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Bad Zune News

March 23, 2011 Leave a comment

Zune HD

R.I.P. Zune

Today is a sad day for me, and as it turns out, probably not a huge number of others. While watching the latest Windows Weekly (yes, I am a nerd), I heard it finally confirmed. The Zune is no more. You can still get them, but there will not be another Zune. That’s the news coming out of Microsoft, allegedly internally yet still denied publicly. Bloomberg is reporting this as well, and I wish I could say they’re probably wrong, but they most likely are not. This really is sad, because although Apple’s offerings do offer some advantages, my own Zune experience has been overwhelmingly positive in the long run. This little cheap baby (39.95!! refurb!!) has been to hell and back, and still runs beautifully. In fact, it even has a huge crack in the screen. Still works perfectly, still looks good and still sounds fantastic with my headphones of choice. (while in fact, my headphones simply didn’t sound as good on an iPod Nano I tried a while back) I also grew to love the interface with some small caveats. First, the podcast integration was a little wonky, and I missed some of the things my previous players had, such as “most played” and “rarely heard” automatic playlists.

It’s even more frustrating because if they would give it more time, and perhaps just a tiny, teensy-weensy price drop, even if it’s a short lived one, along with more major media ads pointing out it’s advantages (Zune Pass is fantastic, and while not free is as close to a true Spotify as you’ll get while waiting for the popular streaming all-you-can-eat service to come to the US, at 14.95 a month WITH 10 monthly free mp3 downloads you can keep included in the price), it has a chance at a chunk of the market share. Apple WILL dominate for the foreseeable future, especially with the prices being so reasonable while continuing to innovate. You just cannot deny that the iPod touch is a whopper of a deal for what you get now. But not everyone wants to plop down OVER 100 bucks for an mp3 player(for an 8g Nano, even refurbs are about 129.00). And for around 60, they want a screen and if possible more than 2 gb ( although the shuffle is 44.99 at 2gb) . There’s no doubt that if you want the Apple … experience?… the price of entry is much lower than it ever has been.

It’s all a matter of personal tastes, no matter how much Apple-Trekkers will try to tell you differently, but after trying the iTunes and iPod interfaces, I prefer the Zune software and interface by a huge degree. Something just feels right about it all. It will be missed. We’re losing it far too soon. Perhaps they will simply offer a windows phone that can be purchased at a reasonable price that is simply a Zune HD with added features like a camera for stills and videos. I just hope that if this is the way they go they do not lose the HD radio. Sure, there’s not a lot of good programming out there in HD Radio, but it’s going to be around for a while and the offerings will improve with time. (especially as College and Indie/Non-Commercial radio jumps on) Time will tell. I hope this isn’t the last we see of the Zune brand, as long as the Zune software comes along with it and is improved.

However, sadly, I have lost a certain amount of trust with this move and I will soon be the proud owner of an iPod Touch. I just can’t invest in a player that, even discounted to 150 bucks or so (The price for a 16gb Zune HD is now about 164 bucks, and is sure to drop now), will not be improved/developed for, will not be supported and delivers a service I love that may just go “poof” in the near future after that investment of time and money. No thanks. I’d rather spend the 15 bucks a month at iTunes on apps and tracks, or maybe even skip part of that and buy some wi-fi hot-spot access. Besides, have you seen the display on that thing? The retina display is wondrous! I’m sure some people will snatch up those cheap Zune HDs when the price drops and they clear them out finally, but I’m bypassing it and jumping finally into the cult of Apple. Now I must procure the employment to support my new habit. That IPad 2 is lookin’ mighty fine, and why bother getting one of those without a Macbook Air to go with it?  So I must be going now.

Goodbye Zune, we hardly knew ye.

Image Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/robertnelson/3926277067/

This article and Image: Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Avoiding or preventing the next big thing.

June 28, 2010 Leave a comment

Dismantled Mp3 Player

Dismantled, an object's natural state.

The minute the thing everyone wants to do requires circumvention or any kind of subversion, if a circumvention and subversion-free option is not made available promptly by the mainstream, the circumvention wins.

