Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Media Center wasn't the first with Changer Support

With all of this talk of 200 disc DVD/CD changers with Media Center Edition and DRM associated with modern media, I started thinking about CD ripping and why the original iPod was successful. It was a winner because it supported seven different audio formats. Sony allowed just one, their ATRAC. Apple opened up the gates and let you put many types of music within. Going forward, their iPod with Video is cool with H.264 movie support, but mine is primarily going to be a music device since I am frequently driving and don't need another distraction while on the road. Plus, it does take a while to get movies onto the thing. CD ripping is not only LEGAL, but relatively quick and easy.

Back in the early 2000 time frame, I used many PC's to simultaneously rip a handful of CDs to MP3 format, so the process didn't take long during evenings that I was home. Five years later, the new Sony X1 Media Center PC and associated VGP-XL1B 200 DVD/CD changer supports a Media Center plug-in to rip 200 CD's at a time, but at a cost of over $2200, it's an expensive proposition. Trying to do this on the cheap, I dug around my house and found some old SCSI NEC 2Xc 7 disc CD changers (just like the Nakamichi's) and went about finding software that supported them. Turns out that iTunes shows the two of them as 14 disc drives, and grabs the CDDB information associated with each disc, but doesn't allow you to rip sequentially.

The solution? Enter the Riptastic! MP3 CD Ripper with multi disc changer support. This thing will even sequentially rip between two single disc players in your PC if you don't have a changer! It grabs the CDDB information and rips along at 1.1x for my SCSI NEC's and faster with some of my other drives. The best thing about this solution is that I no longer have to babysit my computer. I just load up my discs then head about my business. You can pick your compression and bitrate and also the file naming convention. It will also encode simultaneously while ripping, but my 1GHz test machine could stand to be a bit more stout for the encoding process. Does anyone need a hundred or more discs ripped? My hardware is ready, but my music is already on hard drives...

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Robbing bandwidth from the rich...

USDigital HDTV Tuner
Originally uploaded by gadget.
...and giving to the poor. The US Digital HDTV Tuner was the first high-definition tuner at WalMart when it came out a year ago, but it had a secret inside waiting to be unlocked. Its video output supports every analog format from HD component to standard composite so even regular television owners could benefit from this product. A digital audio output was present for surround as was traditional stereo jacks. All of this was fed through a single UHF antenna port.

The tuner works as an ATSC or high-definition decoder for free but the magic was that in select markets, for a mere $19.95 per month, Fox News, Discovery, Disney and about 30 other "cable" channels can be received. The signals for these channels are broadcast over unused capacity within the HDTV UHF spectrum using technology from DotCast. HDTV frequencies are 6MHz wide and offer 27mbps of throughput. The FCC requires that an HDTV channel use only up to 19.4Mbps of bandwidth so that leaves a bit extra for USDTV to lease and combine with partially used channels over remaining spectrum from each broadcaster in a region. DotCast developed this multiplexing technology to spread data across many channels as a way to download programs to computers or set-top boxes. With USDTV, this "video data" is decoded with an ATI NXT2004 as standard definition video programming from a VSB/QAM tuner. This is sent to the TV by way of a ATI Xilleon chip running at 300MHz, which handles the AC3 and MPEG2 decoding. The only connection that you need to receive their signal is a bow-tie or external UHF antenna. No cable feed or even satellite dish aiming is required. This also means that rain fade should be non-existent as well. All that you need is a strong UHF signal to your home, or an antenna suited for its reception.

This is an interesting concept, as USDTV has created an MVNO model for television. Think about all of the money that your local broadcast networks spend to keep their broadcast towers up and online. An even more expensive undertaking is keeping Murdock and Ergen's DirecTV and DISH Network satellites in a 22,300 mile orbit in space. USDTV can ride on the backs of infrastructure that is already in place and their only cost is customer acquisition and programming. It worked well for Virgin Mobile, Boost and hopefully the just released Amp'd. There are some TV affectionado's who are concerned that HDTV quality will suffer as broadcasters supplement their revenue stream with data casting, but most markets that are using the technology get a majority of their bandwidth from digital networks owned by PAX, which only programs in standard definition - leaving plenty of bandwidth for USDTV. The jury is still out on whether they can be successful in the market place, but with a great channel selection, low cost and inexpensive hardware, they have all of the things going for them including the ability for the end user to "self install." Now that is scalable!

