Tuesday, 11 July 2017

help: clear skin for men

This one is a little different, it's a product to help maintain clearer skin for men, and it's in a soluble drinkable form, not what I expected at all!

When it arrives, you get a box with the 28 packets in it. You use them one a day and dissolve them in any of your normal drinks (hot or cold) or even sprinkled on your food.

The principle behind them is to provide a top-up to your body that helps give a boost to protect and nourish your skin. It has various ingrediants such as Oligofructose and zinc gluconate (to name a couple) that should help clear up your skin!
So a one-a-day to give it a go, so here is the obligatory BEFORE pics. As you can see my skin has a few blemishes but not particularly bad.

And here is the first one. I thought I'd try the first in just water to see what flavour or any taste I could make from it. You mix it with at least 250ml so here is 250ml of water!

And I was pleased to find it didn't have a bad taste, or any taste really, so drank it down easily enough.
Day2 and I tried it in a cup of tea, again no flavour or noticeable taste or change to the tea so all good there!

And jumping forward I've now tried this for 20 days and the result:

See for yourself, my skin does appear to be clearer, how much this has done the job I'm not 100% sure but it certainly isn't a bad thing! So one to try for yourself I'd say as worth a go and see how you get on, I'd like to know how you get on so please do comment.

Also, why not have a go at winning yourself a pack!
Win A help:clear skin 28 day pack of your choice

disclaimer: I received this item for review and to provide my unbiased opinion on the product.

Friday, 16 June 2017

Chrysler Grand Voyager flexplate replacement

Here is the long write-up of the saga of my Chrysler Grand Voyager 2.8CRD automatic. It's a 2004/2005 model (sometimes called the facelift edition) and I love it. It's the second of the Grand Voyagers I've owned as I think they're great bits of kit, comfortable, big (7 seats, and they are BIG comfy armchair type seats) and lots of gadgets.

A quick summary of jobs/checks covered here:

  • Balance Shaft Assembly on base of engine
  • Accessory belt removal/replacement
  • Oil Sump removed
  • Balance Shaft Assembly removed
  • Injector return leak test
  • Flexplate removal (Separation of the gearbox and the engine)

However, as it turns out some of their parts, mechanically aren't so great. My first Grand Voyager unfortunately died with a cracked block. Yes that's right, the actual block had a crack it it (I suspect this damage was from when I suddenly lost all oil one day travelling for work, limped it to the office, filled back with oil and hoped for the best. Replacement oil cooler and other parts didn't help).

So onto my current GV and this one suddenly developed a really bad rattle noise at idle. The noise got worse over a very short period, perhaps 4-5 days and the noise only happened when at idle. Increasing the engine revs either in idle or drive would lose the noise.

Here is the video of the noise I was experiencing:

So I went about diagnosing this noise, as it was unusual. One automatic gearbox specialist and two general garages listened to the noise and came up with conflicting and bad news.
One said it didn't sound like the automatic box itself but it was related.
One said it was the balance shaft assembly and was difficult to replace.
One didn't know but wouldn't go near it as it was a VM engine (VM Motori which is an Italian engine manufacturer known for their diesel and agricultural engines). Apparently VM engines in consumer vehicles don't have a very good track record.

So after that I decided to go do my own testing. First option was to remove the accessory belt, this would discount:

  • air conditioning clutch and pump
  • power steering pump
  • alternator
  • idlers and pulleys
To remove the belt was relatively straight forward, you can slacken it using the tensioner, just get a relatively large ring spanner over it and twist it towards the rear of the car. This removes the tension. I found I had to attach it to a screwdriver to get a little more length/movement on it to make it easier. Once you have the tension off slip the belt off.
You may need to also remove the steering pump belt. On mine this is on the outer of the main drive shaft pulley and is a short separate belt to the power steering pump. To slacken this you need to undo the bolts around the power steering pump and turn the pump so it slackens the belt. This is quite a tricky job as it is very tight when held in place and took many attempts to get this right.

No change after removing the belt, so it wasn't that. Next was to drop the oil sump and take a look inside, firstly at what is in the bottom of the sump and secondly what I could see into the bowels of the engine. Dropping the sump came up with a few little items in there, nothing big or significant:

PS: Nobody could explain what these were or how they got there, best guess is some previous work left them lying around. But nothing there that would explain it fully.

Peering up at the underneath of the engine not much could be seen, this is due to the balance shaft assembly covering the entire base of the engine.
this photo is looking up at the driver side (right hand drive car) so you can see the main big end bearing (top middle).
Top left and the oily pipe is the suction intake for the oil pump.
Middle to bottom (with the two central rings) is the balance shaft assembly covering the rest of the engine big end bearings.

As this was suggested as another possible issue, I then removed the balance shaft assembly.

NOTE1: DO NOT do this unless you have to! This proved a dead end and was very problematic re-attaching at the correct timing sequence point (You have to use the timing kit an 'set' the flexplate to the correct point in the cycle, then use the timing pin in the balance shaft assembly to set those).

That is the balance shaft assembly when removed. The two cogs on the right connect to the base of the engine crank to spin the balance shafts. The two shafts have counterweights on them and simply spin in a counter-rotating manner. They are supposed to remove knock and judder from the older diesel engines and make them smoother. There are records of these being removed without any harm to the vehicle (A lot of Sebring owners remove them for the 1-2bhp performance increase they give). BUT when removed the oil distribution system is altered, there is a hole that feeds the balance shaft with pressurised oil for lubrication so removing it you have to tap off these feeds, etc. It's OK for a test but not long term.
Again, I started the engine with the balance shaft removed (sump refitted and oil back in) but the noise was still there.

Next was the injectors, to see if they could somehow be causing the noise. So I did the leak test on them initially. This is done by removing the diesel return pipe off the injectors and see how much is being returned. A very large amount indicates an injector problem.
The injectors are at the top of the engine. Remove the plastic cover, and the rubber cover (If you have them) and you'll see the four injectors. On the picture below the injector is in the middle of the photo with the return pipe on the top with the clip (braided hose). The high pressure inlet is the metal pipe off an angle to it and it's power is the plastic clip going off the middle bottom of the photo.

To test for return leak you remove the clip and hose from the top and place a pipe to a jug or bottle to collect the liquid. You do this on each injector. Because the middle injectors have an in and out 'join' pipe you need to feed two pipes to your collecting jug or bottle.
Each injector has a small metal clip on the top as you can see in the photo above, use a screwdriver or pliers to remove the metal clip, once removed the plastic fitting will lift up and out of the injector. You then have to prise the pipe off it so you can attach a temporary pipe going to your collection jug/jar/bottle.

Here is a quick video showing the diesel being collected (See how I've used multiple pipes or blocked pipes so I can collect from each injector):

Then the output after a few minutes of engine running:

Not much at all which is good, shows the injectors are working relatively efficiently. So again, this wasn't the source of problems.

Now this limited what I could do. It was either major engine failure or it was to do with the automatic transmission.

At this point, comparing to others on the internet it suggested the flexplate. The flexplate is used on automatic gearboxes and on a manual would be called the flywheel. It bolts to the main engine crank, has the toothed gear for the starter motor to engage with and then bolts to the torque converter.
(a bit of background info on flexplate is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qmuDtGZxuDc though it is a promotional/marketing video!)
So this looks like the source of my trouble. The problem? To get to the flexplate you separate the auto gearbox from the engine, i.e. the bell housing bolts come out and you split the two.

