Recipe for (a few minutes of) peace and quiet on a Saturday morning…

Picture the situation… it’s early in the morning, you’re in a hotel room en route to a holiday destination, were travelling until late at night, had a bad night’s sleep and your 3 year-old son wakes up his 1 year-old brother, in the process forcing the whole family to start their day.

Here’s a recipe that I recommend:

  1. MaplinTake one iPod with Video, loaded with Thomas the Tank Engine (or other suitable Childrens’ TV) MP4s, one Apple iPod AV cable and a phono to SCART adapter from Maplin.
  2. Plug the iPod into the hotel room TV using the cable (and adapter, if necessary), turn on the television and select the AV channel.
  3. Play selected MP4s from the iPod to the children whilst consuming a suitable caffeinated beverage in an attempt to regain some sense of normality.
  4. Start your day in a slightly better mood.

I knew there was a reason I’d spent so much time getting my iPod working with the TV a week or so back! I believe that my wife’s exact word was “inspired”.

(Just before someone calls the social services, I should point out that my children get lots of one on one attention and babysitting by TV is only used in extreme circumstances!)

Quick guide to getting video content onto an iPod

Apple iTunes can play back a variety of video formats but the iPod (5th generation) and Apple TV each have their own limitations and only play videos that are created in specific formats. I understand that not all codecs will be available for all platforms but I’m a techie and it’s taken me a lot of time to work out what can and can’t work on my iPod. And yes, the the iPod may only have a 320×240 pixel QVGA screen but it can play back at larger resolutions using the iPod AV cable (or another cable if you can get it to work) – it might not look great on a high definition display but I only have standard definition TVs and it’s perfectly good enough for them (sure, there are a few compression artefacts but I get them with satellite TV too).

I’ve been fighting with video incompatibilities for a few days now and think I’ve pretty much got everything sussed, so, here’s my quick guide to getting video content onto an iPod (some of the software mentioned below is Mac-only and so Windows/Linux users might need to search for something else… sorry).

  • Firstly, (courtesy of Apple’s frequently asked questions about viewing and syncing video with iTunes and iPod), iTunes is your friend. Not only is it the centre of the Apple digital experience but it can convert files to iPod or Apple TV format. Simply select the video or audio content that you require, right- (or Ctrl-) click and select convert selection for iPod or convert selection for Apple TV as appropriate. This seemed to work for much of my video content that has come from an eclectic mix of locations using a multitude of codecs (the main changes seem to involve converting from QuickTime movie file to MPEG-4, using a low complexity profile and the H.264/AAC codecs) although I have a few files that seem to have lost their audio track along the way. For these files, I used iSquint to retry the conversion and it seems to have got around whatever the encoding issue was. Using iSquint’s default settings, content is resized to either 320×240 or 640×480 (depending on whether the output is optimised for iPod or TV) but I did find that by using the option to Optimize for TV there was a noticeable increase in the picture quality, even though the source file was only 320×240 (obviously the quality will not increase from the original but, when viewed on a TV, the 640×480 version that was optimised for TV had a noticeably clearer picture with fewer compression artefacts than the 320×240 version that was optimised for the iPod).
  • The tip above for converting content to an iPod/Apple TV format seems to be non-destructive, which is good but does require some management to ensure that only the correctly formatted content is synchronised (in order to avoid errors like the one shown).iTunes error message explaining that some of the videos in your iTunes library were not copied because they cannot be played. Also, note that the duplicates may not appear in the same location as the originals – some of my video podcasts have relocated themselves within iTunes to the movies section and whilst the video type can be changed (between movies, music videos and TV shows), I’m not familiar with any method to move the content into iTunes’ podcast section. Some video podcasts are available in alternative formats via different RSS feeds, but that’s a nuisance where you might want to watch a high-definition version on the computer but still have it available on the iPod when out and about. Consequently I have multiple copies of podcasts like Systm, where I have both the small QuickTime and large QuickTime feeds in iTunes and different episodes marked as played in each. I’ve yet to find a way around that particular issue and it is relatively minor.
  • Assuming that it is legal where you live, applications like HandBrake will rip DVDs into a format that can be transferred to the iPod via iTunes and videos look surprisingly good on the iPod screen (yes, really – certainly good enough for entertainment on a long train/plane trip). Add to that the potential to use an iPod connected to a TV and it’s an easy method for watching video content in the living room, hotel or even hooking the iPod up to a screen in the car to keep the kids amused without spending lots of money on an expensive in-car entertainment system (I haven’t tried it yet but I may do soon). Encoding video (and re-encoding via an iTunes conversion) is time consuming and also the quality will degrade with each conversion, so it pays to get it right first time – I had some difficulties using the previous version of HandBrake to rip a DVD using the HB-iPod preset but version 0.9.0 seems to be working well for me (although if it doesn’t work, some advice suggests ripping to disk before performing the conversion, using a tool such as Mac the Ripper). If the content is already on the computer, then QuickTime Pro may help with the conversion (although iTunes is based on QuickTime so I recommend trying the conversion in iTunes first).
  • Finally, for content producers, Apple provides a tutorial about creating video for iPod.

