Obligatory New Year Post Saturday, December 31, 2005

It’s hard to believe another year is gone, but belief has nothing to do with it. A few hours and *poof*—goodbye, 2005.

It’s been a big year for Shirt Pocket, with a number of product releases, none bigger than v2.0 of SuperDuper!—something Bruce and I had been working on since the year before. And our customers seem to love it, which is gratifying indeed.

We were honored to receive another Eddy, this year for SuperDuper! 1.5—our second in a row, after 2004’s Eddy for netTunes. Incredibly cool to get that kind of recognition.

On a more personal level, I started blogging this year, about 5 years late to the party, but at least I’m here and enjoying it.

Zabeth is deep into her third year of Veterinary School, and transitioning to clinical studies early in 2006, which might mean I need to call her “Dr.” soon.

And Ketzl is still with us: happy, healthy (apart from the progressing DM), and the source of much joy and sadness.

No doubt next year will bring more changes, more releases, more joy, more sorrow.

Thanks to all of you for your support, encouragement, criticism and for spreading the word about Shirt Pocket and our products. Without you, the year would have been a lesser one: I’m sure I’ll be talking to more of you on the forums, through the support lines, and on the blog.

I’m looking forward to it. A toast: to the end of 2005, and to you!

Our Christmas Gift: the Past Year with Ketzl Sunday, December 25, 2005

I know it’s more of a Thanksgiving kind of post, but the best gift we got this year—even though most of it happened before Christmas—was another year with Ketzl.

A year ago, we were well post-DM-diagnosis. Ketzl had already lost the use of one leg, and was weakening on the other. We’d started her Physical Therapy, and she was doing her water treadmill, and a few months later, as she lost use of the other leg, we got her a dog wheelchair.

The time since has been challenging but rewarding. Ketzl has done well, and while the progression to her inevitable demise continues—as it does for all of us—she’s done better than we ever expected. Working with her is time consuming, exhausting but very rewarding.

And while we don’t know how much more time we’ll have together, or whether she’ll get to her 9th birthday in March, we’re thankful for this past year… an unexpected, and priceless, gift.

Thanks, Ketzl.

Music subscription services don’t always suck Friday, December 23, 2005

Let’s talk, for a moment, about acquiring music.

As you might guess from netTunes, I’m a bit of a music fanatic. I’ve bought a lot of music in my day, and expect to buy a lot more. But, I rarely listen to “music radio”, and rely on friends, happenstance, and sometimes NPR to point me to new stuff.

But it’s not always easy to tell from brief exposure whether a new album is worth buying. Sometimes you need ten, fifteen, twenty plays to decide whether it’s something to add to the “owned” pile. 30 second snippets just won’t do it.

Now, sure, I could follow The Path of the Torrent, but I really don’t like doing that, regardless of whether or not I agree with the RIAA and their positions. And I hate shelling out $15 for something that I end up never playing.

So, what to do?

What I do is pretty simple: I use Rhapsody. Yes, it costs me $10 a month, and is extremely tied to the computer. (And I do want to own the music I love, and do whatever I want with it, especially with regard to device shifting.) But that doesn’t matter, because I use it to sample things. If I find it’s music I want to keep, I buy the CD and pop it into the library. And, if not, it saved me more than the cost of the CD, and the storage for the physical media, too. So I’m finding more music I like, and buying less music I don’t.

And now they’ve got a version for the Mac that—while not full featured—works well for exactly this purpose. You might want to check it out—I’m glad I did.

Sony VGX-XL1 Quick Tip Thursday, December 22, 2005

Egad, could it be another post about the Sony Media Center? I believe so!

I ran into a rather unusual problem with the VGX-XL1’s changer that I wanted to document here, in case someone else hits it in the future.

What I noticed was that, after playing a movie or DVD or… well… pretty much anything, the VGX-XL1B changer would stop working properly. It’d load up discs, but the discs themselves would be unreadable. The only way to fix the problem was to power cycle the changer: even a reboot wouldn’t work.

After days (literally) of off-and-on attempts to figure the problem out, I finally determined the cause.

Basically, in the Power Management settings for the computer, there’s an option that spins down unused drives after a set period of time. I had set this to 15 minutes to save wear and tear on the internal hard disk during times of light or no use.

