BETT 2015 tech highlights


After what felt like a very quick year the BETT show has come (and gone) around once again.
This year a couple of things caught my eye so thought I’d summarise them below…


Created with Nokia Smart CamNever saw this one coming! I originally went to the SMART stand with my colleague to check out their E70 replacement interactive screen but saw the curiously-named Kapp mounted on the wall behind us. Intrigued we had a look and found a product that’s almost done a full 180-degree spin back to its low-tech roots yet looks rather useful!

The basic premise of the Kapp is the simplicity of a dry-wipe (yes, marker pen!) whiteboard but with the benefits of technology. Tutors can write on the board without worrying about a PC, screen orientation or specialist software but can still save notes at the end of their session to store on Moodle, Office 365, Google Apps etc.

The cost of the board is much lower than your average IWB setup (£849 for the 84″ model) and much less to go wrong as well, which could be ideal for less technology-friendly environments. SMART do catch you on software licensing if you want lots of students watching a “live” view of the notes but I think we can live with the free 5-user limit for now.

Check it out at

Updated interactive flat panel screens

As mentioned above we’ve had some interactive panels installed in a couple of classrooms to compare them against the traditional IWB + projector setup. The new 6000 series did seem to have a smoother surface and better pen than the E70 although writing still had a bit of lag, which I was surprised about as it can be a bit off-putting at times.

Interestingly the best writing experience I’ve seen so far came from a smaller manufacturer’s board where there was no lag at all, plus they’ve even invented a telescopic pen for those hard-to-reach corners!

Created with Nokia Smart Cam

Office 365 Moodle plugin

I’ve been hoping for a complete integration for Moodle and Microsoft’s cloud services for nearly 5 years now (going all the way back to the Live@Edu days!) and it seems finally Microsoft have delivered with the help of Moodle partner Remote Learner. Single sign-on with Office 365 and the ability to upload assignments directly from OneDrive for Business will make the two platforms knit together much more closely, which can only benefit the end-user experience and help increase take-up of both services.

From skimming the documentation it looks as though we may need to do a bit of work to set it up so will spin up a test instance of both Moodle and Office 365 to try it out and hopefully report back ;)

Check it out at the Microsoft Open Technologies blog

Enhanced Planet eStream Moodle integration

A nice new addition from the eStream development team is a video assignment plugin for Moodle. This allows students to upload a video then have the tutor watch and grade it all within the Moodle interface, plus it means no more fiddling around with permissions and schemas in eStream, making life much easier!

Also looking forward to have the updated interface rolled out across the eStream product so it matches in with the lighter, clean look of the Boostrap-based theme we use on our site.

See more on the Planet eStream blog

Intel Compute Stick

intel-compute-stick-pcNoticed these a week or two back but was good to see some in action, basically a PC in nothing more than an HDMI-sized stick.

Makes for an ideal low-cost machine to use for low-power tasks such as kiosks, digital signage or even basic office tasks. The pricing looks very competitive too, might end up with one for home as well!

Stone hyper-converged server

The infrastructure part of the Stone Computers stand had some interesting items last year and this time round they brought along a hyper-converged storage \ compute system they’ve built.

Along with the rapidly-improving Server 2012 R2 Hyper-V Replica \ Storage Replica it looks an interesting route to consider for future systems. Dependent on how slick the end-user side of a pure Microsoft solution would be perhaps it could also be a base for a more cost-effective VDI system?

Surface Pro 3 joins the fleet

Image from Microsoft Store UKOK Microsoft I give in… after a year of watching the tablet market waiting for an OEM to come along and make a product that comes close to the Surface I finally bit the bullet and went for the SP3.

A few challengers have come and gone (particularly disappointed at the odd asymmetric design of the Lenovo ThinkPad 10) but in the end the Microsoft device won my custom. Having used the first-gen RT for a year or so I wasn’t expecting to be surprised by what the SP3 brought to the table but the first couple of weeks with it have done just that.

