Consumer Electronics

Music subscription services don’t always suck Friday, December 23, 2005

Let’s talk, for a moment, about acquiring music.

As you might guess from netTunes, I’m a bit of a music fanatic. I’ve bought a lot of music in my day, and expect to buy a lot more. But, I rarely listen to “music radio”, and rely on friends, happenstance, and sometimes NPR to point me to new stuff.

But it’s not always easy to tell from brief exposure whether a new album is worth buying. Sometimes you need ten, fifteen, twenty plays to decide whether it’s something to add to the “owned” pile. 30 second snippets just won’t do it.

Now, sure, I could follow The Path of the Torrent, but I really don’t like doing that, regardless of whether or not I agree with the RIAA and their positions. And I hate shelling out $15 for something that I end up never playing.

So, what to do?

What I do is pretty simple: I use Rhapsody. Yes, it costs me $10 a month, and is extremely tied to the computer. (And I do want to own the music I love, and do whatever I want with it, especially with regard to device shifting.) But that doesn’t matter, because I use it to sample things. If I find it’s music I want to keep, I buy the CD and pop it into the library. And, if not, it saved me more than the cost of the CD, and the storage for the physical media, too. So I’m finding more music I like, and buying less music I don’t.

And now they’ve got a version for the Mac that—while not full featured—works well for exactly this purpose. You might want to check it out—I’m glad I did.

Sony VGX-XL1 Quick Tip Thursday, December 22, 2005

Egad, could it be another post about the Sony Media Center? I believe so!

I ran into a rather unusual problem with the VGX-XL1’s changer that I wanted to document here, in case someone else hits it in the future.

What I noticed was that, after playing a movie or DVD or… well… pretty much anything, the VGX-XL1B changer would stop working properly. It’d load up discs, but the discs themselves would be unreadable. The only way to fix the problem was to power cycle the changer: even a reboot wouldn’t work.

After days (literally) of off-and-on attempts to figure the problem out, I finally determined the cause.

Basically, in the Power Management settings for the computer, there’s an option that spins down unused drives after a set period of time. I had set this to 15 minutes to save wear and tear on the internal hard disk during times of light or no use.

Turns out that the changer must get some kind of ACPI notification after 15 minutes or so, and powers something down that it never powers back up again. Setting the disk spin-down to “Never” resolved the problem.

Considering that it’s not a hard disk, and that it still responded to load commands, it’s pretty clear that there’s some weird bug going on here. But, if you hit it, the fix is easy enough.

Ah, Windows. hmmm

Sony and the MCE Friday, December 16, 2005

I’m getting some questions about what Media Center I’ve got, so I thought I’d put up a post about it, as well as some information that I hope will be of interest.

My first MCE was an HP z555. This MCE is styled more like stereo equipment than a PCs, with a front panel transport controls and a semi-useful FL display.

The z555 has two cable tuners as well as a single HDTV tuner, various back-panel connections including Toslink and Coax for SPDIF, DVI and Component outputs (as well as S-Video and Composite), pretty much everything you’d expect. It comes with a single, easily accessed, 250GB drive, and a decent software bundle.

A few downsides: it’s not really expandable, there are no free slots (or normal boards to replace), and one drive is limiting. And one huge problem, though: it’s chuck full of fans, and they’re loud. In a media room, that doesn’t work—I tried to live with it for a few months, and it drove me nuts, so, I started looking for something else.

What I found was the Sony VGX-XL1 Media Center, which comes with a 200 disc changer, which is now available for $1799, with a $150 rebate to bring the price down to $1649… a great deal!

It’s also designed more like a piece of AV equipment. While it doesn’t have the transport controls or the display, it’s whisper quiet, and can take 3 SATA drives, which can be set up with RAID. The changer is well integrated, and quite useful. The slot-loaded DVD is elegant and easily loaded. It’s much more attractive than the HP. It’s got a built-in HDMI output, and sets up easily at high resolutions.

And, again, it’s quiet. Very quiet. Major kudos to Sony for that.

It has some downsides: they clearly intended it to be a DVD unit, since it ships with one cable/antenna tuner, and that’s pretty much it. Fortunately, there’s an open slot, and it’s easy to drop in an HDTV tuner (and the existing tuner looks like it can be replaced easily, too). The interior of the machine is very nicely laid out, only one screw type is used throughout, the drives all drop into a nice carrier, the bracing is nicely stamped, memory slots are right there in the open. Nicely done.