This has remained true since the dawn of.. well… actually before the dawn of the public Internet. And I believe in the absence of absolute authoritarian control, it will remain true. Many companies and individuals have spent money, power, reputation and most of all precious time trying to convince the public, legislators and their business partners otherwise. None of these actions will change this truth. Companies like Google, Microsoft and Apple continually fail to realize the power they wield and consistently cower before these backward-looking control-freaks. And as brave as standing up to China is, it’s too little too late as far as I’m concerned. Credit due or not.

These days, Apple has more in common with a place like China than it does with its own history and roots. The walled city of iTunes and the app store claims to be protecting it’s users when all that’s really happening is protection of old media.(with the exception of the Flash issue, which I think Jobs is right about) Combine that with a lack of respect for users and especially content creators not associated with existing major media creators and distributors.

Google’s recent changes to YouTube further convict them of similar crimes against the commons. This so-called upgrade is anti-conversational and anti-user-created-content. Try having a conversation using the new comment system. Best of luck to you. It’s been a mess since the last time it was “upgraded”, and this latest change makes it even worse. Try holding the attention of your subscribers with the subscriptions home page module now removed. When I noticed some users had their subscriptions module removed, I noticed my own, while still there for now, was unusable. It became impossible to remove videos I wanted to skip and videos I had already watched kept popping back up.  It’s only a matter of time before it’s gone completely as it is for others. What possible reason was used to remove that module? Too many people were using it? Was it cutting into the profits of partners by spreading the money/eyeballs around too much? I want to assume the best, but I’ve run out of logical reasons and I am left only with sinister ones. And Google should know better, considering its homely origin. So how could Google/YouTube benefit from preventing users from easily finding content newly released by channels/people they’ve subscribed to? Well, if you sit there and watch videos like “World of Warcraft Account Hacked” (who is actually a partner) and ignore things like VEVO, YouTube and it’s real , big partners will not make as much money. What we are given as a replacement for a module that lets us know when someone we subscribe to posts a new video is a new module called “The Feed”, which instead of doing what you want it to.. also displays any video your friends or people you subscribe to FAVORITE. My subscriptions module was already cramped, with a very conservative number of subscriptions. Now it’ll be nearly unusable and more filled with content I’m not interested in. This, like the last new channel design “upgrade” takes things away and adds nothing useful. We already had an activity module. It worked. Fine.

But as usual, I digress. Let’s just focus on music for now. Try to recall or read about certain moments in culture’s history. Certain moments when movements took hold or either threatened or right-out replaced the mainstream. The 60s is a good example of a time when this was successful beyond any previous attempts for the culture to be driven by artists and audiences rather than self-appointed, controlling and limiting filters in the form of large companies or organizations of companies. Again in the 90s, and now with indie, Internet-specific and DIY culture. The reasons for these moments of change vary from the companies being asleep at the wheel for too long to temporary lack of control over the ways people hear or consume music. Things like radio DJs being given freedom to play what they want or in some cases taking that freedom by force or when no-one was paying attention. In each of these periods, you can point directly to another moment toward the end, a moment when control was seized from people and handed over to other people whose primary interest was to continue their winning streak as long as possible and to continue to maintain a bottom line. In each case this was the moment of death. The moment of staleness, blandness and same-old-same-old. The comfort zone. The risk-free zone. Part of it can be blamed of course on the audiences themselves, embracing nostalgia at earlier and earlier stages in their lives as the years progressed, in larger numbers. You know the type, the ones whose best years were in high school, defining their maturity based on how little they continue to feel passionate about. As if maturity were impossible without completely turning off passion and a sense of risk or adventure.  They move quickly through the years they have left, never noticing that the happiest people they see and look up to have acted in precisely the opposite ways they’ve chosen to. Embracing mediocrity as if it were impossible to conduct a decent life without doing so. “THESE ARE THE RULES! Follow them and you are a good person, living a clean and decent, productive life. And when it’s all over, there will be rewards! Trust us!”

Well, at least for those of you willing to listen and buy into it. Regardless of the logic or reason this way of looking at life consistently lacks.

