Category Archives: multimedia

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Reviewing the Logitech Squeezebox Touch

I found time over the long weekend to review the Logitech Squeezebox Touch. It’s a great gadget, which I like better the more I play with it, though it has flaws. I also suspect that Logitech’s marketing does not do it justice.

Most people look to Apple’s iTunes when they make the transition from CDs to computer-based music; but the Squeezebox system is more flexible. It is multi-room: once you have the server set up, you can have as many players as you want around the house, all playing different material. It also does cloud streaming, and if you combine a player like the Touch with a Napster subscription you can play almost anything, apart from a few awkward choices like The Beatles (who don’t do iTunes either). Internet radio comes for free and works very well.

The Touch is the first player to have a colour screen with touch control, though like many users I don’t see a lot of value in the touch aspect. I enjoy seeing album artwork though. Another neat feature is the Flickr app, which displays random or tagged photos from Flickr while your music plays.

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The Touch has superb sound quality, being bit-perfect up to 24/96. The built-in DAC (digital to analogue converter) is very good, or you can use an external DAC. There’s also a headphone socket which you could attach to powered speakers to make a high quality desktop system.

The problem with the Touch is that it is not always easy to set up. There are almost too many choices. Run your Squeezebox server on a PC or Mac, or on a NAS (network attached storage) drive, or just use the hosted mysqueezebox.com?

A further option with the Touch is to attach a USB drive directly to the device. That seems ideal: low power consumption and simple setup. Unfortunately this is one of the most problematic areas. Users report problems both with USB-powered drives and with performance and reliability, especially with larger music libraries. It also takes ages to index a new library, and quite a long time to re-connect to an existing library if you remove and re-attach the drive.  For now, it’s best to rely on one of the other approaches.

One discovery I made when reviewing the Touch is SqueezePlay. Currently in beta, this is a cross-platform software player that has pretty much the same user interface as the Touch. You can download it here. SqueezePlay can operate as its own player, so you can listen on a PC, or as a controller for another player, whether a Touch or another in the Squeezebox range. The configuration seems buggy at the moment, but otherwise I’ve found it reliable.

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Incidentally, the hardware Touch has the same capability. You can use it to control itself, or any other player. The wealthy might like to consider buying a couple of Touch devices, one to attach to a stereo system, and the other to sit on a table where you can reach it without getting up, and to act as a controller for the first one.

It’s a good example of how flexible the Squeezebox system is. I give it high marks for sound quality and flexibility, but it is spoilt by fiddly configuration and a few quirks. Logitech needs to crack “it just works”.

See the full review for more.

iTunes user has account hacked, loses access to his own purchases

Spare a thought for iTunes user Peter Bilderback. His account was hacked and someone downloaded almost a $1000 worth of items from the iTunes store using his account. Bad stuff, but it happens. Bilderback wonders why Apple did not query the purchase of iPhone apps, when it knew that he had no iPhone – you would have thought that Apple’s closed system would be ideal for this scenario at least – but never mind, the credit card company spotted the suspicious activity and disputed the charges with Apple.

This is where it gets really nasty. Apple closed the compromised iTunes account and de-authorised all his purchases – not only the ones the fraudster grabbed, but everything he had bought over a period of 6 years:

When I contacted Apple about what happened they were totally unhelpful. Now they seem to have closed my iTunes account entirely, and I can no longer access any of the protected AAC music files, television shows or movies that I “purchased” from iTunes in the past. They are as good as gone. iTunes customer service does not respond to my emails inquiring about how to get my account reactivated. I cannot get through to anyone via phone, I just get a message directing me to their customer service website, and I can’t really use that because as far as Apple is concerned, I don’t have an account with them anymore.

With such a clear-cut case, you would think that Bilderback would eventually recover his purchases, but he says the incident “has been going on for three months now with no resolution in sight”.

The case highlights the difference between the old world of buying physical media like a CD, which comes with a transferable licence for personal use, and the new one where you download the media and buy a licence that is more restrictive, sometimes combined with technical content protection that further limits how you can enjoy your purchase.

That said, much iTunes content is not DRM-protected so presumably Bilderback can still get access to that.

The other aspect of this story is about customer service. It is a common story: individual versus large corporate entity, and the difficulty in getting through to anyone with both the willingness to listen and the power to do anything about a problem.

I guess he could try emailing Steve Jobs? Sometimes you get a reply.

Spotify goes social with Facebook, supports local music library

Spotify has announced a set of new features with the aim of “evolving into a total music management platform”, according to today’s blog post. There are two key features, available to both free and paying users.

