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Voxcaster Posts

Mac Mini SSD

It’s clear that SSD’s are far faster than their mechanical counterparts. Using a computer with a spinning hard drive after you’ve been used to an SSD can be tantamount to torture. Sure, it works, but sitting there waiting for items to load can be real drag. One of the worst contenders I’ve seen is Atom (or Outlook if you happen to be using my work laptop – that is SLOW to load). Considering Atom is a text editor and I only really want to open small files, it’s a real pain to wait for it to open so I will often use something else, driving me away from what is a pretty good program (with some plugins added).

However, not everything comes with an SSD as standard. My current work laptop is fitted with a spinner and this really slows the laptop down, which considering it has an Intel i5, shouldn’t really be the case (the 4GB RAM doesn’t help either mind). Likewise, my 2014 Mac Mini comes with the stock 500 GB hard drive fitted (like the laptop, it’s a 5,400 RPM 2.5″ hard drive). Whilst I can’t do anything with my work laptop (as it’s not mine), I could potentially change the hard drive in the Mac Mini.

Or at least I could have done. However, getting to the hard drive of the Mac Mini is fraught with removing it from the case! It’s not the simple case of replacing the 2.5″ hard drive like on my Lenovo X220. However, Apple have made it relatively straight forward to boot a Mac from a USB drive and therefore I’m able to install macOS Sierra onto the external drive and boot from that instead.

Portable SSD

For a while, I was carrying around a Sandisk Portable SSD with me. I’d got the 250GB version and it carried with me my entire music collection, as well as all my documents, pictures, eBooks and even all the projects I was working on at work – it seems 250GB was plentiful. This was encrypted by Bitlocker and worked fantastically well. The device is light and easy to carry and seemed to be better than using a USB stick.

However, the big issue arose from having to carry the device and the USB cable! I’d often forget one and not the other. As a USB 3 drive, I didn’t yet have enough cables lying about the place to make it handy. I used to keep a cable in the office and a cable at home so it was fine between these two locations, but anywhere else, I’d run into trouble. Without the cable, I was unable to access the drive and after a number of times of doing this, I ended up not carrying it with me 1.

So it was sat and home and ended up being the prime candidate for being used for the external drive for the Mac. This should be the ideal size for macOS to be installed, along with the programs I need and for most of my files. The music and larger files that I might not need access to could be left on the internal drive.

Installing

I followed the instructions here. It relied on me downloading a copy of macOS Sierra from the App Store which was the first thing that I did when I got the Mac Mini.

Once that was done, it was simply a case of following the instructions.

This involved download macOS Sierra and then creating a USB install disc. Once that was done, I had to boot from the USB (install disc) and install the system to the USB SSD. Installation was quick and I was then able to boot into the initial install and select the external SSD as the main boot device in the Startup Disk menu of the System Preferences.

Screen Shot 2017-04-11 at 17.13.17

When I rebooted, I was then greeted with macOS booting from the SSD!

With a bit of editing of partition sizes, I’ve kept the original install of macOS on the computer in case I need it for whatever reason, but I partitioned some of the space for storage of my music and backups.

Screen Shot 2017-03-31 at 18.48.58

This way, the majority of the space on the SSD can be for documents, programs and settings etc of the system.

Niggles

I guess it wouldn’t be a computer without a few set of niggles.

Mainly, it seems that if the screen powers off, the Mac will freeze. I turned off the shut off hard drives option in power settings in case that was the issue but it still seemed to occur, so I’ve just set the time out of the screen to a larger value and it seems to be Ok at the minute.

Other than that, there hasn’t really been any issues, at least not with the install, but I have some issues with my Logitech K350 keyboard and the media buttons.

I can’t really compare the speed of the system to that of the system prior as I didn’t really use it – I just installed the SSD straight away. However, I know when I had the 27” iMac that there was a potential lag on loading programs, where there doesn’t seem to be on this system. The Mac doesn’t (yet) seem to be constrained by only 4GB RAM and a lower power CPU. In fairness, for day to day office use and browsing, I’ve not really run into any issues with it at all. Time will tell as things go on!

Overall, it’s been a worthwhile investment and the Mac flys along. I’d recommend it if you’ve got a Mac Mini (or other Mac) that doesn’t have an SSD and you can’t (or don’t) want to open it up to install one. I don’t realise that mine is running from an external drive at all.


  1. Lesson learned – stick with standard USB devices until enough people have a USB 3 cable lying around! 

iCloud Online

It’s been a while since I’ve sold my Mac and have been relying on Windows and Linux – almost a year has gone by since I got rid of the MacBook Pro. I’ve not really missed it since it’s been gone. In general, I’ve been well served by my Windows gaming rig and my Lenovo X220 laptop running Xubuntu.