These cultural movements all share a similar trait. That of encouraging a sense that the audience is a participant on at least some level. Whether it’s as an audience member at a show, the “cool kid” spreading the word and living the lifestyle in spite of how it affects his or her ability to “fit in”, or the ones that realize they too can tap into the creative revolution and make the next great album, the next creative leap forward. But mainstream media has even found a way to tap into this effect with the usual dead-eyed but criminally genius techniques they are famous for. Yes, you too can be famous for 15 minutes. The difference now is that you can be mediocre as long as you’re willing to not be boring, no matter the cost. If you cannot be creative, at least you can be aggressive or unreasonable and stir conflict. Watch any reality TV show. Hell, it all started on MTV with “The Real World”, where it replaced alternative culture almost immediately after it took root. Did it seem calculated to you? If you smelled smoke, chances are…

Then we have now. Look around big culture for a moment. Is there ANYONE other than Lady Gaga that is even remotely interesting right now? In mainstream, big money music culture? I would argue no, there isn’t. Not one. Everything else even remotely interesting, original or groundbreaking is back in the once-again severely marginalized underground. But that stranglehold on big culture is weakening. So what is the response? A direct attack on the way in which we seek out, find and consume indie and underground artists. They will tell you they don’t care that we’re downloading the latest Phoenix or Dirty Projectors album, it’s their own artists they’re worried about. But the fact remains, the big artists don’t need our way of doing things to succeed. They actually don’t give a crap if you download the latest Coldplay or U2 album. What they want is to stop the competition which has created several means by which new and great artists can be discovered and consumed. Free or otherwise. If they can stop that, they win. Three strikes laws are being implemented in certain places in the world where it is easily allowed by government through pay-offs, back-room deals and other forms of corruption. It’s only a matter of time before they get their grubby little paws on enough of our representatives (or yours) to make laws such as these happen here (by here, I mean the US. Apologies to the rest of the world. I TRY not to be just another arrogant, center of the universe American).  And we also have the anti-net-neutrality gang, convinced by some of their smarter but still ill-informed, imaginary-pie-in-the-sky-pollyanna-free-market peers that if we would allow our government to ensure net neutrality, censorship and government control of the Internet is the next logical step. (in spite of the fact that the FCC is not the only means by which we can have limited, logical regulation) This way of thinking, if applied to all of society, would imply that allowing the USDA to oversee the safety of meat would logically lead to farmers being enslaved by the government and chained to tractors without pay.  Or that rent control logically leads to 100% government housing. These people need to find a way to get back in touch with a sense of ownership. And a tad bit of reality.

Anyone remember long distance charges and how we just accepted them as if they made sense? Distance equals cost, extra effort..money. ..Right? The idea that a phone call 100 miles away costs significantly more than a phone call 25 miles away. Poppycock. Once the lines are in place and you make allowances even for maintenance, repair and operation.. even upgrades, the cost should be evenly spread. By metering, something the major telcos and isps once again want to do with literal metering or less obviously with tiering, they convinced us of a false value. Simply by saying so, we accepted it as a reality. Are we smarter than that this time out? It remains to be seen, as even some of the sharpest people I’ve ever followed in the area of technology, the Internet, Internet policy and law seem to be convinced that net neutrality is worse than letting corporations start shaping traffic to suit their personal needs and the death-knell fears of media companies.  Believe me, I understand this libertarian way of looking at it all. But these people must take a moment and put it all in context. “Let the free market solve the problem through competition”. Right? Well, for the most part it worked in the early days of the web and widespread tcp/ip,  non-shell-account Internet access adoption. AOL and others were either implementing some kind of metered access OR considering it. The competition realized people were going to want to “surf the web” without constantly worrying about that 300 dollar Internet bill in the mail as a little surprise at the end of the month. And they also realized people didn’t quite know just yet how many hours they would be using the net every month. It turns out they quickly realized it was a lot more than they imagined and that AOL and others were going to be attempting to rip them off with “shock and awe” Internet charges. I guess maybe they hoped everyone else would do the same. Turns out the ISPs who offered unlimited access, no matter the price (usually cheap), were getting a LOT of ex-AOL users. AOL (and to be fair, others) quickly changed policy and offered unlimited accounts. Go.Figure. So it should work out that way this time around, right?

