Archive for the 'MOVIES' Category

Versions of Windows Movie Maker… on Win7

Windows-Live-Movie-Maker-Beta-Important-Update-Available[1] Opinions have differed over the years on the Windows Movie Maker line, but it’s a capable enough product.  You’re not going to be creating cutting-edge media with WMM, but for the cost (free), well… you get what you pay for.

There was some excitement when it was announced that Windows 7 would have access to an entirely new, refreshed version of Windows Movie Maker.  I say “have access to”, because the new version – Windows Live Movie Maker – would, instead, be a separate download – along with Windows Live Mail, Windows Live Photo Gallery, Windows Live Writer, and a few other things.  Certainly leaving some of those *core* products out of Windows 7 wasn’t everyone’s favorite decision, but it keeps the OS slimmer & trimmer.  That’s a good thing.

Sadly, the new Windows Live Movie Maker is probably not the follow-up that most folks were hoping for.  While it does utilize the updated ribbon bar interface, which is nice, most of the improvements end there.  The ever-usable “timeline” view is gone, taking a “picture from a preview” is no longer offered, and the ability to manually “stretch” objects out to adjust the timing has been replaced with manually typing in values.  It’s too bad, too, because the updated Windows Movie Maker could’ve really hit it outta the park, but the more I use it, the more I find things that I cannot do that I used to be able to.

Thankfully, there is some good news. 

For starters, WMM 2.6 is available for download, and seems to work just fine on Vista or Windows 7 – both 32-bit and 64-bit.  Even better, the WMM version that was updated for Windows Vista (ver 6.0) works on Win7 as well, provided you download the proper version for your OS, and then run a simple batch file.  Version 6.0 (released with Vista) included new effects and transitions, support for hardware acceleration, and some newer file formats.  Also, the UI is a refreshed & improved version of the WMM 2.6 interface. 

Why offer both versions?  Well… the 6.0 version offered some hardware acceleration features that not every Vista machine supported.  For those users, the refreshed XP version of WMM was released as version 2.6.  Confused?  Don’t worry about it.  For most folks, the shipped Vista version (6.0) is the best of the bunch, so…

Let’s take a look at installing that.

First…

Second…

  • Extract the “Movie Maker” folder and copy it to your C:\Program Files directory.  (Note: for 64-bit users, the “C:\Program Files (x86)” folder will not be used in this case, since the 64-bit version of WMM is a true 64-bit application.)
  • Open the “Movie Maker” folder that you just extracted.
  • Right-click on the “reregdlls.bat” file and choose to “Run as administrator”.  Choose ‘yes’ when prompted and allow the batch file to run.  It should only take a moment.
  • Finally, left-click on the “moviemk.exe” file and drag it onto your Start button to “pin it to the Start Menu”.
  • Open the Start Menu, click on “Windows Movie Maker”, and go!

The "reregdlls" batch file will register some important DLL files

Right-click on the batch file and "run as administrator"

Left-click the "moviemk.exe" file and drag it to your Start button

Now you have a Windows Movie Maker link in your Start Menu!

Notes:

  • Although both versions of Windows Movie Maker (2.6 and 6.0) can function along side Windows Live Movie Maker just fine, it appears that the 2.6 and 6.0 versions stomp on each other somewhat.  I recommend that you choose just one of those versions to have running on your Win7 system – with 6.0 being the better of the two.
  • The 2.6 (XP) version works fine on Windows 7, but seems to have a few issues – either by design, or by running on an OS that it was not intended for.  For instance, the “collections” view won’t show your imported video files – those have to be selected directly.  Also, importing video files takes quite a while, and then breaks them into “chunks” rather than the whole video file.
  • The 6.0 (Vista) version is obviously not intended to be ripped from Vista, so your experience under Win7 may vary and/or be problematic.  Haven’t heard of any issues, though.

Windows Movie Maker 2.6 (Vista/Win7 refresh of the WMM XP version)

WMM 2.6 - the older interface WMM 2.6 running on Win7 64-bit

Windows Movie Maker 6.0 (Vista-released version, 32-bit or 64-bit)

WMM 6.0 - the refreshed interface WMM 6.0 running on Win7 64-bit

Windows Live Movie Maker (Downloadable for Windows 7)

Windows Live Movie Maker

Finally, a special thanks to this forum for pointing me in the right direction!

Hope you enjoy using Windows Movie Maker on Windows 7!

My “Top Music of 2009” Lists

Well, as 2009 rolls to a close, I thought it fitting to give a run-down of my ‘notable musical items of the year’.  For the most part, these albums/artists have all been found on my “Now Playing” posts throughout the year, but I’m also adding some other categories to keep it interesting.

Here we go…

____________________________________________
My Top 10 Albums of 2009

61XfZozztmL._SL160_AA115_[1] #10  Doves, Kingdom of Rust

This group was totally unknown to me before this year, but Kingdom of Rust was a *great* way to get to know them!  Fans of Radiohead & Muse, check it out.

 

 516cXjbc6tL._SL160_AA115_[1]
#9  |  The Decemberists, Hazards Of Love

A very well put-together ‘theme’ album that weaves an interesting story line.  Good music to “zone out” to.

 

 

51F0mKrQ9cL._SL160_AA115_[1] #8  |  Jeremy Enigk, OK Bear

Not as strong as ‘World Waits’, if you ask me, but a very good album nonetheless.  I hate the album cover.

