts without listening but then they’re not there to pick up again later, unless you download them again. Finally, there’s no iPad app at present.

Despite these issues, I’m really impressed with Overcast and it has replaced Apple’s own app as my preferred podcast app. iOS 8 is around the corner and I gather that Apple will include the Podcasts app by default in future, but unless it includes the advanced playback features of Overcast, I won’t be switching back.

Overcast is a free download for iOS, with in-app purchases.

July 29, 2014
by Neil Turner
1 Comment

Making do with last year’s model

Nokia 100 and Apple iPhone 5

It’s almost August, so I’m within a couple of months of my initial 24 month mobile phone contract with Three coming to an end. I bought my iPhone 5, along with a new contract, in September 2012.

At the time I decided to go for a new contract because my current phone at the time, an iPhone 4, was not in a good state. It would randomly reboot around once a week, and sometimes when it came back up it would ask to be connected to iTunes, as if it hadn’t been activated. The battery life was starting to get rather poor by this point as well. Rather than spend money on a new battery and hope that it would also fix the reboot problem, I decided to take advantage of the launch of the iPhone 5 and just get a new phone. And because iPhones are so expensive when bought without a contract, I took on a new two year contract at the same time.

This time, my iPhone 5 is in a better state by comparison. Admittedly it too doesn’t have the same battery life as it did when I got it, but that is to be expected, and I have backup batteries in both my usual bags to top it up if needed (which actually isn’t that often). It’s as reliable as it was when I got it, and thanks to the improvements in iOS 7, it’s more useful now than it was two years ago. And iOS 8 will hopefully make it even better.

So, unless the rumoured iPhone 6 is amazing and has must-have features, I’ll sit it out and stick with my current model for the next twelve months. Not only will I not have the upfront cost of a new handset but a SIM-only contract will be much cheaper – around £14 per month instead of the £34 per month I’m paying now, saving me £240 over the year, or £5 per week.

Christine is in a similar position with her phone as well, so hopefully between us we’ll have the capacity to save quite a bit of money over the next year. There’s no point having the latest and greatest model if the current one works fine, and does everything I need it to. I’d rather have the extra money.

July 28, 2014
by Neil Turner

Free wifi in return for data tracking

Selecting a Wifi network in iOS 7If you go back in time to around 10 years ago, it used to be that the few places which offered free wifi did so as a way of encouraging people to visit and spend time – coffee shops and the like. Nowadays, many more places offer free wifi, but whilst connecting may not cost you any money, it’s arguable that connecting isn’t completely ‘free’. As the saying goes, if you’re not paying for it, then you’re the product.

This video from the BBC Click programme explains. Every wifi-connecting device, whether it’s a computer, tablet, smartphone or whatever, has a unique Media Access Control (MAC) address. This is broadcast when your device is looking for a wifi access point to connect to, and because it’s unique, it can be used to track your device.

For example, many Tesco stores now offer free wifi to their Clubcard customers – Clubcard is their loyalty card. When you connect for the first time, you enter your Clubcard number. Tesco can then track your movement around their store, and link that to your personal details and purchase history from your Clubcard account. Even if you don’t connect, Tesco can track your location within the store and how long you spend in each area, albeit in a pseudonymous way.

Although this pseudonymous tracking is done without explicit permission, when you connect to Tesco’s wifi permission to track you is buried away in the terms and conditions, so Tesco is within their rights to do this. After all, Tesco is offering you this service free of charge – you’re just paying for it in terms of data rather than money. And Tesco isn’t the only company out there – I’m just using them as an example I’m familiar with.

BBC Click also mentions a much larger scale project being set up in York, when I grew up. York already has a number of free wifi hotspots in key areas, provided by the local council, but this looks to be expanded right across the city centre. Again, same deal applies – they’ll give you free wireless internet access, in return for knowing a bit about you and where you’re from, and being able to track your movements across the city. Of course, as before, the latter happens anyway for anyone who has a wifi device that’s turned on.

York gets a lot of tourism, particularly from the USA. Phones designed for the US market frequently don’t work in the UK – here, all of our networks use GSM and UMTS. Any Sprint or Verizon phones which use CDMA2000 usually don’t work in Europe, so for American visitors free wifi is a major benefit.

