Friday, September 2, 2011

Sky the Color of Pain

For most of my life migraines have been a constant companion.  While their frequency has increased and decreased I've always gotten them on a fairly regular basis.  Some triggers like particular overcast days were so likely to be migraine days that the color of the sky to me isn't even a color at all, just a shifting, overbright pain that threatens to push me into a downward spiral of a migraine.

Its hard for me to even write about migraines, at times even thinking about them was a potential trigger.  The past couple years have seen a shift for me in the pattern of my migraines, from occasional crippling pain to more frequent but generally less debilitating symptoms.  The former made my life difficult, the latter was becoming a threat to my livelihood.  Because of this change I sought help in treating my migraines. That process, while challenging and sometimes unrewarding, raised my awareness of my condition much more than it had been in all the years prior.

As part of my treatment I had many tests, pretty much all of which came up negative.  The only new thing that I learned was that my eyes are somewhat out of alignment and that I may have aura migraines.  I say may because I'm honestly not sure that's what it really is.  I do know my vision is out of whack and when I'm close to a migraine it get really out of whack.  Solid colors such as white and yellow aren't solid to me they are a combination of colors overlaid on each other, for example yellow/purple for white.  The effect gets worse as I get close to a migraine but I learned that I'm pretty much susceptible all the time.

My susceptibility to migraines was one of the key realizations.  Its hard to explain to family members when they ask for results.  I probably have five to ten different migraine triggers which can work independently to trigger a migraine.  Food, stress, sudden lack of stress, too much caffeine, caffeine withdrawal, thirst, fatigue, too much sleep, eye strain, weather, heat, alcohol, cigarette smoke, certain annoying sounds and the knot in my neck muscles and upper back.  Some things can be treated or avoided, others can't.

The way I've always internalized how my migraines worked is as a feedback loop run out of control.  Normally, there's enough suppression that any negatives get sent right back down to zero and I'm ok.  Even at  the beginning there isn't much pain because there's some balance but then the pain aggravates the migraine and  all the triggers become that much more effective.  Everything spirals out of control rapidly, everything makes the migraine the worse except cold and dark. Light hurts, sound hurts, standing hurts, thinking hurts. Its too painful to sleep because my mind is running in circles. I get earworms stuck in my head, making me tenser and tenser.  Eventually, I'm locked up, completely unable to relax, in intense pain, unable to sleep and turning to whatever remedies I can.  Without some kind of treatment I don't think I can break a migraine anymore, I need painkillers or ice packs to try to break that loop and give me a chance to recover.

This year has been different from the previous years.  The migraines had been shifting in pattern, arriving earlier in the day and becoming more disruptive of my work schedule.  I began seeing a neurologist and started several different courses of treatment.  Not all of them went that well.

 The first medication I was prescribed ended up giving me horrible side effects.  Imagine having a dream like the first 15 minutes or so of War of the Worlds, replete with amazing effects and epic threats of world shaking proportions.  I had vivid, armageddonish dreams every night, every time I went to bed I'd wake up in a panic only to realize that maybe 10-15 minutes had past, take 45 minutes to settle down to sleep and have it happen a second time.  The sleep deprivation and the medicine made me cranky and angry. I didn't last long on it, but I'd been taking it long enough that when I switched to a second medication the withdrawal/unmedicated period was incredibly difficult.  I had been living with regular migraines for so long that going back to that state from a more suppressed condition was a huge shock.

What I've also learned is that medication alone isn't enough.  I have tons of potential migraine triggers so the response is to throw everything but the kitchen sink back.  A significant component of my migraines is due to muscle problems in my neck and shoulder which physical therapy helped with a great deal.  It wasn't a full cure and insurance only provides partial coverage but it was one of those things where I came out of it seeing a real difference.

I get asked by my family and some friends about other treatments like acupuncture.  I had acupuncture for migraines when I was a kid and it helped. I also was in a classroom in direct sunlight and school ended.  Now that I'm an adult I have a great deal of skepticism for holistic alternative medicine.  It doesn't mean I'm against all acupuncture, just the new agey side of it.  Acupuncture used directly on a muscle area as a way to relax it has some appeal to me.  I don't know if it has a real scientific basis or not but its something I can buy into enough to at least have work as a placebo.

This has been sitting unfinished for ages so I'm going to post it and maybe edit it later. Its been something I've been wanting to get out for a long, long time.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Nook Color

I've been playing around this week with a Nook Color that I modified to work as a regular Android tablet instead of an e-reader (technically CM7 so considerably more than regular Android). Its going to be a gift for my daughter when she comes home from vacation in two weeks. The goal is still for it to act as a book replacement for her when we go on trips but I've been underwhelmed by the options available for kids picture books.

The choices for picture books available on stock Nook Color aren't too bad but start to shrink around the 4 and up range. Worse, the picture books are incompatible with the Nook app for Android. So if I run a regular Android OS on the Nook, I can't also access any Nook picture books. Lame.

The Kindle app doesn't have such restrictions. However, many of the picture books are black and white or grayscale chap books with a couple drawings and lots of text. The quality level varies considerably and the choices aren't that great. If anyone's found a goldmine of kid's Kindle books I'd love to hear about them, I got frustrated by the process and gave up after a while.

The last option is the Android market. Its one I've bought several books from already because its where you find the Dr. Seuss books. The quality tends to be high for those. Other book apps aren't as good but the pricing is usually cheap.

Of all the three options I like the app market the best for kids picture books. For easy organization I use the Circle Launcher widget. Its one of my favorite organizers for android, its a great way to access lots of apps quickly.

Besides the reader functions, the Nook really works fantastic as a tablet. The first attempt to get it running was a mess because I didn't pay attention to the warnings about what memory card to use. For the kind of operations that are important to running Android you need a memory card that can do certain kinds of operations very fast. Cheap Sandisk memory cards like the ones you can find at Radio Shack are up to a hundred times faster than the premium cards you can buy online. I bought a memory card online, had the Nook crash constantly, tried again with the cheap Sandisk card and had no problems whatsoever.

The other thing I realized in getting the tablet up and running is that Amazon's own appstore is an absolute disaster when it comes to trying to install lots of apps. Thanks to the one free app a day program that Amazon offers I have over a hundred apps on my Amazon account. To get them on the Nook would mean installing them one by one using the appstore app. By contrast, there are a bunch of ways to batch process Android market apps so they don't have to be installed one by one. If Amazon is serious about launching a tablet before the end of the year they need to revamp their appstore to enable some kind of batch processing. By the time their tablet rolls out they'll have people with 200+ apps on their Amazon accounts. Amazon should make a deal with Appbrain to develop a system similar to what's already in place for the Android market, it will save them from a lot of hate down the road.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Google Plus

Just got my invite to Google Plus. Don't really have time to mess around with it. If anyone wants an invite, shoot me an email.

So had a bit more time to play with this over lunch. I'm really liking it. There are some very cool features considering its still only in Beta.  For one, you can organize everyone in your contacts by circles, basically easy mass mailing lists that can be used for more than just email.  There is a hangout feature that lets multiple people check into a video chat, something that would be  pretty useful for holidays.  The mobile app will let you automatically upload any pictures you take so you can easily share them. There's also a weird chat app that doesn't really make sense since its mobile only.

