Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Apple getting ready to compete with Microsoft for the living room?

The folks over at Think Secret, the Apple rumour site have an article up suggesting that Apple is about to re-position the Mac Mini as a media PC.

The speculation is that the new version will run on Intel, have DVR capability, a built-in iPod dock, and feature FrontRow 2.0 for software.

If true, that should certainly shake things up. Now if they would just include remote control capability, we would have a winner...

The Computerized Hi-Fi - Choices Dwindling

Although the number of devices for streaming music over a network seem to be growing, those available for the control of physical devices for play back are getting scarce.

It is all very well to rip and store music as MP3's, but you are paying a price in quality and fidelity. If you want to listen to music with all of the dynamic range and content it was meant to have, you are pretty much limited to source material (which is already a compromise over live performance).

For that reason, I have resisted the urge to abandon my LP's and CD's, and have tried to make using them as convenient and simple as playing digital music files. My current setup uses the Nirvis Slink-e controller, Sony CDP-CX455 400 CD mega-changers, and sofware from Nirvis called CDJ running on an IBM X21 Thinkpad.

This rig works well, giving me song by song access to my entire collection of 700 CD's along with cover art. The problem of course is that Nirvis has gone out of business, and Sony has stopped selling the CDP-CX455 in Singapore.

In the goodbye message from Nirvis, they recommended a company called Streetfire Sound Labs, who were making a Linux based controller that replicated the functions of the Slink-e, but then added a whole lot more. I say "were", because an announcement on their home page indicates that they have gone out of business.

So it appears that we are in a race to the lowest common denominator. Companies making kit for the control of original source players are going out of business, while those providing kit for ripping, storing, and streaming compressed copies are doing well.

What still baffles me is why the hi-fi component makers never got their act together and added the control functionality directly to their equipment. Instead, they have been marginalized by the computer industry.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Comodow USB SIM Card Reader/Writer

While prowling around Funan during the weekend (and giving SITEX a miss), I found a device I have been hoping for some time that somebody would produce.

The unit in question is the Comodow PD882U Sim Card Reader.

Why the enthusiasm? This little device allows one to read and write to the SIM card in your mobile phone. Having recently suffered the loss of my cell phone, I can attest to the pain of suddenly being cut off from all the names and numbers collected over the years.

While most phones come with some sort of backup software, it is usually proprietary or works only with one model. Inevitably, even if you back up religiously, it is impossible to buy the same model of phone again.

What the PD882U does so simply and elegantly is behave just like a USB flash memory card reader (which the SIM is after all). After inserting the reader into a USB port, it is just a matter of inserting the SIM card. On the PC, a small program is run which allows one to display the contents, edit entries, and manage SMS messages. It is also possible to save the data to a clean text file, and to print both the address book and the SMS messages.

The only thing missing is the ability to sort the phone book entries, which seems like a trivial feature to add.

As the number of phones in the family has grown from mine, to the spouse, to the daughters, moving data from SIM to SIM has become a regular occurrence. The PD882U does it all without fuss.

A great addition to the toolbox.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Toy Alert - The Squeezebox Arrives

The new network music player from Slim Devices approaches perfection - a simple to setup, simple to use device that does exactly what it is designed for.

Whether your music is in the form of files stored on a server (with support for MP3, WMA, FLAC, AAC, WAV, and Ogg Vorbis formats), or you prefer to listen to music streamed from Internet radio stations, this marvellous little box does it all.

A full review is now up at the Haunt.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

CDG - The World's Worst Airport?

I have sufficiently recovered from the trauma of dealing with French hospitality workers last week to frame some thoughts about the whole experience.

Even though I have travelled a great deal, this was my first trip to Paris where I actually arrived from an international flight and departed the same way. I had heard stories about how unfriendly French service could be, but nothing quite prepares you for the sheer rudeness and hostility.

The contrast between Changi Airport in Singapore, Schipol in Holland, even Vancouver, with CDG is quite staggering. If you want to make a space that is inimical to human beings, go to Paris and spend 10-15 minutes in CDG - all will be revealed.

