Supposedly vinyl is making a comeback. At least that's according to CTV News in a report exploring the decline in CD sales. According to them, the CD may simply be this generation's 8-track. I wouldn't go that far. The CD has been the dominant form of audio recording for more than 20 years now. In essence, the CD is simply a miniature record in the sense that data recording and playback is done in pretty much the same way. The only major difference is that the data is stored digitally of course, and the needle has been replaced by a laser. Still, the CD seems to be lacking something.
CDs encode date at 16-bit PCM with 41.1khz sampling. This works out to about 1.411 megabits per second. CD audio format is lossy form of compression. Then again, all digital formats are when compared to analog audio signals. This is primarily where the LP shines. It's a near exact replica of the original sound wave pressed onto a disc. No encoding required. Playback is direct and replication is near perfect. The major downside with analog recording is that it's susceptible to "noise" such as hissing, buzzing, crackling, and pops. These become worse the more the record is played due to the friction of the needle against the vinyl and dust that collects on the recording surface. I would call this as more part of the vinyl experience rather than a drawback. Despite it, the recording is presented with a warmer feeling and a higher fidelity. CDs tend to have a colder, tinny feeling to them. Digital music files do as well, and can be far worse depending on the quality of the original.
Well, of course CDs have numerous advantages to LPs in the sense that they're smaller, less effected by environment, more durable, and are recordable. Vinyl wins out with audio quality, which outweighs all of these. So are CDs dying? Yes and no. CDs are DRM free, compared to many audio files available online which often include very intrusive copy prevention methods. It's actually a patent violation to put DRM on CDs, as per Phillip's Redbook audio.
The one possible savior for high fidelity digital music would have been the DVD. Typically, DVD audio is encoded at 24-bit PCM with 96khz sampling. The bit rate is nearly four times higher than a CD, around 4.6 megabits/second for stereo audio. DVD players support sampling up to 192khz if the audio is encoded in Dolby Digital or DTS. Also, DVD audio supports up to 7.1 channels of sound, creating a more better concert environment. At this rate, it's closer to the fidelity of vinyl than CDs are to the point where it is difficult to tell the difference. For some reason, however, DVD audio has never caught on. That is, there are very few DVD-Audio albums. DVD-Audio does not have to comply with Redbook and thus can include any DRM the manufacturer sees fit.
Bluray and HD-DVD audio could be the next step. They can be encoded at much higher bit rates still. Bluray can transfer up to 40 megabits/second. There isn't much data about BD's audio capabilities, only that there will be BD-Audio discs. HD-DVD uses the same audio encoding methods that regular DVD does.
Until DVD and the next generation audio disc come out. Vinyl will still be king when it comes to high definition audio.
Once you have picked your ideal HDTV, it's time to set it up. In terms of room placement, it doesn't really matter as long as you can see the TV clearly from all seats. Front projection models need a dark room tough, as well as a screen or white painted wall. Lastly, a lot of these designers are recommending mounting flat panel TVs over a fireplace. Something about the fireplace being the room's focal point. This irritates me to no end. DO NOT mount your TV above a fireplace, radiator, or heating vent. The heat can damage the unit and will shorten it's service life.
Next comes the actual HD service. You have a few options here. Most cable and satellite companies offer some HD programming. Mind you, it's still pretty much limited to sports and nature shows. Many of the network stations that air in HD do not air HD programming all the time. Network HD shows are usually broadcast in prime time, not during the day (even on weekends). Older programs will also not be in HD. However, non-HD shows will usually air at DVD quality. They're in the 4:3 format so you'll get black bars at the side of your screen. That's normal. Cost varies per provider. For HD, I'd go with satellite if you can afford it, since it is an all digital service where cable is not. It all boils down to what you can afford in the end though. Remember with satellite that one dish can only handle two TVs at a time. If you have more TVs than that, you'll need another dish. When you order your system, your cable or satellite company will send you a decoder box. It's pretty easy to setup. Some HDTV signals are also now available over the air. If your TV has a built in ATSC tuner, you can use any UHF antenna to get HDTV for free.
Aside from traditional TV, movies are now available in HD through Sony's Blu-ray. Sony's Playstation 3, at $399 Canadian is currently the most cost effective player on the market in Canada. Your typical stand alone unit is $499.
You can also play video games in HD now. Both the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 output up to 1080p. Your home desktop computer can also be connected to your HDTV and it can even double as a media centre.
There are a variety of ways to connect your components to your HDTV. The most common type of connector is "Component Video" which features three RCA style cables: red, green, and blue. They basically divide the signal into separate parts, either by colour or luminescence. This is by far the most common type of cable, especially on older HDTVs. The signal it carries is analogue, not digital but picture quality is still very good. The second most common is probably HDMI. That stands for High Definition Media Interface. This is a digital connector that carries both video and sound signals, meaning less cables.
Other types include DVI, which is a digital signal commonly used for computer monitors. VGA is another one used for monitors, and it is an analogue signal. Composite and S-Video are commonly used but can't handle high definition signals. Most HDTVs still have these connectors though. Sound usually used basic stereo RCA, or digital sound via either HDMI, coaxial cable, or fibre-optic. Use either RCA (if you're only using TV speakers) or fibre-optic (for surround sound). Fibre optic provides the best sound quality but HDMI is more flexible in the number of speakers/playback methods it supports.
As for sound, if you're using this as your primary home TV, it would be wise to consider getting a surround sound system. These vary in price. Most HDTV programs are broadcast in 5.1 sound. Of course, the bigger the better but there's no reason you can't even use PC speakers. Some even have amps built in. The Logitech Z-5500 sell for as little as $500 and has many of the features systems costing twice that have. Despite they're small size, they put out great sound.
I'm probably one of the few people my age who remembers the original cell phones. My dad's job as a civil engineer required him to travel to construction sites frequently. Therefore, he was given a car phone to stay in touch with the office. There were the first mobile phones. A chunky unit that sat on the center console. This was at a time when most shifters were still on the wheel. In the back, under the floor, sat a transmitter/receiver unit that was about the size of your typical after market car audio amp and it had an antenna attached to the side window.
Things have sure come a long way since then, with units that put Captain Kirk's communicator to shame, and then there's the iPhone that has everything but the kitchen sink (kitchen sink coming for rev 2.0). In fact, cell phones have become so common place, it's given rise to a whole new culture.