One thing I did not like was the default privacy setting for circles. Seems that once you put someone in a circle everyone else can see them, kinda like Facebook.  If the whole point of Google Plus is to be a better, less intrusive version of Facebook get the privacy setting right from the beginning. There also doesn't seem to be an individual circles setting where you can see everyone in the circle your in, I'm not sure if its done by default or not. I really hope they don't screw this up.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Roasting Time

Well, I got a new batch of green coffee beans in this week so I'm excited to start roasting again.  I'm going to try and keep a log of each batch with some comments on taste and hopefully get at least one espresso off of each bag.  I don't drink much espresso at home since its usually too late when I get back to make some.

Anyway, above is a pic of some of the beans that came in including the batch I roasted tonight, Yemen Mokha Ismaili.  The Mokha part is no joke, even as green beans when you open the bag they have this intense chocolate aroma.  My attempt at espresso didn't fare so well, it wasn't terrible but I made a few mistakes including not warming the cup up in advance.

It takes a bit of practice and letting the roast sit a day or two helps.  Letting coffee sit for a while and outgas CO2 improves the overall flavor when its finally brewed, sometimes tremendously.  I'm not sure whether its flavor or aroma that's improved (the two are very tightly linked) but getting rid of what is essentially an inert gas makes a big difference somehow.  Anyway, I'd like to get a regular series of posts on each new batch I roast up. Hopefully the next one will be soon.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Father's Day Reflections

Another late blog post. Father's Day weekend was very busy for me and my family.  There was an added significance beyond it being a holiday because my wife and daughter left for several weeks vacation right after the weekend.

The weekend started with an email from the DOE about my daughter's kindergarten. We'd been waiting to hear where she'd be going next year and were surprised to find out she'd gotten into NEST+M on the Lower East Side. Its a great school, a bit of a hassle for the commute until we get the bus situation figured out, and pretty much total stroke of luck.  It also meant we had to register her on the same day she was leaving, so a little more hecticness in an already busy weekend.

On Saturday I took my daughter out east to my parents place.  On the train she read with me quite a bit. I read with my daughter a lot and the last week or so I'd noticed a change in how she read.  All of a sudden she went from reading a few words at a time to reading in sentences.  She was next to me reading Green Eggs and Ham, reading at the same pace as she normally speaks and I was just so glad that I was able to be there for it.

While my daughter has my love for reading, she also has my love for video games, which has worsened while she's been on vacation and away from her regular distractions.  On one hand I do see some benefit, she mostly plays puzzle games or art games.  However, the approach she takes to getting what she wants is lousy and the way she can keep playing for an extended period of time without a break if she isn't supervised is troublesome.  Games have their benefits but there needs to be some balance.

Back to the weekend. On Sunday, we had a piano recital for my daughter.  She's been taking lessons from my friend Jules for a while now.  He's done a fantastic job and it was really cool being able to have family and friends together for the recital.  It was a busy day, a long ride home and a late night.

The next day was even busier. Between work, making sure bags were packed, getting everyone to the airport on time and finally getting home well after midnight it was exhausting.  The apartment was empty, it wasn't home.  Its a week later and its still doesn't feel like home.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Google Music Beta: EQ Icon Rant

I was playing around with Google Music the other day and I noticed that the song I was waiting to start playing had the little EQ bars next to it bouncing up and down but no music playing. Sure enough, the song was stuck loading.  Kinda weird, but it made me realize that the EQ bars were just a randomized icon with no link to the actual music being played.  As icons go, fake EQ bars rank very low on my list of choices for what I'd like as indication that a song is playing.  For one, they don't tell me that the song is actually playing. Two, there is a cognitive dissonance going on, those bouncing bars don't bounce in step to the music and its jarring once it becomes apparent.  I hope that the final version switches to that's less of an eyesore.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Cloud Hopping: Some Tricks For Taking Advantage of Cloud Music

Today was Apple's announcement of its cloud music system. It was a pretty major one and it offered one feature that neither Google or Amazon have, the ability to scan and match any song in a user's library. This was originally a feature that offered and was the reason they were sued out of existence.  Apple negotiated very carefully to get the rights and the payoff is big. Instead of storing the user's files they are just serving a copy from their own database.

The downside is that it seems to be device based so you can't really access it without an iOS device or computer with iTunes.  Its also limited to songs that are recognized by iTunes. For Apple users its pretty much a no-brainer but for everyone else there needs to be a good reason to justify using it. Here are two possible reasons.

1.) Fixing Old Rips
I'm probably not alone in having old CD rips of less than stellar bitrate.  I didn't really care at the time because PC sound wasn't all that great to begin with. Apple's matching service offers a very nice upgrade in sound quality for only $25 (although limited to 25K songs) and far less work than digging out a box of CDs and manually re-ripping.  It'll still be time consuming but much less so.

2.) Laundering Music/Getting Around the Rumored Google Cloud "Authenticity Check"
Since the Google Music Beta started there's been rumors illegitimately obtained music might get flagged and removed if uploaded.  One way to avoid that would be to obtain "clean" copies from Apple first, assuming there is no similar check being performed by Apple.  To be safe, it would be a good idea to remove any suspicious looking comments from files using program such a Media Monkey before any uploading takes place.  I'm not recommending that anyone do this, but with the way Apple has structured their offer it seems to be essentially an offer of amnesty from the four major labels and for the price quite an affordable one at that.

Apple's Match service won't launch until some time in Fall so the details may change and Amazon and Google may still catch up.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Amazon, HBO, Unprepared for Demand or Aware and Unconcerned

This past week was an interesting one in that two monster companies offered promotional downloads that made their sites slow or inaccessible.  Amazon offered a Lady Gaga album for 99 cents in a daily deal and HBO offered an episode of Game of Thrones a week early.  For Amazon, the promotion seemed linked to their new cloud music player.  For HBO, it seemed more of a test of how many people use the HBO GO site and how much stress it can handle.

What was odd about both instances was how quickly they both failed.  Especially in the case of Amazon, you don't want to make people jump through hoops when the competition is Itunes.  The Cloud Player is generally pretty easy to use, albeit buggy and not as polished as it should be. For Amazon not to have the server power behind the promotion to make it run smoothly runs the risk of turning off almost as many people as would be attracted in the first place.  Its a poor gamble and not a good sign from a company that has been on top of its game for a long time.

I've liked Amazon for a long time but as they've grown the overall quality hasn't kept up.  For example, the recommendations engine is nowhere as good as what it was a few years ago.  There is no cross-pollination between categories, music doesn't influence mp3 downloads, books don't influence kindle downloads.  The newer engine seems so focus only on the most recent purchases so very often there are little or no recommendations or everything is based on immediate history only.  I hope they don't keep going for quantity over quality, there are good products at Amazon but the implementation is making them unusable.

With HBO, what was interesting was that they tried this in the first place.  Showing an episode of your top rated series a week before it will air on any of your cable partners is a bold move.  HBO didn't have the bandwidth to pull it off but that is something that should be easily fixable.  It'll be interesting to see if HBO goes this route again.  Given its ownership its unlikely that HBO will ever be too independent but its a step in the right direction. Also, when it finally worked the latest episode of Game of Thrones was awesome. Too bad its a two week wait now until the next one.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Ceton TV Update

Ceton updated their InifiniTV CableCard software last week to allow for tuner sharing between computers. Basically one computer can now relinquish some of its four tuners and other computers on the network can take the signals.