 

 

51UvkmJCPQL._SL160_AA115_[1] #7  |  David Bazan, Curse Your Branches

If there’s one thing I love about David Bazan, it’s his brazen, bold honesty, and this album doesn’t disappoint.  Not everyone’s cup o’ tea, I’m sure, but really great stuff.

 

31UyE4JPN7L._SL160_AA115_[1] #6  |  U2, No Line On The Horizon

Although I’ve been listening to U2 for the past 25 years, I’ve never been a rabid fan.  That said, “No Line On The Horizon” features some incredible work.

 

31MuYSuVGhL._SL160_AA115_[1] #5  |  Metric, Fantasies

This is without a doubt the strongest commercial release for Metric.  This album is slick, catchy, and well-done.  Seemingly overlooked by many, but it’s worth your time.

 

 

51miWWfKK0L._SL160_AA115_[1] #4  |  Thad Cockrell, To Be Loved

Mr. Joey Sanchez (of Fair) let me know about this album, and I’m really glad he did.  Wonderful, old-timey folk worship that brings a tear to your eye.  So great.

 

61LmFcR9lcL._SL160_AA115_[1]#3  |  The Dear Hunter, Act III: Life And Death

I literally new *nothing* about this band until this past summer when my wife and I saw them open up for meWithoutYou.  Their live performance intrigued me, but this album has blown me away.  It’s strange, dynamic, catchy, and not at all what I expected.  It’s also really, really good.  Not sure who to compare them to, so just give it a listen!

 

51WBw0YZBTL._SL160_AA115_[1] #2  |  Neko Case, Middle Cyclone

Wow.  Where do I start?  First of all, this album should probably be a tie for first place this year, but I had to choose someone, so I did.  It grieves me slightly, though, because this is such a wonderful album – from the opening track, to the closing “noise” that could lull you to sleep.  I love the music, the melodies, the lyrics, and the (awesome) album cover.  Hoping to see Neko Case live sometime in 2010.

 

51sMDGXbcNL._SL160_AA115_[1] #1  |  Silversun Pickups, Swoon

Following up an incredible album such as “Carnavas” is typically too much for most bands.  Their next release is either lacking, boring, just “so-so”, or is just outright bad.  Not in this case, though.  “Swoon” is exactly what it needed to be.  It’s not an incredible departure from their last album, but it is evolutionary in every regard — songwriting, production quality, and continuity.  Without a doubt their best work to-date, and my pick for the best album of 2009.

____________________________________________
My Top Musical Finds of 2009

thumbnail[1] Neko Case

Yep.  You read that correctly: it’s not an album, it’s an artist.  Although I had heard her name before, I’d never listened to any of her stuff.  Upon recommendation from a friend of mine (thanks, Ken!), I picked up Middle Cyclone and gave it a listen.  I was blown away.  Not only is this album phenomenal, but so is her catalog of previous work:  Blacklisted, Fox Confessor Brings The Flood, and her album Furnace Room Lullaby (released as ‘Neko Case & Her Boyfriends).  Truly a great find this year.

41ndY2-8eQL._SL500_SS110_[1] The Hourly Radio, History Will Never Hold Me

I’ve found some wonderful artists/albums via the ‘Related’ section of the Zune Marketplace – and The Hourly Radio is one of them.  Although they’ve since disbanded, they left behind some really great albums including ‘History Will Never Hold Me’.  Not sure how to describe their sound, but it’s somewhere around Sunny Day Real Estate, Jimmy Eat World, and who knows what.  Just check it out.

51dJ2F-jcwL._SL500_SS110_[1] The Working Title, About Face

Another rabbit trail lead me to this album, About Face.  How can I describe it?  Moody, powerful, poppy (at times) and just plain good.  Sadly, their latest release, Bone Island, is receiving fairly poor reviews, but this album is great… and most definitely one of my favorite finds for 2009.

____________________________________________
My Top Musical Disappointments of 2009

61KaJBMm6cL._SL500_SS110_[1]meWithoutYou, It’s All Crazy!  It’s All False!  It’s All A Dream, It’s Alright

Perhaps the stakes were just too high, but as one of my very favorites artists of the past decade, they seemed to do no wrong in my eyes.  As far as I was concerned, each album of theirs was better than the last.  All good things must come to an end, I guess, as their latest release, It’s All Crazy!…, just didn’t do it for me.  I enjoy most of the album, to be honest, but I have to confess my disappointment with it.  Quite simply, it’s not at all their strongest work.  There are, of course,  moments of (their typical) genius, but many more moments of feeling tired and repetitive.  I’m not sure if they’re planning on releasing any more albums, but I sincerely hope that they get back on the wagon.

51KY6jJycOL._SL500_SS110_[1]

Muse, The Resistance

Possibly another case of ‘setting the bar too high’, but the latest Muse release just kinda flopped for me.  It sounds like the same stuff rehashed, and it bums me out.  I’d like to see Muse enhance and grow their sound, but they haven’t.  There’s no doubt that this band is extraordinarily talented, but talented individuals don’t always make an incredible album.

51X9LgTrVzL._SL500_SS110_[1] MuteMath, Armistice

When MuteMath started recording this album, their goal was simple: “embarrass their last release”, or something like that.  Problem is, their last album was really good, and this one isn’t better.  It’s fine, but not great.  Another issue I have, though, is that one of their best tracks, Spotlight, was released several months earlier in support of the Twilight soundtrack, and thus was pretty worn out by the time the album was finally released.  Perhaps it’ll grow on me, but as it stands I tend to pass by it in my playlists.

