Archive for the 'TECHNOLOGY' Category



When Pigs Fly! (Day 3)

poison_apple[1] Having switched over to an iPhone a few days ago, I thought it best to keep a running blog of how things are going: my likes, dislikes, surprises, frustrations, and so forth.  After all, this is a pretty big change for a guy like me 🙂

The reaction to my switchover has been, more or less, as I expected.  A few “traitor” remarks here and there, some “finally”-type sentiments, and the usual “I think you’ll enjoy it” comments that generally don’t seem to have any strings attached.  The biggest surprise (as far as comments are concerned) are those folks who haven’t said anything at all.  It makes me nervous.

For the most part, the experience so far has lacked much fanfare – and I mean that in a good way.  I had to jailbreak my phone (for use on T-Mobile), and that process was a bit more problematic than I’d expected, but that shouldn’t even factor into my thoughts on the iPhone platform.  I’m trying to keep those types of experiences entirely separate from the rest.

Without further ado, here is a quick run-down of my likes, dislikes, etc:

LIKES

  • Stability has been great.  No crashed apps (not that I’ve used tons) and no real issues to speak of.
  • Performance is snappy and consistent.  One of my grips with my Android phone(s) was the sluggishness that I would come across on a regular basis – whether swiping screens side-to-side, opening the browser, or using the maps app.  For that matter, everything could slow down from time to time, and it was aggravating.  Although I’ve seen a few screens on the iPhone chug for a brief moment, they are few and far between.  Even better, the built-in apps (phone, mail, browser, photos, etc.) typically open up immediately.  That’s nice to see.
  • Fairly intuitive.  This is an interesting line item, because Apple (and theIMG_0286 iPhone, specifically) is touted as being the creme de la creme of user interfaces.  While the interface has by and large been easy to navigate, there are a number of things that I wouldn’t call “intuitive”.  Once you know it, of course, it’s easy to use and remember, but they weren’t exactly easy to find.  Case in point: if in the email list view you swipe the right-hand side of an email message, you are prompted with a “delete” button.  Nice!  But I would’ve had NO idea that was there if I hadn’t seen someone else do it.  Also, that particular behavior works on other parts of the UI, but not everywhere.
  • Battery life is quite decent.  I had been on numerous occasions that the battery life was going to be a real sore spot with me, so I was expecting the worst.  I’ve learned to be pretty frugal with my mobile devices, so I did the same here.  3G is “off” (since I’m on T-Mobile), wifi is “off” by default (‘cause I rarely use it), and push email is “off” (I sync every hour).  I do leave bluetooth turned “on”, but I might change that if I find a decent homescreen toggle for that.  All in all, I usually have well over 50% battery by the end of the day, which is about what my Android phone gave me.
  • Fast camera!  The camera on the iPhone 3GS is pretty darned quick – especially compared to the dog-slow camera on the MyTouch 3G.  Fewer “blurry” shots and missed photos is a good thing.
  • Great virtual keyboard.  The iPhone virtual keyboard isn’t great, but it’sIMG_0287 better than just about every other one I’ve used.  On the Android devices, for instance, the stock virtual keyboard was nice looking and fairly responsive.  The HTC version of the virtual keyboard was a step up in many ways, but at the expense of occasional sluggishness.  The ability to hold down a letter and get an ALT character was really nice, though, and I miss that when I’m typing other characters – question marks, commas, etc..  Certainly room for improvement here, but the iPhone keyboard certainly gets the job done.
  • Stock apps are good.  Apple just had to nail this one, and I think they did.  The basic stuff — phone, mail, messaging, browser, etc. – is very well done.  Never particularly exciting, mind you, but it works and works well.
  • Take a screenshot.  With the iPhone, you can quickly hit the Power button and Home button at the same time to snap a photo of the current screen.  Very cool.
  • Double-tap Home for your ‘favorites’.  I don’t know if this is a stock setting or not, but the ability to double-tap the Home button to access my dialer ‘favorites’ is a super-nice touch.  More or less a speed dialer, which I absolutely have to have.  Nice work, Apple!
  • Proximity sensor.  My iPhone buddy, Andy, doesn’t even really think about this one anymore, because he’s been using an iPhone for so long.  Coming from Android, though, it is the bee’s knees!  Basically, the phone goes dark when I’m on a phone call and my face is against the phone.  Pull it away from my face and it lights up again.  Yes!  Not only is it majorly convenient, but it saves battery life and unnecessary phone press mishaps.  Every touchscreen phone should do this, but I have feeling that Apple owns the patent.

