Monday, November 23, 2009

Don't break your iPhone screen...

Well, i wass bound to happen.  I keep my iPhone in my pocket unprotected all my waking hours.  I've had my 3GS for five months and when I pulled out out of my pocket the other day, I discovered that the glass screen has been cracked.  I was horrified, but luckily the phone continued to work fine as only the glass was broken and not the actual LED.

When it first happened, I thought to myself... her goes $50!  Boy, was I wrong.  I called the local Apple Store to inquire about the cost of replacing the glass screen and was shocked when they told me it was $199!  Ouch!  That's exactly how much I paid for the whole thing (granted with a two-year term commitment with AT&T) so refused to do it on principal.  At this point, I had two remaining options:

1.  Buy the parts and do it myself. so I decided to try to do it myself by purchasing the relevant parts.  There are plenty of videos online that show you how to (and how not to) do this yourself.  The parts cost between $30 and $50.  I watched one video and decided that it was not for me, even though I had replaced a BlackBerry screen recently for my wife without any problems.  The iPhone was just too complicated.

2.  Use a third-party to do the replacement.  I found several places online that offer screen replacement. 

I decided to use http://www.iphone3gscreenrepair.com/ primarily based on their web site.  They offer a variety of services related to the iPhone screens.  The cost is $89.99 for the 3GS glass replacement ($69.99 for the 3G).

If FedExed my phone over to them and the phone was returned back to me in a couple of days (they shipped it back the same day they received it, which was impressive).

There are to disadvantages to the approach I took, even though it saved me about $100:

1.  My Apple warranty is now voided becuase the phone has been opened by someone other than Apple.  If your phone is too new, I would recommend voiding the warrant as you might run into other problems with the phone and Apple would not help you at all in that case.

2.  I did not have my phone for a few days, which was annoying.  I had taken my SIM card out and put it in a BlackBerry.  I was partying like it was 2001!

One last thought if you go with my approach and ship your phone to someone to do this:  make a back up of your phone (using iTunes) and erase everything (Settings -> General -> Reset) before you ship it so your information (contacts, emails, documents, etc) are not being shared with strangers.  Once your phone comes back, you can restore it to the way it was using the iTunes backup you made earlier.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

iPhone 3GS 16GB Comes Back from the Dead

Last night, my iPhone 3GS 16GB died! 

The battery was about 40% charged when I last looked at it.  A few minutes later, I hit the home button to turn the screen on, but it was just black.  I tried the On button on top, but nothing happened.  I tried holding down both buttons to reset it and nothing.  I finally plugged it into the wall and tried the same excercised, but to no avail.  Tried the same things again in 30 minutes and nothing.  Still the black screen.  I finally gave up and went to bed thinking that I have make a trip to the Apple Store this morning.

This morning, I heard a churp coming from the iPhone, which turned out to be a text message from my wife.  Somehow, it came back from the dead overnight and turned itself back on.  Is it a miracle or is my phone on its last leg?  It's only 3 months old so I hope if it's going to die, it will do it while under warranty.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Windows 7 Upgrade for New PC -- Be Very Careful of Dell

Last month, I purchased a new PC from Dell with Windows Vista Home Edition thinking that I will upgrade it to Windows 7 as soon as it's out. A few weeks earlier, I had purchased a laptop with Windows Vista Premium Edition (64bit) and went to Dell's Windows 7 Upgrade website, registered the Service Tag and was promised the upgrade.

Today, with all the hype about Windows 7, I was reminded of the fact that I had not registered my desktop for the upgrade so I went to do it on Dells' web site. First of all, the site was extremely slow and finally when I was able to login, I entered my Service Tag and associated information. The site kept saying that it could not find the Service Tag in the database and that it might take up to 10 days from the purchase date for it to show up in the upgrade database. This was not my problem since this PC was purchased just a little over a month ago.

Now, starts the Dell Support nightmare. First, I start a chat session with a support rep god-knows-where. After 10 minutes of digging, he tells me to call an 800 number (my worst Dell nightmare). At this point, I really didn't have much of a choice so I called the 800 number. After finally getting a hold of someone, he did more digging, but could not figure why my registration was getting rejected. He than transferred me to the third person. All of these people are very nice, but they're clueless and the problem never transfers so you have to start over again. I explained the story from the beginning to the third rep. Her immediate response was similar to the registration website that it "would take up to 10 days from the date of purchase." Of course, I had to repeat the information that I just gave her and make her look up the order to realize that it has been over 30 days since I bought it.