____________________________________________

And there you have it, folks!  Hope you enjoyed my year in music.  As always, comments/questions are welcome 🙂

DVD-to-Zune Ripper: WinX DVD Ripper (free)

(as originally posted at the ZuneScene forums)

Since getting my Zune HD (32) a week ago, I’ve been on the hunt to find a good DVD-to-Zune software package.  There are a lot of good articles on this site, but I’m (personally) more fond of the one-step applications: pop in a movie, choose some settings, and then "rip".  No hassle, ya know?

Anyhow… here are my criteria for a "reasonable" solution:

  1. One-step rip.  DVD straight to a file that is ready to load onto my Zune.
  2. Must not "convert" when syncing with my Zune.  Ugh!
  3. Must have decent-to-nice image quality.
  4. Keeps everything in-sync (audio with video)
  5. Reasonable file sizes
  6. Can’t take forever and a day to rip a movie!
  7. Price.  Free is nice. 🙂

So, my searches led me to a lot of different solutions.  I’ve used Cucusoft’s offering for awhile now, but it’s a bit wacky… and I would get pauses from time to time.  No good.  Finally, I was browsing Dealnews and came across an offer for WinX DVD Ripper for "free".  They were actually referring to the Platinum version, which isn’t totally free when you get down to it.  Still, their real "free" version looked promising, so I downloaded it.

http://www.winxdvd.com/dvd-ripper/download.htm

At about a 6 meg download, the program is fairly lightweight and straightforward.  Nice!

Having successfully ripped several movies now with WinX DVD Ripper, I thought I’d share my steps (in case anyone cares)…

1) Download and install the WinX DVD Ripper.  Even works great on my Win7 64-bit box! 🙂

2) Launch the software

winxDVD1[1]

3) Click the DVD Disc icon to select your movie.

winxDVD2[1]

winxDVD3[1]

4) Select your options.  I choose MP4, "disable" Subtitle, Original Size and Keep Aspect Ratio, Video Quality "1100". 

Note: that a Subtitle is selected by default.

winxDVD4x[1]

5) Click START to convert. Wait while the video is ripped and converted.  Your mileage will vary, but my quad-core AMD system ripped a 2:10hr movie in about an hour.  Not too bad.

winxDVD5[1]

6) When the process completes, you can copy the .mp4 file into a directory that your Zune software uses (if not already in there) and then Edit the file details with a better name, release year, etc.

This 2:10hr movie ended up at just over 1.1gigs in size.  You can bump the video size and/or video quality down a bit, if you’d like smaller file sizes.

winxDVD8[1]

winxDVD6[1]

7) Sync the movie to your Zune and enjoy!

winxDVD7[1]

Other notes:

The options selected should work fine for all 2nd generation Zunes and above.  The Zune 30 will likely require choosing the WMV tab and other options for quality.

Quick Review: Zune HD

zuneHDMicrosoft recently released their 3rd generation Zune media player – the Zune HD.  Whereas the previous Zune players relied upon d-pads and squircles to move around the user interface, the Zune HD is full multi-touch wonder, and it is very well done.  In fact, if it weren’t so pretty, you might almost say that it’s over done.  It’s almost embarrassingly schwanky and fun-to-use.

But let’s dig in to other items first.


PRICING

Current pricing for the Zune HD is $219 (US) for the 16GB version, and $289 (US) for the 32GB version.  While that pricing is competitive and slightly cheaper than the similarly equipped iPod Touch devices, it seems like a better choice would’ve been to totally undercut Apple on this point. 

Also, I know that memory is sold in particular quantities and sizes (8GB, 16GB, etc.), but why can’t they figure out how to release different memory sizes for these?  For instance, a 40GB Zune HD that is comparatively priced to a 32GB iPod Touch would seem like a better value (to me) than being $10 or $20 cheaper.  I should know if this is technically feasible or not, but I’m really not sure.  You would think it wouldn’t be too difficult.


PACKAGING

The Zune HD comes in a fairly small and sturdy box.  The top of the box slides upward to reveal the player, with manuals, earbuds, and USB cable packaged neatly behind it. 

If “unboxing” write-ups are your thing, then check out the Engadget article covering this.  Honestly, though… it’s just a box.


SPECS

The Zune HD is easily one of the most advanced media players you will find on the market today, featuring

  • 3.3” OLED capacitive touch display (480×272 resolution)
  • Measures 2.07” x 4.08” x .35”
  • Weighs a paltry 2.6 ounces (compared to the 4.1oz iPod Touch)
  • Powered by the Nvidia Tegra processor
  • Flash-based storage
  • Multi-touch display
  • HD radio on-board
  • 802.11b/g wireless support
  • Accelerometer
  • MP3, WMA, AAC and MP4 audio support
  • 720p HD video output (via optional dock)
  • Equalizer
  • 660 mAh Lithium-Ion battery
  • Web browser, Apps and Games


HANDS-ON

Before you ever even turn the device on, you immediately notice how little it weighs.  Although 2.6oz doesn’t mean a whole lot to me on paper, it sure translates into a nice experience when you’re holding it.  My recently-acquired MyTouch 3G phone isn’t exactly heavy, but there’s no doubt that the Zune HD weighs less.  In fact, with the metal casing and glass screen, it just feels like a nicely designed & assembled piece of hardware.  At least two of my iPhone-toting friends remarked at how nice the form factor is.  It really makes the iPhone feel incredibly large.  Zune phone anyone?

zuneHD1 Like most touch-enabled devices of today, the physical buttons are mostly absent.  The top of the device has a rectangular Power/Sleep button that is flush with the casing.  The left-hand side features a slightly bumped out Media Button that brings up the volume and track fwd/back controls, no matter where you are.  Finally, the Home Button is placed just below the Zune logo on the front of the player.  That’s it.  No other physical controls are present.