In fact, I’ve tended to prefer open source software and my Xubuntu laptop. I’ve taken to using LibreOffice more than Microsoft Word and I’ve taken to using other open source apps, like GNUCash, Zim, KeepassX (and Keepass) and Clementine. I’ve not really had any issues using these over the commercial apps that I used to use.

I did have some issues previously – for example, getting Zim working on the Mac was a right pain and in the end it was part of the reason that drove me away (I was using Zim for some revision and I replaced Day One with as my journaling software 1 when Day One went to a proprietary sync solution which meant it was harder to backup and wasn’t supported on Android). However, in general, it’s been rare for me to think “Boy, I wish I still had my Mac“.

iCloud

Perhaps that is, until today. I tried to use LibreOffice and then Excel to try and setup a tracker (well, a table) so I could track my required Continuing Professional Development hours. My profession requires me to undertake 25 hours a year training and the easiest method of this seems to be the creation of a table and adding new items to it as and when needed.

However, I was put off by the results of both Excel and LibreOffice. Whilst I wasn’t expecting much from LibreOffice (it works, but nothing it produces could be considered other than functional really – it isn’t one for prettiness, at least not without some work), I was at least expecting Excel to produce something reasonable but it seems like I was mistaken.

Functional, but not pretty

It was at this point that I realised that Numbers would give me a decent enough table – but with no access to a Mac, I thought I’d be relegated to using my iPad and having tried to use Excel and Google Sheets on my iPad, this didn’t fill me with joy. Thankfully, iCloud is online as well, so I can make the document I need online via the iCloud website.

There was some initially some issues – iCloud doesn’t like Linux and complains that it isn’t supported (but seems to work fine). Windows has no such issues – at least not if you use a supported broswer. Currently using Vivaldi, and whilst it’s not on the supported list, as it uses Chrome as the base, it doesn’t generate a not supported message.

2017-03-03 17_17_52-CPD Record

Using Numbers online hasn’t proven to be to much different to using Numbers on the Mac. Yes, it’s not quite as nice as using the Mac version, but it gets the job done and I don’t have to use it on the iPad. I believe the version on iCloud is slightly cut back when compared to that of the Mac version, but for the simple table that I’ve needed to create, it hasn’t been an issue.

iWork

In fact, using the Numbers online again has brought back reminders as to how good the iWork suite actually is. Whilst Pages has a number of limitations when compared to Microsoft Word that’s meant that I didn’t use it much (a lack of referencing support made it difficult for using it for for academic reports), Numbers and certainly Keynote give Microsoft a run for their money. In fact, I prefer Keynote for presentation creation – Powerpoint feels quite far behind in comparison. However, Numbers isn’t going to give Excel nightmares when it comes to serious number crunching, but for general day to day use without macros, it performs well and I’ve not really had any issues.

There are a number of apps that I do miss from the Mac days – 1Password on Windows is a poor shadow of its Mac counterpart which is a shame, whilst Windows and Linux are also missing any serious markdown editors – Ulyssess is a fantastic app and something similar doesn’t seem to exist on the other operating systems unless you use something like Simplenote online. I tend to run all my blog posts through Ulyssess on my iPad before posting as it can tidy up any code that I write in Atom on the desktops.

A side effect of using Numbers today is that I’ve found myself defaulting back to the Mac keyboard shortcuts! Yet, I’ve found that I’ve moved a personal finance spreadsheet back into iCloud because the method of using tables in Numbers suits the creation of lots of little tables, rather than the enforced grid layout of Excel/LibreOffice.

It may come to pass that I’ll start using it more often over the coming months for various other items as well. I can’t pretend that the auto sync doesn’t come in handy as well, though without a Mac, backing up the files is restricted to manual downloads of a file, which perhaps isn’t ideal.


  1. You can read about setting it up here where I set up my iPad to create Zim compatible text files in Dropbox. 

Rack Bag Purchase

Rack Bag

A few weeks back, I looked into how I was going to carry around my spare inner tubes and pump on my cyclocross bike, especially after I’ve ended up with two punctures on the cyclocross bike! Part of that was to move the Carradice saddlebag I used on my commuter onto the Verenti and to find another solution for the Dawes.

In the end, I settled for a rack bag, as I thought that with the rack on there, it made sense to have a bag that didn’t leave the rack.

I’d been trying to decide on a bag when I ended up spur of the moment getting one from Evans Cycles whilst I was in there one time – an Evans own brand, FWE Rack Pack. I had been considering either the Carradice Super C Rackbag or the Carradura Rackbag but I think being able to see and feel the bag before purchasing it (and an easy return if it didn’t fit) meant that I went with the Evans one.

2017-02-19 18.08.58

Fitting it to the Dawes was simple – it just attaches via velcro. Put the straps around the underside of the rack and thread it through the D rings and back under and it’s secure. Movement forward and back shouldn’t be an issue on my rack as the straps are near the supports so should be OK in regards to movement.

