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Monday, March 30, 2009

I use this: Apple TV

Apple TV
When I bought my new full HD TV, I knew that I'd need something else to be able to enjoy the high-definition experience. And since most of my media files were on my computer, I also needed something that would let me watch those shows on my TV.

Enter the Apple TV. It's a media device that connects to both my TV (via HDMI cable) and Mac (via wireless network) that lets me enjoy the best of both worlds. Setup and syncing were a breeze, allowing me to enjoy my shows without much pain.

(The only downside appears to be some HDMI handshake issue between my Samsung TV and the Apple TV. My current workaround is to unplug the HDMI cable, then replug it back.)

Here's my full review:

Like most people of my age group, I consume a lot of movies and TV shows on my computer or iPod. I'm not saying where I get these shows, only that I watch enough of these to spend more time in front of my computer screen than the TV screen.

So I decided to get a device that would be able to let me watch on a TV set the shows that are stored in my computer. And the device that provided the solution was the Apple TV . Made by Apple, the Apple TV is a sleek grey box that lets me enjoy my digital content -- movies, TV shows, photos, music -- on my TV.

Apple TV - contents
Out of the box, the Apple TV comes with almost everything you need to enjoy it straight away. Apple TV, check. Power cable, check. Remote control unit, check. Manuals, check. TV cable... hmm... get your own. I bought a $26 HDMI version 1.3 cable.

Setup is done in two parts: initially with the Apple TV, then through iTunes.
  1. Apple TV setup:
    Remove from box, connect HDMI cable, connect power cable, turn on power (there's no power switch on the Apple TV, so the wall outlet becomes the on/off switch), then setup the wireless network.
  2. iTunes setup:
    Let iTunes detect the Apple TV through the wireless network. Register the Apple TV, name the Apple TV (mine's called "Mapple TV"), then sync my content.
Apple TV - menu screen
After that, the Apple TV is ready for use! But wait, there's more! In addition to being tethered (figuratively) to my computer, it could also download network content from other services. These are Apple's own movie trailer site, YouTube and Flickr.

The movie trailers are not as updated as what you'd find on the website. For example, as of this writing, Apple featured the trailer for "Fame" on its website, but this couldn't be found in Apple TV's list.

The YouTube feature lets me watch any YouTube content. Besides categories like "Most Viewed" and "Most Recent", I can also search for content. If I enter my YouTube/Google Account name and password, Apple TV will also let me watch my favourites and subscriptions. Strangely, it doesn't let me watch my own videos! That's a very blatant omission.

The Flickr feature, on the other hand, doesn't require me to enter my name/password. Instead, it pulls the public photos from any Flickr account. I can add as many accounts as I wish, including those of my friends and/or strangers, to see their photos.

Downloading of content is surprisingly very fast, or maybe I'm used to slow speeds. For example, loading a 2-minute HD trailer took less than a minute, letting me enjoy it almost as soon as I pressed the "Play" button. YouTube videos take slightly longer, e.g. long enough for me to take a toilet break. Flickr photos appear almost instantaneously, which is useful for the screensaver.

What I really enjoy from my Apple TV is the HD experience. With my aging computer, I've never been able to watch a 1080p HD film without stuttering or pauses. But with my Apple TV and Full HD TV, I can watch them with crystal clarity. HD is really mind-blowing, and the fast downloads through Apple TV make such content even more available and appreciable.

One strange quibble: I constantly have to unplug then replug the HDMI cable on my Apple TV in order for my Samsung TV to detect it. From what I've read, it's a "HDMI handshake" problem between the two devices. Some say it's Samsung's fault, others point the finger at Apple. I've yet to find another workable solution, so in the meantime, I'll continue the unplug/replug ritual.

As a TV device, the Apple TV shines in seamlessly enabling you to watch content on your computer or at popular Internet services on your TV. Just don't expect anything more out of it, unless you're willing to void your warranty!