Setting it up wasn't too difficult but for some reason my video card was listed as non-compatible. The only workaround seems to be recording each show I want to watch and then watching on a slight delay. No channel flipping. I'm hoping its just that I'm using a DVI cable instead of HDMI. Its very annoying to have been waiting for this update only to not be be able to use it right because of an outdated video card.  I'm not interested in getting a new video card either, the last few generations have been minor refreshes and major improvements are supposed to be coming in the cards due out in a few months.

Update: Looks like the HDMI cable did it.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

"This Dance Music Makes My Tushy Shake"

Perhaps the most epic review of a metal song by a four year old ever. This past weekend, my daughter and I continued our tradition of driving to her favorite places in my home town while listening to loud and fast music.  Its a relatively new tradition but one that we both get a kick out of.  We don't get many chances to drive around and even at home don't get that many opportunities to listen to music together.

One thing that I find really interesting is how open my daughter is to new and different forms of music.  There's this willingness to listen to just about anything and most of the time her reaction is positive. When it isn't its usually because she finds the music boring or too slow.

On Sunday, we had another drive, this time bringing Mom along as well (she had to promise not to change the music).  To be nice to her, we listened to The Low Budgets a great poppy punk band from Philly, who also happen to be really great guys.  My kid liked them a lot but complained that the car seat was too tight let her dance as much as she wanted to.

After our car ride, I asked my daughter if she'd be interested in giving her opinions on any more music  Her response "That would be boring and silly"

How To Turn Your Honeycomb Tablet into a Media Powerhouse

When Motorola and Google introduced the first Honeycomb tablet in the form of the Xoom, expectations were high and the initial delivery was underwhelming. The product that was delivered was, and still isn't fully formed, and the most awaited updates have yet to come.  With a few of the major standouts, native Netflix and Hulu, still not available, this guide isn't complete, however there is enough out there now to put together a very good primer on how to make a Xoom or other Honeycomb tablet into a great media player for both home and road use.

First Steps (Xoom Only)
This part is only for those with a Xoom, I haven't dug into the other tablets enough to know the equivalent measures although there probably are some.  As with any Android device, if you are serious about getting the most out of it you should get yourself over to where the action is, In the case of the Xoom, the developers have opened up more features than were available out of the box, including SD card access and have also improved performance.  There is also a section on how to enable external storage (useful for bringing a video collection along for long trips).  There's too much to get into to provide much detail and in fact, its much better to take the time to wade in a bit in order to avoid making mistakes that could potentially brick your device.  Overall, its well worth it to get the extra features enabled and the most performance out of your device.

Easy Installs
I'm posting links to AppBrain for all the apps I'm listing here.  AppBrain is a site that helps manage the Android Market and has two apps of its own, AppBrain and Fast Web Install.  If you download and install Fast Web Install, you will be able to install free apps directly from AppBrain without having to go through the Android Market. Its a great time saver, especially when loading up on apps.

AppBrain App

The good news when it comes to music is that there is no shortage of options for Android.  The stock music player looks nice and plays fine.

Winamp is another free  and attractive option and has media syncing option (which I found buggy and useless).

Itunes users may be interested by Doubletwist's Itunes syncing player.

PowerAmp is one of the better paid music players, with nice looking skins, high quality sound and a built in EQ.

Subsonic bridges the media players and streamers with an app that allows you to access their home music server.

Of course, Pandora,, rdio, slacker and others all have apps as well for their streaming and music discovery services. Which one you go with depends on whether you are paying for one of their services already.

There are also several free services catering primarily to electronic music such as Soundcloud

The latest entry is the Amazon Cloud Player which offers 20GB of free storage space plus unlimited storage space for any music purchased off of Amazon. The Cloud Player has a few quirks, in particular you should always use a supported browser to buy music from Amazon if you want it to get to the Cloud storage.  I've been managing my Amazon apps using the Amazon appstore but its a matter of personal preference on how to go about doing it.


Video - Streaming
First off, there is no iTunes for Android when it comes to video.  There is no easy way to buy video and until Amazon or Google comes out with a store its unlikely there will be one.

Netflix currently doesn't work for Honeycomb and Hulu is hit or miss depending on what browser and what Flash hack you are using.  The PlayOn app works somewhat, but I haven't been that pleased with how its performed and was frustrated with errors.  However its the only option for streaming Netflix to Android.

For other channels, Honeycomb has pretty good native browser support. Using either the built in browser or DolphinHD you can create bookmarks and use widgets or shortcuts to make it easy to hit up frequently used sources from the main page.

When it comes to streaming movies and TV, Amazon Prime is one of the better options available on Honeycomb.  I didn't have any problem playing video using DolphinHD and the quality was more than acceptable.

The same goes for HBO GO, for those who have a cable subscriber that lets them use it.  While there is an android app for phones, there isn't a tablet app yet.  Supposedly, one will be released soon, but the browser version works fine.

The absolute best choice for streaming locally stored TV and movies, including home videos is Plex.  The Honeycomb app is relatively new but it works great.  It uses a server component located on a PC to index files and transcode, while the app provides the interface.  The image quality was good and the interface is one of the best I've seen short of XBMC. Most source material played without a problem and setup was very easy. Its a free server but a paid app. For the functionality it brings its well worth the cost.

A bit more of a hack than Plex but free is UPnPlay.  This app will search your network for UPnP sources and attempt to stream video and audio over what it finds.  On my network I didn't have much luck getting it to work with PlayOn but it recognized XBMC and worked well with music playback.  For video playback, I found that the best playback app to use was Rockplayer as it tended to fail the most gracefully (it glitched instead of crashing).  In general, video playback was a little behind what was feasible locally.  If Rockplayer can play the file locally it should play it back over the network, if it can't play it locally then expect glitches or a crash.

Dolphin Browser HD
HBOGO  Not working on Honeycomb yet.

Video - Local Playback
When you start getting into playback of video files there are many differences of opinions. One that is universal is that the stock player in Honeycomb is insufficient for most tasks.  Two of the the more popular players are Rockplayer Lite and Moboplayer.  In my experience, Rockplayer is a bit better on the software decoding side while Moboplayer handles high end and hardware decoding a bit better.  They are both decent.

The real challenge is in getting files that will play.  Most standard definition files will play but 720p and 1080p files are often encoded in h264 High Profile which is incompatible with the Tegra 2 chip used in the Xoom (Tegra 3 Android devices are a year away).  Handbrake can be used to reencode files to Baseline and they will usually play fine.  Its important to always use mp4 format as well (the alternative mkv format is not well supported yet)

The other challenge is actually getting files onto the Xoom. For some odd reason you can sometime  get glitches trying to directly copy mp4 files to the Xoom.  If the glitches are a problem, with a rooted Xoom you can remove the sdcard and copy directly to that.  You can also use ES Explorer to browse shared drives over Wi-Fi and download files that way.  I really like ES Explorer because its a plug free solution, even if its not the fastest method.

Rockplayer Lite
ES File Explorer

Xoom Preset for Handbrake

How to Make it Look Nice

With all these apps there needs to be a good way to organize them and the underlying media files.  ES File Explorer is very good for moving batches of files around and keeping tidy and most of the apps themselves work well with Honeycomb in selecting media folders and keeping track of where playable files are.

