Monthly Archives: April 2011

Logitech’s Squeezebox app for iPhone and iPad: nice to have but a missed opportunity

Logitech has released a Squeezebox control app for iPhone and iPad, to match an existing app for Android.

I am a Squeezebox fan. The system is excellent for multi-room – just put a Squeezebox player in any room where you want music, put it on your home network (usually wifi), and it finds your music collection. You can get a player like the Touch, which I reviewed here, or an all-in-one unit like the Boom, which I reviewed here. I rip CDs to FLAC using dbPowerAmp. Squeezebox does multi-room properly, in that each player can play something different, and the sound quality is generally excellent. Internet radio is also available, and there is no need to have a separate tuner.

That said, the appeal of Squeezebox is limited by the techie nature of the product, especially the software. When Logitech acquired Slimdevices in 2006, I thought we might see a new focus on ease of use, but it has not really happened. Apple does this better, making it hard for Squeezebox to compete with iTunes and Airport Express or Apple TV, even though the Squeezebox system is more open and superior in some ways.

There are multiple ways to control a Squeezebox player. You can use a remote to navigate the display on the player, whether the simple but bold display on a Classic, or the graphical colour display on a Touch. You can use touch control on a Touch screen. You can use a web browser on a PC, Mac or any machine on the network. Or you use an app such as SqueezePlay on a PC, or third party apps like iPeng on iOS, or Squeezepad on an iPad.

All these methods work, but in general the web browser is the most feature-rich and good if you are sitting at a desk, while the apps are better if you have a suitable device like an iPhone, iPad, or Android smartphone. The remotes work, but you need to be close enough to read the display and navigation can be fiddly.

An iPhone app is ideal though, so it is great news that Logitech has now released an official app for the iPhone. It is free, and unless you already have iPeng a must-have for Squeezebox users who have an iPhone. Apps are better than a remote for all sorts of reasons:

  • No need to point at an infra-red receptor
  • No need to read a distant display
  • Album artwork on the remote
  • More features conveniently available

I downloaded the new app and ran it. The first thing you have to do is to log into Mysqueezebox.com, Logitech’s internet service. In fact, the impression you get is that you cannot use the app without logging on. I am not sure if there is any way round this, but it seems odd to me. Presuming you are using a local Squeezebox server, why require log-on to an internet service?

I already have a Mysqueezebox account though, so I logged on, whereupon the various players we have around the house appeared for selection. Once selected, I get a menu similar to that on a physical player or on SqueezePlay:

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If I click My Music, I can navigate using the usual range of options, including Artists, Albums, Genres, New Music (which means recently added) or my favourite, Random Mix. Just selected an album is not enough to play it, but shows the tracks; tapping the first track starts it playing. Eventually you will get the Now Playing screen, which you can also access by pressing the musical note icon on the Home screen.

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Perhaps I am fussy, but I am not happy with this screen. As you can see, the album artwork is overlaid with text and controls, and although a progress bar can be shown or hidden by tapping, the other controls seem immoveable, which means you cannot see the full artwork.

My other complaint is that the user interface, while familiar to those who already know Squeezebox, lacks the usability you expect from an iPhone app. Operating it takes too many taps. Take search, for example. You want to find a different song, so you tap Back to get the Home screen, then Search. Type something in, then click Search. The next screen then asks whether you want to search in My Music or Internet Radio. You tap My Music, and still get no results, just a list that says Artists, Albums, Songs, Playlists. You tap Songs, and now you finally get a results list. Tap a song to play.

Personally I think search is such a critical function that it should be available directly from the Now Playing screen; and that it should be smart enough to look for matches anywhere it can and present some top matches immediately.

Another annoyance is that you cannot actually play a song through the iPhone itself. This is such an obvious feature that I cannot understand why Logitech has not implemented it; it would enable your Squeezebox music collection for personal listening on a device. Perhaps Logitech imagines that it is protecting sales of its players, when in fact it is just undermining the appeal of the system.

Well, it is free, I like the Squeezebox system, and the app is useful, so perhaps I am complaining too much. It is frustrating though, because with a little investment in software Logitech could bring its excellent features to a broader group of users.

The rise of the eBook is a profound change in our culture

The Association of American Publishers has announced that in February 2011 ebooks ranked above print in all trade categories. Note that these figures are for the USA, and that in revenue ebooks are well behind print – $164.1M vs $441.7M. It is also worth noting that print sales are falling fast, 24.8% year on year, whereas ebooks are growing fast, 202.3% year on year.