My "favourite" part is the fact that there are no signs indicating which airlines depart from which terminal. That is a really nice touch, almost guaranteeing that you will be privileged to ride on the airport shuttle buses, driven by people who's prime purpose in life appears to be the tormenting of their passengers.

The airport itself is constructed of gray, raw concrete which adds to the sense of being abandoned in a waste land. There are lengthy escalators and walkways to get to the gate, devoid of any shopping or places to rest or eat. The lounge was really nasty with filthy chairs and extremely poor food service.

It was a relief to finally get on the aircraft and back in the hands of SIA. The sounds of the door closing on the aircraft promised an end to the nightmare until there was a sudden commotion and much rushing about. A member of the ground staff had neglected to leave the aircraft, and the gate had to be summoned to re-connect the jetway and let him off. Truly a French farce.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Cartes 2005 - Paris

Attending a trade show for the card and payment industry in Paris this week.

Unlike my previous European visits, this time there is no lake, and the weather is foul. I was greeted by dense fog and 2 degree weather on arrival at CDG.

The trade show is well attended and massive. I had no idea there were so many manufacturers of terminals and card systems. It is clear that RFID is gaining traction. There are displays of all the components (labels, readers, writers and so on) as well as system integrators.

Philips has a big booth devoted to NFC - Near Field Communications, which is the name for adding a short distance (0-10cm) two way data transmission capability to devices like cellphones. They were demonstrating a Nokia phone tricked out with an NFC module linked to the SIM card that allowed the purchase and use of movie tickets. Very cool.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Olive Musica - All-in-one Digital Music Appliance

Looking around the digital music network player world, I came across a company I had not heard of before called Olive. They have what looks like a beautiful device for those who do not want to go the PC/network/player route.

Called the Musica, it is a stand-alone unit with a CD reader/writer, hard disk, and both digital and analogue audio outputs ready to be added to an existing Hi-Fi as a source component. There is no need to have a PC as the unit stores music on its own hard disk, although it can also "see" files across the network and index them as well. The Musica also knows about iPods, and can download music to them. The feature list is extensive, and the whole thing looks brilliant.

Slim Devices - New Squeezebox Available

Ripping CD's and storing music on your computer is now routine stuff.

Playing it back on something other than crappy computer speakers, or distributing the music to another room is more challenging.

One way to do this is to have a device which can connect to your home network and which connects to your conventional Hi-Fi. This allows the streaming of audio to the device, and playback through the Hi-Fi.

I have been very happy with a device from some folks in California called Slim Devices. They originally made a product called the SliMP3, which I described here. Since then, the server software, codecs, and features have exploded, and they have also introduced new versions of the hardware.

The latest incarnation of the device is known as the Squeezebox Network Music Player and details can be found here. There is a good review at the Globe and Mail here.

It is a significant upgrade from my original, and now includes wireless 802.11g, AAC support, and a long list of other benefits.

Slim are currently running a "2 for 1" sale which was too hard to resist, so an order went in.

More when it arrives.

When Banks Go Bad - UOB Singapore

The ability of banks in Singapore to abuse their customers continues to evolve. After switching to UOB, (see "When Bankers Go Wild"), I was hoping that things would be more reasonable. Ah hope. I have now been provoked.

Question: When is a time deposit a permanent loan to the bank?
Answer: When you place a time deposit with UOB.

A time deposit normally has a principle amount, an interest rate, and a term. At the end of the term, you receive your principle and interest back from the bank.

Not at UOB. The only choices offered are to renew the deposit with interest, or to renew the deposit without the interest. There is no option to have the deposit returned. This means that your money is perpetually locked into a repeating time deposit. Great funding device for the bank, lousy for the customer.

At first I thought I was just missing something in the Internet banking screen, so I called the customer service staff. They confirmed that return of deposit was not an option.

I then wrote to the Head of Quality at UOB, and copied the Monetary Authority of Singapore. After all, offering a time deposit and then refusing to give somebody their money back seems to be more than a little aggressive banking...

After a couple of weeks, I got an answer from UOB. No peep out of MAS. Basically the response was that there was no market demand for return of deposits, and anyway, they were too busy to change their software right now.