One of the major downsides I’ve found though is that I can’t use my panniers at the same time. This is because the attachment points for the panniers line up exactly where the velcro mounting strips for the rack bag and therefore they are prevented from attaching.

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This isn’t the end of the world it would seem – as the sides of the bag are able to fold out and allow you to fill them as panniers as well.

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However, there are some occasions where this wont be sufficient! My work laptop is to large for the bag and clearly doesn’t fit – it’s not a huge laptop either (a Dell E6440 – 14″ laptop) but it does mean that I’m limited as to when I can use it!

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Having cycled to work with this bag instead of my panniers, it made a big difference in terms of noise – cycling with this was silent! Usually there is a degree of rattling from where the panniers attach to the rack but with this one, there was none of that. Space wise, it’s smaller than my usual pannier setup, so I’ve got to be more careful with what I take with me. I can fit a change of clothes, towel and my puncture repair kit, but other than that, I can’t carry much more so I’m not sure where I could pack in a packed lunch!

New Bike Parts

I’ve picked up some new bike bits over the Christmas period that I’ve finally got sorted and fixed to my bike.

Brooks Saddle

The first part I got hold of was a new saddle. I wasn’t after one, but this came up for a price that was entirely reasonable so I decided to snap it up.

2017-01-16 18.08.25

I’d been considering getting a Brooks Cambium saddle for the Verenti for a while – it was either that or a Charge Spoon. I’ve a Cambium on my Brompton since they were released and I released that I wasn’t going to get on with a Charge Spoon on my Brompton. If I was going to get one for the Verenti, I wanted it to be a black one to match the colour scheme, but this one was going for a song compared to brand new so I thought I’d let the colour scheme suffer for a bit.

The Spoon is what I’ve got on my Dawes and it’s the same saddle I’ve had for quite a while. I think I’ve moved it from my first bike I bought from when I got my first bike after years off the bike back in 2011. It’s been extremely comfortable, with the exception of my Brompton. I’ve used it on road and off road and it’s performed excellently in each type. Now that I see that they offer a camo version of the Spoon, I might have to reconsider my Brooks purchase….

Spoon-GrnCamo

Alpkit Fuel Pod

Alpkit are an outdoor equipment designer and retailer. I’ve purchased a few items them recently and I’ve been incredibly impressed with the price and quality of the items they have.

For my Dawes, I have a Carradice Super C Audax Saddlebag that I carry around my puncture repair kit and assorted other items I may take out on a ride (though I’m beginning to think that a rack bag might be a better option for the Dawes). I’ve nothing that’s similar on the Verenti, so I decided to get myself an Alpkit Fuel Pod.

2017-01-16 18.08.33

This will let me hold my keys and/or phone to hand in case I need it for whatever reason.

However, since putting this on, I’ve done a ride with the bag on and I’ve come to the conclucsion that I wont get on with it – at least not on this bike. It was geting in the way slightly when I would have to get off the saddle to get up hills.

Final Product

2017-01-16 18.08.17

I’ve a few extra bits that I’ve purchased that have yet to make it onto the bike as well – I’ve got some mudgaurds that need fitting and I’ve new pedals (platforms, as I’m moving away from the cleats). They’ll be fitted when I have the time to do so.

Sunday Ride – A few photos and a puncture!

I managed to get out this morning for a short ride on my cyclocross bike – it’s been a while since I’ve ridden it as I’m using my Dawes touring bike for commuting and I haven’t had the chance to get out at the weekend for a while due to cadet activities.

So whilst the weather was good this morning, I managed to get out and about before the rain that was forecast for the afternoon. Whilst I didn’t manage to avoid the rain completely, it was a mainly dry ride and I’m glad I managed to get out.

As I said, took Atlas out for a spin. I’ve recently purchased a few items for it that are covered in a separate blog post and I was looking to try them out.

2017-01-29 10.17.27 HDR

I also decided that I wanted to get out and about on some unpaved routes as well to put the cyclo-cross part of the bike to the test. Whilst it did mean some road riding as well, I was able to get back on some trails that I haven’t ridden for a good while – not since I had my mountain bike and lived closer to them.

2017-01-29 10.17.38 HDR

The ride was cut slighty short by the fact that I got a puncture – oddly, not whilst I was doing the off road section of the ride but later, during the road section when I was starting to head back home anyhow! It meant that I had to cut my ride slightly short as I then ended up taking the faster route back home to avoid any further issues.

Changing the tube at the side of the ride, I found a slither of glass inside the tube that had caused the puncture – I can’t be certain whether this was what had caused the earlier puncture but I hadn’t fully removed the cause or not. However, the wet roads actually helped me find the cause – the bubbling water on the tyre as the air escaped betrayed the punctures position!

