662 – How to make the perfect martini

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Here’s a bonus Tip, akin to the Sweary Broccoli Soup one from last month. Since many of us will be taking time off in the next week, and activities may involve a modicum of adult beverages, what better time that to share some finely practiced tips in making the (IMHO) perfect martini?

The timeless cocktail which comes in many variants, is distinct from the Italian fortified wine, Martini – it’s thought that the barman who first gave the “martini” its name did so as a variant of “Martinez”. So it’s martini with a small “m”. Aficionados would probably choose a more premium vermouth as well…

This is a long post so pucker up and, of course, drink responsively. This is all a matter of opinion and exhaustive research – there are no product affiliations and recommendations are based on preference and plenty of practice.

Classic gin|voka martini | Vesper martini | Espresso martini

Get yourself tooled-up

First off, you need to select the right glassware. The classic V-shaped glass is worth investing in if you think you want to make a habit of martini drinking; if not, a champagne coupe or even a decent-sized wine glass will do.

Since the ideal martini is served very cold, you’re generally going to need something to stir or shake over ice, so a cocktail shaker would make sense. If you don’t have one, Amazon et al have plenty of starter kits that will include a long spoon and even a measuring cup (or “jigger”).

If you just can’t wait to get started, a jug full of ice and a device like an espresso cup or even an egg cup will do. Proportions are important in mixology, and if you’re not an accomplished free-pourer, you’ll need something that can be used to dole out 25ml/50ml shots or whatever size takes your fancy – 1oz in the US is just under 30ml so a little stronger than a UK single measure of 25ml.

Before you start mixing, put your glasses in the freezer and get any garnishes – like olives, or fruit peel – ready. You’ll want to do the stirring/shaking, pour straight in the glass, drop garnish in and then directly to the hands of the eagerly awaiting recipients.

The classic martini

clip_image004Gaining prominence in the 1920s, the original gin martini mixed a good quality gin with vermouth, at a ratio of 2:1, with olives or a twist of lemon peel for garnish.

Good quality” is an easy test – if you pour a little of the gin in a shot glass and take a slurp, does it make you wince and your cheeks pucker? Even though many gins are fine with a splash of tonic water, a gin martini made with 100ml Gordon’s and 50ml Cinzano Bianco isn’t going to set the place on fire. Most definitely stay away from any flavoured gins.

Start with Berry Bros No 3, Tanqueray No Ten, Warner’s London Gin or pretty much any of the millions of craft gins which pass the quality test above. If you fancy yourself as 007, substitute the gin with a quality vodka instead – same test of neat-drinkability applies – such as Grey Goose, Belvedere or anything of unflavoured quality. Smirnoff Red or supermarket own-label paint stripper? Probably not so much.

Vermouth is very much a matter of taste, but you probably don’t want anything that’s too sickly sweet and if you’ve gone to the effort of getting a nice gin, you won’t want to overpower it with cheaper fortified wine. Suggestions include Noilly Prat or Dolin Dry.

Proportions matter. Asking for a “dry” martini basically means less of the vermouth. If the 1920’s drink had 2:1 ratio of gin/vermouth, succeeding decades saw that rise to a more contemporary 3 or 4:1. Vary to your taste and endurance.

Ernest Hemmingway used to favour a 15:1 mix which he called a “Montgomery”, as it was said to be the preferred tipple of Field Marshall Montgomery before heading into battle. It’s amazing he could even see the front line.

“A perfect Martini should be made by filling a glass with gin, then waving it in the general direction of Italy” –

Noël Coward

Mr Bridger would wave his glass to the Italian Martini vermouth factory, while Churchill would supposedly take a glass of ice-cold gin and bow towards France (and Noilly Prat). President Lyndon Johnson prepared an “in & out” martini where he would pour a glass of vermouth, then throw it away and replace it with gin.

As for garnish; some would say a shave of lemon peel is the ideal accompaniment, but for many it’s the green olive that should go in a classic martini, as the saltiness of olives go well with the cold, strong booze.

Take a single or three olives – never an even number. Being served a 2-olive martini in mafiosi days was a signal from the barman that someone in the joint was going to harm you. A “dirty martini” has a sploosh of the brine that the olives come in, and it makes the drink cloudy and salty, if that’s what you like.

