Audiophile-quality micro system

One of the things I find I enjoy more and more as I get older is music. I never listened that much when I was younger, but now I find it’s a great escape. I discovered the bliss of in-ear monitors back in ’99 when I was traveling a LOT for work, and was using music to deal with the occasional bout of homesickness. My Etymotic ER4-S ‘phones were awesome even if they required an amplifier to get the best sound. It was ok – with a Creative Labs Jukebox, my HeadRoom amp and the Ety’s I was a happy camper.

Later on I got an iPod and later still I moved up to the Sure SE530 phones and no longer needed the amp. The sound & fit are stellar but with small children around the house wearing headphones that block a lot of sound isn’t a very good idea. A frustrated “help me!” call or crying child going unheard is not a good thing. Other than for running, headphones that don’t block sound just don’t make sense to me – if I’m going to hear background noise why not use speakers?

So I was trying to figure out how to put together a small, inexpensive, but nice sounding speaker system for the office and/or shop. I’ve got some old stereo equipment, but it’s a gigantic JVC multimedia receiver – about 18” deep. Not easy to find a home for. I also didn’t need the gazillion watts the old stereo was capable of. Heck, I probably wouldn’t need more than 5.

I thought about getting one of the iPod dock-plus-speakers appliances that a lot of folks are selling, but I don’t need portability and I wanted better sound quality and speaker placement.

After some thought and some reading I figured out that all I really needed was a dock for my iPod, a small amp, and some speakers. I have a set of old JBL 2500 book shelf speakers, and while not great they work for now. The dock was a small purchase at the Apple store. That left the amp.

I looked around a bit and after finding the Sonic Impact t-amp was getting rave reviews from audiophiles I got very interested – the thing is only $30 after all. Turns out that Sonic Impact developed a very cheap amp using a chip made originally for products like big-screen TVs. It is a special kind of amplifier circuit that’s very efficient and produces very little heat. The result is a small, inexpensive amp that has very good audio quality if not a lot of power – something like 10 watts per channel max, with about 6 being the limit for really good sound quality.

Unfortunately Sonic Impact realized the demand and improved the amp and raised the price. Others joined the fray with similar but better designs and the “Class T” audio amplifier market was born. There’s several models out there, and a few companies that offer kits. I think I will ultimately build on of the 41hz kits, but in the mean time I decided on the Trends Audio TA-10.1, which I bought from AudioMagus.com. The Trends is about twice the price of the latest version of the Sonic Impact amp, but it gets better reviews and the build quality (it’s in a metal case with high-quality connectors) was much better.

It’s pretty tiny and has only an LED and a knob on the front. It’s just a simple amp with 1 input and outputs for pair of speakers. Perfect.

So I have an iPod sitting in the dock, the dock connected to the amp which has its volume turned to max. I use the remote for the iPod to change volume, advance tracks, etc. The remote is small and simple and easy to replace if needed.

The sound is excellent at low volume and still pretty good with everything turned up. Something mentioned in every review of the amp was that speakers less efficient than 90db@1 watt would be disappointing and the JBLs are at ~86 so I will probably be replacing them soon. Still, for a system that takes up about as much space as a small alarm clock, and holds about 300 CD’s worth of music encoded in a lossless format, it’s pretty remarkable. If I need to move it to the patio or a different room it’s pretty portable.

Living with the iPhone iDrop

Susan got an iPhone first. She loves it more than any gadget she’s ever had. I have to admit I was jealous – really, I am the gadget master in the family and it didn’t seem right that she’d have a new gadget than I.

But I liked my Blackberry. It did almost everything I wanted, and it was a darn good phone to boot. Still, using the iphone convinced me that for portable internet there was nothing beating it. My resistance wavered and then completely collapsed.

I’ve had the phone for more than a month now, and while everyone and their brother has reviewed the thing I can’t pass up the chance to add my input.

So, how do you like it? Is a question you hear a lot when you use your iphone in public. Here’s my answer:

It’s like having the most beautiful, sexy girlfriend in the world, with the unfortunate habit of occasionally puking in your mouth when you kiss her.

What I love:

  • It’s a great little browser in your pocket. People bitch about it not having flash, but I don’t miss it.
  • Even if you have a poor connection (which is most of the time, see below) it will download voicemail so you can still get it.
  • It’s an iPod, albeit missing some features.
  • The screen seriously rivals paper. It’s that good.
  • The glass screen and overall build quality. No creaks, no fragility, just a solid gadget.
  • You Tube is far more fun than I ever thought it would be.
  • If you get a call while listening to music it will fade & pause the music when you answer, and unfade & restart the music when the call is over.
  • Even though it has no push email, IMAP email with Gmail is actually a better solution than Gmail on BlackBerry.