If you’re worried about your location being tracked in this way, you can opt out – but only by turning off wifi altogether. Which isn’t too bad if you have a smartphone with a generous data allowance, but a bit of a pain if you’re a pay-as-you-go user or have a tablet which doesn’t offer cellular access, for example.

Thankfully, Apple have a solution, of sorts, coming in iOS 8. When not connected to a wireless network, the MAC address that your device broadcasts will be randomised, so it will be harder for networks to track your location and movements. Of course, if you do connect to a wifi hotpsot, then your MAC address will remain consistent and you can be tracked, but then you’ll have agreed to this as part of the terms and conditions when you connected. So it won’t stop your device from being tracked altogether, but at least if it is being tracked it will have been on an opt-in basis. Hopefully, other manufacturers will follow suit and make this available on their devices too.

I don’t know about you, but having my location tracked in this way does make me feel uneasy. I often have wifi off when out and about, although this is mainly to reduce battery drain and not for privacy-related reasons, and I’m fortunate to be on a phone tariff with unlimited data. I do wonder what the implications are for data protection – should any premises that track users’ locations using wifi without their permission display warning notices? We already insist on notices where CCTV recording takes place, so should this be expanded to wifi tracking?

July 27, 2014
by Neil Turner

Saying no to gift cards

Love2Shop Gift Card

I am writing this blog post whilst waiting to activate a Love2Shop high street gift card, which is being made difficult by the web site being down. Love2Shop is a gift card valid at a wide range of high street shops, and I won one in a competition. I’m sure most of us have received these as gifts before, but I want to discourage you from giving them in future. Here’s why.

1. They limit choice

Whilst Love2Shop vouchers are accepted at a wide range of retailers, most gift cards can only be redeemed at one chain of shops. So a Sainsbury’s gift card is only valid in Sainsbury’s, a Tesco gift card in Tesco, and so on. I recently received a Cineworld gift card for my birthday, however, my local cinema is a Vue. We ended up having to go to Bradford to watch a film at the Cineworld there, and the train fare cost about half the value of the gift card.

2. They steer people away from independent shops

Imagine you have a relative who really likes music and has a birthday coming up. You could buy them a £10 HMV gift card as a gift so that they could buy a CD, but what if that relative prefers to shop in a local, independent record store? I know some independent shops offer gift vouchers as well, but most gift cards are for big high street brands. Continue Reading →

July 27, 2014
by Neil Turner

Links from Delicious for July 27, 2014

Here are the articles or web sites that I’ve found this week and linked to on my Delicious Bookmarks:

Digest powered by RSS Digest

July 25, 2014
by Neil Turner

Streaming Video Device Support in the UK

Whilst I’m quite happy with my Roku box (see my review here), it only supports two out of the main five paid-for streaming video sites in the UK. I’ve done a bit of research, and here are my findings, based on the three most popular streaming devices – the Roku range, the Apple TV, and Google’s Chromecast. This is up to date as of late July 2014.


On a Roku box, you can watch Netflix and Sky’s Now TV. At the moment, support for Amazon Prime Instant Video (what used to be Lovefilm Instant) is only available in the US, and not the UK. Hopefully that will change in future but it’s been several months since Amazon launched Prime Instant Video in the UK, with no change. There’s currently no support for Wuaki TV or BlinkBox.

Sky also sell an own-branded Roku box, but this does not work with Netflix.

Apple TV

Netflix has been available on the Apple TV ever since Netflix launched in the UK. The Sky Sports content on Now TV can be watched on an Apple TV device, but not movies or entertainment.

There’s no official app for Amazon Prime Instant Video, and the iPad app does not work with AirPlay, but if you have a modern Mac which supports AirPlay mirroring then there is a workaround. BlinkBox and Wuaki TV require you to use AirPlay mirroring from their iOS apps.


Google’s Chromecast will work with Rakuten’s Wuaki TV, Netflix and, as of today, Tesco’s BlinkBox. Amazon Prime Instant Video can be made to work with a workaround, but isn’t officially supported. At present, Now TV isn’t available – Sky was ‘considering it’ in March this year.

If you are considering purchasing a Chromecast, then Wuaki TV are bundling a one season pass for either Game of Thrones, The Sopranos or Blacklist with a free Chromecast. The season passes are £24-£29, which is actually less than a Chromecast on its own (£30 RRP), so this is a very good deal, especially as free shipping worth £5 is thrown in too. I don’t know how long this offer will run for but if you are in the market for a Chromecast this is well worth considering.

