Category Archives: rants

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Toshiba ships DVD media with laptop without DVD drive

One day you will be able to buy a Windows device and have a smooth and delightful experience getting started.

To be fair, something like a Surface tablet can give offer a reasonable experience if you are lucky.

Not so a Toshiba Portege Z930 ultrabook – at least, not if you buy one with Windows 7 pre-installed, and want to run Windows 8, as a contact of mine has just done.

Why would you not buy one with Windows 8 pre-installed instead? With hindsight, that is what I would recommend; but since it says on the box, “This system is pre-installed with Windows 7 Pro software and also comes with a license and media for Windows 8 Pro software,” he did not think it much mattered.

The problem: The Z930 has no optical drive, but Windows 8 is supplied in the form of two recovery DVDs.

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I thought that was pretty silly, but luckily I know all the tricks about creating a bootable USB drive from a DVD. I even spotted the note in the box that instructs you to go into the BIOS and change it from CSM Boot to UEFI Boot.

No go. It would not boot from the USB drive in UEFI mode, and in CSM mode (which is also meant to work for Windows 8, with a few limitations) it boots, starts a Toshiba recovery wizard, and then bombs out.

I spoke to support. The first thing they told me, unprompted, was to make Windows 7 recovery disks, since not everyone likes Windows 8.

Next, the support guy was surprised that a model without a DVD drive ships with DVDs. Had the machine been tampered with? Then he looked it up, and admitted that they are all like that.

After a little more investigation, he said there is no way it will work from a bootable USB drive, because it is coded to look for the DVD. The only way is to buy an external DVD drive and attach it via USB.

The behaviour began to make sense to me. The scripts must be hard-coded to look on the optical drive for the files. I’d guess you can fix it by modifying the scripts if you know where to look, but life is too short and I went out and bought a DVD drive.

Smooth after that? Not brilliant. Recover Windows 8, go to Store for Windows 8.1, remember that you have to apply updates before it appears, apply 80 Windows updates, remove McAfee trialware and a few other unwanted applications, back to Store, do large Windows 8.1 download, and done.

In an era where usability is king, it is remarkable that Toshiba thinks that shipping DVDs with a computer that cannot read them is a smart thing to do. That said, I have a few more observations.

  • If you got a product key for Windows 8 and could download the media from Microsoft, that would work. But OEM Windows 8 is now pre-pidded so you don’t get a key.
  • If Microsoft were not still making so much money from businesses paying for Windows licenses, it could give Windows away and offer users a more Apple-like upgrade experience.
  • If Microsoft had not come out with a Windows upgrade which many of its customers do not like, companies like Toshiba would not be selling so many laptops with Windows 7 pre-installed.

As for the Z930, it is a lovely light, fast laptop if you do not need touch. But when will Windows OEMs, and to some extent Microsoft itself, learn the importance of out-of-the-box user experience?

Dear audio industry, fix mastering before bothering with high resolution

The audiophile world (small niche though it is) is buzzing with a renewed interest in high resolution audio, now to be known as HRA.

See, for example, Why the Time is Right for High-Res Audio, or Sony’s new Hi-Res USB DAC System for PC Audio, or Gramophone on At last high-resolution audio is about to go mainstream, or Mark Fleischmann on CD Quality Is Not High-Res Audio:

True HRA is not a subtle improvement. With the best software and hardware, a good recording, and good listening conditions, it is about as subtle as being whacked with a mallet, and I mean that in a good way. It is an eye opener. In lieu of “is that all there is?” you think “wow, listen to what I’ve been missing!” … The Compact Disc format is many good things but high-res it is not. It has a bit depth of 16 and a sampling rate of 44.1 kHz. In other words, it processes a string of 16 zeroes and ones 44,100 times per second. Digitally speaking, this is a case of arrested development dating back to the early 1980s. We can do better now.

As an audio enthusiast, I would love this to be true. But it is not. Fleischmann appears to be ignorant of the Nyquist-Shannon sampling theorem, which suggests that the 16-bit/44.1 kHz CD format can exactly reproduce an analogue sound wave from 20–22,050 Hz and with a dynamic range (difference between quietest and loudest signal) of better than 90Db.

