Archive for June, 2008

GPS system with the Knight Rider “KITT” voice

teh awesome.

Although I don’t have a GPS system of any type — nor do I feel the need to have one — atleast they’re finally making them cool!  Autoblog reported recently on the upcoming Mio “Knight Rider” GPS system.  Is the sleek black plastic not enough for you?  How about the undulating red lights at the sides?  Need more convincing still??  Ok, then… the built-in KITT voice (from Knight Rider, naturally) oughta do it.  It’s the real deal, folks.  The same actor who voiced KITT in the 80s TV show has performed the voice work for this GPS!

“I’m sorry, Michael.  I can’t go there right now.”

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Quick Music Review: Coldplay, “Viva La Vida”

So…my kids purchased the new Coldplay album, “Viva La Vida“, as a Father’s Day gift for me (thanks, kids!).  I’ll tell you this: it’s a whole lot better than a necktie! 🙂

I’ve had a few listens through the album, and I really like it.  Whereas “Rush of Blood” was a bit more raw, and “X&Y” more commercial, if you will, this album feels more artistic.  It seems to me that Coldplay recorded *exactly* what they wanted to, and didn’t worry so much about hit singles.  There has been some discussion about Chris’ less-falsetto vocals, but I doubt that you’ll really notice it much.  It sounds like a Coldplay album, because it is a Coldplay album.

  • My take: 9 out of 10 stars

Windows 98 — I so don’t miss you!

I was tasked with setting up a virtual hard disk install for Windows 98 today.  Like many software companies, we are finding *great* benefit to having virtualized operating system install images.  In our case, we use Microsoft’s Virtual PC 2007 at the desktop level, and Virtual Server 2005 at the server level.  Both are great products.  I’m also slated to check out VMWare for converting “live PCs” to virtual hard drives.  That’ll be very cool, if it works.

But I digress.

Setting up virtual hard disks is pretty easy, but Windows 98 presented some unique challenges.  For starters, finding an .ISO image of Windows 98 proved more difficult than I thought.  Actually, I ended up having to make my own .ISO image from a Win98 install CD that we had buried several years ago.  I put in the physical CD, and then used ISO Recorder to make an .ISO image out of it.  Easy.  The first real problem arose when it dawned on me that I couldn’t boot from a Windows 98 setup CD.  Hmmmmmmm.  Virtually speaking, I essentially have a completely unused harddrive and a Win98 CD, at this point.  Guess I need to bust out my FDISK and FORMAT skills again!  I downloaded a Win98 ERD “virtual floppy image”, mounted that in my Virtual PC session, and I was off and running.  I used FDISK to create an active, 10gig partition — way more than is necessary for Windows 98 — and after a reboot, performed a FORMAT C: /S, which copies the system files for a DOS-bootable C: drive.

After all that fun, I booted from the Win98 ERD once again — which enables CD-Rom support — changed to the D: drive, found the install directory, and started ‘setup.exe’.  The install itself was relatively pain-less, but the final installed version was quite slow.  No bother — I simply selected the Action menu within Virtual PC and installed the Virtual Machine Additions.  One reboot later, Windows 98 is running much more smoothly.  My custom install takes up slightly less than 250mb on the harddisk.  That’s almost laughable!

Anyhow, having not used Windows 98 is quite some time, I was really reminded how little I miss that operating system.  Don’t get me wrong: back in the day I was most definitely a “Win98” fella, but things have most certainly moved on over the past decade.  The default “sliding” menus, the “web view” folders, Active Desktop (ugh!), and the folders that pertually open new folders, instead of using the existing one.  What a mess!

That said, my task is complete.  I can copy this out to the network for the occasional employee to download and test against.  Otherwise, I think we’ll just be steering clear of the old Windows 98 install.  No “nostalgia” is worth the hassle of having to use that old, rickety OS again….

 

DVD-to-Zune conversion…

Personally, I find the “convert my DVD to a portable format” quest to be an aggravating one.  I own a number of DVDs, and I would like to have those movies — that I own — on my Zune with me.  It seems that this is a borderline “sketchy” thing to do.  Why?  Well, you first have get around the DVD copy protection, then extract the DVD content, and finally convert it to a format you can use.

We can thank the movie industry for this hassle, I suppose?!

In my case — and to add further aggravation to the mix — my previous Zune 30gig would then re-convert whatever file I would make.  In other words, it supported *very* particular file types, resolutions, audio codecs, and video codecs.  The Zune software supported a wide variety of video files, mind you, but the Zune 30 had to have just-the-right thing.  The result?  Another hour+ conversion to get the video file onto the Zune *after* you’ve already converted it!  ARGGGGHHH!  I should add here that the Zune 80 is much more forgiving in this regard, and does not *need* to re-convert the video file, in most cases.