The bottom of the Zune HD is also where you’ll find the standard 3.5mm headphone jack and dock port.

The back of the casing features a nicely etched Zune logo, your serial number (toward the bottom) and the obligatory FCC information, though very faint.  The lower left-hand side has the words “hello from seattle” in very small text, something that every Zune has sported somewhere.

The Zune HD comes with very typical earbuds (+ colorful foam covers) that I would never, ever use.  They sound decent, or so I’m told, but that style of earbud absolutely kills my ears.  I am continuing to use the Zune Premium headphones that shipped with my Zune 80.  Otherwise, the only other hardware of note is the standard Zune port-to-USB cable.


USER INTERFACE

In my personal opinion, the “twist” interface on the Zune has been the best of any media player out there.  The ability to move horizontally and vertically among your collection is both fun and easy-to-use.  The Zune HD retains the “twist” tradition, while adding ‘touchability’ to the mix for additional control, shortcuts, and some pretty cool stuff.

As an interesting aside, a good friend of mine was taking a look at my Zune HD.  He noted that something (I don’t remember what) was not entirely intuitive on the Zune HD.  It got me thinking.  What isintuitive”?  Should all functions be readily apparent without ever having read a manual or having used a similar product?  How low do you set the bar?   These are interesting questions.  Microsoft has historically been *very* conservative and overly explanative with their interfaces.  Windows NT 4.0 featured an arrow that flew across the taskbar, poked the Start button, and said “click here to Start”.  It was fine for Grandma who’d never used a PC, but it was pretty ridiculous for the rest of us.  These days, however, Microsoft seems to count on the fact that more and more people know how to use a computer, and thus can figure out most of the interface on their own.  “Intuitive” is almost better stated as “consistent” – both with their own product, as well as other products on the market.  I read the Zune HD manual after the fact, but otherwise figured out on my own how to play music, use the radio, add a favorite in the browser, and scroll through pictures.  To me, that means they’ve accomplished “intuitive”.

</soapbox>

zuneHD2 The Zune HD now features a “wallpaper”, of sorts, which ends up acting more as a shade to what is going on behind the scenes.  When you turn the Zune HD on, you are greeted with the (customizable) shade, the time, notification icons, and an arrow pointing up – which is the direction that you flick the shade to get the homescreen.  As best I can figure, this shade helps protect the user from unnecessarily messing with the player while in a pocket or purse.  If you happened to hit a button accidently, you would still have to flip the shade to do much more.  A safety feature, I suppose, and a fun way to personalize your device, since the rest of the player only allows for the default black background. 

All that said, it seems like the swiping up motion to clear the shade is a bit problematic at times.  It requires a fairly intentional swiping motion, and it occasionally not ready to be swiped after first turning the screen on.  Here’s hoping these issues are remedied with a future firmware update.

zuneHD3The homescreen is really broken into two main parts: the category list and the quickplay.  When one part is made prominent, the other shrink down and off to its respective side.  It’s really an amazingly clever way to give access to more functionality, without having to mess with an interface that is already known.

homescreen: As you can see in my very awesome, custom graphic, the homescreen gives the ability to launch several things all from one place.  Get used to this, because the Zune HD is all about having a lot of choices from various views.  In this case, you can select any of the various ‘categories’ on the right-hand side, click on the ‘Play’ circle to begin playing all of your music, or you can click on the left-hand side ‘Quickplay’ area for access to a number of handy things.

zuneHD4 quickplay:  The small quickplay area on the left becomes the prominent portion of the screen just by clicking on it.  Actually, you can switch between the two main screens by either swiping back and forth, clicking on the respective side, or simply hitting the home button.  They really want you to use the quickplay functionality, and you really ought to be.  It’s wonderful!

Back to the subject at hand, though, the quickplay area is broken into (at most) four sections: Now Playing, Pins, History, and New.  The ‘Now Playing’ portion only shows when you return to the homescreen while you’re playing music, radio, or a podcast.  It will show an album cover (or similar) of whatever you’re currently playing, along with ‘Playing’ or ‘Paused’ text above it.  ‘Pins’ are like favorites for the media you have on your Zune HD.  Like a particular album, artist, or genre?  Pin it to your quickplay area where you can quickly get at it.  You can also pin podcasts, pictures, radio stations, browser favorites, and apps.  Nice!  The ‘History’ area, as you might expect, shows media that you’ve accessed most recently.  Finally, the ‘New’ section shows media that you’ve most recently added, which is great when you’ve downloaded a few new albums that you want to remember to listen to.

zuneHD5 music:  Hopefully, playing music is the primary job of your Zune HD.  After all, that’s where this device excels above all others in this category.  Clicking on ‘Music’ from the homescreen whisks the word “music” to the top of the screen and zooms in, revealing your Artists view.  From here you can scroll downward and roll through the artists, swipe side-to-side to get at playlists, genres, albums, etc., or hit a boxed [E] letter (see the photo) to bring up the full alphabet view where you can go straight to all artists beginning with that letter.  It’s really a fairly ingenious (and fast) way of moving around, and yet retains the “twist” interface that Zune has used for years.  It’s more of the same, but better.  Not only that, but other items are immediately clickable from this view.  Click the ‘Play’ circle next to an artist and begin playing all albums from that artist.  Rather dig in?  Click on the Artist name to get at their albums, pics, bio, and related.  Finally, click on the top of the screen where the cropped ‘Music’ text lives to go back to the previous screen.  This is a consistent feature when moving around the Zune HD interface.