I admit that these things are the bane of my existence. I own one on a prepaid plan. I won't say the company but it's not Bell or Rogers. I rarely use the things since I'd rather talk to people in person or through email. I pay $10 a month for the service which allows my so bank minutes and I don't accept incoming calls through it. Basically, it's for emergency use only. My fellow university students however seem to spend hours with their phones. I don't know who they find to talk to. Talking, texting, taking pictures and video to send to their friends. This culture seems to span from the pre-teens right to seniors. Sure, it's put people more in touch with each other but of course, there's the obvious downside. One of the greatest problems I think we've all encountered is cell phones and driving. The hit TV show Mythbusters on the Discovery Channel proved that talking on a cell phone while driving can be just as dangerous as driving over the legal alcohol limit. Numerous traffic accidents, sometime deadly, have been caused by the fact that people cannot wait until their destination to talk to their buddies. Hands free units don't help much either. This is the primary reason why cell phone use while driving should be banned. There cannot possibly be anybody people need to talk to so urgently that they cannot pull over or wait until they reach their destination. Then there's people who talk on them in restaurants, movie theaters, lecture halls, etc to the irritation of many. Some social scientists have said that this is due to the fact that there are no set rules for etiquette for cell phone use. However, it all boils down to common courtesy.
Younger and younger children are now getting cell phones too. Most teens already own them and now cell phone providers are targeting children as young as five. Parents like it because they can keep in touch with their children, without having to actually see them. There have been rare cases that they have come in handy, such as emergencies at schools, like the Dawson College incident. However, for the most part, they are a irritant in the hands of teens and children. They go off in class, distracting the learning process. Many will even answer their phones rather than just shutting them off. This is even the case in universities. Do their friends not know they're supposed to be busy at that time?
Cost is also a major problem, particularly here in Canada. In the US, access to the iPhone's services would cost consumers $60 per month. That's pretty fair considering a similar high speed/phone landline package would cost that much. In the US, the iPhone's plan with it's 4000 minutes and unlimited internet/phone package through a land line would cost pretty much the same. That's 66 hours per month of talk time. Here in Canada, the iPhone service offered in the US, with unlimited internet but cut down to only 1000 minutes would cost nearly $295/month. Insiders have cited this as the primary reason the iPhone has not been introduced to Canada. Apple simply knows that very few people would pay such a high monthly cost to use the device when a laptop with Skype would probably offer more functionality. Economists have cited that cell phone costs in Canada are high due to lack of competition. There are only three companies providing mobility service to Canada: Bell, Telus, and Rogers. There were four until Rogers bought out Fido. If Telus had not changed its mind about the Bell merger, there would have only been two. For some reason, the CRTC seems to favour duopolies when it comes to telecommunications. However, consumers are loosing out since lack of competition does not encourage innovation. I expect to see service costs decline duo to the massive draw of the iPhone but I expect prices to still remain higher than they are in the US. In my opinion, and despite what the market says, I feel that cell phones have yet to prove themselves a viable alternative to land lines, simply due to cost factors and service availability. For land lines, local calls are free, long distance is cheaper, and you don't pay for incoming calls. Now, in many countries, particularly in the old world, this isn't the case. However, here in North America, cell service remains vastly more expensive.
Even though I'm a big tech fan, I feel that in many ways, the cell phone is a device the world, at least here in North America, can do without.
Ok, you've got your new HDTV and now you want to set it up. There are a few things you need to do first. Here in Canada, over-the-air HD signals are available, but not widely available. Selection is pretty limited. The primary way you'll be accessing HD content will be through cable or satellite.
Satellite tends to be more expensive than cable, both hardware and service wise. If you have more than two TVs in your house, you will need more than one dish as well. The big advantage with satellite though is the fact that all channels are 100% digital. Digital video tends to upscale a little better than analog signals. Cable on the other hand uses a mix of analog and digital. For the most part, all basic, out of the wall cable channels will air in an analogue NTSC format. Most network TV stations will also air in HD on separate channels however. When choosing a service, check what's available in your area and buy the best you can afford.
A word of warning, not all HD channels air HD content all the time. In Canada, there are vary few channels that air in exclusively HD. Discovery HD Theater and PBS HD are two examples that are exclusively high definition. CITY TV is mostly HD at this point. Many networks only air their prime time programming in HD. Many programs will still be in 480i, 4:3 aspect. They'll be accompanied by two black bars at the side of your screen as such. They are usually upscaled to look better on HDTVs though.
Setting up the TV and cable/satellite box is pretty strait forward. It's best to put the TV in the center portion of a wall, in a place where it can be seen easily from anywhere in the room. I see a lot of decorators on TV suggesting that you put flat panel units above a fireplace. This is a huge no-no because the heat can damage the sensitive electronics. Remember that heat rises after all. Refrain from doing that. Mount the unit on a table, or on the wall, out of direct heat and/or sunlight.
Connecting your TV:
There are a variety of ways to connect your TV. I'll go through the various video connectors here.
Composite: This is your standard yellow video jack seen on most TVs. It's in the RCA style. This can only transmit standard definition video and will not be used for HDTV.
S-Video: A semi-digital connector resembling the old mouse ports on computers. It has a better image quality than Composite but also cannot transmit HD signals.
Component: Like composite, but divided into three cables, a red, green, and blue signal. The most common type style of HD connector. Good quality and can transmit up to 1080p. It is an analog connector.
VGA: Most common on computers. Stands for video graphics adapter. Most HDTVs have it. Similar video quality to component. Also analogue.
DVI: Another connector commonly found on computers. Stands for Digital Video Interface. Many HDTVs and boxes use this port. It's digital and provides the best image quality.
HDMI: Stands for High Definition Multimedia Interface. Increasingly becoming the standard since it carries the audio signal as will, using only a single cable. Similar quality to DVI but supports restrictive copy protections. Not recommended if possible.
Coaxial Cable: Common for standard def TV, can transmit HD but its generally best to use one of the other methods. Coaxial cable is good for transmitting raw data, but not decoded video.
Most HDTVs have built in speakers, some do not. This is the case if you decide to use a computer monitor as your TV. HD signals are usually broadcast in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound. I won't talk about the different types here. It's best to buy whatever fits your room. If you just want to use the TV's built in speakers, that's perfectly fine.