Anyhoo… I found a *very* handy application from Cucusoft called the “DVD to Zune Converter“.  At $29.95 — and even a bit cheaper if purchased on Ebay — this application made a pain-in-the-rear process a whole lot easier!  Here’s what you do…

  • Launch the software and hit the ‘Open’ button
  • Choose my DVD drive (where my movie disc is located), and it instantly fast-forwards to the beginning of the movie.  Nice! 
  • From the ‘Settings’ menu, choose ‘Profile Settings’ to configure the output format
  • From the drop-down menu, choose ‘Zune Video – Windows Media 9’
  • The default video size is 320×240 — what the Zune display can show — but you can choose up to 640×480 for higher resolution if connecting to a TV later on
  • The default audio bitrate is 96kbps, but 128kbps is even better
  • Close the ‘Profile Settings’ box
  • Click the ‘Convert’ button to start converting the DVD to a .WMV file

The Cucusoft program does things a bit differently than others, as far as I can tell.  Rather than performing a file-level conversion, the Cucusoft app appears to actually play the DVD, and then record the output.  Sounds wonky, but it honestly still looks very, very good. 

The process is this: It will fast-forward through a section of the movie, pause, “encode” that portion to your video file, and then proceed on with the movie, repeating the same process.  Depending upon your computer speed, you can actually rip movies faster than the movie length.  On my older, slower home computer — a P4 3.0ghz system with 2gigs of RAM — I can rip to a 320×240 .WMV file at about 1:1 ratio.  That is, a 2 hour movie takes about 2 hours to encode to a video file.  The faster machines I have at work make much better time, with a 640×480 movie taking about 4 hours for a 2 hour movie.  File sizes are reasonable, with a 2 hour movie at 640×480 encoding to a (roughly) 800mb file.  Not too bad.

Here’s another great thing: if you choose the Windows Media 9 option (above), then the Zune software DOES NOT need to re-convert the file when you sync up your Zune 30 (or Zune 80, for that matter).  It copies the file over and you’re ready to go!  The 320×240 size is not tremendous on any device, but it really looks pretty good.  Encoding at 640×480 looks better on the Zune (and on TV output), but means a longer encoding process *and* bigger files.  Your choice.

Lastly, I’ve done a bit of messing around with the other formats that the Cucusoft program will encode to.  It supports H.264 and MPEG-4 in addition to the (preferred) .WMV format.  With this software, however, I’ve found that the Windows Media 9 option provides the best quality video, though a bit slower than other options.

Anyhow, I give the DVD-to-Zune Converter software from Cucusoft a hearty 9 out of 10 stars.  Go check it out for yourself!

 

Garfield Minus Garfield

I don’t really enjoy “reading the comics” any longer. They don’t make me laugh, and thus the point is lost on me. That said, we have some Calvin & Hobbes collections at home that seriously crack me up! I was also fortunate enough to be able to lookover some old Garfield digests that my kids checked out from the library. That old stuff was hilarious! Not so much anymore, if you ask me…

Until now.

Have you seen “Garfield Minus Garfield“?

Genius. Pure Genius. Check it out.

My MP3 player history (because you care)

Although I am a technology person by trade, I don’t consider myself to be on the "bleeding edge", if you will.  In fact, I’m almost anti-technology in a number of ways.  New things come out and I glance at them pessimisticly, wondering why I would want that and secretly plotting it’s demise.

It may just be that I’m lazy.

That aside, I *actually* began using MP3 players (portable digital audio players) very early on.  Quite a bit earlier than most, I might add.  I can probably thank my old friend, Bill Zimmerman, for that.  He sold me his Rio PMP300 player, and I’ve been hooked ever since.  Thanks, Bill!

Without any further ado, here is my MP3 player history + commentary!  Get ready for the awesome.

Rio PMP300 (more info)

Shipping way back in 1998, the Rio PMP300 was the 2nd player of its kind on the market!  With a whopping 32mb of onboard memory and a SmartMedia slot for up to 32mb more, you could take a whopping 64mb worth of music with you wherever you went!  Actually, the onboard memory and the add-in memory were not contiguous, so you really carried up to 32mb worth of songs, and then another 32mb separately.  A song couldn’t spill over from one memory space onto the other.  Got that?  It also featured a compartment for a single, removeable AA battery, and connected to your PC via parallel (printer) port.  Getting music onto the Rio PMP300 was a sloooooow process.  A piece of software called "Dreaming of Brazil" later surfaced which allowed for moving any types of files onto the PMP300, and made management of the player that much easier.  For a 1st iteration, this baby was pretty cool, and worked well.

