Online music stores finally fit my needs

I’ve been somewhat of a luddite up until now with my music purchases – almost all of them have been CDs – since I’ve not been a fan of buying downloaded music from iTunes, eMusic, etc. My main gripes with downloads were:

  1. Typically downloads have been lowish quality lossy formats. I rip all my music lossless for home listening
  2. Buying music as downloads has often worked out more expensive when buying full albums
  3. DRM was a show stopper – I don’t want to buy something from Apple and then not be able to play it on some other device in the future
  4. Inability to download more than once. CDs are a great physical backup
  5. Not having something tangible, e.g. CD booklets
  6. The selection on sites like eMusic, which have never had DRM for example, haven’t been a great fit for my music tastes

In the last month or so this has started changing though – I’ve recently bought 5 albums from Apple’s iTunes Store and 4 physical CDs in the same time span. What’s changed? Going through the list from above:

  1. All iTunes downloads are now 256kbps AAC. This isn’t lossless, but is close enough that with my current kit I’m not going to be able to tell the difference
  2. Its now a real toss-up as to what’s cheaper – CDs or downloads. Albums on iTunes work out normally at $10. CDs on Amazon range from $6 – $14.
  3. Apple doesn’t use DRM anymore
  4. Apple now offers multiple downloads – buy once and download again whenever you want
  5. The tangibility thing isn’t solved but really I don’t look at my CDs any more once I’ve ripped them and taken a quick browse through the booklet. They’re just gathering dust on my shelves
  6. The selection on the iTunes Store, at least for my tastes, is extensive

I don’t think I’m a total convert, and still expect to keep buying some CDs for a while (I expect I’ll buy one of the Pink Floyd box sets coming out later this year), but my days of being CD-exclusive are over.

I'm not the only IT guy in the family…

So I don’t really know how it happened, but my sister and I ended up in the same line of work. Considering we never could agree about anything when we were kids, it’s quite a feat! So here’s a quick nod to her (Zoe Smith) and my brother-in-law who now have their own consultancy. Good luck to the both of you from titch!

2008 Gadgets Review – #4 – Twitter

Strictly speaking I signed on to Twitter in 2007 but never used it very much. I didn’t find a way to read it that I liked, and there wasn’t that much I found interesting to read.

This changed this year though. On the application front I started using twitterific on the iPhone. It’s a great thing to check a few times a day when I have a spare couple of minutes away from my computer and not talking to anyone else, waiting for something to happen. I’ll leave the exact details of when such scenarios occur as an exercise to the reader…

Secondly, I started getting a critical mass of people to follow who wrote enough that I always had something to read, but not too much as to be spamming 40 tweets a day. OK, not usually (*ahem* Josh Graham 😉 )

One interesting thing about Twitter is that it’s very much a uni-directional broadcast. People can subscribe or unsubscribe to my feed as they want and really it doesn’t make any difference to me, and I don’t really know about it. Compare this with Facebook, for instance, which is far more of a joint relationship – if someone removes me as a friend from their contacts, they are also removed from my contacts. If they want to add me back, there has to be a confirmation on my part, so I would see them attaching and detaching to my status feed, as it were.

Because Twitter has a looser coupling, I feel more able to put more status updates out when I want, tweet when I’m drunk (although that’s seldom a good idea), etc.

Facebook was my social networking app of 2007, Twitter of 2008. It’s likely by the end of 2009 I’ll have something else going on.

You can find my twitter feed at http://twitter.com/mikebroberts

2008 Gadgets Review – #3 – Dots gloves

This one wasn’t going to get a mention originally, but after how cold it is here in NYC this morning I changed my mind.

I love my iPhone. 18 months in and I still think it’s a device from the future. The problem comes this time of year when it’s cold outside, I’m wearing my gloves, and I get a call – the touchscreen doesn’t work and the call ends up going to voicemail.

Enter Dots gloves – gloves with little, well, dots, on the tips of the thumbs and index fingers that play nice with the iPhone screen. Simple and effective. And only $20 for the thicker wool gloves.

2008 Gadgets Review – #2 – Logitech Harmony 880 Universal Remote Control

For part 2 of my 2008 gadget round-up I’m going to talk about Logitech’s Harmony 880 universal remote control.