Yes there are some ifs and buts, and if CD had been invented today it would probably have used a higher resolution of say 24-bit/96 Khz which gives more headroom and opportunity for processing the sound without degradation; but nevertheless, CD is more than good enough for human hearing. Anyone who draws graphs of stair steps, or compares CD audio vs HRA to VHS or DVD vs Blu-Ray, is being seriously misleading.

Yes, Sony, you are a disgrace. What is this chart meant to show?

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If shows that DACs output a bumpy signal it is simply false. If it purports to show that high-res reproduces an analogue original more accurately within the normal audible range of 20-20,000 Hz it is false too.

As an aside, what non-technical reader would guess that those huge stair steps for “CD” are 1/44,100th of a second apart?

The Meyer-Moran test, in which a high-res original was converted to CD quality and then compared with the original under blind conditions (nobody could reliably tell the difference), has never been debunked, nor has anyone conducted a similar experiment with different results as far as I am aware.

You can also conduct your own experiments, as I have. Download some samples from SoundKeeper Recordings or Linn. Take the highest resolution version, and convert it to CD format. Then upsample the CD quality version back to the high-resolution format. You now have two high-res files, but one is no better than CD quality. Can you hear the difference? I’ve yet to find someone who can.

Read this article on 24/192 Music Downloads … and why they make no sense and watch the referenced video for more on this subject.

Still, audio is a mysterious thing, and maybe in the right conditions, with the right equipment, there is some slight difference or improvement.

What I am sure of, is that it will be nowhere near as great as the improvement we could get if CDs were sensibly mastered. Thanks to the loudness wars, few CDs come close to the audio quality of which they are capable. Here is a track for a CD from the 80s which sounds wonderful, Tracy Chapman’s debut, viewed as a waveform in Adobe Audition:

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And here is a track from Elton John’s latest, The Diving Board:

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This everything louder than everything else effect means that the sound is more fatiguing and yes, lower fidelity, than it should be; and The Diving Board is far from the worst example (in fact, it is fairly good by today’s standards).

It is not really the fault of recording engineers. In many cases they hate it too. Rather, it is the dread of artists and labels that their sales may suffer if a recording is quieter (when the volume control is at the same level) than someone else’s.

Credit to Apple which is addressing this to some extent with its Mastered for iTunes initiative:

Many artists and producers feel that louder is better. The trend for louder music has resulted in both ardent fans of high volumes and backlash from audiophiles, a
controversy known as “the loudness wars.” This is solely an issue with music. Movies, for example, have very detailed standards for the final mastering volume of a film’s
soundtrack. The music world doesn’t have any such standard, and in recent years the de facto process has been to make masters as loud as possible. While some feel that overly
loud mastering ruins music by not giving it room to breathe, others feel that the aesthetic of loudness can be an appropriate artistic choice for particular songs or
albums.

Analog masters traditionally have volume levels set as high as possible, just shy of oversaturation, to improve the signal-to-noise ratio (SNR). With digital masters, the goal
is to achieve the highest gain possible without losing information about the original file due to clipping.

With digital files, there’s a limit to how loud you can make a track: 0dBFS. Trying to increase a track’s overall loudness beyond this point results in distortion caused by
clipping and a loss in dynamic range. The quietest parts of a song increase in volume, yet the louder parts don’t gain loudness due to the upper limits of the digital format.
Although iTunes doesn’t reject files for a specific number of clips, tracks which have audible clipping will not be badged or marketed as Mastered for iTunes.

Back to my original point: what is the point of messing around with the doubtful benefits of HRA, if the obvious and easily audible problem of excessive dynamic compression is not addressed first?

None at all. The audio industry should stop trying to mislead its customers by appealing to the human instinct that bigger numbers must mean better sound, and instead get behind some standards for digital music that will improve the sound we get from all formats.

Bing Maps app on Windows 8: rubbish compared to Bing Maps on the web

I have been looking at the Bing Maps app on Windows 8 and 8.1 (it is the same).

It is surprising how poor it is. The web version is better, which is odd because you would have thought they used the same data.

