Music Streaming – conclusion

TL;DR version: Spotify wins

To round out the saga, I needed to make a decision on whether to keep Google  All-Access or Spotify for my online streaming pleasure. If you recall, I signed up for a trial of the Google all access, and was comparing it to Spotify.  While I am an Apple fan, I am not sure their entry this fall into an ad sponsored offering is going to be worth my time. (Perhaps if it was free with my iTunes match subscription …) Primarily, it is because I need to use it on my windows machines as well as my Mac, my iPhone and my Android tablet. iTunes sucks donkey balls on the PC, so unless Apple does something amazing, I am discounting it without trying it.

Early on, Google All Access was plagued by the glitches that I experienced with my tunes in their database. Skips, pauses, and long halts in playing. Spotify pulled into the lead, because their dedicated application was really solid, and whatever magic they do buffering, it has almost no issues (except when my crappy work network connection flakes out).  But about 2 weeks ago, Google got their streaming act together, and it became solid. Almost as reliable as Spotify.

However, I am going to stick to my Spotify premium account, and turn off the all access.  While it is $2 cheaper, and it is better integrated with my Android tablet, the Spotify apps make the difference. A quality user experience across platforms, coupled with great streaming, and a good catalog. Spotify FTW.

Aside: One thing that I never did much of was use the radio option of spotify. I compared the radio option of Google All Access versus spotify, and I like the selections of the Spotify radio stations a wee bit better than on All Access.  Both services have holes in their catalog (due to licensing issues, I would believe), but points in All Access’s favor is that since I have all the Led Zeppelin and Paul Gilbert tracks (legally) they get in to the mix. But that isn’t enough to save its bacon.

Winner: Spotify

The curse of being a “Techie” – Making things too complicated

I have always been adept at technology. I am sure that some of it is natural aptitude, and some is single bloody-minded-ness that I learned from working with many different computers and other “smart” devices for years (decades now). I am the person that all my family calls when they have problems with tech.

But sometimes, it is a curse.  Case in point:

My bluray disc player
My bluray disc player

In 2007 or 2008, we took the plunge and went BluRay. We bought a good mid range player at the time, the Panasonic DMP BD30. It has been a faithful player, working great.  Every disk we tossed into it, regardless of the warning that a firmware upgrade may be required played without trouble.  Until May 10 2013 (My birthday).  I got a BD copy of Skyfall, and while the damn trailers on it played, it just wouldn’t play the main movie.  F*ck. I didn’t get a copy of Skyfall on Bluray to watch the damn, tossed in DVD copy.

So, I investigated the firmware upgrade. I have to say that the Panasonic website for support completely blows.  Yes, I was able to find it, but it took too damn long. Of course, it comes as a self extracting archive that is a Windows program.  Poopies.  I am a Mac person. But it was a self extracting RAR archive, so I was able to get the firmware file out.

But the instructions were complicated. It said to burn the image to a CD-R (not a CD-RW) and that it had to be ISO9660 format.  Easiest to do on windows, so I tried it with my work laptop.  No joy.

For some reason, I thought the PANA_DVD.FRM file was a disk image, so I tried all my tools and utilities to burn that image to a CD-R. I now have 4 coasters.

Finally, I thought to myself, perhaps it isn’t an image file (like an iso) but just the firmware file. I opened a toast session, selected “data CD” and ISO format, and burned that file to a disk. Joy, it took about 10 minutes, but the firmware is now updated to 3.1 (from 1.3) and I am watching the end of Skyfall on BD now.

My error was in my natural inclination to try to treat it as a disk image, and to burn it as such. That is because I am accustomed to that workflow. But in this case, the simple solution was to just burn the firmware file on a disk. Of course, the instructions say nothing like this, but are filled with warnings about Windows Vista or Windows 7. Being the geek that I am, I avoided the easy solution, and spent a few weeks messing around creating coasters.

For the record, the player works beautifully, and I am astounded that I was able to go 5 or 6 years before I was forced to do a firmware upgrade. I have friends who are constantly updating their player to handle new discs.

More nostalgia – Technology – the PC Clone

After my Atari 8 bit and 16 bit days, I tacked hard into PC clone land.  My first build was a Mylex motherboard, with 640K ram, and a 286 CPU.  I remember buying the components from a variety of sources, but since this was pre-internet (probably 1986 or so) I didn’t mail order anything.  Probably got much of it at Fry’s Electronics.

My first foray into the PC world
My first foray into the PC world

Added to this was an PC AT case and power supply, a 5 1/4″ floppy drive, an ISA RLL disk controller card, and a simple CGA display card.  A 40 (or was it 60) megabyte HD that was the most expensive part of the build was added to the mix. (It was a 5 & 1/4″ full height disk that was frightfully loud). I remember it having a turbo button (almost always in fast mode) that slowed it down to standard PC XT speed for compatibility – mostly games.