Finally, light bulb goes on! She says that I had purchased a Windows Vista version that is NOT eligible for the upgrade to Windows 7, which is Windows Home Edition! Well, that sucks since the PC was still in the box. I asked if I can return it, but the return period has just passed (30 days).

The support rep pointed me a note that's buried on the upgrade site (not the sales site), which states the following:

Note: Microsoft Windows Vista® Home Basic, Windows Vista® Starter Edition, and non-Bonus versions of Windows XP and Windows XP Professional do not qualify for upgrades to Windows® 7 under this program. Windows® 7 can only be upgraded to the same language version of Windows (e.g. English to English).

My recommendation: This recommendation is a bit late as Dell is already shipping PCs with Windows 7, but if you encounter another vendor that's promising a Windows 7 upgrade, do not purchase a PC without Windows 7 until Dell starts selling it. It's bad enough that you have to deal with an upgrade process and wait for the DVD to show up and risk incompatibility and driver issues. Your PC may not be eligible for the upgrade at all!

Update (11/8/2009): I just checked the status of my earlier upgrade order on Dell's website and it seems that the expected shipping date is 12/1/2009.  Keep in mind that Microsoft released Windows 7 on 10/26/2009 and was certainly released to manufacturers such as Dell much earlier.  This is an experience that I will not forget in cosidering future PC purchases around the time of an expected released.  Total disasater.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Anxiously Awaiting an Updated Apple TV

Yesterday morning, I got really excited when I heard rumors that Apple is getting ready to release new hardware for the holiday season. My first thoughts were that they were going to release an upgraded Apple TV, but alas, I was deeply disappointed to hear that the announcement was related to new Macs.

Apple: it's about time that you release a new version of the Apple TV hardware before we move on to another media player. The current Apple TV, while great, is starting to get old. I'm not asking you to turn the Apple TV into a DVR or add Blu Ray or do anything crazy. I've had my 160GB for over two years and 160GB is not what they used to be back then. You've upgraded the Time Capsule to 1TB and 2TB. How hard is it to add a bigger disk to the Apple TV? You've upgraded iTunes the iPhone software with Genius Mixes and other cool features such as Home Sharing. Your other hardware products now support 1080p.

The Apple TV is still being treated like a stepchild! It's time for an upgrade, even if it's a minor one.

Update (10/30/2009): Yesterday, Apple released the Apple TV 3.0 software update, which includes a new user interface, support for Internet Radio, Genius Mixes, simplified synchronization with iTunes, and photo enhancements (unfoturnetly, the photo enhancements are for iPhoto users, which excludes all PC users of Apple TV).  In addition to the Apple TV 3.0 update, Apple released an updated Remote app for the iPhone/iPod touch, and iTunes 9.0.2, which supports the new Apple TV software.  I'm very happy with the changes ,but still would like new hardware.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Pocket HD Camera: My Buying Guide

I recently became in the market for a pocket HD camera.  With two young children running around and doing cute things all things, the video we are shooting just didn't look very good on large screen LCD TVs and I figured it was time to make the move to HD.

One of the first decisions that I faced was whether to get a traditional hand-held HD camera or a pocket HD camera.  Having purchased a Canon hand-held camera with DV tape over two years ago and having used it exactly once, the decision to go with a Pocket camera was fairly easy.  All hundreds of gigabytes worth of video clips that we had taken over the last two years were shot using a variety of Canon PowerShot cameras that are primarily use for taking still pictures, but since we have one of these cameras with us at all times, they really did a great job of serving that dual purpose, but because of quality, but primarily because of conveniece.

When I first started thinking about a Pocket HD camera, my thoughts went straight to the Flip UltraHD Camcorder or the Kodak Zi6 HD Pocket Video Camera.  These types of cameras were made very popular lately by their ease of use.  However, while I was doing my researched, I ran into a couple of new PowerShot digital point-and-shoot cameras that support HD video including the Canon PowerShot SD970IS and the Canon PowerShot SD960IS and decided to take a look at them.  Most of the buying guides that I had seen previously only compared the traditional so I had to compare those with the PowerShot multi-purpose cameras myself.