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Sunday, March 29, 2009

I use this: Samsung 32inch Series 6 Full HD LCD TV

(Almost) Front view
At the recent March 2009 IT Show, I made one of my biggest ticket items ever: a brand new Full HD (high-definition) television set. I had narrowed my choices down to a few, and finally signed on the dotted line for a Samsung Series 6 Full HD LCD TV. It's the smallest size at 32" because that's all the physical space and budget that I could afford!

The Series 6 is supposed to be one of the newer models from Samsung, though I have to admit that I didn't really know about that. For me, it was a toss-up between Sony and Samsung. After judging the picture quality based on my naked eye, I went with the Samsung. (Surprisingly, Sony's 32" W series TV had a less vivid picture than the 40" or larger W series TVs.)

From the side
As expected with any Full HD TV, the Series 6 model comes with 16:9 aspect ratio, HDMI ports and Dolby 5.1 audio. All that is greek to me. As far as I am bothered, the picture and audio look/sound just great! It also supposedly boasts a 15,000:1 contrast ratio, though to me, black is black, and colour is colour.

What do I like about it, in particular? There are a few things:

  • Full HD with 1080p resolution, bay-bee!
  • four HDMI ports! Though I only use one right now, haha
  • two RCA-type AV connectors, including one set handily at the side - both are useful, since my old DVD player and Nintendo Wii depend on those connections
  • different picture modes: normal, sports, cinema, game. Most of the time, my display mode is set to "cinema", switching to "game" only when I'm Wii-ing
Of course, nothing is perfect:
  • no integrated HD tuner! Darn it, if I knew about this extra component, I would've waited for the Series 8! Without this tuner, I can't enjoy full HD programs through the TV antenna. Which means I'm stuck with watching standard definition programmes on a HD TV, damn it!
  • the border is a tad bigger than I'd prefer.
  • for those who are concerned about power consumption, the Series 6 supposedly uses 200W, more than earlier Samsung models or the Sony W series.
  • no buttons/switches on the TV, e.g. on/off, channel switching, volume control, etc. Everything is through the remote control unit, which means if the latter goes bust, my TV is basically useless!
Remote control unit
Talking about the remote control unit, it's one monster! Definitely one of the biggest remote control units I've ever seen for an electronics device. But it's not because it's jam-packed with buttons. Rather, the buttons are bigger than on other units, so this one is actually more user friendly in that aspect! And since there aren't many extra (read: nonsensical) buttons, this unit is a breeze to use for people who don't like buttons.

So if you're looking for a Full HD TV because your current set is looking aged, then you may want to consider the Series 6 TV. In spite of not having an integrated HD tuner, it is really a worthwhile upgrade for those who want the high-def experience.

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Symantec keeping quiet at customer complaints

Last week, Symantec officially announced its latest utilities suite, Norton 360. This product purports to be the latest, greatest, and most optimised Norton product ever released. Clearly, Symantec hopes that its upgraded line of utilities will bring in new customers who are looking for that sweet spot between protection and performance.

So it doesn't bode well when Symantec is apparently refusing to respond to customer complaints. The built-in defensive agent, Norton Internet Protection, constantly pops up a warning that PIFTS.EXE is trying to access the Internet. However, users are unable to find this file in the folder that NIP refers to.

It turns out that PIFTS.EXE is a file in Symantec's Live Update. So it looks like this component in a Symantec product is prompting another Symantec product to issue an alert to the user. That's not a good sign of how things are working.

The worst part, apparently, is that Symantec is remaining quiet about this. This is to the point where support messages are seemingly deleted! I won't go into possible "conspiracy theories" behind this move. But if this goes on for too long and if enough people notice, then this might become a major PR disaster for Symantec, especially so soon after its much-heralded utilities announcement.

Assuming that the problems reported are correct, then Symantec needs to take action to remedy the problem AND inform its customers appropriately and in a timely manner. Ignoring its customers would go against what the company is trying to do in employing so-called "crowd sourcing" to improve its products.