My good friend Mike Davis helped me assemble it, and got me started with a selection of software for use on it.  I did use the heck out of that system, and subsequently upgraded a few times over the years.  I remember going to a 386 board, with a 16MHz cpu, and a whopping 4 megs of ram. I learned a lot about things that we no longer worry about. IRQ lines and conflicts, UART’s for serial communication (which ones could support the faster 19.2K baud modems).  In those days, there weren’t robust BIOS systems to let you interrupt the boot process and change the settings, you had to open the case and set jumpers on the motherboard or expansion cards. Really annoying to hunt down an odd conflict.

The main driver for upgrading was to play games better.  CGA was replaced with EGA, and finally with VGA.  Using more than 640K of RAM required the use of fiddly memory manager applications. I was fond of DesqVIEW and QEMM386.  They both worked together to give you some true multitasking on the 386 chip.

Of course, I used these machines to run a bulletin board system, but it lost much of the Atari charm.  I did discover the online systems, and was a member of Delphi. The one thing that I remember from this time was that the PC world, while it had better, and more powerful hardware, lacked some of the soul of the Atari’s I cut my teeth on. But it was a good stepping stone in my technology education and evolution.

Sometime in 1989, I got the itch to try something new.  Still in university, I was able to get student pricing on a Mac, and I jumped at a Mac SE, with a 20 megabyte HD.  This was the all in one system, with the small monochrome monitor built in. But that is for another tale.

The good ol’ days – Technology edition

Like everyone who makes it to middle age, I have a rich tapestry of memories. Today, while bicycling, I reminisced about my first computer, an Atari 800.

My first personal computer
My first personal computer

The year was 1979, my freshman year of high school, and I got exposed to the new computer lab at school. It had (I think) 4 Apple ][+’s each with two disk drives, and small color composite monitors.  I was in love.  Of course, I couldn’t afford one of these, but Atari had just released their line of computers. Not as slick and sexy as the Apple ][‘s but it was in a price range that I could afford on my paper route money.

After saving my nickels, I went out and splurged on an 800, and an 810 disk drive.  I added a Basic cartridge, and I bought a game.  Star Raiders if I recall correctly. I had am amazing amount of fun exploring that system.  I found some local users, and we started swapping disks of software, and I was happy.

I learned Atari basic, some very simple 6502 machine language, and some of the cool capabilities of these systems. Then sometime in 1981 or 1982, I learned about electronic BBS’s.  At the time, the IBM PC hadn’t been launched, and if you wanted a personal computer, it was Apple, Atari, or Commodore (This was before the VIC20 and the C64 – so it was the older PET computers). I had heard of this thing called BBS’s, and I once again saved my dimes to buy a modem. I also had to buy an interface box (called the 850 I think, or was it 815?) to connect it to (the box had 4 RS232 ports), and I got online for the first time.  There were a ton of great Atari BBS’s, probably 40 – 50 in the San Jose area (no toll area for me), and I logged in to most of them. There were message boards, file exchanges, and even chatting with the operators of the BBS’s (called “Sysops”).

I was hooked. I had a growing collection of software, and was enjoying the interchange, but the bug to run a BBS bit me.  I found a copy of the most used program, FoReM (Friends of Ricke E Moose), and off I went.

The name was “The Hotel California” (I was going through an Eagles phase), and I made the entire board a music theme. I probably had 20 calls a day on the average. In those days kids, you had to use a phone line to call another computer. I also did a fair amount of customization to the software (It was written in Basic XL) which was a struggle because it barely fit in memory to run.  Often you had to rewrite a subroutine to save a few bytes before you could add somewhere else.  I added a lot of hardware to the system as time went on, more disk drives, a special adaptor that let me use 8″ disks (3X the storage per disk) and from a 300 baud Hayes modem up to a 1200 baud modem (don’t recall the brand). I also remember writing some assembly code that was executed from a string to be able to transmit data at 1200 bits per second.  Heady stuff indeed. Eventually it ended up on an Atari 800XL that I had hacked 128K of memory into (used the extra memory as a ramdisk to speed the message board IIRC).

I ran the BBS for a bunch of years, and had a blast, but eventually I moved on to a 16 bit Atari, and to a PC clone. I made some friends that I still have today (Mike Davis, and Vern Anderson who ran the “Rat’s Nest” bbs, and was my guitar teacher).

I have a 130XE, the last of the 8 bit line for Atari that I break out to play games on once in a while.  I have a ton of old software that I can run in an emulator, or on the real hardware. It is “fun” to return to the archaic past, and relive some experiences, but it reminds me of how well we have it now.

Next installment – my migration to the world of PC clones.

My first Android Device – Nexus 7

About 7 months ago, I splurged and bought a Nexus 7.  Ostensibly, I bought it to test the websites I work on in an intermediate resolution (I already use an iphone and an iPad to test different mobile sizes).  I figured that I would give Android a fair shake, but alas, I have used it sporadically.

Nexus 7 - Google's 7" tablet with ANdroid
Nexus 7 – Google’s 7″ tablet with ANdroid

Naturally, I used my gmail account to set it up, and I have done my best to set it up, and keep it up to date. It is still stock, I haven’t rooted it or sideloaded any apps or changed the rom’s.  I wanted to get a good feel for Android, and I thought that using a stock Google branded device would give me the best of the experience. (I hear that for those who want to keep Google at arm’s length, you can set it up without a Google account, but I am already in for a pound)

The Nexus 7 isn’t a bad piece of kit. It has a rubberized plastic back, and 16G of flash memory (32G was an option).  It was one of the first devices shipping with “Jelly Bean”, and it has had several updates.  I must admit that Google does a good job distributing updates, and keeping it current.