These techniques have allowed me to transfer most of the content that I want to access on the move to my iPod. There are a couple of issues to iron out (as mentioned) but I’m a lot further forward than I was a few days back. Please leave a comment if you can add to the advice.

Connecting iPod with Video to the TV

A few weeks back, I was given an iPod with Video. It’s a huge step up from the iPod Mini that I had before – not least because of it’s video capabilities (which mean that I can store a few films on the iPod for playback in hotels/planes/trains etc. but I’ve been struggling to get it to output a decent signal to my TV. Apple sells an iPod AV cable to take the 3.5mm headphone socket output to red/yellow/white RCA (phono) sockets but I have a perfectly good cable that came with my Sony video camera so I wanted to avoid spending £15 on the Apple cable. After trying the well-publicised hack for using a normal cable with the connections swapped around I had a picture, but no matter how I tried it was always black and white (ironically I could get some faded colours with NTSC, even though my TV is PAL!).

Then last night I was in Tesco, where I visited the “Apple Store” (note the quotes as the Tesco Apple Store is not a patch on the real thing) and picked up the Apple iPod AV cable. Not only is is a much better quality product (the cables may not be as good as the Cambridge Audio interconnects that I use for my audio-visual equipment but they are a lot better than the thin black leads supplied as standard with most equipment) but it cured my black and white issues – I can now watch films (and video podcasts) in colour without the hassle of connecting a computer to the TV.

Two stories of great customer service

It’s not often that I receive excellent customer service (a subject on which Guy Kawasaki has written a very interesting post) and when I do, I’ll shout about it. Today I got great service from not just one but two technology companies.

I’ve been thinking about buying an iPod with Video for a while now and a few months back, I had the opportunity to win one as an incentive for passing the Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist: Live Communications Server 2005 exam. Although I was offered an 30GB iPod, I’d really like to fit my entire iTunes library on the device, so I asked for the 80GB model instead (offering to pay the difference). For various practical reasons that wasn’t going to work out, so I waited until it was given to me and tried to exchange it at an Apple Store. They couldn’t exchange it for me, but they did check the serial number and told me that it was sold by Amazon. Meanwhile I bought a protective case from Apple and was very impressed that there was no queuing up to pay – the store assistants could complete the sales process on the shop floor and e-mail me a receipt.

Next, I contacted Amazon, to see what they could do to help. In addition to e-mail contact service, Amazon (UK) has a facility on their website whereby they will call you back and you can talk to a real person and their customer service staff (in Ireland – note that they have not outsourced customer service to companies on another continent where English is not a primary language) were really helpful. It seems that I can return a gift to Amazon (within 30 days) and they will pay the postage and issue a credit on my account. The theory is that I can return the 30GB iPod and buy an 80GB model using the credit and some more money of my own. All I need to do now is to get hold of the original order number and I can complete the Returns Support Centre wizard on the Amazon website.

Of course, now I’ve finally got my hands on an iPod with Video, Apple is bound to announce a 6G touchscreen iPod with a large flash-based hard disk… oh well, c’est la vie.

Get a Mac? Maybe, but Windows Vista offers a more complete package than you might think

I’ll freely admit that I have been critical of Windows Vista at times and I’ll stand by my comments published in Computer Weekly last November – Windows XP will remain in mainstream use for quite some time. Having said that, I can’t see Mac OS X or Linux taking the corporate desktop by storm and the move to Vista is inevitable, just not really a priority for many organisations right now.

