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December 2008 Archives

December 2, 2008

Holiday Gadgets Talk at Princeton Library

My annual Holiday Gadgets talk at the Princeton Public Library will be on Tuesday, December 2 at 7 p.m.

There's lots of fun stuff to talk about, and interesting new devices to show ... And it's free and open to the public.

Continue reading "Holiday Gadgets Talk at Princeton Library" »

Season for Storage: Kingston 64 GB USB Drives

As USB drives grew from megabytes to a couple of gigabytes in size, they became more than a handy data transfer medium -- they became serious storage for carrying around large collections of materials and doing backups.

But now that we're seeing 32 GB SD memory cards (see previous post), USB drives are expanding further, and at ridiculously low prices.

The Kingston DataTraveler 150 USB drive is now shipping with 32 GB for $117, and with a gignormous 64 GB for $177 -- conveniently in holiday red coloring.

Again, shop around for the best pricing -- as I write this, Amazon sellers have the DT150 32 GB for $84, and 64 GB for $126.

So now there's no excuse for not backing up your stuff!

See my Portable Storage Gallery for more on storage formats and devices.

    Find Kingston DataTraveler 150 USB drive on Amazon.com

December 5, 2008

Holiday Gadgets and Trends

The radio stations were playing Christmas music even before Thanksgiving, but it's going to take more than a perky soundtrack to shake the blues from the current economic turmoil.

In October, the Consumer Electronics Association estimated that spending for CE products would grow 3.5 percent for the fourth quarter, even as total holiday spending per household declined by 14 percent. But now the CEA has chopped its holiday sales forecast to a barely positive 0.1%, based on the severity and speed of price declines and weakness in consumer demand.

So this year brings even more focus on nesting -- or even cocooning -- close to home. Yet even though this isn't a time for extravagant spending, you will find that today's tech gadgets are more useful than ever, and are more tempting as prices continue under pressure -- to make those winter nights or long trips more pleasant and even enjoyable.

So here's my Holiday Gadgets 2008 annual summary of some interesting new products, highlighting portable devices that also help illustrate developing trends you can look for in the year ahead, and with links to my Galleries and blog postings for more information.

Happy 0.1%!

December 8, 2008

Eye-Fi Wi-Fi SD Card: Not Just for Digital Cameras

I had fun trying out the Eye-Fi Explore Wi-Fi SD Memory card the past week ($129, see previous post).

While the Eye-Fi card is currently designed to be used with digital cameras to upload photo files (i.e., JPGs), it's tempting to think about how it could evolve to be used more generally. In particular, video camcorders also use SD cards, and also can shoot still photos ... Hmmm ...

So I tried out the Eye-Fi card with the Kodak Zi6 HD Pocket Video Camera, which fits in a shirt pocket and yet shoots both standard-definition and HD video, as well as 3 MP still photos ($179, see previous post).

The card worked great -- transferring photos as I shot them while in range of the wireless signal, and also uploading additional photos that I had shot while out of range.

Just be aware that the Eye-Fi card drains the battery in ways that these cameras and camcorders may not expect. After a couple minutes of use, the Zi6's battery indicator was down to the red line. But the batteries were not drained, and the indicator when back to normal after cycling the power.

See my Digital Cameras Gallery for details on the Eye-Fi cards.

See my Digital Camcorders Gallery for details on pocket video camcorders.

    Find the Kodak Zi6 HD Camera and
    Eye-Fi Explore Wi-Fi SD Card on Amazon.com

December 9, 2008

The Multimedia BlackBerry Storm

The new BlackBerry Storm from Verizon Wireless is a heretical abomination, abandoning the dedicated "crackberry" keyboard that stressed the thumbs of communications-obsessed executives in favor of focusing on multimedia features.

Instead of a physical keyboard, the Storm has a large 3 1/4 inch screen that covers the front surface of the device, with a new "clickable" touch-screen design -- You actually feel the screen depressing and releasing like a keyboard, with a subtle "click" sound.

So does how well does it work? Well, it's clear that David Pogue was not thrilled with the Storm, calling it "... by far the worst product Research in Motion has ever produced. I had problems with its concept, problems with its clicky touch screen, problems with its speed, and above all, problems with bugs." Ouch!

Yes, the software is sluggish, so you wait for seconds for it to switch from portrait to landscape orientation. And the clickable touch-screen can be aggravating, as you can touch gently to scroll and pan and zoom, but then need to remember to press extra hard to click icons and keys. Typing on a virtual keyboard with tiny keys is still troublesome: the screen highlights each key as you touch it, but you then still need to press firmly to actually enter it, and it's so easy to make mistakes as your larger fingertip to roll off to an adjacent key.

