Wednesday, February 18, 2009

More Microsoft Zunes will Come in this year

Remember that teenage trick of sticking your fingers in your ears and saying, "I can't hear you"? That's how I felt on Thursday morning when I talked to Adam Sohn, the marketing director for Zune.
I don't mean that Microsoft is oblivious to reality: Sohn admitted that the latest Zune sales figures were bad (though apparently in line with Microsoft's very low expectations) and that the company would prefer to be selling millions of the things instead of having them pile up in warehouses. It's more like Microsoft doesn't care what the world thinks.
Despite calls from me and other bloggers for Microsoft to stop making standalone digital-media players--and maybe focus on its increasingly embattled Windows Mobile platform instead--Sohn insisted that as long as anybody else (read: Apple) is selling lots of standalone digital-media players, proving that there is a market for them, then Microsoft is going to keep trying.
Without getting into details, Sohn promised that there will be new Zunes before the 2009 holiday season and that they'll be a surprising step up from the current models.
The conversation eventually moved into other ways Microsoft could benefit from the Zune platform--integration with Xbox and Media Center, reselling it to cell carriers for their own music and video stores--but I kept wondering what Microsoft could be planning for next year.
A touch-screen Zune? Apple did that in 2007. Games? Apple's advertising the heck out of games for iPod Touch now. Some sort of whizzy communciations application, like voice communications in Wi-Fi hot spots using Windows Live Messenger IDs? (I'm reaching now, plus the mobile carriers--to whom Microsoft is trying to sell Windows Mobile--would freak.)
How about a built-in Zune Pass subscription, giving you unlimited music streaming and some number of permanent downloads for the first year or two? That idea doesn't seem to be working so well for Nokia, but Microsoft wouldn't have to rely on cell phone carriers (which have their own services) to push it.
Seriously. What, if anything, would convince you to buy a Zune next year?

Allchin goes from Windows to whammy bars

Seattle has an overabundance of rock musicians for a city its size, from pure garage amateurs to club bands to touring stars.
Microsoft employs about 40,000 people in the Seattle area today, and there are legions of ex-Microsofties who stuck around after they left the company. So there's bound to be some overlap between the two groups.
I know several serious and talented musicians who have or had day jobs at the 'Soft, but they tend to downplay the connection--showing up sober to work every day to build or sell software just doesn't play well in rock biographies.
Of course, some employees are so famous that it would be silly to pretend otherwise. Jim Allchin, who led Windows development for more than a decade, is among them.
I had heard for years that Allchin is a serious guitarist, and as Todd Bishop reports today, now he's got an album coming out.
After listening to the samples on Allchin's Web site, I will say that he can certainly play. I'd guess that he counts Eric Johnson, Joe Satriani, and Pat Metheny among his guitar influences.
He also produced the record, and his Web site has a bit of info about his recording techniques and gear: everything was recorded straight to hard drive using MOTU interfaces (I'm going to guess PCI rather than USB or FireWire) and Sonar Producer digital-audio workstation software--which is, not surprisingly, Windows-only (though you can run it on a Mac with emulation software). But I wonder if he used Windows Vista or XP?
Although Allchin's fairly famous in the tech community, he's probably the second most famous ex-Microsoft guitarist. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, a longstanding guitar player, released an album with his band Grown Men a few years ago. He's particularly well-known in Seattle music circles for jam sessions that can occur any time, any place.

Nokia 5800 - Comes With Music

It's been a long wait, but more than a year after Nokia announced its Comes With Music plan--free music downloads built into the price of the phone--the first Comes With Music phone is apparently coming to the U.S. in February.
According to The Nokia Blog, the Nokia 5800 Xpress Music (a.k.a. The Tube) will go on sale at U.S. retailers on Feb. 26 for a suggested price of $399. No carrier partners have been announced, so there's probably little chance of a carrier subsidy reducing the price at launch. CNET reviewed a preview version of the phone back in December and liked it fairly well, but I'm most interested in how the Comes With Music plan will stack up against Apple's iTunes.
According to the information CNET got back in October, when the 5800 was unveiled in the U.K., Comes With Music tracks will be playable on the phone and one PC, and will not expire after the year is up. From the reviews I've seen, it's truly an unlimited downloading service--there's no hidden limit, although Nokia's terms of use would let them cancel your service for "abusive or excessive downloading."
The experience is a little clunkier than iTunes from what I've read in the reviews. The phone comes with a card containing a code; enter that code into the Web-based Nokia Music Store and all prices in the store disappear. Everything has to be sideloaded--there's no direct over-the-air downloading to the phone as you can do with the iPhone--and it's PC only. You can't transfer the songs to any other phone, even another Comes With Music phone, nor can you burn them to a CD without paying extra. Songs are encoded in the Windows Media Audio format (which I've always thought is an excellent audio codec, for all of the other flaws with Microsoft's digital media strategy and products), and of course come with DRM to limit what you can do with them.
Still--everything you download lives on your PC forever. So while $399 is a significant premium over the iPhone, add in the price of a few thousand PC-tethered downloads, and it looks pretty competitive. At the very least, it could be an extremely convenient way to discover music--you can always buy full CD-burnable tracks of the songs you really like, then transfer them to other devices in other formats later on.

