What Are Your Favorite Podcasts?

2011 at 11:52 am | posted by Scott

I’ve always got a good collection of podcasts on my iPod. In fact, I probably listen to podcasts more than I listen to music. I usually download a new batch of podcasts every couple weeks. I’ll fill up my iPod and listen until I run out, and then pull down the newest batch. I have my list of favorites, but am always on the lookout for new content to put into my podcast rotation. Below is a list of my top podcasts. Let me know in the comments what you like to listen to.

  • Buzz Out Loud (websiteiTunes)
    This is a daily podcast from CNET where they talk about the tech happenings of the day. I usually download about 6 of the newest episodes of Buzz Out Loud.
  • A Life Well Wasted (websiteiTunes)
    This podcast is a recent addition to my list. Their tagline is “An Internet Radio Program about Video Games and the People who Love them.” This isn’t your typical video game review show. It’s actual stories about people and video games. It includes stories about collectors, or interesting video game history, and is usually very intriguing.
  • Macbreak Weekly (websiteiTunes)
    This is a Twit podcast from Leo Laporte (of which I subscribe to a number). This one is kind of hit or miss with me. Sometimes I’ll listen, and sometimes I’ll just skip it until my next iPod refresh. It’s about all things Apple, and the quality of the show really depends on the guests of the episode. I find myself fast-forwarding through long Andy Ihnatko rants a lot of times.
  • Security Now (websiteiTunes)
    Another Twit podcast, this one deals with computer and internet security. I kind of pick and choose these episodes based on the topic discussed. There are also regular question and answer episodes that I’ll grab from time to time.
  • Tech News Today (websiteiTunes)
    Again, a twit podcast. I only download this one every now and then, and I usually don’t pull down many episodes. This podcast comes out every weekday and is similar to the Buzz Out Loud podcast listed above. In fact, the host (Tom Merritt) of TNT was a host of Buzz Out Loud up until a year ago, when he moved to Twit. Anyway, it’s a good podcast, the host does a nice job, but it’s not at the top of my rotation. I’ll pull an episode or two every time I refresh the iPod.
  • This American Life (websiteiTunes)
    This is a podcast of the NPR radio program “This American Life.” These are usually pretty good, and provide a view into a certain theme every week. Every now and then I’ll find myself fast-forwarding through a radio essay, or an author reading one of their short stories, but generally the topics are insightful and interesting.
  • This Week in Google (websiteiTunes)
    Yep, another Twit podcast. This one is actually about general cloud computing as well as Google. The hosts (Jeff Jarvis, and Gina Trapani) are very likable, and they usually talk about interesting things that have happened with Google (including Android), and the cloud in general.
  • This Week in Tech (websiteiTunes)
    This is the last Twit podcast I subscribe to, as well as the flagship program for the network. The premise for this podcast is a panel of tech-folk come together to discuss the prior week’s tech news. It’s pretty good 95% of the time, but also very much depends on the panel that gets brought together for a particular episode (sorry, can’t stand Jerry Pournelle).
  • WNYC’s Radiolab (websiteiTunes)
    This is probably one of my favorite podcasts. It is also an actual radio program from WNYC released in podcast format. The premise for the show is usually investigating some big science or technology question through experiments or interviews with experts. Just about every single episode is genuinely interesting, and I end up learning something. Some of my favorite episodes include investigations in to sleep, or if and how animals think, morality, or what makes pop music popular. I highly recommend this program.
  • You Look Nice Today (websiteiTunes)
    YLNT has not been released in quite a while, and may very well be dead, but it’s still one of my favorites, so I decided to list it. This is a comedy podcast, and is mainly made up of three guys sitting around BS’ing. That’s it… doesn’t sound like much… but it’s FUNNY. If you’re looking for a good episode, check out the one where Jonathan Hodgeman and Jonathan Coulton are guest hosts.
  • 99% Invisible (websiteiTunes)
    This podcast is a recent addition to my lineup. It’s a quickie podcast (most episodes are only a few minutes in length). The show is about design and architecture in everyday things. These things are usually overlooked because they’re done so well, hence the 99% invisible.
  • Diggnation (websiteiTunes)
    I used to listen to this podcast more than I do now. I don’t find myself downloading this one very often any more. It’s based on the Digg.com website, and involves the two hosts going over some of the top stories from the site. They usually only get through a few stories though, as their banter (which is why you listen to the podcast) normally takes up most of the time.

That’s my list. I’m always looking for new podcasts to download. What’s on your list?

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My New Isotoner SmarTouch (techie) Gloves

2011 at 8:15 am | posted by Scott

gloves front

I normally don’t do clothing/fashion reviews here, but I prefer to think of my latest purchase as an electronics accessory and not fashion, though I really do look hot in my new techie gloves. A few weeks ago I got my hands on (or rather hands in… HA!) a new pair of Isotoner SmarTouch Gloves, and they’ve turned out to be really handy (OK, I’m done with the glove jokes now, I promise). So what makes these gloves so special? They allow you to use touch screen device without exposing your hands to the elements with a bit of conductive thread on the thumb and forefingers. There are several types of gloves on the market that I looked at before deciding to go with Isotoner’s SmarTouch. I knew I didn’t want gloves with cut-off fingers so that left me with a few choices from gloves using conductive material. Out of those, Agloves and Glider Gloves were near the top of my list.