Monday, November 28, 2005

888-ELF What?

Virgin Mobile 2005 Campaign
Originally uploaded by gadget.
I love a smart advertising campaign. When a company goes nuts though, that's even better. Who else should go a little crazy, and not take life so seriously than Richard Branson, billionaire playboy. That statement was said only out of the extreme jealousy that I have for him. The return of the 2004 Virgin Mobile holiday campaign is silly and fabulous. I can't even believe that RadioShack's name is mentioned within the voice script. It's more Best Buy style, who was a launch partner for their MVNO (mobile virtual network operator) wireless service anyway. And who on this earth is going to remember and be able to type I absolutely love it. You must call their toll-free number to really get into it. I'm pretty sure that they are not "harvesting" phone numbers for future customers, although they could. And by the way, dialing *67 will not block your ANI (like Caller ID) inbound number since they are footing the bill for the call. Hell, even if a gay elf calls you back after the holidays to say thanks for calling the number it's worth it! Call 888-ELF-POOP for a customer service IVR system that takes voicemail hell to a new level.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Non Powered Gadgets

Tetran Headphone Holder
Originally uploaded by gadget.
With all of the hype, buzz and "must have" around gadgets that plug into the wall for the holidays I like to show cool no-tech gadgets that are cheap and innovative. After a blog entry on my multimedia sister site stating that XBox 360 mania has gotten so out of control that eBay auctions are bringing from $1,000 to $10,000 for the system this story is even more fitting.

Gadgets like the Targus Coolpad, a turntable swivel for your laptop and the Tetran Headphone Holder are $12 smart accessories that just make sense. These problem solvers are cheap and smart - perfect for stocking stuffers or the guy or gal who has everything. Especially if you are on a budget.

So if you are still going to be shopping for the top gadget of the season, keep your eyes peeled for some gems that have no battery slots and that do not plug into the wall. Chances are your gift will be an unexpected suprize hit for the holidays.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

XBox 360 Launch Part Deux.

XBox 360 Launch
Originally uploaded by gadget.
My prediction is that the early low quantity sale of the XBox 360 was an artificial demand smoke screen to get people to think that they will be sold out for the holidays. Think about this: Microsoft releases a few hundred thousand units early, just dozens of units to thousands of retailers. Local news crews show kids lined up in front of stores freezing to get an early XBox. Parents take note and remember Cabbage Patch Kids, Furby's and other holiday "must haves" and figure that they too need to purchase the 360 whenever they can find it! Brilliant! Why else would Microsoft put a product out just BEFORE the largest shopping day in America? The original XBox wasn't exactly a smashing success, so this tactic creates an artificial "want/need" demand because just as in dating, everyone wants what they can't get.

Production should not be an issue since they have been making these since the spring. I went to Tokyo 30 days after the launch of the PSP and they were still not available at retail - I had to get mine from a back-ally DVD trader. That contrasts with the spring US launch of 500,000 units sold which were easily obtainable. My local Best Buy had hundreds of units available in stacks with few customers. I even went back the next day to pick up another one. Microsoft has stated that 400,000 360 units were being shipped to the US before Christmas, while these numbers are just shy of the PSP two-day sale quantities, this artificial demand and sales during the "right" selling season should mean that although the XBox will be a sell-out, you will have plenty of units between now and December 25th. I'm headed to Costco to see if I can get one before Black Friday. I bet I will.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