The technique. Fill your cocktail shaker/mixing glass/jug with ice cubes, pour the gin & vermouth over the ice and stirfor 30 secs. Pour into your frozen glasses, add the garnish of peel or a cocktail stick of olives and you’re done. A dry martini is actually quite low-calorie so don’t feel too guilty.

If you want to go no-alcohol, try Blutul alcohol-free vermouth, possibly mixed with one of the numerous zero-alcohol distilled spirits, like Tanqueray Zero. Or save a fortune and just drink elderflower cocktail in a chilled glass.

The whole Bond “shaken, not stirred” thing came from Ian Fleming’s belief that shaking vodka “bruised” it for a more intense flavour, so it was passed on to Bond. In truth, shaking over ice is only going to cloud the drink somewhat, and will cause shards of ice to be poured into the glass, melting and diluting the drink more quickly. That’s fine if you like you’re drinking Montgomeries, but not desirable for most. The best martini bars won’t even use ice – they’ll store their drinks in the freezer and pour straight from the frozen bottle.

The Vesper

A test of how good a bartender is: ask them to make a Vesper martini even if it’s not on the menu. If they don’t ask you questions about how you’d like it, prepare for disappointment. The ideal Vesper should be ice cold, very strong and is slightly sweeter than a classic martini.

The Vesper (named after the femme fatale, Vesper Lynd) was invented by Ian Fleming supposedly as he took breaks from writing, at the bar of the Dukes Hotel in London. Whether this is a misty-eyed memory or a marketing moment doesn’t matter – Dukes makes arguably the best Vesper in the world; it should be at £25 a pop, but you only need one.

“When I’m, er, concentrating… I never have more than one drink before dinner. But I do like that one to be large and very strong and very cold and very well-made”. – James Bond (Casino Royale)

In Fleming’s Casino Royale book, Bond invents the Vesper asking for 3 measures of Gordons, one of vodka and half a measure of Kina Lillet. It was revisited in the Daniel Craig film. Nowadays, you’d use a higher quality gin (see above – Dukes use Berry Bros No 3), and since Kina Lillet was an old quinine-laced form of aperitif, you’ll need to try a different mixer (Dukes makes their own blend).

Lillet is a brand of fortified Bordeaux which is available fairly widely over the counter or via mailclip_image006. Keep a bottle of Lillet Blanc in the fridge if you like your Vespers. A few drops of Angostura bitters added to Lillet Blanc apparently brings it closer to what Kina Lillet was like with a little more astringency to offset the sweetness.

Many recipes will have a twist of lemon in their Vesper, but to be a little different, Dukes favours a slice of orange for the stronger smell of the orange citrus oil.

If you’re not adept at carving hunks of skin from lemons or oranges (and potentially wasting the rest of the fruit), try taking a clementine/satsuma and slicing it thinly into circles (3-4mm thick) with a serrated bread knife (yes, a bread knife – who’d have thought it?)

Take one of the innermost circles and nick the skin in one place so you can open it out into a straight thin line and peel the flesh of the fruit away. Now take a chopstick or a drinking straw and wind the thin slice of peel into a tight corkscrew and drop it into the glass that’s currently waiting in the freezer.

The measures for a tip-top Vesper are the same as in the Bond recipe – 3 measures of gin, one of vodka (both selected as per the classic martini above), ½ a measure of Lillet Blanc and a few drops of Angostura. Stir with ice in the cocktail shaker for 30 secs, pour and enjoy.

Espresso martini

Much less boozy than the straight up drinks above, and a favourite of the cheaper cocktail bar who likes to feature syrupy sweet stuff that can be advance prepared in bulk. A proper espresso martini is a joyous and unctuous thing.

clip_image008You will need access to good coffee – ideally from an espresso machine, or Nespresso if that’s what you have. At a pinch, you could substitute strong, quality drip, cafetière or even instant coffee.

If you don’t have a kitchen worktop festooned with coffee making gear, go and buy some espresso beans for garnish and to help make your own liqueur.

The spirit of choice is vodka, and since you’ll be adding sweet and bitter additions to it in equal measure, you don’t need to worry too much about the provenance – Smirnoff et al will do nicely. You could tequila instead.