I didn’t go with the Agloves because I read several reviews that said they weren’t very warm. They were more a cool weather glove, and not a cold weather glove. The nice plus for the Agloves if you don’t need the extra warmth is that they are made entirely out of conductive material. So where the SmarTouch just have thumb and forefinger, the Agloves have the conductive stitching throughout. The stitching is actually silver, which is where these gloves get their name (Ag is the chemical symbol for silver on the periodic table).

gloves fingers

After reading that the Agloves weren’t very warm, I dug up another type of touch screen friendly gloves called Glider Gloves. Glider Gloves are made by a company in Canada, who if you think about it probably know cold weather pretty well. Similar to Agloves, these are also made with the conductive material throughout the entire glove. They generally get good reviews on their performance, but I didn’t end up going with these either. I didn’t like how they looked. They’re much lighter in color than the Agloves, and have a lighter speckled look to them. I’ve got a black coat to wear them with, and just wanted something a bit darker. I assume they work really well, and supposedly keep you hands very warm, but totally based on my personal tastes on the cosmetics of these gloves, I didn’t end up choosing them.

gloves backIn the end I ended up purchasing the Isotoner SmarTouch Gloves. They offered warmth (they are fleece lined) and the look (they are all black minus the conductive material on the fingers) that I wanted. I actually ended up ordering them twice because of some size issues. I measured my hand like the website instructed me to do, and came to the conclusion that I needed a medium-sized pair. Well, they arrived and were pretty tight on my hands, so I placed an order for large, which were just right. So the lesson learned here is that they run a little small, so I’d recommend getting a size bigger than your hand measurements tell you. Once I got the correct size, it was time to test them out. I expected them to be a bit finicky and need a little more pressure than just my bare skin on the screen. I was pleasantly surprised at how well they worked. I use these mainly with my HTC Evo 4G phone. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s not the same as using your bare hands on your touch screen. They do have a little more bulk, and need a bit more pressure than your fingers, but it’s not bad at all. I can manipulate the phone just as well as I do with my fingers. That includes zooming in and out on the browser and even typing which I thought would tough to do with the additional bulk added to my fingers (those little letter buttons are kind of small!). On top of them actually performing pretty well, they are also warm. The fleece lining does its job. I have worn these for a couple of negative-temperature days and they’ve kept my hands as warm as my previous thick winter gloves. The gloves also have a nice rubbery mesh on the palms which help to keep my phone from sliding off my hand when I’m using it. All in all, I’m very happy with the purchase, and would recommend them to anyone who needs to manipulate a touch screen device while standing outside on a cold winter’s day.

YouTube Preview Image
This is a video of the gloves being used with my HTC Evo 4G phone.

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A Tiny Lens for my Camera Phone

2010 at 2:00 pm | posted by Scott

I got a present in the mail yesterday straight from China. The tiny little macro/wide angle lens I purchased had finally arrived (apparently free shipping from China takes a while). Yes, you read that correctly. I purchased a lens for the crappy camera on my phone. I figured this was a $10 experiment to see if a lens for a camera phone would actually work, and surprise-surprise, it doesn’t do too bad of a job.

The lens came in a blister pack which included the actual lens, which is pretty sturdy with a metal housing. It also includes a lens cap and a little magnetic bottom cap with a tiny lanyard on it. The way the lens works is by attaching to the back of your phone with a small magnet ring around the bottom. If your phone doesn’t have anything for the magnet to stick to, they include two small metal rings (like little tiny washers) with peel off adhesive on them that you can stick to the back of your phone. I ended up sticking it to the case I have over the back of my phone. The lens itself is made two pieces screwed together that change depending on the type of photos you want to take. The lower, smaller piece is the macro lens, and the upper wider piece, when screwed on is the wide angle.

I was somewhat skeptical of how well a lens for a camera phone would work, but have been pleasantly surprised with my experiments. I started with a few macro shots and it does a pretty nice job. See the examples below. I took some shots of a few small items I had laying around. For the macro shots, I took a normal shot of the Old Capitol, then one with the wide angle lens. The wide angle shots aren’t as nice as the macros, but all in all, it’s a nice little tool to have.

If you want to own one of these yourself, I bought my from Deal Extreme, but they are all over ebay as well.

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Throwing Images Down the Pixelpipe

2010 at 4:14 pm | posted by Scott

While flipping through some Palm Pre apps a little while back, I ran across a gem of an app (and a service) called Pixelpipe that has come in very handy. What I was looking for was a way to upload multiple photos to different sites all over the internet. My Palm Pre only allows you to upload one photo at a time to two photo services (Facebook or Photobucket) from inside their photo app. In additions to those to services, you can also email or text photos wherever you’d like. With those features, I can usually set up a way to get my photos where I need to since just about every photo/blogging service I use has some sort of interface to pick up a photo via email or mms. It’s just awkward sometimes to jump between multiple apps depending on where I need a photo to go. Luckily Pixelpipe makes none of that necessary.

I don’t use a whole lot of photo services, but did want the ability to sent multiple photos to multiple services at once with one fell swoop. The Pixelpipe app for the Pre does just that. First I set up an account on their site, and then add pipes. Pipes are connections to other other sites and services where you’d like to send your photos. For me, that just means Flickr, Facebook, and my blog (the “latest mobile photo” section in the upper right). If you’re looking for services beyond what I use, chances are Pixelpipe provides support for it. They’ve got a GIANT list of blogging and photo platforms to add pipes from. So once I’ve added my pipes and fired up the application, I can select multiple photos to send out to all my pipes, or just pick and choose which pipes I want to send the current set of photos to. I can then add a title and/or caption, hit send, and the images move their way through the pipes around the internets to all the places I’ve specified. It’s as easy as that.

So let’s say you don’t have a Palm Pre to install the app onto… no worries, they have tools for a large number of platforms (iPhone, Android, Nokia, IM, Windows, Linux, Mac). I’ve been really happy with this little app, and it’s taken a multiple step, multiple app process down to one simple app.