Unboxing my custom Zune 80

As a longtime iPod loyalist, I had a lot of mixed emotions ordering a Zune 80 for myself last Sunday. Part of me felt like a traitor, honestly. I thought about my poor 5G video iPod, which had been ignored for weeks at the bottom of my messenger bag while I played with Microsoft's loaner for my review. Now, I'd never abandon my iPod completely, especially considering that part of my job is reviewing the seemingly endless parade of iPod accessories. Still, I figure there's room in my life for another MP3 player, right? I mean, I would be negligent as a digital audio journalist if I didn't order one.
Well, my Zune 80 arrived today, and I can honestly say I have no regrets (so far). I went the custom route and ordered the Zune 80 directly from Microsoft on its ZuneOriginals site, complete with custom artwork. Say what you want about the Zune, but the designers have definitely outdone themselves on packaging details. From the foil-embossed box, to the golden envelope, the entire package from ZuneOriginals felt like it should be holding Lil' Jon's diamond-encrusted Pimp Cup. Considering that Microsoft is offering these deluxe versions of the Zune for roughly the same price I'd pay in the store, it feels like a bargain despite the fact that I'm really putting more money in Microsoft's pocket by ordering direct. From an industry perspective, I think it's interesting to see how the marketing team behind the Zune is using the ZuneOriginals concept to both make good on its "You make it you" campaign, and at the same time offer a real incentive for customers to buy direct.
I know all this Zune-love is going to make me sound like a shill for Microsoft, but trust me, I have my complaints, as well. I'm writing this because I think what Microsoft is doing with the design and marketing of the Zune is noteworthy, especially when so many iPod competitors seem to be getting more sheepish about their product launches year-by-year. I had just as much excitement opening my custom Zune 80 this morning as I did unboxing the iPhone on the day it was released--and that's no small feat. It may sound like novelty, but part of that excitement was because of the mystery of how good or bad the artwork etching would turn out (quite good, I thought). I think it's also worth noting that this was a fun product to order, thanks to the online customization tool employed on the ZuneOriginals Web site. Getting two lines of text etched into my iPod was not nearly as exciting as browsing Zune's catalog of full-size artwork. As a longtime iPod fan, it pains to admit when the competition looks this good, but I honestly believe the Zune deserves some recognition here.
And now for the show...Here's a hastily-produced video of the unboxing of my "Originals" Zune 80, with running commentary from Josh Lowensohn and Nicole Lee. A more detailed photo gallery can be found here.

Where shall I download music for my 3G iPhone

According to Apple's iPhone 3G product page, the mobile version of the iTunes music store will remain accessible only over the phone's Wi-Fi connection, and will not take advantage of the new 3G capability. I guess it shouldn't come as a shock that the wireless version of iTunes (dubbed "iTunes Wi-Fi") should remain a strictly Wi-Fi service. Still, it does seem like Apple has missed an obvious opportunity to allow users more ways to purchase music.
With services such as Napster Mobile and Rhapsody already allowing wireless music downloads over 3G networks for many iPhone competitors, Apple's reluctance to jump on board likely comes down to an unwillingness to share per-track revenues with AT&T. After all, when you own the music service and the hardware, why concede any profit to a wireless carrier if you can help it?
Only Apple knows for sure why music downloads have been locked out of the iPhone's 3G capability, but personally I'm disappointed to not see it included. The iPhone is so close to becoming a great music discovery tool, but limitations such as this and lack of Flash audio support are big barriers for online music fans. Oh, and don't get me started about the lack of streaming Bluetooth audio.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

My Mustc Gadgets

There are a few things I look at when considering a music gadget for personal use--OK, who am I kidding? I look at everything. But some key points top my list. One of them is design; I prefer devices that are stylish or unique in some way without sacrificing usability. Other necessary features include solid sound quality, a customizable interface, and handy features.
The 32GB Creative Zen scores high in most categories. It's a high-capacity device with a slim, compact design, a large screen, and a customizable interface; it sounds fantastic; and it's a breeze to operate. It also packs in features that I really use, such as an onboard calendar and a contact list (that can by synced from Outlook), FM radio, and support for subscription music. For the gym, I prefer the SanDisk Sansa Clip, which offers a removable belt clip, a tiny chassis, and impressive sound quality. Plus, it's super friendly on the wallet and works with Macs. Finally, we have the Sony NWZ-A810, which garners my attention with its stellar audio quality and fantastic battery life. In fact, I bought this player for my brother.
Of course, you can't make the most out of any MP3 player without some worthy audio accessories. For me, there are a couple that stand out from the crowd. In the $100 range, I'm really digging the Philips SHE-9850 earphones because of their solid sound quality and super sleek and small earbuds. Plus, they're super comfortable. For active pursuits, my top choice are the Sony MDR-AS50G Active Headphones. Their unique design keeps them secure on the head and they sound good, too. Finally, there's the iMainGo 2 portable speaker case, which comes in a variety of colors, fits most MP3 players, and packs a punch in the audio department without adding to much bulk to your carry-on.

Remote control app

A report from the MacRumors blog shows supposedly leaked details of Apple's plans to allow the iPhone and iPod Touch to act as an in-home remote control for iTunes. As CNET's reported this morning, the leaked remote control feature was discovered in a developer-only beta release of iTunes 7.7, evidenced in part by this unconfirmed screen shot.
If the rumors are accurate, the new iTunes remote control feature will be offered as a free application for iPhone and iPod Touch users once the iTunes App Store goes live. Presumably, a touch-screen remote control for iTunes could offer some of the same onscreen display and control functions as products like the Sonos music system or Logitech Squeezebox Duet. Unlike the music-subscription-friendly Sonos or Squeezebox systems, however, users of the iTunes remote control application would only have access to content from their iTunes library.
While users of iPhone-optimized Web applications such as iPeng have had similar iTunes remote control functionality for some time now, a one-step Apple-engineered solution would be less convoluted, and perhaps offer as-yet-revealed advantages. For instance, if the remote control feature already solves the problem of wirelessly linking your iPhone or iPod Touch into your home network, what's to stop Apple from finally offering the same type of wireless sync included on the Zune?