Wrong. See, the landscape has changed dramatically. No-one is satisfied with dialup, not even your grandma. High speed Internet is widespread now and there’s no turning back. However, in many parts of the country, there’s only one game in town. Or in some cases 1 and a half games in the form of whatever cable provider you have and satellite, which is an absolute nightmare in my humble opinion(and the not-so-humble opinions of many, many others). Ever try Skype on satellite? Don’t. Pointless. These are what I call “soft monopolies”. Sure, some people close enough to the CO can get fast DSL, but the rest cannot. Cable companies are not forced to open up and share their infrastructure with potential competitors as phone companies are. Forced? What you say? Is this Soviet Russia? Well, no. See, that ground the cable is laid in? You own it or it’s laid in ground taken by force. In most cases “their” infrastructure was built using tax dollars and tax dollar subsidies. Same as the phone companies, with only that one big difference. They don’t have to share. But the important thing to remember here is that for the most part, that infrastructure that “they” keep claiming to own is in fact YOURS. Yet, if they are allowed to, they would like to slow down your Skype calls if THEY offer a competing PAY service like Skype. Don’t think they want to? Wrong again. They’ve been doing it and are STILL doing it in Canada and other places. Comcast had their wrist slapped for trying the same thing but with bittorrent traffic. They sued the FCC and WON. Although they say they have now stopped throttling customers, I firmly believe that’s a temporary state. They know that in many parts of the nation, they do have that soft monopoly. And don’t think for a minute that they will not take advantage of that position whenever and where-ever they can if it means they will make more money or if not doing so means they will lose money. As I’ve said elsewhere, these companies are not your friends and they never will be. EVERY decision will be made considering first and foremost their financial bottom line. If at any time it SEEMS as though they’ve done something that is “not evil”, you can bet it was in their best interest. Companies simply do not do things that are good for the consumer and bad for the company anymore. The corporate environment has assured us that those days are over. Much like the phone companies and apartment management companies know almost precisely how much money they can take every month without causing the average customer enough financial distress to be forced to stop paying for their services, the big ISPs know exactly how far they can go without causing a customer revolt.  And they WILL test you. I believe they’ve already started. They also know that your representatives, in some cases, are cheaper than the ultimate cost of being forced to compete with TRUE competitors.

(since writing this article almost to completion a few weeks ago, it has come to my attention that Australia’s government has made a power grab for the country’s Internet backbone, disguised as an “upgrade”. You thought censorship was bad before, wait until the government runs the backbone. You “aint seen nothin’ yet”.)

Once again, sure, I’m presenting you with a criticism without a solution. Consider it a heads-up. I do believe we should be FOR Net Neutrality. And not because I’m against the free market or for censorship. Just as I don’t believe we can ever have a society free of crime without significant loss of freedoms. Unacceptable losses. In that same way I do not believe we can have a truly free market, without unacceptable abuses. Both of those scenarios are pipe dreams.  We are in a do nothing and lose situation. And the FCC is not the only solution. Net Neutrality could be.  Regulation with limits is possible. Even in a situation where the FCC suddenly thought it was their job to regulate content on the Internet, I believe the Internet would deal with it as it always has, by essentially routing around it as damage.

