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.