Here is what I get from the app if I search for public transport between Derby and Birmingham (on a direct rail route):

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Bing Maps on the web has no problem with this:

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Here is another random example. Bing maps app cannot find Dubrovnik airport. A search only finds Dubrovnik.

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Oddly, if you know where the airport is, it is in fact marked on the map.

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Web app: no problem:

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If Microsoft wants Windows 8 tablets to succeed, glaring problems like this need fixing. Before the release of Windows 8.1 later this year.

Online booking with National Express: prices change arbitrarily

I don’t get this. You go online to book (or check prices) at National Express.

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Hmm, that 13.00 looks a good deal at £9.00. But maybe I’ll go earlier. Click Show Earlier Coaches.

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Oops! Not only are all the prices more for the earlier journeys, but the 13.00 is now £10.70. What if I now go back with Show later coaches?

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Bad new – the 13.00 is still £10.70. Good news – the 16.00 which was £14.00 is now only £12.70.

What if I clear cookies, or revisit the site in a different browser?

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Yes, it’s back to the old prices.

My experience is that price reductions are rare. They almost always go up. And that simply closing the browser and starting a new session is not enough to make them go back down. In the worst case, a £19.00 ticket went up to £30.

The behaviour is too consistent to be caused by other factors, like other customers booking or cancelling trips.

A bug? Or does National Express like to play games with its customers?

When Google Maps is wrong

When I arrived in Bologna yesterday I was well prepared. I had found my hotel on Google Maps and printed out the map. I had plenty of time, so rather than take a taxi from the airport I decided to take the bus and then a short walk to the hotel.

All went well, I thought; I got off at the right stop, crossed the river, and walked to where the hotel was on my map. It a sizeable hotel and is even marked on the map.

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Oh dear. No hotel. I was on the right road, but instead of a welcoming hostelry there was a high fence behind which was a residential area.

I sought directions. Unfortunately I don’t speak Italian, but I pointed at the hotel on my Google Map. My helpers did not speak English but helpfully pointed me back the way that I came.

I turned on my smartphone. Bing Maps could not find the hotel at all, a fact confirmed by the full browser version.

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I tried Nokia Drive. That could find the hotel, but placed it in the same wrong place as Google Maps. I walked there anyway. I was standing right next to the finish flag, no hotel.

Again I sought directions. This time my helper spoke good English. “It is the other side of the river”, he said. Only about 10-15 minutes walk, but still.

He was right. Here is the hotel’s map on its site, again a Google map but note with its own pushpin.

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Google maps thinks it is east of the river, but in fact it is west of the river, approximately 1.5km away from Google’s location.

The hotel is not particularly small.

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No surprise I guess that Google Maps has errors, but I am surprised that a prominent hotel in a well-known city is so significantly misplaced. And that Nokia Drive has the same wrong information, suggesting a common source.

The lesson: local knowledge is best.

It gives me pause for thought though. On the web, if Google cannot find you, traffic drops alarmingly. Could the same be true in the physical world? Could there be future lawsuits over lost business from missing or incorrect information on IT systems on which we rely?

Fortunately I was still in good time for a nice plate of pasta before bed.

Postscript: The hotel told us that it is aware of the issue and has told Google “many times” but has been unable to get it corrected.

Another point worth mentioning: in order to find the right bus I had consulted with Tourist Information at the airport. They had worked out my route using … Google Maps. It shows the extent Google’s service is embedded into our way of life, increasing the significance of errors.

Amazon AutoRip: great service, or devaluing music?

Or possibly both. Amazon’s AutoRip service means that when you buy one of a limited, but considerable, range of CDs, you get an MP3 version in your Amazon cloud player for free. Even past purchases are automatically added, which means US customers have received emails informing them that hundreds or in some cases thousands of tracks have been added to their Amazon cloud player.

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The service adds value to CD purchases in several ways. You get instant delivery, so you can start listening to your music straight away, and when the CD comes in the post, you can enjoy the artwork and play it on your hi-fi for best quality.

Amazon is differentiating from Apple, which only sells a download.

An infernal creature lies in the details though. Here are a few comments from Steve Hoffman’s music forum:

Got Auto-rip Pink Floyd’s DSOTM 2011 mastering of the DSOTM SACD that I bought in 2003.