zuneHD6 While playing music, the ‘now playing’–type view has an astonishing amount of control.  As you can see in the picture above, you have access to no less than 7 distinct functions all from a single view.  What you actually see is certainly far less cluttered than my photoshopped screenshot, so you’ll need to imagine this without all of the red arrows and text.  The ‘now playing’ view let’s you easily see the artist (bold), the album (just below it), the album artwork, the current song (just below the artwork), and the next three tracks coming up.  You can also hit Back, toggle Shuffle and/or Repeat, and give the song a Rating, if you like.  There’s more here than meets the eye, however, because much of what you see is also clickable.  For instance, the Artist text will take you to the section for that artist.  The area that shows the current + upcoming tracks will give you the full track list for that album (or playlist).  Selecting the middle of the screen will bring up the Media Key functionality: adjusting the volume, or going FWD/BACK with your tracks. 

Wow!  That’s a lot of stuff, and as with most Microsoft products, really just a number of ways to accomplish the same task.

video:  Strangely enough, I don’t (personally) spend a lot of time watching video on my Zune.  Sure, I have the obligatory few DVDs I’ve ripped and some home movies, but nothing significant.  Quite honestly, I use my Zune mostly for music.

That said, there isn’t a lot that the Zune HD offers in video playback as compared with the previous Zune players – save for a beautiful, beautiful screen.  That’s really the story here.  Even with a smaller screen than the iPod Touch, I’m guessing that most folks would prefer watching the Zune HD and all its OLED goodness.  The colors are richer, the viewable angles are far better, and (on paper) the video-playback battery life is longer.

As you might expect, you can hit the Media Key to get on-screen playback controls during a video.  Drag to fwd/rew the video, turn the volume up/down, or pause.  Pretty basic stuff, and it works well.

pictures:  Again, the story here is really the beautiful screen.  You can browse your pictures via folder name or date, and then watch a slideshow or flip through them manually.  They look wonderful. 

Even more impressive, though, might be the speed at which you can flip through your pictures.  The Zune HD is quite simply the most responsive handheld device I’ve ever owned.  Thanks to the Nvidia Tegra processor, I imagine, and some very clever programming.  You can literally flip through them as fast as your fingers will move, and then pinch to zoom (etc) that folks have come to expect.

Lastly, you can long-press a picture (or folder) to delete it, “pin” it, or (in the case of a single photo) make it your slide background.

zuneHD7 radio:  Like all previous Zunes, the Zune HD offers built-in FM radio, which only the most recent iPods have begun to offer.  One of the selling points of the new Zune “HD”, however, is the inclusion of HD radio, which advertises ‘CD quality’ radio reception.  Having listened to HD radio in my commuter car for the past year or so, I can honestly say that it does sound noticeably better than standard FM radio.  It also offers the (very handy) ability to include the artist/song/album name info in the audio stream, which is nice.

Like other views on the Zune HD, the ‘now playing’ page for radio gives access to a number of handy functions.  Notably, you can quickly add a radio preset, access your existing presets, and add the current ‘song’ or ‘show’ to your cart for later downloading on the Zune Marketplace.  With an HD-enabled station, you can also swipe left or right to change between their HD offerings.

All in all, if you don’t listen to much FM, the HD radio offering may not float your boat a whole lot.  It is a very nice feature, though, and well implemented.

marketplace: Building off of the 2nd generation Zune functionality, the Zune HD has full wireless access to the Zune Marketplace.  Launch the Marketplace and you are greeted with (4) basic options: Music, Apps, Search, and Cart. 

The ‘Music’ option takes you to a nice thumbnail view of the newest album releases, or you can swipe left/right for Top Songs or Top Albums.  ‘Apps’, as you might expect, let’s you view all of the Zune apps for immediate downloading.  There’s like 7 apps total right now, so it’s pretty silly.  ‘Search’ looks like a typical browser search area, and brings up the Zune HD virtual keyboard.  Type in your search terms, hit Done, and away you go!  Everything that the Marketplace has available is at your fingertips – for streaming (Zune Pass) or purchasing via the ‘Cart’.  I would imagine that you can purchase immediately if you have Microsoft Points in your account, but I have not tried that.

zuneHD8
internet
: It came as a bit of a surprise to many folks, but the Zune HD features a very capable browser.  Given what Windows Mobile has offered up in terms of browsing, not much was expected in the regard, but the results are quite welcome.  The IE6-based Zune HD browser is nice to look at, relatively fast, and features the typical mobile browser controls you’ve come to expect: pinch to zoom, move around with your fingers, and so forth.

The browser interface is, shall we say, very spartan.  There are about (4) controls to see, and much of that is tucked away at the bottom or transparent.  When push comes to shove, you realize that the “bare bones” interface is really all you need in a mobile browser: hitting Back, managing Favorites, Searching, and then interacting with your current URL.  It seems almost too simplistic, but what else do you need to do that cannot be handled with those basic controls + screen manipulation?  It’s very efficient, and the browser engine is surprisingly capable.