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This does sound like a reprise of what has happened in the music industry, where broadly speaking physical formats are heading toward obsolescence, download is growing, but the overall pie is smaller because of the ease of piracy. There is perhaps another more subtle point, that when the marginal cost of production is near zero, prices too tend to race to the bottom in a competitive market.

Books are not equivalent to music. Physical books still have advantages. They have zero battery requirements, work well in sunlight, some have beautiful pictures, you can write on them and fold back the corner of a page, and so  on. There are more advantages to ebooks though, in cost, weight, searchability, interactivity, and freedom from the constraints of a printed page. Years ago I was in the book publishing industry, and convinced that ebooks would take off much sooner than in fact they did. Much money was wasted in the light of false dawns. I remember – though it was long after I was involved – how some booksellers invested in Microsoft’s .lit format, readable on PCs and Pocket PCs, only to discover that there was little market for it.

What changed? It was no single thing; but factors include the advent of high-contrast screens that are both low-power and readable outside; the appearance of dedicated tablet-style readers that are lightweight but with book-sized screens; the marketing muscle of Amazon with the Kindle and Apple with the iPad – though the iPad screen is sub-optimal for reading – and some mysterious change in public perception that caused ebooks to transition from niche to mainstream.

Books are not going away of course, just as CDs and even vinyl records are still with us. I think though we can expect more high street closures, and libraries wondering what exactly their role is meant to be, and that the publishing industry is going to struggle with this transition just as the music industry has done. Ebook growth will continue, and as Amazon battles its rivals we will see the price of the Kindle fall further. Apple will lock its community more tightly to iTunes, as its policy on forbidding in-app purchases that do not go through its own App Store and pay the Apple tax plays out.

That is all incidental. What I am struggling to put into words is what the decline of the printed word means for our culture. You can argue that it is merely a symptom of what the internet has brought us, which is true in its way; but it is a particularly tangible symptom. No longer will you be able to go into someone’s room and see clues about their interests and abilities by glancing at bookshelves.

I am on a train, and by one of life’s strange synergies someone has just sat down next to me and pulled out a Kindle.

I do not mean to be negative. Much though I love books, there are now better ways to store and read words, and while the printed word may be in decline, the written word has never been more popular. I am in no doubt though that this is a profound change.

Spotify is now less free but still a better deal than Apple iTunes

Spotify’s Daniel Ek has announced restrictions to Spotify’s free edition:

  • Users will be able to play any track for free up to 5 times only
  • Total listening time for free users will be limited to 10 hours per month

The changes are presented as a necessity:

It’s vital that we continue offering an on-demand free service … but to make that possible we have to put some limits in place going forward.

You can easily escape the restrictions by subscribing to the unlimited service at £4.99 per month (or equivalent in your currency), or the Premium service at £9.99. Unlimited offers music without advertisements, while premium includes mobile and offline music, and a higher bitrate of 320 kbps.

While it is a shame to see free Spotify become less attractive, the free and premium services are well priced. For the cost of one album per month you can play anything on Spotify’s service as often as you like. The main downside is that there are gaps in what is available. Over time, my guess is that either Spotify will win the argument and the business, and those gaps will be filled; or of course it may fail.

Spotify’s problem is that it has to pay even for the music that is streamed for free. That is always a difficult business model, and it seems that advertising is not enough to pay for it at the rates the music companies require.

If the restrictions result in a surge of new paid subscriptions, this may even work out well for the company, though the service is still not available in the USA.

Personally I think Spotify is inherently a better deal than iTunes downloads, for example, which offer an unlimited license but only on a track by track basis and with no resale value. Anyone who still buys music is likely to spend less with Spotify, and to get more choice. The subscription model is the only one that makes sense in the internet era.

At the same time, I can understand why the music companies want to maintain a high price for streamed music. They are playing a high-risk game though, since by making legal music more expensive and adding friction, they make illegal music more attractive.

For example, there is now more incentive for a user to record a favourite track during one of their five free listens, and never pay for it again; or to get the tracks they want from a friend’s ripped CD – both actions that are untraceable.

As Cisco closes down Flip, is device convergence finally happening?

Cisco is closing down the Flip video camera business it acquired with Pure Digital in May 2009:

Cisco will close down its Flip business and support current FlipShare customers and partners with a transition plan.

A sad day for Flip enthusiasts. The cool thing about a Flip device is that making a video is quick, easy and cheap. Most commentators say Flip is being killed because Smartphones now do this equally well; though this thoughtful post by Michael Mace says it is more to do with Cisco not understanding the consumer market, and being too slow to deliver upgraded Flip devices:

It’s almost impossible for any enterprise company to be successful in consumer, just as successful consumer companies usually fail in enterprise. The habits and business practices that make them a winner in one market doom them in the other.

