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December 27, 2003

iTunes Purchase

When I got the iPod I also had to get Apple's iTunes (well, not really; I wound up sticking with Windows 98 and using Ephpod to get songs onto the iPod, but I did set up a Windows 2000 hard drive and load iTunes on it).

After a number of weeks I finally got all the security patches in place for Windows 2000 and felt like I could take iTunes for a spin on the internet and download some songs. 99 cents per song is really pretty reasonable. I've bought entire albums before because they had 3 good songs. The problem with downloading is you don't actually have something to hold. I think that tangible ownership is an important part of having music, but maybe I'm just old fashioned. Cover art used to be giant and double albums (and plenty of single albums) would open up to even bigger artwork in the middle. CD covers just aren't as impressive though some of the disc graphics are kind of neat.

I digress. I have a dial-up connection to the internet so it took me over 2 hours to download 11 songs. But that gave me a whole CD of great songs for only $10.89. Apple uses a format it calls AAC but the file extension is .m4p. Supposedly it is better quality but seems to take up about the same amount of disk space as a .mp3 ripped at 128 kbps or about 1 MB per minute. Somehow they can tell how many machines the song is loaded on and you are limited to five. However you can burn the song onto CD which converts it to a .wav file taking up 10 MB per minute but then I'm guessing you could rip that CD back to .mp3. Anyway, I used iTunes to burn a CD of my 11 songs and it sounded great (though the recording levels seemed to vary) and played without a problem in my car and my home stereo. It didn't even need to use the CD Writer software, it's just built in to iTunes.

Anyway, it was overall a very satisfying experience. Much cleaner and easier than searching for things on the internet and downloading bad versions or getting disconnected in the middle of a download.

They still don't have everything. I wanted to get Werewolves of London by Warren Zevon, but all iTunes had was a live version that I wasn't interested in. And there you have to be careful because artists often change a song when they put it on a compilation album or "re-mix". Because all sales at iTunes are final you have to do some research and find out which album has the right version. I guess they had about 75% of what I was looking for.

See a follow-up entry.

December 25, 2003

Archos Use

I let Jeb borrow my Archos indefinitely. It is a great device, with a 20 GB hard drive that will play MP3's but also act as an external hard drive (at least to Windows machines).

You can download the drivers at:


It is a Archos Jukebox, not a recorder. In particular it is the Archos Jukebox Studio 20.

This is the Yahoo group about the product:


And this is the group of software writers that wrote the new operating system Rockbox that makes the Jukebox more useful:


With Rockbox installed (as it is currently) here's the basic operation:

To turn it on: Hold down the ON button until the hard drive starts to spin up.

There are three modes you can be in. Play mode is while you are playing a song. The buttons act like you might expect. Pause pauses. + fast forwards if you hold it down and skips to the next song if you press it and let go. - goes rewinds or skips back. STOP stops the song. Holding STOP down will turn the machine off. If you want to have the song pick up right where you left off you have to pause and then turn it off, otherwise it will pick up where the hard drive last ran which could be a minute or two earlier in the song. To change the volume hold MENU (or ON?) and use + or -.

In browse mode you use + and - to scroll through a list of directories or files. PLAY will enter a directory (or start playing a song or playlist). STOP will let you go up one directory level.

Then there is menu mode which you get to by pressing Menu anytime. You can change all kinds of preferences, put it in shuffle mode, change backlight setting, adjust the tone, etc. It even has some way of making playlists.

The operating system is a file called ARCHOS.MOD stored on the root of the player. ARCHOSv57.MOD is the original operating system which works differently and can't resume in the middle of a song. ROCKBOXv13.MOD is the Rockbox OS. You can switch back and forth by renaming either of those files ARCHOS.MOD. (I think the current ARCHOS.MOD is actually Rockbox 1.4).

There is a set of preferences that allows you to change the display while a song is playing. You can have it show time remaining, track number, file names, tags like Artist, Song Title, etc. It's cumbersome but it works. You'll have to refer to the Rockbox documentation to figure it out. Those settings are stored in the .ROCKBOX folder in a file called system.wps


Don't let the batteries run all the way down. The adapter I included should be set to 12 volts even thought the Archos jack says 9 volts. If you set it to 9V the batteries will never recharge fully (while recharging it will say "Batteries Charging" and then change to "Batteries Charged" when done about 6 hours later). Don't leave it plugged in all the time; the hard drive will run to dissipate the extra power once the batteries are charged up. Don't reverse the polarity on the adapter by removing the adapter head and putting it on wrong. When charging the batteries make sure the Archos is well-ventilated or it will melt. Really. Some guy wrote and said he had his plugged in and fell asleep and his pillow fell on it and he woke up and the thing was melted.