So, to do this you need to get the car up on jack stands securely, take both wheels off and then remove the hubs to allow movement along the drive shaft. We didn't remove the drive shaft as we had enough movement from removing the hubs:

Above you can see the hub removed (and supported with straps). We did the same for the brake caliper too.

With those removed, you need to get to the automatic gearbox top mounts, brackets and cables. Remove the battery, it's plastic base and the bits around it (Remove the wiper assembly top too as that gives you access).

Here you can see looking down towards the automatic gearbox (battery and base removed). You can also see the bolts that hold the gearbox in (two bolts towards middle right of photo, there are another two hidden above those). Also to the left middle you can see the shift lever which we detached (simple clip removal).
The starter motor needs removed (More awkward as you get at it through the gaps you can see here, the main obstacle being the water cooling pipe in the left middle of picture.

You need to loosen all the bolts attaching the gearbox to the block and mounts, as you will be fully detaching the gearbox (torque converter and housing) from the engine enough to remove the flexplate.
In the above photo you can see the flexplate teeth and mount where the starter motor fits (Starter motor was just moved and jammed up out of the way, see it middle right on the photo here with the black ring round it)

 Identifying where all the bolts that need to be removed was one of the hardest parts. There were 3 towards the rear of the automatic gearbox, one of which we had to remove using a long socket extension bar fed from the driver side wheel arch right under the body to the middle. Once the breaker bar did it's job they were all loosened.

Remember not to remove them! That's what holds in the automatic gearbox. Towards the front of the automatic gearbox are the automatic fluid pipes. These had enough flex in them so were not removed.
Also remove the electrical connections to the automatic gearbox (These power the solenoids for the automatic shift. As a note we forgot to reconnect these and caused the gearbox to run in limp mode).

Finally to separate we unbolted the flexplate bolts that were holding the flexplate to the torque converter. These were difficult to get at from the bottom (the supposed flexplate access hatch).

However, once logic was engaged, you can see these bolts clearly through the hole where the starter motor sits, so that's where you bolt/unbolt. DO NOT try through the flexplate access hatch at the bottom which seems how some may have done this, it chews the bolts up! When we removed the bolts they were VERY chewed up and not in good condition at all. (So we sourced replacements. Not OEM from Chrysler but high tensile similar replacements)

Once we were happy with this, we used two hydraulic jacks, one to support the right (when looking towards back of vehicle from engine bay) of the engine (engine mount loose) and one to support the entire gearbox. Once supported slowly removing the bolts (The last three holding it on were accessed through the passenger (left) side wheel arch, as we removed these we made sure the jack was holding the weight (i.e. no pressure on the bolts when removing). Once loose we had to 'wobble' the gearbox along moving the jack on it's wheels slightly to separate the gearbox from the engine.

We separated it enough so that we could reach into the bell housing and undo the central bolts holding the flexplate onto the main driveshaft. Once removed we could bring the flexplate out and inspect it.
Here is the removed flexplate. The central bolt holes are the ones that connected it to the driveshaft and the outer ones to the torque converter.

As you can see there are some serious cracks and damage around the central ring, and it was only just holding itself together!

You can see from this photo how much light is coming through the cracks/damage to the centre of the flexplate. This is typical flexplate damage and causes the noises heard at idle (i.e. mainly when the flexplate isn't under a large amount of strain/pressure)

So now to do the reverse, to install the new flexplate, line it up similar to the one we just removed.
We used threadlock when bolting it back into place to ensure they wouldn't come loose and also ended up replacing the bolts that connect the flexplate to the torque converter as these were badly chewed up. We're unsure how they were in such a bad way, other than potentially somebody doing similar work on the flexplate in the past and not tightening securely (i.e. spanner slipping on the nut, etc).

Once the flexplate was re-attached to the driveshaft we needed to bring the two halves back together, again using the jacks we slid them back together and aligned them using a couple of the fixing bolts to ensure it was lined up correctly.
Re-attaching the bolts around the bell housing and the rest of the gearbox to hold it in place. We didn't tighten to full torque yet as wanted to get them all bolted and lined up first before tightening up fully.

Once it was joined up, starting to tighten each bolt back up and reconnecting everything we disconnected (Remember any connectors you disconnected to reconnect!) and re-assemble which was relatively straight forward.
Back together and starting the engine all sounded good, no rattles or noises and everything was working great.

One other point to note, if you find that your gearbox won't shift out of the lower gears (So sticks in 1 or 2 gear) then this points to the solenoid or 'electronic' shift. In our case it was because we'd left the connector off on the gearbox ECU and so it wasn't communicating with the main ECU correctly. An easy fix luckily!

I hope this helps anyone else with a similar problem, or for a few tips on getting it apart and back together. I welcome comments and info on this one from anyone in a similar position or had similar problems.

Friday, 2 June 2017

Xupo object finder

This is the Xupo (https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B06ZYF9JJY?m=AHOB6CU4GK0BX), a pretty small object you can attach to your keys, wallet, purse, handbag or anything you can clip it to. The idea is you pair it with your phone (using bluetooth) and should you lose either one you can blip it and tell it to beep the lost item.

It's pretty small and very lightweight:

Here it is attached to my keys for a comparison on size, you can see it's smaller than my key itself:

And has a hole on it to clip round your keyring or object. To set it up is fairly easy, download the app (The description on Amazon says iPhone but it has Android too) and then click to pair it, you hold down the button on the Xupo until the light starts flashing and it lets you pair it.

Mine seemed to be in a bad mood after shipping, it wouldn't go into pairing mode, so I popped it open, removed the battery and re-inserted it which got it working. Worth remembering if you have difficulty!
Once paired it seems to work OK. I say only OK as the Xupo app on my phone said it was a "Development edition" and not fully complete, and there were a couple of bugs (It didn't always find the Xupo, nor the Xupo always find my phone) so this meant I'm not giving it a 10/10.

So not a bad little gadget if you're always losing your keys, phone, etc and does the job. Can't comment on battery life, but the Xupo app does tell you the battery state of the little gadget.


disclaimer: I received this item for review and to provide my unbiased opinion on the product.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Virgin Media business cable and static IPs

Here is an interesting problem, if you have a Virgin Media cable (Not fibre or leased line) connection (for business) and have requested the static IP service, initially their sales will try and put you off the static IP asking if you need it and saying there are some issues with the service, but won't really tell you why!

Well unfortunately I've now discovered the issue, so thought I'd post about it for others to be wary of this "business class" service. Firstly, we know how the VM cable network works, they have co-ax to the premises that take you back to their cabinet, from there they mux it back to their central exchange. Now the observant of you will note, no separate cabinet for home or business cable, no separate links to the exchange for home or business, so at all times you are sharing this portion of the network. Not a huge issue as capacity is normally good, but something to be weary of that during 'home' hours (after 5pm generally) the service will be noticeably slower.
So this now bring the interesting problem to light, you are connecting to a home service with business features (static IP, etc).

Virgin Media uses a DHCP-based cable network (DOCSIS) and so when your router connects it asks for an IP and is given it, from what I'm assuming is kit at the head end (not cabinet). This is where the problems start, they don't have the ability to add a static allocation from here (Probably how their pools of IPs are allocated to local exchanges/cabinets, and/or their DHCP servers).