2017-01-29 10.17.35

Repairing the puncture, I headed home. Of all the cyclists that went past, only one slowed and asked if I was OK. In general, I’ve had better help in the past. I mean, if there’s a group of cyclists, I wouldn’t stop to offer a hand unless they looked like they really needed it, but I’m surprised that more people didn’t ask if a single cyclist was OK. It turns out that it wasn’t that much of an issue sorting the puncture so I wasn’t to bad.

However, I’ll keep an eye on the tyres. That’s two in less than four months – that’s two more than I’ve had in the past 12 months on my previous bikes! It may mean I have to look into some thicker, more puncture proof tyres!

In terms of how everything performed…

  • I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m no longer a huge fan of being clipped in. That might be different if I was just doing road riding or was off road on a proper mountain bike, but I wasn’t to keen on it on this one. Not being able to put my foot down if I wanted to in a hurry wasn’t good. Also, it requires some more playing to get my foot position right I think without it aching. I think flats would be the best replacement.

  • The bar bag isn’t in a good location, especially when hill climbing. I’d wanted it there for somewhere I could store my keys/wallet/phone but I think I’ll be replacing it. It might be better on a longer frame bike or one where I won’t be standing on the pedals to climb hills much. I’ve recently purchased a rack bag for my Dawes, so I’m looking at removing the saddlebag and placing it on this one instead.

  • I’m going to have to have to get used to riding off road again! And hills!

Overall, it was a good ride and I enjoyed it (even with the puncture). I’ve got a few things to change before I’m 100% happy with the ride (such as changing the pedals and changing the luggage options). Hopefully, I’ll be able to get out on the bike a bit more as the weather begins (slowly) to start improving.

2017-01-29-Ride

Eddington Number

Eddington Number

I’m a keen user of Veloviewer as it provides some excellent methods of viewing my Strava data in a way that Strava can or does not provide, whilst adding on additional statistics.

I like it enough that I pay for the premium version (£10 a year) and I feel tha this is money well spent. Whilst I’ve said before that cycling isn’t all about the numbers, I do find myself as an engineer enjoying looking at the figures as well!

Eddington Number

Veloviewer is able to calculate and display a cyclists Eddington Number.

The Eddington number in the context of cycling is defined as the maximum number E such that the cyclist has cycled E miles on E days. For example, an Eddington number of 70 would imply that the cyclist has cycled at least 70 miles in a day on 70 occasions.

The Eddington number has units – so it can be measured in either miles, km, or whatever distance you measure your cycling (or running, walking or any other distance sport – any can have an Eddington number). And your Eddington number in one distance is not directly compatible with the other distance. For example, Veloviewer shows the Eddington in miles and in km. My overall values are 36 miles and 51 km – this means that I’ve cycled at least 36 miles in a day on 36 days and 51 km on at least 51 days. Converting the miles into kilometers shows 57.6, whereas my Eddington number is actually less! So the Eddington number is entirely different for the different measurement values.

Veloviewer have a nice blog post trying to explain it here.

Personal Eddington Numbers

Looking at Veloviewer, as I’ve said, I’ve got an overall Eddington score of the following:

36 ml and 51 km

Looking at 2016 however, the results are a bit lower…

29 ml and 42 km

And the graph could indicate why this is the case:

2017-01-20 10_07_28-Eddington-km

though in miles, the drop off after 29 is more noticable

2017-01-20 10_06_11-Eddington-miles

The majority of my cyclcing last year was commuting – this is obviously a fairly set distance! I can’t move my house any further away from work (though I could Cycle a different route and therefore, distance). These commutes are clearly seen in the graphs, with a sharp decline after 29 miles!

Why am I discussing this?

Well it would be nice this year to increase my Eddington number above last years distances. That means 30 days of 30 miles or more, or 42 days of 42km or more so it gives me some ideas to aim for. I’m not sure I’d manage to make it much higher, but it’ll be worth a shot. It provides an incentive to get out at the weekend on the bike as well. I’ve applied for a place on Ride London this year again so I’m hoping that I’ll be able to get my place on that and then my training rides would certainly help me to increase my Eddington number I expect!

Pi-Hole

Pi Hole

I had my Raspberry Pi lying around doing nothing. I’ve had a version 1 since they were released and I’ve had a version 2 for a while as well (in fact, I’ve been through two version 2’s). I’ve had this one in the draw for a while now doing nothing – it’s not really seen the light of day since I purchased my Synology DS116 as I had been using it as a home server and accessing my documents via SFTP outside the house.

However, after I stumbled across the Pi Hole project, I decided that it was time to dig it out again. Whilst the NAS is excellent (DS Photo allows me to backup mine and my girlfriends photos from our phones, DS Video allows me to stream videos to my Chromecast, DS Audio streams all my music to my iPad and it can act as a VPN when I’m out and about, though this is less of a benefit now I have a years subscription to Private Internet Access), it doesn’t allow me to block adverts which is what Pi Hole does. Quite successfully.