My favorite combo of apps for having a clean interface is Circle Launcher and Custom Launcher Icons.  Circle Launcher allows you to put several related apps into one launcher and Custom Launcher Icons lets you design icons.  One tip for Circle Launcher, although the custom icons make the built in labels look terrible its still a good idea to add them in. The label title is used to as the name of the save file if you back up the configuration of the widget. Once you save, you can go back and clear the label.

I've included a few screenshots of what this looks. Also on the screenshot are a couple customized bookmarks I made for DolphinHD using Launcher Pro Plus to add custom Icons.

Another app that is a bit more intrusive but more potentially more capable is Folder Organizer.

Many of the music apps have their own widgets.  It's probably not a great idea to load all of them, especially not on the main page but having the most used ones available wouldn't hurt.  I'm still waiting to see a good tablet optimized widget for a music player but I'm sure they'll come out eventually.

As far as video players go there really isn't much in the way of widgets.  Circle launcher works well to select between them as they will typically all open up to the file list of available media.

Circle Launcher
Custom Launcher Icons
Folder Organizer

Screen Shots

Update: Remotes

While these don't exactly play media on the Xoom, the sense of overkill you get from controlling XBMC and MCE with a 10 inch remote is gratifying.

The Official XBMC Remote is my favorite remote app for XBMC but it has yet to get ok'd for the Xoom on the Android market. Luckily, Amazon's Appstore is less picky about where it downloads to.

For Windows Media Center, my favorite is MyRemote, which I believe is actually downloadable to the Xoom, although you will need to install Spare Parts Plus in order to make it work full screen.

Official XBMC Remote Amazon Appstore
Spare Parts Plus (Disable compatibility mode to make phone size apps full screen)

That's it for now.  There should be much more on the horizon with updates promised from Google and potentially both Netflix and Spotify coming to Android within this year.

Update: Honeycomb 3.1

Honeycomb 3.1 has hit the Xoom and its brought some goodies.

The big change is the new Video market. This is really the Youtube video store, but it will show up in Android Market under the Movies tab.  The new store allows streaming and also allows videos to be downloaded for offline watching.  Only rentals are allowed so once a video is started it will time out 24 hours later.  A word of caution. Rooted Xooms will not be able to play movies.

Hulu is kinda working per this fix

Netflix is out for Android but not working on Honeycomb yet last time I checked. Hopefully soon.

Both Rockplayer and Moboplayer went glitchy on me after the update but uninstall/reinstall fixed them up and had them working fine.

Google Music Beta is out but invite only.  Its a cloud service similar to Amazon's but much larger in scope. It works great with Honeycomb, as expected.  There are a few things to watch out for if you have a large music collection that you want to upload.  The uploader is dumb, if you point it to your entire music folder it will put the whole thing into queue even if that means going over the 20K limit of songs that Google lets you upload.  Once in queue you can't modify the order or delete songs from the queue.  The only solution I could figure out was to uninstall and reinstall the uploader.  I guess it plays to the power user/casual user dichotomy.  Most people probably don't have 20K tracks to upload so more control isn't absolutely necessary.  However, those people who do have more than 20K tracks are more likely to use the service and be vocal in their support for it if Google were to cater to their needs more.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Update on my Xoom

I rooted my Xoom last night. After a fun weekend in D.C. where I managed to get a lot work done I had a minor setback when Launcher Pro rejected all of my widgets.  I had been planning to root the Xoom so this was a good a reason as any.  The process was fairly easy. A couple restarts but all in all, under half an hour.  I'm still not up to the latest version because there were some recent advances and I wanted to let the dust settle a bit.

One big shock.  The first time I set up the Xoom, almost all my apps from my phone were automatically synced.  This time, only the apps that I installed after getting the Xoom were synced with a few mind numbingly stupid exceptions. For some reason, the apps designed specifically for hacking my phone got synced to the Xoom.  Even after I uninstalled it, it went back on the market list to be reinstalled. Weird.

Update two:
Just wanted to add some more thoughts on the hardware after running into my first roadblock on video.  While the Xoom is definitely capable of rendering decent video, the lack of high profile decoding debacle is going to be a sore point for a long time with Tegra 2 devices.  The problem isn't so much the lack of decoding capability as it is the lack of an easy way of getting an incompatible file onto my Xoom in compatible format.  The folks over at XDA forums already have the Handbrake config file designed to get a compatible format conversion but having to manually go through folder structure, set an output directory, then upload a half hour or more later for each file isn't very convenient.

I do have a solution in mind although it may be beyond my meager programming abilities.  Basically, it would involve creating a  script in XBMC that if the video quality is Xoom-incompatible queues any file selected in Handbrake with the Xoom profile and a specified destination folder.  A potential option could be to sync that folder to cloud storage but there's nothing I'm aware of that works for cloud storage of large video files, at least not cheaply and reliably (Dropbox is expensive and does not resume downloads).

Changing gears, I've now gotten the sdcard on the Xoom working and its made me wonder, why the hell would Motorola go with a MicroSD option on a 10 inch device. Miniaturization is wonderful and all but for a device that is going to be a potential laptop replacement the ability to interface with standard size cards would be a major selling point to photographers and video editors. Sadly, this seems to be  part of Motorola's corporate culture.  They have a mentality of implementing what they can and deliberately cauterizing the rest.  In the case of the Xoom, it is fortunately limited to the hardware only.

While this new update is for the most part negative, I'm not sour on the Xoom.  I've been having tons of fun with it.  I'm close to having my interface tweaked just the way I want it, which point I'll post up some screenshots and a few how-to guides.   I expect to have a more positive post coming up soon (Doctor Who) and a much darker post that I've been wanting to get off my chest for a long time now (migraines) in the next week or so.

Friday, April 15, 2011

How Microsoft could win the next round of the ecosystem wars

Computing paradigms have shifted dramatically over the last thirty years.  From the battle for the desktop, to the battle for the browser, the battle for the phone and so on.  While these battles raged there were longer term wars that can better be termed wars over ecosystems.  Microsoft didn't just have the Windows OS, they had Office, DirectX for gaming, IE as the default and most support browser and millions of windows applications and users settled into their system.  While their influence in the browser realm has waned significantly they are still the king when it comes to business desktops and the vast majority of home users.  However, in the server marketplace they got their clocks cleaned by Linux.  In the gaming world, consoles dominated but the hardware stagnated and cheap to develop phone games now compete against blockbuster budget titles running on six year old hardware.  Their new Windows phone has to compete with already established Apple, Android and Blackberry.

It would seem the only way for Microsoft to go is down.

 In fact, that's probably the direction they'll take and its because they're losing the ecosystem war for the home.  Microsoft's big plus has always been the desktop but Google and Apple have both whittled away at the features that a desktop provides.  Of course, Apple offers a desktop, or laptop, or tablet. They also offer products to do backups, play from the apple library on TV or a speakers and sync with phones and iPods.  Its the Apple ecosystem.  Google's ecosystem also exists but its not as coherent.  There's tablets and phones, and GoogleTV, and ChromeOS on tablets, and the Chrome browser with its app store and the various Google apps.  Its more reliant on third parties and the software is still forthcoming (the mythical "Ice Cream" successor to Honeycomb that will tie everything together).  If Apple is the threat that's staring Microsoft in the face, Google is the one that's  fumbling around behind it maybe about to drop a really big axe.

