Moby and the Long Tail

First, a follow-up to my recent 5otn post. Moby also liked the Medersten remix and has posted it to his MySpace site. That is very cool. Artists enjoying the work of other artists and sharing it. Good job Moby.

Continuing with Moby's online presence... I was browsing the iTunes store the other day and came across the very early release from Moby under the alias U.H.F. Unless you are a fan, you don't even know that Moby released music under a handful of names, and still does release as Voodoo Child. This is great. Music that would otherwise be left to collectors collections, MP3s, or record shop basements is legally obtainable. Too bad that legal part doesn't give me access to the downloads. I'm stuck listening to my less than mint vinyl copy :(


I like gadgets. I hate chargers.

Following along with my recent posts about my A2DP audio solution, you can't help but notice I went from charging my iPod to charging my iPod, my headphones, and the iPod dongle. That's out of control and a terrible solution. If you buy a package deal, like from Plantronics or Logitech, you can get a single charger with two connection points, but you still have two chargers and a bunch of wires to manage.

If your house is anything like mine, you have a bunch of wall warts that are semi-permanently installed because the gadgets they charge need frequent charges and it doesn't do any good to put the wall warts away daily. Anthro tried to address the problem with their eNook system. I think it is a good idea, but I'm not too sure about the $400 pricetag for what it is.

What I'd like to see is a combination valet + splashpad system. Splashpower hasn't caught on, but I wish it, or something like it, would. You could build a splashpad in to the bottom of a drawer, or a valet. I already have something like a valet that holds my watches, wallet, and iPod when I come home. I would be delighted if my iPod just charged while it sat in the box overnight. I don't carry a cellphone, but plenty of people do. Combine that with the number of people carrying Bluetooth headsets. Tell me those people wouldn't love to not plug-in their phones and headsets every night. I'd have the problem of my iPod not getting to sync, but that's one of the reasons I want wireless in it :)

People complain that putting wireless in portable media players, like the Zune has done, is a bad idea because of battery life. If the battery lasts longer than you use in a day, and you get automatic, hassle free, charging at night, do you care how long the battery lasts? Yeah, you still probably do for multi-day trips, but still.

If Apple ever does release a phone, there would be more than a few people carrying multiple, portable, Apple products. Perhaps not Splashpower, but Apple could create their own similar standard, perhaps along the lines of the MagSafe connector. I'd buy it....if it didn't cost $400 :)

Headphones From Harald - Part 2

Source and sink. I covered the sink, now let's talk about the source.

The source end of Bluetooth A2DP solutions is even worse than the state of the sinks. Headphones are finally coming out. The problem is, we're stuck with half-crap dongles for most of the A2DP sources. Bluetooth technology has been slow to catch on in portable media players. There are a few players on the market that support it, but if it isn't in the iPod, people really aren't noticing.

To A2DPize your iPod, you must use a dreaded dongle. Dongles suck. They add bulk. They ruin the visual design. They usually require their own charger. They lack features that could be achieved with tight integration. They can break off. These all apply to A2DP adapters.

The adapter I chose for my solution is the Jabra A125s. It connected to the dock connector, which allows for track skipping and volume control (AVRCP). It wasn't too huge. The colors matched. The price was right.

Well, it works, sort of. All of the player controls work just fine. You can play/pause, control the volume, and skip tracks. One delight feature was the fact that you can wake a sleeping iPod with a press of the play button on the headphones. One other nice thing is that when the dongle runs out of battery, it will pause the iPod as its last action before shutting down. Nice. Range is so-so. Line of sight can barely get 10m in a clean environment. This isn't a problem when you have your player in your pocket or backpack, but it doesn't allow you to sit your player on the front steps and mow the lawn listening to wireless music.

The dongle charges via mini-USB cable to a USB port on your computer. This is the best you can get other than not requiring it to be charged at all. I wish it could just suck juice from the iPod. The dongle runs out far before the iPod does. That leaves you switching back to wired mode, which sucks. You can use the dongle while it is charging, but I can't use my headphones while charging, so this has limited use.