Buy music online

As one may suspect, working in digital music gives a person a somewhat skewed view about the permeation of online music in the general population. Everyone (aside from audiophiles and vinyl buffs) is getting their music fix though the Web nowadays, right? Wrong. Although digital music is on the rise, it's still well behind CDs in terms of overall sales ($2.8 billion versus $15.9 billion, according to one report).

Another report forecasts that digital music sales won't surpass physical media for another four years. Well, what say we prove some people wrong (always fun) and shave a year or two off that number? To help you sort through the clutter of online music, I've rounded up my Top 5 choices for digital tunes. These selections aren't really in any particular order; rather, each service offers a variety of advantages depending on your personal needs and preferences.

iTunes: Owned by Apple, the iTunes store set the pattern for a la carte music shopping and still reigns king over the customer base. iTunes has sold more than 5 billion songs to date, and it offers excellent integration with the world's best-selling MP3 player, the iPod. It's catalog contains more than 8 million songs as well as a variety of podcasts, TV shows, and movies. The one major bummer is that most of the tracks sold in iTunes can only be played on the iPod or iPhone and not any other MP3 player. You must download the iTunes software in order to access the store, but it works on both Windows and Mac operating systems.

eMusic: This indie representer is quite a ways behind iTunes in catalog numbers and sales, but it controls the second largest market share (10 to 15 percent, according to label feedback). eMusic has sold more than 200 million tracks in the past four years and is currently averaging five to six million song downloads per month from its catalog of over 3.5 million tracks. The company made a name for itself with an all-you-can-download service but now offers limited subscriptions, starting at $11.99 per month for 30 unrestricted MP3s. Thanks to this "track pack" pricing and the fact that the company doesn't currently sell big label songs, eMusic offers an incredible value: it is the cheapest of the bunch by far (27 cents per track with the Premium plan). It also has a large number of music reviews by editors and users alike.

Amazon MP3: Started by online retail giant, this music store was the first to offer DRM-free MP3 tracks from the Big Four (aka major music labels). In fact, Amazon deserves a lot of credit for the current movement to do away with confusing restrictions on music downloads. Plus, the company has a huge audience and broad appeal, which will no doubt give digital music a violent shove into the mainstream mindset. Amazon offers a constantly growing catalog, which currently holds over 5 million tracks. It is a Web-based store with only a light app required for queuing downloads. Anyone with a Windows, Mac, or Linux machine can access the store, which also offers audiobooks, movies, and TV shows as digital downloads.

Napster: Once the reigning peer-to-peer music service, Napster is now a legal music store. It recently transitioned its catalog from DRM-protected WMAs back to the ever-popular unprotected MP3 format that it slung back in its trading days and currently offers the largest selection of legal MP3s on the Web (more than 6 million tracks). Napster offers some excellent editorial content, including music reviews as well as preprogrammed playlists and radio stations. The downloadable client only works on Windows, but anyone with a Web connection can access the store online and purchase tracks.

Rhapsody: Similar to Napster in most respects, Rhapsody offers a catalog of more than 4.5 million DRM-free MP3s. It's chock-full of preprogammed playlists made by editors and other listeners and includes an innovative radio feature called Channels, some of which are offered up for free listening. Rhapsody is the only service that allows full track previews (up to 25 per month) prior to purchasing the songs. It can be accessed directly on the Web or downloaded as a jukebox (for Windows only) and offers a subscription plan as well.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

My Best Gifts for Valentine's Day

Creative Zen V Plus

Creative Labs has a history of turning out great MP3 players, and the Zen V and the Zen V Plus--available in July and August, respectively--are no exception. These cute and pocketable flash devices are packed with features and offer impressive performance, making them an excellent option for anyone looking for a lower-capacity, solid-state MP3 player. Of course, since the Creative Zen V Plus adds two desirable extras to the package (an FM radio and video playback), yet costs only about $25 more than the Zen V, we think that the Plus is the way to go--more bang for your buck. You can pick up the 2GB for $79.99, the 4GB for $109.99, the 8GB for $169.99, or the 16GB for $249.99. Comparatively, the Zen V lists at $59.99 for the 1GB, $74.99 for the 2GB, and $99.99 for the 4GB (Creative discontinued other capacities for this model). In either case, it's a better deal than the iPod Nano.

The curvaceous design of the Creative Zen V Plus echoes that of its larger sibling, the Zen Vision:M, though its small size makes the style a bit more toylike (in a good way), almost reminiscent of a Tamagotchi. Also, The Zen V Plus isn't available in the same color palette as the Vision:M. Instead, you choose from white or black versions, and you get different color accents shown around the joystick, on the volume rocker, and through the seams of the player: orange for 1GB, green for 2GB, and blue for 4GB and 8GB (black only). Creative is also set to release a blood red-accented version of the 8GB, though that model was not yet available at press time. It's a nice look, complemented even further by the vivid 1.5-inch OLED display. Unfortunately, while the screen is viewable from any angle, it's tough to read in bright sunlight.