As with any product comparison process, the decision as to which product is most suitable for you depends solely on your actual needs.  The most expensive product might have the most features, but if you're only going to use 5% of those features, then there's no need to buy that most expensive product.

Making the Selection
The chart below summarizes the various features of the different camcorders/cameras I considered. The features that stand out are highlighted in green while the ones that I considered to be a disadvantage are highlighted in red.






Flip MinoHD Camcorder, 60 Minutes



Flip UltraHD Camcorder, 120 Minutes



Kodak Zi6 HD Pocket Video Camera



Canon PowerShot SD970IS



Canon PowerShot SD960IS


Retail Price

$199.99

$199.99

$159.95

$379.99

$299.99

Amaon Price

$168.99

$161.98

$127.82

$314.88

$259.95

Max. Video Resolution

1280 x 720 @30 fps

1280 x 720 @30 fps

1280 x 720 @60 fps

1280 x 720 @30 fps

1280 x 720 @30 fps

Max Still Camera Resolution

N/A

N/A

3 megapixel

12 megapixel

12 megapixel

Built-In HDMI Output

No

Yes

No

Yes

Yes

Optical Zoom

None

None

None

5 x

4 x

Built-In Memory

4GB

8 GB

128 MB

None

None

Memory Card Support

None

None

SD/SDHC/MMC

SD/SDHC/MMC

SD/SDHC/MMC

Recording Capacity (in HD)

 60 min

120 min

Unlimited

Unlimited (43 min per 8GB card)

Unlimited (43 min per 8GB card)

LCD Screen

1.5 in

2.0 in

2.4 in

3.0 in

2.8 in

Dimensions

3.94 x 1.97 x 0.63 in

4.25 x 2.19 x 1.17 in

4.5 x 2.5 x 0.9 in

3.73 x 2.24 x 1.04 in

3.85 x 2.12 x 0.87 in

Weight

3.3 oz

6.0 oz

3.8 oz

5.64 oz

5.11 oz













As you can see from the chart above, each camera has it's own advantages and disadvantages.  Initially, I was attracted to the Flip minoHD camera because of its light weight and low cost. However, after comparing each of the advantages and disadvantages, I decided to get in a different direction. To help you with your own decision, see the summaries for each camera below.

Flip MinoHD Camcorder, 60 Minutes


Advantages

Disadvantages

Light weight.  At 3.3 ounces, it's pretty much the lightest HD camcorder
in the market today

Does not take still pictures, which means you have to carry another camera around

Low cost.  It's not the cheapest HD camera, but at $199.99 retail, it's
still very attractive from a cost perspective

Does not support HDMI output, which means you have to transfer the video to a PC,
burn it to a DVD or transfer it to an Apple TV before you can view it on an HD TV

 Easy to use.  Due to the limited focus, there are very few buttons on
this device and not a lot of menus to navigate

Does not support any external memory, which means that you have to unload the video
you shoot to a PC before you can shoot more video.



No optical zoom.  Although the camera supports minimal digital zoom, that is
pretty much worthless as digital zoom takes away from the quality where optical
zoom relies on the lens to zoom in



Small LCD screen.  At 1.5 in, that's the smallest screen possible and doesn't
show much details


Flip UltraHD Camcorder, 120 Minutes


Advantages

Disadvantages

Decent size built-in memory.  At 8GB, that's much bettern than 4GB, but
I still wish that they added support for external memory cards as well.

Does not take still pictures, which means you have to carry another camera around

Low cost.  It's not the cheapest HD camera, but at $199.99 retail, it's
still very attractive from a cost perspective

Does not support any external memory, which means that you have to unload the video
you shoot to a PC before you can shoot more video.

