Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

January 13, 2016
by Neil Turner
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App of the Week: Firefox for iOS

Mozilla Firefox on iOSLate last year, Mozilla Firefox was finally released for iOS devices.

This was the first time that Mozilla had produced a fully-functioning web browser for Apple’s mobile devices. A previous effort called Firefox Home, a springboard into Safari for those using Firefox Sync, was retired in 2012.

So why has it taken so long? Well, although Apple has progressively expanded what third-party apps can do on iOS, it’s still a very locked-down platform, especially for web browsers. Amongst other things, web browsers on iOS must:

  • only use WebKit, the rendering engine behind Safari that is built-in to iOS
  • can’t become the ‘default’ web browser

Whilst Safari, Opera and Google Chrome all use some variation of WebKit on desktop computers, Firefox has its own rendering engine, called Gecko. App Store rules mean that Gecko can’t be used by iOS apps, and so Mozilla has had to reluctantly use WebKit in its iOS app.

And although you can now use Firefox instead of Safari on your iOS device, if you open links in most apps, such as your email or Twitter, these links will open in Safari. Some third-party iOS apps will offer to open links in third-party web browsers, but this is up to individual app developers and is usually an advanced feature. Chrome seems to be one of the few web browsers with any support from third party apps. So even if you want to make Firefox your main web browser on your device, you will still regularly end up in Safari.

So what advantages are there to using Firefox on iOS, rather than Safari? The main feature of interest is integration with Firefox Sync. If you use Firefox on one or more desktops, then you can also have your bookmarks, saved passwords and browser history show up on your mobile devices as well. And, well, that’s about it – although it sports features like private browsing, blocking popups and multiple tabs, these are all offered by Safari as well.

Plus, there are several things that Safari does better. With iOS 9, apps can open a Safari ‘window’ within them, which includes your cookies and saved passwords. You can use content blockers to block ads, which Firefox can’t – ironically, Focus by Firefox, which I reviewed last week, doesn’t work with Firefox. And as it’s the default browser, you’ll have to use it from time to time anyway.

I used to use the Google Chrome iOS app for a while, but ditched it when I fell out with Google nearly three years ago. I haven’t really used it since – having just one web browser on my iPhone and iPad is actually easier.

As a die-hard Firefox user since 2002, back when it was still called Phoenix, I really wanted to like Firefox on iOS. Unfortunately it’s a disappointing experience at present that isn’t as good as Safari. In which case, why bother?

Mozilla Firefox is free from the App Store, and is a universal app for iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch.

January 12, 2016
by Neil Turner
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Making a house a home (part VII)

New doors! It’s been three months since my last update on how we were getting on with the new house. We haven’t done a lot in that time, as we’ve had a small person to prepare for, but progress has picked up a little after Christmas.

My main aim is to get our dining room finished before I go back to work in three weeks’ time. The walls have all been painted green – or ‘crushed aloe’, as Dulux calls it – and this weekend a couple of friends helped us paint the woodwork and the radiator.

We’ve also finally got some internal doors downstairs. We had to take the old doors out so that the laminate flooring could be laid, back in September. However, after we took down the old doors, we realised just how much light they were blocking out. Natural light is something of a premium in our house; though we have nice big windows, they’re almost all on one side of the building. So we ordered some new doors which have built-in glass panels. The first two of these went up last week, with the rest following this week hopefully – and then they’ll need painting at some point.

The other jobs left in the dining room are to install some new architrave around one of the doors (which was damaged during the re-plastering) and installing coving at the top of the walls, to make a nicer join with the ceiling. With luck, I’ll be able to get these jobs done within the next couple of weeks.

Once the dining room is done, it’ll be the turn of the living room. We’ve made a start in there and so there is some paint on the walls, but it needs finishing off.

January 11, 2016
by Neil Turner
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Lumsing Grand A1 Plus power bank review

Lumsing Grand A1 Plus Power Bank

Over the years, I’ve reviewed a few power banks, and the latest is a model from Chinese manufacturer Lumsing, called the Grand A1 Plus.

Of all of the power banks I’ve reviewed, this one is the biggest, both in terms of size and charge capacity. It weighs 260 grams – a little over half a pound in old money – and is about the same width as an iPhone 6. Inside, is a 13400mAh battery. This means that the battery can deliver 1 Amp of current for up to 13.4 hours when fully charged. That’s quite a long time, and its capacity is significantly higher than many smaller tube-shaped power banks.

The power bank has two standard USB sockets, both of which can output at up to 3 Amps. This is higher than most other power banks, and even many AC adaptors, which should allow your devices to charge more quickly. And, it will regulate the current so that your devices aren’t damaged.

To recharge the power bank itself, there is a micro-USB input socket, and the power bank comes with a single short black USB to micro-USB cable. As it’s such a large battery, it can take up to 8 hours to fill it to full capacity.

Lumsing Grand A1 Plus Power Bank

That extra capacity will be of most use to tablet users. A fully-charge power bank will be able to completely recharge an iPad Air from 0-100%, with some left over. For smartphones, expect to be able to fully charge your devices several times over.