The on/off switch is a little hard to use since you can barely see the indicator lights behind it when you are pushing it. The colors of the plastic match the iPod pretty well. They even mirrored the back to match the iPod. The depth is also pretty close to matching my 60GB iPod.

Pairing was simple and effective. I haven't had any problems with that.

Now the worst part. Either my unit is bad, or this thing has poor performance, antenna or error rate. If I'm at home, on the bus, or in open areas at work, things work fine. It will only skip about once an hour, which to me is usable. However, when I'm at my desk, which is awash in a sea of 2.4 GHz transmissions, the solution is unusable. It will work and then enter fits of skipping for up to 20 seconds at a time. I've used dongles from Plantronics and Logitech in the exact same environment and didn't have these problems. At this point, I can't use my Bluetooth audio solution for the reason I bought it (use at work). I'm going to have to try another dongle while I continue to wish for Apple to put it in the iPod.

Stay tuned.


Headphones From Harald

I'd like to start by saying that I love wireless headphones. I need to lay down a little love, because I'm certainly going to lay down a little hate.

Wireless headphones come in many flavors. The flavor I like, for now, tastes like Bluetooth. I choose Bluetooth for the multiuse radio, the interoperability amongst varied vendors, and the reasonable cost.

I've been complaining about the state of Bluetooth audio for quite some time. The headphones on the market sucked, or at least they weren't the style I was after. The support in, or attached to media players was nearly non-existant. Worst of all, the cost was still quite high.

As of late, the situation has gotten a whole lot better. I can't say that it is good, but it is at a usable point. I now have a complete, stereo audio, Bluetooth solution. I'm happy with it in some cases, and disappointed in others. Here we go.

The Headphones
I spend a fair bit of time monitoring what Bluetooth products are available on the market. During one of my routine weekly searches, I found something called the Motorola Bluetooth DJ Headphones. This instantly sparked my attention. Through further searching, I was able to determine that Motorola had released a set of A2DP enabled, on the head, big can, headphones.

They appeared to be more durable than any of the other Bluetooth enabled full headphones on the market. The price was reasonable. They seemed to meet all of my criteria. I had to have them. After a handful of delays, Mobile Planet finally shipped me a set. I was elated. I've been using the headphones for a few months now, so I can really give a honest review of them.

The Good

  • Build quality - They aren't bombproof like my Sony MDR-700s, but they are the toughest built Bluetooth headphones I've handled. They have swivel ear cups that allow them to flatten for easier storage. The headband is adjustable and seems like it will hold up. The ear pads seem nice as well. They are soft and I haven't had any problems with wear so far, but it has only been a few months. My only complaint is that they hang a wire out a bit where the cups meet the band.
    If you really used these for DJing, that could snag on things, or just wear to the point where it would fail. I wish that the wire were routed through the interior of the phones like most "DJ" headphones.

  • Comfort - Pillows of sound. My ears can start to hurt after a few hours with the MDR-700s. I can wear the Motos all day without the slightest discomfort.

    These are very comfortable headphones. I also like the traditional
    over the head design. I can't stand the behind the ear designs. I wore the Logitech A2DP headphones and my ears hurt after 7 minutes, I counted. I know that I probably look goofy with my giant headphones, but I don't really care.

  • Battery life - Battery is good. It far outlasts the other end (dongle). I usually go a few days of listening between charging. This matches up well with how often I charge my iPod.

  • Sound quality - A working A2DP setup is nice to listen to. A problematic A2DP setup will frustrate you to no end. More on that in a bit. I like the sound quality. I'm no audiophile, but the range is wide and the bass deep enough that I don't complain that it isn't enough.

  • Ability to be wired - When you're on the plane or out of battery, you can cable up the headphones and use them traditionally. The headphone jack is hidden under a rubber flap on the ear cup, next to the charge port (mini-usb, type B)

  • Interface - Moto keeps it pretty simple. There are two different actions and two instances of each action, left and right. You can push a button, or twist a ring on the ear cups. The left button is for connecting, disconnecting, turning the headphones on and off, and initiating a pairing. That sounds like a lot of options for one button, but it works pretty well. The right button is for play and pause. If you have an A2DP adapter on the other end that supports AVRCP, you can start and stop your music without touching the player. I love this. You can also skip tracks back and forth with a twist of the right ring. You can't fast forward and rewind however. The left ring is for controlling the volume. The volume is not affected by the volume you set on your iPod, at least not for those A2DP dongles that attach to the dock port. Those that connect to the headphone jack are affected by the volume set on the iPod.