Apart from the coffee itself, the other key ingredient is a coffee liqueur – you could use something like Kahlua, though that is a little too sweet for some. Mr Black Cold Brew is a top alternative, though not inexpensive. If you have time on your side, it’s easy to make your own.

DIY Coffee liqueur

  • Put 500ml of water in a pan with 300g of regular granulated sugar, cook on medium heat while stirring until all the sugar has dissolved. Take off the heat.
  • Take 75g of espresso beans and lightly crush them in a Ziploc/freezer bag, with a rolling pin.
  • Add the crushed espresso beans to the water/sugar mix, along with 500ml of vodka (own-brand stuff is OK though mainstream label might be better), and 1tsp of vanilla essence. Set aside to cool.
  • Once cool, pour into a Kilner Jar or similar airtight container for 3 weeks (give it a swirl every few days), then strain it into a bottle though a coffee filter or kitchen paper etc. In truth, you could dip in after a week or so, but the longer you leave it, the better it gets.

For the price of a half a litre of cheap-ish vodka, some sugar and some coffee, you’ve just made 1L of good stuff that will last for ages in a dark cupboard. Depending on how frequently you partake of espresso martinis, obvs.

When you’re ready to make your pièce de résistance, put the glasses in the freezer and look out 3 coffee beans for each. To make 2 drinks, fill your cocktail shaker with ice and pour in one large measure (the size of an espresso cup, i.e. 2oz / 60ml) of vodka, and the same again of your coffee liqueur. Make espresso coffee into one or two regular sized espresso cups (again, 2oz/60ml) and pour one of them – still fresh and hot – into the shaker.

Put the lid on, give it a vigorous shake for 20-30 seconds. The mix of sweet liqueur, hot coffee and cold ice will froth the mix up and give it a velvety texture, while also creating a lovely crema to top off the pour. If you don’t have a shaker, try a plastic jug half filled with ice; something that you could give a really good strong stir and not worry about smashing the jug…

Dispense into the waiting glasses and top with the coffee beans on each. Drink the other cup of espresso as a chaser, or maybe leave it to the side in case you fancy a refill?

Have a great holiday season, everyone. See you in the New Year!

536 – Spreading to friends and family

clip_image002There have been plenty of ToW missives over the last few months on the subject of remote working, video conferencing and the like. Businesses who have Microsoft 365 – the new umbrella name that includes Office 365 – already have access to Teams, though personal users and non-subscribers could still set up a free version.

Other chat, video and collaboration tools have clearly been finding many new users during the COVID-19 lockdown…

Slack, which established itself as a texty business collaboration tool (especially in the technology industry), has been overtaken somewhat by the rush to video calling and meeting. Slack’s partner AWS, who also have a video/audio/chat service called Chime, announced plans to integrate under the covers. Meanwhile, Slack thinks it’s finally time to ditch email and their CEO also has an interesting take on how remote working will evolve – will this be the end of the real estate bubble in the Bay Area, for example?

Salesforce has launched a new offering called Anywhere, which aims to take back collaboration and comms tasks from Slack or Teams. And in the “you can tell any story you like by using the right set of numbers” file, Teams has been reported as outgrowing the media’s darling, Zoom, as the feature battles between the two have intensified. Skype and Google’s Hangouts Meet have also added multi-party video among other new capabilities.

Teams will soon have the ability to show up to 49 people at once (having rolled out a 3×3 grid of video windows recently)…

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… and has also released an updated free offer, aimed at friends and family communications.

Initially available in the mobile apps, the focus is on providing free collaborative functionality for groups you can set up, as well as being able to schedule video calls and meetings.

If you don’t already have the Teams mobileclip_image004 app on your phone, then go to iOS App Store or Google Play to install it. If you’re already using Teams through your work account, you can add a personal account by going to the settings icon in the top left, and at the very bottom of the list is “Add Account”.

This will guide you through the process of associating with an existing Microsoft Account, including signing up for free Teams service if you haven’t already.

At the moment, the service is in Preview, and it does involve switching between profiles when you need to, but offers a load more than just WhatsApp-style text chat and the odd call.