It's also interesting to see how the BlackBerry interface is mapped on a touch screen. For example, to save screen real estate it omits window titles to identify what you are doing, and removes OK and Cancel buttons in dialogs -- so you need to move down to the keyboard to use the Enter key to confirm, or move further to use the physical Escape (Back) key to cancel.

The bottom line is that the BlackBerry Storm is an interesting effort to create a multimedia smartphone by moving the BlackBerry interface to a touch-screen device. While it's not the answer for rabid "crackberry" communicators, it does allow other functions like Web browsing and certainly media playback to run better on the larger screen. As on the iPhone, touch-typing on the small virtual keyboard can be difficult, and it's not clear that the new "clickable" display is the answer.

So you should regard the Storm as a version 1 product with improvements to come, suitable for early adopters and technology enthusiasts, and not really for the broader mass market.

(To check for software upgrades on the Storm, use Options > Adv Options > Wireless Upgrade. On my unit, the 14 MB download for version completed in around 7 minutes, and the upgrade process then took about half an hour.)

See full article: Much Ado: The BlackBerry Storm from Verizon Wireless

See my Mobile Communications Gallery for more on smartphones.

    Find the Verizon BlackBerry Storm on Amazon.com

December 11, 2008

The T-Mobile G1 / Google Android Smartphone

The T-Mobile G1 smartphone is the first commercial implementation of the Google Android design (see previous post).

The Android platform is being developed by the Open Handset Alliance -- which just announced the addition of 14 new members interested in deploying new Android devices, contributing to the Android Open Source software project, or providing other support.

The G1 is an impressive first product, with solid hardware and interface -- but it's not for everybody. It's not intended as a full phone / PDA / Internet / multimedia device. And it doesn't sync to desktop data (like Outlook) or desktop media (like iTunes). Instead, it's clearly focused on people who live on the go, and on the Internet, accessing Gmail and Google's suite of online services from whatever system is available.

The G1's interface is clean and responsive, designed with subtle touches to help you understand what you can do in the current context. For example, the Home screen displays a tab to slide out and show all the available applications, then just click and drag favorites to the Home screen. Zoom controls automatically appear when you touch the screen in the Browser or photo viewer. And the background dims and goes out of focus behind a pop-up dialog.

Online access is improved by the built-in Wi-Fi wireless networking, which connected quickly and easily at sites like the Princeton Public Library and on the Princeton University campus to browse the Web or play YouTube clips with minimal delay.

The Google-centered focus of the G1 is shown when you first power up, as it asks you to enter your Google account information (or offers to create an account for you). This then is the profile for your phone, used by the built-in Gmail application. But you only can have one such profile, which would be an issue for people with multiple online identities.

The T-Mobile G1 is a quite solid first implementation of the Android platform. Yes, it has glaring omissions as a PDA, and huge gaps in its multimedia features (including no video support). But if you live in the Google cloud online, then this already is close to an ideal device for you. The rest of us will have to wait for other Android products, and see how Google and the developer community add new applications in the Android Market to shake out this device for more conventional use with desktop systems.

See full article: Living in the Online Cloud: The T-Mobile G1 / Google Android Smartphone

See my Mobile Communications Gallery for more on smartphones.

December 15, 2008

CDSA Media Market Intelligence Summit Tomorrow in NY

The CDSA Media Market Intelligence Summit is tomorrow in New York City, sponsored by the Content Delivery & Storage Association.

The CDSA publishes Mediaware Magazine -- which I edit -- and is a global trade association focusing on the innovative and responsible delivery and storage of entertainment, software, and information content.

The Summit brings together companies involved in delivering both physical and digital media, to discuss how to best weather the economic storm, expand HD content with Blu-ray, and address developments in securing intellectual property.

Speakers include:

  • Michael Frey of Sony DADC, on increasing production capacity for Blu-ray

  • Adam Powers of Macrovision, on distributing over home networks

  • Daniel Schreiber of SanDisk, on future opportunities for Flash memory

  • Bill Wohnoutka of Level 3, on the role of Content Distribution Networks

Other sessions include discussions of expanding the use of Blu-ray though independent producers and BD-Live interactivity, and coverage of market developments from Jim Bottoms of Futuresource and Steve Koenig of the CEA.

The CDSA Media Market Intelligence Summit will be held at the Marriott New York East Side on December 16, from 8 am to 4 pm.