Rio 500 (more info)

The Rio 500 was considered a "2nd generation" MP3 player. Still touting onboard memory — now 64mb! — and an upgrade slot, you could maybe squeeze 128mb worth of music on this sucker.  Maybe I added 128mb to the onboard 64mb.  Heck, I don’t know.  The real advance, perhaps, was the USB connectivity.  "Dreaming of Brazil" also supported this device, and download/uploads were much faster thanks to the USB 1.1 upgrade.  The display was a cool, "blue" backlit LED screen, and the device still ran off of a single AA battery.

You know what?  I loved this player.  I really did.  Unfortunately, it was stolen out of my car, much to my dismay.  I probably would’ve continued to use it for a fair bit longer, but it was not to be.

Rio Nitrus (more info)

Time to upgrade.  The Rio Nitrus leaped ahead of previous players with an inclusion of a 1.5gb hard drive.  Gigs!!!!  All of a sudden, I could start loading albums onto my MP3 player — and quite a few of them!  The Nitrus itself was quite small, and looked very cutting edge.  Sadly, they were not the sturdiest of devices, and issues were prevalent.  That said, the USB 2.0 spec was a *great* upgrade, as well as the 5-band graphic EQ.  So schwanky!  Finally, the Nitrus featured a built-in rechargeable battery, which, of course, has become the "norm".

iPod – 3rd Gen, 15gb (more info)

Let me get this out of the way: I’ve never been a fan of Apple.  There.  I said it.  In fact, I never really wanted an iPod, but I got one from my employer for free.  If I remember correctly, my 2nd Rio Nitrus had given up the ghost, and I needed something.  Even an iPod would do, and the price was right.

The 3rd generation iPod was significantly larger/heavier than my previous players, but it also held a LOT more music.  In fact, for the first time I now owned an MP3 player that could hold all of my music, which was quite a change.  I no longer needed to selectively copy song/albums to my player — I could just copy all of it and take it with me.

Actually, that presented a real conundrum with me.  I organized my music MY way — where I wanted it, how I preferred to label it, and I was used to dragging music over to my MP3 player selectively.  The newer MP3 players were now shipping with software to "manage" your music for you.  I didn’t like that.  I rebelled.  In fact, I loaded up iTunes and tried it for awhile, but it had some issues.  *Most* songs were listed twice in my library — which is frustrating — and upon trying to remedy the situation within iTunes, the software began to delete all of my music files.  All of them.  Every single one.  I could laugh it off because "good" sys admins back up their data, but I uninstalled iTunes after that day and I’ve never installed it since.  "Best Windows application ever", to quote Steve Jobs.  Is that so?

Eventually, I paid for and used Anapod Explorer for my iPod management.  A great app that is still worth a look.  I also used a free app that you copied directly onto the iPod itself for take-it-with-you-anywhere music management.  Sadly, I can’t recall the name of it right now.  ‘Twas good stuff, though.

The iPod really succeeded in user interface, though.  Simply put, the iPod player was easier to use than previous devices.  The mighty "wheel" was fun and funky, and only newer players have succeeded in equaling its usability.

Negatives?  Well… the 3rd gen iPods were NOT kind on batteries.  I could maybe get 8 hours of play time out of this device.  Also, the shiny metal backing scratched very easily, and eventually looked like a war zone by the time the hard drive in my player finally gave out.  Good thing it was free…

iPod Mini – 4gb (more info)

After my previous iPod imploded with a hard drive failure, I was fortunate enough to receive a free iPod mini (4gb model) — again from my employer.  How sweet is that?  The compact size of the iPod mini was a welcome change, as well as the improved battery life.  I also preferred the casing of the iPod mini, which felt like it could handle being tossed into a pocket, book bag, or whatever, without getting scratched up.  All in all, the iPod mini was a fine player, but with one issue that I couldn’t quite get past: not enough storage space.  Once you get used to having ALL of your music with you, it’s difficult to go back.  I got tired of selectively loading/unloading albums onto my music player — quite a change from my previous preference — and I would find myself assuming that I’d copied an album onto my player, only to find that I had not.  Frustrating.  Not, "hey! someone blew up my house!!" frustrating, but frustrating nonetheless.  ‘Twas time to move on.

