Thursday, 16 February 2012

Gadgets Galore

We may have had a week from hell. We may have just moved places, we may have just had our souls mortgaged to the bank till way past our death, and we may have had our son at hospital. Nothing, though, will prevent new gadgets from stepping into our lives, not even at times like this. Three of them did during this very week; here is their account.

Apple Airport Express
It’s scary, I know, but I am venturing further and further into Apple land. What can I do if they’re the ones that have the better products?
The need I have is music streaming. The bulk of my music listening is online nowadays, via Spotify (rumoured to officially land on Australian soil within less than two months), and if I want to listen to Spotify through my hi fi I need to have a computer connected there. I have been using my oldest netbook for that very purpose for a while now, but this solution does have issues.
First, and very obviously, a netbook is not a great audio device in the sense that it was not designed with audio quality in mind. It’s got all sorts of circuitry crammed into it that pullotes the sound signal, and its headphone output socket is the cheapest possible. Then there is also the annoying need to have the netbook located near my receiver, at a position that is not the nicest to linger at while choosing my play list.
Mind you, there are distinct advantages to using computer memory as your source component. Computers have an advantage over CD players in that they do not depend on the transport’s motor speed, which tends to vary a lot as the disc turns. That varying speed creates what is known as the jitter effect that is the main culprit of digital sound, that is the phenomenon where you hear the right sound but at the wrong time. Even the slightest nanosecond error makes a difference there! The particular netbook I’ve been using, the very first Asus Eee PC 701, has an extra advantage. It runs on solid state drives which – as my ears have been repeatedly telling me – produces much cleaner sound than anything with a hard drive. I suspect it’s to do with the interferences caused by the spinning disks, exactly the type of things that contaminate sound.
There is a solution out there that brings the best of both worlds, and that solution is Apple’s Airport Express. In general the airport express is a wifi router, but it’s got an edge: you can use it to connect your wireless network to powered speakers (or, in my case, the hi fi receiver) via a digital (Toslink) or analog connection. You can also connect it to any USB printer and have that printer become wireless, which is an added bonus.
The Airport Express is rumoured to have decent D/A converters by its own rights (that is, a chip that turns the digital signal on a CD or an MP3 track into an analog signal you can listen to). In my setup I did not test that, though: I connected it via its optical output to my receiver, which has a pretty good D/A converter of its own (a proper hi fi grade one). This means that I eliminate the jitter that comes from mechanical interfaces such as an inconsistent CD motor, I eliminate the noise that comes from mechanical hard drives, and I rely on the best D/A converter at my disposal. The result? MP3 tracks never sounded as good. They’re not CD good, but they’re the closest I’ve ever heard them. Of course, the next step would be to stream CD quality sound through the Airport Express!
The main problem with the Airport Express is that it was designed by Apple. That is, it was meant to be limited to playing music streamed from a computer running iTunes or from an iPhone/iPod, and that’s it. There is a piece of software you can get for Windows and/or Mac called AirFoil that allows the breaking of this artificial barrier and streaming anything from your computer to the Airport Express, but it will cost you $25. Similar workarounds exist for Android.
Things are much worse in Linux: Ubuntu is rumoured to be able to deal with Airport Express with a minor tweak, and there are plenty of articles out there telling you how to do it; the problem is, despite many an hour of effort I am still unable to stream anything from Ubuntu to my Airport Express. Anything other than silence, that is. I suspect the problem is to do with firewall settings, but regardless it severely limits my options for using the Airport Express.

Aldi PVR
Three and a half years ago we bought our first (and till now, only) hard drive PVR for more than $300. It completely changed the way we watch TV, with us hardly ever watching anything live anymore. Alas, with time our PVR started to break down here and there, with both the remote and its hard drive developing pervert like behaviour patterns.
Aldi presented us with an interesting solution in its special buys for this week: a $35 high definition set top box with PVR features through its USB output. At that price, and given Aldi’s return policies, I went ahead and got a unit to try.
I think it’s great! It does everything our old PVR did; it’s got better user interfaces; it runs sound through its HDMI output (our old one requires a separate optical cable for the sound, with HDMI serving the picture only); and it also does many things our older PVR can’t.
For a start, it plays AVI and MP4 video files you connect through its USB connection (not to mention music tracks and photos). This means we can use it to watch any manner of videos through our home theatre, instead of using much more expensive and equipment (like our PS3) for mere playback. Our electricity bill should tell the difference there, but there are catches: the PVR's processing power is too meagre to allow you to rewind a video (say, when you missed out on a sentence).
Next there is the fact that you can take any recording it does away from the device to watch elsewhere. Our new PVR records in the mts format that’s supported by VLC, which means we can watch off the air recordings on any computer (or smartphone) and even take recordings with us wherever we go.
And third, unlike our old PVR with its built in 320GB hard drive, this new tiny PVR allows us to connect any USB storage device to it. We can record on a USB stick or we can connect a proper hard drive if we wish; and if the hard drive fails (as our old one often does), we can connect another.
If you’re after disadvantages, than the $35 asking price will mean you are unable to use services such as IceTV to program the PVR automatically or from afar. The unit you get is obviously cheap and clunky (remote included), and has some unexplained tendencies to accept one hard drive but reject the other on a seemingly random basis.
Still, it's $35!

2.5TB external USB drive
Last, but not least, comes the new external hard drive we bought to use with our new PVR. Let me repeat it again for you: a two and a half terabyte box the size of a paperback, which I bought yesterday for $150! Given that I paid much more for a 125MB drive two decades ago, I cannot avoid feeling awe at this technological feat that Western Digital was able to bring into my house at such an affordable price.
Think about it: with this capacity, we can stick all of our videos ever into this single box, plus record stuff off the air to the death, and then watch them all through our new PVR. Who needs Apple TV like streaming, with necessary quality compromises to deal with wireless formats' inability to stream high definition video at full quality, when you can put all the videos you ever wanted on this small box and play it through another small box?
Alright, I admit that streaming makes things easier in the sense that it skips the step of copying downloads into the hard drive. But you have to admit, too, that this hard drive + PVR setup is one big Titanic of home entertainment.

After this post has been written we received an external DVD drive I've ordered online a few weeks ago. It's a Samsung unit which we got for $30 from OzGameShop.
I'm sure it will serve our army of netbooks + Mac Air very well. Not that I need optical drives much; it's just that I noticed the only one we had is on a 64 bit laptop, and 64 bit operating systems have certain software compatibility issues that prevent them from reliably running the 32 bit software I use to write DVDs with. At this price, it was cheaper to get a DVD drive than to struggle with software replacements.

Images: Apple, Aldi

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