Now, Microsoft has an ecosystem too, but its the Hawaii of ecosystems, fragmented into dozens of pieces that really don't interoperate to any significant extent beyond attracting the scrutiny of the EU Antirust commission.  There's the Xbox 360, which does do a good job of incorporating MS's various video, game and music services together in its marketplaces.  The music marketplace, the Zune marketplace is named for the now defunct music player that was killed off by MS in the warm up for the Windows Phone 7.  There's Office, which is the golden goose, not even worth discussing really, they rake in their cash and don't want anything to do with anyone else.  Then there's search, email and social networking.  Extra emails are fine, maintaining extra networks are annoying and bing search is like google with different ads.

This leaves what I want to talk about, media center.  Now, there's been rumors that MS might be ditching media center on the PC for the embedded market.  This is half smart.  Its half smart because MS has the only good OS that can work with CableCards and it lets the cable companies offer a product that's competitive with Tivo and the networked Blu-Ray players.  Its only half smart because an embedded device will 90% guaranteed be a POS locked down slightly fancy cable box when instead it could be Microsoft's tour de force in the ecosystem wars.

Here's how it works.  Microsoft just happens to have a best of both worlds solution.  The Windows platform is open enough that you can run all kinds of software on it but its also very DRM friendly so it can play just about any DRM'd file without a problem.  Its also very app friendly, there's no need to have a separate market for it. The one difficulty is in keeping the secure area secure, but that's something that Microsoft appears to have managed very well so far with their DRM'd media.  The key feature is that the device could offer a Cablecard and video recording.  Having played with media center, its a step up from a regular cable box but still not great.  However, there's nothing preventing Microsoft from taking good software like XBMC and making it work seamlessly with multiple sources including recorded video.  One of the things that's just fantastically, stupid is organizing files by source rather than title and if MS could pull their weight and provide the kind of interface where you just pick the TV show or movie you want and then pick the source rather than having to pick Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Local  first, it would be a game changed..
Another thing that Microsoft could do is smart syncing of media.  For example, say you have an iPhone, Xoom, and Droid Incredible and you are browsing a TV show and want to sync it to the Droid Incredible, the software could identify whether or not the file is natively playable, if not create a playable conversion and then sync it.  Apple could never do this because they don't play outside their ecosystem.

Its wishful thinking at this point and honestly, I don't know that there's anyone still at Microsoft with the personality to pull off this kind of project.  It would be a shot across the bow of pretty much every cable company in America, basically saying rather than pay $15 b a month for a crap cable box you can pay $4 for a CableCard, store hundreds of shows and movies, sync your shows to your phones, play your shows in any room in the house, play Xbox 36o Games, get Itunes, get Rhapsody, get Netflix, get Hulu, get Youtube, video chat, check Facebook/twitter/email, etc.  Or they can shitcan media center for PC and make the crappy embedded windows box for the cable companies you end up paying $15 a month for.

American Gods could become an HBO series,54645/?utm_medium=RSS&utm_campaign=feeds&utm_source=avclub_rss_daily

This was a surprise.  I liked American Gods when it came out and on reflection its definitely better suited for an episodic format.  The company being pitched, Playtone, has a solid track record with HBO, Band of Brothers, John Adams, etc, so if it gets greenlit it should do well.  I think that the likelihood of it being made and receiving a good budget will depend on the success of a A Game of Thrones this month.  Everything I've heard so far about A Game of Thrones has been very positive so I'm hoping it does well and can't wait to see it.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

First Thoughts on the Xoom

The Motorola Xoom is the Android answer to the iPad, or at least its supposed to be.  Its the first device to have Google's new Android 3.0 Honeycomb operating system optimized for tablets on it.  I've had the Motorola Xoom for a few weeks now, just long enough to have formed an opinion about it.  While in some ways its still far from being at the stage it should be in order to be competitive with the iPad, the device and platform is showing a tremendous amount of potential and it really is very fun.

One of the first surprises on unboxing the Xoom was that the power plug is surprisingly thin. Smaller than a headphone jack thin.  While some people rave about the Honeycomb boot animation, my eyes were bothered by it (migraine sensitivity sucks).  The real surprise was putting in my google log in info and having all of the apps I'd ordered on the Android market automatically download to the Xoom.

Well not all.  While apps that require root downloaded, some apps that were listed as incompatible, especially alternative launchers did not download.  (Launchers, are also known as home screens.  They are a special kind of app in that they are the phone's main interface for the phone and also launch apps.) Also, not all of the apps that downloaded worked or worked well.  Not unexpected really.  Its unlikely that all the apps even work on my original phone.

Overall, the Android Market on the Xoom is a huge improvement over what I have on the Droid X.  Updating apps is simple not glitchy.  Whats disappointing is how sparse the tablet specific selection is.  While many non-tablet specific apps work fine there really should be more out there by now.  In particular, Skype is still not finished yet.  This among other still missing features makes the Xoom feel as if it were rushed to market to beat the iPad with full functionality left for a future release.

I do want to note that side loading apps is pretty much a requirement to get the best experience out of the Xoom.  Side loading is when you load an app without using the market, either through a file manager or another method such as emailing to yourself.  While the stock launcher is nice, the app drawer moves through apps page by page, something that takes forever if you already have a phone full of apps that gets synced to the zune.  The launcher apps I mentioned above can actually be installed, just not through the market.  For me, Launcher Pro works best.  Oddly enough, I just switched out Launcher Pro for ADW EX on my Droid X because Launcher Pro had too many resource issues.  With the Xoom's far greater firepower it isn't an issue.  Launcher Pro fixes the app drawer problem, provides better widgets, allows icons to be resized and lets more screen real estate get used up. Its pretty much perfect for a tablet.

Another side load app, is the Amazon App Store. I did run into a few issues, the free version of Backbreaker was not Tegra enabled so did not play properly.  Otherwise, it was great to get some free apps that would otherwise be paid.

While the Xoom can't match the iPad for brightness its home page UI is way more useful and beatiful.  The Xoom has the horsepower, screen real estate and battery life to run the best of the live wallpapers on the Android Market without concern.  Scrollable widgets allow you to go through recent emails, facebook posts, twitter, news, etc directly from your homepage.  The gmail widget works well, as do the  Launcher Pro Plus widgets and Colorize widgets.

The large screen makes Circle Launcher widgets very effective means for accessing various apps. Its no problem at all to put 12-15 games in one Circle Launcher and be able to easily see each icon. For those of you unfamiliar with Circle Launcher, its a widget that looks like an ordinary icon until you press it, at which point it creates a ring of icons for other apps, or contacts or bookmarks that you can select from.  The layout's for the launchers can be saved so you can backup and restore the launchers from crashes or if you need to wipe the device.

One more app that needs mentioning is Rock Player lite. Video playback on tablets is essential and Arc Media, which was the first app I tried was completely worthless, under both rendering settings. I'm not sure if its something particular to the Xoom or just difficulties in handling formats not prepared for phones. Rock Player had no difficulties in playing files moved directly off the media server onto the Xoom.  I'm still looking for a good organization tool however.