The Creative Zen V Plus's controls leave just a little to be desired. We like the dedicated volume rocker and the combined power/hold switch, but the joystick is tiny and seems prone to collecting dirt or sand around it. Also, we're not sure why Creative didn't include all the buttons found on the Zen Vision:M, as there's plenty of room to the left of the joystick. Gone are the contextual menu and shortcut buttons; however, you can hold the Back button to get to the contextual menus. That said, the player's compact body (2.6 by 1.5 by 0.5 inches), light weight (1.6 ounces), and smooth, rounded edges make it a pleasure to hold. Also, the Zen V Plus can fit easily into any pocket, and because it's not long and thin like the iPod Nano, it has a much sturdier feel. Also, owners of the V Plus get an extra option for selecting the orientation of their screen; the aspect ratio remains the same, but you can orient the controls as you see fit.

Gifts for Valentine's Day - 5 MP3 players for less than $100 (II)

1. Samsung T10

The Samsung T10 might be the sleekest player on this list; it's certainly the only one with built-in Bluetooth, allowing for seamless connection to stereo-wireless headphones--a must for haters of cord clutter.
Rating: 7.7
Lowest price: $64.96
Bottom line: The Samsung T10 won't satisfy audio purists, but users who value lots of features, a fun interface, and a player that will turn heads should give it a look.

2. SanDisk Sansa Fuze

The Sansa Fuze may be a bit of a Nano clone with it's slim design and circular control wheel, but it also sounds good, offers plentiful features, comes in several bright color options, and is cheap as all get-out
Rating: 7.7
Lowest price: $81.50
Bottom line: The SanDisk Sansa Fuze is a great value--a slim design, simple interface, plentiful features, memory expansion capability, and solid sound quality all come with an easy-to-swallow price tag.

3. Creative Zen Mozaic

As a long-awaited refresh to the Zen V line, Creative released the Zen Mozaic, a uniquely-designed device with the company's signature sound quality and feature offerings.
Rating: 7.7
Lowest price: $79.99
Bottom line: The Creative Zen Mozaic offers great bang for your buck as far as MP3 players go: you get super sound quality, a boatload of features, and a cool interface--all wrapped in a funky design at an ultralow price.

4. Sony NWZ-A815

The glorious return of the Walkman as a true contender in the MP3 player market was ushered in by the NWZ-A815, the first Walkman to ever win an Editors' Choice award.
Rating: 8.0 (EC)
Lowest price: $79.95
Bottom line: The Sony NWZ-A810 offers a fantastic display, a sleek design and interface, and a stellar battery life--plus, it's one of the few MP3 players that sound great right out of the box. Users looking for the whole package (sans radio) will be pleased.

5. Creative Zen

The Creative Zen may not be the coolest-looking MP3 player out there, but it offers exceptional value for the money. Plus, the gorgeous 2.5-inch screen makes it a reasonable option for portable video as well.
Rating: 8.3
Lowest price: $79.99
Bottom line: We're hard-pressed to find anything not to like about the Creative Zen. It's a fantastic option for anyone looking for a great-sounding, pocketable MP3 player with an excellent, video-capable screen and plenty of extra features.

Gifts for Valentine's Day - 5 MP3 players for less than $100

1. Creative Zen Stone Plus - TIE

OK, so we couldn't manage to narrow it down to just 10 choices, which means you get a bonus pick in the form of the Creative Zen Stone Plus, an ultracheap player with a cute, compact design.
Rating: 7.0
Lowest price: $49.95
Bottom line: For those who want a super small and cute MP3 player that offers more than just simple music playback, the Creative Zen Stone Plus fits the bill nicely.

2. Sony NWZ-B105F

There will always be a place in the world for a small, affordable, durable, intuitive MP3 player with great sound quality--witness Sony's gym-worthy NWZ-B100F series.
Rating: 7.0
Lowest price: $59.95
Bottom line: If you're looking for an affordable, utilitarian MP3 player to take on the road or to the gym, the Sony NWZ-B100F is a solid solution with awesome audio quality.

3. Meizu Mini Player

The Meizu Mini Player is the classic underdog story: a relative unknown from China that won praise from industry experts and users alike.
Rating: 7.3
Lowest price: $79.95
Bottom line: The Meizu Mini Player is a quality MP3 player with a sleek design, good sound, and useful features, but fans of DRM-hawking music stores should steer clear.

4. SanDisk Sansa Clip

Thanks to its position as a memory chip manufacturer, SanDisk is a master at cost competing in the portable audio space. The Sansa Clip is the perfect example of this mastery.
Rating: 7.5
Lowest price: $54.04
Bottom line: The SanDisk Sansa Clip is an incredible value that's set to edge out the competition with a user-friendly interface, gym-worthy design, and great sound quality..

5. Sony NWZ-S616F

Sony's come a long way in digital audio, and the road hasn't always been smooth. The NWZ-S610 series marked the beginning of the great Walkman comeback, thanks to its competitive pricing, excellent performance, sleek design, and the fact that Sony finally got rid of SonicStage and ATRAC3.
Rating: 7.7
Lowest price: $93.46
Bottome line: The Sony NWZ-S610 series Walkman doesn't bring anything striking or new to the table, but that doesn't change the fact that it's a quality MP3 player with nice extras and a killer battery life. Plus, Sony got rid of SonicStage--the best news ever.