Being a geek, my lounge is full of stuff with remote controls, all hooked to each other. At last count, my media setup included:

  • A TV
  • Mini system (used for sound and playing CDs)
  • 2 game / media consoles (XBox 360 & Playstation 3)
  • DVD player
  • Squeezebox Music player
  • Cable TV DVR
  • HDMI switch
  • Mac Mini

This equals a lot of remote controls, confusing the heck out of my girlfriend (and me early on a Saturday morning) and it’s a big mess on my coffee table. A couple of my friends had been bugging me about getting a universal remote control, a remote which could control all of my devices, but I was sceptical about them after bad experiences in the past.

Eventually though I decided to do some research and looked into the options. Logitech seemed to have the best reviewed range for non-ludicrous prices, and of their selection the Harmony 880 model seemed a good middle-ground option for a reasonable price and it had many decent reviews. I decided to go for it and a few days later found myself unpacking my remote.

The first step to setting up the remote was to install software on my Mac, and plug the remote in to a USB socket. Setting up the remote is done solely through the computer, which is useful since there are a whole range of options available. The next step was to tell the software what devices I had, and how they connected to each other (e.g. through which inputs to the TV.) Much to my surprise the software knew about both my UK Pioneer mini system system and my fairly obscure HDMI switch.

After the device and connections setup, I needed to decide which ‘activities’ I wanted the remote to know about. Most of the time when using the remote your usage is activity-based (‘watch DVD’) rather than device-based (‘turn on DVD player’). This is a wonderful scheme, it brings the concept of remote control macros (controlling multiple devices in one user action) to a level anyone can use and setup.

After programming the remote, it was time to try it out. Tentatively I pointed at my Stack Of Stuff and chose to ‘Watch TV’. The cable box turned on, the TV turned on and switched to the correct HDMI input, my HDMI switch moved to the correct input, and my mini system turned on switching to the right input also. I was shocked – it worked!

I wanted to watch a recent episode of the Daily Show, for which I needed the DVR controls of my cable box. As if by magic, a ‘list’ option had appeared on the screen of my remote, which I could select by using the general purpose button next to it. The menu buttons on the remote controlled the selection, and play, pause etc. all did the right. Even better, the volume control on the remote automatically changed the volume on my mini system, since during the setup process the software has asked me what device I used for controlling volume when watching TV.

Anyone who has used universal remotes knows that sometimes things don’t quite work. Many devices have power toggles (‘change the power setting’) rather than absolute commands (‘turn power off’) and so workflow-based remotes are sometimes out-of-sync with the current state of your devices. The Harmony remote’s approach to problems like this is a ‘help’ button at the top of the remote, which launches a very simple step-by-step process guided through the remote’s screen to get everything going properly.

The other concern I had was what happened for the occasional use of something that wasn’t in an activity (e.g. changing the surround setup of my mini system.) For this the remote allows you to switch to a ‘device’ mode rather than ‘activity’ mode, giving you full control of your devices. For buttons which aren’t represented directly on the remote, the screen on the remote, and associated general purpose buttons, can have multiple pages offering pretty much everything available on my actual remotes.

Of course, the real test was would my not-quite-as-nerdy-as-me girlfriend be able to use this remote. The answer was an emphatic yes, even being able to navigate the ‘help’ workflow.

I have almost nothing bad to say about the Harmony 880. Higher end models allow for more devices, and allow for ‘out-of-sight’ control, but that’s beyond what I need. My Playstation 3 can’t be controlled with the remote, but that’s Sony’s fault for not providing an infra red sensor. There are 3rd party IR-to-bluetooth adapters available for this purpose but I’ve been having trouble getting hold of one.

In summary, the 880 has been an absolutely superb purchase, and I thoroughly recommend it.

2008 Gadgets Review – #1 – Mobile Me

2008 was a good year for gadgets for me. It was probably something to do with making up for not coding for most of it. I’m including in gadgets software and services nothing to do with computer programming.

First up on my list is Apple’s Mobile Me. Mobile Me is nominally a replacement and upgrade of Apple’s .Mac internet application service, offering web-based and IMAP email, a calendar and address book syncing service for Mac’s running OS X, internet based file storage, etc.