Of course, there’s one boneheaded thing. For some reason, Sony decided that the output from DVDs (etc) wouldn’t go directly out as SPDIF. Instead, while it’ll communicate with a receiver as SPDIF, it always goes out as Dolby Digital encoded AC3, even if the source is DTS, because you output analog to the sound card which then re-encodes.

Maybe there’s a logical reason for it, having to do with the HDMI spec or something, but it smells like Sony’s obsession with keeping first generation digital information from exiting their box. As such, it’s awfully frustrating.

Apart from that (and some complaints about the keyboard), though, it’s a really nice unit.

Media Centers Sunday, December 11, 2005

More heresy, I know, but I’ve got a Windows XP Media Center Edition box connected to my HDTV, and—after about six months of use—I’m prepared to say that it’s actually pretty good!

We all know—from direct gotta-use-these-things experience—that this stuff is not easy. The general rule is that, if it connects to a TV, it’s got an awful, primitive, ugly and slow UI.

The best of these things is, without question, TiVo. While slow, TiVo tries to be relentlessly user-focused and friendly, and mostly achieves its goals. (Too bad about its recent compromises in that area, and the fact that, even with broad distribution and name recognition, it never really took the market by storm.)

At least for TV, TiVo sets a high bar. And, with some caveats, a high-end Media Center PC does a pretty darn good job with TV and DVDs (music and pictures, not so much, but I’m not using it for that).

So, keeping an open mind, let’s dive in.

There’s little question that the 10-foot UI on the MCE is—along with Smartphone—the very best attempt at a “new” UI I’ve ever seen Microsoft do. It’s very simple, reasonably attractive, scales well to different resolutions (from 480i to 1080p), and reacts quickly to user requests.

Despite the fun Steve Jobs had comparing the iMac’s remote to the generic MCE one, much like TiVo (whose remote it definitely resembles), normal use is accomplished with a similar set of buttons.

It’s important to note that a low “number of buttons” doesn’t necessarily mean “fewer controls”. Rather, it means “more on screen controls”. The real issue here is a balance between direct and indirect operation: a button, or a menu that you select from.

Super-simple remotes have been tried before, specifically by Bang & Olufsen in their BeoVision 1 product. That remote was very, very, very similar to Apple’s (no surprise there), and was abandoned quickly: users wanted more buttons and fewer menus for common operations.

With MCE, you’ve got the expected up/down/left/right navigation, select, play/pause, menu and back. And you could literally operate the thing with just that. Additional buttons are things like more complete transport controls (FF/REW, Chapter Skip FW/BK—and yes, it does a 30-second commercial skip), record, a number/alpha (phone-style) pad, power, volume and channel up/down).

The MCE team has clearly thought long and hard about the way users interact with video material, and with their TVs. It keeps your program running onscreen while you investigate the guide, record or search for other programs, verify recordings, pauses and resumes multiple programs, has a live TV buffer, smart FF/REW handling—all the things you’d expect are there.

Adding new individual recordings or series is simply a matter of searching and clicking a readily available onscreen button, and the recording modes cover the necessary exceptions, like one time/series, first run/repeat, how long to keep the show, channels to check, etc.

The unit itself can support a large number of tuners, something I think is pretty important, and will do simultaneous recordings from all of them transparently to the user. Conflicts are handled well, and all of this happens reliably. OTA HDTV is fully supported, as are video inputs from cable/satellite boxes.

The guide is right on target—and unlike TiVo, it’s free, with no subscription fees. It has some nice additional nice features like a “what movies are on right now” that shows you the movie’s video cover along with other information.

All this is handled with admirable simplicity and restraint, and it really does work well in person. That isn’t to say it looks even remotely Apple-like: the graphics don’t ever let you forget that it’s part of the Windows XP Family. But, within that, quite pleasant.

The fact that you can use an XBox 360 as an “extender”, and use the main MCE’s tuners and recorded material in other rooms, is a very nice bonus. Just turn the volume up up up, because the XBox makes a racket.

Where does it fall down? Apart from initial setup (getting this to work at 1080i through DVI was much too difficult), and an inability to really mix-up inputs with straight, non-decoder box cable, satellite and HDTV (admittedly a bit pathological, but one can dream), and no non-OTA HDTV recording (cable, satellite), it falls down where you’d expect: this is really an application, sitting on top of Windows XP—and ignore that fact at your peril. So, you have to run AntiVirus, Firewall, etc. If XP has trouble, your nice UI is relegated to a Task Bar button as you delve into the Device Manager and have your way with it. If your drivers stink, so will your experience.

If you don’t use it for anything but media, though, these problems are infrequent—but when they show their ugly heads, the illusion of friendliness and design is well and truly broken.