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I now have autorips of cd’s I no loner own…..interesting concept.

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I now have autorips of CDs I bought as gifts.

These customers have done nothing wrong. They bought a CD from Amazon and gave it away or sold it, but it is still in their Amazon history, so now they have the MP3s.

Another interesting point is that Amazon appears to treat all versions of the same recording as equal. This is why I have included the comment about the Pink Floyd album above. Record companies have done well over the years by persuading fans to buy the same CD again in a remastered version, sometimes with bonus tracks. The Beatles 2009 remastered CDs are a well-known example. But if customers with unremastered CDs are now getting remastered MP3s automatically, this type of sale is harder to make.

The gift issue is more serious. The terms and conditions say:

Albums purchased in orders including one or more items marked as “gifts” at purchase are not eligible for AutoRip.

and intriguingly:

If you cancel your order or return this album, our normal order cancellation and product return policies will apply regarding the physical version of this album. However, if you download any of the tracks on the MP3 version of the album from your Cloud Player library (including if you have enabled auto-download to a device and any of the tracks on the MP3 version of the album auto-download), you will be considered to have purchased the MP3 version of the album from the Amazon MP3 Store and we will charge your credit card (or other payment method) for the then-current price of the MP3 version of the album (which will be non-refundable and may be a higher price than the physical version of the album).

Someone therefore has thought about the problem, though I predict unhappy customers, if they buy a faulty CD, return it, and find they have been charged anyway thanks to an auto-download feature of which they might not understand the implications.

Note also that many CDs are purchased as gifts without being marked as gifts in Amazon’s system. The idea of marking items as gifts is that you can have gift wrapping and get an item sent to another address, but if you plan to do your own wrapping, it is not necessary.

Here is something else. Audio enthusiasts are not happy with MP3s, preferring the real and/or psychological benefits of the lossless CD format for sound quality. For many people though, the audio is indistinguishable or they do not care about the difference.

What do you do if you receive a CD in the post, having already downloaded and enjoyed the MP3 versions of the tracks? I imagine some customers will figure that they have no use for the CD and sell it.  Provided they do not return the CD to Amazon, I cannot see anything in Amazon’s terms and conditions that forbids this, though I can see ethical and possibly legal difficulties in some territories.

The consequence is that someone may lose a sale.

Subscription is the future

My view on this is simple. The only sane way to sell music today is via subscription – the Spotify or Xbox Music model. The idea of “owning” music (which was never really ownership, but rather a licence tied to physical media) is obsolete with today’s technology.

Amazon’s new initiative demonstrates how little value there is in a downloaded MP3 file – so vanishingly small, that it can give them away to past customers for nothing.

Google: a search engine, or affiliate site?

According to my current web stats, 95.6% of those using a search engine to find a post did so using Google. That represents market dominance, and power to make or break a business which depends on web traffic.

Google’s search engine is the best in my experience, but I am increasingly concerned about the quality of the results, which are noticeably worse today than they were in the early days.

Ideally (from the user’s perspective) its search results should be objective as far as possible; for example, it should not favour sites which spend more money advertising with Google, nor should it favour Google’s own web properties above rivals.

I noticed an article in the Guardian stating that this is not the case:

A Google search for credit cards returns with an advert at the top of the screen, far bigger than the rest and bigger than any other website link. Adverts of this size and prominence will attract a high click-through rate. This will prevent searchers going via other affiliate sites or applying directly for a credit card.

I tried it. Here is what I got:

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The most prominent results is the one with the images, admittedly marked “sponsored” but in a grey, small font that you could easily miss. This is actually an ad for Google’s own affiliate site for credit cards, just click Apply:

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I do not get the same issue with Bing, although I do think the designation of which results are ads is too small:

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Still, at Bing has not awarded itself a large ad with images that links to its own affiliate scheme.

Of course I can choose not to use Google. Unfortunately though, businesses cannot choose what search engine their customers or potential customers use to find their sites.

I am one of those who believes regulation should be as light as possible, but considering the power Google currently exerts and the lack of fairness in examples like this, it seems to be that some kind of regulation is needed.