I recall a few years ago, when I was running a web server (and a file server through an IRC bot) out of my house, back when it was still somewhat possible to do so.  I was using Earthlink as my ISP. At the time their slogan (trademarked, by the way) was “It’s YOUR Internet”. Turned out it was actually more theirs. Turned out I needed to turn off my servers since according to their rules, I was running a business. And that was a no-no. The only thing was… I was NOT running a business. But they told me in no uncertain terms that I was, in spite of the reality that I was not. Turn off the servers, or we turn you off. Instead, I chose to move to another ISP whose policy did not prevent me from running any kind of server I wanted, with the exception of course being spam. Just a few years ago, this was an immediate and obvious option for me. At this point, not so much. Most ISPs will force you into a business level account to do such things, business or no business. And that’s fine for now. I don’t currently have the need to run bandwidth or processor intensive servers. But I pay for the ability to do so if I should feel the need or desire. Not everyone can do this. And that’s sad. Because it truly IS YOUR Internet. Your taxes paid for it’s development, your land and taxes paid for at least a large portion of its infrastructure. It’s time that more people remember this. So although I may not have any big solutions, I can remind as many people as I can that they have a say. Even if you disagree with me and others on how to proceed. I’ll shut up now and give you some basic resources.

Save The Internet

EFF – Electronic Frontier Foundation (read its concerns about Net Neutrality carefully… they love it, but voice some valid concerns over how it’s implemented)

There are hundreds of sites out there against Net Neutrality, most of them of dubious origin. Some of them are based on genuine concerns over regulation and an even larger number simply have never been exposed to the information they would need to come to an informed conclusion. People who makes “stands” without being informed deserve the scorn they receive. And I’ll be damned if I’ll take part in exposing people to their misinformation.

Photo Credit – http://www.flickr.com/photos/wilt/ / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Why I Love my Zune (and why it’s tough love)

April 3, 2010 5 comments

Zune with Packaging

The Zune with packaging.

A while back, I was looking for a new mp3 player with a budget of around 200 bucks. I found myself at the local Fry’s Electronics, browsing around when I glanced at their print ad for the week displayed. There on it was a Zune (only 4 gigs, but still..) for 39.95 WITH a free docking station thingee for free thrown in. Well, I kept my extra cash and went for it, in spite of my concerns over Microsoft products. Now, I do not usually review hardware, so bear with me. I just felt so strongly about the positives and negatives about this product, I felt I would be able to help others who are searching for mp3 players and do not trust the usual resources for reviews. And no, it’s not the latest and greatest. Matter of fact, this particular Zune has been around for a long time in electronics hardware terms. Not everyone can afford the latest and greatest. This review is for those people. So if you’re the kind of person who probably already has an iPad on pre-order, this might be a waste of your time.

First, the positives. Why? Because I think they outweigh the negatives.

I love the way it feels in my hand. It doesn’t feel unbalanced or fragile. Matter of fact, it is anything but fragile. I’ve dropped it hard on concrete from a good height so many times I’ve lost count. Each time I’ve expected to pick it up and find its glass front cracked and it’s display wonky. Never happened.

I like the way it looks. In spite of all the design-worship associated with Apple products, I personally find them well designed, but a bit out of time. They always seem , to me, to resemble something out of a 70s catalog geared toward pot or coke-head bachelors living in a studio apartment and driving a van with a waterbed in the back. The kind of guy that had a perm, owned more than one mirror with the Coke-A-Cola logo on it and dated a girl who was 17 when he was 31. That white plastic, “this is what WE think the future will look like”, sterile look. You can love it all you want, but I’ve grown to find it more cheesy over the years. This thing is sleek, black and functional. Simple. It feels balanced in every way.

I like the software! The software runs well on XP, which shocked me. I expected it to feel bloated, slow and more restrictive than it turned out to be. The interface for the player and the sync software are both intuitive, simple yet flexible. On the player, it’s pretty slick. I have yet to run into problems like crashes, weird behavior or road blocks of any significance. Not so with the Creative player/software I’d used in the past. That stuff was bloated, crashed often and in spite of it being fairly customizable, not very intuitive or visually interesting. In one case, I found out much later that in spite of its “expansion port” for SD cards, you could not make a playlist or even play tracks from BOTH the internal memory AND the SD card. You had to actually take the card out to access songs on the internal memory. One or the other, not both. Fail. There’s no expansion on my Zune, but I prefer that to having it be half-assed.