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Saturday, March 07, 2009

Norton 360 - Office for antivirus and utilities

On Thursday, Symantec finally announced its latest version of Norton 360, its suite of anti-virus and computer utilities. I had had the privilege of attending a pre-announcement preview of the product and had been quite impressed by what Symantec brought to the table.

Norton 360, now in its third release, combines tools that are essential for a (Windows-based) computer's well-being. Building from Symantec's legacy of anti-virus and utilities software, it protects and enhances computers without compromising on performance.

The thing about Norton 360, as the "360" in its name implies, is that it's an all-round solution. Instead of buying separate anti-virus and/or utilities software, you just need to buy this one product to get everything you need. It's like the familiar office suites, e.g. MS Office, which brings together Word, Excel, PowerPoint and more under one umbrella. This means greater convenience for you in managing your software.

Key components of Norton 360 are:

Norton Safe Web - a browser plug-in that warns you about possibly malicious websites and prevents "bad" software from being loaded into your computer. It also protects against the so-called "drive-by downloads", in which a trusted website may have been compromised, e.g. its background wallpaper had been replaced with something that would send bugs to your computer.

Norton Identity Safe - for storing your usernames and passwords securely, warning you against phising sites, and protecting you from keyloggers (which can capture what you type on your keyboard, useful for protecting against accidentally leaking out your username/password as you type)

Backup - the familiar backup tool that has been a stalwart of Norton Utilities, it now allows you to backup to Symantec's online storage for off-site backup. (Online storage is available at an additional fee.)

Tuneup - similar to Windows built-in Services control panel, this tool allows you to configure whether to launch startup items when you switch on your computer, delay the launch, or just not launch at all. (A delayed launch basically occurs after your desktop appears.) Unlike Windows' Services, Symantec thoughtfully indicates how much time that a startup item will require to launch. Interestingly, during the demo, Norton Utilies showed up as something that would have "Moderate" impact on startup time!

In addition to this, Symantec makes extensive use of community support, or so-called "crowd sourcing". For example, if one Norton user encounters a malicious website that Symantec had not known about, that information will be instantly propogated to every Norton user (at the next Live Update).

Aside: Live Update now checks for new updates about every 10-15 minutes. And it can be configured to work when the computer is idle. During the demo, several updates occurred without affecting the presentation!

Another use of crowd sourcing is with anti-virus checks. Symantec makes use of signatures to identify files that don't need to be scanned. Internally, it maintains a database of known "good" files. But when another program, e.g. "XYZ", is scanned as safe by other users, that information will be sent out to everyone as "Community approved" and will be skipped during anti-virus scans.

The above is an example of how Symantec is able to drastically reduce the performance impact on users' computers. Scanning fewer files means less CPU power devoted to anti-virus checks and less time spent on scanning. Other enhancements have also been made to other parts of the Norton tools to dramatically improve the overall experience.

These product enhancements and new features make Norton 360 even more "must have", especially for those who don't already have anti-virus or utilities software. Its convenience as an all-in-one package combined with its tremendous enhancements and support make it extremely valuable.

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Wednesday, March 04, 2009

The Lab: Nokia 5800 XpressMusic - phone + music

At the media event for the launch of Nokia's Comes With Music program last Friday at Velvet Underground, I had the opportunity to try out the company's new music phone, 5800 XpressMusic. This is the first phone that incorporates Comes With Music, where the owner is entitled to unlimited downloads from the Nokia Music Store for one year after phone purchase.

The first obvious feature of the phone is its touchscreen. Like Apple's iPhone, there is no physical keyboard at all. Almost all interaction is done through the touchscreen. (There are physical buttons for the volume, camera and lock/unlock.) Also like the iPhone, most of the times, you'll only need your finger to interact with your phone.