Taking off my corporate hat one evening last week, I made the trip to Microsoft’s UK headquarters in Reading for an event entitled “Vista after hours”. Hosted by James Senior and Matt McSpirit it was a demo-heavy and PowerPoint-light tour of some of the features in Windows Vista that we can make use of when we’re not working. Not being a gamer and having bought a Mac last year, I’ve never really paid attention to Microsoft’s digital home experience but I was, quite frankly, blown away by what I saw.

The first portion of the evening looked at some of the out-of-the-box functionality in Windows Vista, covering topics like search, drilling down by searching within results, using metadata to tag objects, live previews and saving search queries for later recall as well as network diagnosis and repair. Nothing mind-blowing there but well-executed all the same. Other topics covered included the use of:

  • Windows Photo Gallery (which includes support for the major, unprocessed, raw mode formats as well as more common, compressed, JPEG images) to perform simple photo edits and even to restore to the original image (cf. a photographic negative).
  • Windows Movie Maker to produce movies up to 1080p.
  • Windows DVD Maker to produce DVD menus with support for both NTSC and PAL as well as 4:3 and 16:9 aspect ratios.
  • Windows Media Player to organise media in many ways (stack/sort by genre, year, songs, album, artist, rating, recently added, etc.) and share that media.

Apple Macintosh users will think “yeah, I have iPhoto, iMovie, iDVD and iTunes to do all that” and they would be correct but Apple says (or at least implies in its advertising) that it’s hard to do these things on a PC – with Vista it’s just not… which moves me on to backup – not provided (at least in GUI form) by the current Mac OS X release (only with a .Mac subscription) and much improved in Windows Vista. “Ah yes, but Leopard will include Time Machine!”, say the Mac users – Windows has had included the volume shadow copy service (VSS/VSC) since Windows XP and Windows Backup includes support for multiple file versions right now as well as both standard disk-based backups and snapshots to virtual hard disk (.VHD) images, which can then be used as a restore point or mounted in Virtual PC/Virtual Server as a non-bootable disk. Now that does sound good to me and I’m sure there must be a way to make the .VHD bootable for physical to virtual (P2V) and virtual to physical (V2P) migrations… maybe that’s something to have a play with another day.

Regardless of all the new Vista functionality, for me, the most interesting part of the first session was Windows Home Server. I’m a registered beta user for this product but must confess I haven’t got around to installing it yet. Well, I will – in fact I’m downloading the April CTP as I write this. Based on Windows 2003 Small Business Server, it provides a centralised console for management of and access to information stored at home. Microsoft claim that it has low hardware requirements – just a large hard disk – I guess low hardware requirements is a subjective term (and I figure that my idea of low hardware requirements and Microsoft’s may differ somewhat), nevertheless it offers the opportunity to secure data (home computer backup and restore, including scheduling), provide centralised storage (a single storage pool, broken out as shared storage, PC backups, operating system and free space), monitor network health (i.e. identify unsafe machines on the network), provide remote access (via an HTTPS connection to a defined web address) and stream media, all controlled through a central console. Because the product is aimed at consumers, ease of use will be key to its success and it includes some nice touches like scheduled backups and automatic router configuration for remote access. Each client computer requires a connection pack in order to allow Home Server to manage it (including associating account information for secuirity purposes) and, in response to one of my questions, Microsoft confirmed that there will be support for non-Windows clents (e.g. Mac OS X 10.5 and even Linux). Unfortunately, product pricing has not yet been released and early indications are that this will be an OEM-only product; that will be a great shame for many users who would like to put an old PC to use as a home server.

Another area covered in the first session was parental controls – not really something that I worry about right now but maybe I will over the next few years as my children start to use computers. Windows Vista includes the ability for parents to monotor their child’s activities including websites, applications, e-mail, instant messages and media. Web filters can be used to prevent access to certain content with an HTTP 450 response, including a link for a parent to approve and unblock access to the content as well as time limits on access (providing a warning before forcing a logout). Similarly, certain games can be blocked for younger users of the family PC. The volume and diversity of the questions at the event would indicate that Vista’s parental controls are fairly simplistic and will not be suitable for all (for example, time limits are on computer access as a whole and not for a particular application, so it’s not possible to allow a child access to the computer to complete their homework but to limit games to a certain period in the evening and at weekends).