As well as file sharing, there’s even a “Safe” feature on its way, which will let you share WiFi Passwords or other more sensitive information that requires 2-factor authentication.

So, for once in the last 3+ months, now’s a good time to spread something to the rest of your family and your wider circle of friends…

522 – Teams best practices for WFH

clip_image002In these uncertain times, many organisations are scrambling to enable their workers to be able to carry on even when the rest of the world is seemingly losing control. At least the meme creators are busy.

Ex-Microsoftie Allister Frost has some wise words to share about Working From Home, and given that he was Chief Puppy Controller for a well-known marketing team, he knows things that are currently relevant.

Microsoft Teams may have had a couple of bumps since the Covid-19 virus started to cause people to stay at home; early in the week there were a couple of outages that have been swiftly resolved, but it’s since been announced that the service added 12 million daily active users in the last 7 days – that’s a 40% increase in usage, so it’s no surprise if the infrastructure creaked a little as it grew.

There are many tips for making good use of Teams –

Stay at home, stay safe, and follow Buzz Aldrin’s advice.

508 – Black Friday Mania

clip_image002Like other aspects of what some might call cultural imperialism, the Black Friday epidemic continues to spread around the world, on the day after the fourth Thursday in November.

Shoppers around the world might go a bit crazy for special deals, and this weekend is likely to be one of the busiest ever for the online emporia too. Not all retailers play the game, though – in the past, some worthy chains have publicly opted out, though every one of them will have some kind of sale or special offer roster on, FOMO and all that.

There are plenty of bargains to be had, of course; retailers will have been planning their sales for months and many now start a week or more before Thanksgiving, and continue well into December.

The Microsoft store has some good deals – in the UK, you can grab £hundreds off new Surface gear, and there’s probably never been a cheaper time to buy a new Xbox One – and with Project Scarlett arriving next year (along with Surface Neo and Duo), maybe it’s the best time to be buying a current Xbox. There’s a fire sale on the disc-less Xbox One S “All-Digital Edition” – £129 means a third off the usual price, with some rumours that it might be the last chance to buy such a device.

The world’s largest bookseller has some great offers too, especially if you want to festoon your house with Alexa stuff or other first-party surveillance gear. If you’re an Amazon shopper, consider supporting homeless charity, Launchpad, by using Microsoftie Fraser Murrell’s affiliate link which he uses to collect a few hundred pounds every year: all you need do is click through to open up the site, go about your shopping as normal, and a slice will go to a good cause.

Scourge of Fakebook, the Money Saving Expert, has a pretty comprehensive list of other UK offers that apply right now – check out their special page for maximum distraction.

Finally, another ‘Softie, Darren Adams, has a great solution if all of this brings out the Grinch in you:

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Tip o’ the Week 444 – Computer! Computer!? Hello Computer?!?

clip_image002Remember the time when talking to a computer seemed like science fiction?

If you’re an Amazon Echo or Sonos One* user, you’ll already be familiar with barking orders at an inanimate object. If you’re tired of shouting ALEXA… ALEXA!!!, then you can even change the “Wake Word” on the Amazon devices – but not yet others – so you can say other things instead. Handy if your daughter or your dog is called Alexa.

clip_image004In the Alexa app on your phone, go to Settings, look under the list of devices and if you select an Echo device of some sort, then you’ll find a Wake Word option fairly far down the list. This lets you choose something else, though not yet at the level when you could make up your own wake word

Anyway, who can pass up the opportunity to pretend to be Mr Scott?
(Isn’t it amazing what you could do with one-fingered, random typing on a keyboard in 1986…?)

Anyway, recent announcements saw the preview of Cortana joining hands with Alexa and allowing access both from Windows 10 PCs to (some) Alexa functionality, and US-based Amazon users can access Cortana stuff through Alexa-enabled devices.

On your PC, clip_image006you may need to check your Cortana settings (just press WindowsKey and start typing Cortana to see the settings) to either enable the Hey Cortana key phrase, or press WindowsKey+C as a shortcut, then speak.