The first is a link to Facebook, enabling you to see and share the playlists of your Facebook friends and to send them links to tracks.

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Second, you can now Spotify to manage your local music library as well as what is available online. One reason to do this would be to fill gaps in Spotify’s database, formed by artists and labels who have not signed up – The Beatles, King Crimson, Metallica, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and many more. This music can also be copied to mobile devices. It is not stated what format local music has to be in, but

Clearly the local music option may break shared playlists. Spotify will link to the same track in its own library where possible, or else come up with a replacement – maybe the same track performed by a tribute band, or who knows what?

Spotify is a game changer, partly because  thanks to the high quality of its software, and partly because it comes close to an ideal concept for listeners: play anything you like, wherever you like, and for free. Whether this is a viable business model for the music industry is open to question, though the combination of advertising and premium subscribers does provide some income.

The most interesting aspect is the Facebook link. It is another example of how Facebook is worming its way into other online services and helps its goal of being your key online identity, at least for social matters.

A YouTube video has a demo of the new features.

Magazine chief: iPad users – prepare to be retrained

The Guardian has an interview with Future Chief Executive Stevie Spring. Future is a major magazine publisher based in the UK. I was interested to hear how she believes the iPad could change the industry:

We’ve had a whole decade of people paying, believing that if they paid for the pipes they got the poetry free; [they think] ‘I’ve paid my £15 or £20 for broadband so I get access to a library of content’. The iPad gives us an opportunity to retrain them. Content production is not free and good content is worth paying for.

I am all in favour of more people paying for content. However, there are a couple of aspects of this line of argument which concern me. One is pure scepticism – how many print readers will actually be willing to transition to paying for online content just because the iPad is a convenient way to consume it? The problem is that while print has an unique appeal, once you are online it is easy to find equally good content for free, in the case of the consumer magazines in which Future tends to specialise.

The other concern is a deeper one. I get the sense that Spring is talking about content delivered as apps, since this is a proven business – people will more willingly pay for an app, apparently, than subscribe to a web site.

However, content delivered in an app is one step forward, two steps back. The step forward is possibly richer content, with the full power of the local machine. The steps back are that it is not part of the world wide web – not searchable or linkable.

Finally, there is the Apple problem. Is this a Future where we have to be Apple customers in order to enjoy its publications?

No Flash on iPad? No problem – we’ll redesign the site says NPR and others

It is fascinating to see the impact of Apple’s hostility to Adobe Flash on iPhone and now iPad.

On the one hand, it’s a gift to rival vendors such as Google, which is bundling Flash into Chrome (a contentious decision judging by the comments), and Microsoft, which has promised Flash support in Windows Phone 7, though not in the first release. These vendors can claim better Internet support than Apple, thanks to the large amount of Flash content, games and applications on the Web.

On the other hand, I’ve not seen many web sites that encourage their users not to use iPhone or iPad. Rather, those with the resources to do so are simply making their content available in ways that are iPhone/iPad compatible. There are two obvious ways to do so: either create an App, or make a Flash-free web site.

One of my favourite music sites is NPR, which is a great source of concerts and exclusive sessions, and which uses Flash for streaming. NPR’s research told it that five percent of its 26 million weekly listeners were likely to purchase an iPad. I was also intrigued to note that these purchasers consider it more of a “living space” device than something they take everywhere. Either way, they wanted to continue consuming NPR’s content.

NPR responded by taking both of the options mentioned above: a redesigned web site, optimised for touch control as well as eliminating Flash, and an iPad app that builds on an existing iPhone app.

We’re excited about this latest innovation because we think it brings us closer to capturing NPR’s unique identity on a digital platform. The iPad’s casual touch-screen navigation seems more conducive to immersive reading than even the lightest laptops. And it opens up new opportunities for casual listening.

The worrying thought for Adobe is that sites such as NPR might decide to use the Flash-free site for all browsers, instead of just those on an iPad, to save on duplicate work.

Adobe’s decision to enable native compilation to iPhone and iPad in the forthcoming Creative Suite 5 is looking increasingly significant.

Update: James Governor on Twitter says awesome! the new IE6! Good point, though how you see this depends on what you think of Flash in the first place.

Stephan Richter observes that “Judging by the comments, not many NPR users are happy that effort is wasted on supporting 5% of potential users.” There’s certainly evidence of resentment at Apple users getting preferential resources, though the fact that Apple purchasers pretty much match the dream profile for many advertisers may be a factor.