 Easy to use.  Due to the limited focus, there are very few buttons on
this device and not a lot of menus to navigate

No optical zoom.  Although the camera supports minimal digital zoom, that is
pretty much worthless as digital zoom takes away from the quality where optical
zoom relies on the lens to zoom in

Built-in HDMI support, which allows you to watch video directly from the camera
on your HD TV set

Heavy.  At a whopping 6 ounces, it's twice as heavy as its minoHD sister
camera and the heaviest camera in the lineup


Kodak Zi6 HD Pocket Video Camera


Advantages

Disadvantages

Low cost.   At $199.99 retail, it's still very attractive from a cost
perspective

Still pictures are low quality, but it's better than nothing

Light weight.  At 3.8 ounces, it's one of the lightest HD camcorders around

At 128 MB internal memory, I'm not sure why this was added.  You can only
shoot a minute or two worth of video before the internal memory fills up.
Luckily, the this camcorder supports external memory, which makes your shooting
ability limitless

Easy to use.  This camera tries to copy some of the Flip line features and
doesn't a decent job at that.

No optical zoom.  Although the camera supports minimal digital zoom, that is
pretty much worthless as digital zoom takes away from the quality where optical
zoom relies on the lens to zoom in

Support for external memory cards

Does not support HDMI output, which means you have to transfer the video to a PC,
burn it to a DVD or transfer it to an Apple TV before you can view it on an HD TV


Canon PowerShot SD970IS
&
Canon PowerShot SD960IS


Advantages

Disadvantages

Combines a decent HD camcorder (1280 x 720) with a high-end still picture camera
(12 megapixels).  This is great while you're on the road as you don't
have to carry two individual cameras for video and still images

Almost twice as heavy as the low-end stand-alone HD camcorders

Includes an optical zoom, which gives you the ability to zoom in without compromizing
the quality of the video or the still image

Expensive.  Almost twice as expensive as the low-end stand-alone HD camcorders

Built-in HDMI support, which allows you to watch video directly from the camera
on your HD TV set

No built-in memo

Support for external memory cards, which gives you virtually unlimited capacity
to take videos.  This is extremely useful when traveling without your PC.
You can purchase several SD cards and replace them in seconds as they fill up.

After a lot of consideration, I picked the
Canon PowerShot SD970IS
because it met all of my needs for both video and still images and the fact that it was expandable in terms of the amount of recording that you can do and HDMI connectivity. Your needs may be different and a basic HD camcorder might suffice if you don't care as much about still images or expandability.

Finally, I would like to point out a few other cameras that seem to have very nice features, but I did not consider them for this review because I'm not familiar with the brand or its quality. For example, the Aiptek A-HD 720P 8 MP CMOS High-Definition Camcorder (Black) takes 1280 x 720 and 8 megapixel images for less than $100 and its sister camcorder the Aiptek Action HD GVS 1080P High Definition Camcorder with 5x Optical Zoom (Silver) takes even better HD vidoe at 1280 x 1080 and has an optical 5x zoom for less than $200.

In the end, we all have our preferences and sometimes, you pay a little extra for a brand you trust. Is it worth it? I'm not sure, but I love my SD970IS camera so far. Most the video has been transferred to an Apple TV and everyone is always impressed that the high quality video we're watching came from that tiny little camera.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

High-End Multi-Room Music Without the High-End Prices

Note (Sep 14, 2010): Since the release of iTunes 10 and the upgrade of AirTunes to AirPlay, I've received several questions regarding this post and its compatability with iTunes 10 and AirPlay.  The bottom line is this: Everything in this article is still valid and works.  Things could work even better once hardware manufacturers such as Denon and iHome release their AirPlay-capable devices, which would eliminate the need for the AirPort Express devices mentioned in this post and music can be streamed directly to the device using AirPlay.  For more information, see iTunes AirPlay's Promise.

Imagine having music in every room of your house that you can control from anywhere in the house.  You can toggle the music on and off in each room, control the volume, and even change the music.  You can do all of that by using an expensive product such as Sonos Digital Music System or another high-end package or you can build your own using components that might already be using such as your iPhone or Apple iPod touch.


I've put together a system for our house and several of our friends have asked me to describe how to put this together.  This blog will highlight how to get this done without breaking your budget.


What you need to get started
I recommend starting with a room or two and expanding as needed once you get up and running.  Here's a list of equipment you need:


  • A PC or a Mac with all your music.   The PC does not have to be top of the line by any means and frankly, it's much cheaper to use a PC for this job as you will not be directly interacting with this machine very much.  I have mine in the basement and I hardly see it.  If you are buying a new one, I recommend getting a PC with lost of storage (i.e. a large disk).
  • An iPod touch or an iPhone. No need to purchase a new one if you have either.
  • An Airport Express and a good pair of computer speakers for each room. For the speakers I recommend either the Bose Companion 2 Series II or the JBL Duet, but any nice computer speakers will do.
Project Overview
This project is fairly simple and straightforward once you understand how all the components fit together.  To give you a big picture view of what the end system is going to look like, take a look at the diagram below.