What I hate:

  • The iPhone hangs onto a call about as well as my 77-year old father hangs on to a greased pig. If you’re standing within site of a tower you have a chance. Otherwise, all bets are off.
  • That is, if you can get the call started in the first place. ATT seems to have simplified busy signals, disconnected number signals and call drops all into one “Call Failed” error on the phone.
  • The signal strength meter is more of an “estimated recent signal strength, sort of” meter. I’ve gotten and kept calls with one or even zero bars, and have also had calls drop unexpectedly with 5 bars. Go figure.
  • Bluetooth is a technology to be played with, not used. The relationship between my iPhone and my Jabra headset is more erratic than Brittany Spears relationship with reality. The two will spontaneously decide not to talk to each other and will need to be re-paired.
  • The glass screen provides zero tactile feedback, and is fairly picky about how hard you tap it before it considers it to be a “good” tap.
  • Occasionally my iPhone will take a nap like an old man dozing off in the middle of a story. Because you can’t tell this is happening until you’ve been tapping away at the screen trying to get it to work, when it wakes up there’s no telling where the game of iPhone roulette will end.
  • The iPod part of the phone doesn’t sync the skip count or last skipped data for songs. So, if you’re trying to make use of iTunes’ elaborate smart playlist feature to filter out songs you skipped through, you’re out of luck with the iPhone.
  • For whatever reason, my iPhone takes forever to find and connect to my home wifi network, and will never prompt me to connect.  It will often shows the signal strength as one bar, even when I’m standing next to my wireless access point. Other times it’s 5 bars on the other side of the house. This happens sometimes at other places.
  • Sometimes my iPhone will repeatedly and with great urgency ask me to connect to networks I don’t want to connect to.  We have wifi at work. It’s very locked-down and PDA’s are absolutely not allowed so I really don’t need my iPhone bugging me to connect. I really wish Apple would make an “ignore this network” feature, for places where there is wifi that for whatever reason will never be used.

Overall I like the device, but the relationship is love/hate.  That’s why I say it’s like having a fantastic girlfriend who barfs in your mouth – most of the time things are awesome, but when they go bad it’s such startling, frustrating experience it has me emotionally gagging on the phone.

Let’s hope the new iPhone 2.0 software coming in late June (I’m expecting late July) will tip the balance a bit.

Air Boss still the boss

I just got back from the Primir meeting in Portland, Oregon. Portland is a great city, with a nice transportation, reasonable prices, and the weather was even nice. The Primir meeting was enlightening as always, and it was nice to see everyone again. The travel to and from the meeting was less enjoyable, but I’m alive and these days that’s about the limit of what we expect. It was also a nice chance to play with luggage. 😉

The trip got me thinking about bags again.

A long time ago I stopped carrying a briefcase at all. I had realized that I was mostly hauling a bunch of stuff to work that didn’t need to be there, and stuff back home that didn’t need to be their either. So I just stopped. Then after a while I missed having a few things with me, more than would fit in my pockets. So I started carrying a man-purse. I’ve owned many of these, and the last was a small messenger bag called the Timbuk2 Mini Metro. Then my job changed again, I started missing some paperwork at home, and I bought a Chrome small messenger bag as my Timbuk2 Mini Metro was too small for files. I like the Chrome, but it is really best suited to its intended purpose rather than an impromptu brief case. The metal seatbelt buckle in the front is probably very handy for messengers, but I just keep banging it into things. The size and shape are good, but I miss the small pockets in the Timbuk2.

So I’ve been thinking about getting a briefcase. Yes, I have a few but nothing mid-sized. I used to have a Land’s End canvas briefcase, but tossed it after it got ratty looking. I was not stiff enough anyway.

Then I went to Portland and took my Red Oxx Air Boss & Tom Bihn Brain Cell combination which worked as well as last time. Both did what I expected, and everything went fine. I’m finding that the more I use the Air Boss, the more I like it. Things fit well and the more I use the bag the more I realize the thought that went into not only the design but the precision of the dimensions. For example, if you find the cinch straps in the outer compartments aren’t long enough, you’ve got too much stuff in that compartment and it will bulge when you zip it. When the bag is over stuffed it’s hard to snap the handles together – another signal that the bag is too full, and you may have trouble sticking it in the overhead. You can stuff the bag past these warnings, and I’ve yet to be unable to get it to go where it needed to, but it’s an easier carry when it’s properly loaded. Also, if you’re going carry-on, it’s always good to be asking if you really need to be carrying this or that extra item.