So far Xoom development is still in its infancy.  A big recent announcement was that SD card support was just enabled.  The developer community on XDA were the ones to make the breakthrough, beating both Google and Motorola.  The Xoom is rootable but custom roms like Cyanogen or Liberty are a long ways off. I'm hoping that Google and Moto don't let this slide and try to keep pace with the hacker community.  Right now the Xoom feels like its still in release candidate, fun for geeky types but just not polished enough to be commercially viable.   The game changer that I think would make it no contest would be, ironically enough, windows. There really is no need for a ten inch screen on a remote.  If Google can somehow manage to split the screen so that you can have two apps side by side it would be huge.

Google and Moto need to get their acts together and do more than just make this a proof of concept device.  Its been pitched as Honeycomb, Android on the Tablet and the shortfalls in kludging Honeycomb into a usable form in time to get on the market have to be resolved before the shortfalls define the Honeycomb experience.

Edit: I was working on this late last night and didn't bother with de-jargoning.  I will be going back and explaining in more detail what some of this stuff means for those of you who are interested in learning more about the Xoom and Android. Pretty much done now.  One thing I learned along the way was that both the iPad 2 and the Xoom have some fundamental design issues that make them ill suited to being everyday couch TVs.  Apparently there's a hardware issue integral to the Tegra 2 chip that means that one of the most popular formats for hi def video won't play. Its no problem to load up the Xoom before a trip and make sure everything is properly converted but its too much to convert large files just for everyday viewing.

2011 SF and Fantasy Books

Pretty much since I started reading I've been a fan of science fiction and fantasy.  For the last few years, I've put together reading lists of the upcoming books I'm eager to read.  Sometimes they are part of a continuing series, other times they are just the latest from authors who have captured my interest.  Below is a short list of the SF+F books that have come out or will come out this year that I'm interested in reading.

A Dance with Dragons by George RR Martin
I put this first because there are a few other entries on this list that are the progeny of the style used in this series. George RR Martin's Game of Thrones made a huge impact on the fantasy genre.  Complex politics, intertwining plot threads and an engaging writing style were a big part of the appeal.  The frequent deaths of significant characters also differentiated this series from much of its peers when it came out.

The fantasy market tends to reward sticking to formula.  A clear divide between good and evil, a cast of static characters who are guaranteed to make it through to the end of the book with only a few exceptions (the aged mentor, the big bad guy).  A Game of Thrones was a break from the formula and it earned a massive following.  Unfortunately, the series has been delayed over and over again and has lost quite a bit of steam as a result.  The last book to come out moved much slower than its predecessors and my hopes aren't too high for the coming volume to pick up the pace.  Still, with years of waiting through delay after delay, I'm excited to finally have a bit more of the story.

The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie
This one came out earlier this year and I recently finished it.  Its the fifth book from Joe Abercrombie, with a cast drawn heavily from his books.  Those books drew attention for their gritty take on the typical fantasy setting and grim outlook.  The Heroes is the weakest of Abercrombie's books so far.  The setting is far more contained than the previous books, essentially one hill in a decisive battle between two armies. The characters are primarily two-dimensional with many variations of the same few personas.  However, what detracts most from this book is the very element that made the original trilogy so memorable.  Without getting into spoilers the trilogy that established the setting for The Heroes had a crushingly downbeat ending.  It also takes much of the suspense out of The Heroes.  It was still an enjoyable book but nowhere close to its predecessors.

The White Luck Warrior by R. Scott Bakker.
This book is the middle book of follow up trilogy to the series that gave the author his big break.  The original trilogy had a fantastic premise with a unique anti-hero lead.  Starting from the familiar trope of the ancestor of royalty who had defeated an ancient evil, the lead character was set up as the noble prince searching for his missing father.    Worse, he's described as a warrior-monk, able to think steps ahead of any opponent and practically unbeatable in battle.  However, the author drew heavily from science fiction, notably The Golden Man and Dune.  The lead is charismatic to the point of mind control and as the story progresses his manipulation of those around him never ceases.  In a way he ceases to be human, even those closest to him are pawns that he destroys when they best suit his purposes.
The second trilogy is set after the lead character from the previous books has risen to power and is viewed by his followers as the messiah.  The first book was so-so, introducing new cast, reprising history and lots of travel but little substance.  I'm hoping that the second book will pick up the pace some and move the story faster,

The Crippled God by Steven Erikson.
This is a series that hasn't disappointed. The Crippled God is the last volume in a ten book series by Steven Erikson.  Its epic fantasy with the epic side taken to an epically epic extreme.  The series is about 10,000 pages long with dozens of characters and tons of plot threads.  Much of it covers the story of an army fighting their way over a multitude of lands but there are many side stories that are interwoven.  All of these threads start coming together in the last three books or so.  It gets a little overwhelming keeping track of  what's going on, particularly as Erikson often drops the reader into a new narrative without mentioning which character's it is.  Having just finished this book last week, once I hit the last two or three hundred pages I couldn't stop reading until I got to the end (I had actually started this post while I was in the middle of the book but got too immersed in it to continue here) The author did a very good job of pulling all of the threads together and involving almost every character in the ending.  While this series is a major undertaking to read through I'd definitely recommend it to any fan of the epic fantasy genre.  The best place to start is with the second book Deadhouse Gates and then going back to read the first book in the series.  The first book was written before the author had a deal to do the whole series and is safer and more generic than the rest of the books.

The Dervish House by Ian Macdonald
The Dervish House is the third novel by Ian Macdonald set in the mid 21st century and covering a particular region.  The first novel, River of Gods was set in India and had a technological focus on AI, while the second was set in Brazil and was focused more on quantum computing and parallel universes.  This novel is set in Turkey and in terms of structure falls in between the first two books.  The cast is not as numerous as in River of Gods however the focus on nanotechnology is similar to how the earlier book was connected to artificial intelligence.  (Note, I got sidetracked once more and finished the book before finishing this post). I ended up really enjoying this book.  It was more tightly focussed than River of Gods but the various story threads came together very elegantly.  I still have Ares Express left over from my reading list from last year and on the strength of this book I don't plan to let it slip another year.

Snuff by Terry Pratchett
Another wildly popular series and with good reason. Terry Pratchett has been writing the Discworld series of books for many years.  Mixing satire with highly memorable characters while spoofing the fantasy genre, the Discworld series is consistently great.  Sadly, Terry Pratchett has a rare form of Alzheimer's that has progressed to the point where he needs an assistant to help transcribe his words.  However, I'm glad to see that he hasn't stopped writing and has another book due to come out this fall.  In particular, its a return to one of his most successful characters Sam Vimes.    In the Discworld series, Sam Vimes is essentially the chief of police for the city of Ankh-Morpork, the setting for most of the books.  The novels which have focussed on Sam and his crew are some of my favorites in the series so I'm hoping this one will be a winner as well.

Blue Remembered Earth by Alastair Reynolds
Alastair Reynolds does big idea science fiction very well.  A former astronomer, he has a knack for bringing high concept physics into his stories.  While I thought his latest novel, The Terminal World didn't hold up well, the book before that one, House of Suns is one of my favorites.  Having just signed a three book deal, Blue Remembered Earth is the first of  a new trilogy.  I'm not sure what to expect from it but he's stated that the trilogy will cover a period of 10,000 years which means that there should definitely be some interesting ideas.