Voice-searching on the PC using Cortana can be a pretty handy thing to do, as there are plenty of phrases that will give you a direct response rather than take you to a website. It’s quicker to press the WindowsKey+C option than to say “Hey Cortana”, and you could ask stuff like M-S-F-T, what’s the time in New York, what’s the news, what’s the weather, convert pound to dollar and so on.

clip_image008To start using Alexa on your PC, just go to Cortana and say “Open Alexa” – at which point, on the first run, you’ll be prompted to sign in clip_image010using your Amazon account.

You’ll also need to grant permission to share info between the two services, and now be able to do things like add items to your Amazon shopping list from within the Cortana UI, or in the reverse, query your Office 365 calendar from your Echo smart speaker.

YMMV at the moment, but it’ll surely get more integrated in time. Right now, you can’t stream music through Alexa to the PC (or, it seems, control smart home devices that work through Alexa, though that could be a regional thing for the moment) – and if you’ve a UK-based Amazon account, you can’t add the Cortana Skill to your Alexa account, so there’s no option of querying Cortana from the Echo, yet. US users can, though.

Still, Normal People don’t have electronics listening to everything they say… so what if a few nerds need to put up with some temporary friction from having two competing assistants try to work together? Click-Over-bzzzt.

Tip o’ the Week 401 – Go with the Flow

We all get notified of stuff that we’re probably interested in, but clip_image001which we never get around to reading about in-depth, or trying out. Well, this week’s topic presents both an example of exactly that (for some of us at least) and a potential solution to it – Microsoft Flow, a free-to-use, simple*, workflow tool that can stitch all kinds of things together in a useful manner.

* some may take issue with “simple”.  Bah.

Flow promises to do all sorts of groovy things that nobody ever needs, like writing every email to a Google Sheet then sending your calendar a reminder to look at it. But there are lots of potentially interesting and useful things you can put together, either by using the many templates or by building your own custom flow based on simple logic. You could connect all kinds of disparate web-based services together and using triggers, fire off actions based on events happening – like a tweet about a particular topic, or a new event added to a calendar.

Let’s take an example – say, you have an Office 365 work mail account and associated calendar. When you put something in your calendar which is both an all-day event, and is also marked “Out of the Office”, that probably means you’ll be out of the office all day, maybe away on a business trip or possibly even on holiday.

Wouldn’t it be useful to be able to copy that to a calendar that your nearest and dearest can see, maybe even adding all the events from several family members into one place, shared with all the others?

First off, you may want to log into www.outlook.com, go into Calendar and create a new shared calendar (if you don’t have one already)clip_image003 give it a suitable name (like Family Calendar) and clip_image005then make sure you’re sharing it with the right people you’d like to be able to see it. They will get an invite to see the shared calendar and it will be added to their own Outlook.com calendar view (as pictured way below).

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Now, to create the flow to copy stuff from your work to Family Calendar…

  • Login to Microsoft Flow using your Microsoft Account, here.
  • Create a new Flow using a blank starting point, here.
  • Search event and select Office 365 Outlook – When a new event is created (and might as well pick v2 unless you know better)
  • Next, you’ll need to sign into your Office 365 account to be able to access it. Select the default calendar (probably just called “Calendar”…). This is the source for the flow, the trigger.
  • Click New Step and select Add a condition, then click in the “Choose a value” field; in the dynamic content pop up box, type clip_image009Is all day and you’ll see an “Is all day event?” condition clip_image011appear in the list. Click to add it to the flow.
  • Check that the central drop-down is “Is equal to” and click on the value to the right and enter True.
  • In the “If yes” left-hand pane, select Outlook.com – create event, then Sign in to provide your Outlook.com credentials.
  • Choose the Family Calendar from the list, and add the relevant details you’d like to add – in other words, the attributes from the source (O365) calendar, that you’d like to reflect on the destination (Outlook.com) one.
  • It’s a good idea to show Advanced Options, and select something like the following attributes by searching in the Dynamic content box for the key fields in each case (one of the more important being Is HTML, if clip_image013you’re going to put anything in the body of the message).
  • When you’re happy, click on the Flow name box at the very top of the page and give it something meaningful, and then Save Flow to the bottom

Now you should be able to see any new, all-day events that appear in your work calendar, showing up in your shared Outlook.com custom calendar.