The front of the power bank has four blue LEDs showing its charge status – each represents 25% of charge. If all four are illuminated, then it’s fully charged. A button on the side switches the power bank on and off, and, if you hold it down, turns a small white LED on and off which can be used as a torch.

The Lumsing Grand A1 Plus power bank is available for £21.99 on Amazon, where it’s rated 5 stars at present, and can be bought in three colours: black, gold (as reviewed) and silver.

January 10, 2016
by Neil Turner
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Due date

Me and my daughter

Today is the day that Elizabeth was due to be born, based on her calculated due date. As it happens, she’s now two weeks old, as she was induced early. She’s doing okay, although she needs to put on some more weight, and will be going back in to hospital briefly for a tongue-tie division next week.

And, on the whole, we’re doing okay as well. Monday and Tuesday nights were the worst, as she would barely stop crying all night. But we seem to be able to get her to go to back to sleep now, mainly via the application of colic drops (simeticone) and ample amounts of milk. The aforementioned tongue-tie issue means that she’s currently receiving a combination of Christine’s breast milk and top-up feeds with infant formula; hopefully, Christine will be able to breastfeed her exclusively very soon.

The tiredness is hard, and earlier in the week I was also having some trouble sleeping which really didn’t help. The past few nights, however, have been more bearable. Whilst we’ve had broken sleep, on the whole, we’re still getting a reasonable amount. Just don’t expect us to be able to do anything before about 10am.

At first, if I’m honest, I was not enjoying parenting – the combination of a lack of sleep and a grouchy baby does not make for a happy experience. But I’m starting to enjoy it a little now. Hopefully, as she gets older and becomes more interactive, there will be more fun times to be had. I do have a lot of sympathy for those who decide not to have kids though – it is hard work, and can be emotionally draining.

I still have another three weeks off work, with my paternity leave officially starting tomorrow. It’s been nice to be able to spend time with my new daughter and I’m glad that I don’t have to go straight back to work tomorrow.

January 9, 2016
by Neil Turner
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Links from Pinboard for January 9, 2016

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

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January 6, 2016
by Neil Turner
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App of the Week: Focus by Firefox

Screenshot of Focus by Firefox Focus by Firefox is a new iOS app from Mozilla which takes advantage of iOS 9’s support for ‘content blockers‘. These are apps which can change the way Safari on iOS displays web pages, and most of those that have launched on the App Store focus on blocking web advertising.

Whilst Focus by Firefox does block some advertising, this isn’t its main objective. It’s more about protecting your privacy, by blocking web sites that leave tracking cookies. To do this, it uses a list from Disconnect, an add-on available for desktop browsers (reviewed by me in 2013). This is the same list that also powers desktop Firefox’s Tracking Protection in Private Browsing mode (and you can enable it on all pages using a hidden preference).

In addition, it can also block the download of web fonts, where web pages have specified a custom font that isn’t included on your iOS device as standard. This alleviates the issue where the text takes a long time to appear after a page loads, and is particularly welcome on my iPhone when out and about.

The settings that you choose will be made available in Safari, and any app that uses the Safari View Controller (this includes TweetBot, Reeder and others). It won’t include any third-party iOS web browsers like Google Chrome, or, ironically, Mozilla’s own Firefox browser for iOS, and any app that uses older methods of showing web content such as the Facebook app.

I found that Focus by Firefox made a marked improvement in page loading times on my devices – especially on my iPhone with web fonts disabled. Although this means that some web pages don’t quite look their best, they show up much more quickly, which is great when you’re on a train and approaching a tunnel. Users on metered data connections should find that they’re not using as much of their allowance each month.

On my iPad, where I still have web fonts enabled, I haven’t encountered any problems with web pages in the few weeks I’ve been using Focus by Firefox, so it gets my recommendation.

Focus by Firefox is free from the App Store, and is a universal app for all devices running iOS 9 or better.

January 5, 2016
by Neil Turner
1 Comment

Netgear WN3000RP Wifi Range Extender review

Netgear WN3000RP Wifi Range Extender

Today, I’m reviewing Netgear’s WN3000RP Wifi range extender – a plug-in device to improve your home wifi network’s range.

You may be thinking, ‘wait a minute, you only reviewed a Netgear range extender a few weeks ago!‘. And you would be right. I was sent a Nighthawk EX7000 wifi range extender to review, but unfortunately I had to send it back to the PR company after I’d written the blog post.

I still needed a wifi range extender though, as my BT Home Hub 4 can’t reach the whole house. The WN3000RP model had some reasonable user reviews on Amazon, met my needs and was reasonably affordable, and so I put it on my Christmas list. Santa, or rather my Dad, obliged and so I’ve been using it since Christmas Day.

It’s a much smaller than the Nighthawk and simply plugs directly into a plug socket with no further assembly required. As it’s equipped with Wifi Protected Setup (WPS), configuring it is dead simple – turn it on, press the WPS button, press the WPS button on your router, and then wait a minute or two. A new wifi network will appear with ‘_EXT’ appended to it and it’ll use the same WPA security key (password) as your router.