If session one had whetted my appetite for Vista, session two (Vista: Extended) blew my mind and by the time I went home, I was buzzing…

I first heard of Windows SideShow as a way to access certain content with a secondary display, e.g. to provide information about urgent e-mails and upcoming appointments on the lid of a laptop computer but it actually offers far more than this – in fact, the potential for SideShow devices is huge. Connectivity can be provided by USB, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth – Windows doesn’t care – and the home automation possibilities are endless. I can really see the day when my fridge includes capabilities for ordering groceries via a SideShow display in the door. There is at least one website devoted to SideShow devices but James Senior demonstrated a laptop bag with a built-in SideShow controller including a cache for media playback. Typically used to expose information from a Windows Sidebar gadget, SideShow devices will wake up a sleeping computer to synchrosise content then put it back to sleep and can be secured with a PIN or even erased when logged off. Access is controlled within the Windows Control Panel and there is an emulator available to simulate SideShow devices.

As elegant as Apple Front Row is, for once Microsoft outshines the competition with Windows Media Center

Next up was Windows Media Center. Unlike with the Windows XP Media Center and Tablet PC editions, Microsoft no longer provides a separate SKU for this functionality, although it is not enabled in all Vista product editions. Media Center is a full-screen application that offers a complete home media hub – sort of like Apple Front Row but with support for TV tuners to include personal video recorder (PVR) functionality. As elegant as Apple Front Row is, for once Microsoft outshines the competition with Windows Media Center – multiple TV tuners can be installed (e.g. to pause live TV, or to record two items at once, as well as the elctronic programme guide (EPG), controls, etc. being displayed as an overlay on the currently playing content. As with Windows Media Player, visualisations are provided and in theory it ought to be possible to remote control a Media Center PC via Windows Home Server and set up a recording remotely. Individual programs, or whole series, can be recorded and many TV tuners include DVB-T (digital terrestrial) support (i.e. Freeview), with other devices such as satellite and cable TV decoders needing a kludge with a remote infra-red controller (a limitation of Sky/Virgin Media network access rather than with Windows). Other functionality includes RSS support as well as integration with Windows Live Messenger and some basic parental controls (not as extensive as elsewhere in Windows Vista but nevertheless allowing a PIN to be set on certain recordings).

The event was also my first opportunity to look at a Zune. It may be a rather half-hearted attempt at producing a media player (no podcast support and, crucially, no support for Microsoft’s own PlaysForSure initiative) but in terms of form-factor it actually looks pretty good – and it includes functionality that’s missing from current iPods like a radio. If only Apple could produce an iPod with a similarly-sized widescreen display (not the iPhone) then I’d be more than happy. It also seems logical to me that as soon as iTunes is DRM-free then the iTunes/iPod monopoly will be broken as we should be able to use music purchased from the largest online music store (iTunes) on the world’s favourite portable media player (iPod) together with Windows Media Center… anyway, I digress…

I mentioned earlier that I’m not a gamer. Even so, the Xbox 360‘s ability to integrate with Windows PCs is an impressive component of the Microsoft’s digital home experience arsenal. With its dashboard interface based around a system of “blades”, the Xbox 360 is more than just a games machine:

As well as the Xbox 360 Core and Xbox 360 Pro (chrome) systems Microsoft has launched the Xbox 360 Elite in the United States – a black version with a 120GB hard disk and HDMI connectivity, although it’s not yet available here in the UK (and there are also some limited edition Yellow Xbox 360s to commemorate the Simpsons movie).

Finally, Microsoft demostrated Games for Windows Livebringing the XBox 360 Live experience to Windows Vista-based PC gaming. With an Xbox 360 wireless gaming receiver for Windows, Vista PC gamers can even use an Xbox 360 wireless controller (and not just for gaming – James Senior demonstrated using it to navigate Windows Live maps, including the 3D and bird’s eye views). Not all games that are available for both PCs and the Xbox will offer the cross-platform live experience; however the first one that will is called Shadowrun (and is due for release on 1 June 2007) bringing two of the largest gaming platforms together and providing a seamless user experience (marred only by the marketing decision to have two types of account – silver for PC-PC interaction and gold for PC-XBox).