Disclosure: this site uses Adsense, a web advertising scheme operated by Google

Apple looks mortal

This has been a bad week for technical journalism. Everything was going according to script; new iPhone announced on 12th September; not really much new but oh, the design, oh, the performance, oh, the small touches. Then those with early access to devices poured forth their reviews: “probably the most beautiful smartphone anyone has ever made,” said The Telegraph, while Walt Mossberg on the Wall Street Journal said that “Apple has taken an already great product and made it better.”

Mossberg did say that the new Maps app in the iPhone5 was “the biggest drawback” though the faults he found were, in retrospect, minor. He observes the lack of public transport information, and add that “while I found Apple’s maps accurate, they tend to default to a more zoomed-in view than Google’s, making them look emptier until you zoom out.”

When iOS 6 was rolled out generally this week though, the public had a different take on the subject. One factor was that they looked at the maps in their own location, whereas early reviewers tend to be located in major cities. The big issue is not the lack of public transport routing, though that is an issue, but the poor quality of the data. It is simply not of release quality. One small example. Birmingham Airport is a significant destination in the UK, but if I search for it here, I get mysteriously directed to Aldridge Airport, 20 miles north.

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Note: “Aldridge Airport” closed in the sixties and is “Now an open space used for football, dogwalking and the buzz of radio controlled aircraft.”

Birmingham airport itself seems missing.

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This search is no challenge for Google Maps.

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Maps are important on a mobile device, and this was an instance where the technical press, labouring as usual under short deadlines and the unrealistic challenge of perfectly encapsulating the qualities of a complex product with a few days of skimpy research and a few hundred words, let the public down.

More significantly, it is the biggest PR disaster for Apple that I can think of in recent years, certainly since the launch of the iPod in 2001, which was in a sense the beginning of Apple’s mobile adventure. When a tube station puts out a notice mocking Apple’s maps you know that this is a problem that everyone is talking about, not just the Twitterati.

Why has Apple done this? It is paying the price for escaping Google dependence, a real problem, but one that you would have thought could have been better addressed by licensing maps from Microsoft or Nokia, both of which have better maps; or by sticking with Google a little longer while putting its own effort out as an alpha preview while it fixes the data.

Apple will no doubt fix its maps and the decision to break with Google may eventually look good, but it is hard to see how it can fix them quickly.

The big reveal here is how Apple is prioritising its long-term industry strategy ahead of the interests of its users. Apple has done this before; but never with such obvious harm to usability.

It is still, no doubt, a beautiful phone, and the maps issue will be solved, if only by using Google’s web maps instead.

Apple looks mortal though, and the script is not playing back as planned. People who once would only have considered Apple will now be more aware that alternatives are in some respects better. The longer the maps issue continues, the more significant will be the effect.

Apple should withdraw its broken maps, go back to Google at least temporarily and reinstate the old maps app.

This may be why your computer is crashing

I was asked to look at a PC which was misbehaving. Sometimes it worked, but increasingly it was freezing or crashing. Sometimes the hard drive would corrupt and needed Windows repair before it would boot.

I took a look. I ran the drive manufacturer’s diagnostics, which reported no drive errors. I ran memory tests. I removed each of the two RAM sticks alternately to see if one was faulty. I tested the power supply. The PC was still not stable.

Then I took a close look at the motherboard. The only visible sign of possible trouble was that two capacitors close to the RAM sockets were bulging slightly at the top.

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I removed the board and replaced the capacitors – not that easy a task, though the actual capacitors are cheap enough. You need a powerful soldering iron and plenty of patience.

Since the replacement though, the PC has been perfectly stable.

Of course the owner had presumed a Windows problem and spent ages updating drivers, looking for viruses, and so on.

The capacitors are branded Tk and since making the repair I discovered that others have similar tales. It is not just these specific capacitors though. The bad capacitor problem remains a common fault with PCs that are a few years old.

The economics of the repair is marginal unless you can do it yourself. A replacement motherboard costs so little that it does not pay for much professional service time. However if like me you get some satisfaction from repairing rather than disposing of old but good electronics, it is worth it.

The other point: if your PC is crashing a lot, take the back off and check the capacitors. Any bulges or leaks, and you can stop wasting time trying to fix a hardware problem by tweaking Windows.