Inside the street cabinet doesn't reveal much active equipment, the magnavox amplifier unit is line powered from the main co-ax uplinks (Big chunky cables coming in bottom left) and then split to the cable junctions to end users (bottom middle) and potentially legacy twin-core/pair copper to the right.

This setup of sharing the residential with business then causes them a headache when a business customer asks for a static IP, how to solve that with the DOCSIS implementation Virgin Media has used? What they do is create a GRE tunnel using the business hub (Hitron router) to their datacentre, where they allocate the public IP on that end of the tunnel and allow it to connect out from the datacentre. This also allows them to bypass any content control, filtering, etc, as it is then emerging from the tunnel at their datacentre rather than the regular pool.

Most of you are probably hearing the alarm bells ringing now. GRE tunnel to datacentre, so the tunnel is established using the Hitron router on your premises and breakout is somewhere in the VM datacentre network. This to me shows several potential problems, the first being MTU.
Over the GRE tunnel MTU can and will be reduced, my conversations with VM support suggest this is down to 1440 but I've not fully tested this.
The second is that I'm not not sure where/what is doing the NAT for our connection. Although the Hitron allows me to setup DMZ, port forwarding, etc, I'm not clear if this is working through the GRE tunnel or not! This also introduces a further complication, you CANNOT use the Hitron router in modem-only mode, so you HAVE to use the NAT functions on this router, again not good for a business class product aimed at people who would want to do their own NAT or control via their own server, etc. So you're stuck with the firewall and NAT functions on the Hitron, and whilst basic they seem to do what's needed.

That is until you start to use SIP/VOIP. This seems very problematic, as allocating the RTP data ports seems spotty, registration to a SIP gateway on udp/5060 also seems to be affected as sometimes it works, then stops and won't start again for a long period of time. This is regardless of if you setup your voip server as DMZ because some issues still remain.
Then you have the major showstopper I hit upon, after some arbitrary time the connection will drop (no surprise, they have to upgrade, have outages, etc) but when it comes back, SIP registrations will FAIL. For some reason packets don't make it out of the Virgin Media network. So from your originating server, you can tcpdump and see the traffic, but the receiving end doesn't see it. No matter what you do (reboot Hitron, reboot your server, re-recreate connections, etc) it won't recover, and this brings me to a theory. There is some sort of session being held on the remote end of that GRE tunnel for your static IP. And as such it is blocking/stopping new sessions to the same destination IP, causing your SIP registration to fail and your VOIP solution to stop working. My guess on this is because it depends on what is on the other end of that GRE tunnel, and what it's involvement is in your connection. It may be some type of firewall, in which case it's trying to keep state of UDP sessions and failing miserably. It may be a router, in which case I'd not be expecting the issues we have seen, but it's still possible.

So far Virgin Media have confirmed that there is a known issue with static IP addresses on their business cable solution, but before you buy they won't go into much detail, and after purchase unfortunately you're stuck in this solution where you can either live with the issues on static IP, or drop back to a dynamic DHCP allocated IP and not have the GRE tunnel.

I suspect the solution to this is to move to a dynamic IP on the service and then switch to modem-only mode so nothing is doing NAT on the connection. I'll post back on further diagnostics that I carry out to further explore what the issue is and if it can be worked around. So far no work-arounds I've tried have worked, other then connection out using an alternative UDP port for SIP (Which most SIP providers won't do).

After some conversations with VM they have switched the connection to a dynamic IP. Beware, as when they do this they reconfigure things their side, tell you to reboot the cable modem and it takes you offline. That's because the GRE tunnel information is still coded into your cable modem. Factory resets using the front button, rear pin press button and control panel interface for factory reset doesn't seem to work (Doesn't appear to factory reset at all as settings do not revert to when shipped) so this causes you outage. In this case Virgin Media had to send an engineer out to do another reset to the cable modem to resolve this. When they did that the modem connected up and got an IP from the dynamic local pool.
After this connection was restored, and sure enough the VOIP sessions re-established and maintained their connection to the VOIP provider. (Again the VOIP server was setup as DMZ target on the Virgin Media Hitron hub) So this has appeared to solve the issue with SIP registrations over the service.

Mattressnextday - delivery the day after @mattressnextday

You'd think a company advertising their name as mattressnextday.co.uk would be able to deliver a Mattress the next day? (Obviously within certain rules, before x time cut-off, except bank holidays, weekends, etc).
So when I ordered a mattress on a Friday at 10am and when asked for delivery dates (specifically by their website) and I choose the following Tuesday, that you'd expect them to manage that delivery day?
The delivery time schedule was one of those horrible all day things, 8am-6pm so my wife duly waited in all day, it got to 4pm and still no sign which is usually a bad indication! Sure enough, no delivery at all.
I email mattressnextday.co.uk and I've still not had a reply to this (Delivery was supposed to be Tuesday, almost end of Wednesday and not even a quick reply via email). But the mattress turns up Wednesday morning 08:50 without any warning! Luckily my wife was home and accepted the delivery, not even a sorry or any kind of message about being a day late!

Will keep waiting for the reply back from mattressnextday.co.uk and see what they say.
I checked and mattresspossiblynextday.co.uk is available to register, perhaps they should try that url instead?

Friday, 12 May 2017

TP-Link HS100 wireless switches for home automation

So my ongoing quest for ultimate home automation continues, and I'm still looking for the best solution for controlling sockets using my home automation server (Ubuntu) which allows me to check the current state of the socket, change it to on/off and also be able to be put anywhere in the house and still controlled (without ethernet to it).

I've gone through several different solutions over the years, one that was in for a while was X10 which used signals over the mains powerline through the house. This worked but had many flaws, ultimately the devices self-destructed as they couldn't cope with power spikes, etc, and because the equipment used the mains supply to transmit/receive it couldn't be protected using surge protectors, etc. So this was dropped.

I then experimented with the 433Mhz generic off the shelf controllable sockets. These are available from most retailers as Energenie sockets and generally come with a remote control and a combination of sockets. They work, but have limited range on the 433Mhz, again cannot be queried to find out if they are on or off and a lot of the commands are fire-and-forget (or hope for the best). I interfaced them with an Arduino using the 433Mhz transceiver pair but this still is a fire-and-forget so not really an ideal solution.

Onto my current idea, the TP-Link HS100 wireless switches:
These retail for around £25 each, so not the cheapest option, but they have some interesting features. Firstly they are wireless, so connect to your 2.4Ghz (only) wireless in the house, so anywhere you have wireless they will work. They can also handle up to 13Amp switching which is higher than most others (Although I'd still not connect it to a high load like washing machine, dishwasher, etc). And the even better bit, they use a communication method that can and has been tapped into, so over IP you can send commands to the units and query their status. Perfect for me as I want to use everything over my IPv4 (wireless) LAN at home to do the monitoring and control.
Researching them, there has been a very good reverse engineering job at https://www.softscheck.com/en/reverse-engineering-tp-link-hs110/ and the author has also provided a python script that will let you query and talk to the devices. This fits exactly with my home automation system.
Now, don't get me wrong, there is a flaw here, these units when you set them up, you install their app to your phone and configure their details using the TP-Link 'cloud' system, which means giving the app your wifi SSID and password, which sends it to the smart switch using a temporary unsecured WIFI AP in setup mode. The unit then talks to the internet/TP-Link cloud for it's command and control. So far nothing here looks too bad, other than it having the ability to snoop your home network and talk to TP-Link! However, since we won't use the TP-Link cloud for our control we could simply drop this and not use it even for initial configuration. Furthermore we can send a command to the sockets to change the server they talk to, in theory cutting them off from TP-Link completely, which if you're paranoid you can do. I'm not too worried about this, so will probably just leave them at default.