A further refinement might be to add a condition to only trigger the sync when the original meeting is set to “Out of Office” – click on Update flow to edit, then add another clip_image015step, Add a condition then add Show as equals 3 – that’s the field that denotes the event’s status (busy, free etc), and “3” is the value that means “out of office”.

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Save the flow and you’ll see the flow copies only OOF events from your work calendar to your shared private one… as below, where Outlook.com is shown behind the Outlook app.

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It’s worth having a play around with Flow, as you can do some interesting things with it (and there are connectors for all kinds of services, including Google mail & calendar, Wunderlist tasks, even grown-up apps like Dynamics or Salesforce. There are mobile apps that can take part in flows, too); do bear in mind that it takes anything up to a few minutes to fire these kinds of events, and if there’s a problem running your logic, then you’ll be notified.

It may be worth adding a debug step that can be easily removed later, by getting the flow to send you an email with the values of the fields you’re interested in…

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Tip o’ the Week 377 – Windows 10 Films & TV

clip_image002In a culturally-sensitive and relatively unusual sort of localis(z)ation, Windows 10 has an app called Films & TV. Or Movies & TV, depending on where you are in the world. Whichever, it’s the de facto video player in Windows 10, unless you start by installing your own.

clip_image004The naming may only be skin deep but in Blighty, still, Kermode & Esler host the Film Review and dear old Barry Norman (and why not?) fronted the Film… franchise for 27 years, keeping sign-writers and logo creators busy as the program name changed annually.

The Films & TV app got a nice refresh to coincide with the Creators Update, recently – so if you haven’t played around with it much, then it’s maybe worth another look.

Films & TV can show off your local video files, or let you explore stuff to rent or buy as well as access previously bought video content. In an ideal world, it would be nice to allow apps to be able to retrieve content from any source, similar to how devices like Sonos can support multiple music sources (Spotify, Groove, Amazon etc). Sadly, for now at least, you can only see content that you bought through the Films & TV (previously Xbox Video) store.

clip_image006clip_image008Still, there are some cool touches to the app UI – like the ability to play back video on a Miracast-enabled device, so you can source the file from your laptop yet watch it back on your monster telly.

Assuming Miracast works, that is. Russian Roulette would give you better odds than with some supposedly Miracast supporting gear, but let’s move on…

The new “Explore” section in F&TV lets you see film trailers and recommended movies & TV series, as well as some highlighted 360° videos from sources like GoPro. Check out the Indy cars driving across the Golden Gate Bridge – Monaco it ain’t but it’s still quite impressive.

clip_image010You can set the playback to a mini player mode which lets you carry on watching something more interesting than whatever you’re supposed to be doing, as the mini player stays on top of other windows.

When playing back ordinary video, you could choose to play it back as 360° video instead – a relatively freaky experience that’s presumably included because you might happen upon 360° video encoded as regular MP4 or whatever, and want to experience that as intended.

Still. Movies Films & TV is a nice, simple video player which is Tip o’ the Week 377 – Windows 10 Films & TVworthy of consideration, even if you do end up installing VLC.

Tip o’ the Week 365 – Throttling applications’ network perf

clip_image002If you ever wonder why your home network is apparently bogging down, the blame may not be just down to your broadband provider. As we increasingly use multiple devices on the home network, any one of them may be causing issues for all the others.

If you’re using an ADSL connection, the Asymmetric nature means that preference is given to data download, with only a portion of the available bandwidth allocated to uploads, since most people are browsing, streaming and downloading files more than they are serving data or putting things into the cloud.

One of the downsides to ADSL is that when you do need to upload a lot of data, it has the side effect of hammering the download speeds too. It’s even worse if something you don’t especially care about is killing your download speed through unexpected uploads, or you need to use something that requires decent upload speeds – like a Skype call or an Xbox Live session – and you get poor performance because something else is hogging your bandwidth.

clip_image004OneDrive is a bit of a culprit – in an experiment, the Network Speed Test app was used in normal run of things, and saw ~18Mbps download and .77Mbps upload, which is fairly healthy.

clip_image006Starting a big upload by dropping a video file into the OneDrive folder on the PC, and allowing the sync process to get going (verified by the icon in the system tray changing to show a couple of sync arrows, and the pop up balloon saying what’s happening), and things changed radically; a paltry 600Kbps download and just 150Kbps upload speed. A tell-tale is the network delay – or latency – which rose from <50ms to >700ms, which will make anything that needs real-time communications very difficult.