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Evaluating Remote Backup Solutions

2009 at 2:59 pm | posted by Scott

cloudAfter a recent computer upgrade (hardware and Windows 7), I decided to reevaluate what I was using for a remote backup solution. I’ve looked at a handful of solutions, and think I’ve found one that fits my needs quite nicely.

My Previous Solution
Before getting into what system I ended up with, I’ll got into a little detail on how I was backing things up before. First, what I back up is probably pretty common. I keep recent copies of my music, photos, and documents, as well as my e-mail in-boxes up in the cloud. I do this with a great little app called Alway Sync and Amazon S3. I set up three profiles in Alway Sync, one for documents, one for music and photos, and a third for email. I should probably clarify that my music collection is currently living on a separate machine serving music to all the computers in the house. That small piece was a bit of a sticking point for some solutions that I’ll outline below. Alway Sync watches certain directories (or mapped drives) for changes and then uploads those changes to my S3 account on a weekly basis. This solution has been working well for the past two or so years, and would probably have continued to work minus one small thing… price. Turns out I added too much stuff, and S3 charges by storage and transfer. Constantly adding to my music library, and taking photos (many times very large images saved in RAW format) has bumped up the storage I need to a level where it’s cheaper to go with another provider. Amazon S3 works great, but after getting my invoice for S3 last month, I decided to see if there was anything out there that was a little less expensive and provided the same level of backup and storage. Fortunately, I was able to find something, that worked just as well, and maybe even a little better than my previous solution.

Crashplan (my choice)
Crashplan is the service I ultimately decided to use. Feature wise, it was very close to  many of the other services I evaluated, but had a few things that put it over the top. Crashplan has a nice multi-platform application that doesn’t seem to be a resource hog. It also seems to give me a bit more control of the directories that I want to upload. It backs up your home directory by default, and lets you pick any other directories you want to add to that. The one thing that Crashplan doesn’t allow (outside of a somewhat messy hack) is the ability to select a mapped drive for backup. Initially I thought this would be a deal-killer, and ultimately ended up being the one piece missing from from all the other solutions I tried. It turns out I just wasn’t looking in the right place. Crashplan offers two types of backup plans. Once is individual – one computer, the other is a family plan that provides backup for several computers. With the family option, I didn’t need to figure out a way to back up the mapped drive from my primary machine, I could just set up an instance of Crashplan on the media server itself, as well as any other computer in the house. Storage-wise, Crashplan provides unlimited space, and doesn’t charge for throughput like S3 does. And pricing for Chashplan isn’t really any higher than any of the other solutions I looked at, and more importantly, it costs less per month than what I was paying for all my data on Amazon S3. Another nice feature in Crashplan in addition to backing up data to their servers, is the ability to backup to another computer somewhere else. So if you’re running the Crashplan app, and I’m running the Chrasplan app, we can select and approve each other’s machines as backup locations for the other (I’m not taking advantage of that feature, but it’s nice to have as an option). All those things put together made the choice easy.

Carbonite Backup is actually one of the first backup solutions I tried. They advertise on TWiT regularly, so I figured I’d give them a try. Features and price are just about the same as the other solutions I tried. They charge a little under $5/month, and have unlimited storage space. Where Carbonite fell a little short for my needs was in their software. The backup application seemed a little clunky, and as I mentioned above, didn’t give me the option to backup a mapped drive. They also don’t offer the family plan that Crashplan offers. Also, I felt their the software was a bit intrusive. It really gets it tentacles into your OS. It adds a little colored dot to folder icons in Windows showing the status of the update. Some people may thing this is a feature, but to me it took over a little bit too much of the OS. I guess I want the backup program to do it’s thing, and get out of the way. Carbonite looks to be a good solution, and seems to get good reviews around the ‘net, but it just didn’t quite work out for my needs.

BackBlaze is very similar to Carbonite in terms of features and price. The service is $5/month for unlimited storage. It also does not back up mapped drives or network storage. They do at least provide an option for multiple computers, but they charge an additional $5/month for each computer. The other thing about BackBlaze (similar to Carbonite) that isn’t quite right for my purposes is the software. The software by default determines what it’s going to backup, and you have to go through and deselect the things you want removed. Again, this could be seen as a feature, it’s quick and easy right out of the box, but I didn’t want to deal with digging through the default directories. I think BackBlaze looks to be a good solution, just not for me. I’ve actually recommended BackBlaze to a couple people already.

Mozy is the last solution on my list, and probably my least favorite. Mozy offers the same song and dance on price and features, $4.95/month for unlimited storage. Their software is OK, really not any better or worse than the others I tested. They are also lacking a multiple computer solution, or an option for network storage. Mozy was looking promising until I started reading some reviews. Apparently several people have had issues with restoring data from Mozy. One would think the restore (heaven forbid you need it) is the most important part of backing up your data. After reading these review, I gave up on exploring Mozy as a backup solution.

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Palm Pre Review

2009 at 4:00 pm | posted by Scott

Palm Pre ClosedWell, I went out an bought myself a Palm Pre. It’s a really good phone, but the major deciding factor was the great deal I currently have with Sprint. It just made it too hard to jump to another carrier to get another phone (*cough* iPhone *cough* AT&T). I held out on renewing the account until the phone was released, and then waited a week or so before making the purchase. Also the fact that I couldn’t get one (without camping out or getting up early) on release day helped the decision. I got on a waiting list and was able to get my hands on a new Palm Pre about a week after they came out (which was one month ago today). I’ve been planning to do a write-up with my impressions of the phone, but wanted to be able to actually live with it for a significant amount of time before writing. I feel like a month’s worth of daily use has given me enough time to truly get to know the ins and outs of the device. I can safely say that I’m extremely pleased with the Palm Pre. It’s a great device, but there are a few rough edges. But I think most of them can probably be chalked up to being version one of the device, and will hopefully be fixed with future updates.