So now I have a socket that I can setup a static IP in my DHCP scope, and then use the python utility to query and send commands.
To grab the python code you need, take a look at https://github.com/softScheck/tplink-smartplug
So I setup a script to query my socket and write the current state to a state-file on my home automation server, the script was very simple:
tplink-smartplug.py -t 192.168.xx.xx -c info | grep "Received" | cut -d ":" -f 23 | cut -d "," -f 1 > /tmp/tplink_plug1.out
That gives me either a 1 or a 0 depending on the current state of the socket. To set the state you simply use the python script again:
tplink-smartplug.py -t 192.168.xx.xx -c on
It's as simple as that.
I cannot comment on the longevity of the devices, but so far they are built well, easy to setup and super-easy to use. So I think this might be a new winner for home automation, the only thing I'd like to see is cost drop a little more, but when you think everything that's in the box £25 is pretty cheap!

Let me know your thoughts in the comments please or if you've found alternatives too.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Garden upgrades

It's that time again, heading towards summer and the sunshine in the UK tempting us to go out into the garden. So I've decided that this year we need to make more of the garden, so far it's got grass, a few plants around the borders and a shed, nothing very exciting. Occasionally I pull the BBQ out but we've not really got anywhere nice to sit and relax, or use the garden very much, especially with the UK climate being a bit cold and where we live a bit windy.

So the plan is to improve the garden, and several ideas have popped up, the first to build a corner/seating area in the garden. The simplest way to do this is to use old shipping palettes, use them as the base and then cover them with some nicer outer wood/decking cover and you then put cushions on for comfort.
I'm going to have to do some preparation before we can do that though, as need to flatten and create a base first, so probably buy some patio/flagstones and use those as the base for our new seating corner, get those level and act as a base to it all. Then build the palettes up to the right height for the seats and the backs.

After that, I'd also like to go for a chimnea or fire pit/table setup, but still cannot decide on which one to go for, several are available at supermarkets and look pretty good, I'm just undecided which one I'd like to have, possibly the fire pit as a centrepiece would work better.

That's the plan anyway! Anyone got any suggestions or ideas that would help? I'm going to start posting back on progress and the initial work so hopefully will build up an additional resource here on my blog for anyone else going to aim for a similar solution.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

"Smart" energy meters in the UK

As many of you will know, the government and energy companies are pushing the "smart" meter upgrade throughout the UK. The set date for saturation is 2020 which is the government target date. They in turn have commissioned smartenergygb.com to be the 'voice' of the rollout program and to provide consumers with information on the rollout.

This is all well and good, until you look at the technical aspect of what is happening and how it's been implemented. The basics are this. You have an electricity and gas supply to your home, at present this is metered for consumption and the values are used by the energy company to bill you accordingly. Traditionally these meters simply displayed the consumed units and either a meter reader (An employee of the gas or electricity distribution network) would come and read the meter periodically or you provide a meter reading yourself to your energy company. The rest of the time estimates were made on your use and billed accordingly. Generally over the year some bills were higher than they should be and some lower, and at the end of the year the credit/debit was organised and you continued paying the bills. Quite simple really, and to be honest I never had a major issue with this, the corrections were straight forward and not usually ridiculous providing readings were kept up with.
The smart rollout was to eliminate this, the smart meter was a replacement for the dial on the front of the meter and has a small embedded SIM card (Mobile phone data connection). This then lets the meter send it's readings periodically over the air to their control/contact centre who would then pass that onto the energy company to correct your bill and payments accordingly. This sounds a good system, the meters will be able to report on usage, potentially providing better savings for consumers, reduced overheads (No more meter readers going out to every home in the UK) and gave a generally more accurate view of energy consumption in almost real-time (This may also help the energy suppliers, i.e. they can see in a real-time view where is consuming lots of power other than relying on the grid consumption figures).
Many smart meters also come with an "In-home display" to show you in realtime what your energy usage is, and in this age of saving energy helps the end user cut down on their use of gas and electricity, reducing their bills but also helping the environment. These "in-home displays" use a low-range wireless signal to talk to the energy meter and are paired at installation (It roughly uses the Zigbee protocol but using encryption and key-pairs for security).
The installation of the smart meters is a quick job, as it's generally replacing just the front 'display' plate of the meter.
I'm unsure the battery lifetime in these units as typically there isn't a usable supply of power to the location of the two meters (Even the electricity meter, it would be tricky to tap into the power, drop it to a safe voltage, etc) so the assumption is that they all have batteries in them.

The figures for the rollout are around £11 billion to the uk, but are supposedly offset by the savings of an estimated £17 billion, so should these figures be accurate it is an overall saving to the scheme.

And now onto some of the downsides that I've observed and seen reported. Firstly the installation, you have to be there for part of the day to have them installed, this is because there will be a break in your supply as the meter is changed over. The scheduling of the engineer, etc, is all pretty smooth and for us went without any issues.
Then you get the in-home display, which is nice, but seems a bit lacking in features. For instance, the default display shows you the current tariff. Which isn't that useful. You need to switch screens to see your current consumption in kw/h so you can then watch and see when large amounts of power/gas are being used. The screen then defaults back to the tariff display after a few minutes. So this didn't really do what I'd hoped for. It also didn't have any output, connection, computer link or similar that I could tap into and add to my home automation screens/systems.
(At present I use a clamp meter style unit that gives me current power consumption for the house)

Then the really bad design. There are different smart meters deployed in the UK by different energy suppliers and different meter fitters. On top of that, they're incompatible with each other, some don't work with some suppliers, some don't work with any other suppliers and some energy suppliers don't support any of the smart meters. How on earth did that come about? Surely it should have been decided (By UK government perhaps) that the smart meters were built to a standard, all the suppliers had to form part of that standard and support all of them. That way when you switch supplier the new supplier can take on the smart meter and use it.

I've just hit this particular issue. After being with Ovo for a couple of years, I then switched supplier to get a better deal and the new supplier cannot read any smart meters, so requests manual meter readings.
This is also a bit of an issue, as getting a manual meter reading is harder than the old meters. On the old ones, the constant display showed the current reading, so just note this down and you're done.
On a smart meter the screen is off by default and there is a 0-9 keypad beside it. Pressing this triggers all sorts of menus and information, so knowing the right value isn't as obvious as it seems. However after trial and error, and reading up on them they all support pressing 9 for the current reading.

It is probably these last facts with lack of compatibility between meters and suppliers that show the whole system up with it's flaws. These seem a big drawback to the scheme and surely this will skew the final results. Each home in the UK may well have a smart meter installed by 2020, but each energy company may not be able to read it and you will seem to have created a perpetual loop of installers coming out to install the right smart meter for the particular supplier you have chosen.
Hopefully this is being resolved and investigated, but at the moment the initial view is that they have re-employed the meter readers as smart meter upgraders and will perpetually go out swapping the smart meter to the right one for your supplier! So I'm a little bit sceptical about where the savings will be.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Needing motivation?