DISLIKES

  • I’m embarrassed.  You’d probably expect this from a long-time Apple hater, but I’m quite frankly embarrassed to have an iPhone.  I find myself trying to hide it when I can, or just leave it in my pocket.  It’s kinda like I just “came out of the closet”, except  that I didn’t.  The embarrassment factor will likely change over time.
  • Animations up the wazoo!  I like a nice visual cue in the form of anIMG_0284 animation as much as the next guy, but the iPhone is totally over the top, in my opinion.  Screens spring open, rotate, roll back, flip around, whizz, bang, and whatever else.  It’s a bit corny, if you ask me, especially the “trash” animations when you delete a photo.  Geeeeeeez.  Also, if you press and hold a home screen icon, you can move them around (fine), but why do they have to shake the whole time?  Crazy… and ugly.
  • Slippery sucker.  I won’t beat this one any longer, but the stock casing is just plain ol’ slippery – almost requiring a case of some sort, which I don’t like.  Apple should get over themselves and fix this.  It’s dangerous.
  • Not always consistent.  Again, from a company that is viewed as “writing the book” on great interfaces, I find some strange disconnects when using the iPhone.  For instance, the Maps app has a little folding corner in the lower-right.  What’s up with that?  Sure it’s neat, but there’s nothing else like it that I can find.  Why does the top bar (battery, time, etc.) have to look different depending upon where I’m at?
  • Some ugly default icons.  This is a personal preference item, of course,IMG_0285 but some of the stock homescreen icons are flat-out ugly.  In particular, the Photo app (sunflower) icon annoys me, as does the App Store icon.  Also, the Weather app icon really ought to show me the current temperature, rather than showing 73 degrees all of the time.
  • Screen is strange when turned off.  Let me explain, if I can.  I’ve never seen this on another mobile device, but the iPhone screen is almost naked when turned off.  It has a very gray/brown color, and I can clearly see the edges, which are a tad smaller than the screen frame.
  • Just another connector for the collection.  I would like to see some standardization with mobile devices and connectors.  Previous to the iPhone, nearly all of my personal mobile devices used a mini-USB connector.  My phone, our camera, bluetooth headset, and so on.  Now I’ve got yet another connector cluttering up my desk, and I find it unnecessary.  To be fair, the Zune has a proprietary connector too.  Why can’t they just standardize on one and stick with it?  Oh, well.
  • Buttons that are difficult to use.  I’ve used a number of mobile devices over the years, and the iPhone’s physical buttons/switches are among my least favorite – save for the “joggr bar” on the T-Mobile Dash (oh… my… word!).  The iPhone volume buttons are hard for me to find while I’m on a call, the “silent” switch is awkward (in my opinion), and the top ON/OFF switch is difficult to reach one-handed.  I’ve seen better implementations of all three.
  • Needs better volume/silent management.  To be fair, Android wasn’tIMG_0283 any better at this, but the iPhone has no way to automatically switch you in and out of “silent” mode.  Windows Mobile has had an “automatic” profile for years that would put your phone in silent mode whenever you were in a meeting (based upon your calendar events) and return to the normal ring mode when done.  I found a pay app called “Auto Silent” that can do this on the iPhone, but it should be built in.  The “Locale” app for Android takes it even further, but for $10 I’m guessing that a lot of folks will go without.  These types of features oughta be stock, if you ask me.
  • Tethered Jailbreak*.  This is specific to my firmware and hardware type, but it really sucks.  Basically, every time I reboot my phone, I have to connect it to my computer and run “blackra1n”.  Really lame, and slightly unnerving.

There you have it!  More to come in the days ahead…

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When Pigs Fly! (The iPhone Experience: Day 1)

Don't do it... it's poisoned! JUST TELL US HOW YOU FEEL
Before we get going here, let me make something very clear:  I hate Apple.  I’ve hated them for years.  I hate seeing those cheap white ear buds in people’s ears.  I hate seeing that glowing piece of fruit on laptop lids.  I hate seeing people standing on the street corner petting their iPhone as if it brought some sort of pleasure (and maybe it does).  I hate iTunes.  I hate hearing the words “MacBook Pro”, “iPod” or “iMac”.  In fact, I’m beginning to hate any reference to a lowercase letter “i”.  I hate it when Apple is successful.  I hate seeing their billboards or tv commercials.  I hate seeing that purple, “spacey” default background in OSX.  I strongly dislike Steve Jobs (I try not to *hate* people) and generally think he’s a pompous egomaniac.  In fact, I generally view Apple Computers as a marketing powerhouse that bends nearly every word they say, and with little-to-no recourse.  Sometimes I wish the company would just go away, like they nearly did over a decade ago.