HD-DVD/BD Disc and HD Gaming:
You don't need HD from your cable/satellite provider to get HD, though it's the most cost effective option. Your other option is to buy an HD-DVD or Bluray drive. These are an evolution of DVD and can playback movies in full high definition. There is a Beta vs VHS-esque format war going on right now, though Sony's Bluray seems to have the edge. The players are quite expensive right now, running over $400. I'd hold off buying these until the prices come down. However, they may be good if you want HD in a cottage or RV.
As for gaming, both Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 can output video up to 1080p. You can play console games at high resolutions, just like on your computer.
It seems to be bad days for the hardcore gamers out there, as now Microsoft is targeting the elusive casual gamer market after the Wii's flyaway success. This Year's Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) is not really offering much to that crowd. In fact, the gaming industry seems to be in a slump. Only Nintendo is offering truly innovative things. The PS3 and Xbox 360 are essentially nothing more than graphics upgrades to their predecessors. While I'm sure that's a debatable topic, there is little to prove otherwise. That's coupled with the announcement of more mediocre games and a half-arsed attempt to "redesign" the Sony PSP.
I myself am not a hardcore gamer. However, it's hard not to notice the slow decline of gaming. Perhaps its just that I remember the golden age of gaming back in the 1990s, notably the early 1990s. That's when the big name franchises got their start, when LucasArts was pumping out one fantastic adventure game after the other, when games were simple and fun. As EA's president correctly observed, games have become overly complicated. Console shooters are notorious for this. Aside from that, many games have a rushed feel to them. I think KOTOR 2 was the saddest example of a game that was rushed into production before it was ready. While still a good game, it has a very uncomplete feel to it. Many games these days suffer from serious glitches and bugs, some making them unplayable. Others have weak stories. Even more have clumsy control input systems. Sure, the graphics keep getting better and better but the games themselves keep getting worse and worse. I think Nintendo has proven with the Wii that graphics aren't important anymore, and I think that's what's bothering the hardcore gamers.
However, nobody who would call themselves a true hardcore gamer would never play console games to begin with. Their domain is PCs, where they can freely change parameters, boost the system, produce game mods, etc. Consoles were always for the casual. So don't attack them if you don't like what they're doing. They're not for you anyway.
There's a story floating around in the TV news about a man who had his ear drums blown out from wearing an iPod out in a lightening storm. Apparently, lightening hit a tree, then bounced to the man's iPod, traveled up the earphone wires, and gave him the shock of his life.
Scientists are now warning people that they shouldn't wear iPods out in storms. In my opinion, this is a good example of media over-reaction. Consider that the odds of being struck by lightening are minute, probably close to 1 in a million. The risk isn't just isolated to iPods. Any electrical device can pose a potential hazard including but not limited to cell phones, digital music players, portable video games, etc. The best piece of advice is to simply not go outside during a storm period.
It sure has been a week of Sony contradicting itself. After declaring that they would not redesign the PSP, Sony says it is redesigning the PSP. Well, sort of. The new PSP will be 33% lighter and 19% thinner than the current model. Sony is also promising to bring high quality video output to the handheld. This may just mean a video out port. Sony also says the PSP will be able to be used as a remote. What that means is also a mystery.
The new PSP will come in three flavours. Piano black, silver, and a Star Wars themed one. Also coming is more battery life. Another big addition will be streaming media from PC. Is Sony reading this blog? Hopefully this feature will be available in a firmware update for owners of the previous vversion as well.
The new model will sell for $200 US and will be bundled with a game and movie.
Source: TG Daily
Yes, it's possible thanks to this neat little utility I found. It's called RSS Streaming Tools. It works by exploiting the PSP's built in RSS 2.0 capabilities. All that's required it any desktop or laptop PC running Windows and a wireless network router. Right now, the program allows you to access only MP3 music files on your computer but there are plans that would allow for video streaming as well. Also packaged is the ability to stream online radio stations through ShoutCast and Youtube video. The program is currently in it's Alpha stage, meaning that it's still under construction. However, it does an excellent job of streaming MP3 audio and it's easy to use.
This is ideal for PSP owners with large music collections that exceed the capacity of their memory cards. The program is 100% freeware and its virus free. Check it out.
PSP Streaming Tools
I also found a guide that allows you to set up your own streaming network for the PSP. It's complicated but it allows you to stream to PSP if you own a Mac OS X or Linux computer. I believe this should also allow you to stream video content as well. I couldn't get it working properly on my Windows PC but you may have better luck.
Streaming Music From Your PC to your PSP
Even for tech minded people, the world of HDTV can be a confusing one. So, lets take a look at where to begin.
Picking a Set
There's a huge number of HDTVs available for sale right now in a wide variety of formats, types, prices, and sizes. Screen size doesn't really matter. Before you go out looking, set an appropriate budget that you know you can afford. There are many tempting credit financing offers out there for large TVs, but this is not a car. Don't buy it if you don't have the cash to back it up.
Resolution: TVs generally come in several resolutions. In North America, we use NTSC picture format for standard definition broadcasts. It's sometimes referred to as 480i. The "i" stands for interlaced. That means that screen displays every other line of the screen 60 times a second, or 30 full frames per second. In layman's terms, the image is weaved onto the screen. Another common resolution is 480p. The "p" stands for progressive scan. Rather than weaving the image, it displays the whole image one frame at a time, 30 times per second. Interlacing is better for fast motion while progressive is better for still images. However, progressive resolutions are higher since interlaced technology only displays half the resolution at one time. Therefore, buy an HDTV by it's highest progressive scan resolution.
Here are some common resolutions
480i: NTSC resolution of 525 lines, 486 visible. This is what regular TV is aired at.
480p: Sometimes referred to as "enhanced definition". It has a resolution of 720x480 pixels
720p: The most common HDTV format. Resolution of 1280x720 pixels at up to 60fps.
1080i: The second most common HD format. 1080 visible lines, interlaced at 60 fields/second
1080p: Also known as "true HD". It has a resolution of 1920x1080, the highest HD resolution.
Since this is a North American blog, I've intentionally left out the PAL and SECAM formats, which are not used here. All HDTV resolutions are in the 16:9 widescreen format. That means that a screen 16'' long would be 9'' tall. This is the TV's aspect ratio. Standard definition can air in ratios of either 16:9 or 4:3, with the latter being the most common.