Aside from the Marketplace search, the browser is really one of the primary places in the Zune HD where you’ll use the virtual keyboard.  While I don’t have hours of typing under my belt on the Zune HD, my initial reaction is that the keyboard is quite capable, and in many ways better than what is on the MyTouch 3G.  It seems to be responsive and very accurate.  In fact, I did a test type between the two devices, typing “echo and the bunnymen”.  I had one mis-typed letter on the Zune, and I completely mangled “bunnymen” on the MyTouch 3G, which I have far more experience typing on.  Guess that says something.

apps: This is certainly a point of contention amongst many reviewers and interested buyers: What is the app support on the Zune HD?  To be perfectly honest, the current support is poor.  Microsoft has not announced a long-term plan for what type of app support the Zune HD will have, and so we’re left wondering… and tinkering with the handful of launch day apps. 

Let’s see, I have a calculator, a weather app, and some games.  While they all look very nice, they take a bit too long to load, in my opinion. 

What would be nice to find out are the long-term app plans for the Zune platform.  Will we get XBLA games ported to the Zune?  Will there be a full app marketplace with 3rd party support?  I would be very surprised if Microsoft left the apps as they are currently, but without any official word from them, I can only remark about the present state of things.  It’s pretty sad, but at least a small step forward from the previous iteration of Zune hardware.  A very small step.

settings:  I’m not going to spend too much time with this.  Need to adjust your wireless link?  Try out a different EQ setting?  How about set a lock screen PIN?  It’s all here.   Enjoy.

PERFORMANCE

A nice interface is nothing if the infrastructure doesn’t support it well.  The Zune HD could dance and twirl all it likes, but if it feels like the hardware is constantly chugging to keep up with you, well… the experience would be less than ideal.  Thankfully, the performance is top-notch.

I don’t know a whole lot about the Nvidia Tegra processor, but I get the feeling that this is a nice piece of hardware.  Either that, or the Zune team is a crack squad that can produce blood from turnips.  Whatever the case, the Zune HD moves along at a clip that is nothing short of wonderful.  Screens emerge quickly, transitions are smooth, and scrolling is seamless.  If anything, my experience with the Zune HD has been eye-opening.  This is how mobile devices are supposed to be:  fast and fluid.  HTC and the WinMo team need to get together and get this Tegra processor into all of their upcoming phones.  Seriously.  This is good stuff.

BATTERY LIFE

The Zune HD is rated at up to 33 hours for music and 8.5 hours for video.  These numbers are, of course, under the most ideal conditions – wireless off, screen off (music), and not fiddling with things.

Evidently, the Nvidia Tegra processor is known to be both powerful and power-sipping.  The verdict is still out on the battery life of the Zune HD, but I can’t say that I’m completely blown away just yet.  If I’m listening to music for 5 hours and barely see the battery meter change, then I’m impressed.  As it stands, the battery life seems to be decent, but not incredible.

WRAPPING UP

So, this “quick review” is not especially quick, but what can you do?  There is a lot to talk about with all that is wrapped up in this tiny package.

Is the Zune HD the best personal media player out there?  I say “yes”, with no hesitation whatsoever.  If your goal is a great music listening experience, then the Zune HD is the best of the best.  Hands down.  If you’re a Zune Pass subscriber, then the whole package just becomes that much better. 

What about video support?  Well, I still say that the Zune HD is wonderful for watching video, but at 32gigs max (currently) you’re only going to fit so much content on here.  What you have will look great, thanks to the beautiful OLED screen.  No doubt about that.

What about app support?  As it stands right now, the Zune HD is *not* your best choice for apps.  If you want a large selection of games, map finding apps, or something to produce bodily function sounds, then another device is a better bet for you.  That said, I’m hoping that Microsoft knocks our socks with some amazing Xbox/XBLA integration in the very near future.  C’mon, guys!

What else?  Quite simply, there is not a nicer looking media player on the market today.  The form-factor is great, the interface is amazing, and the whole package is extremely well thought out.  From the wonderful navigation to the beautiful screen, the Zune HD has many features that the competition need to be seriously considering. 

With exception of app support, the Zune HD has raised the bar.

Fixing the Xbox 360 (RRoD)

Xbox360-ringofdeath[1] So, we’ve had our Xbox 360 for about two years now.  Something like that.  We inherited our Xbox from my brother who had purchased it at “launch” in late 2005.  When he upgraded to the “Elite” model two years later, we were more than happy to take his hand-me-down system.

Well… I was happy.  My wife was less enthused.  But that’s another story.

Anyhow, our hand-me-down Xbox 360 crapped about at around the 3-year mark from original purchase.  We had had it for a year or so.  Because it sounds like a small jet engine, we’ve always kept it in our TV cabinet with the doors mostly closed.  It was never really an issue until the infamous RRoD popped into our world one day.  We were heartbroken.  Thankfully, Microsoft saw fit to extend the warranty to (3) full years for this particular issue, and ours was sent off for repair with little fanfare.  What we received in return was a refurbished unit. 

Oh, well.  Beggars can’t be choosers.

The honeymoon quickly faded within the first week.  Back in the old TV cabinet again, this Xbox 360 soon exhibited the ‘2 Rings of Death’ behavior which tells you that the unit has overheated somewhat.  The story appears to be something like this: the original (and somewhat poorly designed) internals of the X360 ran at much higher temperatures, but would eventually succumb to internal damage that would result in broken solder joints, separated heatsinks, or what have you.  The newer units have lower tolerances for heat, and thus display the ‘2 Rings of Death’ when the unit would get too hot.  Less damage to the system is a good thing, but having to shut the unit off after an hour can be aggravating.  Worse yet, we realized that we really needed to open our TV cabinet when the Xbox was on, which only made the entire room obnoxiously loud.  We also experimented with better airflow around the unit, standing it up vertically, and moving the power supply further away.  All helpful, but (evidently) not enough.