Originally I was just looking for a companion tablet, really in the Atom mould but after running the Windows 10 beta on my X100e soon realised that I was going to need a new laptop as well. Sadly the single core AMD Neo really struggles with Windows 8 \ 10 so suddenly Microsoft’s “the tablet that can replace your laptop” mantra started to make sense.

Also having the chance to try one out at Future Decoded helped realise the enlarged size of the SP3 vs SP2 isn’t as unwieldy as it first appeared. More importantly Microsoft have somehow got the thickness down to the same (or less) as the original RT and that was a real winner for me.

Buying choices

What really swung my decision to buy was Microsoft lopping £100 off the price of most models in the range, the offer started around Black Friday but seems to have reverted back to original price now. It made the sweet-spot i5 \ 128GB model come in at a slightly more palatable (but still expensive) £749. Obviously there was still the matter of the overpriced keyboard to add but the overall price didn’t feel quite as painful as before.

Although there were cashback offers around I chose to buy my SP3 from John Lewis, mainly due to the 3-year warranty included in the price. Having seen the teardown report I wanted warranty on this device for as long as I could get!

A black Type Cover 3 soon followed from the Microsoft Store to complete the set.

First impressions

Unboxing the device was a similar experience to the RT, sliding out the main section of the packaging followed by a nervy moment tipping the tablet out of the middle section. The charger is now more of a classic power “brick” rather than the large-plug variety on the RT. Truth be told I prefer the older style but it’s not a deal breaker.

I’m still amazed how Microsoft have managed to get a full i5 machine into such a thin and (relatively) light form factor. Before trying out the device I thought the 12″ 3:2 ratio screen was going to be too bulky but after using it for a while it does seem to have hit that sweet spot between portability and productivity.

Starting up goes through the usual Windows 8.x first run process then ran it through Windows Update to get the latest firmware and drivers. What really struck me was the display, so much contrast and vivid colours that truth be told I’m not used to on most PC monitors. Combined with the high resolution it took a few minutes to get used to, as did finding a desktop wallpaper that actually filled the the 2160×1440 screen.

Startup speed is really impressive; given that this is my personal device it doesn’t get used during the day so I’ve been shutting it down completely rather than using any of the sleep features. Even then from a cold start it gets to the login screen in under 10 seconds, so little time I barely even notice it.

On a related note I’d recommend setting up a picture password if using a Windows 8.x tablet, makes life a lot easier if your Microsoft Account password is of the long & complex variety as typing it in on each wake-up \ unlock gets very annoying very quickly.

Kickstand & keyboard

Probably my favourite feature of the SP3 thus far has been the improved kickstand. Now it can go in pretty much any position using the device on your lap is much easier. Likewise on a table it goes to an angle that suits the user, rather than the user having to conform to the device as was with the previous two iterations.

This is where the surprise bit comes in, so far I’ve preferred to use the SP3 without the keyboard rather than with, almost the complete opposite to my experience with the RT.


In this situation I’ve tended to decouple the keyboard from the tablet rather than fold it underneath. Somehow I don’t think the keys sitting upside down and the hinge bent back will be doing either any favours in the long run, although Microsoft do show it as an option in the box. Maybe they’ve been engineered better than I’m giving credit for?

The keyboard is a nice step up from the original RT unit, backlighting is great and using the angled dock position feels much more sturdy to type on. The increased size also allows for a bit more palm rest space, which feels a bit more comfortable to type with than on the previous versions. The touchpad again is also a bit bigger and works well.

One minor change I hadn’t spotted until I started using the device was that the material used to surround the keyboard has changed from a smooth rubberised material to fabric. It’s something I’m going to have to get used to as I liked the smoother surface of the RT keyboard. I guess it was swapped due to the larger surface area of the Pro, either for cost or durability reasons (as the original material did pick up fingermarks quite easily).

Windows 8 experience

As a result of using touch more than previously I’m also breaking a habit of 10+ years and using IE on a regular basis (!) The native touch version of it works rather well when used in tablet mode, in particular I like the swipe gestures to go back to a previous page which just feels natural after a while. Using Snap View I can easily run web browsing and other apps side by side, although there have been some oddities with video playback stopping when switching apps when desktop mode is on one of the panes.