Maybe it is a bit of both. I have a Flip and I rarely use it, though I am not really a good example since I take more still pictures than videos. Most of the time it stays at home, because I already have too many things to carry and too many devices to keep charged.

My problem though is that convergence is happening too slowly. I have slightly different requirements from most people. I do interviews so I need high quality recordings, and I take snaps which I use to illustrate posts and articles. I also do a lot of typing on the road.

This means I end up taking a Windows 7 netbook – I have given up travelling with a full-power laptop – for typing, email, and browsing the web.

The netbook has a built-in microphone which is rubbish, and an microphone input which I find does not work well either, so I carry a dedicated recorder as well. It is an antique, an iRiver H40, but with a 40GB hard drive, 6 hrs battery life on its original battery, and a decent microphone input with plug-in power, it still works well for me. I use a small Sony table microphone which gives me excellent quality, and that makes it possible to transcribe interviews even when there is background noise. Even though it is “only voice” I find that recording in high quality with a proper microphone is worth the effort; when the iRiver finally gives up I might go to something like the Edirol R-09HR to replace it. 

As for photos, I have tried using a smartphone but get better results from a dedicated Canon camera, so much so that it is worth carrying this extra device.

Of course I still need a mobile phone. I also tempted to pack a tablet or Amazon Kindle for  reading; but how many devices is too many?

I am still hopeful that I may find a smartphone with a camera that is good enough, and audio recording that is good enough, and maybe with an add-on keyboard I could leave the netbook at home as well; or take a tablet instead of a netbook.

But for now I am still weighed down with phone, camera, recorder, microphone and netbook. Roll on converged devices, I can’t wait!

Pentax looks to comic heroes to attract buyers

Pentax is a great name in cameras; I’ve always thought of it as an aspirational range. So this was unexpected:

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It looks kinda downmarket to me, despite wonder woman’s status as a classic super hero. Or you might prefer Green Lantern:

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Anyway, for a modest £119.99, from May 1st 2011, you will be able, to grab a DC Super Heroes RS100 collector pack, complete with 14 megapixel camera, 4GB SD card, 4x optical zoom, HD video recording, and a 3″ LCD screen. And did I mention the customisable front skin with a choice of seven super heroes according to your mood – you can easily change them thanks to a clip-on lens ring and transparent front plate.

There are other colourful options available at the Pentax Chameleon site.

Measuring the Freeloader Classic solar mobile charger

I wrote about the Freeloader Classic last month but at that time had not actually tried a unit. I was then sent one to look at but with mixed results. It arrived partially charged, so I opened it an put it on an inside window sill thinking it would charge fully in a few days.

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I was disappointed to find that the reverse happened; it actually lost its charge. It is as if there is a small power drain simply from attaching the panels, and if that exceeds what is delivered then the unit runs out of power.

To be fair though, the manual notes that being behind glass severely decreases the charging speed – down to around one third of that outside – because of UV filters in the glass. Further, England in March is not a good time for bright sunlight.

So how good is the Freeloader? I took some measurements.

Inside in a naturally lighted room, the Freeloader panel delivered just 0.4mA. Negligible.

Outside in early morning sunlight, this rises to 15 mA. Still very small.

However, outside in late morning sunlight, on a bright day, the panel managed over 65 mA and 6.5v. This is close to the rated spec of 75mA at 5.5v – the manual says 150mA but that is for two panels. In the picture below I’ve left the multimeter on hold to display the measurement.

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The battery in the Freeloader is 1200 mAh. So at 130 mA it would take 9.5 hours or so to charge.

These figure are not bad, and it is a great concept, but impractical for many of us. How much bright sunlight do you get? Can you leave it somewhere sunny, outside, and safe? How will it cope with downpours?

Solar Technology also offers a supercharger panel, twice as powerful at 1.5watt, and designed to attach to the back of a rucksack. That could work when you are out and about.

Escaping Apple: trying to switch away is hard

Mark Wadham posts his Thoughts on switching to Android. Last week he sold his iPhone 4 and switched to an HTC Desire S. I found this interesting, since I have an iPhone 4 and an HTC Desire.

The motive behind Wadham’s switch was to escape Apple’s “over-controlling ways”, rather than immediate dissatisfaction with its products, and there is mild disappointment running through his whole piece:

So in summary, android isn’t really /that/ far off the iPhone. It’s missing the cleanness of the user experience, consistency in the user interface and the glorious wealth of apps, but hopefully that will all come in time. This is a great little phone and I’m happy I made the switch. It’s not as fun to use as an iPhone, and if you’re a real UX freak you should probably stick with the iPhone at least for now, but if you’re someone who likes to tweak and customise and play around with your device android seems much more suited than Apple’s offering.

