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February 25, 2007

The Archos Lives

Now that he has an 80 GB iPod, Jeb returned the Archos after three years of borrowing it. Also it didn't work anymore. archos.jpgWell, kind of. If I hooked it up to my computer (had to install the drivers since my current computer had never seen the Archos before) it would act as an external hard drive, but by itself it wouldn't spin up its hard drive and seemed to freeze while trying to boot up. I could turn it off and it would flash HD FAIL before turning off. So it was useless as a music player.

I looked on the Yahoo group (still around, but not so active) and found some different theories on the problem. Some said reformatting the hard drive on Windows 98 would help, others said something had to be resoldered inside. I tried the formatting via my old computer and got nowhere. Still, since it worked as a hard drive, I figured I would take it to work and use it to back up my e-mail archive which is now about 2 gigabytes and therefore too big for a CD, flash drive, or even one of my big SD cards. Unfortunately, for some reason when I connected the Archos at work it would crash my computer. Yikes.

Still, I couldn't just give up completely. So today I connected it to my home computer. It was working fine as a hard drive and I thought maybe if I deactivated it on the PC and then turned it on real quickly the hard drive would spin up. For whatever reason, the Archos came back to life! I loaded it up with about 15 GB of music (at old USB speeds this took about 4 hours).

Now I've got it playing on battery power through my computer speakers and it sounds as good as ever. It's even got the latest Rockbox software installed. They are up to v2.5 now. The people at Rockbox (a group of independent developers who offer a free alternative operating system to the original Archos system) also have written a new version of firmware, the basic operating system that is hard wired into memory. I thought that might help the booting problem (or the cause of it), but it doesn't look like my model allows the flash ROM to be updated.

February 19, 2007

Better Headphones

Last year I bought some Sony headphones that I thought were pretty good, but had some problems.


Sometime in the summer I left those headphones in my pocket and they did not survive the washing and drying. I was on the lookout for something new and found a lot of raves for Sennheiser CX300 earbud headphones. These lacked the over-the-ear clip of the Sony but were otherwise essentially the same design, down to the 3 sizes of rubber ear parts which are interchangeable with the Sony ones (making me wonder if Sony doesn't build these for Sennheiser). Both block out most but not all noise around you, so they are good for MARTA. And both have different lengths of cable to each earbud so that you pass the longer one (on the right) behind your neck (not sure if I like that or not). These cost more, $50 vs. $30. But the sound is much more even. With the Sony I would have to cut back on the bass and treble to get an even frequency response, but with the Sennheisers I don't have to make any adjustments. Also the cord seems a little heavier duty than the Sony cord which some people on Amazon said would disintegrate over time. So I'm quite happy. As much as people rave about these on iLounge, Amazon, and elsewhere, you would think these would be a life-changing experience. However, it's not like the music gets any better.

February 9, 2007


About six years ago I bought a surround sound system. At the time Dolby Digital 5.1, where a DVD would have six distinct tracks of audio, was still pretty rare (they had Dolby Surround aka Dolby 2.0) and there was a premium for receivers that could decode the signal. Instead I found a DVD player that would decode it and had outputs for all six signals. The AIWA audio system I chose also lacked a separate subwoofer (the ".1" part of "5.1") so I never had the thundering bass of some systems. Most annoyingly, the surround speakers would emit a low static noise whenever the receiver was on, which became annoying if there wasn't any other sound to drown it out. I had other nits to pick as well, like any time the power went out, the thing would flash the time. I don't know why the receiver needed to know the time in the first place.

So I had been looking for a replacement. When a friend at work was shopping for them several months ago I almost bought a system that consisted of a combined DVD and amplifier which would simplify the tangle of connections behind the coffee table with my video equipment. Ultimately I decided against that option because I didn't want to be stuck with an old-fashioned DVD player in the system, knowing I would get a HD-DVD or Blu-ray player in the next couple of years (once the formats stop competing and the prices come down).

But for some reason I got the bug again and started researching my options. Eventually I found a system ranked highly by Consumer Reports made by Onkyo (model HT-S790). It was about the same price as the AIWA system was all of those years ago, but included a powered subwoofer, Dolby 5.1 and DTS (a different 5.1 system) decoding. And it had 7 surround speakers instead of 5. It was also a good fit for me because it allowed 3 optical audio inputs and I had three devices with optical out. Instead of using wires, there is a fiber optic line that carries a red laser signal between the component (DVD player, satellite receiver, or HD receiver in my case) and the receiver. That way there is no electronic interference and the digital signal loses no information. And that one cable carries all of the audio that might otherwise be carried by six different copper cables. So I also bought three of these cable off of Amazon for about $5 each (actually they were $.01 with $5 shipping each; but they work at least). The optical system is called Toslink where "tos" is short for Toshiba, who developed it.