A stylus is provided, and I needed it for pressing on small UI elements. One of these was the on-screen keyboard. The 5800 XpressMusic comes with three kinds of typed entry: a full QWERTY keypad, a mini QWERTY keypad, and the familiar numeric keypad. The full keypad always appears in landscape mode, and the numeric keypad always appears in portrait mode, while the mini keypad can be used with either modes. I found that I needed the stylus to properly type with the mini keypad. On the other hand, after using it for a while, I found it so limited that I preferred the full keypad or numeric one.

The full-sized QWERTY keypad was a delight to use. I found that I could type almost as fast as my finger found the key. That means I didn't have to wait for the phone to realise that I'd pressed a button before responding. In other words, typing was almost as easy as on a physical keyboard. It was the same experience with the numeric keypad.

Nokia 5800 XpressMusic -  Web browsing
Since I'm more interested in the Internet functions, I launched the web browser and found myself in a similar environment as found in other Nokia phones. That meant its interface wasn't really designed for fingers and I had to resort to tapping with the stylus. But typing, as usual, was done through the previously mentioned keypads.

As mentioned, the phone can function is landscape or portrait mode. Either mode can be activated by turning the phone, just like its done with the iPhone. I suppose it won't be long before there are third party apps to take advantage of this function, just like with the iPhone.

Camera-wise, I think there had been some improvement in the picture quality from previous models. Compared to my trusty Sony Ericsson K800i, the 5800 XpressMusic produced pictures that looked sufficiently sharp and rich, even in low light conditions.

Nokia 5800 XpressMusic
Nokia 5800 XpressMusic camera photo

Sony Ericsson K800i
Sony Ericsson K800i camera photo

At the end, this is, after all, a music phone. So how did it fare in this department? The music player is the same one a found in other Nokia phones, so most Nokia owners should be familiar with it. Nokia also encourages noise pollution by providing stereo speakers with the phone. The sound quality isn't tinny, as you'd expect from small speakers, but something that could reasonably rival a normal consumer music player. So please make sure you're playing something pleasant if you insist on blasting your music through the speakers.

One issue I had was with scrolling. I guess Apple has patented the flicking gesture, because that's not available here. Instead, scrolling is done by keeping the finger on the screen and moving it up/down. I even found that I had to press slightly harder on the screen as I moved my finger, otherwise the interface would refuse to scroll. I don't know if this was because I was using a test version of the phone.

Overall, the Nokia 5800 XpressMusic seemed like a well built phone that should have a lot of fans.

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Monday, March 02, 2009

I use this: Vuze - outstanding BitTorrent client

Before I begin, I want to state categorically that this is not about how to use BitTorrent nor what files you can get with BitTorrent. You can get that information elsewhere.

Vuze is a BitTorrent program to handle file sharing with that protocol and works on both Windows and Mac OS X. (I think there's a version for Linux too.) It's written in Java, though, so the non-native code causes the program to run slower than natively written programs would.

In spite of its poor comparative performance, I still choose it over other (Mac-based) BitTorrent clients. Vuze gives three reasons for using its software:

  1. intuitive design
  2. free HD content within the Vuze network
  3. subscribe to RSS feeds
I've never really found a need for those three reasons (the first one is debatable). Instead, here are my top three reasons for using Vuze instead of another BitTorrent client.

1. Download only the files you want
Often times, a single torrent file will be actually a collection of files. But there are times when you don't want to download all of the files. That's especially useful if the final download is gigabytes in size, but all you need is a file that's 1MB big.

When you open a torrent in Vuze, you're instantly shown all of the available files in that torrent. You can then choose to download all or select the ones you don't want. Buttons are available to select all or select none, which are useful when you want to include or remove one or two files from the list.

2. Rename files inside Vuze
This is a feature that's difficult to find in other BitTorrent clients. Instead of waiting for a download to complete before renaming it in your file system, Vuze lets you rename the file immediately. When the download begins, you'll find the file with your specified name. That's very useful for personalising your downloads, especially when you have a lot of downloads with similar names.