Good: WebOS
In one sentence: WebOS is great! I am extremely happy with the OS running on the Palm Pre. It is elegant, well thought out, and very easy to use. I’m a big fan of the multitasking, or the “cards” metaphor that it uses. You open an app by touching it, then simply swipe up and throw the card away to close it. The UI is really different than anything else out there at the moment. I found myself taking advantage of the the multitasking right out of the box when setting up my email accounts. It was nice to be able to have the mail application running as well as multiple web “cards” open to look up server addresses. The gestures have become ingrained, and I find myself trying to use them when my iPod touch before realizing that that they’re not going to do anything. The shining star of the Palm Pre is definitely WebOS. If you haven’t tried it out, go visit a Sprint store and give it a spin. There are a lot of nice little touches built in that are way too numerous to mention here, but WebOS is definitely a great OS to work with.

Good: Hardware
Before I bought the Pre, Ipre-open‘d seen quite a few photos and videos of the device, but you really don’t get a sense of how sleek it is until you hold it in your hand. It fits really well in your hand, and has a nice heft to it. The screen is a nice size, and the touch screen responds really well. The slide-out keyboard (another selling factor for me) works really well. I’m coming from a Treo 755p to this device, so I’m using to having a physical keyboard. The Pre is a bit smaller than the Treo, but I had no problem getting used to it very quickly. I like that there is a physical keyboard that I can slide out when I need it, but can leave it folded in when I’m just interacting with the touch screen alone.

Good: Browser
Apple set the bar very high for a mobile browser with the iPhone. Palm has taken most of the things that make Mobile Safari great and put them into the Pre. If you’ve ever used an iPhone or iPod Touch browser, you know what I’m talking about. Getting a full desktop browser feeling into the palm of your hand is probably one of the nicest features of the phone.

Good: Notification Bar
notificationsI honestly think this is one of my favorite parts of WebOS. When you get a notification for something, such as an email, or a text message, they show up really elegantly at the bottom of the screen in the notification bar. When they first appear, they pop up with a one-line description in the lower portion of the screen, keeping whatever application you have open. You can then touch it to make it larger (see more information about the notification), or you can swipe it away and go on with whatever you’re doing. If you get multiple notifications, they pile up in the lower portion of your screen, and show simply as tiny icons indication their type, allowing you to select later to go into the actual app, or swipe them away and ignore them. The notifications grab your attention, but don’t interrupt what you’re currently working on.

Good: Synergy
Synergy is the name that Palm gave their pull-everything-together-from-the-cloud-into-the-phone system. In a nutshell, what it does is pull contacts from various locations around the net (google contacts, Facebook, outlook, etc) and merges them together into the address book on the device. It sees that you have a Facebook friend named John Smith, and a Google contact named Jonathan Smith that share an email address. It assume they’re the same person, and makes one contact entry for them pulling all the contact data from either source. If that data changes, either on the device, or in the cloud, your phone is updated accordingly. This also works with the calendar, pulling all your calendars into one place, yet allowing your to split them up or view whichever you’re currently working on (i.e. home/work/holidays). It’s a really nice way to bring everything into one place, and keep it up to date. One area where it could improve (and I presume it will get added later) is more sources for data. Currently the Pre works with Google (docs/calendar/talk), Facebook, Microsoft Exchange, and AIM. I’d like to be able to hook in Yahoo and Microsoft (Hotmail/Messenger) as well, but I’m willing to bet that’s coming soon.

Good: Touchstone
Technically this isn’t part of the phone. It’s an accessory that you have to buy extra, but it is totally handy. The Touchstone is an induction charger for the Pre. So, you slap on a special back (battery cover), and drop the phone onto the magnetic touchstone, and it charges it for you. No messing with cables, just drop it on and charge. Even though it’s a great addition to the phone, I’d drop it in the “Bad” category for the high price tag. Luckily I had a gift card, so it wasn’t as painful of a purchase as it could have been. Ssuper-handy… but super-pricey.

Good: Quickies

  • Fast!
  • Screen is beautiful!
  • GPS and TeleNav (turn by turn navigation)
  • Email client is great!
  • WiFi/Cell data switching works well (FAST)
  • Good clear 3 mega-pixel camera (see photos from the Pre in my mobile gallery)

Bad: Battery
The Pre battery life ain’t that great. It isn’t unusable, but it’s not wonderful. I am probably a heavy user, and it gets me through the day… but just barely. The battery life is a tad bit worse than my Treo 755p (which wasn’t that great either). It gets me through the day, and I guess that’s good. There is definitely room for improvement (c’mon firmware update!!).

Bad: Note Sync
This one is really easy… notes don’t sync. You’d think with all the great synergy mumbo jumbo going on there would be some way I could enter notes (hello google notes?) without typing them manually into the phone.

Bad: Apps
The apps aren’t really that bad, in fact the apps currently available in the App Catalog are actually pretty good (woo hoo Evernote!). It’s the low number of apps that is bad. Again, the phone is young, and they haven’t opened up the SDK yet. I just need to have a little patience and wait a little longer. Palm has said the SDK will be released by the end of summer, so that will hopefully open the floodgates on the App Catalog.
UPDATE: The SDK has now been released – new apps added to catalog “sometime this fall.”

Bad: Bluetooth
There is bluetooth on the phone, but it can only be used for audio at the moment. It is stereo, and it does work with my bluetooth headset, but I’d really like to be able to transfer files with it… like I’ve been able to do with every single phone I’ve ever owned. This is nothing a firmware update can’t fix – the capability is there, it just need to be pulled out in the OS.