Moonlight 2 released; no Microsoft codecs unless you get it from Novell

The Mono Project has released Moonlight 2, its implementation of Silverlight for Linux. I tried my own database application and was pleased to find that it works fine; better than it did with the earlier release.

Note the right-click menu which offers some handy debugging features as well as the invitation to “Install Microsoft Media Pack”. If you choose this, you get a dialog offering the Microsoft codecs which are downloaded from Microsoft, not from Mono servers. You have to agree a EULA that restricts use to Moonlight running in a web browser.

That last bit is intriguing; it seems Microsoft is trying to prevent desktop or out-of-browser Moonlight (or Mono) from taking advantage of its codecs.

So what is in Moonlight 2? Miguel de Icaza explains:

Moonlight 2 is a superset of Silverlight 2. It contains everything that is part of Silverlight 2 but already ships with various features from Silverlight 3.

Those additional features include the pluggable pipeline, easing animation support, writeable bitmaps, and partial out-of-browser support. Further, de Icaza says:

We are moving quickly to complete our 3 support. Microsoft is not only providing us with test suites for Moonlight but also assisting us in making sure that flagship Silverlight applications work with Moonlight.

There is also a new patent covenant that:

ensures that other third party distributions can distribute Moonlight without their users fearing of getting sued over patent infringement by Microsoft

That said, the media pack is a source of friction. Only the Novell Moonlight distribution will raise the above dialog to install the Microsoft codecs; others will have to make their own arrangements; at least that is how I understand de Icaza’s post.

It seems an odd restriction, and means that most users should download from Novell.

Review: Sansa’s iPod alternative

The number of shelves dedicated to non-iPod music players in the average electronics retailer seems to shrink with each passing year, and as I write the top 10 bestselling MP3 players at Amazon.co.uk are all iPods, so it’s good to note that Apple alternatives still exist. As it happens, I’d been using an iPod Nano for a few weeks when Sansa’s latest Clip+ turned up for review; and it makes an interesting comparison.  

Feature-wise, the Sansa falls somewhere between a Nano and a Shuffle. There’s no camera, games or accelerometer on a Sansa Clip, and at 4GB it has half the storage of the least capacious Nano (though see below); but unlike a Shuffle the Clip has a screen, an FM radio, and a voice recorder.

Sansa’s device also has something all the iPods lack: a slot for a Micro SD or SDHC card, which means you can plug in extra capacity up to 16GB.  This port also supports a concept called slotRadio, where you purchase 1000 pre-selected songs on a card, but they are locked to that card. A slotRadio card costs $39.99 in the USA; as far as I can tell they are not available yet in the UK.

In use, the Sansa Clip+ offers none of the tactile pleasure of an iPod; but check out the price. This particular model is £34.99 at Amazon.co.uk; a new-generation Nano is over £100 and even a 4GB Shuffle is over £55.00.

The good news is that the Clip+ sounds very good. That’s just as well, since I doubt many will care about slotRadio (especially in the UK). Expandable storage is a nice feature, though I’d more likely stick in 4GB and forget about it, rather than trying to manage a set of tiny SD cards.

Another strong feature of the Clip+ is that it plays FLAC and Ogg Vorbis as well as MP3, though I’d have liked to see MP4 in there too, for DRM-free purchases from iTunes. I also like being able to attach the Clip+ to a PC via USB and simply copy songs to it, rather than having to use Apple’s bloated iTunes.

Still, I have to admit that the controls are rather fiddly and annoying; I kept clicking back when I needed to click the centre button and sometimes vice versa.

In the end, there are two reasons to get a Clip+. One is because you like having an Apple-free musical life. The other is because you value function over form. The Clip+ does a great job at a lower price than an iPod; but if you like the silky feel and stylish appearance of Apple’s toys, this alternative is not going to win you over.

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Logitech Squeezebox Radio has social features, unsocial price

Logitech has announced the Squeezebox Radio, similar in concept to the Squeezebox Boom which I reviewed earlier this year, but smaller, cheaper, and with a colour screen. It’s set to go on sale soon at $199.00.

 

The Squeezebox Radio has a trendy new feature: Facebook integration:

Say you just discovered a new track listening to Pandora® on your Squeezebox Radio. Now you can tell your friends about it instantly. You can display your Facebook page right on the screen; and send music recommendations to your Facebook friends the moment you hear that amazing new track.