3. Specify unique settings per torrent
As you would expect to find in BitTorrent programs, Vuze lets you specify the number of connections and speed of each torrent in your list. But Vuze goes a step further from this global setting. For each torrent, you can further specify its maximum upload and download speeds.

For example, you may specify in the program's Preferences that each torrent can have a maximum upload speed of 20KB/s. But then, you decide that one particular torrent isn't very important, so you want to lower its upload speed. Vuze allows you to do that. Right-click (or Control-click in OS X) on the torrent, then select Advanced --> Set Upload Speed, and enter your desired upload speed, e.g. 5KB/s. Ta-da! While all of the other torrents upload at a maximum of 20KB/s, this particular one will be stuck at 5KB/s.

There are some other features that I like about Vuze, but those are my top three reasons for sticking with it rather than another BitTorrent client.

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Sunday, March 01, 2009

The Lab: Apple Safari 4 beta

In the middle of this past week, Apple released a beta version of a new release of its Internet browser, Safari 4. The software promised plenty of flashy enhancements while improving browsing performance. However, after using it exclusively since its launch, I have to drop it and return to familiar ol' Firefox.

1. Browsing performance
Safari 4's biggest achievement is its browsing performance, particularly with JavaScript. Working in Gmail has never been more pleasant or smoother. I liked how the Gmail interface responded quickly, as if I was working on a program in my machine. I also experienced much improved performance with other JavaScript-heavy sites, like Google Reader and Plurk.

Even with regular web pages, rendering was so fast that content appeared almost as soon as I clicked a link or pressed Enter after typing in a URL. Of course, how soon a page appears also depends on your Internet connection. I certainly wouldn't expect such fast performance on dial-up!

Disclaimer: I'm writing this in Safari 4, and the Java-based image uploader is definitely faster in performance too! Uploading pictures never felt this breezy in Firefox.

2. Developer tools
Safari - developer tools
If you're a web developer, then you'll appreciate Safari 4's developer tools. This set of tools let you peek at the CSS of page elements, the amount of system resources (CPU power, memory) used by a page, and debugging of JavaScript. You can also change the browser's user agent string.

I didn't use these tools extensively, but from my brief experience, these look as useful as what you'd find with the Firefox plug-in, Firebug, or with Google Chrome.

Unfortunately, these two features were the only good things that I could say about Safari 4. Here's a rundown of why I didn't enjoy the other new features.

3. Top Sites
Safari - Top Sites
This feature allows you to see your most browsed pages in a display that resembles the Apple TV interface. It gives you quick access to these pages, which you can identify easily through "live" thumbnails of the pages.

However, for some reason, even with a broadband connection, the thumbnails took a very long time to load. It was faster for me to read the page title of a page and click on it, than to wait for the thumbnail to load.

I also found this feature to be pretty useless to me for 2 reasons:

  1. I already bookmark my most browsed pages
  2. I had configured Top Sites to appear when I opened a new tab or window is opened (you can configure it yourself). But I later found that my behaviour is such that I'm unlikely to open a most browsed page in a new tab, but rather to do something else, like do a Google search.
4. History Search
Safari - history
Within Top Sites, you can search your history of browsed pages. Safari 4 not only lets you search by page title, but also by page content . That's useful if you're the type who remembers the page's content but nothing else. As you search, Safari 4 whittles down the matched pages with its Cover Flow interface. Again, "live" thumbnails of the pages help you identify these pages.

In the end, though, as useful as this sounded, I didn't use it at all. Firstly, history search can only be initiated through Top Sites. Secondly, there's the problem with "live" thumbnails.

Thirdly, I usually remember page titles, so my normal searching behaviour is with the address bar. Like Firefox 3, Safari 4 lets you search page titles in its address bar, and you can search by URL or page title -- but not both! That's something I found to be a step back.