December 19, 2008

Walter Bender on the Sugar Software for OLPC

The One Laptop per Child (OLPC) project (see Wikipedia), founded by Nicholas Negroponte (co-founder and director of the MIT Media Laboratory) has reopened its Give One Get One program (see Wikipedia) so you can donate an XO laptop for a child for $199, or to get a laptop and donate a second for $399 (purchase through Amazon.com).

The OLPC XO was designed for use by for the world's poorest children, as a rugged, low-cost, low-power, connected laptop. It includes a rugged plastic exterior and membrane-covered keyboard, rotating display (readable under direct sunlight), plus built-in wireless (the side antennas cleverly rotate down lock the cover closed).

The OLPC XO runs custom-designed software called Sugar, designed for children to encourage exploration, creativity, and collaboration. (The OLPC also announced last May that it would also offer a version of Microsoft Windows.)
(Main screen with views (network, activities) at top, activities at bottom.)

The Sugar development platform is now available as stand-alone software from Sugar Labs, a non-profit foundation formed to produce, distribute, and support the use of Sugar as a learning platform (see Wikipedia).

Walter Bender is the founder of Sugar Labs, and former president for software and content for the original development of the software at OLPC.

Bender spoke last night about Sugar to the Princeton, N.J. joint chapters of the ACM and IEEE Computer Society.

Continue reading "Walter Bender on the Sugar Software for OLPC" »

December 20, 2008

Daniel Schreiber of SanDisk on the slotMusic Format

Buying music on CDs (physical media, for heaven sakes!) is so 90's -- everybody knows that digital music is the future, right? But contrary to the hype, CDs are far from dead. Like other research companies, Forrester Research projects that the sales of digital music downloads will eventually overtake CD sales -- but not until 2012.

But speaking at the CDSA Media Market Intelligence Summit (see previous post), Daniel Schreiber of SanDisk offered an alternative future for music delivery. In his view, the decline of the CD was not because people do not want music in physical formats, but instead was the result of the demise of the CD player -- Those shiny optical discs were so sexy when they were introduced, but now are just too big for today's lifestyles. CDs no longer fit in our world of hand-held devices, cell phones and PDAs.

But there is a physical storage format that does fit in these devices -- the tiny microSD memory card (about the size of a pinky finger nail), explicitly designed for use in mobile devices, and easily accessed on PCs with a SD card adapter. And some 80% of music-enabled mobile phones already sport a microSD slot. Hmmm ...

So SanDisk, in partnership with the four major music labels, has introduced the new slotMusic format (see previous post) -- music "albums" sold on standard microSD cards.

A typical slotMusic card release contains some 12 songs, and sells for around $14.99, much like a CD. Even better, the music is stored in standard MP3 format, without any copy protection, so you're free to copy it to other devices. And the cards are standard 1 GB microSD flash memory (about the size of a pinky finger nail), so they can be freely used to store any other data.

Schreiber said that 30 to 40 titles have been released in slotMusic format (more than the first year of CD), available from SanDisk (plus a Sansa slotMusic MP3 player), and from Best Buy and Wal-Mart. Schreiber pointed to new releases from Rihanna and Tim McGraw that already have seen 6% to 10% of sales on slotMusic.

Schreiber concluded by stressing the continued power of flash memory, which has has seen the pricing reduced 10,000X in the 18 years it has been available. In the late 90s, flash memory replaced chemical film in digital cameras, and more recently USB drives have replaced the floppy disk in computers. And we are now starting to see the Solid State Drive (SSD) doing the same to hard disks, especially in notebooks.

Schreiber echoed the Einstein quote, "The most powerful force in the universe is compound interest," looking forward to further compounding of the potential of flash memory. For example, through adding intelligence to the memory, not only for applications like built-in security and DRM, but even including a Web server to provide networked access to storage within a phone and network.

See my Portable Media Players Gallery for more on the Sansa slotMusic player and other music and video players

See full article -- SanDisk slotMusic - A New Music Format

More from Schreiber on Consumers and Physical Media ...

Continue reading "Daniel Schreiber of SanDisk on the slotMusic Format" »

December 21, 2008

SanDisk Sansa slotMusic Player and Cards

I've discussed the new SanDisk slotMusic card format for selling music "albums" on microSD cards (see previous posts), and now I've had a chance to try it out.

The slotMusic card format is designed for easy access -- it's just have standard MP3 files stored on standard memory cards with no copy protection.