As you can see from the diagram, each room will have an Airport Express device that connects to a pair of speakers using the speakers' audio jack.  The Airport Express devices plug into an AC outlet and connect to your network over the built-in Wi-Fi.  Your PC/Mac, where the music is stored, connects to your network either using Ethernet (preferred) or over Wi-Fi.  Finally, the iPod touch or iPhone will connect to your network over Wi-Fi and will act as the remote control for your music library.


Getting Started
Now that you understand what we're trying to accomplish, let's get started by configuring the components one at a time and we'll circle back and wrap together at the end.


Configuring the PC/Mac
The first step is to make sure that your PC or Mac has all your music on it and that it has the latest version of iTunes installed (note: as of this writing, iTunes 9 is the latest and greatest and it supports everything discussed in this article).


Once that's done, let's proceed with configuring iTunes to be able to communicate with the iPod touch and the Airport Express devices that you will be setting up in the various rooms.  This is very simple:


  1. Open iTunes in the PC/Mac
  2. Select Edit --> Preferences...
  3. Go to the Devices tab
  4. Ensure that the "Look for remote speakers connected with AirTunes" checkbox is checked
  5. Ensure that the "Look for iPhone and iPod touch remotes" checkbox is checked
  6. Click OK
The screen shot below highlights the required settings in iTunes.






Configuring the AirPort Express devices
As discussed earlier, you need an Airport Express device and a set of decent computer speakers for each room that you plan to broadcast music to.  The Airport Express device is a multi-purpose wireless device from Apple.  It can be used as a Wi-Fi access point, a print server, and what apple calls an "AirTunes" device.  The latter mode is what we are interested in for the purpose of this project.


To configure an AirPort Express device:


  1. Start the AirPort Utility (the software the comes with the AirPort Express when you buy it.  You can also download the software directly from Apple (Mac or Windows).


  2. Give the device each device a meaningful name (e.g. Dining Room or Bedroom)


  3. Select the option to have the AirPort Express device join your existing network


  4. Next, select the option to have the AirPort Express device join your network wirelessly



  5. Finally, specify your wireless network's setting (SSID, security, etc...)

At this point, your first AirPort Express device is set up and ready to go.  If configured correctly, the light on the AirPort Express should be green at this point.  Go ahead and plug the speakers' audio jack into the device.

To test out the device and get a test of how things are going to work, start iTunes on any PC or Mac that's on your network and start playing a song.  On the bottom right corner of iTunes, click the  icon and select Multiple Speakers... At this point, you should be able to see the AirPort Express device you just configured.  Click the checkbox next to it and music will start playing both through your computer and through the speakers connected to the device.


At this point, you can configure another AirPort Express device, but I recommend that you move to the next step and configure additional AirPort Express devices after everything else is working.

Configuring the iPod touch/iPhone
The final step of getting your high-end, multi-room music system up and running is to enable the remote capability, for which you can use either an iPod touch or an iPhone.

To configure your iPod touch/iPhone to be used as a remote for your multi-room music system:

  1. Install the Remote app from the iTunes App Store on your iPod touch/iPhone. Note: This is a free app from Apple.


  2. The first time you start the Remote app, you will be prompted to add a library (or click Add Library, if not automatically prompted to add one).  A random four-digit Passcode will be displayed.


  3. Go to iTunes on your PC or Mac and select the icon with your device's name on it.


  4. Enter the passcode from the iPhone/iPod touch into iTunes.

If entered correctly, your iTunes library should be visible from your iPhone/iPod touch using the Remote app.

A word of caution:  If your iPhone/iPod touch does not show up in your iTunes library, make sure you don't have any other iTunes libraries open on your network.

Putting it all together
Now that you've configured iTunes, AirPort Express, and your iPhone/iPod touch, you're ready to broadcast your music to multiple rooms and control the music using your iPhone/iPod touch, including having the ability to select music by artist, genre, playlist as well as control the volume and select which speakers can be turned on and off.
 