There’s no remote included as standard, but a $50 accessory pack will provide both a remote and a rechargeable battery, for portable use (but don’t go too far, because it depends on a wi-fi connection).

I am a big fan of the Squeezebox system, though it is not the easiest thing to explain in a few words. It’s interesting that Logitech is choosing to emphasise the internet radio aspect – handy for UK listeners threatened with the loss of FM – rather than the networked music player using a local server that is the original Squeezebox concept. I’ve used Squeezebox in conjunction with a Napster all-you-can-eat subscription, and the combination works very well indeed. Logitech needs to support Spotify, which has faster start-up and more mindshare than Napster. It’s a logical move for both companies. Facebook support on the other hand I can live without.

The snag with selling this as a radio is that it looks very expensive for what it is. $199 for a radio with Facebook support? The high price together with the complexity of setting up SqueezeCenter (if you do) is what holds the system back.

Logitech Squeezebox Radio on Amazon.com (Black)

Logitech Squeezebox Radio on Amazon.com (Red)

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BBC trying out HTML 5, video element

The BBC has an HTML 5 demonstration using the video element. The video itself is encoded in both Ogg and H.264. In the screenshot below I have just clicked on a navigation image to jump to a specific place in the video. The demonstration is meant to work in Firefox, Safari and Chrome, though for me it only ran in Firefox (3.5).

There is a detailed comment from the BBC’s Sam Dutton on why the proof of concept was put together here. There is an interesting remark on why the BBC is interested in this approach, which does not require a plugin like Adobe Flash or Microsoft Silverlight:

Flash and other Rich Internet Applications (RIAs) provide something like this already via timeline scripting, but RIAs are ‘black boxes’, using compilers and obfuscators to hide code and data: great if you want to protect intellectual property, whereas we needed to provide a mechanism whereby data and the code acting on it were open and accessible. HTML 5 and the jQuery JavaScript framework gave us the tools we needed without requiring extra plugins or proprietary software.

From a technical perspective, Dutton remarks that the HTML 5 solution is more efficient if you want to synchronize other elements with the playing video:

The HTML 5 audio and video elements remove the need for player plugins, work like any other HTML element in terms of styling and positioning, and standardise the programming interface for playback control. Less well known is that these elements emit a timeupdate event (at a frequency adjusted to fit available processing and memory) which removes the need to poll a player for the current time position. This makes media scripting far more efficient, since there is no need to run a loop or use setTimeout. In tests run on several machines we found that timeupdate events are emitted regularly and frequently (particularly in Firefox), whereas polling a media player for current video time is unreliable.

Dutton adds:

… it’s early days for us on this and there are a number of serious challenges before this becomes anything near mainstream – if ever.

The BBC is an influential site and its experiments will attract keen interest from those watching the evolution of web video.

Spotify for iPhone looks great – if Apple allows it

I’m fascinated by the announcement of Spotify for iPhone.

Spotify lets you stream music from the company’s servers using a particularly fast and elegant user interface. The choice is huge, and of course shareable playlists are supported – I’ve had a lot of fun with these, using the desktop version.

Now here it comes for iPhone, with two big differences:

  1. You can synch playlists to the device for playing offline – essential on a mobile device.
  2. It’s not free; you have to be a premium user at £9.99 per month in the UK.

Although that is somewhat expensive, you get a lot for your money, including high quality 320kbs streaming on the desktop.

I noted a few further details from the comments to the above post:

  • An Android version is under development.
  • The iPhone app also works on the iPod Touch.
  • Offline works whether or not a connection is live. So if you pay for your data transfer, you could synch over wi-fi at home, then enjoy offline while travelling.

One thing that is not officially discussed is whether the company has verified with Apple that the application is acceptable. The post merely says:

… we’ve finally completed work on the Spotify app for the iPhone and sent it over to the nice people at Apple.

Now imagine you are Apple. The iPhone is in part built on the iPod, which was designed as a closed system using iTunes server and client to deliver music and apps to the device. Accepting an app that is an alternative to iTunes for music, and which to my mind represents the next generation of music delivery after downloading, is a threat to part of its business. It is not just that users might purchase less through iTunes. If users use Spotify rather than iTunes for their music, there are fewer barriers to moving from iPhone to Android or some other device (if Spotify chooses to support it). Reject the app then?

On the other hand, iPhone Spotify is for premium users only – not that many iPhone users will sign up. And if Apple rejects Spotify, there will be a very public cry of “monopoly” – whereas accepting it would be great PR.

Watching with interest – update soon.

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