The cards are readily playable in billions of mobile phones with microSD slots, the files can be copied to other devices, and the card can be used for other data storage.

Some 30 to 40 titles have been released in slotMusic format, and are available for around $14.99, from SanDisk, and from Best Buy and Wal-Mart.

For example, the slotMusic version of the Robert Thicke album, Someting Else, has a Music folder with the 12 MP3 tracks, plus bonus material: an Extras folder with a few photos of Thicke and a Video folder with three music clips and an interview. And all that uses 530 MB, so almost half the capacity of the card is still available.

(The photos are a mix of low and high res, JPEG and TIF, and the videos are each in three formats: 3GP for phones, MP4 for PC playback, and AVI for the Sansa Fuze.)

The slotMusic titles are packaged in a CD-sized case with a slide-out plastic insert. The case has front and back album cover art and information, with a small booklet inside the back. The plastic insert has a perforated tab to rip open easily -- but then has no provision for closing it back up to store your music. SanDisk says this is a known issue, and the product should have a way to store the card conveniently in the CD case packaging.

The plastic insert contains the slotMusic card with the music, a small plastic storage case, and a mini USB adapter. The storage case has the front cover album art to identify it, which is important because the card itself does not identify its contents -- It just has the slotMusic and microSD logos, not the album or artist information.

To play the music, slip the slotMusic card into your mobile phone or other portable device, or onto your PC (using the included USB adapter).

If you want a separate playback device, there's also the new SanDisk Sansa slotMusic Player -- designed to be simple and inexpensive ($19.99), since it just plays microSD cards -- there's no internal memory and no display.

The player has simple controls -- play/stop, forward/reverse, and volume up/down. The slot in the player is on one end, and is spring-loaded, so the card inserts firmly and is recessed in the player body.

There's also no PC / USB interface for transferring files (that's what the microSD card is for) -- or for recharging an internal battery. Instead, the player uses a removable AAA battery, so it's significantly huskier than the iPod shuffle and other minimalist players.

For big music fans, SanDisk offers bundles with a slotMusic album and associated slotMusic Player for $34.99 -- with the player customized with the album art.

See my Portable Media Players Gallery for more on the Sansa slotMusic player and other music and video players

See full article -- SanDisk slotMusic - A New Music Format

December 24, 2008

magicJack Easy VoIP Phone Service

(with Tim Geoghan)

(Almost) free phone calls! Who can resist? VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) allows users of software like Skype to make free phone calls over the Internet to other Skype users, and, for a fee, also make calls to landline and mobile phones. But PC-to-PC voice connections do not replace having a fixed phone number to make and receive any calls. And using these kinds of services requires installing and running software and calling from a computer using a headset.

Instead, magicJack provides the benefits of VOIP cost reductions in the form of a small USB device that connects a regular telephone to a computer, and from there to phone service over the Internet.

Each magicJack device is basically a portable phone service, with a regular ten-digit telephone number. Sign up for the $39.95 annual subscription, and you can receive calls at that number from anyone in the world, you can call any other magicJack user for free, and you can call for free to numbers in the U.S., Canada, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico. You also can buy International minutes to make calls to other countries.

Since the service is associated with the magicJack device, it works from anywhere in the world that you've connected your computer to the Internet. (Or just take along the magicJack device, and plug it into another computer wherever you are -- you're also taking the phone number with you.)

One end of the magicJack has a USB connection, to plug into a computer. But there's no software to install -- it runs directly from the device (Windows, and Intel Mac beta). And there's no special equipment -- the other end of the magicJack has a standard phone jack (RJ-11), so just plug in a standard telephone and pick it up to hear the dial tone and start making calls.

The magicJack service also includes Directory Assistance, Caller ID, Call Waiting, Call Forwarding, Voicemail, and enhanced 911, all at no extra charge. If your computer or magicJack is not active, incoming calls will be routed to voicemail. You also can use Follow Me to redirect incoming calls to up to three other phone lines.

The magicJack device with one year subscription is $39.95, and the service is $19.95 for additional years. Also check the magicJack site for free 30-day trial offers.

Overall: The magicJack is an interesting option for VoIP phone service, with the potential to save a bunch of money. It's a matter of personal preference whether you want to ditch your land line for this kind of service. The magicJack is best for people who are tech savvy, or who call internationally to Canada, the U.S. Virgin Islands, or Puerto Rico.

    Find the magicJack on Amazon.com

More on using the magicJack ...