The battery life is unreal. I’ve never run out of battery life, months in. It appears to charge via USB from half to full in about 10 minutes or less. Most of the time, I get enough of a charge for a 4 to 5 hour night of listening by just plugging it in and syncing. It then sits on the USB port for maybe 5 minutes, tops. About once a week I let it stay plugged in for a few hours to get a full charge.  The rest of the time, it gets close to being drained, but never gives me any kind of alert saying it’s close to dead. Then when I turn it back on, it appears to have a quarter charge again. This may be different for someone who does not sync daily. I do. So that may make a difference.

If you can find it for a price similar to the one I snagged it for, it’s a damned good deal for a durable, reliable little workhorse of a player.

Now, the negatives.

NO EQ! How did they manage to make such a high quality little player and not include SOME kind of rudimentary EQ?? Anyone familiar with how headphones can vary in quality and especially “colour” can tell you how important an EQ can be for a portable player. (more on the “deal” with headphones in another article) There isn’t even a “bass-treble” control. Major oversight. In spite of this, the player sounds fantastic on a decent set of ‘phones. Perhaps this is something that was fixed with a firmware or software update. Perhaps. Which leads us to the next issue…

I cannot, after several attempts, reboots, firewall re-sets and full permissions, get this thing to update software OR even let me sign in with an account. That’s right. I’d love to try out the Zune Pass. But for some reason they do not like my PC or ISP.. or something. So I guess they just do not want my money. So in spite of being able to connect to several wireless networks with the player itself, I have no account to sign in with. This, for me, is a minor issue since that was not something I had in mind when purchasing a player in the first place. So it’s not a huge loss for me, but it’s a bit of a loss for them. Zune pass looks like a good deal, I’d love to try it and can even imagine keeping it. Each time I try, it says it failed and to “try again later”. I have. It still fails.

Another small issue has to do with Various Artists collections (such as the various playlist torrents). No matter HOW the tags are written, it sees each track as a separate ALBUM by that artist. So, to hear.. say.. Blalock’s Indie Rock Playlist for April, 2010, I cannot just select it as an album (even if the album artist is various artists OR Blalock’s etc etc OR even the album name is Blalock’s etc etc) and listen. Nope. I have to make a custom Zune playlist to listen to it and only it. Pain.In.Ass. I make those all the time anyway, so it’s not a huge complaint. It just feels like something that could be easily fixed.

The last and maybe least of the negatives is the deal with podcasts and audio-books.  If I had an account and could connect the player or the Zune software to any kind of Internet, I could just subscribe to podcast RSS feeds and grab stuff that way. Instead, I have a folder I drop individual podcasts into. It works great! ….

..as long as the ID tags were written correctly , identifying its “genre” as “Podcast”. Harumph. So, in many cases, especially if the podcaster is trying to be cute and funny by calling the genre of his or her show “poetry” or “dog whistles”, I have to hand-edit the ID tags to correctly read “podcast” with every show I download. Not a huge deal, I’m used to fixing that stuff. But it can be a pain in the ass if I’m trying to load up the latest TWIT show with a genre tag of “tech news” instead of “podcast” (hello!! I think we know it’s tech news! get it right! it’s a PODCAST! ok, not really mad..sorry) when I have 5 minutes to leave for work. Same goes for audio-books. Those things are hugely popular and very well-known. People love them. Why is it I have to screw with the tags and call them “podcast”s in order for them to sync??

These may seem like large negatives, but most of that has to do with the fact that I complain well. It IS a great player for the price. And I will be buying a Zune HD when I get the chance. I just hope by then, some of these small but obvious issues will be ironed out a bit. I mean, I’m cool with editing ID tags forever as long as I can have an EQ. The iPod may be elegant to some, and honestly the software IS slick. But if you’re a Windows user, iTunes is a bloated, slow, pain in the ass that crashes more often than Windows ME ever did. And show me a 4 gig iPod for 39.95 with a docking station and a gorgeous color display. I could find one using Google product search for 49.00 , but it was a refurb with no docking station(Nano, 3rd gen). The Zune is a great deal.

That’s my 2.5 cents.

Image Credit:  http://www.flickr.com/photos/penmachine/2681955214/in/set-72157606246514414/

Creative Commons – Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic

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