So it's January and we've just got past the "Blue Monday" which is the Monday in January that most people feel depressed.
I'm not sure why or who decided it was "Blue Monday", this is like a lot of days that are randomly created and often leave me wondering, who did that, why did they do it and give it that name, or what motivated them to create a negative day?
My usual thoughts turn to the media and in many cases this is true, the news media always appear to be looking for a reason to report on something, so this one seems a good choice, you can pick pretty much any person walking down the street and talk to them on depression, needing motivation or wanting something a little better, so hardly surprising that it's a keen topic of conversation.

This is where I start to think, what motivation are we talking about here, to be motivated is a simple set of words and when you think about it, we're always motivated. Motivated to go and do something (Perhaps not something we want to do, but we know we should or have to), motivated to apply something, motivated to eat something, motivated to go somewhere, all sorts, so lacking motivation sounds more and more like a buzzword dreamt up in a dodgy corporate board room to use.

So, my thoughts on needing motivation? Surely you already have motivation, look around you, you probably have all the motivation and drive you need to achieve something but just haven't done it yet. That's OK too, we can't do everything we want or feel motivated to do, so just keep doing what you're doing! (Oh and ignore the media trying to tell you to be depressed, unhappy or otherwise, choose your own emotion and ignore the mainstream media news outlets a little more, it really does help ignoring them for a short time!)

Monday, 16 January 2017

Global Gourmet Hot Dog Maker Machine

Win an American Hot Dog Maker #5

Well, it's not every day that I get a hot dog machine. But today was special, this neat box turned up and myself and the kids decided to give it a go straight away!

Unpacking it, you have the main unit, with the rollers on the top for the hot dogs, then a door below to fit your buns in and warm them up, just like you get at the shops!

We bought the 'regular' frankfurter style hot dogs, the tiny ones in the tins are no good as they're too thin (And taste horrible too), but get those or bigger and you'll be fine. The unit is ready to take 4 hot dogs as standard (But with experimentation I added another three on top of these and they cooked fine, just rotate them a couple of times, bonus!)

Here you see it warming up the kids lunch today! You switch the main red power switch on and then set the timer. I put it on for 15 minutes and it got the hot dogs really hot and buns hot and a little crispy, just how we like them.

We put them on cold, turned on and left it to it, no need to preheat or anything and you just wait until it pings and they're ready. Simple and the kids found it easy to use too, so something they'd happily use themselves too since no pans, mess or anything. Just pay attention that the rollers (in the top) get too hot to touch and the trays inside get really hot too, so be careful!

If I had to criticise it, it would be on the size of the bread roll tray. It says it'll take four, but buying supermarket hot dog buns (Which aren't huge) we could only fit 3 in, putting a fourth would have squashed them too much. But that's a minor thing really, just swap them around during cooking and all was fine.

I'm not sure if this was our imagination, but the taste of the hot dogs was much nicer than when we normally do them. (We usually cook them in water in a pan on the hob) So perhaps it's because they're not being drowned in water, but they had a lot of flavour to them and still nice and soft on the inside. We're very happy with this, one that will be used again and again.
Cleaning too wasn't too bad, wait for it to cool down, take the drip tray and bun tray and give them a clean in warm soapy water. Then get a cloth and clean the rollers. I turned the on switch on (but not the timer switch) which made the rollers roll so I could clean them all the way round. 5 minutes quick clean was all it took. Just as well as I'm lazy when it comes to cleaning up gadgets.

So we think this was a winner, quick easy meal and does the job perfectly.
Give it a try and let me know what you think: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B01MSK7C02

Note: I received this item in exchange for this unbiased and honest review.

Even better, you can also enter a giveaway to win one:

Win an American Hot Dog Maker #5

Monday, 5 December 2016


Here's something that's worth looking at, some beer! More importantly it's beer delivered direct to you and from various microbreweries and small distributors.
These are the ones you often find in smaller pubs and have a try whilst out with friends, find one you like and will never see it again, or want to try different ones. Well the solution has appeared in the form of www.beer52.com (Check out the discount code too ANDYBROWN10)

Their idea is simple, they send you 8-10 beers each month for you to try and enjoy. Great really, so you get a nice selection of beers from all over the world.

In this pack I got beers from America, Norway and all over really! Take a look at the selection:

So I thought I'd kick things off with trying Mikkeller session IPA, which is an interesting Belgium beer. It's a pale ale and now I'll give away how little I know about beers and pale ales! So I'll tell you what I think of it, as a non-connoisseur of pale ale!

Firstly, it lives up to it's name, it's a pale ale! It's got a slight citrus smell and a gentle taste. It's not a heavy drink so ideal to sit back and sure enough it was gone before I realised it.

The other 7 in the box are looking tempting too, and don't forget you can get through all of these within the month (or less, I'm betting) and then your next delivery will arrive after 28 days and beer52.com will have you sorted for your next selection.

Oh and if you're wondering, beer52 are based in Scotland, so that's a big thumbs up from me as it's one of the places I first started trying craft beers with work colleagues, so it seems appropriate that's where my beers are coming from!

If you'd like to give it a go, it gets better, you can get a DISCOUNT! So if you pop over to www.beer52.com and enter code ANDYBROWN10 then you'll get £10 off when you sign up! Not too bad for some beers, makes your first delivery nice and cheap so you can get a good start on your excellent beer deliveries.
Note: beer52.com kindly sent me these beers to try out and review!

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Goodbye X10 home automation

The time has come to bid farewell to X10 home automation for me. Slowly over the past year the devices have started to malfunction, switch modules stopped responding, transmitted events from my CM11 computer interface got weaker and weaker and the whole X10 alarm system was just a joke from the start.
So it's now time for me to ditch X10 completely, shutdown my heyu software (on linux) and disconnect the old CM11 unit from the serial port on my server.
It's been used for a long time, in this house and my last house, and to be fair it's done a good job over the years as it was a decent system early on in home automation days (10 yrs ago). It's main issue was the way the modules connected to the mains supply and watched for power-line signals to carry the on/off commands. Often those commands were missed due to other electrical noise on the wire (clothing dryer on, hairdryer, etc), and because most of the modules weren't two-way they couldn't tell the sender that the command had worked or not, so you just had to fire the commands blindly.

Now onto the current system, which I'm afraid isn't currently much better, but it has a bit more potential and more importantly has a cheaper cost. I'm using the 433Mhz unbranded RF system. This is available in most high street shops as 'remote plugs' where you get a little 4-channel remote and 2 or 3 plugs. Plug your appliance into them and use the remote to send an ON or OFF signal to them. Again they're not 2-way so fire and forget, but the cost is dramatically reduced when you can buy the pack for around £15 (A single switch module for X10 used to be more like £25 each).

The 433Mhz is common to Arduino and other development boards, so I've coded up a board with transmitter and receiver to do my tasks for me, and although I do sometimes get missed events, it's proving decent. I've not really done much on distance yet but that will come soon.