A more subtle thing is a detail that bothers me well beyond its importance: illogical transitions. MCE has a “zoom” effect that it uses when you go between “pages” of its UI. Mostly, the effect works, but when a playing video “zooms” down to a miniwindow when you go into the main UI, the zoom goes totally the wrong way. (It should shrink the video to the little window, exposing or zooming up the main UI, whereas right now the effect goes to the other corner, and just looks random and disorienting.)

When you’re whining about something that “minor” in the UI you know they’ve mostly got the big things right.

FrontRow—Apple’s first shot at this kind of thing, competes in a very different area. It doesn’t do TV at all, no recording, no input. Instead, it plays to Apple’s strength: music. And, in this, it does a better job that MCE does in that particular area. (Yes, I have EyeTV, and it isn’t part of FrontRow, has only a single tuner and poor guide integration. It really doesn’t compare favorably.) And, you’ve got the iLife things you’d expect: it’ll play your home videos and show your photos—as will MCE—both things I don’t, but it’s nice for those who do.

That’s as far as it goes, though. While I’m quite interested in where Apple takes FrontRow, it’s not really competition for this… yet. But I’m glad it looks like things are actually heating up in the space!

Hello? It’s your other anchor calling. Hello? Friday, November 18, 2005

I’m sure I’m in the minority here, but I’m a fan of the i-mate SP3 Windows Mobile Smartphone.

Mobile phones are one of those things that are difficult to generalize: your reaction to the phone is likely based entirely on what you expect to get out of the device. So, if you’re looking for style and “fun”, there are phones for you. You want an email monster? Got that covered with the Treo or—for the truly disturbed—the Crackberry.

I have some basic requirements:

  1. The phone has to be GSM.
  2. It has to be able to be used as a bluetooth, tethered modem for my PowerBok.
  3. It has to be a good phone, of course.
  4. It has to be reasonably pocketable.
  5. It should work well with Salling Clicker.
  6. It has to support a bluetooth headset.
  7. It has to have a full-featured, totally synced phonebook that isn’t just a list of names/numbers.
  8. The mail client has to be full-featured, with IMAP support and folders.
  9. The web browser has to be fast, reasonably modern, and render well on a small screen.
  10. The calendar/tasks module has to sync, too.
I’ve gone through a lot of phones—a disturbing number—and the big problem I had was getting the “balance” right: they were either focused too much on being just a simple phone (Motorola v600, Sony T610), had flaky software (Sony P800/P900), weren’t phone enough (i-mate PDA2k, i-mate JAM), or just plain sucked (HP 6315).

But, with the SP3, i-mate/HTC got it right, at least for me.

It’s small, light, fast. Unlike a lot of Microsoft stuff, you can tell they not only thought about what the user needed, but actually came up with good solutions for those needs. A perfect example of this is the way you look up names in the phone book—you just start typing on the keypad, and it finds names that match those keys by number, any of the various letter combinations, etc.

It just works. And that can be said for the whole package: it works. Well. That’s a really good thing, and too rare in this market.

And now, they’ve gone and one-upped themselves with the SP5/5m.

The SP5 uses Windows Mobile 5, rather than 2003, and WM5 has made a lot of subtle improvements that definitely make things better, in little ways. The screen has been massively upgraded to a full QVGA unit, and it’s bright, sharp and gorgeous. And, somehow, they’ve put in both EDGE and WiFi support, while keeping the battery life and—for the most part—the small size.

It does have some faults, of course. It’s slightly underpowered, and has some problems pushing all those bits on the new screen. The radio stack, as is the case with most just-released HTC units, is a bit flaky. And it doesn’t have as much free memory as I’d expect it to have.

Plus, Salling Clicker doesn’t work with it yet, though it does work very nicely with the SP3. C’mon, Jonas—the SP5 needs some love!

But the biggest issue right now is that it doesn’t sync directly with my Mac, because it’s not supported by Missing Sync for Windows Mobile yet. No doubt they’ll fix that, but in the meantime I’ve actually managed to get things working reasonably well by making use of my Kerio Mail Server’s Exchange functionality and—of all things—Entourage. More on Entourage and this whole sync solution in another post.

In the meantime, it’s good stuff, and recommended.

Shiny New Squeezebox! Monday, October 24, 2005

Most of you probably don’t know about it, but I contributed to the OSX portion of Slim Devices’ Squeezebox—I wrote the Preference Pane, Installer… basically, a lot of the Mac-specific stuff.