Setup was easy and I had the Pi Hole up and running within 30 minutes or less. Setup was as simple as downloading a fresh copy of Raspbian, installing that, remembering to enable SSH as the new versions of Raspbian have SSH turned off by default

For headless setup, SSH can be enabled by placing a file named ‘ssh’, without any extension, onto the boot partition of the SD card.

Once this was done, I updated the Pi and then downloaded the Pi Hole software using the command

curl -sSL https://install.pi-hole.net | bash

This installed everything I needed and set it up. All that I then had to do was to set my router to give the Pi a static IP address and change the DNS settings on my devices to point to the Pi.

Once I’d done that, I’ve been able to enjoy ad blocking across all my devices.

The Pi presents everything in a web interface, so you can keep an eye on the drive at any point of time.

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This shows the DNS requests that are being made and you can even drill down into what sites are trying to be accessed.

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This shows the top domain name requested by devices and the top advertisers being blocked. You can also see what devices are requesting the most domains by IP address.

The downside I have is that the DNS records on my router cannot be changed, so I’ve manually had to change the details on each web connection. This isn’t the end of the world and actually can prove handy where I might want to allow an advertiser to track me (such as if I’m using a cashback site). However, it does mean that devices like my work laptop, ones that I cannot change the DNS settings on (in this case, due to admin lockdown), will not benefit from the blocking whilst on my network.

However, overall, the Pi Hole was easy to setup and manages to block a lot of adverts – browsing on the iPad, it’s surprising how much cleaner various websites are. There have been a single instances where the website has appeared to be broken due to the blockage and this was solved by white-listing the site. Whilst this should stop the need for running an adblocker in my browser, I’ve still got uBlock installed.

It’s certainly worth a try.

Annual Summary 2016

Yearly Summary

This year has been a roller-coaster year to be honest, full of ups and downs.

January started with a new job on the outskirts of London – potentially meaning that I could get out on my bike a lot more cycling to work. However, I seem to have spent the majority of the time on my bike commuting to and from work and the social rides and just rides at the weekend have been missing. Part of this can potentially be attributed to doing a lot more with my air cadet unit, though some of it could be down to laziness at weekends.

Perhaps the other reason has been that I’d dug out my running shoes this year again. I’ve run 244Km this year, slightly under my PB of 246Km in 2012. Running had become part of my training routine again as I was trying to join the Royal Air Force and cycling unfortunately isn’t part of the training or entrance fitness test! However, I’ve enjoyed running again and it’s been good to see progress. I’ll look into trying to break the 300Km mark next year, though I won’t be joining the RAF as they have declined my application due to medical grounds. Whilst disappointing, I’m looking to run some of the local races again next year (such as the Welwyn 10K).

Whilst I say I’ve not done as much cycling, I’ve still managed to do my second best year in terms of distance – last year was a PB with 3,741Km total of running, walking and cycling and this year is 2,721Km.

2016-12-29 16_59_20-Your Summary - VeloViewer - Opera

However, my climbing this year has been pretty pitiful.

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The main part of this has been that the route I take to work is fairly flat – going via an old railway line, so the path is fairly flat. Without the weekend rides to make up the elevation, my elevation has been fairly flat line – like my bike rides! 😉

New Toys

So I’ve had new toys this year, with the purchase of my Verenti Substance Sora from Wiggle in the later half of the year.

2016-10-09 10.31.46 HDR-1

The delay in getting it (thanks to some issues with my cycle to work voucher) has meant that I haven’t ridden it quite as much as I could have done (and then it managed to get a puncture only on it’s second ride out). However, I look forward to using this more next year.

Aims

Overall, the year hasn’t been to bad for activities and I look forward to 2017. It looks like that 2017 will be different and unique challenges to the table – for example, I’m looking at more hiking and walking expeditions this coming year, with the potential for getting registered on the Mountain Leader scheme and to become a Duke of Edinburgh assessor/supervisor. Obviously, this could make that cadets takes more priority over cycling again but I’ll see what happens. I don’t intend to stop cycling to work either!

However, that shouldn’t stop me setting myself some aims for the new year – just to keep things interesting.

  • I’d like to cycle to work at least 100 times in a year. Considering that I can’t really cycle to work on Tuesdays or Thursdays due to evening commitments with my cadet unit, this reduces the number of days I have available to cycle. However, I believe this should be doable.

  • I’d like to hit 3,0000Km of cycling and 300Km of running this coming year, with some more hiking etc thrown in for good measure.

  • Elevation wise, I’d like to see myself exceed this year. This means getting out at weekends or evenings during the summer and aiming for some actual inclines!

  • Perhaps a sportive or organised ride this year would prove to be a good distraction and training aim. I had wanted to do the London Revolution but I’m not sure I’ll do that this year, though I have my eye on the London to Bath route and I’d love to do the Devon Coast to Coast ride. That might include some of those hills I’m looking for as well!