Let's say I had visited a page at www.example.com and the page title was "Foo bar". In Safari 4, I could search for "example" or "foo" to find the page. But if I searched for "example foo", no results would be returned. Firefox 3, on the other hand, would show me this page.

5. Cover Flow
Safari - Cover Flow
Talking about Cover Flow, this feature was more eye candy than useful. Cover Flow is used with bookmarks and history search. But due to the problem with loading of "live" thumbnails, I was more likely to see a "cover flow" of blank pages. As a result, I would have to resort to the bookmark list to find what I was looking for.

Assuming the thumbnails did load, I found that I couldn't "flow" through folders or, in the case with history, pages viewed in a day. I had to open the folder, then step through the bookmarks/pages. Again, two steps forward, one step back.

6. Tab Placements
Safari - tabs
Like Google Chrome, Safari 4 now displays its tabs in place of the title bar, instead of below the bookmarks bar. I suppose some people would like that. I could get used to it, if not for some nagging irritations.

For one thing, clicking on a tab didn't necessarily bring it to the front. I don't know if it was slow system performance or a mis-click, but I often found myself having to click a tab twice to bring it to the front. And if I clicked too fast, I would minimise the window, since Safari 4 would think that I had double-clicked its title bar.

To move a tab, I had to place my mouse at the right corner of the tab to "activate" this feature. This was unlike Firefox 3, where I could click on any part of the tab to drag it around. I suppose this limitation in Safari 4 has its benefits, but I'm not a fan of it.

Another thing that I thought was a UI puzzle: now that the tabs have moved, I thought that things like back/forward buttons and address bar would function only for that tab. They do for the most part. Now let's say I open a set of bookmarks. Each bookmark appears in its own tab. That's what I expected.

What I didn't expect was that when I pressed the back button, all of the tabs closed and I was returned to the previous page of the current tab. That didn't make sense to me. I expected the other tabs to remain open while the tab in which I had pressed the back button to return to its previous page. That's how it is in Firefox 3 and that's what makes sense to me, especially given the placement of the tabs.

Other irritations
  • Safari 4 still only lets me save one login per website. There are some sites where I have multiple logins. Firefox 3 would let me save all of them. Safari 4 asks if I want to replace the previously saved login.
  • I can't re-open a recently closed tab. This is especially important if I accidentally close a tab (e.g. due to itchy fingers). Safari 4 allows me to open closed tabs from a previous session or the most recently closed window . But there's no option for the most recently closed tab in the current session.
  • if I open a bookmark, Safari 4 displays the name that I use in the bookmark, not the actual page title. To make sure I wasn't going crazy, I bookmarked the Google homepage and called it "Ozymandias". True enough, when I opened the bookmark, the Google homepage appeared but the tab title was "Ozymandias". That's not a feature, especially since many web services use dynamic titles, e.g. Gmail, Google Reader, etc.
  • for some reason, Safari 4's performance deteriorated the longer I used it. I don't know if it's because it doesn't free up system resources or its history gets cluttered when trying to track every page that I've been to or something else. But it's darn irritating to see the spinning beach ball (in OS X) so often. Of course, since this is a beta, I'll let this slide.
  • I had to remember that the Reload button was in the address bar, not together with the back/forward buttons. And how come there's no Stop button?
  • I missed the progress bar to indicate the loading of a page. There's a hack to get it back, but I chose not to implement it in favour of a more "virgin" experience with Safari 4.
And I miss my plug-ins in Firefox. I've come to appreciate the little things, like Firebug and HTTPFox.

So after using Safari 4 for these few days, I have to give it up in favour of Firefox 3. If only Firefox 3's performance was as good (or better!) than Safari 4's, then I'd be extremely pleased. (Firefox 3.1 is supposed to promise that enhanced performance.)

Disclaimer: all pictures are from Apple's website.

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