Ultimately it’s a shame that not all services run on all devices. But then Google and Apple are also content sellers through their Play and iTunes stores, and who are in competition with Amazon, Tesco and Rakuten. Roku is now partly owned by Sky as well (I believe). And Amazon will probably launch its own Fire TV device in the UK eventually too.

Alternatively, buy a new TV

What I have noticed is that all five are supported by LG’s smart TVs. If your budget stretches to buying a completely new television, rather than just a plug-in box or adaptor, then you may wish to consider an LG Smart TV. However, of the big four free services, LG only seems to offer BBC iPlayer and Demand 5, and not ITV Player or 4oD.

July 24, 2014
by Neil Turner

Samaritans Day, and railway suicides

Screenshot of the Samaritans web site

Trigger warning: discussion of suicide.

Today is Samaritans Day, a day to raise the awareness of the Samaritans charity which provides emotional support to people in distress in the UK and Ireland. They are mainly known for providing a telephone number that you can call if you feel you are struggling to cope with life (08457 90 90 90) but also an email address – . Today, all £4 donations received by texting MATCH to 70123 will be doubled, meaning that the Samaritans will receive £8 at no extra cost to you.

I’m fortunate that I’ve never needed help myself from the Samaritans, but I am very thankful that they are around. You may see their signs on high bridges, at the end of railway station platforms, or near suicide blackspots in the hope that someone wanting to end it all will make a phone call and talk to someone about it. Whilst it’s probably hard to quantify just how effective these are, I hope that some people will feel that they have other options.

Suicide on the railways is a big issue. Though only accounting for a small fraction of the 6000 suicides that take place in the UK every year, 238 people took their own lives on the railways in 2012. It’s a number that has been consistent since 2010 when there was a 17% rise.

Consequently, ‘a person under a train’ is almost a daily event in Britain. Trains are big, heavy vehicles that travel at high speeds and have long stopping distances, which perhaps explains why the railways are such a target for those wanting to end their lives. Whilst for passengers it’s often just the cause of delays or cancellations, for the drivers of the train it can be very traumatic, knowing that you’ve hit someone and there was nothing you could do to stop it. Train drivers in this situation often need counselling and some never work again. Plus there’s the grizzly job for the police and maintenance staff of investigating and clearing up afterwards, especially if the train or track had been damaged as a result, and informing the victim’s family.

Ten years ago, the Ufton Nervet rail crash was caused by a suicidal driver parking his car on a level crossing, which was hit by a high speed train. Sadly this resulted in the death not just of the car driver, but also the train driver and four passengers on the train. Whilst Network Rail are working on closing level crossings in future to cut the risk of trains hitting road vehicles, it was a shame that the car driver didn’t talk to someone who could have saved his life, and the lives of five other innocent people.

Britain’s railways are very safe – no passenger has been killed in over seven years now, since the Grayrigg derailment of 2007. But suicide is, sadly, still a problem. As part of Samaritans Day there are staff collecting donations at a number of railway stations today – please send some money their way, to help them save lives.

July 23, 2014
by Neil Turner

App of the Week: Clarityn’s UK Pollen Forecast

Screenshot of Clarityn Pollen Count UK iOS appIt’s summer and pollen is on the loose – great for plants, but not so good if you suffer from hayfever like me. Clarityn’s UK Pollen Forecast is an app for iOS and Android smartphones which will tell you today’s pollen count, and when it’s medium or high, it can issue a push notification in the morning so that you know to take medication.

The app is simple to use, with today’s pollen levels displayed clearly, along with the most prevalent type of pollen since some people are sensitive to different types. You can also rate your hayfever symptoms for the previous day – these are collected in aggregate to give a wider picture of how pollen counts affect hayfever sufferers, but are also displayed on a ‘My results’ tab. The data on the home page is localised to your area, although these areas are quite large with mine including most of Yorkshire. A ‘National’ tab shows you conditions elsewhere – when I typed this up on Sunday, pollen levels were low where I was but higher on the south coast. This is useful to know if you’re about to travel, for example.

The ‘Advice’ tab offers some general advice for alleviating your symptoms, such as tumble-drying clothes rather than drying them outside so that they don’t collect pollen. And the ‘More’ tab includes access to the settings where you can control the push notifications – the area, severity, and the time they are pushed out.