Contrast Ratio and Response Time:
Contrast ratio determines how a screen shows blacks and whites. On screens with a low contrast ratio, say 500:1, blacks can appear as a washed, dark gray colour. Higher ratios produce deeper blacks. I suggest starting at a minimum of 700:1 for an LCD screen. Higher is better. Watch out for "dynamic contrast ratio" though. This is a marketing gimmick where the screen adjusts lamp brightness to make it seem like it has a higher contrast ratio than it actually does. Go by its "native" contrast ratio when selecting a screen. All TVs have a contrast ratio but Plasma, CRT, and DLP already have ones so high, you won't notice a difference between sets. The contrast ratio is usually not listed in specifications for TVs other than LCDs
Response time on LCD TVs determines the minimum amount of time it takes to change the colour or brightness of each individual pixel. This is usually measured in milliseconds. On an LCD TV, look for 8ms or lower. Higher response times can produce an undesirable effect called ghosting, which leaves noticeable after images on the screen. Plasma, DLP, and CRT displays have very low response times.
Brightness and Dot Pitch
Brightness, obviously, is a number that denotes how bright a screen is. The maximum brightness is rated in Lumens. You want a screen with high lumens if you intend to put the TV in a brightly lit room. You can usually tell by eye rather than by number if the TV is suitable.
Dot pitch is how far apart individual pixels are on a screen. High dot pitch numbers give a noticeable screen door effect. Lower is better. However, this is not really an issue until you get into large TV or projection screen sizes.
Types of Displays:
There many different types of TVs to choose from. Picking the one that's right for you depends largely on the room you'll be putting it in, and you're budget. Here are a few of the most common.
-LCD TV: Liquid Crystal Display TVs are by far the most common HDTV type. You're probably familiar with this type of display. Most computer monitors are LCD, as well as screens on digital watches, MP3 players, etc. They are usually the cheapest HDTVs and offer average to good picture quality. You'll want at least 700:1 contrast ratio but higher is better. My computer monitor for example uses 2000:1, which is excellent and will offer the better image quality. A 8ms response time is a good place to start but go as low as possible. LCD TVs are usually small to large in size. They are light weight, flat, and can be mounted on a wall. LCD TVs can also double as large computer monitors. They are also usually the cheapest.
-Plasma: Plasma used a plasma gas and phosphorus to create an image. Like LCDs, these TVs are also light weight and flat. They provide a good picture but can suffer from something called plasma burn-in. This is caused by the prolonged display of still images on the screen. Newer TVs don't suffer from this problem though but older ones can. Out of the flat panel TVs available, Plasma produces the best images with the best contrast ratios. They also come in larger sizes than LCD TVs too but are more expensive.
-CRT: Cathode Ray Tube. The classic TV that we all know and love. These TVs provide the best image quality, which is far superior to newer technologies. However, they are bulky. They're heavy and take up a lot of space. As such, they're rarely bigger than 30''. These TVs are getting less common and can typically only display interlaced HD signals. There are very few HD capable CRTs on the market.
-DLP: Digital Light Processing. This technology uses thousands of tiny mirrors on a microchip to produce an image. It's a part-mechanical process rather than pure electronic like the above technologies. These are only available in projection TVs. They produce a very high image quality, close to CRT. They can produce a rainbow effect , which is common on cheaper DLP sets but is generally not a problem on decent ones. Since it's only in projection TVs, screen size is variable. Like plasma, they produce the best HD pictures and have high contrast ratios.
There are three TV types
-Direct View: The most common form, they do not project images. You directly view the image from its source. LCD, Plasma, and CRT all come in direct view.
-Rear Projection: This type uses a projector to project an image onto a screen from behind it. These were the original "big screen" TVs and they're still common today. They're bulkier than the alternatives but can offer larger screens, especially with CRT variants. There are LCD, DLP, and CRT projection TVs available. They contain a light bulb to amplify the image. The bulb may need to be replaced infrequently. CRT and DLP are the best to buy as they offer the best image quality.
-Front Projection: These are your traditional movie projector. They project an image onto a traditional movie screen or wall from in front of it. They offer a huge advantage in that they can produce very large images, up to the size of an entire wall in the average home. They can be easily mounted on a ceiling so they're completely out of the way. Of course, the obvious disadvantage is that the image path must be free of obstacles, requiring an uncluttered space. The room must be relatively dark as well. These units also tend to be more expensive. DLP is the best technology to use. CRT projectors are uncommon and are more bulky. LCD ones have a "screen door" effect. DLP are generally the best type of front projection TV to use for home theaters.
HDTV on the Cheap:
Now say you want an HDTV unit in a small bedroom but you don't want to buy an $1000 HDTV. Computer monitors can double as HDTVs. They're relatively small and inexpensive. A decent 19'' one can be bought for around $200-$250. They require a set top box since they don't have a built in tuner. The box must also have either a VGA, DVI, or HDMI port on it to interface with the monitor.
Widescreen computer monitors come in a 16:10 aspect ratio but can display 16:9. They come in resolutions of 900p or 1050p. They cannot display true HD but they're closer. A good monitor will resize the image so it's not distorted when displayed. There are widescreen 16:9 computer monitors out there that can display up to 1600p but these are more expensive. Only computers can display that resolution.
It was a little under a decade ago that I got my first PC, running Windows 95. Before then we had a Mac. The point of the PC was because all high school computers of the era were PC so it made sense for compatibility issues. At present, I still own one. Not high end but a fairly decent dual core AMD Athlon64 setup which I custom built myself. As I used PCs more, I began to dislike Macs. That is until I decided I needed a laptop for university. Back in 2005, I purchased an iBook G4 12''. Compared to PC laptops of the time, the price was fair and it offered the highest battery life. Since then, my desktop PC has become little more than a glorified game console. In fact, most of the posts on this blog are written from my Mac.