Bad: Video/Audio Player
The video and audio players do what they’re supposed to do, but are missing some polish in some certain areas. First of all, they don’t remember where you left off when playing media. I listen to a lot of podcasts (which the Pre can’t download BTW), and don’t want to have to fast forward (there is no scrub bar) to the place I left off in an hour long podcast. It is also missing a way to delete audio from the device from inside either player. I’d like to be able to remove a file without having to plug the phone into a computer. I think (hope) some of these features will come, but probably don’t use these apps as much as I would if they were there. I still carry around an iPod Nano when I want to listen to music of podcasts.

Bad: Quickies

  • Can’t search email messages
  • No data tethering
  • The calendar app is a bit sluggish

Everything considered, I think the Palm Pre is a great phone. Is it an iPhone killer? I don’t think so, but I do believe it raises the smart phone bar, and does a good number of things better than the iPhone. I think any sort of real competition is good, and the Pre is the first phone that has really presented a challenge. There are some areas that need a bit more polish, but fortunately most of them should be able to be taken care of with a firmware update. It’s really just a matter of Palm actually doing it, and bringing the Pre up to the level it can easily be. I think many of the items in my “Bad” category can be chalked up to rushing the device out the door. Like I mentioned in my last Pre post, it was do or die for Palm with this device. They couldn’t afford to wait any longer to get it out, and some things may have suffered a bit because of that. So did Palm hit a home run with the Pre? I think they came pretty close, and time will tell as the device evolves and moves forward.

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New Book Suggestions from Book Army

2009 at 11:31 am | posted by Scott

booklogo2A couple years ago I was on the hunt for a site to keep track a small bit of information on all the books I read in a given year. What I eventually settled on was a service called LibraryThing, that I’ve been using for quite a while now. When I started looking for this tool, my needs were very simple (and still are). All I wanted was a service or tool that would let me track very generic information about books, along with when I started, and completed reading them. The main thing I wanted to track was how many books I completed in a year, and whether or not I liked a book. LibraryThing did all of that and more. The “and more” part of that is what I’ve become increasing interested in lately. A few times a year, I make a larger order of used books (usually from wherever I have the most gift cards). Between my purchases, I try to keep a list of “want to read” books built up before I buy. Normally, I build this list out off of lists I run across online, or book award winners, or even recommendations from Amazon off of books I liked. LibraryThing also offers a recommendation service where your books are compared to other people on the service who have similar tastes as you à la Last.fm, and the iTunes genius features for music.  This feature has been ok (not great), and has given me a few useful recommendations. I still mainly build my book purchase lists from other places. Enter Book Army.

Book Army is a new site that focuses more on the recommendation feature, and less on the cataloging/tracking features that I use in LibraryThing. It is much closer to a Last.fm type service in that it looks at your likes, and suggests other books based on other people who like the same books. I spent a little while entering ratings on the books that I had been tracking in LibraryThing the past few years to see what I’d get back. There were a few good books that came back in my results – more than what I was getting from LibraryThing. I’m sure the service will get better over time, as the number of users goes up, and as I rate more books on the service. The things I like about Book Army recommendations is that it provides reasoning for a suggest book (you may like book X because you enjoyed books X, Y, and Z). The other nice feature is you can correct suggestions. If a book is suggested that looks incorrect for whatever reason, you can tell Book Army, that it was a bad suggestion to help it get even better data about your reading tastes. Since this service is new, the “Book Army” is still being recruited. We’ll see if recommendations improve as the size of the army increases. Who knows, maybe my tastes are just so eclectic (it certainly isn’t working for me in Netflix) that it’s hard to determine what I enjoy.

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Asus Announces Eee Keyboard

2009 at 10:35 am | posted by Scott

Asus, the company that started the whole netbook trend announced a cool new product yesterday. It’s called the Eee Keyboard, and is an entire computer (HTPC) built into a keyboard.

Asus Eee KeyboardThe keyboard has a built-in touch screen where the number pad normally goes, which can display widgets, RSS feeds, calendars and more.  This thing will supposedly connect via wireless HDMI, making it a perfect little HTPC that can be carried from room to room, or TV to TV. Unfortunately this is only a prototype, and no official release has been announced, so who knows when or even if this thing will make it to the market. If it does, it look to be a pretty sweet little keyboard… err computer.

ASUS Press Release – Eee Keyboard
Being the first multi-media center enabled by ultra wideband HDMI, the Eee Keyboard is not only a fully-functional PC; it also serves as a hub that wirelessly connects all multimedia devices to utilize any monitor or TV as a viewing platform.

More info and photos:

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Evernote – Extremely Handy, Note Taker/Sharer Thing

2008 at 3:12 pm | posted by Scott

At work I split my time between two physical offices. That can make keeping notes and paperwork between the two somewhat difficult. Enter Evernote, the super handy multi-platform information capture tool.

Evernote allows you to easily capture information in any environment using whatever device or platform you find most convenient, and makes this information accessible and searchable at any time, from anywhere.

Evernote allows you to throw just about any sort of information you’ve got on your computer up into the cloud to retrieve it whenever it is needed. There are desktop apps for just about every platform. There are web clippers for just about every browser. There are even cell phone apps that let you send information from the road. Whatever it is you capture, it all gets synced to your Evernote account. So, I can log into the website or pull up the Evernote app to get anything and everything I’ve added. Once the info is up there, you can tag it and organize it however you ‘d like. It also does text recognition on images you upload, so everything is searchable. Given my back and fourth situation, Evernote really helps me keep track of what’s goign on.