THE NEW VICTIM

About a month ago, our year-old “refurb” X360 began to exhibit ‘video artifacting’ and freezing.  After some time in the penalty box, we could turn it back on and resume our entertainment.  Still, it was unnerving and it seemed to only be getting worse.  Finally, it gave way to a full-blown RRoD. 

Clearly something had to be done, so I weighed our options. 

  • For $99, we could ship the unit off to Microsoft for repair.
    • PROS: quick and easy, not too expensive
    • CONS: likely to have the same issue in a year, still going to be loud
  • For $199, we could buy an Arcade unit and re-use our current harddrive.
    • PROS: brand new box, potentially new/better design
    • CONS: more than we really want to pay, still going to be loud
  • For $35, we could “fix” the most likely x-clamp issue.
    • PROS: cheap
    • CONS: still loud, possible to have similar issues down the road
  • For $60, we could “fix” the x-clamp and upgrade the heatsink or fan
    • PROS: still pretty cheap, potential for a “quieter” Xbox
    • CONS: difficult to decide between heatsink or fan upgrade
  • For $90, we could “fix” the x-clamp and upgrade both heatsink and fan
    • PROS: potential for a “quieter” Xbox, more hopeful long-term fix
    • CONS: price getting up there, no guarantees

I also considered sending my Xbox 360 off to one of many vendors who will repair the unit for you.  It does cost more, but they typically offer a short warranty on their work.  Ultimately, I was less enthused about the added cost.

As you can see from the options I’ve listed, my primary concerns were: price, reliability (over time), and noise.  Pretty much in that order.  Eventually, I decided that $90 wasn’t too much to spend, and I liked the potential for long term reliability and reduced noise.  I jumped on that option.

ORDERING THE PARTS

oscommerce[1]

My vendor of choice was Llamma’s.  They not only had decent prices on the parts I needed, but also had some great repair write-ups for me to follow. 

I ordered up the following items…

The parts arrived a few days early, which was nice, so my son and I dug right in.  The Llamma’s RRoD Fix-It Tutorial gives a nice step-by-step write-up, complete with pictures.  While this “fix” isn’t difficult, per se, it does require some bravery on your part. 

First of all, this will void your warranty, if you still have one.  If your Xbox 360 is still under warranty, then by all means have Microsoft repair it for you.  Might as well.  Otherwise, a RRoD Xbox 360 isn’t going to get a whole lot worse by you cracking it open and attempting a repair – assuming that you’re mindful of the task at hand.  Having built and re-built hundreds of PCs over the years, I was fairly comfortable with the task.  Fairly comfortable.

Secondly, there is some “modding” required for the x-clamp fix.  The deal is this: Microsoft uses tension-based x-clamps to keep the heatsinks pressed tightly against the CPU and GPU, respectively.  Those clamps can loosen over time, thus the cooling degrades.  The x-clamp fix involves removing the x-clamps themselves, boring out (8) holes, a using a series of screws and washers to reattach the heatsinks.  Still feeling brave?  Then continue on.

Lastly, you’re probably best off having someone help you with this process – if only for the second pair of eyes.  Some steps are slightly tricky, especially the first time through.  Having someone help you is a good safe-guard against doing stupid things.

PERFORMING THE “FIX”

So, I was somewhat surprised to find that opening the Xbox 360 is actually one of the more complicated portions of this process.  Thankfully, Llamma’s provided both a very handy tool for the job (included with the All-in-One Kit) *and* a good write-up to help me along.

Once the case is off, you wind up with a metal plate that the motherboard is attached to.  You carefully pry off the x-clamps, remove the heatsinks, and prepare for the “fixing” process.

Much to my surprise, I found that I already had the Elite-type GPU heatsink w/ heatpipe in our refurb unit.  As it turns out, Microsoft began adding the heatpipe upgrade to their systems in mid-2007.  If I’d known that, I could’ve saved myself some money + shipping costs.  Oh, well.  Llamma’s was kind enough to take it back and credit me.

Perhaps the most unnerving part of the process is “boring” out the holes where the heatsink attaches to the metal chassis.  There are (8) holes total – (4) per heatsink – and the x-clamp fix requires making those holes slightly larger.  It sounds quite daunting, but is really fairly easy.  Grab a 13/64” drill bit and “bore” the holes out to be slightly larger.  It takes about 15 seconds per hole.  Then, sand the holes down so that there are no rough edges.  Easy.

With the provided cleaning solutions, remove all of the thermal compound from the CPU, GPU, and corresponding heatsinks.  It’s not difficult, but requires some persistence and patience.  Once those are clean, prepare to reassemble your Xbox 360.

REASSEMBLY AND “REFLOW”

As they say, “putting it back together is a reverse of the removal”.  In this case, though, you are first spreading a very thin layer of thermal grease, and then attaching the heatsinks to the CPU and GPU with the All-in-One Kit-provided screws and washers.  Assuming that you tighten the screws down evenly, you can really torque them down as tight as you’re able.  It will get very, very snug – and that’s a good thing.

With that done, you begin to carefully reassemble your Xbox 360.  Pay attention to where things go, and be sure not to jab anything with a screwdriver.  Before putting the box fully together again, however, you perform what they call a “reflow”.  Without re-writing the directions entirely, you will plug the fan back in and place it directly on top of the CPU heatsink – cool air blowing downward toward the CPU.  Turn the box back on and allow it to run for 30 or 40 minutes.  With the fan placed like that, you are cooling the CPU but not the GPU.  This is the aforementioned “reflow”, which is very important.  If you get a RRoD right away, don’t panic.  Simply torque the heatsink screws down a bit more and try again.  In our case, the X360 came right up first shot and was working fine.  Still, we let it “reflow” for about 45 minutes before putting it all back together.