It's hard not to notice that Apple has once again become a bigwig in the consumer electronics field. Especially after that slump in the 1990s where their computers were often overpriced and underpowered. As of today, most Macs on the market are still a little on the expensive side but they meet or exceed PCs in terms of power. However, it's not PCs that's made Apple big in the 2000s. I think few of us tech afficienados thought that Apple would be successful at selling non-computer related products. Especially after the infamous Newton PDA and Pippin game console. The iPod kind of came out of left field. It's certainly not the best digital music player on the market. It's not cheap and is only capable of playing MP3 and Apple's own proprietary formats. Sound quality is decent but not exceptional. Players from Creative, iRiver, and Cowon/iAudio are superior. Still, the iPod has become an iconic symbol of this decade. I think I must be the only person who doesn't have one.
The latest in the iPod line is the iPhone. While not really an iPod per say. It's Apple's second attempt for a PDA after the Newton, and it seems they've got it right this time. The iPhone can be classed as a "smart phone" or "pocket PC" in line with RIM's Blackberry. It's smaller and thinner than most PDA's currently on the market. It has built in internet capabilities and runs a cut down version of Mac OS X, similar to Windows Mobile used in other such devices. Reviewers are raving about it and lines were huge. It's not out in Canada yet and for some strange reason, Apple has no current plans to release it up here. Rogers uses a similar service that AT&T (the only cell provider offering the iPhone) does so many Canadian consumers are figuring they may be able to hack iPhones bought in the US to work up here. Rogers is warning that they may not be 100% compatible so doing so would probably not be a good idea, since at $600, it would make a very expensive paper weight. As for myself, I loath cell phones so I will not be buying an iPhone if it comes up here. Not because it's not a good product but because, well, I just hate cell phones. Other Canadians will just have to wait to get a closer look at this product.
Apple has certainly come a long way and I'm excited to see what they'll come up with next. The latest version of OS X, 10.5 Leopard is coming out this fall. I will certainly be upgrading provided Apple hasn't pulled a Vista on us.
As I reported in the article about ways to improve the PSP, I mentioned MSD storage was limited to 4gb. Seems I was wrong. I've noticed that Sony branded 8gb Memory Stick Duo cards are now available. However, these memory cards are priced at a hefty $200 and are not worth the price in my opinion. Third party 4gb MSD cards often go on sale for $70.
Since Secure Digital is the most similar to Memory Stick. I found 8gb models selling for about $70 US in the States.
This is strange. Sony announced last week that rumored price cuts for the PS3 were just that, rumors. Today, Sony has changed their tune and is now announcing that the price will in fact be cut by $100. This reduced the price for the 60gb model from $599 US to $499 US. This puts it in direct competition with the Xbox 360. Therefore, this would set the price at around $529 Canadian, though I expect it to be closer to $559 since us poor suckers in the great white north always seem to pay more. This might warrant a trip down south for Canadian gamers though if only to save on PST. The new prices go in effect today, July 9th.
Also introduced is a new bundle, selling at the same $599 price point as the 60gb had originally sold for. It includes an 80gb HD and Motorstorm. This is the first time the PS3 has been sold with a bundled game. The Wii has had a game, Wii Sports, bundled since day one while the 360 has included one for some time now. At least one game reviewer isn't happy about this though since Motorstorm is a relatively cheap game and the price difference between a 60gb and 80gb drive is minimal. In other words, consumers aren't really winning out.
With the price now in direct competition with the Xbox, more people with certainly start buying more PS3s. However, without any decent games, I don't expect the stores to be sold out anytime soon.
Updated Review: October 2008 to reflect new prices
More on this week's looks at the ups and downs of console gaming. Today, we'll look at the Xbox 360. I briefly owned one of these consoles back in February. Needless to say, I bought it on a whim and realized it was a mistake, so I returned it the next day. The 360 is truly the middle child of next gen consoles in terms of popularity . It was released in 2005, a full year before the Wii and Playstation 3 were released. It was the first seventh generation TV top console to be released and the third next generation gaming device on the market after the hand-held DS and PSP. The 360 is currently the top selling console in terms of total units sold since release and it usually takes second place for monthly sales after the Wii. In January 2008, the 360 saw a drop to fourth place in unit sales, being edged out by the Wii, PS2, and PS3 respectively. The 360 is an interesting console in that it looks and plays great, but it is a typical Microsoft product complete with lingering quality issues.
The first thing you'll notice about the 360 is its bulk. It's a tall unit that's intended to sit vertically, rather than horizontally. It also comes with a massive power brick. It's a little odd given that it's competitors all feature internal power supplies. The brick creates more clutter behind your TV. Setup is simple enough, which it should be for a console. The main goal of these systems is no fuss gaming. Four models of the 360 have existed, of which three are currently for sale. The Core was a barebones system and has been discontinued. The Core had no on board storage, a wired controller, and a composite AV cable. Later models did feature an HDMI connector. The new Arcade system upgrades on the Core by including a 256mb memory card, wireless controller, and HDMI support. The Premium upgrades over the Core by adding a 60gb HDD, wireless controller, HDMI support, and HD video out cable. The Elite was the first to offer an HDMI audio/video port and only differs now from the premium by it's 120gb HDD. I made the mistake of buying the Core. While it's cheaper, you quickly realize how limited it is. The Premium is definitely the better buy but at $299. The Core was $280 but its lack of on-board storage is a major problem since games cannot be saved, which cripples the console. The Arcade is $199 while the Elite is $399. If you need more storage for the Core or Arcade, the 360 Hard Drive is overpriced at $120 for only 20gb of space. A 120gb hard drive costs a whopping $210. It's simply just a 2.5'' laptop drive that clips onto the top of the console. These drives can be purchased for well under $100. Unfortunately, the 360 cannot be upgraded with off the shelf drives. It is possible to hack open a proprietary drive and put your own in there but it can only format it to a 20gb, 60gb, or 120gb partition, leaving the rest unusable. Also lacking is standard memory card support, which the PS3 and Wii both have. The 360 uses proprietary memory cards with limited storage space. The cards are quite expensive at $50 and only store up to 512mb. Proprietary memory cards are obsolete at this point. Standard memory cards are cheaper if you aren't intending to use the console as a multimedia player. They also make it easier to share or backup game saves and MP3s. The 360 does support external USB hard drives but games bought off the Xbox Live Marketplace cannot be stored on them due to copy-protection.
For control, all models except the discontinued Core have a wireless controller. The 360 however does not support Bluetooth like the PS3 does. The 360 does feature controllers with removable battery packs. Additional batteries cost $15. Microsoft claims 25hrs of play per charge.