I was hoping for something similar to Metro IE using Chrome’s “Windows 8 Mode” but that’s basically ChromeOS on Windows, very disappointing. That said I’m not really surprised given the battle going on these days between Microsoft and Google’s OS and cloud platforms.

In terms of apps I tend to work more in Desktop mode but I have grown to like (!) the Start Screen and live tiles. The Mail tile is useful for keeping up-to-date and the News app is comfortable to read (if a little slow to update when launching, could do with a tweak there). I’ve already written about how much I like the OneNote app in the past so no need to revisit that ;)

I haven’t needed to use the pen as yet but to save battery life disabled Bluetooth, meaning I lose the click-and-hold activation for OneNote. Not a problem though as it’s on my Start Screen anyway. As a random aside it seems Apple might want a piece of the stylus party after all judging by these patents!

It’s not perfect…

However as with everything there’s some annoying niggles that need improvement:

    1. penThen pen holder really does look like an afterthought from the bargain bucket school of design. A sticky pad , really? The next version of the keyboard cover should have pen storage integrated neatly into the design for sure.
    2. The pricing difference between the 128GB \ 4GB (£749) and 256GB \ 8GB (£999)  i5 models is way more than the cost of the supporting components. It’s certainly one way for Microsoft to ensure they make some profit on the SP3 line but along with the keyboard does seem a bit of a rip-off. I wonder how many more they’d sell with more realistic pricing.
    3. The Windows 8.1 UI has come a long way since the mess of the original 8.0 release but does still jar in places, especially when it touch-only mode. It will be very interesting to see what improvements arrive when the Windows 10 beta gets the new Continuum interface. I wonder if the next preview release will have it in?
    4. The Metro IE design team need to tweak the UI for Surface users, at the moment the (tiny) activation area for the URL bar is tucked away in the corner which is nigh on impossible to hit when the SP3 keyboard is docked in the slanted position. Back to the drawing board with that one!

whoever came up with this idea probably didn’t do well in their performance review…

f.lux users beware!

One of the first programs I install on any Windows device I use these days is the excellent f.lux utility. It adjusts your screen colour over the course of the day and helps reduce eye strain and improve sleep when using screens at night. Soon after I got the SP3 up and running I installed the program as normal and thought nothing more of it. After using the device for a couple of days on and off I’d counted 2-3 screen lags and one full-on crash where the machine locked up. At the time I was wondering if I’d bought a lemon but a quick Google search (via a forum) soon found this:

Uh oh, my Surface Pro 3 is freezing! (or my Intel-based laptop is slow with f.lux).
Early-2014 Intel HD Windows 8.1 drivers have some bugs that give problems with f.lux, and you may not have the latest one (Surface Pro 3 does not as of September 2014).

Given that there’s no Microsoft-approved driver update out yet I’ve removed f.lux for now and will try it again once a newer version of the Intel driver is released via Windows Update. Hurry up Microsoft and get that done please!



So far so good. I’m happy with the SP3 so far and the quality of the work that went into the design clearly shows. It’s brilliant that technology has come on to such a point where an i5 CPU  and supporting components can be crammed into a case not much bigger than the original iPad. Yes it’s not cheap but if you’re after a Windows hybrid device then I don’t think there’s anything else on the market that comes close.

Today’s challenge: Raspberry Pi print and scan server

raspberry-piEver since the Raspberry Pi came out I’ve wanted to try it out but couldn’t find a compelling reason to actually go and buy one. The other day my family needed to print some documents from an iPad, which got me thinking that a wireless print server might be a good mini-project.

A quick trip to Amazon ended up with a small pile of boxes arriving this morning:

I decided to run the Raspbian OS and set up an SD card using the method listed on the Raspberry Pi site.

After doing the basics and configuring networking I had a look around for some apps that could help manage the RasPi remotely. First up was the RaspCTL web interface and in addition a mobile app for my Android phone called RasPi Check Although the RasPi can be left on drawing minimal power I still want to shut it down when not in use; the lack of a power button means an app to send it into halt state is essential.