Mp3 player storage medium trends: miscroSD

Last year SanDisk announced a partnership with all four major music labels in a deal that's set to bring future albums to microSD cards. The preloaded cards, dubbed "slotMusic" media, will be sold at brick-and-mortar retail locations as an alternative to the CD.(Credit: SanDisk)
At this time, there's no information on which albums will be sold for how much and when, but the first outlets set to receive the new digital music medium are U.S. branches of BestBuy and Wal-Mart, among others. More than likely, the slotMusic cards will go on sale in time for the upcoming holiday season.
No doubt in the interest of compatibility, music will come in a 320Kbps MP3 format. Each card will offer a 1GB capacity, which gives musicians the option of including various album extras such as liner notes, videos, and other creative content. It will also leave extra space for the user to transfer his or her own content to the card.
The idea of slotMusic cards is to bridge the gap between the physical and the digital, as users of certain cell phones and MP3 players will be able to purchase the cards and insert them directly into the device, eliminating the need to rip CDs or download from a service and then connect to the computer to transfer the songs.
However, given the relatively large size of each card (1GB could fit about eight albums assuming 12 tracks per ripped at 320Kbps MP3), this usage model doesn't completely make sense, as you would need to connect to a computer to make full use of the capacity--unless, of course, you're purchasing songs wirelessly, which in itself indicates a certain amount of comfort with a fairly advanced downloading practice.
And say you elect not to make use of the leftover capacity. A phone or MP3 player only has one memory slot--do you really want only one album taking up that spot? Finally, microSD cards are tiny, which raises a concern over how to keep track of them if you start racking up a collection.
All that being said, I'll wait until pricing is released before passing final judgment on slotMusic. I can certainly see an argument if it ends up being a much better value than the current 99-cents-per-song download structure. At the moment, however, I'm having trouble wrapping my brain around who this might appeal to. Am I completely out of touch? Or do you see microSD albums as just another teeny thing to misplace, too? Chime in below.

Pandora for Chumby

For the past eight months, my latte-colored Chumby has been at my bedside, waking me up with an '80s music mix from Shoutcast and feeding my insomnia with RSS tech news. Today, however, I ceremoniously relocated my Chumby from my nightstand to my living room stereo--right between my Zune and my turntable.
The sudden relocation was caused by invisible Chumby fairies silently upgrading my Chumby's firmware yesterday (Hooray for free upgrades!), adding Pandora Internet radio to an already impressive list of streaming music options. The Chumby is meant to be a very flexible, multipurpose gadget, so the fact that I've been using it a glorified alarm clock is a shame. Maybe I've just been in denial over the Chumby's suitability as an Internet radio receiver, but it took the addition of Pandora to finally motivate me to relocate it to my living room.
Aside from the Grace ITC-IR1000B, the $179 Chumby is now one of the cheapest ways to get a standalone Pandora jukebox into your living room. It's definitely the most adorable solution (sorry Grace). Sure, you can get more powerful Pandora systems, like the $300 Logitech Squeezebox Boom, or more sophisticated systems like the $999 Sonos Digital Music System, but for me, a Chumby and a $5 RCA-to-minijack cable is the perfect combination of price, style, and capability.
The Chumby version of Pandora doesn't deliver the exact same experience as Pandora on the Web, but the best parts are still here. After logging in to your Pandora account using the onscreen keyboard (for creating a new account) you can listen to any station you've already created, pause and skip through songs, adjust volume, rate tracks, bookmarks songs, view the artist and title information of the currently playing song (including album art), and even create new stations on the fly by typing in artist or song names. The only drawbacks are that you can't purchase songs directly or share songs with friends the way you can with the Web or iPhone versions of Pandora.
To be fair, the majority of Pandora-compatible receivers lack these same features, and few of them offer niceties such as album art and touch-screen keyboards. With the way I have the Chumby set up currently, I'll probably just let Pandora run perpetually in the background, without much interaction, and leave the station creation and playlist grooming for those moments when I've got the Web version of Pandora running on my computer at work.
As free upgrades go, the addition of Pandora to the Chumby is pure gravy. The sound quality is good, the interface is slick, and the price is perfect. After eight months, I'm glad to finally see the Chumby take on more responsibilities around the house.