clip_image008If you think your network performance is terrible, start by looking in Task Manager – CTRL+SHIFT+ESC – and if you think the Send vs Receive stats in the network performance tab is a bit skewed, then click the Resource Monitor link at the bottom of the window… and look at the Send / Receive columns under Network, to see which application is causing the trouble…

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clip_image012Fortunately, the OneDrive app has the option of imposing upload limits; look in the system tray for the OneDrive icon(s), and right-click then choose Settings. Note that you might have separate OneDrive personal and OneDrive business icons; they can be tuned separately.

Under the Network tab, you can put a value in for KB/sec (that’s Kilo-bytes per sec, rather than the Mega-bits or Kilo-bits per second of the bandwidth measurements above – remembering, of course, that 1 Byte = 8 bits, so 1KB = 8Kb), which will throttle the upload speed used by OneDrive sync. Hover over the OneDrive icon to see the

The “Adjust automatically” option sounds hopeful, but still appears to favour upload speed over download requirements, though there may be more long-term monitoring going on. If you’ve identified OneDrive sync as the culprit to your poor performance, you can also pause it for a period of time – handy if you’re on conference calls with Skype and you want to give all of your bandwidth over to that.

Still, back to the experiment: after setting the limit to 25KBps as above, there’s still plenty of uploading, but not as bad an impact on the downloads…

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Tip o’ the Week 355 – How to buy a FBTV

Tip 355, eh? This week’s tip is quite timely so we’ll skip over 354 and come back to that later.

clip_image002As the retail calendar year gets ready for the madness that is Black Friday, some “early majority” adopters will deem the time is right to invest in a new TV. 80s kids who knew their boombox as a BFR might have other monikers to give to their new big TV.

[Warning: these next 2 links are a bit racy – don’t click on them unless you’re familiar with Danny Boyle’s controversial film of 20 years ago…]

Trainspotting is coming back, after all.

Like every technology which moves on, buying flipping big televisions can be a minefield. Time was, you got the biggest you could afford and accommodate, and that was it. But now, a blizzard of new logos and features means you need to know what you’re doing otherwise a savvy sales person might tuck you up with a set that’s obsolete immediately.

Does anyone still watch 3D TV?

The Dawn of 4K

At the beginning of the HD wave, TV manufacturers were selling “HD Ready” sets, which had no means to receive High Definition broadcasts and only natively supported 720p (ie a resolution of 1280×720) from external sources like Blu-Ray, so a step up compared to standard definition (which had a resolution of up to 720×576), but not quite as much as Full HD 1080p (of 1920×1080).

The 4K revolution – otherwise known as Ultra-HD or UHD – promises resolution a of 3840×2160, meaning a Full HD picture would fill only one quarter of a 4K screen, even if 3840 isn’t exactly 4K (as that would be 4096)…

4K content is available in some areas, now – via cable or satellite (like Sky Q for UK users), but mostly through on-demand services such as Netflix or Amazon, or even streaming from YouTube. Since most 4K TVs are “Smart”, the various apps for those services are likely to be built-into or at least downloadable for the TV in question. Do check the apps you need are available for the screen you’re thinking of, and don’t be disappointed if existing apps don’t feature 4K content, yet – Planet Earth II’s cutesy animals & stunning visuals don’t show up on 4K, sadly.

HDR

If you’re going to buy a 4K set, make sure you get one that supports High Dynamic Range, or HDR. Photographers may know about HDR already – essentially, it’s a process of taking several photos with different exposure settings and combining them together to make one image that’s detailed and bright. Here’s an illustrative example:

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HDR on moving images means you can combine the detail and contrast of a low-exposure shot with the brightness and definition of a high-exposure one. Here’s a discussion about HDR TVs and why, basically, you shouldn’t buy a 4K TV without it. Arguably, HDR will have a more positive impact that the extra resolution of 4K.