Rule 34 by Charles Stross
Using an internet meme as a title is exactly what I'd expect from Charles Stross.  While I've found his books to be a bit inconsistent he does have good ideas even if the execution doesn't always come through.  His books are usually quick reads which is a good thing as a few other books on this list are coming out the same month.

The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi
I really don't know what to make of this one.  This book has been out in the UK for a while now and has received tons of hype there as was as few not too flattering reviews. Its hallucinatory far future hard SF.  I'm intrigued but I expect it will be very much a matter of personal taste.  Just the same as how I like some virtuosic music but find other similarly talented musicians unlistenable it will depend on whether I can find a good rhythm and enjoy reading through it.

Embassytown by China Mieville

I have high hopes for the next book from China Mieville. His last novel, Kraken wasn't as good as I'd expected it to be.  I'm also interested in seeing how he handles more of a science fiction setting, in fact that's my main interest as he's stayed in a relative comfort zone up until now.  One of his core concepts has been the mystique of cities so moving to a far future alien setting could be a way of depriving himself of what has become a crutch.

At this point there aren't a lot of new authors that I've heard much buzz about. The big releases are all coming out in the next 2-3 months so hopefully some interesting stuff turns up around August or so.   Outside of the above list I'm interested in Cathrynn Valente's Deathless which I saw received some good reviews recently, although she is no newcomer.  Dan Simmons also has a new book coming out, Flashback, that looks interesting.  Its set in a near future where the country is addicted on a drug that lets you relive parts of your life, very PKD.  Frederik Pohl just came out with a near future/bioterrorism novel All the Lives he Led.  Only one review so far on Amazon from the SF Book Review, 3 stars.  Deathless is on my Kindle queue but I'm waiting for more reviews and free time before thinking about readng the other two.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Amazon App Store and Cloud Drive

This week has been a busy one for Amazon.  First they unveiled the Amazon App Store for Android Devices, which will probably ignite a trademark suit between Amazon and Apple over the App Store mark.  For now the App Store is US only and AT&T phones appear to have an issue installing the Amazon app.  For those who can get it to work, the App Store is offering one free app a day.  This has seen mixed results with a few lame or overly intrusive apps being offered.  In general though, some of the most popular games and apps for Android have been included among the giveaways. Amazon has a way to test out some of the apps directly on their site before downloading.  It will be interesting to see how the Amazon market shapes up.

Amazon's second unveiling was for its Cloud Drive, offering a free 5GB to anyone with an Amazon account.  This is very similar to Dropbox, although without the same level of desktop integration that Dropbox has.  It shouldn't be much of a surprise as Dropbox runs off of Amazon's S3 cloud computing platform.  Amazon's service is particularly geared towards its music store with and isn't counting purchased MP3s towards its storage limit.  To further sweeten the pot, Amazon has also offered an upgrade to 20GB with the purchase of any album from their MP3 store.  Its a nice offer and will probably result in many people opting to keep the extra space in a year from now.

Like the App Store, the Cloud Drive is still a bit rough around the edges.  Amazon released a new version of it MP3 store app that integrates with the Cloud Drive but there is no desktop software or mobile app for accessing other files besides music.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

First Days with the Ceton Infinitv Card

So, this past Thursday I finally installed my Ceton TV card and got it up and running. It took about an hour and a half with a Verizon technician who had never seen that kind of thing before. Since then I've been tweaking the system and am now pretty much satisfied.

One of the first things I was concerned with in switching over to a TV card from the cable box was how to deal with the old remote no longer being available.  One option was to get an IR sensor and use a remote designed for Windows Media Center. The other one was to find apps that would achieve the same results.  After some digging and a few false starts I've settled on two apps, MyRemote for Android and Remote Kitten for iOS. Both of these apps use a separate server installed on the PC to connect up and have fairly comprehensive functionality.

I had previously installed remote apps for XBMC, the official XBMC remote app for Android and iXBMC for iOS. I haven't had any problem with either of these apps.

I also installed Remote Potato, which lets an Android or iOS device control which shows to record and even streams directly from the PC although live TV isn't functional yet.  In the process of researching I also came across Play On, which streams internet media such as Hulu and Netflix and offers a two week trial to check out the software.  Still haven't had a chance to test it out but it certainly looks interesting.

With the remote situation all set it was time to move onto media center software.

Windows Media Center Addons and Tweaks

In setting up WMC there are two sites that are worth checking out first, The Green Button, the official resource for WMC and . Windows Media Center unfortunately doesn't have as large or active a developer community as other media center programs but there are still quite a few useful addons to be found.  A good starting point for finding addons is here.

Because I'm primarily only using WMC for watching and recording live TV I skipped most of the media management stuff.  In fact, my primary goal was to be able to convert recorded shows into a format where they could be easily added to my XBMC library.  This proved harder than I expected.  The two features that are needed for conversion are commercial skipping and file renaming to meet XBMC's file conventions.  WMC doesn't automatically do either.  Its a hassle to get both to work together and I'm still not positive that the setup I have now is working right.  Luckily, most of the shows I'm archiving are for my daughter and a pretty much commercial free.

The last thing left to do is to figure out how to let the other computers in my apartment access the cable tuner on my HTPC.  So far the best I've managed is to temporarily kill my internet connection. I'm hopeful that I'll be able to get it to work soon, but it might be that the software just isn't there yet.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

A little late

Been a bit delayed in writing this up. I was hoping to write a post on setting up my HTPC with the Ceton Infiniti4 TV card but it didn't ship out until a few days ago. It seems there is a good bit of demand, it was almost a six month wait to get it.

In the meantime there have been a couple of interesting developments in the tech world, particularly with regard to media centers.  I'll start with the bad news.

There was a recent article about Microsoft abandoning its media center software for PCs and instead focusing on embedded systems.  It makes some sense, Windows Media Center (WMC) hasn't seen much adoption.  Having played around with it only a little bit I think this could be due to a rather incomplete implementation and some inconsistencies between succeeding generations.  It just requires too many addons and tweaks to make it user friendly.  It will be interesting to see how it fares embedded in media appliances where tweaking could take on an added degree of difficulty.

The reason why the potential demise of WMC for PC's is a downer is because there isn't any other way to get CableCards to work with cable TV.  You need to have a secure platform that prevents user access in order to get certification to be compatible with CableCard and the TV on PC products that compete with Microsoft are open-source and thus have no chance of being approved.  In the same vein, its unlikely that a high def version of the Vudu movie service will be available on PC's other than through WMC.  For now, its only available on the Boxee platform and even there only plays back in standard def.

Now for some good news. There was a major announcement from the XBMC camp a few weeks ago, XBMC has been successfully ported to Apple's AppleTV, Ipod and Iphone.  Its a fantastic accomplishment and with the response its received it will be getting lots of developer attention.