The app is made by a drug manufacturer, so you’ll see a few marketing messages encouraging you to take Clarityn, and this includes the push notifications. Clarityn is the brand name used by Merck for the generic drug Loratadine, which I tend to buy un-branded from supermarkets or discount shops. 14 tablets, which should last a minimum of two weeks, should cost no more than £1 if you don’t buy a brand, and the formulation is exactly the same as the branded tablets. And it’s non-drowsy, so you shouldn’t feel sleepy or lethargic after taking it.

As I mentioned I am writing this on Sunday when the pollen count was ‘low’ according to the app, but I still had symptoms and had to take Loratadine to stop my nose from streaming. On other days it’s been ‘medium’ and I’ve not had problems. Everyone is different, so just because the app says that pollen counts are low, it doesn’t mean that you won’t have symptoms.

Despite these criticisms, this app works well and is the most popular pollen information app on the iOS app store. It’s free, and available on iOS and Android.

July 22, 2014
by Neil Turner

Being less sociable

Recently I’ve taken a few steps back on a couple of social networks. They’re no longer really of much value to me and therefore not worth investing time in.

I wrote about’s troubles back in May, when I said:

I liked the idea behind and wanted it to succeed. But I’m not afraid to admit that if it were to disappear tomorrow, I doubt I would miss it. hasn’t disappeared but a lot of its users have. It’s been some time since I had the NetBot client on my iPhone, but until recently I had it on my iPad as well, and popped on daily to see if there was anything interesting. When it stopped being interesting, I deleted NetBot from my iPad as well. For the purposes of this blog post, I logged in today to see if anything interesting had happened in the past month – nope. It’s perhaps because I was never following many people in the first place, but either way it doesn’t seem to be worth my time anymore.

I will still post things over there, mainly because the majority of my posts were automated through IFTTT anyway and it doesn’t require any extra effort on my part.

Foursquare / Swarm

This may surprise you, as I’ve been a really avid user of Foursquare over the years, and was really enthusiastic about the launch of Swarm. But using Foursquare just isn’t any fun anymore – the incentives to check in everywhere, in the form of badges and mayorships, are gone. I’ve gone from checking in 5-6 times a day, to probably 2-3 times per week. There’s just not much point now.

I like Foursquare and its tips were really useful when we were in Dublin and looking for things to do and places to eat at. However, there’s nothing that makes me want to use it on a day to day basis. I suppose someone who is very outgoing and has lots of friends using it might see some value, but I’ve found little reason to carry on.

I’m not about to give up my account as it is useful for reflection. I imagine the next time I go away somewhere I’ll use it more often as a travel diary, for example. But there will be less checkins at supermarkets, train stations or at work, where I go everyday. It’s sad, because having been in favour of Swarm initially, I feel that Foursquare has actually broken up the community and lost a lot of good faith in the process. And ironically this came just after I’d praised Foursquare for pivoting without alienating its user base – which it then went on to do just that.

July 21, 2014
by Neil Turner

Roku 2 XS review

Last week I purchased a Roku 2 XS Streaming Player from Amazon. Normally costing around £80, Amazon are now selling them for £55, making them just £6 more expensive than the slightly newer but more limited Roku Streaming Stick.

When I discussed streaming media boxes last month, the streaming stick was my original first choice, but this was before the drop in price of the Roku 2 XS. Compared with the Streaming Stick, the 2 XS adds a number of extra features:

  • A USB port, for plugging in external hard disks to watch video files from.
  • A Micro-SD card slot to expand its storage space from the 256 megabytes provided as standard.
  • An Ethernet port.
  • Analogue outputs for televisions that don’t support HDMI.
  • A motion-sensitive remote for playing games, with Angry Birds included.

The latter two don’t bother me too much, but extra capacity could be useful if I end up installing lots of extra channels.

I’m really impressed with it, actually. The box is tiny and can sit comfortably in the palm of your hand – in fact, the remote control is longer than the box itself. Speaking of which, the remote is simple and doesn’t have lots of seemingly useless buttons like most of our other remotes. It doesn’t come with HDMI cable as standard, instead shipping with an analogue cable, but you can get a reasonable HDMI cable from most pound shops these days. Continue Reading →