    To put these controls in perspective, this morning I rode the city bus. I was waiting in the pouring rain for it to arrive. I had these motos on. I could change tracks, play/pause, and control the volume through the hood of my jacket. That's good design.

  • Styling - The blue lights aren't too brash. The Moto logos are visible, but not overpowering. They aren't as clean as an iPod, but they also don't look like a label happy PDA (cough, Dell Axim, cough).

The Bad

  • Buttons - I like the size and location of the buttons. My problem is the feel of them. Sometimes I'll push them, they'll depress, and nothing happens. I think the button contacts are poorly designed. You have to push the buttons pretty hard, or exactly perpendicular for them to work.

  • Charging - I got these via import so they came with a UK power plug. It's massive and only gets worse when I add a US converter to it.

    I've found that the Motorola HT820 headphones expect the exact same power supply characteristics, so if I can find a replacement charger that works with them, I can do away with my charge lump. I also hate that the phones have a mini-USB plug, but don't seem to want to get charged from a real USB plug. They want 550mA of power. A USB port can provide 500 according to the spec. I hated my electronics classes and thus didn't learn a whole lot. I'm guessing I could get away with charging at 500mA, but I haven't tried it yet. If you have the knowledge, please smack me down in the comments on why this would or wouldn't work.

As for these headphones being "DJ" headphones, forget it. There is a slight latency between the source audio and what you hear in the headphones. You couldn't care less when you're listening to your iPod. You care a huge deal when you are trainwrecking your beatmix. We'll just assume that Moto is using the "DJ" descriptor to refer to the swiveling ear cups, and not the ability for them to actually be used by a performing DJ.

Overall, I really like these headphones and I would recommend them. Hopefully Motorola will give the US a proper release of them.

In a follow up post, I'll discuss the iPod adapter that I chose to complete my Bluetooth audio solution.


Apple Tax?

My lean towards the Apple side is quite obvious. With today's announcement of Core 2 Duos in the MacBook Pros, I decided to again look at the cost difference between Macs and Dells. The Apple Tax of the past is all but gone in most categories and in fact, a Dell Tax is emerging.

I compared a stock 15" MacBook Pro to a Dell Precision M65 that I configured up to match the MacBook. There might be a better Dell model to start at that requires less upgrades, but that's the one I found under the Mobile Workstation heading, so it seems like a competitor to the MacBook Pro.

Specs include

  • 15" screen

  • 2.16 GHz Core 2 Duo

  • 1GB RAM

  • 120GB HDD

  • DVD Burner

The Dell tax is in effect. I didn't capture screenshots of the entire configs, but the prices seem to change by the minute at Dell anyway, so go configure one yourself to see the current price.

This comparison doesn't account for added value on the Apple side. The value of the MagSafe connector, iSight camera, lighted keyboard, Front Row, iLife, OS X, etc. I was amazed that Dell still requires you to choose to add Wi-Fi and Bluetooth to a notebook computer. Sure, the cost differential was minimum, but these seem like must haves if you ask me. They charge $9 for Bluetooth. Man, just put it in. There has to be diminishing returns from choosing every last component that goes in the thing. Can I leave the Windows key off and save a $1?

Art of the Playlist

Just like a good album, a good playlist can be a work of art in itself. The playlist can create a mood, not only in the selected tracks, but the order of them. One of the downsides of today's track by track world is that listening to your music at complete random can be less than pleasing. A D'n'B track can lead in to classical, followed by a comedy set. Ugg. Luckily, the playlist is there to make things better.