For graphics, the 360 is excellent. It's able to output in both standard and HD resolutions provided you have the HD cable. Even on standard NTSC 480i resolution, it still looks good with no lag. However, the system is optimized for HD gameplay at 720p or higher. The 360 is powered by a triple core PowerPC processor and an ATI graphics chipset loosely based on the Radeon X1800 series. The console itself seems solidly made. It does have some hardware problems though. The #1 problem is heat. The 360 does have cooling fans but because its so tightly packed, it heats up very quickly. It can feel almost like a hair dryer. This is the primary cause of the dreaded three rings of death. This is due to the the heatsinks and fans used in the console being too small. Some company was offering a cooling fan add-on that clips to the back but this can overload the system's power supply and do even more damage. If you're really gung ho, there are water cooling kits made by Koolance out there for the 360 but using these voids your warranty. Microsoft offers a three year warranty now due to these problems. My suggestion would be to use the console in an cool, air conditioned room, such as a basement.
Another problem is the DVD drive. It's very loud. Louder than most PC and laptop drives. This is nothing more than an irritant but it still shouldn't be for something that advertises itself as an multimedia system. Some European 360 users have also noted that certain drive makes used in the 360 can scratch the discs. I also would have preferred a slot loading drive as opposed to the tray design, especially since the console is meant to sit upright. It's not a big deal but it's going the extra mile, considering both the Wii and PS3 are slot loading. The tray design does allow for use of smaller 8cm discs or ones of irregular shape (business card CDs), but these are uncommon.
As for its other functions, the Core system I tested was very limited due to lack of storage. I tried DVD video and audio CD playback though. I must say that the 360 is so-so when it comes to media playback. Limited internal storage (for the Premium) and lack of Wifi hurt it as a media server. DVD playback is pretty basic, though the 360 does supposedly upscale DVDs to HD resolutions. The 360 supports the more common media formats such as Windows Media, MP3, and AVC. The 360 also now supports the popular DivX video format. However, the final nail in the coffin for media capability comes with its HD playback ability. While it's primary competitor is HD capable out of the box, the 360 required an external addon drive for playing HD-DVD movies. Now that HD-DVD has lost the format war, Microsoft has discontinued the addon and is selling the remaining stock at bargain basement prices, $49 the last I heard. With HD-DVD's loss, the Xbox 360 can no longer playback commercial HD movies. You can still play downloaded or home-made HD movies but the 20gb HDD limits how much you can store. Additionally, an optical or coaxial audio port would have been nice for those who don't have HDMI capable surround sound receivers. Like the DVD drive, also not a big deal but it would have been going the extra mile. Netflix downloads are now available to US based 360 owners.
For games, the 360 has a wide array of them from decent to lackluster. Gears of War is hugely popular, as well as the Halo series and Mass Effect. The 360 is more adult oriented but like much of the non-Nintendo systems, it focuses mostly on first person shooters and car racing games. The 360 features a wide array of exclusive titles though. The 360 is also backwards compatible with a wide number of original Xbox games.
Most games offer full 720p support. Some offer 1080i. Support for true 1080p resolution is rare. I did not get a chance to test online capabilities since the system needs on-board storage before you can even try to set them up. Xbox Live is the 360's service for online gaming. It is a pay service, unlike it's competitors online services. The rates are fairly cheap though. A 12-month Gold plan is $59.99 CAD per year, which is by far the best value. The service is $7.99 on a per month basis, so a yearly subscription will save you about $36. A Gold subscription is required for online play. The Silver Xbox Live subscription is free and basically only allows you to use the XBL Marketplace. Games are purchased on the Marketplace by a points system similar to the Wii's. To get you online, the 360 uses a 100BASE-TX 100mb/s ethernet connector. None of the models have Wifi built in, which both the Wii and PS3 do. A USB 802.11g Wifi adapter is available but overpriced at $100. I personally consider Wifi a must these days for these types of systems. While wired gives you a more solid connection, wireless is much easier to setup and doesn't add to the cable spaghetti.
The lack of Bluray is starting to hurt the 360 in terms of gaming. Some titles are getting too big for 8.5gb DVD media. The HD media can hold 25-50gb, at least double what a DVD-DL can store. Metal Gear Sold 4 for example would require at least four discs. With the disc media reaching its upper limit, 360 games will likely not expand much more than their current state. Microsoft has repeatedly dismissed rumours that there will be a BD addon drive for the 360.
Overall, the 360 is a pretty decent game system but a poor multimedia system. It's hardware problems are definitely something Microsoft needs to address, and the sooner the better. The CPU has been reduced to 65 nanometer process, which should cool things down, while the GPU will be reduced to 65nm sometime in Q3 2008. This means less heat and power consumption. As for the different models, the Premium is the only one worth buying. The Elite with its bigger hard drive is just too expensive and the Arcade still lacks an internal storage. Many thought the Elite would at least include a built in HD-DVD drive, despite Microsoft repeatedly announcing it would not. HD-DVD could have potentially been saved had the drive been included. The Elite has fewer features than the comparatively priced PS3, even if it does have a bigger hard drive. The Arcade, which has replaced the Core now finally comes with some storage, but 256mb is still pretty small compared to other offerings. It's still a decent offering if your just looking for a game console and aren't concerned about multimedia or downloadable content. Lets see how the 360 rates.
Game Performance: 9/10
Multimedia Performance: 5/10
Game Variety: 9/10
Build Quality: 6/10
-Excellent game library
-Excellent graphics performance
-Online gaming experience second to none
-Acrade model now includes 256mb memory card for storage
-Three year warranty
-Still lingering build quality issues
-Online service requires monthly fee
-Just average multimedia capabilities
-No longer supports commercial HD movies. HD-DVD dead.
-Lack of Bluray limits game size
-Lack of Wifi connectivity
New music sucks. I'm sure there's a lot of people who would disagree but I just can't stand the long list of wannabe punk rockers belting out off key ripoffs and hiphop artists who all sound identical. I'm a fan of classic rock and old school jazz. In Toronto, there are only two radio stations that offer that. Jazz FM 91.1 and Q107 for rock. While Jazz FM is commercial free for the most part, other stations offer a deluge of boring commercials to break up your day. When driving, you could end up hearing more commercials than music. That's where satellite radio really shines. Music stations are 100% commercial free. All you pay is a base fee of $14.99 per month, which is about the price of one CD. Sounds like a good deal right? Lets take a look into depth of my first year with satellite radio.