  • Lastly, I’ve seen a club on Strava and I’ve seen a Road.cc post about it before about riding all the roads in the local area. I’m looking at doing this for Welwyn Garden City and then perhaps spreading out to nearby areas as well as I know there are areas of Welwyn I’ve never even visited since I moved here in 2014 and I know that I’ve rarely (never via bike at least) gone to old Welwyn either so I think it’s high time that I changed this. I’ll look into marking all rides I do this on Strava with the hashtag #RER (Ride Every Road) so then I can use the excellent Strava Multiple Ride Mapper tool to track this and keep a copy of the final results.

Summary

I’ve continued to track all my rides on Strava and I’ve now gone back to Garmin to also track data (with two Garmin devices, data goes into Strava through the Garmin Connect app, thanks to it’s auto linking). This way I’ll have two copies of my data online, though I also keep all the files from the devices as well so I have the originals – either by downloading from Strava in the earlier part of the year, before getting them from the device or from Garmin Connect. I’ve done this since 2012 so I’ve a few years of data now.

Once again, I’ve renewed my subscription to Veloviewer. I found the service excellent for looking at Strava tracks in more details and specifically I like the mapping feature where I can view all my rides on a global map. My Veloviewer infographic for 2016 can be seen below.

16-12-29_Veloviewer

Looking at the aims for the new year, Veloviewer will continue to provide excellent value for money for the £10 it has cost me for a year of service.

So onwards and upwards and here’s to 2017! Happy New Year all.

Proviz Backpack Review

Over the last few weeks, I’ve noticed that winter is slowly but surely coming – it’s getting darker both in the morning cycling to work and in the evening cycling home.

However, it’s not yet cold enough that I can wear my Proviz jacket – not the Nightrider I reviewed back in 2014, but the REFLECT360+ that I purchased in 2015. The newer jacket still suffers from some of the same issues as the original one that I tried – I overheat very quickly within the Proviz jackets it seems.

Yet, I put up with the boil in the bag effect for the commute for one reason – visibility. The bright reflective jacket is fantastic for being seen. I can say that when I’ve seen other LBC members wearing the standard, non fully reflective Proviz jackets that I’ve been impressed. Though as the weather isn’t yet at the point where I can comfortably wear the jacket (sweaty as I might get), I’ve had to look at alternative solutions for being seen.

One such change in commuting habits has been the purchase of a Lezyne Macro Drive Duo head light. This headlight will be covered in a separate review but works really well. The other major changes has been the purchase of a Proviz REFLECT360 backpack.

Proviz RFLECT360

The first reason I looked at going back to a backpack was that with my touring bike, I’d moved to commuting with panniers. Likewise, when I used my Brompton, I used to normally use my T bag. Having a backpack on just makes your back sweaty and I find panniers more comfortable. However, I felt that with my panniers, I was carrying to much into work each day (often taking two panniers for a change of clothes, towel and packed lunch). I also felt that it effected the bike handling if I only took a single pannier and there are locations on my commute where the panniers make it difficult to navigate thanks to narrow openings. Also, not all my bikes are capable of mounting panniers (yet perhaps).

The second reason was when I cycled home in the dark one night after a late cadet night, I was cycling home with my 5.11 Tactical Rush 24 backpack on and realised that I probably wasn’t very visible to cars coming up behind me. With the 5.11 bag, I had been able to attach a light to the MOLLE straps but I still didn’t really consider that to be sufficient and wearing the bag would negate the effect of wearing the Proviz jacket anyhow, at least for the majority of the jacket and people driving up behind me (the arms and shoulders are still just about visible).

So I decided to move to the Proviz backpack.

Impressions

When the bag arrived, I was fairly impressed. The bag is still as reflective as the jackets and therefore allows the user to be extremely visible.

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This photo shows the reflection of the bag – not to bad for a photo taken under my desk with minimal light! I’d like to thing that it’ll show up more with headlights on the backpack.

Proviz state that the bag has a 30L capacity and it is pretty roomy. The 5.11 tactical bag I have is bigger and the Patagonia Black Hole 25L bag this sort of replaces is slightly smaller, so the 30L claim seems to be accurate. I’ve comfortably been able to fit in a change of clothes and assorted other items that I need to take into work each day.

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The bag contains a light loop at the base, so I can still attach my Lezyne rear light meaning I don’t have to worry about moving between bikes (if I use the same bag).

The bag is formed of a single large compartment and a small pocket accessed on the front of the bag. Inside the main compartment, there is a degree of separation – there are mesh pockets sewn into the front of the bag. These are fairly roomy, but would be of more use for storing easy to hand items like wallets or similar. I don’t recommend the front pocket on the front for anything, based on the fact that the pocket is pretty deep but the zip is pretty small! So even with medium size hands, trying to get anything out can be a real pain. There is a small section at the bag, designed for laptops, though this isn’t that padded and doesn’t fit the monster laptop that work issued me (only a 15″ Dell, but it’s about 5cm thick!) so it might not be ideal for those that have to carry laptops daily.

