Lifehacking

Anti-virus, Anti-Malware recommendations

Like many experienced computer users I've long  since grown tired of the excessive system load imposed on my PC from full-suite security software such as Norton & McAfee, so when Windows 7 came out with the free Microsoft Security Essentials, I gave it a try.  I found MSE to be fast and effective, hardly slowing down my PC at all.

So for the last few years, my standing recommendation has been to install Microsoft Security Essentials, keep Windows & key apps like Acrobat and Flash updated, and to pay careful attention to what you click on (don't click on attachments sent to you that don't look kosher, and be careful when clicking through installers to not catch unwanted tool-bars and other crap-ware while installing a program you do want). 

However it seems that Microsoft hasn't been keeping up with the hackers and criminals.  As reported by HowToGeek last year, whilst MSE topped the performance tables in 2009, since then it has slid down the tables.

So what do I now recommend?

A recent article on Lifehacker pretty much nails it.. 

avast! Free Antivirus

First - you need a basic free always on virus scanner - and you won't go far wrong with Avast Free. Whilst it isn't the top performer in security, it it one of the best at not slowing your system down.  It does come with a plethora of annoying popups and sounds, but Lifehacker tells us how we can configure Avast to mitigate them.

Other options can be found on Lifehackers's best AV application for windows article.

Malwarebytes Anti-Malware

Second - I'd recommend an on-demand scanning tool that can take an occasional deeper look at what's on your PC (especially if it starts behaving strangely) - and one of the best on the market at the moment seems to be Malwarebytes Anti-Malware.  They have a free version that's fine for on-demand scanning (which is fine as long as you remember to run it every so often) or the Pro version is only $24.95 for a lifetime license (no annual update fees!)

How to use Pebble for HRM and save to SportTracks

Since acquiring my Pebble watch, I've been looking for a solution to allow me to see heart-rate and elevation gain on my watch, whilst also recording the track and heart-rate for upload to SportTracks.  

I like SportTracks because they have both an excellent desktop app, and a more recently developed html5 responsive mobile website at sporttracks.mobi (however they don't yet have a mobile app as such.  Both services sync in the background - so you can use either to enter or view data. The second reason I love SportTracks is that they seem to be much more open about letting you have your data than any of the other players - which is important as I don't want to get locked into one service for ever...

There are dozens of fitness apps out there that sync data to the cloud service, but only one of the big-players (RunKeeper) currently has a pebble app, and from what I can tell they don't consider heart-rate data (or anything else interesting) important enough to push to the watch.

So RunKeeper is a dud for me.

3 free months of RunKeeper Elite if you connect your pebble to the runkeeper app before 21 April

3 free months of RunKeeper Elite if you connect your pebble to the runkeeper app before 21 April

My favourite sports tracker app Endomondo gave encouraging signs that they were considering integration around a year ago, but have so far failed to respond to the user community's requests (this is one of the top 3) to do the work.  Endomondo have also recently broken the link between them and the excellent 3rd party sync service tapiriik.  

Endomondo... it's been great, but you're just not listening & responding to your users...

Ok - so on to my solution. It is a touch convoluted, but it does seem to work, and give you the additional benefit of ensuring that your data is available for use with whatever service turns up in the future.  The key element missing until now for this was the first configurable Pebble app that provides HRM data in a configurable manner.

Step 1 - Get a Bluetooth heart rate monitor strap.  I have the Zephyr HxM, but MyTracks also works with the Polar Bluetooth HRM.

Step 2 - Google MyTracks is a Google open source project and provides the android GPS and HRM capture. Under recording I set default track name to Date + location, and set the sensor type to connect to your HRM.  Under Advanced, check the box to allow other apps to access MyTracks data.

Google MyTracks app

Google MyTracks app

Step 3 - Install Pebble MyTracks Beta from the Google Play Store or Pebble appstore, and through the settings on the device configure which fields you want to see where on the watch.  I have Heart Rate at the top, then Distance & Total time on the left, with Current elevation & Total elevation gain on the right.

Step 4 - Install and configure DropSync to monitor a folder on your phone - MyTracks/tcx to upload then delete to a folder on your dropbox (I use GPS/Tracks).