Setting up the print server

The first part of the setup was pretty straightforward, thanks to two excellent guides from The AirPrint support was pretty much the key selling point for trying out the RasPi approach and works seamlessly.


I did make a couple of changes in addition to the steps in the guide

  1. Run the remote admin command below to allow the CUPS web interface to be accessed from my desktop (as the Pi hasn’t been connected to a screen or any input devices at any point in its life so far)
    cupsctl --remote-admin
  2. Although adding the printer via the CUPS interface works fine I found that my specific device (HP PhotoSmart C4400) needed a slightly different method to get all its features working – more on that below

Network scanner

Although I was very pleased with the print server I also wanted to try and add scanning functionality as well. A quick search found another excellent guide:


Following the guide was going well until it came to running the scanimage -L command where I just got an error saying no scanners were identified. Not so good :( A bit of research suggested not all printers are compatible with SANE but a lot of HP ones are via the HPLIP driver library:


Fortunately my PhotoSmart was on the list so the mystery deepens.

Troubleshooting commands

It turns out HP include various tools and utilities in the HPLIP package that can help identify what’s being detected (or not as the case may have it)


Running hp-check suggested the printer hadn’t been set up using the HPLIP drivers so I removed the existing object and re-installed it using the hp-setup utility instead. Looking at CUPS after using the setup method showed a different connection string, clearly now using the HP drivers:

hplip cups
However even after this running any of the scanner tools still failed all pretty much saying they couldn’t see a scanner, including:

  • hp-scan
  • sane-find-scanner
  • scanimage -L

By chance I decided to try running scanimage -L as sudo (rather than just the pi user) and there it was, one scanner detected!


Permissions issues – solved

A quick Google search for sane only working as root threw up a few more clues as well a workaround.


However that did involve running saned as root, which would get around the sudo issue but felt a bit of a sledgehammer to crack a nut as well as being a poor choice from a security point of view. OK it’s only a print server but best to not get into bad habits!


A few more posts expanded on the permissions issue so I decided to check what was set on my RasPi’s USB devices. Firstly run

lsusb -v

to find where on the USB bus the printer resides:


then run

ls -alh /dev/bus/usb/001

to view permissions on all devices connected to USB Bus 001

ls dev bus usb

Now the problem becomes apparent; the 005 entry (aka our printer) only has write permissions for root and the lp group. Interestingly the SANE documentation says to add the saned user to a group called scanner but no mention about the lp group. Further reading suggests it’s a peculiarity that often occurs with HP all-in-one devices.

I then added the saned user to the lp group and checked membership

usermod -a -G lp saned
groups saned

groups saned

To be sure all changes took effect the RasPi was rebooted and I tried connecting through my SANE client again, this time the printer was listed correctly in the devices list and scans worked perfectly :D

SANE clients

On Linux there’s plenty of SANE clients to choose from but not so much for Windows. Some guides suggest using SaneTwain but it kept crashing on exit so I looked around for something else.

A better option looks to be SANEWinDS, which although listed as an alpha product has been pretty stable, certainly more so than SaneTwain.

In terms of Android apps SANEDroid seems to be the best one I’ve seen so far so that gets my vote for mobile use.

CUPS admin

This morning I went to use the Pi for printing and nearly sent myself crazy trying to figure out why I wasn’t able to manage the printer. Instead of being able to Pause \ Resume \ Cancel \ Delete jobs I kept getting met with a “Job operation failed Forbidden” error.

The last part of led me to the answer; somewhere along the line I’d missed the -a argument when using usermod and deleted some of the original group memberships that the pi user was given. One of those was lpadmin which was the only entry in the cups-files config entry with ability to manage the CUPS system.

A quick tweak with usermod and I’ve got my admin powers back!

Whilst searching I also came across which is also a good introduction to managing CUPS and administrative permissions for it.

RasPi speaker and startup sound

Although I can tell roughly when the Pi has finished booting up based on the internal LEDs and Wi-Fi receiver activity I figured it’d be nice to have something a bit more obvious there as well. I figured it must be possible to quickly rig up an old PC speaker to the RasPi and sure enough there’s another guide for it:


Fortunately amongst my piles of old PC parts I had a piezo speaker and some spare pin header connectors so hooked it up as per the guide. Since I have a Model B+ there’s more pins than on the guide but the top half of the GPIO connector is the same across all models.