I've found that some of my playlists become as loved as albums from favorite artists. I also find that listening to someone else's playlist can open doors for me. To that regard, here are a couple of playlists of mine for you to listen to. These are different than my 5 of the now because the 5otn are usually unrelated tracks and not meant to listen to as a group. To go along with the Slushy Streets playlist I posted last December, here are Sunrise Skyline and Dust and Rain. A few of the readers of this blog have already heard these, but not all. Let me know if you'd like a full listen, rather than the 30 sec iTS previews.

To help you post your own playlists, you can try my Perl script to convert an iTunes playlist XML file to HTML. For some odd reason, iTunes does not allow a simple playlist export of artist and track title. The script isn't the greatest in the world. It has a last second hack I had to put in when I encountered an Album Artist field, and I also discovered that the output is not saved in the file in the order of your playlist. You have to make use of the key IDs further down in the XML to get the order correct. That means this will output your playlist to HTML just fine, but you might need to manually fix the order, for now.


Game for Google's Benefit

I stumbled on to Google Image Labeler (Beta of course) the other day. It's a service offered by Google that lets the users tag images with appropriate keywords. What do you get out of it? Well, you get to have a little fun, and perhaps better search results.

Google says you need...
Just an interest in helping Google improve the relevance of image search results for users like yourself.

Google is smart. They've arranged the tagger in a way that makes it feel like a game. You get a partner and a time limit. You score points based on tags that match.

The points are just there to motivate the folks doing the tagging. The clock is there to get you tagging as many as you can, and perhaps they are just aiming at general classifying tags, so they don't want you spending a lot of time. The partner is probably there to make sure you can't muck up their database with a bunch of bad tags. Your partner is random and it seems that you'd need two malicious users with the same malicious tags to inject bad data in the system. I think they've effectively prevented that.

Even though I don't get anything out of it, I've still gone back a few times to play. I wish you could get a few cents here and there. It would be much like Amazon's Mechanical Turk system where you get small amounts of money to apply your human brain to problems that are easy to us, but hard for a computer.

What's next for Google Games? Spot the Spam? Add the ads? Appointment juggling?


5 of The Now

Shuttle Like NES

I think the new Shuttle XPC X100 pulls some retro design cues from the NES.

To see how similar, I made a morph between the two. I did some quick searching and found the MorphX to be a pretty nify application.


A9 - 7 + 1

Amazon, like Google seems to continue to fish for ways to make money. One bucket of bait went to their search engine attempt, a9.com. To me, their most unique and compelling feature was their instant rewards program. I know it made me use them (and save a bunch of money), but only enough to keep the discount active. I never did like the layout compared to Google. They gave it a year, but they are now dropping features like autumn leaves.

What's gone?

The announcement is up on the What's new page. I imagine this will change by the time you read this :) I've linked the services up above so that you can see they are dead.

They have added a nice feature to the regular search engine though. They now have continuous scroll on the search results. That means no more next>next>next>next> nonsense. I guess Windows Live gets the credit for that one. Ohh, and for the record, defaulting to including a book search pane is dumb. If I want to search Amazon, I'll go to Amazon and search. They do a much better job at presenting the relevant results in a useful manner.

I want competition to Google, but I don't see much that will make me switch.


DRM and Self Defence

Theoretical arguments are always fun, but nothing makes a point better than a real life example.

I don't hate DRM. I understand why some content owners think it helps. I don't necessarily agree that it does, but I get what they are trying to do and I don't think it would be fair of me to become a foaming at the mouth DRM hater over what is honestly a minor inconvenience in my life.

Now, my hate for DRM can grow, and it already has to some degree. I've already documented two cases where DRM got in my way. Now, I'll add a third.

The real life example comes with the purchase of the latest UNKLE release. Self Defence is a nice little box set of recent UNKLE singles and all of the remixes available across all release vehicles. It goes to ridiculous levels. There are 15 releases of their hit single Reign. For those that whine about there not being any good music, and that when there is, it costs too much, you get 41 tracks for $20. Put up or shut up. You can also buy track by track from the iTunes store.