"I've got the XBox 360 until 9am Blues......" This happy strumming camper outside of the Grapevine, Texas Best Buy is at the head of the pack for one of their 30 "Premium" $399 allocated systems to be released in the morning. A line stretched across the front of Best Buy to Mattress FIRM, who lost an opportunity to rent mattresses to these young adults. Just around the corner at Wal*Mart, 16 "Core" units were available 9 hours earlier, at midnight. I was lucky #17 in line. If only I didn't return home to get my camera, I too would have one, but with merely a 10 minute check-out wait. That's more my style! At another mid-cities Wal*Mart, 2 units were there until 8 were picked up from UPS by an employee, which had embargoed them until November 22nd. Across town in Addison, two 360's were sold at Wal*Mart and a handful of campers waited at a Best Buy - one had been there for 25 hours already. With 40 degree nights in North Texas, I can't see myself waiting. Further North in Frisco, my friend who left the Addison store arrived at 12:30 to be the 21st person in line out of 16 units available. But why is there such a demand for the device? Is it that the XBox 360 is the nearly the first "true" HDTV capable gaming system. Or is it an artificial demand due to low numbers of product allocation like the PSP had this time last year in Japan, but not during the spring US launch? The console will operate at all high-definition resolutions, albiet using the component analog video connection. A digital HDMI connection is rumored to be released "when Microsoft thinks that the market is ready." My home theater has two HDMI devices and a switching receiver. We are ready MSFT! The console will also make for a nice Media Center Extender to play back stored content in another room. My burning question is will it play back my HD content recorded via my All in Wonder ATSC tuner, or will it ignore that video like my Linksys Media Center Extender. It will never receive DVD's across the link due to DMCA issues but as my library of HDTV content grows, it would be nice to share that around the house - over wired 100MBPS links of course, just like I can with the Roku HD1000. More photos at from the launch festivities. Posted by Picasa

Monday, November 14, 2005

The Return of the Blob

The little Mr. Wizard in me loved to experiment with water in science class. It was amazing to me that it could be a liquid, a gas and a solid. But now in 2005, water can congeal, forming a jelly-like matter with the addition of 8 ounces of a product called Jellybath.

Why congeal water you say? Because in a bath tub that you could soak in, it forms an insulating barrier to hold the heat of the water in longer. And that is way cool. The powder additive contains non-toxic elements to turn the water to jelly as it is absorbed into sodium polyacrylate. Additives that are good for your skin like vitamin C as well as black tea extract, L-menthol, coloring, and fragrance are also mixed within the powder.

The inventor from Kobe Japan filed the patent in February of 2000 (probably after taking a bath that quickly became cold) which was granted relatively quickly in August 2001. The patent #6,281,177 reads like a recipe until you get to the scary claim fifteen, a subordinate of number nine. It reads "gelatinous mixture draws water from human skin immersed in said gelatinous mixture." I may be reading into this, but wasn't something JUST like this a source of a horrifically scary movie from the late 1950's? That's right. Jellybath is The Blob.

I am not getting near this stuff, but if you do, be prepared for a "NOTICE" of the patent before you buy the product online. I guess at $24 dollars per bath they want to keep competition down so that you are the only one who is getting soaked. Just don't forget that you will still need to take a shower afterward.

DRM DMCA FireWire and HDCP Blues...

A Picture Share!
Originally uploaded by gadget.
Digital Rights Management, known as DRM to my people, is a pain in our content because of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998. This law says that if an effort has been made to protect content from reproduction through encryption, and that method is broken then you can be held liable for breaking the protection. It also slowed the adoption of FireWire as a transmission path for DVD and High Definition until it could be protected during transit between a playback device and a display. DVI got us started, but the High-Definition Multi-media Interface or HDMI does all which FireWire does with the inclusion of High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection or HDCP. Did you get all of that? Without acronyms I would not have a job. Basically HDMI is encrypted FireWire and you cannot "capture" and reassemble packets in motion as they go between devices without a secure encrypted handshake.