That’s how I feel.  Deal with it.

SOME HISTORY
Before you write me off as a complete freak of nature, though, let me explain some of my background with technology and computer companies.  You see, when I was still in grade school, my parents owned a small computer store in Anchorage, Alaska.  They sold IBM PCs, PC JRs, Vic 20s, and Commodore 64s.  Those were real computers.  I grew up using tape drives, dot matrix printers, BASIC, and DOS.  It was gritty, exclusive, and geeky.  I loved it.  Still, back in those days Apple Computer had a very strong foothold in the home and business markets.  Like most every other kid, I used them in school for programming, reports, playing Oregon Trail, and whatever else.  Apple and IBM lived in a 50/50 type of market, depending upon which year you were looking at.

Ahh, Windows 3.1 In the late 80s and early 90s, however, a little product called Microsoft Windows started to make some serious headway.  Neither technically superior nor particularly impressive, Windows began replacing DOS on PCs as the interface of choice.  Sure it wasn’t gritty and grubby like the command line stuff, but it was “PC”.  It seemed like the right thing to do, and so I stuck with it.

Shortly before I was married, the next big iteration of Windows – Windows 95 – sprung onto the scene.  More important than any technological advances was the market saturation.  Microsoft, not the PC market as a whole, had shifted the tide from a strong Apple influence to the Windows world.  In the years that would follow, Microsoft Windows would find itself with over 90% market share.  At that same time, I was getting into building, fixing, and selling computers for a living.  Shortly thereafter, I began work as a “systems administrator” and have been working in this same field ever since.  What types of computers have I been working on for most of these years?  Why Windows systems, of course – servers, desktops, laptops, phones, and so forth.  Microsoft has, in a matter of speaking, kept me employed for many years.

WHY, MAN?  WHYYYY?
I say all of this to somehow explain how and why I could’ve come to having such a hatred of Apple Computers and their products.  They have been a threat to my very livelihood, or at least that has been my perception.  As they’ve become more and more successful over this past decade, I’ve seen my relevance waning somewhat.  As with most threatening situations, the “fight or flight” response kicks in, and neither choice is especially pretty.  It certainly hasn’t been with me.

Not really how I feel... I guess I should’ve seen the signs several years ago.  My good friend and long-time PC buddy, Andy, decided to get a MacBook.  No warning, no discussion – he just bought it.  I actually found out from a mutual friend who told me, “Andy said not to tell Scott”.  For some strange reason, it was a blow to me.  I wasn’t angry at my friend, of course, but rather I felt threatened by the tide of users starting to reconsider Apple once again.  Not too long after, a co-worker purchased an iPhone with a similar caveat — “don’t tell Scott”.  This same sentence has been uttered probably half a dozen times.  Evidently, and without my even knowing it, I became the anti-Apple guy.  Rather than shrug it off, however, I dug in, squared my shoulders, and began to fight.  Here’s the deal with starting a fight, though: you gotta know what the victory, if it ever comes, will look like.  Otherwise, you just end up swinging your arms ad infinitem with no end in sight.

I’ve never been much of a fast learner.

THE BEGINNING OF THE END
A few weeks ago, after repeated frustration with my Android phone (MyTouch 3G… more on that in another posting), I decided that something had to give.  I had to get a phone that I could live with.  Unfortunately, my choices were fairly limited, seeing as how I *had to have* full Exchange sync support, ability to use the phone with T-Mobile, and a smattering of other “must have” and “would really like to have” requirements.  Then it dawned on me: perhaps I could start to tame this hatred of Apple by forcing myself to use their product.  Not only that, but the iPhone – aside from being an Apple product – fit nearly every criteria that I had for a workable phone solution.

I swallowed my pride and set out to get my hands on one.