So the tasks it has to do for me:

  • Front room uplighter - This is on and off on a timer sequence controlled by my linux server to match dusk time (light level from external sensor) and then turn off at predetermined times
  • External garage lighting - Downlighters to illuminate the exterior of the house and garage, again using dusk time and then daylight.
  • Power to wifi AP - to control when the 'guest' wifi network is available.
  • Misc power - Christmas lights probably going to be the next use for this

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Fixing white goods and the spare parts scam

I'm sure a lot of people have had this problem. Some of their kitchen appliances (white goods) have failed and normally the appliance is quite a few years old. Now I know a lot of people aren't into pulling their electrical items apart, so will inevitably call somebody out who will say one of the following:

  • "Appliance is too old, it needs replacing"
  • "Uneconomical to repair, replace it"
  • "Parts are hard to get for this now"
Or one of another similar list of reasons. Now the problem is this, manufacturers like to keep updating their product line, give you the shiny new colour, new front control panel with more buttons, make it more ECO-friendly, or one of many other things. Most of this is so they can sell more appliances, etc. Which is fine. Except in a lot of these items (Dishwashers, fridges, cooker, washing machine, dryer, microwave, television, DVD, etc) we don't buy regularly, we keep them for a long time and run them until they completely die. They get quite a bit of abuse. Think about your fridge for example. On 24x7, if it misses 5 minutes of being on you'll panic and curse at the device. So that 24x7 is quite punishing on the components, the compressor pump, cooling pipes, electronic (or mechanical) temperature controller, etc. And in the good old days, they were made to last, the components were decent quality, they were manufactured with care and tested well for their runtime expectations.
Now unfortunately I don't believe that's the case with modern devices. I don't believe the components are made to a good standard, they're not tested for longevity and in some cases are assembled and rushed out of the factory so quickly that genuine errors or details are missed that will cause premature (?) failure of the components.

So now onto my way of doing things. I very rarely call in a repairer to look into these things. I'll always take a look myself first. A lot of household appliances are quite simple in how they operate and all work to a few simple principles. Generally, power goes in, gets converted, switched or regulated and will then drive one or more items to produce the end result (Heck, apply that to everything in your life!).
Now onto the parts. Parts ARE available for pretty much everything. And they aren't as specific as the manufacturer or assembler likes to make you think. After all, a pump can be used in many appliances (Washing machine, dryer, dishwasher), so why would one pump not work for all those appliances? Well generally it's because of the fittings the manufacturer (Or assembler, because let's face it, the dishwasher company won't manufacture the pump, they'll buy it in to specification and assemble it into their device) decided to use that makes it 'unique' to their product.

That takes me onto replacement parts. The spare parts industry is huge, and it can be as people need spare parts, either the fitter who comes out and fixes your appliances, or the DIYer who needs the spare part. Either way we know we need xyz part for our shiny appliance, and so we happily tap that appliance and part into the web and duly order the part we're told we need.
I'm guilty of that. I realised this over the past few days, and now I've realised it, I'm banging my head against the desk. Why would it be a specific part for that appliance? Surely if we know the specifications, we can use any old part. OK we might have to adapt it, or use a different fitting, but that ultimately will work! (Caveat, if you don't know what you're doing with electical systems, plumbing, etc, be wary of this approach!)
So just for future, THINK before ordering the part you're told to for a specific appliance, model and part. Look wider and think, can I do this using more basic off the shelf parts? Try local DIY store or plumber/builders merchants, as chances are the pipe, pump, fitting, electrical switch, motor, etc, are easily sourced and will fit with the right tweak or enclosure!

Also, be wary of the online spare parts industry, specifically for your white goods. These guys are also into ripping you off, stating 'alternative' similar parts or similar wording. Most times their part/product listing database is nowhere near accurate. E.g. you tell it you want part xyz for appliance manufactured by abc model def. Their database tells you a similar part you need, but will ALWAYS contain the words "Please check specifications before ordering/fitting" which basically means they're trying to sell you anything they want, regardless of if it'll fit or not! They'll then try to get you to by the "Genuine" manufacturer part at higher cost, but then won't state the dimensions or specifications for this manufacturer part!
Here is a DIRECT quote from such a website, when somebody dares to ask the specifications of a "genuine" manufacturer spare part:

"what is the internal diameter of the rubber end ?" - User question
"Our parts usually do not have measurements listed as they are model specific. As long as your model number matches this part, it will fit your appliance." - website answer

Monday, 26 September 2016

433Mhz transmitters deciphering and teardown

I've been doing yet more digging around with these little 433Mhz transmitters. These are the ones found in a lot of home automation hardware now, as well as wireless alarm system, remote garage door and shutter controllers and a lot more.
I've got a few different ones here at home, so I thought I'd go through each one and work out how they work and what different functions they leverage for their operation. The main goal behind this was to determine reliability (Which I'll get onto later).

Here are the 5 different models I have:

X11 alarm remote

X11 light control

Garage door/Shutter remote

Alarm door sensor

Alarm remote control

All five of these have remote control capabilities and operate in a similar way, so the first thing was to take a look at how they all operated.

The first was the X11 alarm remote:

That's both sides of the small board inside. Difficult to see, but on the top photo is the battery source (2x3v) and to the right of it is the 433Mhz transmitter 'can' with 433 printed onto it, so I know it's a 433mhz transmission type. Looking on the back was interesting though, it didn't have one of the 'standard' chips used for 433Mhz transmission, and actually had a custom 14-pin chip in it with no markings at all on it. My guess is this is a custom mini microcontroller with custom firmare burnt onto it. There were very few other components, a diode, resistors and an LED. So not much to go on. I started my 433Mhz sniffer application (Using an arduino with a 433Mhz receiver chip connected) and got no signal at all on any mode. This makes me think they are doing custom modulation with the 433Mhz signal and no much chance of decoding it.

The second one I tried was another X11 remote, this time just used for lighting control:
On this one there was the transmitter can in the middle (With the red insulating foam around it) but no mention of 433Mhz. I assumed it would be. I then looked into the chip in the middle, which was a EM78P153AN. Looking this up, I found it to be an 8-bit microcontroller with OTP ROM, so again a chip with custom firmware burnt onto it. Again not many other components on either side of the board, a few resistors, diodes and that was about it. Running my 433Mhz sniffer I didn't get anything I could decode, so again assuming this is using similar coding to the previous X11 remote and can't get into what it was sending.

The above two isn't entirely surprising, X11 protocols for their remotes are 'encrypted' or at least made to not be easy to hack or replicate using standard duplication techniques. Whether they use rolling codes or not I'm unsure, but they certainly have the ability to do this since they have the custom microcontroller on board which could run all sorts of interesting code.

I then turned my attention to the more 'basic' 433Mhz transmitters. Firstly the one for the garage door/shutters:

This one was for a commercial shutter. Any to my surprise when opened up, the 'can' said it all! 13,560Mhz! Now this was supplied by a shutter company for use here in the UK, I'm not 100% sure but I don't believe these are legal to use in the UK due to licensing.
Looking at the rest of the board, there is a 430G2332 chip which is a mixed signal microcontroller, and beside it the 7110FE which is either a second microcontroller or a voltage regulator chip. Either way this remote wasn't much use since it wasn't 433Mhz so I didn't investigate any further.