The Apps.  The Gmail application and integration is pretty tight.  Really easy to use, and I will admit that it is a hair better than on my iPhone.  It just “fits”. It comes with gtalk (now Hangouts), Google Earth, among other Google standards. Of note is the Music application. I liked the fact that it picked up on my collections that I sync’d with Google, so I had access to all my tunes (more on this later).

I did add some applications, a solitaire game (I tend to piss away hours playing solitaire, a weakness), an eBook reader (Aldiko) and applications for 1Password, Dropbox, some other games (angry birds space, monopoly etc), hootsuite for my Twitter use, and Facebook.  They all work OK, and I can’t complain too much for the integration and interface. However, one thing that was somewhat annoying is that at times, the UI gets balky.  What I mean by that is that it just becomes unresponsive. It can take 2 or three “taps” with the finger to get the application to respond. There are some threads out in the world on this, it is just different how Android prioritizes UI actions than iOS.  (Naturally, I am an Apple fan, and I have both an iPhone and an iPad, so there is definitely some bias here.)

The past week, I have endeavored to use my Nexus more. It does have a better display than my iPad, and it is a convenient form factor (my iPad is a second generation, non-retina display version). Of course, I could use it to be a little bigger. My eyes are not young anymore, so I would appreciate Google using their resolution to make larger text a joy to read, but that is hardly a fault of the device.

Unlike many Android devices, it lacks a SD card slot to increase memory. However, I haven’t found a reason to need more memory.

Google Play.

The music player, and media player are based on the Google Play service. It comes with a full length movie (Transformers 2, not really my type of movie) and it streams well (WiFi to a Cable modem with a business class bandwidth package).  I haven’t felt the need to rent or buy any more videos, and I haven’t bothered to figure out how to play a media file from my extensive collection on it (I am sure it is possible, but I usually don’t watch videos on my devices).

The music player is nice. I find that the navigation and creating/managing of playlists is a bit cumbersome, but that is likely because I have become immersed in the iOS (and iTunes) way of managing my music, so I won’t hold it against Google.

However, there is a wart. I have mentioned in other posts that one of my reasons why I don’t rely on Google Play to stream music to my work PC (since it is limited in storage, I prefer to keep it media file free) is that it stutters, stalls, and in general is a poor (and distant) second to my go to streaming service, Spotify premium. I gave it one more whirl this weekend with the launch of Google’s “All Access” streaming service that is similar to Spotify’s service. However, I am sorry to report that on WiFi, on a great cable connection (plenty of bandwidth and low latency) it still stalls, hiccups, and stutters.  It can go 2 – 3 songs perfectly, then it will be really crappy for a minute or two.

As a book reader.

The Aldiko application, combined with DropBox, and I have all my (DRM Free) ePub books on hand. I like that, no need to sync like I do with iTunes.  I have bought several books from the Google Play book store.  find their selection excellent, and the price fair. It uses the standard Adobe Adept DRM, so it is easy to strip (I use Calibre) and then I load them with Aldiko.  I also use the Google book reader application, and it is quite good (and it is just like the Google book reader on my iPad.)

Lastly, I was an early Sony Reader adopter, and I have probably 40 – 50 books I have bought from the Sony store. There is a Sony application that makes it trivial to access my library.

The hardware does quite well as a book reader. It is a good size and form factor, the text is crisp, and the applications let me scale the text to be friendly with my gradually declining eyes.

Observations.

The hardware is pretty solid. It is light, and easy to hold and carry. When you plug it into a PC (or my Mac) it is mounted like a file system so you can poke around. It does have a front camera, but I haven’t used it. With the new Google Hangout application, I suspect I will have some occasion to use it. Even with moderate use, I still have plenty of flash storage remaining. I am not missing the SD card slot.

Gaining root access is trivial. It is in the setup, and easy to find. I haven’t felt the need to allow applications loaded from stores/repositories other than the official Google store. I am at a point in my life where I can afford to buy my software, and I prefer to not have to worry about malware.

The battery life is so-so. On my iPad (now more than 2 years old), I get 4-5 days on a charge, using it a couple hours a day. Even light use of the Nexus 7 seems to drain the battery much quicker.  I haven’t timed it, but I figure that if/when I start to use it more I will be charging it every other day or so.

I hoped that using the Google app on a google device, with a good connection would make the music streaming much more robust, but alas, it is not to be.  I will probably not be replacing Spotify with All Access.

My iPad has the cellular option, so I can get data when I am traveling (it is disables now, but I can turn it back on), and I probably would have bought this with a cellular radio for that same access.

Summary

I have dabbled with the Nexus 7, now that I have spent some serious time with it, I can say that I like it. But I am probably not going to be giving up my iPad or iPhone anytime soon. I am probably not ever going to be an Android fanboy, but I now have a better appreciation of the ecosystem, and the charm.