Step 5 - Sign up for sporttracks.mobi (or for a free trial)

Step 6 - Connect both Dropbox and SportTracks through the sync service tapiriik so that at least data from Dropbox flows into SportTracks.  You can connect other services too if you use them, and don't forget to pay the $2/year fee for automated sync!  I think you can restrict tapiriik to just pulling data from the apps/tapiriik folder - but then you'll need to configure DropSync to upload files here in step 4.

Finally - go for a run!  You'll need to turn on MyTracks which should display the Pebble MyTracks app on your Pebble, connect your bluetooth HRM, then start recording.

Once complete, stop recording, then on the results page hit menu/Export, and select External Storage... as TCX to /MyTracks/tcx.  This is the only manual step you'll need to take.

From there, DropSync will take care of uploading the trace to Dropbox (once you've connected to WiFi), then tapiriik will push it into SportTracks.mobi (and if you also use the desktop app it will use SportTrack's cloudsync to bring it down to your desktop app next time you open it.)

Yes... ok - so that was a touch convoluted, but let me know in the comments below if you've got a better idea! 

Snow chains - Have I found the best?

Snow on the roads is something you have to consider when driving in an alpine region (and the UK from time to time!), even if you don’t do a lot of winter sports. For the last few years I’ve avoided using my car in heavy snow, but this isn’t always convenient, so this winter I’ve decided to address both snow tyres and chains.

I’m a design fanatic, especially where it comes to well designed products that make life simpler, and will often spend the extra required to get the best available, so decided against just picking up the first set of chains I found in Carrefour. Conventional snow chains seem to be functional and effective, yet not loved by anyone due to the hassle of fitting them to the car.

As I understand it, they’re typically designed with a steel cord that has to be looped behind the wheel, then connected. This requires you to reach to the back of the wheel with both arms, to make the connection - something that’s not easy in my case, and I suspect not appreciated by anyone on a dark stormy night, on the side of a road. I heard about one chap on his way up to a ski resort apparently jacked up his car, removed the wheel, then fitted his chains, and finally replaced the wheel - much to the amusement of the local gendarmes.

From the research I’ve done so far I’d class snow-grip devices into 5 categories

  • Conventional snow chains - 40 EUR - clipped steel cable - 4/10 fit - 8/10 effective
  • Snow socks - 50 EUR - elastic loop - 6 /10 fit - 4/10 effective
  • Easy-fit composite snow chains - 80 EUR - elastic loop  - 6 /10 fit - 4/10 effective
  • Easy-fit snow chains - 120 EUR - elastic loop  - 6 /10 fit - 7/10 effective
  • Tracked chains - unknown
  • Hub secured ladder snow-chains - 300 EUR - side attachment - 8/10 fit - 7/10 effective

Conventional snow-chains

The standard variety all require you to reach towards the back of the wheel to join the two ends of a steel cable. They seem to range in price from 30 to 80 EUR with the addition of self-tensioning  (to save you from having to adjust after a few hundred m). These are impractical for some modern cars that have struts in the wheel arch area, or that use sensors to monitor the tyres which would be confused by the presence of a large chunk of spinning steel where a non-conductive tyre should be.

I haven’t investigated this space due to the mounting complexity, although roofbox.co.uk recommend the Austrian KWB and German RUD brands

Snow socks

snow chain

Snow socks are a touch more expensive starting at around 50 EUR, but appear to be a lot easier to fit because rather than a steel cable that you have to join behind the tyre, you have a fixed loop that you need to stretch over the tyre. Having viewed a couple of demonstration videos, while easier to fit than the standard chains, I think these still require both arms to stretch the loop over the tyre. I’ve also seen a variety of review comments either praising, or ridiculing the idea of socks.  A number of comments in  the forums suggest the French gendarmes won’t accept them as snow-chains on alpine roads that require chains; however I presume this is before they received approval. I spotted a pair of AutoSocks today in a store with the show-chain logo (certifie equipment special), suggesting that they have indeed passed the requirements.

The general consensus seems to be that while they’re easier to fit, they’re not as effective as chains. I’ve embedded two videos below - one demonstrating how to fit, and then a second showcasing a set of comparison tests on some large trucks.