All that being said, I find it odd that Sony, owner of many labels, production companies and media production facilities has begun shipping their latest product to aid in mass-theft, I mean ripping of digital media. The Sony VGP-XL1B 200 CD/DVD/Dual Layer Burner has a FireWire/iLink port to tie into their matching Media Center PC. The Windows XP MCE 2005 Roll-up has new features to let this 200 disc changer literally rip through a majority of your CD collection and digitize them on your hard drive in a single sitting. The dual-layer DVD burner within will copy those tracks back to discs or write your recorded low-definition captured television to a DVD. An empty PCI slot inside will hold an HD tuner which you can record and also burn to DVD (albeit in a low definition, yet clear version) now. Finally, it will use your Internet connection to grab the artwork from up to 200 of your store bought DVD's that you place inside and let you choose a movie by selecting a picture from the assortment displayed within the Media Center Interface.

Two features are missing in my opinion, due to DRM, which may be able to be "patched" with a program like DVD43 or AnyDVD. You cannot play your DVD's through Media Center Extender devices and thanks to Content-Scrambling System or CSS you cannot rip your DVDs to the hard drive. Now at an average of 6GB per DVD, ripping movies would take 100 times more space than ripping an audio CD. But that is using MPEG2; DivX or MPEG4 would take much less space and make the content much more portable.

I think that you should be able to put the movies that you buy on any device or television around your house. I have all of my music CDs encoded into MP3 and they can be played in any room in my house. My whole house audio system is my most used gadget in my life. Video, however stays on DVDs in a shelf until I get up, choose, and insert them into one of a half-dozen players in my home. I wish that it was digitized like my music was. I want my DVDs to be seen anywhere. Throw a watermark in the video to track the serial number of the device that encoded it and make the people who do bad things pay for their crimes of distribution. If I want to make a copy for my own fair use on another device I own, like the Sony PSP then let me!

As I close this, did you notice anything unique about the photo above? The DVD player only has a single connection, even better, it is a high quality digital port. A port that pushes video and audio in the clear, FireWire. That's right, no encryption means that we may soon see FireWire CSS strippers just like devices that would remove Macrovision from composite signals to allow you to make VHS copies of your video tapes or DVDs. If this 200 disc changer is the hackers dream, sign me up for the 400 disc version. I have some fair use to get to.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

VoSKY Chatterbox

A Picture Share!
Originally uploaded by gadget.
Feedback sucks. Nobody wants to talk to someone who has a sqealing speaker box or who cuts out before every word spoken. Thankfully the Chatterbox does not suffer from this phenomenon. Plug this device into your USB port and it shows up as a typical sound card and microphone. Skype or your VoIP software will see this as a new input and allow you effortless conversation without the squealing that you typically have with desktop microphones. Now the conversation will not be private, but they have included a typical 3.5mm cellular headphone jack on the side. Now you've got your cake and you are eating it too. A mute and volume button adorn the front and the sound quality is just short of amazing.

10 Video Playback Devices

10 Video Playback Devices
Originally uploaded by gadget.

Apple beat Sony at the portable music game because of CODECs (compression) first and design second. Sony's digital players required that you CHANGE your MP3 music into ATRAC format up until September 2004. This relatively unknown compression was a carryover from their 1993 MiniDisc technology. Meanwhile Apple's PortalPlayer designed iPod could play 7 different audio formats. This meant the music that the early adoptors had already placed on their hard drives required no more than a copy to the iPod hard drive - no re-encoding or time consuming step was necessary.

Once the early adopters like something they become the gorilla spokespeople on the street pushing the best technology to their peers. The Apple led design made them easy to look at after the technology made them easy to listen to. Video players have a difficult battle as digitized content is wrapped in Digital Rights Management, or DRM that is difficult, if not illegal to break. DVD's employ Content Scrambling System or CSS, which under The Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 (warning: PDF link) makes it illegal sell ripping software which "breaks" this. That means you cannot play the DVD that YOU bought on a different piece of hardware which may not have a DVD player embedded. On top of this, the different portable playback devices, ten of which are shown above, all support different processor speeds, CODECs (technically just the decoders) and screen resolutions.