There are only two services available in Canada right now, XM and Serius. Both are American owned but with separate Canadian divisions. XM offers 120 channels to its Canadian listeners. Sirius offers 110 channels to Canadians. Listeners in Canada will not get all channels that US subscribers do. This is due to CRTC regulations and not the satellite radio companies. Both have their strengths and weaknesses. Also, channels are different. For sports fans, XM has an exclusive NHL deal while Sirius has the NBA. Music line ups are nearly identical and are 100% commercial free on both services. Talk and sports channels are not commercial free since many are feeds from other TV and radio stations, and to pay for the talent.
Both offer a wide variety of talk stations. On XM, you'll get Opera and Opie & Anthony, while Sirius has Martha Stuart and Howard Stern. If you're into talk, Sirius has a much wider variety than XM does. However, XM's higher audio quality makes it more ideal for music.
I went with XM. For music and also because I can't stand Howie. Opie & Anthony are much funnier than the washed up Stern in my opinion. Setup was easy. I purchased an Audiovox CX9 receiver. It's a plug and play receiver, meaning that it's not hard wired. You have two audio out options with plug and play setups: an FM transmitter or a 3.5'' audio out jack. If it's for your car, the FM transmitter works fine, even if you have your antenna in the back. Range is about 8-10ft. Plug and play systems are ideal because of their flexibility. You can use the same receiver in the car and around your home. The receiver cradle mounts to any smooth surface in your car with strong double sided tape. I mounted mine just above the cup holder in my '05 Civic since it's out of the way but still within reach. It was also close to the plug. The radio runs off the standard 12v power from your car's cigarette lighter and comes with the appropriate adapter. The antenna is small, with about a 1'' square foot print. It mounts to the roof of your car using a powerful magnet, so there's no risk of it falling off or being stuck permanently. Each car is different so just follow the installation instructions in the manual for the best way to route the antenna wire. From there, you can turn on the radio, go into menu settings, and select the frequency for the receiver's internal FM transmitter. Try to set it to an empty station or else you'll get static while listening. Right now, all you'll get it channel 1, which is XM's preview station, and channel 0, which simply shows your Radio ID on the display. Remember your radio ID because you'll need it to activate.
Activation is simple as pie. Simply go to www.xmradio.ca (or Sirius's website if your using that service). Click "activate" and follow the instructions. There is a one time activation fee plus your monthly fee. The base plan is $14.99 per month, charged to your credit card quarterly. XM offers other multi-year plans. They will save you money but I highly advise against signing up for these. I'll explain why later. Once you've activated, XM (or Sirius) will send a signal to your radio receiver to let it know you're a customer. You'll begin to start receiving stations. It can take a while for all stations to load. This is pretty normal for these services, even with satellite and digital cable TV.
Sound quality varies depending on the receiver and the method you use to connect it to your audio system. Using the FM transmitter will give you FM radio quality sound. Hard wired systems are close to MP3 quality. Listening to music on your satellite radio is very enjoyable. I usually listen to Top Tracks 46 or Real Jazz 70 on my XM. I also frequently listen to The Virus, which airs Opie & Anthony and Ron & Fez, XM's big name comedy duos. It's great for longer drives or just the commute. Something new all the time without having to carry around CDs, and the sound quality is excellent.
One of the biggest let downs with XM is customer service. Should you wish to terminate your subscription, they're going to give you a hard time. This is unfortunately a sign of the times, and it's not just XM doing it. However, it doesn't make it right. During the now infamous Opie & Anthony 30-day suspension in May 2007, many fans of the show canceled their subscriptions only to find XM was still charging them. XM got in a lot of hot water for this. If you try to cancel, you won't be taking to XM's offices in Toronto or Montreal either. The US parent company has a call center based in, you guessed it, India. If you have a problem, that's who you'll be speaking too. I can almost see you cringing. It's a risk you have to take when buying almost any product these days since so many businesses have adopted a "customer is always wrong" policy.
I've had XM for just over a year now and I'm enjoying it despite its drawbacks. It's definitely worth checking it out if you're tired of listening to terrestrial crap on your drive.
Music Quality and Variety: 9/10
Talk Quality and Variety: 7/10
Hardware Options: 8/10
Customer Service: 2/10
Overall Experience: 7/10
Sony's Playstation 3. Supposedly the ultimate game console on the market right now, although Sony likes to down play that. The PS3 is truly an all in one media center offering true HD movies, music, photos, games, and even Linux. The only thing the PS3 can't do is cure cancer. Oh wait, it does cure cancer thanks to Folding@Home. It features a state of the art IBM Cell Processor, nVidia Geforce 7800 graphics, and Sony's Bluray high definition video disc drive. The PS3 is certainly a powerhouse, yet it sits collecting dust on store shelves while it's primary rival, the relatively low powered Wii, is selling like hotcakes. Why? Don't people want the latest and greatest anymore?
In many ways, the PS3 is a victim of it's own power and is perhaps just slightly ahead of its time. Sony built the console using the same ideas they incorporated into the Playstation 2. Unfortunately, this doesn't seem to be working for the PS3. There are numerous reasons for this. The primary factor is price. Here in Canada, you can get a brand new PS3 for $659.95. This price drop is primarily because the console is cheaper to import now thanks to the increased value of the Canadian dollar. However, this is still $30 US more than it sells for in the States. Historically, other consoles that have tried to sell at this price point have failed miserably. Take the Panasonic 3D0. It tried to sell for nearly $700 US, marketing itself as a home entertainment system as well. The original Playstation, ironically enough, smashed the 3D0 and sold 17x as many units despite an aggressive marketing campaign for the 3D0. The console lasted barely three years on the market. I see the same thing happening for the PS3.
It's not that the PS3 is a bad console. It's very good at what it does but its still a jack of all trades system. Sony's insistence on using the Bluray drive is another key factor that keeps the price high and sales down. Xbox 360 and Wii use DVD and a DVD derivative respectively. The eight gigabytes offered by dual layer DVDs is plenty for games. Xbox 360 does offer full HD-DVD support with an external addon drive. In my opinion, this is what the PS3 should have done. Though it is the most cost effective Bluray player on the market, this drive is what's keeping the price $200 more than the Xbox. Other than for playing HD movies, Bluray right now is pretty useless. Experts think that it won't be well into the next decade before DVD for software storage is exhausted and the new HD drives become common place in computers. This will likely come at a point when the PS3 is dead or nearing the end of its service life. Sony can't even fix this since all the games that are out are on Bluray. Talk about digging yourself into a hole.