There’s a great image overlay showing all the pin-outs on this site but for some reason the image has been mirrored so unless you’re adept at reading back-to-front it’s best to download it and flip it back the right way around!

a small screwdriver or pick tool comes in very handy for releasing pin head connectors

a small screwdriver or pick tool comes in very handy for releasing pin header connectors

I’ve stuck with the Mario tune used in the example for the startup sounds as it fits pretty well, once compile to run it I’ve edited /etc/rc/local as per the instructions here. I’ve also added a small wait before the program starts as initially it was a bit laggy, as if another process hadn’t quite finished before handing over before rc.local ran.

(sleep 5;sudo /home/pi/wiringPi/examples/newTone)&

After restarting with sudo reboot the sound loaded as expected.

OneNote – the sysadmin’s new best friend

Before I start I’ve got a confession to make, the “new” bit in the title is slightly misleading as OneNote has been part of my top tools for a while now but in this case I’m writing retrospectively so bear with me ;)

onenoteI thought I’d spare a few minutes to pay homage to a tool that’s really made a difference to my way of working this year… OneNote.

Previously it was one of those programs that I always knew was there as part of Office but never really felt compelled to go out of my way to use but that all changed once we got our Office 365 subscription. The idea of syncing notes across devices seamlessly via OneDrive for Business seemed to have potential so I installed it on all the devices I use day to day:

  • Windows 7 desktop PC (day-to-day machine in the office)
  • Lenovo T430s laptop (Windows 8.1)
  • Surface RT tablet  (Windows RT 8.1)
  • Nokia Lumia 625 (Windows Phone)

Desktop client

As I fired up the desktop client the first thing that struck me was the little toolbar that pops up in the taskbar. OK its basically a OneNote-enabled version of the Windows snipping tool but having the feature always there, one click away makes taking screen captures that bit quicker and slicker (more on that later).  I also liked the way I didn’t need to consciously think about file names and document locations for quick information capture, just click and type.


Surface RT

This was the one that really surprised me, I’d adopted our trial Surface RT that we got in on the Microsoft clearance offer last year. Although the design of the device was spot on the limited OS didn’t really hit the spot and as a result I was initially struggling to find where it could add value to my work.

Around the same time Microsoft released the Metro Modern version of OneNote with a UI that seemed to be a bit different to anything they’d done before. Out of curiosity I gave it a try and for the first (and as it stands, last) time found a native Windows 8.x app I preferred over the desktop equivalent.

Where I used to take pen and a paper pad into meetings I replaced it with the Surface and the notebook started filling up. Using a capacitative pen with the touch interface felt natural very quickly and the full-screen, uncluttered Metro view allows plenty of space to work in.

Interestingly I find that I rarely use the touch controls without the stylus when sitting at a desk. I find the stylus gives that extra bit of reach, thus avoiding uncomfortable RSI-inducing stretches to interact with the touchscreen. After a short time working this way it feels odd going back to the laptop where I have to use the touchpad for everything!

Some reviews say the Metro app is quite limited in comparison to the desktop version; that might be true (handwriting, text recognition and so on) but for meetings and technical notes I find text is mainly what I work worth and the Metro version is great for this. The radial menu is particularly good, only appearing as and when I want it (usually to mark key points \ to-do items).

Having read a few other opinions on both OneNote modes I think the reason my experience is a bit different to others is that I believe Windows 8 tablets are best with a light, cover-type keyboard so handwriting hasn’t been that high on my feature priority list. Unfortunately outside of the Surface range and Dell Venue Pro other manufacturers haven’t quite nailed the thin, light yet full-size key layout that doubles up as the tablet cover.

Unfortunately many seem to only offer the touch style keyboards that have no key feedback at all or a big heavy netbook-esque version. The Surface “Type” cover is the perfect middle-ground and would like to see Lenovo & co. offer something similar.