Circuit City seems to be a major seller of the Onkyo system and their website had tons of glowing reviews whereas other systems I was looking at by Sony and Panasonic had a number of people who were not happy. They were running a special with $100 off and offered a $50 rebate on the silver model (it is also available in black). I visited a Circuit City this weekend to look at the system, but they didn't offer any of the markdowns so they were still selling the system at $500. I ordered it online Sunday and got free shipping. For an extra $5 I got third day shipping and the 97-pound box arrived Wednesday, from Marion, Illinois, in time for the 2007 premier of Lost.

Eventually I found a very good thread about this particular system, which again reinforced what a good value the system is (you can get better systems by buying separate components, but they will cost at least twice as much). They also had a good tip on some speaker stands from Walmart which I bought on Tuesday.

I spent a couple of hours Wednesday night setting the system up. I don't have the back speakers hooked up yet, but I don't have any sources that use those speakers directly anyway (you can run a mode where some of the surround sound will be directed to the back speakers). High def DVD's support 7.1 sound.

I was a little disappointed that Dish Network offers hardly any shows with 5.1 audio. They have a couple of pay-per-view movies that have it, but that's it. So mostly you just get stereo. The HD broadcast of Lost did use 5.1 sound, but I didn't notice it much. Plus, because I'm receiving HD channels over a rooftop antenna, only about half of the stations are consistently clear (Lost's network, ABC, sometimes drops out but was pretty clear last night; Sunday's Superbowl on CBS was unwatchable on HD for me). Tonight I tried a DVD with DTS audio, Master and Commander. I tuned to one of the battles where ships are firing cannons at each other. It was impressive, with deep booming from the subwoofer, and splintering planks and explosions in the surround speakers.

One problem with how I have the system right now is that I have to switch the audio separately from the video. So if I want to switch from satellite to HD I have to switch the TV for the video and then switch the receiver for the audio. If I just use the TV speakers that isn't a problem. Onkyo lets you connect all of your video sources (up to five I think) to the receiver and then you switch between them via the receiver. But that means you always have to use the receiver for audio. I don't know that I want to do that yet.

February 8, 2007

More Space Junk

A couple of years ago I wrote an entry about old Russian satellites leaking oil and the possibility that there was enough space junk out there that a chain reaction of collisions would eventually render space unusable.

This week, The New York Times reports that mankind just took one giant leap closer to that future when China tested an anti-satellite weapon against one of its old weather satellites. With 10,000 objects being tracked that are 4 inches are larger, China just added another 1,000 with all the debris from this weapon and the satellite that it struck. What is worse is that they chose a satellite with a fairly high orbit, well above the orbit of the space station. But that means the debris will be in orbit for many more years and eventually will threaten the low orbit where we built the space station.

Space.com also reported on the same issue, with more technical detail.

February 5, 2007

Swings and Roundabouts

This weekend I got an e-mail from a guy in Scotland concerning battery packs. He said he was looking for one for an Archos video player. I said the Archos looked interesting and asked how he liked it. He said it had some advantages over the 5G iPod (larger screen) and disadvantages (it's bulkier). He wrote "it's swings and roundabouts."

I knew what he was saying but looked up that unusual phrase anyway. It's a British idiom that means there are tradeoffs and is short for "What you lose on the swings, you gain on the roundabouts," which doesn't make it any clearer.

February 3, 2007

Telstar Ranger

Tonight I was reading up on video games on Wikipedia and wound up reading about the Atari Computer that we used to have (the Atari 400) and before too long I found the Coleco Telstar Ranger. This was the first video game system we ever had. It was a little more advanced than PONG, including six games, including a pretty cool old West "gun" that you could use to shoot targets on the TV screen.

Just seeing a picture of the console brought back memories. The controllers were just dials that you could rotate to make something go left and right or up and down. There wasn't even a button. They either sat in the console or you could connect a wire to them (which was a neat concept; early Coleco models didn't have a detachable controller). I have no idea how the gun worked, but it was pretty neat technology, even if it didn't make for a great game.

They had "tennis" where you would bounce a ball back and forth with the other player and try to get it past them.

With "hockey" you tried to get it past the person and into a goal. You had a goalie and a forward that moved in unison. I remember that being a pretty good game. When you changed levels your player would get smaller and the ball would move faster. At the highest speed it was pretty much impossible.

They had "handball" where both players were at one end of the screen and bounced the ball off the other end, taking turns for responsibility of keeping the ball from going past.

I think "Jai Alai" was just handball with two people on your team. That was the first I had ever heard of jai alai.

"Skeet" sent a ball across the screen from left to right that you had to shoot.

"Target" allowed the ball to bounce off the edges until you hit it.

That same year, 1977, Atari released the 2600 which had much better games that were in color. Wikipedia says that the 2600 was an early 2nd generation home video game, whereas the Coleco was 1st generation (today's Xbox 360, Playstation 3, and Nintendo Wii are 7th generation). I remember Jeb and I (and Grant sometimes) going up to the Northlake Sears to play Combat. Eventually, after the 2600 was obsolete, Grant bought one from one of his friends and we played that for a while.