So, because I let Global Underground sell me the same music over and over again, I happen to have many of the tracks in this box set. I purchased the Reign EP, and then I purchased the Never, Never, Land album re-release. Both of these came with the Anagram remix of Reign. With the purchase of Self Defense, I now have 3 copies. Only one of those is smothered in DRM, but that's enough. I don't need all of these copies, they're all the same. I'd love to just give the extras away to friends. Maybe I can spark an UNKLE fan. Too bad I can't even try. I have no way to transfer ownership of the DRM file. I can't even sell it back to Apple, at any price. Yes, I knew this when I bought it, but I didn't know that UNKLE would release sets in the future that would entice me to buy the same music again. Shame on me.

I hate the end result here. A kick ass band now gets their name muddied because of DRM. I'm left wondering why I pay again for the same music, when I can't sell the other copies. Apple gets a black eye because the labels force them to use DRM. New customers can't be snagged because they aren't given the hand-me-down copies. It's all quite sad.

Cover Flow on an iPod

When Apple finally releases a wide screen iPod I really hope that it can run the Cover Flow effect. I wanted to see what it would look like, so I did a quick mock up. I think it would work ok, and I really hope they put the scroll wheel on the backside.


The Last Words

Yesterday a lunch conversation prompted an interesting idea. Many times I'll have emails that I get on a regular basis. These could be deals, status, or in this example, recent record releases. I don't always have time to get to these emails as they come out. Usually they are obsoleted by an email that comes out the next week. The old emails really don't have any value once a newer one has come out.

I figured there had to be a way to create a Smart Mailbox in Mail.app to let me just keep the last email from a particular sender. Unfortunately, you don't get to limit a Smart Mailbox to a number of messages. Seems like a simple enough thing to add. Smart Playlists can be limited to a certain number of tracks.

I whipped up a quick shot of what this would look like. I just pasted the option from a Smart Playlist screen in to the Smart Mailbox screen.

BTW, I also explored Automator for a solution and didn't come up with much so I gave up.


iTV for me?

I'm sitting on an airplane waiting for them to fix it, so this is as good a time as any to get my thoughts about the iTV down.

For starters, what took so long? I think the iTV is going to be an essential accessory for any iLife using Mac owner. Not only will this be the bridge that brings video content to you TV, but it will bring the rest of your iLife content with it.

  • iPhoto albums

  • Show off your GarageBand tracks

  • Play your iTunes with fantasic cover art and visuals

None of this is new. I've had my ReplayTV loaded with photos for half a decade. Any time the unit is paused or idle, I get to relive my latest vacation or family photos. You've been able to load you self-made music on to your iPod and play it back on your stereo since the very first one. You can stream your iTunes with an Airport Express to your hi-fi, granted without the cover art and visuals.

The thing that is new is the tight integration. I'm sick of seeing the photos loaded on my ReplayTV. I'm sick of them because it's a pain in the ass to load new ones. It's a pain to change the album that gets displays. Even worse, I have to make copies of the photos, burning disk space on the ReplayTV, to enable the feature. I can push and pull video content off of the ReplayTV using the incredible DVarchive, but I still can't just display the pictures sitting on my networked computer. There are countless better solutions available. Elgato makes many of them. Still, I haven't bit because of the seemingly minor inconveniences that prevent a product from getting sustained use.

For example, I bought my parents a photo viewer for Christmas one year. It could read every format on the planet and even came with a remote. My Mom shoots family photos like she's the papparazi and we're Bradgelina. She was excited at first, but I doubt she's used the viewer in the past year. Why? Because it's too hard. You have to pull the card from the camera. You have to have the photos you want to see on the card. You have to use the crappy remote that came with it. You don't get to use your hard work from the desktop side, tagging and sorting in to albums. That work is tremendously valuable, but not when it's locked up in your computer and your friends are in the living room wanting to see pictures of your trip to Alaska.

My hope is that iTV will fix this. Photos will just be available. Music will just be available. Movies will just be available. No additional fuss, just enjoyment. Think how amazing cover flow would look on your 60" plasma. The cover art will be the size of a record sleeve, yummy. The ultimate will be when your TV sits idle, the screensaver fires up, and you see fresh pictures from your subscribed photocasts. Grandparents will flip when they see photos of the grandkids crawling without having to do a gosh-darn-thing. No emails, no printing, no websites. It just shows up.