With that completed, you’re ready to truly reassemble your Xbox 360 and put it back to work.  The last “fix”, if you will, is to swap the stock fan for the Whisper Max unit.  In our case, I opted to remove all of the silly LEDs that come with the replacement fan.  Your choice. 

The Whisper Max directions are really pretty poor, but it helps if you have the “general idea” figured out beforehand.  Since this fan features both “power” and “quiet” fan modes, it requires two power sources and a switch to toggle between them.  This means daisy-chaining the DVD power source (for 12v) and going direct to the motherboard (for 5v).  The switch is sandwiched between the case housing and the center of one of the fans.  It can be a bit tricky, so just pay attention.  I removed the cap off of the switch, and glued it on after the entire box was reassembled.  Also, be mindful of where your fan wires are routed.  Keep them out of the way of the fan, and off to the side.

With all of that completed, finished reassembling your Xbox 360 – being careful to put everything back where it goes.  Reattach the faceplate, harddrive, and any other external peripherals you have.  Glue the switch cap on with a very small dot of super glue, being careful not to glue the switch into place. 🙂

So, the actual total cost came to $55 + shipping.  Nice.

THE VERDICT?

We’ve been very happy with our RRoD fix so far.  Not only is our Xbox 360 up and running once again, we’ve only seen one “freeze” over the past couple of weeks – even after assaulting it with hours of online Halo 3 multi-player action!  Even better, the “quiet” mode of the Whisper Max fan is extremely useable.  I’ve since moved our X360 out of the TV cabinet for better airflow, but using the “quiet” fan mode, we’re totally able to stream Netflix without the typical ‘noise annoyance’ that we used to face.  In the “loud” fan mode, I would venture a guess that the Whisper Max is slightly louder than the stock fan, but is clearly pushing more air.  We use that mode for gaming, where the volume is already pretty cranked.Note: this is not me.

All in all, our Xbox 360 has a new lease on life, and I couldn’t be happier.  Well… I guess I could.  It would’ve been nice if the Xbox 360 never had the RRoD issue and didn’t sound like a jetliner, but such is life.  I actually find the Xbox platform to be extraordinarily robust and easy-to-use, save for the overheating issues.   There’s a reason why so many people return to the Xbox 360 even after a unit failure.  It’s a pretty wonderful platform, all things considered.

So, if you find yourself in the same predicament, I would highly recommend the All-in-one RRoD Fix kit from Llamma’s, as well as the heatpipe (if needed) and Whisper Max fan upgrades.  Good stuff, and our box is humming along quite nicely 🙂

Useless article alert!

“The 10 Movies You Shouldn’t Watch Online” could’ve been a useful article, if it gave legitimate specifics as per the article title, but it doesn’t.  Instead it gives commentary like “You’ve Got Mail”: It’s just a little too cutesy to watch this romantic comedy on your computer, don’t you think?

Honestly.  It’s about as useful as this post.

Xbox 360 + Netflix = Awesome

Despite the over-publicized HD DVD vs. BluRay war, I think that there is little doubt that the future for media distribution — of all types — is really heading toward downloadable content, if it’s not already there.  Folks are puchasing CDs less, and opting for iTunes, Amazon MP3, Rhapsody MP3, and other “subscriber”-based methods (Zune, Rhapsody) for their music.  Love it or hate it, that’s what people are doing.  The same goes for movies, and will continue to head in that direction as the content is made more readily available.

Well, today Microsoft has announced the very next step in this process: a partnership with Netflix to allow streamable content to the Xbox 360 console.

The recently released $99 Roku player for Netflix was an amazing release in its own right, but the announcement today is MUCH bigger for many reasons. First of all, there have been over 10 million Xbox 360s sold around the world — most of those in the United States.  The majority of those 10 million units are now *instantly* capable of acting as Netflix streamable devices.  Secondly, there are over 8 million Netflix subscribers.  I’m guessing that a great many of these Netflix subscribers also own an Xbox 360.  Congrats!  Now you’ll be able to get Netflix content on your media console!!  Thirdly, this is a big win for two media-centric companies: Microsoft and Netflix.  The Xbox 360 will now have more media content available than ever before, while Netflix will certainly broaden it’s customer base.  In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that Netflix gained thousands of subscribers shortly after today’s announcement!

This move will have its share of detractors, I’m sure.  For starters, you do need to have the Xbox Live “Gold” membership — as well as a Netflix subscription, of course — to be able to access the Netflix content.  You know what?  It only makes sense, as Microsoft needs to make some money in this deal too.  For $40, you can purchase a 12-month Xbox Live “Gold” membership from NewEgg.com.  Done deal.  Also, may will lament about the (currently) limited “streamable” library offered by Netflix.  Fair enough.  Be on the lookout, though, because that library will certainly continue to grow in the coming months.  Netflix has every reason to increase their streamable content base.

Needless to say, I’m very excited about today’s announcement.  It not only builds upon the great technology that Netflix has offered for years, it also utilitizes hardware that is in many living rooms already — the Xbox 360.  In my opinion, a “win-win” situation for all around — except, perhaps, for Sony, Apple, and a few others 🙂

Looking forward to the fall release of this technology update!