My Cowon O2 PVP

It hasn't been a terribly exciting year for portable video players. Despite its relatively small screen, the iPod Touch is one of the few PVPs we've been giving an unqualified recommendation for in 2008. The Archos 5 is ambitious, but the battery life just isn't there; the Q5W is overpriced and bulky; and the A3 left us feeling kinda "meh." Thankfully, the Cowon O2 looks like it's going to close-out our year of PVP reviews on an upnote.
First off, let me mention the official U.S. MSRP for the O2, because I know there have been a few guesstimates floating around. The Cowon O2 will retail for $219 (8GB), $249 (16GB), and $299 (32GB), which you can pick up in either black or white. If 32GB isn't enough storage for you, keep in mind that the O2 includes a SDHC card slot for quickly swapping out content and increasing storage as you need it.
The second thing to notice about the O2 is its stupefying amount of file support. On the video end the O2 can play back AVI, WMV, ASF, MP4, MKV, OGM, DAT, MTV, DivX, XviD, MPEG-4, WMV 9/8/7, H.264, M-JPEG, and MPEG 1. The O2 is also agnostic when it comes to video resolution, accepting files all the way up to 1,280x720 at 30fps. For me, native format and resolution support is huge deal, because my home media collection is all over the place and few things test my patience more than re-encoding batches of video files.
Another huge deal for me is battery life, and Cowon is claiming that the O2 will get up to 8 hours of video playback (under "optimal" conditions) before surrendering. If Cowon's right, 8 hours of video playback would put the O2 far beyond the 4 hours of video life on the Archos 5, and ahead of the 6 hours of video on the iPod Touch and even the iPod Classic. Audio battery life isn't as impressive, with only 18 hours, but it's still ahead of the 12 hours of playback time on the Archos 5. Another thing to bear in mind is that all of the O2's competitors require a proprietary cable to recharge the battery, which can be a huge pain if you lose the cable while traveling. The O2 charges best when using the included AC adapter, but you can charge over its mini-USB connection, as well.
Battery life, compatibility, and price are the headline features on the O2, but there's still more to love about this Korean import. The O2 uses a 4.3-inch touch-screen display, sized at 480x272, with a display range of 16.7 million colors. The screen on our engineering sample is bright and crisp with only slight contrast shifting when you tilt it up and down. The touch interface is responsive and the GUI is clean and spacious, with the exception of file lists, which are a little cramped and tricky to accurately browse with your fingertip. An attachable stylus is included that doubles as a fold-out stand, but I never felt like I needed it.
From an audio perspective, Cowon blows the doors off again with exhaustive format support, including: MP3, WMA, AC3, AAC, FLAC, OGG Vorbis, OGG FLAC, Apple Lossless, True Audio, Monkey Audio, MusePack, WavPack, G.726, and PCM. In typical Cowon style, users also get access to tons of audio enhancement features, including the same EQ presets and BBE enhancement effects found on the Cowon D2 and iAudio 7. The O2 goes one better, however, by including a customizable 10-band EQ with independent frequency bandwidth settings that can be switched between narrow and wide.
Then there's the other stuff: a photo viewer that supports JPEG, PNG, TIFF, and raw images; a voice recorder that encodes to FLAC audio; a text reader; calculator; and a notepad. Bonus features on the hardware end include a built-in speaker, an optional composite video output (you'll need to buy an extra $9 AV cable from Cowon that plugs into the O2's USB port), a volume rocker switch, built-in microphone, and an SDHC memory slot.
So what's the bad news? In general, the O2 isn't a flashy or sexy device. It's an elegant and practical workhorse PVP perfect for video addicts. If it wasn't such a slow year for PVPs, I'd hesitate comparing the O2 with the iPod Touch, since they really are two very different products. The O2 isn't going to check your e-mail, stream YouTube videos, tweet your friends, or show you where to find a nearby ATM machine. It also doesn't play games, tune FM radio, or stream music over Bluetooth. Instead, the O2 is unapologetically single-minded: it's just a damn fine portable video player with a good-looking screen and a great price. It probably won't be a runaway holiday hit, but I have no doubt the O2 will find a loyal audience.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Update your firmware for SanDisk Sansa Fuze

SanDisk released some fairly major firmware for both the Sansa Clip and the Sansa Fuze. Well, technically, the update for each is a different piece of software, but most of the fixes and enhancements are similar, so I'm treating the two as one here.
I finally got around to installing the new firmware on the Clip and I have to say that it's definitely a worthwhile install (most firmware is). If you haven't done it already, make sure you do--I've included some basic steps for updating Sansa players below.
Perhaps the most exciting thing for audio format nerds is the addition of support for both Ogg Vorbis and FLAC file types. This added feature certainly gives the Sansas a leg up on the competition, as only a handful of other MP3 players offer such playback. (Cowon is a notable example.) In addition, the players now support the most advanced Audible AAX format (type 4), and they include enhanced control over audiobooks and podcasts.
For more information on features and bug fixes offered by the firmware, head to SanDisk's Web site to read all about Sansa Fuze Version 1.01.15 and Sansa Clip Version 1.01.29.
Now with more features and a brighter screen.

Updating the SanDisk Sansa player's firmware
* Download and install the Sansa Firmware Updater.
* Attach your player to the computer and open the app.
* Check the Firmware box and click Download Now.
* Unplug the player when prompted to finalize the upgrade.
The entire process should take under 10 minutes. Be aware that at least 6MB of free space is required for the Clip's firmware.

I got my Apple In-Ear headphones

Apple's $79 In-Ear headphones, showed up on my desk this morning with an apologetic look. In Auguest 2008, Apple promised back in September with a projected October release.
I've only been listening for a few minutes, but so far, it looks like Apple has delivered a worthwhile pair of headphones. They don't quite have the crisp, high frequency detail of the Etymotic HF2 headphones I had at my desk, but they blow away Apple's stock earbuds (not too difficult a feat) with a buttery low end and pleasant mids and highs.
We're happy to see that the headphones work just fine with the iPhone, despite the fact that Apple's online store doesn't advertise the product as iPhone-compatible. More specifically, we found that the headphones and microphone are compatible with the iPhone 3G (we'll have to dig up a first-gen model), but the clicker and volume controls don't seem to cooperate.
On the iPhone 3G and first-generation iPhone, the headphone clicker seems to work fine for playing, pausing, and skipping tracks, as well as answering/ending calls, however, the headphone volume control clicker is unresponsive. For the first-gen iPod Touch, the headphone's clicker, mic, and volume controls are useless, but the headphones themselves work just fine.