Taking out the batteries is ridiculous, but you shouldn't have to do it very often. I'll have to show you how. You use the little notch in the case to push the silver side-piece out just a little (a millimeter maybe) and then pry the top of the sidepiece near the blue bumper upwards and the bottom upwards. But it is easy to break it or damage it if you don't do it right.

Don't use the line out: It is very weak. Use the headphone jack. Don't lose the USB cable; it is unique. The LINE IN doesn't do anything. The Archos skips if it gets jarred a lot while playing.

You can erase anything you want on there (I have a copy of everything on my hard drive). The Archos should play any kind of MP3 file you put on there as well as .m3u playlists but not any other kind of audio file. I think it can also open text files but you can't see them while browsing unless you change the setting so that you can see all files. Because it is USB it will take several hours to rewrite everything to its hard drive, so make sure it is plugged in (it doesn't use USB power) when it will be hoooked up to a computer for a while.

December 21, 2003

Dish Network PVR

This is a response to a person on AMUG who was thinking about buying a PVR and asked for advice . . .

I bought a Dish PVR 500 (or 501?) a couple of years ago. It's the greatest thing since color. It records about 1 hour per gigabyte. Mine has a 40 GB drive in it and that's really plenty. I've got stuff on there I've saved for months (if you don't protect a show, then the oldest shows will automatically be deleted to make room for new shows when the hard drive gets full) and not watched that I could get rid of if I needed the space. Now they have much bigger hard drives so I don't see that as being a problem.

I love being able to skip commericals with the click of a button. John said he had a DirecTV model that did it automatically but it's so much more satisfying to do it yourself. Then if you overskip you can back up in 10-second increments, so you wind up doing that almost every time. It lets you watch an hour of television in 45 minutes and some shows have 5 minutes of commercials during a break (10 presses of a button)!

It's also nice to be able to pause a show and get behind so you can skip commericals to catch back up. Or you can pause and take a break for a while (up to an hour).

And the great thing is you watch what you want when you want meaning a lot less channel surfing but maybe spending more time in front of the TV. I record ABC news every night and never have to miss it. I record Saturday Night Live and then skip over the lame sketches (most of it). I record Ebert and Roeper at 1:30 AM and watch it on Monday. And it's very easy: you just click through the onscreen TV guide and when you find something you want you click Record. You can't record two different things at the same time and you can't watch one thing live while you record another channel (that's a drawback of satellite; though the newer ones may be able to tune two signals at the same time). But you can be recording while you watch something you recorded earlier. A lot of cable shows come on multiple times so if a show causes a conlflict a lot of times you can get one of those shows at 2 in the morning when it shows again.

The Dish PVR isn't as smart as Tivo. If you program it to record West Wing from 9 to 10 and there's a baseball game or an episode of Law and Order instead, it still records 9 to 10. That isn't terrible in my opinion. And as far as I know the signal isn't compressed with the PVR whereas with Tivo it has to be compressed because they hold so many more hours than a PVR (the satellite signal is already pretty compressed but looks good; I think the PVR just records that compressed signal from the satellite).

The PVR puts a significant delay in the broadcast of a few seconds. You can't listen to Larry Munson on the radio while watching a Georgia game because he will tell you what happens before the play even starts. Ditto baseball, etc.

I bought my PVR and it broke under warranty and they replaced it. I think they are very sensitive to heat so you can't stack other components on them or put them in a closed space. The reliability may have gotten better, but there are a lot of stories of them failing. Leasing might not be a bad option and would allow you to upgrade as they make improvements. In general I believe in buying instead of leasing and not paying monthly fees. I haven't had any trouble since I got my replacement and left the unit in the open (it comes with a UHF remote so you can leave it behind a wall and still control it; it does make some noise).