A further letter to UOB and copied to the MAS suggesting this policy was unacceptable has resulted in no written response from either body.

So the moral of the story is: If you want to be rich, open a deposit taking institution that accepts deposits but doesn't return them. Nobody will do anything to stop you.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Hong Kong Memories - How the US software industry stimulated piracy

Don Tenant over on ComputerWorld has an OpEd piece about his time in Hong Kong. There is a lot of angst about software piracy, and Don throws a welcome bucket of cold water on the claims of outraged vendors.

I lived in HK from '82 to '93 and helped start the first computer club, HKFOG (HK First Osborne Group) which later became SEAnet. Trips to Sham Shui Po and the Golden Arcade were mandatory as there was no legitimate distribution of software.

I took a film crew from the CBC into the Golden Arcade around '85 when the software piracy was really getting going. A Canadian company had a hit game called "Quest for Tires" that was being knocked off, and there was much sputtering and outrage. They managed to film for about 10 minutes while I bought a copy of the game, and then tattooed guys with cricket bats showed up and suggested loudly in Cantonese that our health would be better outside the building.

I also remember inviting a rep from Ashton-Tate (the dBASE guys) to one of our meetings to discuss why it cost double to buy the software in HK, and why there was no support. He had a rough evening...

Thursday, November 10, 2005

19" Viewsonic VP930b LCD

Looks like my chance encounter with the Viewsonic LCD monitor last week also meets with the approval of the folks at Toms Hardware.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Bell's Law - New Toy Alert

Elder daughter's monitor packed in, which opened up a major upgrade opportunity.

I have long preferred large CRT monitors for the image stability and the colour fidelity. I use a Samsung 1200NF which is an excellent 21 inch monitor. I have bought quite a few over the last couple of years for work and friends.

Unfortunately, they don't seem to be available any longer. The inexorable march of LCD panels has wiped high quality CRT's out of most if not all stores in Singapore.

A long held fantasy has been to buy two large panel LCD's and use the Windows XP extended desktop across both simultaneously. It was a matter of seconds to offer up my prized monitor to Elder Daughter, and to plunge into research on LCD's.

Few of the models for sale in Singapore seem to be reviewed by the technical web sites. And as usual, the big sellers are low to mid-market as Singapore remains a price driven market.

The Dell wide screen monitors reviewed well, until I stumbled on forums with long threads complaining about a high pitched noise emanating from the units. If their is one thing that drives me crazy, it is a high pitched whine - from equipment or collegues... There was also the problem that I would not be able to verify that the screens would be free of pixel defects before paying.

With Thursday a holiday for Hari Raya Puasa, I headed off to Sim Lim to see what I could see. I was lucky to run into a sales rep from Viewsonic who was manning a display at Fuwell. I asked to see the best 19 inch panels and she showed me the Viewsonic VP930b.

In a highly unusual display of salesmanship, she managed to handle my technical questions, took me to other shops to view the screen when I asked to see text rather than the canned slide show, then arranged to get me internet access to check reviews of the model. Every excuse I had for not buying immediately was handled cheerfully and politely.

At which point I ended up with two new Viewsonic VP930b LCD panels. This model is intended for the graphics professional market and comes with extensive software utilities to set colour temperature, resolution, contrast, brightness, sharpness and so on. The native resolution is 1280x1024. The sales girl set up each monitor in the shop, and I checked for dead and stuck pixels on the spot.

The final feature that sold me was the stand, which is simply excellent. It allows the monitor to be adjusted vertically, as well as to tilt forward and backwards. The best trick is that you can rotate the monitor to portrait mode for working on long documents.

Safely home with my purchases, it was time to set things up. I have an ATI All-in-Wonder 9600XT video card which provides for dual output, so there was no problem connecting the cables. The VP930b has two VGA ports as well as a DVI port, so it will handle any input. Even using VGA, the display is simply beautiful with crisp text and uniform brightness and colour distribution.

A quick change to display settings in Windows and I had my dual monitor desktop. KEWL!