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Netflix Set-Top Box

2008 at 11:22 am | posted by Scott

Earlier this week Netflix announced a new piece of hardware, the Netflix Player by Roku. This tiny little box allows you to plug in your TV along with an internet connection (wired or wireless) to get access to all of the Watch Now movies on Netflix. Taking a look at the specs of this piece of equipment, it really doesn’t look too bad (outside of the fact that it is yet another set top box cluttering up your entertainment center). The big thing that could help this venture is more streaming content from Netflix, which seems a little lacking at the moment. Right now they claim over 10,000 movies and TV shows are available. Unfortunately most of them seem to be older content. This new player does overcome the barrier of watching movies on your TV vs. your computer screen, which they still only offer on Windows using Internet Explorer and Windows Media Player. All in all, it’s looks like a nice little device.

Given everything above, I don’t think we’ll be buying one of these. My wish came true that I mentioned at the enf of the Entertainment PC Software post. A plugin for Meedio was created to deal with Netflix. As I’ve mentioned before, we have an Entertainment PC that controls all of our media (music/video/tv/etc.). Meedio is the application we use for the main interface on that computer. An incredible plugin author (UFGrayMatter) created one that can handle all aspects of Netflix. The plugin is called MeeFlix, and works really well. We’re able to manage our Netflix Queue, and also view any of the Watch Now streaming movies right within the (remote control friendly) Meedio interface on our TV. So now our Entertainment PC does the same thing as this new Netflix Roku box and doesn’t cost $100.

Video of MeeFlix in action

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Blu-ray and HD-DVD for the Entertainment PC

2008 at 11:10 am | posted by Scott

Another component of the Entertainment PC has been upgraded to HD. Now that a winner has been chosen in the next-generation HD disc war, I figured it was time to make a purchase (even though it didn’t really matter with the choice I made). I bought the LG Super Multi Blue Blu-ray Disc and HD-DVD-ROM drive. It will play Blu-ray, HD-DVD, and standard DVD discs as well as burn DVD’s.

The setup was pretty straight-forward. It installed like a standard DVD drive, though it was a little bit longer than most. I guess they needed to make room for those extra lasers. Once the drive was functioning, it was just a matter of getting the software to work correctly. This turned out to be more of a headache than I thought. If you don’t know anything about the new HD disc formats, they are loaded down with DRM. If you’re even thinking about playing them, you have to have a a video card AND monitor that can handle HDCP (High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection). According to the documentation on both my video card, (ATI Radeon HD 2400) and TV (Magnavox 37MF337B), they are HDCP compliant. Um… the new drive thought differently.

The other key to this whole setup was software used to play HD content. I had been using Cyberlink PowerDVD as my DVD player in the entertainment computer, so a simple update to the newest version of that software was supposedly all I needed. Again, I was wrong. So, everything was hooked up, the software was upgraded, it’s time to fire up my Blu-ray copy of Planet Earth (thanks Netflix!), and see what happens. Once the disc is inserted, PowerDVD comes up and shows the FBI warning in beautiful HD quality, then gives me an HDCP error and says it cannot play… lovely! There is really no reason why this shouldn’t work. The (HDCP compliant) hardware and software a totally capable of playing a Blu-ray disc. Once again DRM ruins the day. I started digging around the web for fixes, and didn’t really come up with anything. What I did run across was a lovely little application called SlySoft AnyDVD that totally removed the evil DRM bit when playing HD content. I downloaded their demo and gave it a try. Sure enough, the disc played just fine. I didn’t want to have to hack this for it to work. After a little more digging, I found another update/patch for PowerDVD, that wasn’t mentioned anywhere other than a small area of their site and figured, what have I got to lose. After installing that, and disabling AnyDVD, it finally worked. It shouldn’t be this hard!

I guess the morale of the story is DRM SUCKS! It really just puts up barriers for people who want to use the technology legitimately. I’m not trying to rip HD content, I’m not trying to play illegal content from the Internet. All I wanted to do is play a Blu-ray disc on a computer and player that should be able to play it. I was finally able to get to that point (after quite a headache). And at least it’s good to know that AnyDVD is there if you need it.

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I (used to) Like Digsby

2008 at 6:24 pm | posted by Scott

With one single application, you can consolidate IM, e-mail, and social networking. That one app, is Digsby. In the past, I have used Pidgin on Windows, and Adium on the Mac for all my instant messaging needs. I’ve been happy with how they handle all the protocols I use (or rather all my buddies use) pretty well. Along came Digsby late last month with a piece of software that does all that and more. Not only does it include just about every instant messaging protocol out there (AIM, MSN, Yahoo, Google Chat, ICQ, Jabber), but it also notifies you when you receive new e-mail (from just about every popular webmail client + pop and IMAP). On top of that, it hooks into several social networks as well (Facebook, Twitter, Myspace) and lets you know when folks contact you via those protocols. Don’t get me wrong, I love Pidgin, and Adium, but Digsby adds those little extras that take it a step further. Plus, I like the skinning and theming that Digsby allows, making it a little nicer environment when compared to Pidgin.

It is missing a few things though. I’d like to be able to hook up to Skype with it, but there aren’t that many IM apps that do that now, so it isn’t that big of a deal. It is also missing message encryption which is built in for Adium, and available as a plugin for Pidgin. Digsby is still in beta though and at the frantic speed they’re adding features, I can only hope that those aren’t too far away. I haven’t totally uninstalled Pidgin or
Adium, but I find myself using Digsby for longer periods at a time. If those few extra features get thrown in, there isn’t much holding me back from going 100% Digsby.