What are you to do? Sony and Apple want to make it "easy" by providing a closed system that will let you convert content that you create into video for the PSP and iPod with video. Forget about putting your DVD movies on those devices without jumping through a multi-step process. There are third-party programs that will re-compress multimedia content like DivX, but these applications do not speak portable device language however.

Enter Diversified Multimedia - the company that created the once popular, but now illegal DVD X Copy that was taken off the market from court orders in the spring of 2004. This sharp team of programmers has regrouped to create software that manages your audio, video and photos residing on your computer hard drive, with the necessary encoder CODECs to make this content palatable for your mobile devices. Their Media Vault software to converts any number of different compression formats into any number of mobile device resolutions.

The best part about this software, which gives it true utility, is that as your devices get upgraded, you can add modules to the software to support your new devices. So your Treo 650 can play back your library today and the currently un-released Treo 700 with its different screen resolution and CODEC can display old or new content in the future. These guys have created the missing link between movies and TV shows stored on Media Center PC's and TiVo's. No longer will you be beaten by a CODEC. Information wants to be free, and mobile. - Diversified Multimedia

Monday, November 07, 2005

How to watch TV - from outside your house.

Sony's Location Free PC Kit.
Originally uploaded by gadget.
Many people find a need to watch TV in rooms, like the bathroom, or locations, most likely the patio, that typically do not have televisions nor cable TV drops. Short of cutting a one-way mirror into your bathroom, or peering into a window to look at your or your neighbor's television, Sony created LocationFree TV. This $1500 WiFi based "tablet style" television encoder and wireless transmitter sits near your audio/video gear and beams to a pricey 12.1" LCD that operates on batteries and has the necessary receiver. Sharp followed suit with a similar LC-15L1U-S Aquos 15" portable LCD screen and transmitter which works well, even in environments with WiFi data present. Cheaper solutions have surfaced as Sony announced that the $249 Playstation Portable with version 2.5 firmware will become a 4.3" LCD screen for LocationFree TV. However, at the time of the announcement, they forgot to tell us where to get the stand-alone transmitter for it, without the TV. The device has surfaced as the LocationFree Player Pak for $349.99. If you do not have a PSP, you can add the LocationFree Player for PC software LFA-PC2 for $29.99 (which is a $120 discount from the older LFA-PC1 it updates) and use your laptop as a screen - you are even able to connect to this when you are outside of your house. Now LocationFree bundles can be as low as $370 using your PC to view programs or $600 with a PSP. My solution however, is use a $249 SlingBox encoder if TiVo is your media server at home as they integrate extremely well together. I have one sitting on a Verizon FIOS (2 Megabit Fiber Uplink) and get ~1Mbps downlink video that looks amazing. You can install their required viewer and control software on all of your PC's, but can only connect one at a time to your encoder. If you have a Media Center Edition of Windows XP, the only way to go is with the free Orb Network. Add its TiVo Anywhere upgrade and you have a web launched Windows Media player that you can even get to from Internet cafe's. Note that TiVo recorded programs must be transfered from their hard drive to the XP MCE box before they can play remotely. Now, it is only a matter of time before someone comes up with a realtime MPEG4 encoding module (versus the Windows Media codecs that Orb uses now) to stream MCE video to a PSP or even a 3G phone via MPEG4. For free.
Location Free TV
Sing Media
Orb Networks

Sunday, November 06, 2005

PSP UMD game forced upgrade

A Picture Share!
Originally uploaded by gadget.
The PSP's Grand Theft Auto Liberty City UMD demands that the firmware on the unit is upgraded to 2.0 before the game will even play. Fortunately the upgraded firmware is on the game UMD as well, but unfortunately you will not be able to run some home brew applications on the upgraded PSP. Some of my favorite home brews now are PSP Millionaire and PSP Radio - which streams radio stations over WiFi. No more copying songs to Memory Stick Duo's. :)