That’s probably all most people will need to do, but a few configuration options are available using a web-based control panel. There’s also a port for a network cable to connect a device which lacks its own wifi connection, although you’ll need to provide your own cable.

The Nighthawk I reviewed in November was a premium model with lots of additional features, such as extra network ports, a USB port for a hard driver or printer and faster connections. This is a much simpler model without the bells and whistles, but it does the basic job well. It has certainly alleviated our wifi signal issues and seems to perform as well as we need it to.

If you’re looking for a simple solution to extend your wifi router’s reach, at £27 from Amazon, you can’t go wrong with the Netgear WN3000RP. It’s a fifth of the cost of the £140 Nighthawk EX7000 (although Amazon had it for £100 before Christmas) which offers extra features and performance, at a price.

January 4, 2016
by Neil Turner
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Going Flash -less in 2016

Uninstalling Flash Player on Windows

Late last year, I uninstalled Adobe Flash from my Mac. I didn’t make an announcement at the time, because I didn’t want to have to then write a grovelling blog post a few weeks later saying that I’d had to re-install it.

Fortunately, I’m coping quite well without it, actually. This is probably because I technically haven’t removed it completely from my computer. Google Chrome has Flash built-in, which is updated automatically and is separate from any general installation on a computer. If I need to browse a web site that still requires it, then I just have to open it in Chrome instead of Firefox – and I have Choose Wisely installed to make switching between the two easier.

Christine was actually my main inspiration to dump Flash. She’d uninstalled it from her Windows laptop ages ago, and this hasn’t caused her any problems. If she can manage fine, then so could I.

Flash is on its way out anyway

So many sites now don’t necessarily require it for core functionality. Facebook stopped using it for its videos last month, and YouTube has supported HTML5 for years now. It also means that I can use Firefox as my locked-down, privacy-focussed browsing for general web browsing, and then Chrome is for sites that need to use cookies or Flash. I’d previously tried Firefox with all plugins set to ‘ask to activate’, but this got really annoying as I got prompted to activate Flash for every damn web advertisement that required it.

Adobe is even encouraging developers to move away from it. Adobe’s developer tools can now output web pages using HTML5 where Flash may have been required in the past, and those HTML5 pages will work on mobile devices where plugin support is next to nonexistent. It’s a far cry from 2011 when BlackBerry launched its PlayBook tablet with Flash support as one of its major selling points, only for Adobe to abandon support for it and all other Android devices. And iOS devices have never supported it, as detailed in Steve Jobs’ 2010 essay.

Go on, go on, go on

If you’re on the fence about uninstalling Flash, I’d recommend going for it:

  • You won’t have any of those annoying update messages appearing every few weeks.
  • Web pages should appear quicker because you’re not loading an external plugin.
  • You will be less vulnerable to critical security flaws.
  • You’ll see fewer annoying Flash-based ads on web pages.

So go on, join me, and make 2016 the year that you uninstall Flash from your system.

January 3, 2016
by Neil Turner
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2015’s most popular blog posts

HP

Okay, so we’re a few days into 2016, but I thought it would be nice to review the most popular blog posts from last year. This is based on the number of views, and uses statistics provided by WordPress.com as part of the Jetpack plugin for self-hosted WordPress installations.

Top 10 new posts

These are the most popular new posts that I wrote this year:

  1. HP T1500 G3 UPS review
  2. The new Photos app on OS X
  3. The Rossendale Taxi problem
  4. D Trains of Future Past
  5. The Bradford Brewery
  6. App of the Week: Airmail 2
  7. Flooding in Sowerby Bridge
  8. Three + O2 = ?
  9. FAQ about next week’s rail strike
  10. The many perks of working at a university

I’m pleased to see some of my longer pieces do well, and it seems that commenting on current affairs remains popular, which is nice. None of these made the top 5 blog posts of all time though – these were:

Top 5 posts from previous years

  1. How to: rank Wi-fi networks on your iPhone (2013)
  2. Fixing your MacBook screen (2009)
  3. How to install the Windows 8.1 update (KB 2919355) (2014)
  4. How to migrate a Parallels virtual machine to VirtualBox (2008)
  5. Fixing high memory use caused by mds (2013)

These older blog posts suggest that I should write more how-to articles this year, as they have staying power – including one written seven years ago. However, generally, these blog posts come about because I need to solve a problem myself, and then I share what I found out. And, at the moment, I don’t have any major IT issues at home. Well, apart from a non-booting Raspberry Pi, but I put this down to needing a bigger SD card…

Hopefully some of what I write this year will make it into the top 5. The other good news was that 2015 saw more traffic to this blog than 2013 or 2014, and my announcement of Elizabeth’s birth was the 5000th post. Here’s to another 5000, although even if I do hit my target of one blog post a day it’ll be some time in 2029 before I reach 10,000 posts! And thanks to IanVisits for the inspiration for this blog post.

January 2, 2016
by Neil Turner
0 comments

Links from Pinboard for January 2, 2016

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

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