So where does the Wii factor in? Why is it hammering the PS3? It's graphics are clearly inferior and it can't even play regular DVDs. Wii follows Nintendo's philosophy of keeping it simple. It's a game console, nothing more. However, it's unique form of game-play is where it really shines over the PS3. It's attractive to causal gamers for its simple and fun games and parents like it because it gets their kids up and moving. Something that the PS3 does not do. For gaming, the PS3 has a trail of mediocre titles and despite its power, it still retains conventional game-play. There was plans for a motion system but they were scrapped. The Wii is also 1/3 of the price of the PS3, which makes it more attractive for casual gamers and parents who don't want to mortgage their house for a game console.
It's simple as that. Though the hardware is good on the PS3, among the best, its mediocre games and high price compared to the Wii is what's keeping gamers away. With no plans for price cuts, it looks like the PS3 is just going to be another footnote in video game history.
I recently purchased Sony's PSP. Released in 2004 at the hefty price of nearly $300, it has come down to about $199 but I managed to get one on sale for $180. As you know, it is in direct competition with the Nintendo DS, and it is not selling as well as its rival. The PSP has numerous advantage and disadvantages to the DS. The primary advantages comes in the fact that it is a self contained media device capable not only of games but also music, photos, movies, and the internet. Sony has also released a PSP camera, which is similar in quality to modern cell phone cams, and a PSP GPS receiver is on its way. The PSP reminds me in many ways of Sega's landmark game gear, and not simply because of its similar design and it's superior hardware of its contemporary rival, but also its attempts at becoming a media device. Not many may remember the TV tuner for the game gear which was one of the first attempts to merge portable gaming and portable media.
The primary problem with the PSP is the fact that it's a jack of all trades system. It does a good job at many things but nothing exceptionally well. This is the DS's strength in that it's just a gaming system. I've come up with a list of 10 things that might turn things around for the PSP in order to outshine its cheaper rival.
1. Storage: The PSP uses memory stick duo flash cards as its primary means of on-board storage. While other flash cards have been expanded to a hefty 8gb , the biggest MSD cards are still only 4gb, and they're expensive. In fact, a MSD card can be quite a bit more than similar sized SD cards. The cheapest 4gb SD card costs only slightly more than a 1gb MSD. The cheapest 8gb CF costs the same as a 4gb MSD.
The PSP camera and GPS has proven that the USB connector on top of the PSP is not just for connecting it to your computer to transfer files. So I ask, why can't Sony give the PSP hard drive support. Either through the use of a 1.8'' HDD that clips to the back of the system, or common portable 2.5'' enclosed drives. This would effectively remove the storage limits of 4gb up to a beefy 80gb, which is the current max of 1.8'' HDDs. This could allow for up to 80 high quality feature length movies without the need for a stack of UMDs. It simply makes sense and would probably not be more of an electrical draw than its proprietary disc drive. So I ask Sony, give us PSP owners some more space!
2. Open it up to homebrew: Sony removed the ability for people to make unlicensed, homemade software for the PSP. Yet, the PS2 and PS3 can run Linux and the Nintendo Wii will offer indie software for sale through their online service. So why must the PSP be limited? Are they afraid of piracy? Possibly but there is nothing to fear. Let indie developers make their own software and games to further increase the usefulness of the handheld.
3. We need a Keyboard: The PSP badly needs some kind of a keypad for entering text into its web browser. PDAs have had these for a long time. This would finally make internet features useful.
4. More Audio/Video Codec Support: Sony should update the PSP's firmware to include more common codecs. Common, patent free codecs such as OGG Vorbis would be a big plus.
5. Upgrade Audio Playback Functionality: Give us an equalizer for god's sakes. Even the cheapest Creative MP3 players have an equalizer to adjust bass and treble. It should be a basic feature in digital audio players by now. Yes, the PSP has presets but there is no way to adjust them.
6. Larger Variety of Games: The PSP has many games but most are lackluster. Rather than focusing on exclusive titles, the PSP needs to attract more developers. It also needs to open the door to more retro games as other systems have. Start by giving us more games from retro Sega systems (as they have with the Genesis Collection) and maybe throw in some PS1 games too. Even some older PC/Mac titles would be nice. Not everyone likes shooters and car racing Sony, and even those ones out for the PSP suck.
7. PDF Support: Would it be too much to ask to give us Adobe PDF support for the web browser so us PSP users could read off-line documents and articles on the road?
8. A Better Online Service: Sony has a great opportunity to beat the DS out by providing an online service similar Xbox Live or Wii Channels to the PSP. Since UMD movies aren't selling, make them available for download at a reduced price, and DRM free. Same goes with music and games.
9. Wireless connectivity with PC and Mac: Right now, if you want to stream movies and music to your PSP, you need a Playstation 3. Of course Sony is doing this to get people to buy the PS3 but I hardly think it's worked successfully to increase sales. Especially considering the PS3 costs $700 and most PSP users already have a computer. So therefore, allow users to stream these media files right from their computer. Take that iPod. It would certainly solve some of the storage issues with the portable console as well. The PSPs max Wifi rate of 11Mbits/s is enough to stream CD quality audio and compressed movies up to 1400kb/s download. This is faster than most typical broadband services in North America.
10. Maybe it Does Need a Redesign: There was a rumor going around that Sony was going to change the PSPs design in a similar fashion as to when Nintendo redid the DS into the DS Lite. Sony squashed these as simply being rumors that weren't true. Well, maybe they should rethink that. The original Gameboy was redesigned at least three times. Why should today's portables remain static. What the PSP needs is to be made more ergonomical. A common complaint amount many PSP users, myself included, is that it get uncomfortable after a while in your hands. I think they designed it for people with stubby fingers.
MMN Tech is an offshoot of my political blog designed to focus on one of my other major interests, consumer technology. I hope to focus this blog as a how too for home electronics and computers, both Mac and PC. Here you'll see reviews, how to guides, and opinion columns on all your favourite tech.