This article was written before Digsby filled thier application with crap-ware. See this recent article from Lifehacker: Digsby Joins the Dark Side, Uses Your PC to Make Money. I get that a company needs to make money, but this is pretty shady. It’s a shame too since Digsby was such a great tool. If you took my advice, and installed Digsby on your machine, it’s probably time to uninstall and find another IM client.

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Hulu Review: Not Too Shabby

2008 at 8:38 pm | posted by Scott

hulu.jpgThis post has been sitting in my drafts for about a month now. I was lucky enough to get in on the private beta of Hulu.com not too long after they started testing. Waiting so long to write this has actually been somewhat helpful. I’ve talked with a few people about their use of Hulu (now that it is open to the public) and got some interesting insights. What exactly is Hulu.com? It is a site created by News Corp. and NBC as an answer to internet video. This past winter, NBC left iTunes as a digital distributor of its TV content, and their alternative was Hulu. At the time, Hulu hadn’t launched yet and there was a lot of skepticism on whether this non-existent internet video site put together by companies that really don’t seem to know technology was going to work out, or just fail miserably. From what I read, signs were pointing to the latter. I had my doubts as well. How were broadcast companies going surpass the likes of Apple’s iTunes or YouTube when every time you look at them, they’re flailing blindly when it comes to technology. Well, now that Hulu is open to the world, it looks like what they put together isn’t that shabby.

The first thing you notice when you pull up Hulu.com is the slick clean interface. It is easy to navigate and easy to find shows to watch. Content is the next thing you notice. They’ve got a lot of stuff up there. Not only do you have content from NBC and News Corp. (Fox), also included is Sony, MGM, and many of their sub-brands like Sci-Fi, Bravo, USA, etc. There is definitely not a lack of things to watch. I do have some questions on why they chop up seasons or chose what shows and seasons get posted. Like for the show 24 (which I don’t watch), they start with Season 1 Episodes 1-5, then they jump to season 6. From what I know about that show, you need to follow it pretty closely from episode to episode, so jumping over 5 seasons doesn’t really make sense to me. Another example of this is the show Chuck, why are you starting with episode 5? How tough would it be to start at the beginning? That show hasn’t even been on that long! Maybe this is something they’re working on. I don’t know how things work inside the TV biz, but if I get hooked on 24 and don’t have the shows in between, where do you think I might get them (*cough* P2P *cough*)? Another thing that is somewhat random about the content selection in Hulu is when exactly a new show comes to the site. From what I have seen it is kind of random when a show that aired last night on NBC can be watched on Hulu. That, along with having irregular partial seasons makes it kind of tough to get into a TV series. Maybe that’s what they’re going for with Hulu. Doing that doesn’t make it that much different from standard TV, but maybe that’s what they’re going for. “We’ll hook ‘em with Hulu and then they’ll have to come back to NBC to watch the next show in the series… mwah ha ha ha ha!”

hulu_screen.jpgSo, content selection aside, the player interface is pretty nice. It is a flash video player so it should be cross platform. I haven’t tried it myself, but I’ve read it even works on Linux. The interface is intuitive and has some nice features. It does full-screen, pop-up, or in-browser viewing modes and has a little “lower lights” button that dims the rest of the page if you decided to watch it in the standard window. They even allow embedding of the video into your own website ala YouTube. In fact before the private beta was over, you could access pretty much ever video on the site from openhulu.com which was a collection of every video embedded. The video quality is pretty good. It’s better than your typical YouTube video. There is a little fuzziness or graininess at full-screen, but all in all, the quality is pretty high.

There are commercials in Hulu videos (you knew there would be). There is typically an intro “brought to you by” commercial for a few seconds when you start a video, and depending on the show, there are a couple commercials dropped throughout the video. You can skip around the show, but cannot skip a commercial break. They tell you how long a break will be with a counter at the top of the video window (letting you know how long you have to visit the kitchen). I think it definitely less obtrusive than a regular TV commercial. It sure takes up less time in a typical TV episode vs. watching it on broadcast TV.

Overall, Hulu is much better than I expected. There are still some things that get me though. The content isn’t portable. It is essentially streaming to me over the internet as I watch it. With iTunes, I could take the shows with me on an iPod or on a laptop if I didn’t have an internet connection. Hulu ties me to my internet connected computer screen. I think that is probably the biggest thing that prevents this from really taking off right now. It’s a paradigm switch to go from comfy living room setup to sitting at a computer desk, or even huddling around a laptop. I’m one of the rare people who have a computer controlling my TV, and I still haven’t pulled up Hulu on the big screen yet. I think that the reason I haven’t done that yet is there isn’t a slick remote-controllable interface for it yet. Navigating the web on a TV is tough. For this to become really on-demand TV it needs to be easy. We need some sort of Hulu set-top-box or something. So, Hulu is good… but there is definitely room for improvement. At the very least, the networks are finally seeing that people want their shows on their schedule, online, and in a convenient way. Hulu does fit that need. But how far does it go? I think most people download content illegally because it is available and easier to do it that way. Once getting legitimate content becomes easier, the need to download it illegally disappears. I think people would even be willing to pay for that content (the way iTunes does it). So I think Hulu does some of these things, but also fails at some of them, and convenience is a fine line. This effort by NBC and News Corp. is definitely a step in the right direction, and is way better than what I (and many) were expecting, but they still have a little further to go.