There are 2 different HDR standards, and that introduces some confusion – there’s proprietary Dolby Vision, and open standard HDR10. Dolby Vision isn’t part of the Blu-Ray specification per-se, and if you buy a 4K Blu-Ray player then it most probably won’t have Dolby Vision support. It’s arguable about whether 4K Blu-Ray is even viable – paying a premium for a higher-definition version of a format (Blu-Ray) that may still be growing, but not as fast as its predecessor (DVD) is shrinking: good luck with that. The future’s all about streaming, really.

clip_image005The Xbox One S supports both 4K and HDR10, and will upscale non-4K content to the full resolution – so if you want to buy a 4K Blu-Ray player anyway, you might as well just get an Xbox One S and bring Cortana, Groove Music and the growing number of Xbox-targeted UWP apps into your living room, as well as whatever apps you might get from your Smart TV. Just make sure it’s the One S you’re buying, as the old (black) Xbox One doesn’t do 4K.

OLED vs LED/LCD

Another decision matrix when choosing the screen, is whether to go for the newest OLED display (which still attracts a pretty premium in the price), or to get a more established – and perhaps, more refined – technology such as LCD with LED backlighting? See an in-depth discussion about the two technologies here.

Ultimately, if you buy OLED now you may get a better screen but in a year’s time, you could probably get an even better one at the same price as an LCD screen costs today. Entry level 55” OLED screens will skin you the best part of two large, whereas you can get a similarly-featured 55” LCD 4K with HDR, for little more than a monkey.

Right, now that’s that done. Off to watch that new Top Gear in 4K.

And on that bombshell

Tip o’ the Week 353 – Killing me Softly, part II

clip_image001Back in the day, when it was an ambitious plan to have a PC on every desk and in every home, one frontier that was foreseen was the battle for the living room. Before the advent of cheapo streaming sticks, the only way to consume media on your big telly (apart from stuff broadcast to it or recorded already) was to invest several large in a dedicated Home Theater (sic) PC, or htpc.

clip_image003Microsoft’s early entrance into this market was a project called “Freestyle”, which offered a so-called 10’ remote control experience to browse and play back photos, music & video already stored on the PC, and later (with the advent of still-shonky standards like DLNA and the rise in home NAS appliances), networked media too.

There was also the promise of being able to tune your htpc into broadcast TV signals and use it like a PVR, though this took a long time to be realised internationally, what with the clip_image004proliferation of delivery methods, formatting standards for TV channels, means of describing the program guide etc.

Windows Media Center was a standalone version of Windows XP, then an optional features in premium versions of Vista and Windows 7, before being put to the sword in Windows 10. RIP WMC.

What now?

Well, the fashion for having a full-size, fan-blaring PC in your living room is largely done away with, as games consoles and the aforesaid streaming devices (along with built-in SmartTV functionality) largely make the idea redundant, but for some uses (a student bedroom maybe, or a PC in the den) it could still be a smart idea to be able to watch and record TV signals, for which there are a profusion of freely available alternatives to WMC. Let’s look at one of the most widely used.

clip_image006Kodi.tv sprung out of an initiative to build a Media Center-like application (called XBMC) for the original Xbox, and is now pretty well developed (with a UWP app and everything). It can provide the front-end UX for playing back media, recording & watching TV, though it can be a bit of a mission to set it up at first, as it relies on a series of 3rd party pieces to allow it to tune in to broadcast signals – a tuner, some codec software and an electronic program guide, all presented to Kodi as a kind of back-end service.

· UK users might choose all manner of tuner hardware, but you could try getting a £20 USB cheapie tuner from your favourite bookstore, or any other DVB-T2 tuner hardware (T2 includes Freeview HD, whereas simple DVB-T is just standard definition).

· clip_image008Install NextPVR – it’s an application that can drive the TV tuner and also manages download of programme metadata to form the EPG guide – so you could use it standalone, or else it can be the back end that Kodi uses.

· It’s quite possible that if you install NextPVR and it doesn’t work properly, you’ll need the right codec software, such as the LAV filters – get the latest installer from here. It’ll also allow DVD playback.

It’s even said to be possible to stream UK Freeview channels to a Kodi addon running on machines that don’t have their own tuner hardware, and non-UK types may be able to receive those channels away from Blighty. Apparently.

Here’s Killing me Softly, part I, in case you missed it.