I’m happy to see that Dean, Sean and the rest of the team have come out with a brand new Squeezebox, and the thing looks smokin’! Really nice industrial design, with a beautiful metal stand and a new upright profile. Gorgeous fluorescent display; wireless (802.11g— acts as a wireless bridge, too) or wired; supports virtually every codec you can think of, including AAC, WMA, OGG, FLAC… the list goes on and on.

The Slim Server component is open source, so you can mess around with it, or—since there’s a very active community—make requests and watch the whole thing evolve! Not to mention the neat Squeeze Network, alarm clock, visualizers, multi-player synchronization… the list of goodness goes on and on.

Not to mention that the new features are even available to their existing Squeezebox 2 customers, who they continue to treat as first-class citizens.

It looks terrific—if you’re interested in distributed digital music, you owe it to yourself to check it out.

Great work, guys!

Paper Management on the Macintosh Saturday, October 22, 2005

I’ve posted before about my personal “boat anchor” that keeps a Windows machine close by—Microsoft Money. There was just nothing close enough on the Macintosh to allow me to move.

I was a bit more successful replacing another bit of business, though: my document manager.

I used to use PaperPort/Pagis to manage my bank statements, receipts and the like, but neither product was available for OSX. (PaperPort had an old version of desktop that ran, kind of, under OS9, but it hadn’t been updated for years and didn’t work very well in Classic… and I wanted to avoid Classic if possible.)

PaperPort’s sheet-fed scanner—the Strobe—was a really cool little unit that let you push a bit of paper into it. It’d turn on, automatically scan the paper, launch PaperPort Desktop, and place the scanned document there, all pretty easily. Pagis didn’t work quite the same way, but did do lots of other cool little things like automatic document orientation correction, OCR to allow searching of a scanned document while preserving its graphical appearance, etc.

I found them pretty indispensable for years, as they enabled me to organize of the mass of paper that arrived—and continues to arrive—every month.

But, the scanner wasn’t Mac compatible, so I had to buy something that was. The only duplexing scanner I could find with a sheet feeder, at the time, was by HP: the ScanJet 5590.

At first, I tried to use its own ability to generate PDFs, but the thing generated absolutely huge PDF documents, even at low (200dpi) resolution black and white scans: we’re talking on the order of 25MB for a single, 20 page bank statement. And multi-page scans were a huge pain to knit together. Utterly unreasonable.

It took a while, but I was able to find a similar product on the Macintosh—Dominion Software’s Working Papers. It wasn’t perfect, nor was it as elegant as either PaperPort or Pagis, but it did the job.

Unfortunately, it was also plagued with a decent number of annoying bugs. And while the developer no doubt had the best intentions, it’s clear that the product isn’t in active development any more.

Not to mention the fact that the scanner has bad drivers, especially in combination with Working Papers’ TWAIN handling. I was spending too much time mucking with drivers, working around crashes, skipped pages, unreadable scans… quite frustrating, and because of that, over many months , my system fell apart and paper began to stack up.

Well, I’m happy to say I’ve found the solution. Fujitsu (Fujitsu?!?) has released a Mac-compatible version of their ScanSnap scanner, the memorably named Fujitsu ScanSnap fi-5110EOXM (affiliate link). This scanner does duplexed, color scans at 15ppm, has an excellent paper feed mechanism that doesn’t seem to jam, has a decent driver that doesn’t crash, comes with Acrobat 7, and generates excellent quality, well-compressed scans. And a higher resolution, multi-page, color PDF from it is smaller than the one-bit, black-and-white compressed scans, in a proprietary format, that I was getting from the HP/Working Papers combination.

As they say, w00t!

There are some downsides:

  • It doesn’t work with anything but Acrobat, as the driver isn’t a standard TWAIN driver.
  • The driver is a standard “application”, and occupies space on your dock when running.
  • The Macintosh version only comes with Acrobat and the driver; the PC version comes with a full software suite including a standalone paper management application, business card reader thingy, and a $40 rebate, making it cheaper than the less-capable Macintosh version. The Mac version is white/aluminium, but it’s like putting a sock over the boot that’s kicking in your teeth. But at least they released the Mac version, so kudos for that.
  • Scanned documents default to a single file location, with an automatically generated name, rather than being an untitled document in Acrobat that can then be saved to the location of your choice. So, it’s more awkward than it needs to be.
  • Acrobat 7 is kind of slow doing OCR, if you want the scans to be searchable. But at least it’s possible!
But, they’re relatively minor points. The ScanSnap is an excellent unit that I highly recommend to those who need to do—or have considered doing—document management.

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