Apple’s Get a Mac campaign draws on far too many half truths that will only become apparent to users after they have made the decision to switch… and then found out that the grass is not all green on the other side

So, after all this, would I choose a Mac or a Windows PC? (or a Linux PC?) Well, like so many comparisons, it’s just not that simple. I love my Mac, but Apple’s Get a Mac campaign draws on far too many half truths that will only become apparent to users after they have made the decision to switch, splashed out on the (admittedly rather nice) Apple hardware and then found out that the grass is not all green on the other side. In addition, Apple’s decision to delay the next release of OS X whilst they try to enter the mobile phone market makes me question how committed to the Macintosh platform they really are. Linux is good for techies and, if you can support yourself, it has the potential to be free of charge. If you do need support though, some Linux distros can be more expensive than Windows. So what about Windows, still dominant and almost universally despised by anyone who realises that there is a choice? Actually, Windows Vista is rather good. It may still have far too much legacy code for my liking (which is bound to affect security and stability) but it’s nowhere near as bad as the competition would have us thinking… in fact it hasn’t been bad since everything moved over to the NT codebase and, complicated though the product versions may be, Windows Vista includes alternatives to the iLife suite shipped with a new Macs as well as a superior media hub. Add the Xbox integration and Windows SideShow into the mix and the Microsoft digital home experience is excellent. Consumers really shouldn’t write off Windows Vista just yet.

New earphones for my iPod

The standard Apple iPod earphones are okay… but they are basic. I’m no audiophile (some would say audiophiles wouldn’t listen to MP3s) but I find them uncomfortable, the foam covers fall off and get lost, they fall out of my ears and I have to turn up the volume to the maximum whenever I’m listening to a podcast in a noisy environment (like on the tube). Oh yes, and the bass on my iPod Mini “blew” the right earbud within days of purchase.

As I’m increasingly using my iPod, either on the parts of my commute which don’t allow me to sit on the train and write for this blog or on the stress-busting walks which often take me out into the Buckinghamshire countryside, I figured I’d get some new earphones. My criteria were simple:

  • Inexpensive (i.e. less than £30);
  • White (to match the iPod);
  • Comfortable;
  • Reduce impact of ambient noise (noting that noise-cancelling headphones were unlikely to meet my first criterion – i.e that of being inexpensive).

Some basic research led me to find that there are some excellent ear-canal phones available (like the Shure E4Cs) but they will also cost me many of my hard-earned pounds, so I decided to buy the white Sennheiser CX300 ear-canal phones which were on offer at the Apple Store and also received great reviews.

Sennheiser CX300 (white)They only arrived on Saturday (so haven’t been used much yet) but so far I’m impressed. I’m still working out which of the three supplied ear adapters is the best fit but they are definitely more comfortable and they stay in place, even whilst lying in bed taking a pzizz. I’ve also found that I can turn the volume way down, hopefully reducing the damage that I’d doing to my hearing, and the in-ear placement really does cut out a lot of ambient noise (haven’t tried them on the tube yet though). Of course, they will work with any audio device that uses a standard 3.5mm headphone jack, not just an iPod.

Now, the more discerning reader will notice that the link above is to Amazon and not Apple. That’s because I’ve found out that, whilst I spent £29.99 on mine (and they are back up to £39.99 now), they are only £17.80 at Amazon (and even less if you plump for black or silver). So, if you want some, please buy yours using this link and earn me some commission (albeit expressed in pence, not pounds) to pay me back for my complete lack of pre-purchase price comparison!

Altec Lansing iM7 iPod speakers

We have a birthday party planned for my son tomorrow and I need some sounds to entertain the toddlers. Okay, so 2 year-olds are probably more into Bob the Builder than Bob Sinclar but our portable CD player is… a bit weak. So when I saw Costco selling Altec Lansing iM7 iPod speakers for £117.48 I thought that they could be the answer to my problem (once the requisite childrens’ music has been ripped to my iPod). After going back to the car to get my iPod and trying them out in the store, I was convinced (blown away in fact).