DIY digital audiobooks for your iTunes Mp3 player

Digital audiobooks come in all shapes and sizes. You can purchase them online from sites like Audible, eMusic, and iTunes. You can download free audiobooks. Or, you can rip audiobooks to your computer from CD. Unfortunately, no matter where your digital audiobooks come from, getting iTunes and your iPod to treat them as an audiobook--not some random playlist of songs--can be a struggle.
If you've ever purchased an audiobook through iTunes, you may have noticed that the file appears in a separate audiobook tab in your media library. Keeping your audiobooks separate from your music library not only makes them easier to find, but it also prevents chapters of Crime and Punishment from popping up in a party music playlist.
iTunes even treats the playback of audiobooks differently than music playback, allowing you to adjust the playback speed of the file and automatically resume any previously played chapter where it left off instead of starting at the beginning.
You don't have to purchase your audiobooks from Apple to get the special iTunes audiobook treatment. By tweaking a few settings, you can make iTunes and your iPod recognize any audio file or group of audio files as an audiobook.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Gifts for Valentine's Day - Five iPod accessories (II)

1. Scosche KickBack

Although plenty of other MP3 players--the Sansas, Zunes, and Zens in particular--have cases made specially for them, no one gets the attention that the iPod does. One of my favorite protective holders is the Scosche KickBack for the iPod Touch. It offers a hard, polycarbonate case that wraps around the majority of the player and a protective film for the screen. The best part, however, is the built-in kickstand for wide-screen video viewing: a must for any frequent flier. Now, if only the company would come out with a version for the second-gen Touch, I'd be set.

2. FitNow Lose It!

No doubt about it, Apps are a major draw for the iPod Touch (and iPhone). It's not the reason I finally caved and snapped up an iPod Touch (the only iPod I can stand), but it was certainly a contributing factor. For a gym rat such as myself, the health and wellness section of the iTunes App Store is a boon, but I don't need new workouts--just a good calorie tracking software. FitNow's Lose It is easy to use and gets the job done. And for my favorite price: free!

3. Pandora 2.0

Since its release in July of 2008, the Pandora Internet radio iPhone app has been one of our favorites and a consistent top download from Apple's iTunes App Store. Pandora's uncluttered and intuitive interface, coupled with its unique knack for song recommendations, makes it an ideal no-fuss app for anyone looking to add streaming music capabilities to their iPhone or iPod Touch. Pandora added many new features to version 2.0 of its iPhone app, but its clean, intuitive Now Playing screen remains unchanged. In version 2.0, Pandora adds several new features without undermining the simplicity that made the original app so great.

4. 2008 Audio A5

OK, so maybe calling a car an iPod accessory is a bit of a stretch, but it provides yet another example of the level of integration offered to the reigning king of MP3 players. Although the 2008 Audio A5 includes connection cables for a variety of audio devices, the car's multimedia systems is clearly optimized to offer a superior browsing experience with the iPod. So, how's about a $40K MP3 player accessory for my next birthday?

5. GelaSkins

Yes, it's a sticker. And maybe that's girly to some, but plenty of others share my enthusiasm for Gelaskins, artistic skins that offer some minimal protection for the iPod while helping it stand out from the crowd. These stickers use 3M technology, meaning they won't leave a nasty, sticky residue on the player, which is great if you get sick of one design and want to move on to the next. Well worth the $15 price tag, in my opinion.

Gifts for Valentine's Day - Five iPod accessories

1. JBL OnTime 400 iHD

The JBL OnTime 400 iHD is an iPod-ready hybrid digital radio speaker dock that's packed with features, but it's not for everyone. It's pricey and lacking in low-end response, but I became smitten with the unit for its HD radio capabilities and plentiful alarm options. The HD radio reception is fantastic and each station is allowed to broadcast to two subsets of its frequency, which means you get a lot more content than from standard radio. You can also tag songs to the iPod for purchasing in iTunes later, and set what seems like a million different alarm options. Cool.

2. m:Station Orb 2.1 Speaker

No device inspires fun design quite like the iPod. Case in point: the m:Station Orb 2.1 Speaker, an eye-catching globe painted in a variety of hues to match the second generation iPod Nano (sadly, we've seen no evidence that m:Station will be releasing Orbs to match the current line). This funky speaker wins points for its unique style, useful remote control, and impressive bass response. If you want to stand out from the iPod crowd, owning this would certainly help.

3. B&W Zeppelin Speakers

Call me crazy, but there's just something about a speaker shaped like a blimp that appeals to me. It helps that the Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin offers solid sound quality and includes connection ports for your TV (meaning it can do double duty as a home theater system in a pinch). But really, it's all about style in this case, and for $600, I expect nothing short of stellar looks. The Zeppelin delivers.

4. Numark iDJ2 Mixing Console for iPod

Let's be real, here: there is simply nothing like the Numark iDJ2 Mixing Console for any other MP3 player besides the iPod...which is precisely why it's a prime candidate for an accessory that may tempt you to switch. If you're a musically inclined individual that wants to have all the fun of turntables with less of the hassle and expense, the iDJ2 is worth a look. Sure, vinyl snobs may sneer, but workaday event DJs will appreciate the system's efficiency, keyboard search, sound quality, and portability.

5. Sonic Impact Video-55

Once again, just try to find a product like the Sonic Impact Video-55 for anything but the iPod. In fact, try to find one like it for the latest generation of iPods (just one of the infuriating things that Apple has done throughout the iPod family's lifespan: make video-out proprietary). But for the first video iPod, this screen-enhancing accessory is still a great add-on. Plus, now that it's a "legacy" product, the price has plummeted from $300 to a much more palatable $100. If you have an older video iPod, this is a great way to triple the viewing area.