Strap wise, the item fits nicely – one thing I’ve noticed over other bags is the adjustable height chest strap which is a step up other backpacks I’ve used.

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The waist strap (designed to stop the back moving on your back) is quite good and even features some of the reflective material on the strap, so people coming towards you will also get some of the reflective nature of the bag (like the shoulder straps).

I can’t really comment on it’s waterproofing ability but having lost a Kindle to water seeping into my Patagonia Black Hole bag, I now store all my cycling gear and anything else I don’t want to get wet within dry bags for my commutes. It looks like it would hold off for a bit but the zips aren’t waterproof.

Conclusions

Overall, I’m pretty happy with the purchase. I got mine direct from Proviz for a shade under £70 (they do a 10% discount for signing up to the email list). It’s perhaps a pricey backpack (in comparison to other backpacks I’ve purchased) but it is well made and at the end of the day, I’m paying for the reflective nature of the bag, rather than the bag itself. I could use the bag covers they sell but experience has shown me that I’ll not always use the cover, so having the bag as it is fine.

Polar M400 Review

I bought the Polar M400 sports watch not long after getting my Polar V650. I’d decided that the Polar ecosystem was quite good, and was something that I might want to focus on a bit more. The training features of the Polar Flow site seemed to be good. However, I wasn’t able to import data from other services, such as Garmin and even work arounds wouldn’t allow me to upload my own data to the service and make use of the training load graph.

Polar Flow Training Load

So I made the decsion to get myself a Polar watch and replace my Garmin Vivoactive.

Polar Watches

Polar have a smaller range of watches and activity trackers than Garmin do – perhaps a more focussed market. There seemed to be only a couple of competitors that would match the Vivoactive – the M400, M600 or the V800. Anything less than this doesn’t include the in-built GPS and therefore was just an activity tracker, rather than a GPS smart watch.

The V800 was more than I was willing to pay and the only perks I could see are that it has multi sport functions, allowing you to do a run, swim and a cycle (or other sports) within a single activity and track them individually. As I’m not a triathlete, the number of times I would need this is low and the larger price tag meant that I wasn’t keen on the idea.

The M600 looks good, but again was pricier than the M400 option. It also differed from the others in that it is an Android Wear device. It’s not something that I’ve used before but that wouldn’t normally put me off. However, I’ve come to realise that choosing a device based on my phone is probably a bad move – I seem to change phones pretty often! Be that iPhone to Android, or vice versa. Whilst Android Wear devices are supposed to work with iPhone, the app for it isn’t very highly rated and I didn’t want to spend the money and not get the full benefit.

So that left the M400, which in fairness, looked like the price was right and would work regardless of the phone that I was using. I ended up getting this one.

In Use

The Polar M400 is similar to any sports watch. The thing that struck me straight away was the thickness of it – it seemed to be almost double the size of the Vivoactive. Polar put it at 11.5mm, slightly less than double the 8mm of the Vivoactive. It was however, as wide.

The case is housed in a fairly inflexible rubber band. I’ll come to this later.

Setup was done via Bluetooth and via the Polar Flow app on the phone (Android/iPhone) and enabled me to get up and running quickly. It could also be done using the Polar Flow sync app for Windows and Mac but the Bluetooth option seems to be more convenient.

One of the perks of this over the Vivoactive is the sheer range of sports that you can use on the phone. The image below shows the sports profiles I set up on the watch on the left and the right shows just a fraction of the different profiles you can put on the watch!

Sports Choices on the M400

I don’t think that there is much that isn’t covered with that list 1! Adding them to the watch is easy enough as selecting them and the next time you sync the watch, the profiles are downloaded. As you can see, I never needed the 20 that the device could hold.

Just like the Polar V650, you can only access the GPS tracks and workouts via the Polar Flow web service – if this goes down for whatever reason, you’re left with an expensive paper weight, something I wasn’t to impressed with when I found out. Yes, Polar has third party integration, but this only works from the website.

Integration

Polar has third party integration on it’s website, where you can send your data to three other services:

  1. Facebook
  2. Strava
  3. TrainingPeaks

I don’t want to send my workouts to Facebook and I don’t have TrainingPeaks but the Strava integration works well with the data syncing between the two services almost instantly – in fact, I’d often get a notification on my phone saying my ride/run/activity was ready on Strava before the watch had even finished syncing with Polar.

The Device

I soon came to dislike the actual device itself for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the notifications didn’t really work. As a sports watch, it’s not bad at all and works really nicely. However, the smart watch features of it (such as notifications) didn’t seem to work properly so in the end I just turned that feature off completely.