The biggest update I was interested in of Mobile Me over .Mac however was it’s iPhone integration, and more specifically the over-the-cellphone-network syncing of address book, calendar and ‘push’ IMAP email. Before Mobile Me I used to hook up my iPhone to my home iMac every day to make sure any contact or calendar changes were backed from my iPhone, and any changes I’d made elsewhere were synced to my iPhone. I also used Plaxo to sync address books between various computers and Spanning Sync with Google calendar to sync calendars across computers.

This setup worked, but has now been completely replaced by a totally automatic process in Mobile Me. Without using any other services, calendars and address books are now kept in sync across all my work and personal Macs, and my iPhone, without any work on my part apart from the initial setup. These days I plug my iPhone into the computer every few weeks rather than every day.

This setup does everything important that I wanted 6 years ago.

Mobile Me has not all been smooth sailing, however.  The launch in July for some very strange reason was consecutive with the launch of the major iPhone version 2 software update, and the cutover from .Mac to Mobile Me was a hard-change, rather than gradual crossover. Unsurprisingly this didn’t go so well, with services being inaccessible to some extent for a few weeks. Luckily I wasn’t already dependent on .Mac, but if I had been and thus not had email access for several days I would have been most definitely cheesed off.

Also, the Mobile Me web applications (allowing you to access your mail, contacts, calendar from a browser) aren’t all that great. They look lovely and shiny, trying their best to look like their desktop counterparts, however they just end up being slower than Google-style equivalents, and don’t work on some browsers (e.g. Internet Explorer 6 on my dad’s home computer when I visited in September.) This isn’t a particularly big deal since I only need to use this feature when abroad, but even so I think Apple have something to learn about running web application services.

Griping aside, Mobile Me is a real time and brain saver for me. Well worth the subscription cost.

Super Furry Animals @ Bowery Ballroom, Beth Orton @ Hiro Ballroom, Hot Chip @ The Music Hall of Williamsburg

Since I got to New York 2 years ago (is it 2 years already? Yikes) I’ve been managing to get to a lot more gigs than I ever used to do in the UK. Last year I  went to 10 or so shows, including my personal highlight of the year of seeing The Police at the Virgin Festival (a special ‘between album’ show by Franz Ferdinand at the intimate Bowery Ballroom was a close second.)

This year is kicking off similarly as concert season gets up and running.

The first show of the year was Super Furry Animals (SFA) at the Bowery Ballroom, a quick 5 minute walk from my apartment. I’ve never been a fan enough to buy any of their CDs but I heard they were a decent live act. The show was definitely worth going to, the one disappointing part was the crowd who had pretty much halved in size by the time the band played ‘The Man Don’t Give a Fuck’ (pretty much the only song I know from hearing the band in other people’s college rooms in 1996(ish) .)

A week ago I saw Beth Orton on her first live tour for a couple of years. I remember first hearing Beth Orton on a Glastonbury show on the BBC in the summer of 96. Her first album, Trailer Park, came out later than year and has been a regular in my listening ever since, but I’ve never seen her perform. These days she’s dropped the electronica leanings she had back then (partly from her work with William Orbit and The Chemical Brothers) and her style is a very pleasing folk / indie crossover. Her live voice was a lot better than I thought it might be, she had a fun stage presence and I definitely hope to see her again in a few years time.

Finally for now I saw Hot Chip last night at the newly refurbished and renamed Music Hall of Williamsburg. Hot Chip’s ‘The Warning’ was the driving-force of the UK’s electro renaissance of a year or 2 ago. I liked it, but wasn’t overwhelmed, but this was another band I wanted to see because of the promise of their live act. Again, no disappointments here – they were energetic, unpretentious, producing a very tight show full of opportunities for the crowd to stretch their dancing legs. I think that seeing these guys in a couple of years with a little more experience under their belt at a bigger venue would be a fantastic experience.

All 3 of these venues are relatively small and it was nice to be able to get reasonably close to the artists at all of them. The Hiro Ballroom probably wins ‘best gig venue I’ve ever been to’ though – the sound was fabulous (especially for an acoustic show like Beth’s was) and the interior was lovely too, more than making up for the strange practice of keeping the crowd waiting outside for ages and only letting people in in small groups.

I already have several more shows lined up – the highlight of the summer so far is looking like the triple bill of REM, Modest Mouse and The National at Madison Square Garden, but it’s the unexpected surprises that I’m really looking forward to.