Continue reading "magicJack Easy VoIP Phone Service" »

December 26, 2008

Energizer Power & Play Chargers for Game Controllers

Having fun with your new gaming systems? Those wireless controllers are fun, but can eat up batteries, especially for enthusiastic gamers.

So you may want to use rechargeable batteries, with a charging station to store your controllers like the Energizer Power & Play Charging Systems, created though a licensing agreement with Performance Designed Products (PDP).

- The Energizer Power & Play Charging System for Nintendo Wii ($39.99 list) charges two remotes, and includes two rechargeable battery packs, and two battery covers.

- The Energizer Power & Play Charging System for Microsoft Xbox 360 ($29.99 list) is a tiered charging cradle that charges up to two Xbox 360 controllers simultaneously in 2 1/2 hours. (Rechargeable batteries not included.)

- The Energizer Power & Play Charging System for Sony PS3 ($29.99 list) then charges up to four PlayStation 3 controllers simultaneously in 2 1/2 hours -- two on the main unit, and 2 more using USB cables (sold separately).

See more in my Portable Power Accessories Gallery

Find the Energizer Power & Play Chargers for
    Wii, Xbox 360, and PS3 on Amazon.com

December 29, 2008

Monster Outlets to Go 3 USB Power Strip

Why is it that even today's business hotels -- with road warrior amenities like a combo alarm clock / iPod dock, and executive desk with zillion-button speaker phone and Ethernet cable -- still don't provide enough power outlets? After a long trip, there's nothing like the joy of crawling under the desk and curtains and bed to trace the wiring and find available outlets (last time by rewiring the coffee pot).

So it's smart to pack an extension cord and multi-outlet power strip, so you can recharge your phone, power your notebook, and still have outlets to spare for a PDA, camera, or other gear.

The Monster Outlets to Go line of power strips is particularly handy for travel. They're light and compact, with flat right-angle plugs and widely-spaced outlets to accommodate bulky power adapters. And the unit's cord wraps around and plugs neatly into itself.

These are available with 3, 4, and 6 outlets for $14.95, $19.95, and $29.95 (list), in white, silver and black.

The new Monster Outlets to Go 3 USB has 3 AC outlets -- plus a USB port to recharge compatible devices such as cell phones, media players, and cameras, for $29.99.

See more in my Portable Power Accessories Gallery and Portable Peripherals and Accessories Gallery

Find the Monster Outlets to Go 3, Outlets to Go 4,
and Outlets to Go 6 on Amazon.com

December 30, 2008

DVI Technology - Digital Video on a PC, circa 1982

Sometimes you get lucky, and are in the right place at the right time to have the chance to get involved in a great experience.

This month marks the 20th anniversary of the Intel's acquisition of our DVI (Digital Video Interactive) Technology group from the RCA Sarnoff Labs in Princeton, N.J. This was great and ground-breaking project that ran from 1982 to 1992 -- a decade of moving our ideas from research ideas to simulations to prototypes to real products.

So I've posted a set of DVI Technology pages to highlight our efforts. Comments, corrections, and additions are welcome.

The environment at Sarnoff in the early 80's combined deep expertise in analog television, image processing, and the new wave of digital signal processing. But still imagine the hubris of our research group in 1982, suggesting that you could compress video down to the 150 KBps data rate of a CD-ROM, and then play it back on a 6 MHz PC / AT -- full-color, full-screen, full-motion, interactive digital video.

Starting in 1983, we prototyped and demoed our concepts on our huge DEC VAX 11/780 minicomputer (a timeshared system that ran at an amazing 1 MIPS -- we used it as a personal computer), using expensive Ikonas graphics systems to simulate what we claimed we could do with PC add-in boards.

By 1985, we were working with outside developers to create pilot applications that ran on PCs, simulating our hardware with a Truevision Targa graphics board and videodisc player.

Then, even with the churn of the General Electric acquisition of RCA in 1986, we built our first DVI chips and boards, and held the public unveiling of DVI at the Second Microsoft CD-ROM Conference in March 1987. Ta da!

G.E. sold the DVI technology to Intel in November 1988, and most of our original team transferred to Intel to productize the technology, shipping several generations of chip and board products through 1992, when DVI morphed into Intel products including the Indeo video compression codec, Smart Video Recorder boards, and ProShare video conferencing systems.

This was a great team working together to do things that were thought impossible -- Digital video at audio data rates?! Real-time video on a PC?!

It turns out that crazy things are possible, and can make working hard fun too... There's a lesson in there.

Manifest Tech Site

About December 2008

Entries posted to Manifest Tech Blog in December 2008, listed from oldest to newest.

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