Zune 30gb (more info)

Being the Microsoft fanboy that I am, I was happy to see them step into the MP3 player market, though others have been less than enthused.  Based upon the Toshiba Gigabeat design, the Zune 30gb (now called simply the "Zune 30") was somewhat unremarkable at launch.  Other manufacturers had as much or more storage.  Other manufactures had better controls.  Other manufacturers had better software.  In fact, you could find most anything about the Zune to be implemented better in another device.

So what did the Zune have going for it?

Well… a few things, actually.  First, it featured the much hyped Zune-to-Zune wireless transfers.  Secondly, the interface of the Zune is actually quite good.  Thirdly, a nice, big screen.  And lastly, it’s not an iPod.  Seriously.  You know those people who run OSX or Linux simply because it’s not Windows?  Same deal here.  With market saturation comes senseless rebellion.  A lot of people just didn’t want an iPod, and the Zune certainly fits the criteria.

I want to comment on the Zune-to-Zune wireless capability.  I’ve used it on several occasions, and it’s really quite cool.  In fact, I wish that all music players could do this.  On a number of occasions I’ve wished that "Joe iPod User" could send me a song that he has for my later listening enjoyment, but alas no such capability exists.  Sharing songs with other Zune users is pretty handy, though it eats the battery up quite a bit, sad to say.

The Zune software, arguably, should’ve integrated with Windows Media Player, but it did not.  Perhaps the Zune team wanted full control over their software, or perhaps WMP integration was just begging for a lawsuit.  Either way, Zune had it’s own software app that worked pretty well.  In late 2007, however, the 2nd generation Zunes were released.  Microsoft made two fairly interesting moves at this point: 1) the new UI was available to *all* Zune models — even the original Zune 30, and 2) the Zune team released a completely revamped software app for the Zune.  While the old UI was very good, the updated interface was even better!  My Zune felt "fresh" again, and in some ways the best MP3 player UI I’ve ever used.  In fact, aside from the iPod Touch "Cover Flow" interface — which I have not used a whole lot I would argue that the Zune interface is the best around.  Others will certainly disagree with me.

The updated software has received its fair share of knocks, but that’s to be expected with such a radical departure.  Personally, I like it.  It’s not perfect, but it looks nice and I am continually finding new features that I dig.

All in all, the Zune 30 has been a great music player.  Decent battery life, nice casing, good controls, and a great UI.  In fact, whenever I’ve shown off my Zune to someone — even an iPod owner — they always like what they see.  Some have even converted.  My mother — the previous owner of my old iPod mini — recently purchased a Zune 4gb which she loves!

Zune 80 (more info)

Within the last week, I acquired a brand-new Zune 80.  Why?  Well…I like to get new stuff.  Also, my son’s Mobiblu MP3 player gave up the ghost, so it was fine timing for kicking my old Zune 30 over to him, while I got something schwanky and new.  Approximately $230 later, my Zune 80 arrives from Zappos.com — a great company to deal with, by the way.

The Zune 80 is a fairly "evolutionary" upgrade.  A larger hard drive, bigger screen, better battery life, and smaller dimensions all around.  The most significant upgrade is arguably the "squircle" d-pad.  Whereas the previous Zune featured only an up/down, left/right d-pad, the new Zunes now include a touch-sensitive pad that allows for sliding movement instead of clicking.  It feels a bit more "free", to be honest, and you still click around, if that’s what you like.  I’ve also noticed that the play/pause and back buttons feel better on the Zune 80 than on the Zune 4 I’ve played around with.

Although the screen is bigger, the resolution is the same as the previous Zune 30.  Still, the screen looks great and is (evidently) scratch-resistant, though it smudges quite easily.  The hold button is a bit more difficult to move, I’ve noticed, but not alarmingly so.  The size and weight feel good, if still a bit large.  The casing of the previous Zune 30 was unique and very cool, but the Zune 80 is a bit more "normal", if you will.  It feels very sturdy, though, and I’m not worried about breaking it.

Surprises?  Well…maybe just a few.  First of all, the packaging for the Zune 80 was very well done.  I know, I know — who cares about packaging.  Evidently I do, ’cause I liked it.  Thumbs up.  Secondly, the Zune 80 ships with the Zune "Premium" headphones/earbuds, which can also be purchased separately.  These are great headphones.  The cord has a woven look & feel to it that is less prone to tangling.  The earbuds stick together via magnets, when not in use.  Nice touch.  They also sound great.  Lastly, I was bummed that the Zune 80 didn’t come with a case of any kind.  My previous Zune shipped with a carrying "bag", if you will, that not only protected the screen, but could be used to wipe it off, if needed.  It clearly offered little to no protection if dropped, but it helped prevent scratching, which was nice.  I really wish the Zune 80 had the same thing, but it does not.