One last discussion point on content before I move to the hardware.
It's in the codename, it's not in the stated features. Steve Jobs better get on that stage at Macworld and pull a Ron Popeil.

But wait, there's more! If you call right now, you not only get the iTV that shows pictures, movies, and videos from the iTunes store, but we'll also include, at no additional cost to you, this fresh release of IdiotBox (not the real product name). IdiotBox is your TV, your way.

Just like TiVo and ReplayTV, IdiotBox will be a top of the line PVR app, Apple style. It will run on your Mac and work with a $49 tuner that you buy separately. This would be the missing functionality that would allow me to replace my aging ReplayTV and laugh that $800 Series 3 TiVo right out of Best Buy.

The Hardware

First, the positives.

  • Size - At one time I would have moaned that it isn't home theater component width. Screw that. I'm done with that form factor. If the box doesn't need to be that wide, let's not make it that wide. I haven't seen it stated for
    sure, but it appears this is the exact footprint of a Mac Mini. If it isn't, it should be. Stack a Mac mini on
    the iTV and you have your complete content solution, even if you don't have any other computers in the house.

  • No DVD player - Good! We don't need that hardware in this box. Rip your DVDs to your hard drive. At the worst,
    shouldn't you be able to play it from the optical drive in your computer? Leave the cost out. I'm ok with no optical drive. I'm funny like that. I want to own the physical DVD, CD, 12" for the visuals, smells, and feel. However, I don't need that experience every time and I certainly don't want to handle it when I want
    to enjoy the content.

  • Component and DVI outs - Thank you. If Apple left it at composite and s-vid, like many of the products this will compete with, they would have been instantly hammered with the "I can buy poo-poo-junk.super.play on eBay for $30".

  • No wall wart - I will pay a premium for features like this. I hope the world is paying attention.

The negatives

  • TV tuner - make it happen

  • No Bluetooth remote? Apple, get on it! Someone needs to kick this off. If you put Bluetooth in the iTV, you
    instantly enable it to be hidden away and not require line of sight. You instantly enable it to work with whatever controller we can dream up. You instantly enable two-way remote conversations. Album art, smart menus, searching. If folks don't like your minimum remote, that's ok. They can build their own out of any Bluetooth enabled PDA, or dare I say, iPod! If they add Bluetooth, they could also make this thing an A2DP sink. A2DP is suspiciously missing from Apple's product lineup. I refuse to believe they've ignored it completely or decided that they just won't support it. They support system audio out crappy headset connections. They have to be cooking an A2DP solution.

  • Cost - $299 is an ok price point, but not for what I've seen so far. Will an HDMI cable be an extra $79? If you give me PVR capabilities, $299 is a steal. If you don't, I'm going to have to buy poo-poo-junk.super.play off of eBay.

So will I buy an iTV, even at $299? Probably. I'd still like it to come with Bluetooth, and PVR software :)


That's Hooj

Hooj Choons is back! This is exciting news. I have a modest Hooj Choons collection. Jark Prongo's, Movin' Thru Your System is one of my favorites. Not only are the mixes top notch, but the stick man art is as good as it gets.

The stick man is everything that's right about album art. It gives the music character. It makes it easy to find in a pile of records in their sleeves. I love it.

Speaking of the stick man. It's only fitting that he's climbing out of a casket on the comeback release, Medway - Resurrection. Hear it at Beatport. Long live Hooj!

5 of The Now


A Smaller Target

Dear car/SUV manufacturers,
I like bikes. I like cars and trucks less, but usually end up using them more. Sometimes I take bikes places. That means I need a bike rack. If you'd like to gurantee I consider your vehicle as my next purchase, please build one of these bad boys in to your vehicle.

This is tremendous design. I hate having a rack hang off the back, but I hate taking it off and storing it in the garage even more. This might also save my precious bike rack. I had a silly lady try to rip mine off the back of my truck this summer. She used her front bumper. It wasn't pretty. I'd be pretty darn giddy if Nissan teamed up with Saris and put this in the next Xterra.