This then takes me onto the alarm sensor unit:

On the front of the board (Bottom photo) you can see the multicolour LED top left (Red and Green), then the top right is the can for the 433Mhz crystal. To the left is the reed switch (for the door) a capacitor and then to the bottom (above the battery slot) are 4 dip switches. These vary the code transmitted (well, the first two, the 3rd and 4th don't seem to make a difference).
On the back of the board we can see the main chip (towards the bottom of the board). It's covered in resin gunk but I could still make out the chip which was EV1527 OTP encoder which is on most of the 433Mhz boards. The 8-pin schematic shows:
And can take a voltage range from 3v to 12v. And by setting K0-3 to either 1 or 0 it will change the data output (D0-3). In this units case it only appears to have two of these linked to the dip switches but I'd assume you could connect the rest up if you wished. Looking at a close-up of the circuit I can see where the traces are missing:

So the common row of 4 pins along the top of the DIP switches go to a connection pad (see below, this is the reed switch connection). Then only one line is brought down from the chip (pin5 K0) so this is the only one that will be affected by changing the DIP switches. So effectively this version allows two values to be chosen.
However, this is almost unrequired, as the chip itself has a burnt-in at factory value as part of the output code:
So the C0~C19 is burnt into the chip and forms part of the initial code, followed by the user-defined 4 character selection. This should therefore mean that no two chips are identical (assuming we don't hit the same code from the choice of 1 million!) in their transmitted codes, so should be safe from colliding with another unit.
The reed switch lower solder joint goes to the top row of pins on the DIP switches (and so ultimately to pin 5 K0). The other side of the reed switch goes to capacitor C1 (tiny smd) and to J3Y which is a switching transistor, which will be to handle the switching voltage for the chip.
Pin 6 is pulled to ground constantly (as it the ground pin for the chip).
The positive pin (2) for the chip is only energised when the transmitter needs to be powered up, and so is therefore controlled by the rest of the circuits switching transistors and trigger with a timed value. This therefore allows the circuit to detect when the reed switch is broken it will trigger a timed burst of voltage to the chip and transmit it's signal. This only works because this is a one-way circuit, it only transmits, so has no method of testing battery voltage and letting the alarm know, nor does it know the state of the alarm or any other state. It simply gets woken up by voltage being sent to the chip which immediately starts transmitting it's value and then gets power removed.
This method is good for low power consumption as when not transmitting it'll use very little idle power (Just a transistor switch, remember we want to trigger the signal when the circuit is broken, so it's known as a NC normally closed circuit).

However this also highlights the weakness in this system. Firstly the system only has one go at sending data, if that fails then there are no retries. In practice I've tested this with my 433Mhz receiver and I do only see a single transmitted value from the unit when the reed switch is removed. So the alarm receiver has to get the signal the first time, otherwise it would be missed. This is where an improvement should be made and setup so the signal repeats several times.

Another unknown for now is the multi-colour LED. It has both red and green in the package, and will trigger both colours. When the reed switch is triggered the red LED will come on then flicker red and green (and off) until completely off. This seems to be a capacitor discharge timer/reduction of power, so I think the circuit must charge the capacitor (47uF 16v on the front of the board?) and then use the capacitor discharge to supply power to the transmitter circuit. I'm therefore unsure what the different colours indicate. There is also the push button on the front of the board. This forces the transmission of the code. I'd expected this to simply bridge the reed switch, but upon learning about the circuit (and realising it's NC) then this couldn't be possible. Therefore it seems to force a power 'jolt' to the circuitry and forcibly power up the chip. This keeps repeating the code so it is powered direct from the battery I think. This causes the LED to flicker red and green constantly until I release the button, at which point the LED stays lit up GREEN! It won't go off until I remove the battery, so is almost like a power indicator showing that power is being supplied by the battery (but not supplied to the chip).

UPDATE: I did a bit more testing and worked out the LED colour conditions! They indicate battery state. The battery I was testing with was an older one (These are 23A/MN21 12v batteries) and actually on testing with the meter showed only a 6v output without load. Therefore this shows that I believe the green/orange light indicates low battery/poor output state. I think it was keeping the green LED on to show that voltage was low and needed replacing! (Would be better the other way round, red instead of green!) Putting a full battery in (showing 12v) when moving the reed switch away the LED lit bright RED and transmitted it's code twice before the LED flickered and went off. (No green shown on the LED at all) So this appears to be a basic indicator for battery state, when low it will show yellow/orange/green to tell you to replace!

The transmitted code can be read by my 433Mhz receiver and I can see it's a simple code being sent at 24-bit, an example of a code would be 3528277. This I can see repeated at each trigger, so they aren't rolling codes or anything sophisticated.
I can therefore transmit this code and 'emulate' the sensor if for whatever reason I needed to.

The alarm remote control was the last unit I took a look at.

It contains four buttons for 'SET', 'UNSET', 'HOME-SET' and 'PANIC'. These four seem to send different codes, so I suspect they simply set the different K0-3 pins on the same chip.
Here is the circuit itself, you can see the BXR433A can to the top middle, the 12v battery sits in the middle.
At the bottom middle you can see the SCT2260 (Also known as the PT2260) chip which does the RF encoding. This uses a similar technique to the other 433Mhz transmitter chips and the pin-out along with an example 4-button transmitter is on the datasheet:

So that looks like how this unit is being used.

Finally, I wanted to find out a constant bug that was appearing on my setup. On the remote transmitters, these seemed to sometimes fail and not set or unset the units. This is strange as the LED on the transmitter always lit up and it always appeared to send a code. Sniffing the codes I can see a code transmitted at every press of the buttons. HOWEVER the code sometimes changed (and not just once. When it happened the transmitter would send 3 or 4 of this incorrect code, not changing). Initially I dismissed this as just because of poor antenna or receivers or similar, so this is something to investigate further.
That's for the next part of debugging I think!

Monday, 12 September 2016

5ive U80 android-compatible smart watch

This is my thoughts on the 5ive U80 android-compatible smart watch.

I've had the watch for a couple of weeks now and so I've got used to how it works, what's good and what's bad about it, so here's my review on it.
Firstly, setup and use. Initially it doesn't power on with a single touch, you have to hold it's main button in for a bit longer than you'd normally like to for most gadgets, but bear with it, it'll light up and say "Welcome" when it starts to power on. Boot time is around 5 seconds which is pretty quick and indicates it runs a ROM-based basic operating system rather than Android or any other full operating systems. (So beware, whilst it says Android on most of the promotion material, it means it's compatible with Android phones and doesn't run Android itself, so you can't install apps from the play store/market or APKs onto it)
After boot up it shows the main screen giving you time and date, along with some status icons along the top. These show bluetooth connectivity, received notifications and text message notifications along with battery state.
The rubber strap is really comfortable to wear, I'm not a keen watch wearer but found this one sat on my wrist (Which is very skinny, so it fit great, on the second or third hole, so it's no problem for kids or skinny wristed adults like me!) comfortably. The screen is large but not too large to look ridiculous on my arm and the main button is unobtrusive and needs a proper click to engage so you won't be turning the screen on constantly by mistake. There isn't a motion/movement detector switch-on function on this watch.