Back in July, Mac Format ran a review on a bunch of iPod speakers and, predictably, the Apple iPod HiFi came out on top. Personally (before I’ve heard them), I think that the Apple speakers are ugly (unusual for an Apple product), and that Apple should have integrated the iPod into the unit instead of just placing a dock on the top. The iM7 still got 4 stars (not a bad review – especially as that’s more than the Bose SoundDock achieved) and, at half the price of the Apple product, they seem like a bargain to me.
Altec Lansing iM7
None of these products should be considered as a replacement for a decent HiFi system, but they are certainly good enough for portable music (holidays, parties, etc.). In fact, the only problem I’ve found is that the strong bass vibrates the cradle that allows my iPod Mini to sit comfortably in the dock!

My son likes them too… although he seems to be having difficulty understanding that they are not another birthday present for him!

Catching up on events by listening to podcasts

Maybe it’s a sign of getting older but, along with new tastes for full-bodied red wine and extra mature cheddar cheese, talk radio (mostly BBC Radio 4) has joined my list of preferences; and as I regularly spend approximately 12 to 15 hours of my working week driving around south-east England this is a perfect opportunity to catch up on the modern equivalent of talk radio – podcasts.

Podcasting (and the various derivatives thereof) have really caught on over the last year or so (helped by Apple’s bundling of podcatching capabilities within iTunes) and were the main reason I bought an iPod last year, although it’s probably worth mentioning that you don’t need an iPod – any digital media player will do – the main requirement is to be able to receive new podcasts via an RSS feed and synchronise with the digital media player. My iPod is connected to the car stereo via a 3.5mm headphone jack but other options include the Griffin iTrip and burning MP3 CDs to listen to via the normal CD player.

Much of the available content originates from the United States but there is some British content too – many “old media” companies have jumped on the podcasting bandwagon and even the BBC has some content available for download. I highly recommend The Now Show but many popular radio shows now have podcast derivatives and even BBC News has got in on the event with audio and video podcasts.

It’s not just broadcast media that is using podcasting to reach new audiences though – forward-thinking organisations have recognised the power of the corporate podcast (e.g. First Direct); and when Microsoft launched Visual Studio 2005, SQL Server 2005 and the .NET Framework 2.0 last November they released a 45 minute audio download to complement the launch events, featuring information from their developer and platform group experts.

As a techie, podcasting is a great way to keep up-to-date with industry news and the UK trade weekly IT Week now has a short podcast discussing two or three of the week’s top stories. The TWiT network also has several podcasts that I listen to routinely – including This Week in Tech, Inside the Net and MacBreak Weekly – and last week this list was extended with a new Windows Weekly podcast featuring well-known Microsoft commentator Paul Thurrott. Other tech podcasts that I listen to include The iLifeZone.

If, like me, you are suffering from e-mail, blog and paper-based information overload, then I recommend podcasting as an alternative method for catching up on events.

What could have happened If Microsoft had designed the packaging for the iPod

Late last night, Alex and I were (for once) agreeing on the success of an Apple product – the iPod – which may not be the best digital music player on the market (technically) but sure enough has the simplest “user experience” (the tight integration of the iPod with Apple’s iTunes music store may well be monopolistic but it is incredibly easy to use, especially when compared with equivalent offerings based Microsoft’s platform for digital rights management).

That’s the beauty of the iPod. Simplicity. From the packaging, to the hardware design, to the user interface.

I’m guessing that this has been around for a while now (with the 2005 product references) but I’ve just seen a short video of what could have happened if Microsoft had designed the iPod package:

Based on my professional relationship with Microsoft, this particular parody is uncannily close to the truth.

A business case for an iPod?

Ever since the Apple iPod Nano was launched last September, I’ve been saying that I would like one (but can’t justify it because I only bought my iPod Mini in May last year).

Then, a few days back, I met up with a friend who is a professional photographer. He showed me his iPod with video and now that’s the one I want. I was always suspicious of how good a 2.5″ screen could be, but it really is clear and bright (even in daylight). My friend explained that by putting his portfolio onto his iPod he has already got two new commissions, meaning that it has effectively paid for itself already!

Now if only I could build a case for an IT Consultant to sell services via an iPod…