Windows Phone

After ditching our BlackBerries I expected OneNote to work seamlessly on mobile and it basically does. Having access to my notes on a mobile device has proved incredibly useful for quick reference at any time.

That said I haven’t used the app to create anything as I find typing on the Windows Phone keyboard a bit clunky at times due to the system menus using up screen space I’d rather have for the keyboard. Surprised this hasn’t been sorted yet as it seems a really inefficient use of screen estate.

Screenshot_2014-11-17-21-27-30   wp_ss_20141117_0001
that little bit of extra width on the Android keyboard makes all the difference in terms of speed and accuracy

Adding value

So with the experiences outlined above what’s actually changed? For me it’s the ease with which I can capture (and therefore create) detailed documentation of basically every keystroke, click and configuration step I make during server builds, upgrades etc.

Using the quick clipping tool outlined above I keep everything for reference, noting down key points underneath, copying command line outputs and so on (running a dual screen setup is key for this).

Once done I then write up the notes in a more complete form that then goes into our documentation system. Previously I used to do this in Word documents and although the output ends up basically the same I can do it a lot quicker with OneNote, capturing additional detail along the way as there’s always an area ready and waiting to drop information into.

Meeting notes also gain more prominence now they’re in an interactive format. It’s much easier to refer back to previous items and create to-do lists, as well as the added bonus of searching back for older items. The only downside is making sure the tablet is charged beforehand!


Being a Microsoft product nothing is ever completely smooth sailing and OneNote is no exception. The main frustration (as usual) is creating files straight into Office 365, specifically that you can’t actually do it! The first time I tried to create an Office365-based OneNote file I thought I was going mad as the UI only gives the option to open an existing file but not create a new one!

newnotebookThis once again comes back to Microsoft’s maddening insistence that consumer accounts take precedence over Office 365 ones. Hopefully this balance might level out once Windows 10 arrives as there have been some promising murmurs about authentication that are long overdue.

As it stands the workaround is to create the file using the OneDrive for Business web interface then click “Open in OneNote” when the OneNote Web App opens the new blank file.

Seems a bit backwards to me but fortunately something you only need to do once (which is just as well really).

Visiting the Information Age

logoAfter finally booking some much-needed annual leave I decided to wander up to the Science Museum to see their new “Information Age” display that was launched recently.

Seeing as I’ve always liked the retro side of technology as much as the newly-invented stuff this particular exhibit sounded right up my street. For more information on the museum itself and the new exhibits point your browser at the link below:

The display is up on the 2nd floor, which gives you an excuse to go through the existing space, steam, and modern world sections along the way. If you go on the right day the large engine at the front of the museum gets spun up for a live demonstration, which although has nothing to do with IT is great to see from an engineering perspective.

The gallery

don't turn off the Internet!

don’t turn off the Internet!

Entering the exhbit you can take you pick from radio, TV, satellite and computing sections – all complete with some suitably vintage kit on display.

There’s plenty to read up on while walking around, you’ll need to leave for refreshments before you get through all of it that’s for sure!

Mobile phone users of a certain age will be able to get all nostalgic about their old handsets now mounted on the wall as museum pieces, as will owners of BBC Micros and similar 1980’s machines.

As a teaser here’s few picture highlights below but there’s a lot more to see. What struck me was that behind many of the great inventions was a solution held together with sticky tape, cable ties or in Google’s case, chipboard!

IMAG1560  MITS Altair 8800  20141107_125900
Tim Berners-Lee NEXT Cube, MITS Altair 8800, gold plated BBC Micro (?!)

google-rack  IMAG1555  IMAG1558
Google chipboard server rack, IBM System 360, Control Data 6600

Before you go…

After you leave the Information Age exhibit follow on into the Mathematics section for a few more vintage technology displays that would be at home in either display.

IMAG1567  IMAG1568
Premium Bonds’ ERNIE, Charles Babbage display

Lunch with a technological twist

Quite fittingly the nearest pizza restaurant to the station has taken a technological approach too. Browsing the menu and ordering food using a tablet was a first for me and rounded off the day nicely – if you’re in the area give them a try


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