Turns out that the changer must get some kind of ACPI notification after 15 minutes or so, and powers something down that it never powers back up again. Setting the disk spin-down to “Never” resolved the problem.

Considering that it’s not a hard disk, and that it still responded to load commands, it’s pretty clear that there’s some weird bug going on here. But, if you hit it, the fix is easy enough.

Ah, Windows. hmmm

Sony and the MCE Friday, December 16, 2005

I’m getting some questions about what Media Center I’ve got, so I thought I’d put up a post about it, as well as some information that I hope will be of interest.

My first MCE was an HP z555. This MCE is styled more like stereo equipment than a PCs, with a front panel transport controls and a semi-useful FL display.

The z555 has two cable tuners as well as a single HDTV tuner, various back-panel connections including Toslink and Coax for SPDIF, DVI and Component outputs (as well as S-Video and Composite), pretty much everything you’d expect. It comes with a single, easily accessed, 250GB drive, and a decent software bundle.

A few downsides: it’s not really expandable, there are no free slots (or normal boards to replace), and one drive is limiting. And one huge problem, though: it’s chuck full of fans, and they’re loud. In a media room, that doesn’t work—I tried to live with it for a few months, and it drove me nuts, so, I started looking for something else.

What I found was the Sony VGX-XL1 Media Center, which comes with a 200 disc changer, which is now available for $1799, with a $150 rebate to bring the price down to $1649… a great deal!

It’s also designed more like a piece of AV equipment. While it doesn’t have the transport controls or the display, it’s whisper quiet, and can take 3 SATA drives, which can be set up with RAID. The changer is well integrated, and quite useful. The slot-loaded DVD is elegant and easily loaded. It’s much more attractive than the HP. It’s got a built-in HDMI output, and sets up easily at high resolutions.

And, again, it’s quiet. Very quiet. Major kudos to Sony for that.

It has some downsides: they clearly intended it to be a DVD unit, since it ships with one cable/antenna tuner, and that’s pretty much it. Fortunately, there’s an open slot, and it’s easy to drop in an HDTV tuner (and the existing tuner looks like it can be replaced easily, too). The interior of the machine is very nicely laid out, only one screw type is used throughout, the drives all drop into a nice carrier, the bracing is nicely stamped, memory slots are right there in the open. Nicely done.

Of course, there’s one boneheaded thing. For some reason, Sony decided that the output from DVDs (etc) wouldn’t go directly out as SPDIF. Instead, while it’ll communicate with a receiver as SPDIF, it always goes out as Dolby Digital encoded AC3, even if the source is DTS, because you output analog to the sound card which then re-encodes.

Maybe there’s a logical reason for it, having to do with the HDMI spec or something, but it smells like Sony’s obsession with keeping first generation digital information from exiting their box. As such, it’s awfully frustrating.

Apart from that (and some complaints about the keyboard), though, it’s a really nice unit.

Eddy! Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Let me be the second to announce that SuperDuper! 1.5—the old version—has won a 2005 Macworld Eddy!

Bruce and I are incredibly happy that the editors at Macworld found us worthy of this honor: thanks to all, and to all the customers out there who continue to support us by registering. Hard to believe that both of Shirt Pocket’s main products have won Eddy awards… wow. It’s greatly appreciated.

(By the way, there’s a brief interview with me on today’s Macworld podcast, too, should you not be tired of my babbling...)

And with that, back to work making things even better!

Media Centers Sunday, December 11, 2005

More heresy, I know, but I’ve got a Windows XP Media Center Edition box connected to my HDTV, and—after about six months of use—I’m prepared to say that it’s actually pretty good!

We all know—from direct gotta-use-these-things experience—that this stuff is not easy. The general rule is that, if it connects to a TV, it’s got an awful, primitive, ugly and slow UI.

The best of these things is, without question, TiVo. While slow, TiVo tries to be relentlessly user-focused and friendly, and mostly achieves its goals. (Too bad about its recent compromises in that area, and the fact that, even with broad distribution and name recognition, it never really took the market by storm.)

At least for TV, TiVo sets a high bar. And, with some caveats, a high-end Media Center PC does a pretty darn good job with TV and DVDs (music and pictures, not so much, but I’m not using it for that).

So, keeping an open mind, let’s dive in.