Easy fit composite

The next up the price hierarchy is the easy-fit composite snow chain from Michelin called the Easy Grip. Rather than chains, a composite cable is created from an aramid base with polyamid coating, then wrapped in a polyurethane outer layer and formed into a mesh with steel clips.  This is then looped around the tyre with an elastic band as the snow-socks. This mesh-like system was invented and developed by Joubert Productions and co-marketed (or possibly co-developed) as a Michelin product. As with the socks, the units I saw in the shop today had the French snow-chain certification, suggesting that you can use them to make the climb up to the alpine ski resorts. This is confirmed on the easy-grip website.

Interestingly they use the same system in an anti-skid overshoe.

Some forum reports suggest that they do the job, however a few also show chains that have been ripped to shreds after reportedly only travelling a short distance. It isn’t clear if the owner of these chains was treating them well, or a was perhaps a little lead-footed, however they’re bound to wear faster than chains. Based on the reviews I’ve found, I get the impression that they are indeed less effective than chains, and less robust, however they are a lot lighter, look easier to fit (whilst still not simple to fit), and could be a good choice if you’re looking for a last-resort emergency solution.

Easy fit snowchains

The next category is the easy-fit snow chains - which combine the elastic rear ring of the snow-sock, with the use of chains around the tyre. I’ve only come across one of these so far, but I presume there are others. This is the Norauto Premium Steelex at around 130 EUR.

I like the use of chains in this unit, however I suspect that looping the system around the rear of the tyre is still going to require a two-handed stretch.

Tracked chains

I have seen one company with an interesting interlocking track based device - the Blumec MITA, however they don’t appear to be widely distributed, or to have any form of government safety/effectiveness testing. It appears to be more of a concept design than a production product at this point.

Hub secured ladder snow-chains

This is by far the most expensive, and well designed end of the market, offering the potential to be simpler to fit without compromising effectiveness. All are secured to the outside of the wheel by attaching to the wheel nuts.

Spikes Spider

The most well known brand seems to be the Swiss Spikes-Spider, who manafacture a variety of models. They are attached via the use of a plate which is fitted to the car at the start of the winter season, and left in-place. The snow-chain assembly is then pushed onto the wheel and secured to the mounting-plate.

The compact variety use a set of tough plastic tongues containing studs that wrap the wheel - and look the least robust, but are the most compact. I presume they would be suitable for occasional use on a light car, but are not recommended for rear-wheel drive cars. The next up is the Sport - which has 4 tongues, and the addition of more traditional chains that wrap the wheel. Both look very simple to fit, which is a positive, however my research so far hasn’t surfaced any good reviews. In fact, the Swiss Touring Club gave them a ‘Not Recommended’ rating. There are 2 additional varieties - the Alpine and Alpine Pro, but neither are available to fit my wheels.

Thule / Konig K-Summit

The next one in this category is the Thule or Konig K Summit which does away with the mounting plate and simply fixes to a single wheel nut when you need it.  You mount a pillar on one of the existing nuts, then tighten with a spanner whilst holding part of the unit centrally over the hub. A belt mounted ratchet system then pulls the central unit closer to the wheel, and tensions the arms, which auto-locate the chain around the tyre as you drive off.

The first video below appears to show a computer generated concept which doesn’t exactly match the photos, but it does explain the concept well. Skip to the subsequent videos to see the real unit. I think the best example is actually the last video - demonstrating that fitting these is indeed child’s play!

I found a comprehensive user-review from 2010 on the French S-Max club forums.

Maggi TRAX

The final one I’ve found is the Magi TRAX from Italy, which appear similar to the K-Summit units, although using a hand-wheel rather than spanner, and a chain rather than a ratchet strap to pull the unit onto tyre.

So - what do I think are the best snow-chains?

I should point out that I’ve never owned a set of snow-chains so my assessment is based on available information, however that said, my rating is as follows:-

 

What do you think? Have I left out a good one? Let me know in the comments below.

Update Dec 2013

I just spotted the new Thule CU-9 range on amazon that just looks amazing.  Well worth a consideration.  Checkout these reviews on wildsnow and PopularMechanics.