Upgrade your old Mp3 player to 240GB

I'll catch some hell for saying it, but Apple's fifth-generation iPod Mp3 player is one of the best hard-drive MP3 players of all time.
Say what you will about sound quality or the easily scratched screen, compared with today's Mp3 Player models the 5G Mp3 player has a lot of advantages: it's compatible with just about every Mp3 player accessory ever made; video output is built right in; you can use it with older computers and old versions of iTunes; and there are countless ways to hack and modify it. Unfortunately, the old guy just doesn't offer enough storage.
Don't throw out that old 5G just yet. Rapid Repair now offers a 240GB replacement hard drive specifically made for the 5G Mp3 player. Granted, the drive will set you back $294, but it could be worthwhile if you just can't live without your entire music collection in your pocket or you insist on listening to large lossless audio files.
I could also see the justification for upgrading if you've already invested in a lot of Mp3 player accessories (speakers, car stereos, video docks) that won't work with new Mp3 player models due to differences in voltage or video output. Spending $300 to upgrade an MP3 player you love makes much more sense than spending the same money to upgrade all your perfectly good Mp3 player accessories.

Gifts for Valentine's Day - Wearable MP3 players

As MP3 players keep getting smaller, cheaper, and more colorful, some of them have become fashionable enough to wear. There are MP3 players you can clip to your shirt, hang from your neck, strap to your wrist, or even wear on your face. Most of these itty-bitty MP3 players are light on features, but no one ever said fashion wouldn't require some sacrifices.
The best-known wearable MP3 player is the iPod Shuffle, which is by far the lightest, smallest MP3 player on the planet. The Shuffle is great for the gym and it looks good on just about anyone, but it's relatively pricey compared with the competition. If you're looking for the best value, the SanDisk Sansa Clip offers tons of features, great audio quality, and is one of the few players here that include a screen.
For an MP3 player that's easy on the eyes, the Samsung Pebble looks like an expensive piece of jewelry, but costs less than $50.

A Waterproof MP3 Player Frame

In the past, many people watched James Bond movies with suspicion, and they admired numerous devices which secret agent 007 used during his missions. At that time, those devices were science fiction, and today some of them are a part of ordinary life.

Recently a manufacturer has introduced another product we're sure someone has been clamoring for, although we can't imagine who. Their Xzabady (or X Zabady, perhaps) is a waterproof frame for an MP3 player or other portable audio device that's designed, naturally, for use in the bathroom. The frame, available in either white or black, packs a single rear speaker with two "reflectors" and a built-in FM tuner, which can be used on its own without an MP3 player attached. You can also customize the frame by inserting your our picture.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Gifts Idea for Valentine's Day

We’ve had some pretty odd-looking MP3 players and PMPs here at PMP Today but this new Aigo MP3 player takes the cake. The device is obviously a puzzle piece and may be a little too late for Valentine’s despite the English letter at the bottom left of the photo. The leak doesn’t provide specifications. I’ll go on the limb here and say that this puzzle piece could lock with other puzzle pieces and possible form a screen size big enough to play videos. Sounds convincing? Well, whatever it turns out to be it’s bound to be affordable.

While this upcoming MP3 players from China's Aigo looks cool, it's hard to piece together more information about it. Aigo's given us no specs, no price, and no release date. Drop a hint, Aigo!

How to convert the files from AAC to Mp3?

AAC is a compressed music format, meaning bits of audio data have been sacrificed in order to get a CD audio file into a manageable size for an MP3 player. To most people, the results of this compression aren't even audible. But converting from "lossy" AAC to MP3 (another lossy format) means a little more data vanishes into the ether. It's only small, but it's worth bearing in mind.
We advise that you encode in the highest possible MP3 bitrate (320Kbps) in order to minimise this loss of audio fidelity.
Ensure you download the iTunes Plus version of songs from the iTunes Store. These are DRM-free and can be easily identified by a little plus symbol next to the "Buy Song" button. Consult this story for detailed instructions on how to ensure you're getting iTunes Plus versions of songs.
1. Setting

Make sure you've got the latest version of iTunes. We're using version 8.0.2 on Windows and OS X.
By default, iTunes likes to convert your music into AAC, not MP3, so we need to change that. In the iTunes menu, click "Edit > Preferences" (or "iTunes > Preferences..." on OS X) and select the General tab.
Next to where it says "When you insert a CD", click the Import Settings button. Then, with the "Import Using" pull-down menu, select MP3 Encoder. In the pull-down menu underneath, select Custom. Select "320 kbps" in the "Stereo Bit Rate" menu, check the box to use variable bitrate encoding, and select Highest from the Quality menu. Leave everything else as it is.
Click OK on all of the open windows and return to the main iTunes interface.

2. conversion

You can convert all your files in one go if you like, but for the purpose of this tutorial we're going to convert a single file. The process for converting multiple files is identical though — just highlight all the songs you want to convert.
So, with your song or songs highlighted in the iTunes library, right-click on any one of them and choose Create MP3 Version. iTunes immediately begins converting your songs from AAC to MP3 using the settings we just altered.
The conversion process could take anything between a few seconds to a few hours depending on the number of songs you're converting and the speed of your computer. When complete, you'll have an AAC and MP3 version sitting side by side in your library. If you don't want to keep the AAC original, you can delete it now.

3. locate your files

Your new MP3s sit in the same folder as the original AACs. If you know where this is, all you need to do is locate them and copy the MP3s into any folder on your computer, drag them into your favourite music software, or on to your MP3 player, and you're done.
If you don't know where the files are located, simply click Edit from the iTunes menu, then select Preferences (or, on OS X, go to "iTunes > Preferences"). Choose the Advanced tab, and look at the "iTunes Music folder location" box. This is the folder on your hard drive that iTunes saves your downloads to. Navigate to it through My Computer or Finder, and remember it for future use.

And that's it! Your iTunes Plus downloads are now in MP3 format, and can be played on any device that supports MP3s.