Because the High Definition signal has so much more data, you can't use the PVR with HDTV (if you could an 80 GB drive might only record 10 hours). That's a drawback, but I'm not doing HDTV yet.

The only way I know of permanently saving a PVR show is to record it onto videotape (which I do occasionally if I see a show and want to lend it to someone; sometimes I also need to record things for my cableless parents), so the one Royce is talking about that records to DVD would be neat to have though I would think the broadcasters would have ways to prevent you from doing that because of copyright violations.

I'd recommend the PVR and I don't know why you don't hear more about it. It seems like all the articles are about Tivo or Replay, but the Dish PVR is great and doesn't have a monthly fee.

December 20, 2003

iPod Accessories

Tidbits this week and last week had gift ideas for iPod owners.


Since I don't know any iPod owners except for me, I bought myself a gift (in ultra-violet):


The Tidbits guy likes it because (among other things) it takes some of the sensitivity away from the buttons.

One other accessory that is pretty neat is podlet that you connect to the top of the iPod that receives signals from a remote control. So that way you can hook up the iPod to your stereo and then skip forward, back, pause, control the volume, etc. with a remote. This guy suggests connecting the iPod to . . . . a PAL for a dynamite portable audio system. And he has a picture of it (the trouble, as he points out, is that while you can control the iPod from across the room, you can't actually see anything on the display from across the room):


It's as if there is complete closure in the world. No doubt he has some way of turning the iPod into an Apache server so he can host Movable Type web logs too while listening to Lyle Lovett and Randy Newman.

December 19, 2003

Playing an MP3 from Access

I have a database of all my CD's in Access. I've included lyrics and some reviews but one thing I always wanted to do was be able to play a selected song at the click of a button. Once I started ripping all my CD's this became possible even though it wouldn't be practical to store all the files in the database itself.

I couldn't find a VBA command that would make a file open, essentially replicating a double-click in Windows Explorer. But I could make Access follow a hyperlink on the form. So I made an invisible field and had the routine write a hyperlink in there and then had it follow that link.

The code wasn't too bad, I just had it combine the artist name, a slash, and the song name and tacked ".mp3" on the end (it works unless the song has a ? or : or other such characters which my MP3 ripper converts to _ when writing the file name). Then I had to tack the path to the front including the alphabetical subfolder (for instance "JKL/" for Led Zeppelin).

The problem I had was Access would generate a message that said "It is dangerous to download files from the internet, are you sure you want to open this file?" or something like that. That was annoying. But I found a web site that pointed out that the error was really part of Windows 98 and to fix it you just had to go to Windows Explorer and edit the file associations. Under Tools:Folder Options you click the File Types tab and find MP3 files (which for me were under Winamp files) and then edit that. There is a checkbox that says "Confirm open after download" and if you clear that box, you won't get the warning anymore.

Works like a charm! And of course it wasn't too hard to do the same thing with the CD title to play the whole album, tacking ".m3u" on the end of the CD name.

The other problem I ran into was when I reformatted my hard drive and reinstalled all of my software I was getting error messages that didn't even let the database's Alpha filter work (letting you just see the L groups for instance instead of scrolling or searching). I don't know where the conflict came about but I did an installation repair on Office 2000 and it started working again.

December 6, 2003

Netflix epilogue

I cancelled my Netflix membership after 4 months (see original post. My plan wasn't to stay subscribed to it for long, just long enough to get caught up on watching a lot of movies. I was happy with the service. It rarely took more than one work day for movies to make it from me to them or vice versa. So if you were really diligent you could watch a movie just about every day.

Really the limiting factor is how much time you have to watch movies and how many movies do you really want to see? If you start picking marginal movies then you will procrastinate watching them. Or if you have a busy life you won't be able to watch them.

Anyway, I was able to watch 13 movies in August, 12 in September, 11 in October, and 7 in November. For $20 a month, plus tax, that comes out to about $2 per rental. I think I only returned one movie that I decided I just wasn't going to watch, plus a couple that I didn't watch all the way through.

For the newest hottest movies, you may have to wait a couple of weeks to see them. One in particular, The Italian Job, had a "long wait" on it for several weeks. But most of what I was looking for were movies that had been out for a while and they were available as soon as they worked their way to the top of my queue.

It's a neat concept and it works great for a few months.

Follow-up: Two years later I tried Netflix again