There is also some irony: HTC’s offering is not as free as he would like.

I would have loved to get rid of HTC Sense and install one of the modded roms like Cyanogen, but that currently isn’t possible due to restrictions HTC has placed on these new handsets …The good news is that, according to the research I’ve done, the root for the Desire S (and the incredible S) isn’t far off.Actually the worst thing about this phone is that it comes with a Facebook app that I can’t remove until it gets rooted.

Still, there is no question that Android is a less tightly controlled platform than iOS. The fact that you can install apps from outside Google’s Android Market is all you need to know.

In usability though, Android falls short. It lacks the obsessive attention to design that characterises Apple’s devices and software; and once you are used to iOS it is particularly hard to switch:

Eventually I got the hang of it, but even now after two days of playing and installing apps and tweaks, the UI still feels counter-intuitive and I have to consciously remember how to do things rather than it being obvious and simple like iOS.

One thing I have noticed since getting these two phones is the impact of Apple’s dock connector. There are countless iPhone/iPod docks and although there is often an option to use a non-Apple device with a mini-jack cable it is not as convenient or elegant. You cannot easily build a generic Android dock because there is no exact equivalent.

Another issue is apps. Once you have purchased a bunch of apps, you can transfer these to another iOS device. If you switch to Android, you have to start again.

There is also iTunes to think about. Let’s say you have got used to iTunes and have your music stored there. While it is possible to transfer non-DRM music to Android or other non-Apple devices, it is not necessarily obvious how to do so; and iTunes itself will only sync to Apple devices. Personally I am not a fan of iTunes; but I can see how it tends to encourage users to stick with Apple.

The bottom line is that escaping Apple requires some determination, once you are hooked into its ecosystem.

Does HDCD make CDs sound worse?

HDCD stands for High Definition Compatible Digital and was developed by Pacific Microsonics, a company acquired by Microsoft in 2000. HDCD encodes the signal on a standard CD in such a way that when decoded it has extended dynamic range and supposedly lower distortion – it is claimed to provide the near-equivalent to 20 bit audio despite the fact that CD is 16-bit.

The snag with HDCD is that not all players decode it. The idea is that HDCD is relatively benign in this respect, and HDCD-encoded CDs still sound good when played back without decoding.

Now audio engineer Steve Hoffman, who specialises in remastering classic CDs for maximum fidelity, says that HDCD actually makes CDs sound worse:

It degrades the sound and it bugs me. I’ve tried everything, every way and it just diminishes the fidelity.

Stephen Marsh, of Stephen Marsh Mastering, who works with Hoffman, adds:

In the interest of giving the HDCD system the fairest of all shakes, I again today ran our completed Bad Co. master through it D to D in 2 additional configurations. First I took our fully prepped, edited 24 bit/44.1 out of converter aes through the HDCD box, outputting 16/44.1 HDCD. Second – I took our 24/88.2 captures and ran those through the box to 16/44.1 HDCD. In both instances we found the HDCD box to be at least as detrimental to the sound as we heard while A to D’ing with it Friday – if not more! In particular – I listened to the HDCD encoded material in un-decoded fashion so I could get a sense of what most consumers are going to hear. Even through the best converters in the room the results were very unsettling: Namely – there was a dip at around 8K the took all the snap and sparkle out of the snare and deflated the air out of the tracks. Engaging the decoding circuits and monitoring through the HDCD D to A’s lent an overall ‘generic’ feel to the sound – it sounded fine, don’t get me wrong – but it didn’t sound special and was certainly not an improvement.

The HDCD concept has always bothered me as well. It is fixing a problem that does not need fixing: neither distortion, nor dynamic range is an issue with standard 16/44 CDs. The fact that not all CDs will be decoded correctly is a worry. Finally, any processing risks degrading the sound, and other things being equal the straightest path is the best.

I recall discovering back in the days of compact cassette that recording and playback with Dolby switched off generally sounded best, even though tape hiss on a cassette was a real problem that did need fixing.

Even if Hoffman and Marsh are wrong, and HDCD does sound better when properly decoded, the fact that it often is not properly decoded is good reason to steer clear.

Now that CDs are commonly ripped to a music server HDCD encoding is still problematic. Illustrate’s dBpoweramp has a decoder that creates a 24-bit file from HDCD-encoded CDs.

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