Yesterday, March 15th, 2010, I received an iPhone 3GS (16GB).  Not my first Apple product, mind you, but the first that I’ve purposely intended to use – and to a great extent.  Also, the irony of me (ME… of all people!) using an iPhone has not been lost on my family, many of my friends, and especially my co-workers.  It’s both a complete non-event (cosmically speaking) and a radical quantum shift — all at the same time.

MOVING ON FROM HERE
So, here we are.  I have an iPhone.  I’m using it.  I make phone calls on it, browse the web, take pictures, and so forth.  I still don’t really like Apple, but maybe that’ll change.

That all-to-familiar unlock screenStrangely enough, I’m ok with myself and this decision.  That may seem like a dumb thing to say – it is a computer company, after all, and just some stupid technology – but you don’t know my brain.  It was a difficult decision to make, but I’m alright with it at this point.  Some of my PC/Windows-lovin’ buddies may call me a turncoat, but that’s ok.  I’m really not.  I will gladly toss this iPhone off of a tall bridge when the next Windows Phone Series devices come out – assuming that they’re as good as they look – but that may still be awhile.  I would also rather use Windows 7 than anything else.  I know my roots, and those are hard to dig up without some very considerable effort.  If some of those roots are as “angry” and “hate-filled” as my first paragraph of this post, however, then I’m happy to be rid Yeah...I covered the back with a picture of Ronald Reagan!  So sue me!!!of them.  Life is too short for those kinds of words and emotions.

Meanwhile, I’m going to be blogging about my experience with the iPhone – both the technology at hand (see what I did there?!) and the changes in me.  It’ll either be extremely exciting or excruciatingly boring.

Like you really have anything better to do than read my blog.

Comcast puts up a fight

Actually, the funny thing is how little of a fight this was.

So, I found out last night that our $19.99/month Comcast High-Speed Internet was increasing to $42.99/month.  Yikes!  Double-the-cost for the same service.  No thank you.  I decided to ‘chat’ with Comcast and either “lower my cost” (most desirable), “lower my service”, or “change service altogether” (least desirable).  All that said, I was not going to pay almost $50/month, after taxes, for just my Internet connection.  That was not an option.

To that end, I started a ‘chat’ session with Comcast customer service to see what options I had.  I was fully expecting some wrangling back and forth.  Instead, here’s what actually happened (with names, etc. changed to protect the innocent):

=======================================================================
user Guest_ has entered room


Guest(Thu Dec 17 2009 13:40:56 GMT-0800 (Pacific Standard Time))>

Order Information
analyst ComcastDude007 has entered room

ComcastDude007(Thu Dec 17 2009 13:41:07 GMT-0800)>

Hello Guest_, Thank you for contacting Comcast Live Chat Support. 
My name is ComcastDude007. 
Please give me one moment to review your information.

ComcastDude007(Thu Dec 17 2009 13:41:10 GMT-0800)>

Hi! You can call me 007.
I hope you're doing great today!

ComcastDude007(Thu Dec 17 2009 13:41:10 GMT-0800)>

Do you have an ACTIVE Comcast account/service
in your new OR current address?


Guest_(Thu Dec 17 2009 10:41:25 GMT-0800 (Pacific Standard Time))>

Yes, we have an active account.

Guest_(Thu Dec 17 2009 10:41:34 GMT-0800 (Pacific Standard Time))>

Address is XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

ComcastDude007(Thu Dec 17 2009 13:41:50 GMT-0800)>

awe3

ComcastDude007(Thu Dec 17 2009 13:41:52 GMT-0800)>

My apologies for the typo.

ComcastDude007(Thu Dec 17 2009 13:41:54 GMT-0800)>

Awesome! Thank you very much for your continued patronage and loyalty to us. We really appreciate it.


Guest_(Thu Dec 17 2009 10:42:08 GMT-0800 (Pacific Standard Time))>

thanks.

ComcastDude007(Thu Dec 17 2009 13:42:07 GMT-0800)>

I understand that you are interested to order -Internet $19.99 for 6 months- Am I correct?


Guest_(Thu Dec 17 2009 10:42:27 GMT-0800 (Pacific Standard Time))>

Actually, I need to see about our current pricing.

ComcastDude007(Thu Dec 17 2009 13:42:37 GMT-0800)>

You're most welcome!

ComcastDude007(Thu Dec 17 2009 13:42:38 GMT-0800 )>

Sure thing.

ComcastDude007(Thu Dec 17 2009 13:42:40 GMT-0800)>

Please let me take care of that for you.