The XBMC announcement puts an interesting spin on the upcoming battle between the second generation Ipad and the Honeycomb (Android 3.0) tablets that will be coming out in the next few months.  So far the Android camp hasn't been doing very well. The first generation of Android tablets were lacking in features and software.  There was a lot of hype about the second generation Honeycomb tablets, and in particular the Motorola Xoom. The Xoom had its first ad during the Super Bowl and the reaction was overall negative.  At the Super Bowl party I attended the reaction was generally "So its like an Ipad then".  On the internet, the reaction was more intense due to the buzz that the first Xoom tablets would require buying into a Verizon data plan and would be around $800.  Since then there's been news that there will be a cheaper, Wifi only, model but that it won't be out until the middle of the year.

From a marketing perspective, this is a stupid move.  Tablet sales have for the most part been primarily Wifi only. I saw some estimates that around 80% or more of Ipad sales were for the cheaper Wifi only models instead of the pricier 3G models that require a monthly data plan.  This means that Xoom sales aren't likely to take off until summertime.  However, between now and then Apple will launch its second generation Ipad.  This will end up hurting sales of the Xoom and other Honeycomb tablets.  Following in the wake of a new Ipad is probably the worst possible time to introduce a tablet.

On a personal note, I've had an Android phone for several months and think its great, if occasionally frustraing. This week, in preparation for getting rid of our cable box I bought an Ipod Touch in hopes that it could be used as a remote for the HTPC that my daughter can use.  I've never really used the Apple interface much before and its quite a change from what I'm used to.

The biggest surprise to me was that I missed the Android market.  On the Apple market so many of the apps being offered have poor ratings or are free to install but require in app payments to get real functionality.  With Android I find you get more functionality for free and its easier to find the best apps in a category.  With Apple it seems that everything that's good will cost you several dollars and even crap is a buck or two.  I guess its just part of the learning curve.

That's it for now. Hopefully the next post will be sooner. Next weekend I should be setting up my new TV card and seeing how much I can integrate it into my home network. Should be fun.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Thoughts on 2011

It takes almost no time at all between when holiday sales hyping the latest and greatest electronics come to a close and a whole new slate of products starts being promoted.  Today was the start of CES, a major electronics industry event where the gadgets for the coming year get announced.  Lots of these products won't actually hit stores until late in the year, if ever.  Some are just vaporware and others never get out of the starting gate due to a lack of retailer interest.  A few years ago HD-DVD came to a dead stop around this time, leaving many new owners of HD-DVD players stuck with just a tiny library of titles to choose from.  When things flop at CES its big news, successes however take far longer to materialize.

In this post I'll be sharing my thoughts on some of the new toys the coming year will bring.  

Last year, 3D was the new buzzword.  Heralded by Avatar at the box office, TV's and to a lesser extent Blu-Ray players started hawking 3D technology as the next big thing.  In the middle of last year, Nintendo leaked work that its next handheld console would be the glasses-free 3DS.  

At the same time as the buzz on the hardware side was growing, the media side took a downturn. Movie studios and theaters saw 3D as a way to charge extra for tickets and added post-processed 3D effects to movies.  For the most part, these hack jobs were unsuccessful.  Post-processed 3D doesn't look right and is prone to cause eyestrain.  Moreover, many of the effects in these films used 3D to jump out of the movie screen rather than creating the illusion of depth behind the screen, an effect that is tough on the eyes as well as being glaringly bad when poorly executed.  Poor 3D effects just make bad movies worse.

I did like the few films I saw in 3D but in those cases the source material was strong and the 3D effects were intended from the start and well executed.  Animation is well suited to 3D and much like A Bug's Life was the showcase DVD in electronics stores when DVD's first came out, Toy Story 3 will probably be the showcase for 3D Blu-Rays.

However, consumer 3D still has a long way to go.  Bulky, usually expensive glasses are required and because 3D technology relies on each eye only seeing half the total frames, brightness and color saturation suffer.  TV manufacturers are still scrambling to find new and better display technologies to provide a better 3D experience, but in reality the market isn't going to take off any time soon. There isn't enough media and there definitely isn't enough good media.  Some of the top 3D titles are under exclusive license to particular manufacturers for use as promos and thus won't be generally available for at least a year.

With the lack of media and rapidly shifting technology it would seem that buying 3D enabled products would be mistake.  The answer to this is yes and no.  3D is built into the HDMI 1.4 spec, the standard that controls what cables are used to connect devices.  Further, the 3D format itself is unlikely to change.  This means that Blu-Ray players that can handle 3D should not be obsoleted.  For Blu-Ray players 3D is pretty much a non-issue and prices have been dropping quickly.  For breadth of features a PS3 is still the best option but only for those who plan to actually play games on it.

With regard to TVs, the features that make a TV good for 3D also make it provide an excellent 2D experience.  Despite what is likely to be a big marketing push on 3D performance the real value in the coming generation of TVs will be the streaming capabilities added to them.  Features like Vudu for on demand films, Netflix, Pandora and most recently OnLive (streaming gaming) are all coming to TVs.  Many of these features are already in Blu-Ray players and standalone boxes and should slowly migrate to cable boxes as well. 

Streaming Media
This brings me to my next point, streaming media.  I think that 2011 will not be the year of 3D but that it will be the year that streaming media gets huge and becomes ultra-competitive.  The marketplace for streaming media is incredibly fragmented and each provider has their owned walled garden that they hope to keep consumers in.  For music streaming the heavyweights are Pandora and Last.FM, with Spotify gaining dominance in Europe.  For video streaming, Netflix is the champ when it comes to subscription models but there is plenty of competition for on-demand video with Amazon, Walmart (Vudu), Sony, Apple and Microsoft all fighting it out.  

In the next year or two I think a few things will happen.  First, the on-demand video and music download markets will stay relatively unchanged, all the players are too big for there to be any other result.  With music streaming, I think there will be some consolidation as the streaming services look for more leverage in bargaining with the music publishers who have currently hold them hostage.  With the backing of a major retail source such as Amazon, Apple or Walmart, the music streamers would have more power to get favorable deals.  The last big move could be Netflix.  While they are the top in their niche, the sheer volume of network traffic they generate is putting them directly in the firing line of the telecoms.  Because of their market share, Netflix's choice of partners is limited.  They have already come under fire for potential antitrust violations over deals with Walmart.  With Netflix's rapid increase in their use of net resources Amazon or Google could be a good partner if antitrust concerns could be overcome.

Whatever happens, 2011 should be an interesting year.  The percentage of households that have internet based music or video available on their TV will spike dramatically and the gloves will come off in the marketplace.  

Completely changing subjects, one thing that is looking to get very hot this year is tablets.  Last year the Ipad was a big success and the few Android tablets that followed in its wake were hit or miss.  The Android OS was nowhere near as ready for tablets as Apple's OS was for the Ipad launch.  This year, the Android tablet market will catch up and the big question mark will  be how Apple responds.  In terms of price, its unlikely that Apple will be competitive with the lower end of the market.  Android tablets have the potential to fill many niches due to the open nature of the platform but the tablet archetype pioneered by the Ipad could continue to be dominated by Apple.  In the first tablet news from CES, Asus announced a tablet with a sliding keyboard, a tablet with a detachable keyboard and a small (7 inch) tablet.  

One product definitely worth watching is the Nook Color.  While it began as an e-reader running on a significantly customized (and crippled) Android OS, a number of hacks have shown that is has the potential to be a cheap and versatile tablet.  With future official updates possibly opening up the tablet to the Android market it could turn out to be the best deal available for getting a reasonably full featured tablet.