Secondly, the default watch face cannot be changed. Not normally an issue I guess, though I’m not American, so the month then day date display drives me mad.

Watch face

It’s almost like Polar didn’t expect this to be sold outside of the US. And I can’t seem to find a setting to change this anywhere.

Thirdly, the band is horrible. It’s a thick plastic strap that whilst is robust, is a real pain to put the watch on and off. There’s a guide loop that is supposed to stop the excess watch strap flapping about whilst the watch on but trying to get the watch strap under and past this is a real test of patience, as it contains a little nodule to stop this loop moving. In reality, it stops you when you’re try to move the strap to put it on and off!

Fourth, it features a fitness test. For this, you’re supposed to lie down and the heart rate monitor will help do a fitness test. What isn’t stated anywhere that I could find is that this only works with a Polar heart rate monitor. So if you’re using a Wahoo fitness monitor like I was, then this wont work (did I not mention that the Polar devices only work with Bluetooh straps? Tough luck if you’ve been in the Garmin ecosystem and own ANT+ gear!)

Lastly, when it came to syncing, this took forever. The Vivoactive used to sync as soon as an activity was finished and would often be uploaded to Garmin (and then Strava) before I had taken all my running gear off. The M400 has to manually sync to upload the information but it just seems to take forever. I know the addition of heart rate data increases the file size (this can be seen in my TCX file size exports from the Polar website, compared to exercises where I haven’t worn the HRM), but this can’t explain the longer delay as it doesn’t increase the file size that much. I believe this is because it uploads and downloads all the data on the Polar sync service as it contains a diary function, allowing you to view all your workouts on the device itself. I would have prefered faster syncing (or more frequent automatic syncing) than for it to take as long as it does.

Yet, there were a number of good points. The device worked perfectly with the Wahoo heart rate monitor (minus the fitness test) and performed excellently whilst out and about for exercise. Whilst the syncing seemed to take forever, once the data was on the Polar website, the data is pretty good. I’d like to see the training load functions on other sites – I know Sports Tracks offers it, but for the $59 a year service.

One massive perk I consider for the Polar ecosystem was it’s definition of activity, rather than steps as a daily metric.

Monthly Diary View

If you look at the image above, under each activity within the calendar is a blue bar – this marks the activity goal percentage for the day. Garmin and Fitbit consider steps to the goals for a day – this might not be the case if you work out in a gym using weights, or in my case, cycle to and from work. In this instance, Garmin doesn’t count the cycling as having any benefit on your day, whereas in reality, obviously cycling for two hours a day will have a benefit. Polar recognise this and counts all logged activities towards the goal for the day. I believe Garmin now have a measure of intensity minutes but how this compares, I’d need to check.

This means that if you’re looking for a more well rounded activity tracker that looks at all the activities you do, then the Polar may well be the better option.

Activity Report

The activity reporting page shows the effects of the combined activities. In the image, you can clearly see that I’ve not been wearing the watch all the time… Whilst the activity tracking is the main goal, the watch still does indeed track steps for those that want to track the steps as well as track the activity for the day.

Another plus is that the charging is done via a micro USB, so my phone charger would be capable of charging it – one less thing to take whilst travelling.

Customising the screens that are displayed whilst you’re using the watch for an activity is extremely easy and can be done on the website or via the app and this makes things much quicker than actually doing it on the watch (at least, that’s what I’ve found).

One thing that the M400 had that the Vivoactive did not have was the ability to set timers for running. I found that I had to turn this on at the start of a run though and couldn’t set this going part way through. I wanted to set a timer for an interval session – setting the timer for 60 seconds of walking and 10 seconds of sprinting. I was able to do this, but I had to start the timer at the start of the sessions, and therefore ignore the timer whilst I did my warm up.

Conclusions

Whilst I wanted to like the Polar M400, I’ve found that I’ve not really been able to. The device is quite large and causes issues when wearing bags or even items of clothing with sleeves and I’ve never been comfortable with the strap. The strap lets the watch down immensely in my option and I can’t see if it’s possible to change it either, based on how the strap is installed. It’s replaceable, but it doesn’t look like a standard watch strap would fit which is a bit of a shame.

The smart watch functions, one of the reasons I bought it, are pretty poor in comparison to the Vivoactive. However, looking back, the M400 is much older than the Vivoactive – being released in December 2014.

Whilst it is an excellent sports training watch and activity tracker, I found it to be a bit bulky for me to wear daily and found it to be a bit of a pain to wear with that wrist band. I’ve therefore found that I’ve only really used it when I’m actually doing sports, making the activity tracking aspect of it pretty useless.

In general, I’d say that it’s a good product with some minor niggles that specifically prevent me from getting maximum use out of it. It has been said that it’s a good watch by others (and it is also cheaper than most other GPS enabled watches) but for me, I don’t think it’s quite right for me.