ComcastDude007(Thu Dec 17 2009 13:42:59 GMT-0800)>

You may visit https://www.comcast.com/localization/Localize.cspx?Referer=/shop/buyflow2/products.cspx to check for our promotions as well

ComcastDude007(Thu Dec 17 2009 13:43:10 GMT-0800)>

To ensure integrity in your account, please verify your account number OR the last FOUR digits of your SSN.


Guest_(Thu Dec 17 2009 10:43:40 GMT-0800 (Pacific Standard Time))>

Actually, we are currently a Comcast customer.  I need to figure out what we're CURRENTLY paying for our service.  I think it just increased quite a bit.

Guest_(Thu Dec 17 2009 10:44:00 GMT-0800 (Pacific Standard Time))>

Last 4 of my SS are... XXXX

ComcastDude007(Thu Dec 17 2009 13:44:11 GMT-0800)>

Thank you for verifying.

ComcastDude007(Thu Dec 17 2009 13:44:46 GMT-0800)>

Yes, your paying $54.95/mo but I can lower it to $19.99 for 6 months. Shall we go ahead?


Guest_(Thu Dec 17 2009 10:45:05 GMT-0800 (Pacific Standard Time))>

That would be *perfect*.  Yes, please!

ComcastDude007(Thu Dec 17 2009 13:45:22 GMT-0800)>

Sure thing.

ComcastDude007(Thu Dec 17 2009 13:45:27 GMT-0800)>

Great news! I am proud to offer our next 
generation Triple Play with FREE HD! It 
includes cable, internet, and phone 
for just one low price. Get yourself and 
your family an entertainment-filled home now!

ComcastDude007(Thu Dec 17 2009 13:45:49 GMT-0800)>

Please wait one moment while I process your order/request.


Guest_(Thu Dec 17 2009 10:46:06 GMT-0800 (Pacific Standard Time))>

Thanks, 007 smile

ComcastDude007(Thu Dec 17 2009 13:46:36 GMT-0800)>

You're welcome, Guest

ComcastDude007(Thu Dec 17 2009 13:47:09 GMT-0800)>

Thank you for waiting.

ComcastDude007(Thu Dec 17 2009 13:47:13 GMT-0800)>

Account: xxxxxxxxxxxxxx
Order: 1000xxxxxxx
Succeeding Monthly Fee w/ tax and modem rent:$25.47

ComcastDude007(Thu Dec 17 2009 13:47:16 GMT-0800)>

Congratulations! You are all set.

ComcastDude007(Thu Dec 17 2009 13:47:16 GMT-0800 )>

Before you go, have I resolved and answered 
your reason for chatting today in my end?


Guest_(Thu Dec 17 2009 10:47:40 GMT-0800 (Pacific Standard Time))>

Yep!  Everything resolved. Thanks again.

ComcastDude007(Thu Dec 17 2009 13:47:56 GMT-0800)>

Great!

ComcastDude007(Thu Dec 17 2009 13:47:57 GMT-0800)>

Thank you.

ComcastDude007(Thu Dec 17 2009 13:47:58 GMT-0800)>

You're most welcome!

ComcastDude007(Thu Dec 17 2009 13:47:59 GMT-0800)>

It's a pleasure to serve our most valued customer
such as you. Hope to hear from you again soon!

ComcastDude007(Thu Dec 17 2009 13:48:01 GMT-0800)>

Have a good one. Cheers! smile


Guest_(Thu Dec 17 2009 10:48:03 GMT-0800 (Pacific Standard Time))>

You too.

=======================================================================

What I find most humorous is that I never actually requested a reduced monthly price.  It was pretty obvious, I suppose, when I mentioned that our “current monthly bill had just increased quite a bit”, but after that the rep just gave in.  No fight necessary.

Perhaps the goal is to make the customer feel “in control”, which is fairly effective.  Whatever the deal, I like the fact that I’m getting our Comcast service for $19.99/month again.

Hmmm.  Maybe I should’ve requested that pricing for the next 12 months…

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”.

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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.

Microsoft Security Essentials (Anti-virus)

I have never, ever been a fan of anti-virus applications.  Why?  Well, as a systems administrator, I’ve seen how more often than not they adversely affect the PC that they’re “protecting” – primarily in the area of system performance.  It drives me nuts.  In most cases, I think the protection they offer is admirable, but at the cost of performance?  No thank you.