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iTunes Library Updater

2008 at 3:54 pm | posted by Scott

iTLU.jpgiTunes Library Updater has become my handy program of the last few months. Getting married last summer meant merging two collections of music in one place. It also meant getting two separate installations of iTunes to work with this merged collection (we both have ipods). If any of you have attempted this, you know that getting iTunes to play nice with a central (networked) music location isn’t easy. Enter iTLU. This little app will rebuild your iTunes library based on a resource that you point it to. In our case, I open iTLU and tell it to look for music on our network drive. I then have options to select what I want it to do with the music it finds. It can add new media, remove missing files, update track info and several other things. It fires up iTunes and then does its thing based on the options I’ve given. This is really handy when each of us happens to add music (either purchased or ripped) to our independent libraries. We just run iTLU every now and then and everything is synced up. Plus if we pull music out of iTunes (Christmas songs for instance) it will see they are gone and remove them from the library.

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Entertaiment PC: Software

2008 at 5:39 pm | posted by Scott

meedio_logo.jpgThis is a continuation of a few older posts on the entertaiment PC.

Much of what I’ve done with software on this computer is based loosely on Jon’s system. The core to both of our systems is a little piece of software called Meedio Essentials… that unfortunately is no longer supported. They sold out to Yahoo back in 2006. Yahoo took the software and created Yahoo TV, which at this point in its development is an interior product. The community left over at Meedio have since spun off a new product/community called MeediOS. MeedioOS now houses many of the plugins and forums from the now defunct Meedio Essentials. So given that little history lesson on Meedio, I still use the final version of the software that was released before Yahoo got hold of it. If you really wanted to, you could still probably get your hands on a copy of it (cough p2p cough). The collection of entertainment PC software available now is actually much better than it used to be. There are quite a few options out there to chose from. There might even be something better than Meedio Essentials available now, but what I’ve got just works, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

meedio_screen.jpgOK, so what exactly does Meedio Essentials do? It is essentially the control to the entire entertainment pc. It hold the menus that you navigate using your remote and launches you into everything you want to do with the computer. There are serveral built in modules that I use on this system, and a lot of external programs that get launched via a command from Meedio. That’s the beauty of Meedio, it can call up just about anything on the computer and is endlessly customizable (with a little tweaking).

For photos, we use the built-in photo module in Meedio. It works like just about any photo viewer out there. You can browse photo by photo, or by collections. It includes a slideshow option and works with the remote to pull up your entire photo collection on the TV. I have Meedio pointing to a shared drive on our media server with all of our photos on it, but Meedio could just as easily point to a directory on the hard drive full of photos.

As with the photo viewer, we use the built-in music player in Meedio. It is a pretty standard software music player. Also similar to the photos module, it is hooked to the media server where all of the MP3’s are hosted. It reads ID3 tags for file information, and will even take advantage of album art pulled from iTunes. You can sort by just about everything (artist, title, genre). There is also a nice full-screen visualization to throw up on the screen when you want to play a bunch of music and see something a little nicer than a list of songs running by.

DVD Playback
This is one of the areas where I have Meedio pointing to an external program. I’m currently using Zoom Player as the DVD player for the system. Meedio does have its own DVD module, but it isn’t that great. When a DVD is loaded or DVD is selected in the interface, Meedio just launches Zoom Player, and off it goes. The reason I use Zoom Player over the standard DVD module is that it has a lot more control over video settings and video acceleration. I have a video card that can handle much of the processing of playing a DVD, and handing that over to the card saves the CPU for other tasks. Plus when/if I end up getting a drive that can play HD-DVD or Blu-Ray discs, it will most likely need to be tweaked even more to handle the load that those formats put on the computer. It will also most likely take another software player. I believe PowerDVD Ultra is the only software HD/Blu-Ray player out there at the moment, but we’ll cross that bridge when/if we come to it.

btvscreen_home.jpgThe Digital Video Recorder functionality for the entertainment PC isn’t handled by Meedio (even though Meedio does include a DVR module). I used to use SageTV for this function, but have recently switched over to BeyondTV. They both work really well in their core features (recording/playing back tv), but BeyondTV is just a cleaner interface, and has a few more bells and whistles built in where you would have to install a plugin for Sage. You can check out the features of BeyondTV at their site, or see what Jon had to say about it in his description. The things I like about BeyondTV is that it can handle HD (after the recent hardware upgrade). It also automatically creates chapter marks to skip commercials (Sage didn’t do this out of the box). I really like a new feature that was added with the most recent upgrade to version 4.7. You can set it to create an iPod compatible version of a show and it will set up an RSS feed to go with it. This allows you to point iTunes at the entertainment pc and automatically pull down video files for whatever tv series you’re currently watching (it can be all of them or just individual shows). We also have a handy plugin called BTV Podcatcher that pulls down video podcasts we subscribe to and drops them right in with our recorded TV shows. Again, the DVR area is a space where there are a lot of contenders making products, but so far BeyondTV has topped the list of products I’ve tried.

There are a bunch of little odds and ends that Meedio also does well (and some things we do that aren’t part of Meedio). One of them is a weather module that gives quick access to forecasts and weather maps. Another piece of software that we’ve tied to Meedio is the Sling Box software. We use this to get our Iowa Hawkeyes football fix from AZ. Meedio just fires up the SlingPlayer software which launches full-screen and is controllable via remote control. The last “other” thing we do with the entertainment PC isn’t really worked into Meedio at this time. This could be a future project, but I’d like to be able to connect it to the Netflix “Watch Now” movies allowing us to watch streaming movies from Netflix. We do this now by firing up IE (only works with WMP and IE unfortunately) and navigating the Netflix site with our wireless mouse. It would be idea if there were some sort of remote controllable site to get to the watch now movies. I know there is a Meedio browser plugin that uses IE, but haven’t really had a chance to play with it on the Netflix site. We’ll see what happens on that front. Otherwise, that just about covers everything we use Meedio and the entertainment PC for. So far things have been working pretty well.

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