There’s little question that the 10-foot UI on the MCE is—along with Smartphone—the very best attempt at a “new” UI I’ve ever seen Microsoft do. It’s very simple, reasonably attractive, scales well to different resolutions (from 480i to 1080p), and reacts quickly to user requests.

Despite the fun Steve Jobs had comparing the iMac’s remote to the generic MCE one, much like TiVo (whose remote it definitely resembles), normal use is accomplished with a similar set of buttons.

It’s important to note that a low “number of buttons” doesn’t necessarily mean “fewer controls”. Rather, it means “more on screen controls”. The real issue here is a balance between direct and indirect operation: a button, or a menu that you select from.

Super-simple remotes have been tried before, specifically by Bang & Olufsen in their BeoVision 1 product. That remote was very, very, very similar to Apple’s (no surprise there), and was abandoned quickly: users wanted more buttons and fewer menus for common operations.

With MCE, you’ve got the expected up/down/left/right navigation, select, play/pause, menu and back. And you could literally operate the thing with just that. Additional buttons are things like more complete transport controls (FF/REW, Chapter Skip FW/BK—and yes, it does a 30-second commercial skip), record, a number/alpha (phone-style) pad, power, volume and channel up/down).

The MCE team has clearly thought long and hard about the way users interact with video material, and with their TVs. It keeps your program running onscreen while you investigate the guide, record or search for other programs, verify recordings, pauses and resumes multiple programs, has a live TV buffer, smart FF/REW handling—all the things you’d expect are there.

Adding new individual recordings or series is simply a matter of searching and clicking a readily available onscreen button, and the recording modes cover the necessary exceptions, like one time/series, first run/repeat, how long to keep the show, channels to check, etc.

The unit itself can support a large number of tuners, something I think is pretty important, and will do simultaneous recordings from all of them transparently to the user. Conflicts are handled well, and all of this happens reliably. OTA HDTV is fully supported, as are video inputs from cable/satellite boxes.

The guide is right on target—and unlike TiVo, it’s free, with no subscription fees. It has some nice additional nice features like a “what movies are on right now” that shows you the movie’s video cover along with other information.

All this is handled with admirable simplicity and restraint, and it really does work well in person. That isn’t to say it looks even remotely Apple-like: the graphics don’t ever let you forget that it’s part of the Windows XP Family. But, within that, quite pleasant.

The fact that you can use an XBox 360 as an “extender”, and use the main MCE’s tuners and recorded material in other rooms, is a very nice bonus. Just turn the volume up up up, because the XBox makes a racket.

Where does it fall down? Apart from initial setup (getting this to work at 1080i through DVI was much too difficult), and an inability to really mix-up inputs with straight, non-decoder box cable, satellite and HDTV (admittedly a bit pathological, but one can dream), and no non-OTA HDTV recording (cable, satellite), it falls down where you’d expect: this is really an application, sitting on top of Windows XP—and ignore that fact at your peril. So, you have to run AntiVirus, Firewall, etc. If XP has trouble, your nice UI is relegated to a Task Bar button as you delve into the Device Manager and have your way with it. If your drivers stink, so will your experience.

If you don’t use it for anything but media, though, these problems are infrequent—but when they show their ugly heads, the illusion of friendliness and design is well and truly broken.

A more subtle thing is a detail that bothers me well beyond its importance: illogical transitions. MCE has a “zoom” effect that it uses when you go between “pages” of its UI. Mostly, the effect works, but when a playing video “zooms” down to a miniwindow when you go into the main UI, the zoom goes totally the wrong way. (It should shrink the video to the little window, exposing or zooming up the main UI, whereas right now the effect goes to the other corner, and just looks random and disorienting.)

When you’re whining about something that “minor” in the UI you know they’ve mostly got the big things right.

FrontRow—Apple’s first shot at this kind of thing, competes in a very different area. It doesn’t do TV at all, no recording, no input. Instead, it plays to Apple’s strength: music. And, in this, it does a better job that MCE does in that particular area. (Yes, I have EyeTV, and it isn’t part of FrontRow, has only a single tuner and poor guide integration. It really doesn’t compare favorably.) And, you’ve got the iLife things you’d expect: it’ll play your home videos and show your photos—as will MCE—both things I don’t, but it’s nice for those who do.

That’s as far as it goes, though. While I’m quite interested in where Apple takes FrontRow, it’s not really competition for this… yet. But I’m glad it looks like things are actually heating up in the space!

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