Now you can add other AirPort Express/speakers to as many rooms as you like.  Additionally, you can broadcast music through an Apple TV to your living room, which will basically act like an AirPort Express in this case.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Picasa 3.5 Rocks (or recognizes faces, which rocks)!

I just installed the latest version of Picasa, which was released yesterday.  As a PC guy, I've been a little envious of my Mac friends who use the iPhoto '09 because of a cool feature called Faces, which is essentially a face recognition tool to help with photo organization (i.e. tagging).

If you are like me and have thousands, if not tens of thousands, of photos laying around on various local drives and on the network and you're having a hard time organizing those photos, the Faces feature (or People as Picasa calls it) can help you organize your photos that have people in them in a pretty cool and speedy way. 

The feature is very simple to use.  Once you finish installing Picasa 3.5 (if it's an upgrade), it goes through your entire photo library and finds all the faces in each picture.  It then prompts you to identify a few of the faces it found and based on that, it tags other photos that contain similar faces.  From there, you have the opportunity to accept or reject Picasa's guess (or suggestion) for each photo individually or en masse for each person.  So far, it has been about 90% accurate for me and where it made mistakes, it was for a good reason like where mixed up my two aunts or my cousins.

Picasa 3.5 introduces a couple of additional features such as the Geo-Tagging and integration with Google Maps.  I've yet to explore those additional features, but thought it was a good idea to share my excitement about the People tagging first.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Apple Missed the Mark with iTunes Home Sharing

Apple recently released iTunes 9.0 along with newer iPod touch and iPod nano models. I have to admit that although we have 4 iPods already, I am seriously considering getting an iPod nano just because it's pretty cool. I mean who wouldn't won't a tiny video camera, a radio, and a music player in a such a tiny package. The pedometer is kind of nice, but I've never used one in my life so I'm not that excited about it.

One new feature that got me really excited when I first heard about it is the Home Sharing capability in iTunes 9. I was already sharing one iTunes library in our household that serves as a media hub. All of my iPods and iPhone sych with that library using USB. The Apple TV in our family room syncs with it as well over Ethernet and finally, a laptop in the kitchen streams music from it, which we occasionally broadcast using the Multiple Speakers feature in iTunes to an AirPort Expess and to the Apple TV itself.

In the above scenario, the kitchen laptop streamed from the media server with no issues. Sharing didn't require a log-in and I don't believe it was limited to 5 computers as Home Sharing is.

Once I enabled the Home Sharing feature, it replaced the basic streaming capability. As far as I can tell, the only new feature in Home Sharing is the ability to Import music from one library to another. That's a decent feature, but it's not something that you can't simply do by copying the individual music files from one library to another.

Here's why I think Apple missed the mark, which sort of servers as a Wish List for the Home Sharing feature (in case anyone from Cupertino is listening):

  1. The Genius Mixes from the shared library do not show up when accessed from another machine over the network. That's pretty annoying for people who have all of their music on a server and access it from other servers.
  2. The option to show "Items not in my library" does not seem to work very well for some reason. It must have something to do with how the meta data in the music files is compared. This could be an extremely useful feature if it worked correctly, but alas, it's just a waste of time at the moment.
  3. Extend the Multiple Speaker broadcasting to stream the music to other PCs with iTunes just as it's done with the Apple TV and AirPort Express.
  4. Allow Home Sharing for iPod touch and iPhones (at least when they're on the same network over Wi-Fi, but better yet from anywhere ala Simplify Media).
  5. Allow authorized users to make changes to the library from another PC. For example, you should be able to add/remove songs from a playlist, create a new playlist, update a song's information, etc).
  6. Make the Automatic Transfer capability more useful. This feature currently supports the automatic transfer of new media between different PCs, but it only works for items purchased from iTunes. If you buy music from AmazoneMP3 or rip new songs from a CD, they will not be transferred. Ideally, this feature would allow a subscription capability whereby a user would subscribe to a Playlist. As that playlist gets updated, the changes are synchronized to the subscribing PCs.

Anyway, the iTunes Home Sharing feature is still somewhat new (even though most of the key features have been around since iTunes 7), but it would be nice if Apple made it more useful.