So… those are my thoughts on the Zune 80 thus far.  I dig it, if only for the improved d-pad and larger screen.  Of course, the better battery life and increased storage are nice too, though I’m pretty far from filling up 80gigs!

…[UPDATED SEPT. 10, 2010]…

 

Zune HD 32 (more info)

Coinciding with my birthday in September 2009, I sold off my Zune80 via Craigslist and combined some of my own money to purchase the newly released Zune HD.  Although I was very excited with what I’d seen from the Zune HD promotional material, the decision wasn’t that easy to come to. 

First of all, I would be losing about 60% of the storage space that I had with the Zune80.  I was used to having all of my music, photos, and videos on my Zune, and it just wouldn’t be possible with 32GB of storage.  What would I cut out?  Certainly not a life or death decision, but it felt like a step backwards to me.

Secondly, the Zune HD 32 was only available (at that time) in the platinum color, which wasn’t my favorite.  The 16GB version came in a very striking all black, but that was clearly too little storage space for me.  What to do…

The decision was really made when I got some hands-on time with a Zune HD 16 that a friend of mine had purchased.  All color and storage decisions aside, the interface of the Zune HD sealed the deal for me.  It was clever, fun, usable, different, and full of surprises.  I was sold, and shortly thereafter so was my Zune80.  I’d find a way to deal with the platinum coloring, as well as the lesser storage capacity.

Now, nearly 1-year later, I can honestly say that the Zune HD has been the *best* media player I’ve ever owned.  (See my review).  There were a few lingering issues that have all been dealt with since the 4.5 firmware release in April 2010, but none of those issues were show stoppers by any stretch.  In the past year, the Zune HD has also been updated with a browser,  the Smart DJ Mix feature, a wireless marketplace, various high-quality apps, and more.

The Zune HD itself is incredibly sturdy.  It feels solid in your hand, but it’s not particularly heavy.  The top of the player holds a slightly recessed power button for quick “sleep” and “wake” functionality.  The left-hand side features a “media key” that brings on-screen VOL+, VOL-, PAUSE, and track skipping wherever you’re at on the device – even within an app, photos, video, and (of course) music.  Finally, just below the screen is a “Home” button for returning to the main screen at any time.  It also acts as an exit button for getting out of certain functions/programs, much like an iPhone.  The Home button also allows you to toggle between the homescreen “pinned items” and “main menu” areas.  Very nice. 

Having said all of that, there is room for improvement.  I’ve found that sometimes I have to press the Home button before the Media key is functional.  This is mostly true when I stop playing music, get out of my car (pumping gas, or whatever), and then get back in again.  I’d like to simply press the Media key and resume playing, but if the devices is asleep for too long, the Media key doesn’t wake it up.  In those case, I have to press the Power or Home button, and then press the Media key.  One extra step that I’d prefer not to have.

Also, I do long for a truly untethered Zune HD experience, and that will (likely) only be solved with the upcoming Windows Phone 7 release that promises full Zune integration.  What does that mean?  Well, it almost certainly means that my Zune HD will be retired as I move to a WinPho7 device – offering Zune Pass capability over my phone’s data connection.  That’s really the clincher for me, and I’m anxiously awaiting that day.  Thankfully, the Zune HD works dandily over wifi, but there are those times when I’d like to grab an album wirelessly (via the Zune Pass), but wifi just isn’t available.

Lastly, one of my favorite “features” of the Zune HD is that the user interface is truly better than anything out there right now – even the iPhone or iPod Touch – and I’ve used them all.  Could it have more apps?  Sure.  Could it feature a nice camera?  Absolutely.  And there are other points to argue, but if what you really love is music, then there is no better media player on the market. 

The Zune HD + Zune Pass combo is for music lovers.  No doubt about it.   

Conclusion

There you have it, folks — my MP3 player history in all its glory.  Hope you enjoyed it!

Seen while walking to my car today…

They say that ‘necessity is the mother of invention’.  I don’t know who “they” are, but they said that at sometime or other.

Evidently this person *needed*….

  • …to make their car horribly ugly
  • …to reduce fuel mileage by atleast 30 percent
  • …to emulate the feeling of pushing a brick through Jell-O
  • …to embarass themselves

I would argue that they’ve succeeded on all four accounts.

(Note: license plates have been obscured to protect the guilty.)