To connect the watch to your phone you need to use bluetooth, just pair it like any other accessory, which is pretty straight forward. It will display a random 4 digit pairing code on the screen, key this into your phone and accept it, it'll then pair up and connect (It will show you onscreen that it's connected and paired). That's the basic connectivity working. It will act as a handsfree speakerphone, display active call information and missed/last calls. It will also let you use the built in functions such as stepcounter, timer, activity monitor, etc. These are all pretty basic and simple to use.
If you want to view text messages, get notifications for other events on your phone, etc, you need to install a specific application onto your phone that will push the notifications to your watch.
I found the app which worked best was BTNOTIFICATION. Install it from the android market and then configure the "Notification app" section which lets you choose what applications on your phone can send notifications to your watch. It's basically allowing you to choose what notifications you normally see along the top bar of your phone on the watch, so choose which ones you want (along with system notifications too) and allow it to connect. I had to switch off and on bluetooth on the phone a couple of times for the watch to pair correctly and show all these functions. When it pairs correctly it will connect and show "connected" twice on the phone, kind of showing the basic connection, then the push notifications. On the phone you'll see the bt notification icon in the notification area along the top showing it's seen the watch and sending notifications.
This then allows you on the watch to click menu (left button along the base of the watch) and choose either your messages for txt inbox, or the notifications menu to see other notifications (emails, etc, as per the applications you setup on your phone).
The touchscreen on the watch is pretty responsive and swipes and multitouch seem to work accurately. I was impressed at such a low-price watch how clear the screen was and that it never seemed to lag or slow down in functions.

Now onto a few of the downsides of the watch. The first is that it will default to be your bluetooth handsfree/headset app for the phone. So each call you answer will automatically go to the watch and be answered on speakerphone! Not ideal, especially in an office or other environment, the first bit of your call isn't private until you switch back to the phone handset, etc. (On my HTC One m8 it pops up immediately and asks what device I want to use, so I just quickly select the handset)
The watch will show the call status throughout your phonecall and also show a hangup button to cancel the call, mute your microphone, etc. When somebody rings it will also show who is calling you and give you the option to answer or reject the call.
I tried to disable the headset function of the device, by going into bluetooth settings on my phone, settings for the U80 bluetooth association and untick phone audio. The problem here is that with that unticked the notification app and sync between the two isn't established, so full notifications don't get sent to the watch. So effectively if you do this, it becomes useless, so you can't disable it!
The three touch-screen fixed buttons on the homescreen aren't configurable, so you're stuck with the shortcuts of: Bluetooth settings, step counter and calorie tracker.
The battery life, initially appeared good, almost 2 days on my first try, but it seems to have dropped quite quickly. I'm now able to get 1 day out of it (fairly light use), but you must charge it overnight to have this, if you leave it powered off and not on charge it doesn't seem to retain charge and will drop out early. The battery indicator doesn't give you a clue either, it's either full, almost empty or empty and when it warns you the battery is low you probably have 10-15 minutes before power off completely.

Charging it, I used my USB voltage and current monitor to see how much it pulls when charging (I used a 2amp capable charger) and it was very low, only 0.19 amps were pulled initially and after about 30 minutes this dropped quite quickly to only 0.02 amps, so a tiny trickle charge, so my suspicion is it's either got a very low capacity ni-mh battery in it, or it's charge circuitry isn't that smart.
On the usb indicator, red is voltage and blue is current (in amps)

Overall, it's a nice enough watch, as a watch it works fine! As a smart watch it does the basics OK, and will act as a speakerphone. Don't expect much more from it, and unless there is an update the fact it acts as speakerphone to all calls makes it my biggest negative for everyday use.

Screen Size: 1.44-inch
Screen Resolution: 128 x 128 px
Touch Module: Yes
Battery Type: Lithium-ion Polymer battery
Battery Capacity: 3.7V/230mAh
Processor type: MTK6260-ARM7 Speed 360MHz
SRAM: MTK6260(Built-in)-32mb NOR
Flash: MTK6260(Built-in)-32mb
Camera: No
Speaker: 8/0.7W speaker x 1
Microphone: Yes
G-sensor : Yes
Bluetooth: Yes, Bluetooth 4.0
3G/2G: No
Memory card socket: No
USB interface: Micro USB
Headphone jack: No
Operation System: MTK
Phonebook entries: Max. 1000
Phone calls: Yes (Loudspeaker)
SMS: Yes (thru Application)
MMS: Push (need application)
Time Sync: Yes
Call History: Yes
Music Player: Yes
Set Time/Date: User-defined
Alarm clock: Yes
Stopwatch: Yes
Pedometer: Yes
Rest Alarm: Yes; Reminds you to stand up or start physical activity
Drink Alarm: Yes; Reminds you to drink more water
Sleep monitoring: Yes
Anti-theft Alarm: Yes
Power saving mode: Yes
Languages: English, French, Spanish, German, Portuguese, Italian, Dutch, Russian, Turkish

Hacking-wise, connecting the USB up to my linux laptop (Don't use the supplied usb cable as it doesn't have data lines connected!) I could see the device. Watch needs to be powered off and it becomes visible as:
Bus 002 Device 009: ID 0e8d:0002 MediaTek Inc.
[27755.648566] usb 2-1.2.2: new full-speed USB device number 8 using ehci-pci[27755.961281] usb 2-1.2.2: New USB device found, idVendor=0e8d, idProduct=0003[27755.961290] usb 2-1.2.2: New USB device strings: Mfr=0, Product=0, SerialNumber=0[27755.962847] cdc_acm 2-1.2.2:1.1: ttyACM0: USB ACM device[27756.119144] usbcore: registered new interface driver usbserial[27756.119168] usbcore: registered new interface driver usbserial_generic[27756.119188] usbserial: USB Serial support registered for generic[27756.177096] usbcore: registered new interface driver option[27756.177138] usbserial: USB Serial support registered for GSM modem (1-port)[27758.507798] usb 2-1.2.2: USB disconnect, device number 8[27761.800152] usb 2-1.2.2: new full-speed USB device number 9 using ehci-pci[27761.913019] usb 2-1.2.2: New USB device found, idVendor=0e8d, idProduct=0002[27761.913028] usb 2-1.2.2: New USB device strings: Mfr=2, Product=3, SerialNumber=4[27761.913034] usb 2-1.2.2: Product: U8 [27761.913038] usb 2-1.2.2: Manufacturer: U8[27761.913043] usb 2-1.2.2: SerialNumber: fffffffffffffff[27761.914079] usb-storage 2-1.2.2:1.0: USB Mass Storage device detected[27761.917187] scsi host5: usb-storage 2-1.2.2:1.0[27762.916956] scsi 5:0:0:0: Direct-Access     MEDIATEK  FLASH DISK           PQ: 0 ANSI: 0 CCS[27762.917522] sd 5:0:0:0: Attached scsi generic sg2 type 0[27762.926813] sd 5:0:0:0: [sdb] Attached SCSI removable disk
So you can see it registers as a usb serial device and also as a storage device. It initially registers as usb serial, disconnects and comes back as a storage device. I suspect this is the usb_modeswitch drivers for linux getting in the way so after disabling it still did the same. It appears as a serial device for a few seconds before the screen comes on with "Welcome" and it then switches to a storage device. The /dev/sdb cannot be accessed though and has no partition structure. I'm going to try and dump /dev/sdb to see if it contains the firmware or similar.
When powering the watch up it prompts for "serial usb" on screen. Pressing this and it stays as a usb serial device that I can then access.
Connecting to it using 9600,8,N,1 and I can get a prompt. I can send it an AT and it responds OK so it has some sort of AT command set registered with it. I couldn't get it to give me anything interesting, but there must be something in there!

So if you have any ideas or further information, please leave a comment and I'll do a bit more investigation.

5ive U80 on amazon.co.uk £29.99
Please note that I received in exchange for an honest and unbiased review for a discounted value.