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When it was announced a year ago (or so) that Microsoft would be releasing their own anti-virus client, the jokes started almost immediately.  Windows has long been flogged as an “insecure” operating system, even though Windows XP’s service-pack 2 (released in August 2004) resolved most of these issues. 

It’s difficult to shake a bad reputation. 

What has been unknown for these many months is what Microsoft’s iteration of an anti-virus client would look like.  Will it be bloated?  Slow?  Will it even provide system protection?  How much will it cost?  Some of these questions were answered with the earlier release of Microsoft’s Live OneCare suite, which garnered very good reviews on all accounts.  Still, Microsoft would find some way to mess up a good thing, right?  Don’t they always??

Not necessarily.

Earlier this year, the beta of Microsoft Security Essentials was released and the results were quite surprising. 

  • No Bloat: Less than a 5 meg download for the 64-bit version.  Seriously.
  • Responsive: Your system feels nearly ‘no load’, even while a full system scan is taking place
  • Cost?: Free

The one thing that I cannot comment on is the level of protection that this anti-virus suite provides, though I’m going to give Microsoft the benefit of the doubt on this one.  Why?  Just because they’re Microsoft?  No, actually – more because their Live OneCare product (upon which this app is based) has already been given a thumbs-up in this regard.  I expect that tradition to continue.

So… note this date in history: I am for the very first time recommending an anti-virus product.  Check out Microsoft Security Essentials

Would like to read a more in-depth review?  Sure thing.  Head over to this site.

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Ruh-roh! Burned by the Zune Marketplace :(

So, I’ve been getting my newly-acquired Zune HD hooked up and synced up.  We’ll discuss that at another time.  Meanwhile, I’m syncing my music — about 30% of which is Zune Pass (subscription) content — and it’s mostly going fine.

Yeah.  I said mostly.

ZunePass_sad

For the first time, I’ve found an instance where an album I downloaded via my Zune Pass subscription is no longer available at the Zune Marketplace, and thus no longer playable in either the software or on the Zune player. 

It typically works like this: you have a subscription to the Zune Pass, you log in, find an album, download it, and you are granted about 30 days to listen to that album.  Subsequent launches (and logins) to the software will renew that license, such that you essentially never notice it.  It’s part of your library and that’s that – playable whenever you like.  If you sync it to your Zune player, which most folks will, the license is copied there as well.  If you don’t re-sync your player within 30 days, the music will actually expire and be unplayable.  This has happened with my wife, who uses her player regularly, but doesn’t sync very often.  Otherwise, if you sync your player at least every now and then, it will renew the license on your player as well, and then give you uninterrupted access to that music.

Such is the life of subscription-based music, I suppose.  Love it or not.

Anyhoo… I’m syncing my music library and am greeted with fourteen items that won’t sync properly.  What’s the deal?  The album ‘About Face’ from The Working Title appears to be in my collection with no issues, but it just doesn’t sync.   Hmmm.  Double-clicking on one of the tracks gives me this error message:

zuneError

The message pretty much says it all: This item is no longer available at Zune Marketplace.  (Error Code: C00D27E1)  We don’t know why it’s not available, or who’s fault it is.  Presumably, some contractual agreement between Zune and the record label of this band has lapsed or changed in some way.  I really don’t know.  I *do know*, however, that I can’t get this album on the Zune Marketplace anymore, which is a real bummer.  Hopefully it’ll come back some day soon.

For those out there who are dead-set against subscription-based music, then this will no doubt serve as ammunition for their argument.  On the other hand, I’ve download some 1,200 tracks via my Zune Pass, and this is the first instance of this that I’ve come across.  The odds are definitely in your favor to not have this issue. 

Besides… you can always go grab the full album from Amazon MP3 for $6.99 like I did.  🙂

Enjoy.

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UPDATE:  I thought it only fair that I report some other strangeness that I recently found on the Zune  Marketplace.  Specifically, a number of albums that are no longer available to me.  In my syncing of approximately 1,200 Zune Pass tracks, about 10 albums would no longer sync as they were not available to Zune Pass subscribers any longer.  I think perhaps two of these albums just no longer existed on the Zune Marketplace, whereas the other 8 albums (or so) had gone to a ‘purchase only’ mode.  In other words, those albums were still available on the Zune Marketplace, but not to subscribers.  A bummer, to be sure.

Just thought I’d get that out there.