But the fun of luggage is in the pursuit of the perfect solution, and so every time I travel I always thinking about how things could be done better. On this trip I identified the following:

  • I missed having various things with me while in flight, because everything was in the Air Boss, in the overhead. When I have my preferred aisle seat, and I’ve been fortunate enough to get space near my seat it’s no big deal to get up and get something, but I was in the middle on this trip. Note to self – book earlier!
  • I missed having some workout clothes which I couldn’t fit into
    the Air Boss because of the space taken by the computer.
  • The Air Boss gets heavy when my computer is in it. Add some paper, and it gets to be pretty uncomfortable. The Claw strap keeps it on the shoulder, but it’s not a happy shoulder.

So three more votes for a briefcase. I’ve looked at the Tumi Essential Brief, but at $300+ it’s pretty expensive. I’ve looked at Tom Bihn, but they don’t make a slim briefcase, only 6″ or wider. The shoulder straps attach on either side of the body, which tends to make a bag hard to open when it’s on my shoulder as it does with my Travel Pro case. I’ve checked out a few other bags at the local luggage store, but they’re all very fixated on things I just don’t want. Dedicated computer pockets, expandability, special snap-in accessory pouches all add cost without adding real usefulness or flexibility.

So I’m looking at Red Oxx’s “Slim-Line Padded Brief” – with other bags named “Air Boss”, “Gator” or “Benos”, it’s an oddly functional name – and I’ve all but decided to order it pending a few questions from Red Oxx. It looks like the right size, although it may be a bit full when my computer’s in it. Without the computer, how I’d carry it to work, it should be the right size. Not crazy about water bottle pockets, but I can live with them.

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Finally got the Air Boss

A long while ago I’d written about the Red Oxx Air Boss bag, and how I was lusting after it. I ordered their tote bag and travel basket and wrote about them, but couldn’t get myself to order the Air Boss.

I’m a bit of a luggage nut, so normally I would have popped for it easily. However, a distinct lack of travel combined with two young children at home put the damper on those kinds of purchases. Another thing that held me back was suits. I have to travel with them from time to time, I’d been brainwashed that they had to be folded up in some special apparatus made for the purpose. A suiter, or my roll aboard with the three-panel suit folding thingy. Surely just folding them up would turn them in to crepe paper, right? I’d read about the bundle method of packing, and even used it with casual clothes, but I just couldn’t accept doing it with formal wear.

Not so. On my last trip I took my roll aboard, but because I wore my blazer on the way there I took out the three-panel suit folding thingy and just had a basic suitcase. However, I ended up not wearing the blazer on the way back, so I just folded it like a shirt and stuck it in the case. Came out just fine. I became convinced that formal wear could be bundled.

Still have the kids (and love them dearly) but the travel has increased a bit so I’ve converted some little-used electronic items to new luggage – a saffron Air Boss.

Why saffron? First, I figure it is less likely to be stolen. A guy walking around an airport with a black bag is pretty invisible, but that same guy walking around with a bright yellow one is bound to get noticed. Second, sometimes, when I want to live like a civilized human being at my destination (meaning, with a pocket knife in my pocket) I will check a bag. As anyone with a small black roll-aboard knows, everyone has one. Bright yellow bags are much easier to spot at the luggage carousel.

Last but not least, if you’ve ever had that delightful conversation with those exceptionally relaxed and pleasant folks at the lost luggage counter, you’ve seen the diagram of various bags they show you to help you describe your bag so they can find it. You know, “My bag is just like bag ‘J’.” The difference between bag “J” and bags “K” and “I” is subtle changes in size and wheel placement – all bags are black. Yellow bags are a lot easier to describe, right? I mean, it’s yellow. They probably don’t even have to know what size it is or if it has wheels. Ok, maybe, just to ensure they don’t mistake it for a taxi. But I digress.

I don’t have it yet, but I’ve just gotten an email saying it’s shipped. I’m way too impatient a person to buy things by mail order, as I’m sure the overworked UPS Tracking server can attest.

I’ve got two trips coming up – one for the SCIP annual conference in New York City, which I’m really looking forward to, and another to somewhere else which I’m also looking forward to. I’ll explain more once my hosts give clearance. Anyway, it’s two opportunities to give this bag a workout, and I’m looking forward to it!

[UPDATE] It’s due on Monday, UPS says. First trip leaves 4/16, so all is well.

test post on blackberry

I recently got a blackberry 7130c on Cingular, and it was a matter of time before I tried to post from it. Its really not so bad, although the autocorrection seems a little unpredictable.

The email is, of course, awesome. This is a crackberry after all.

Red Oxx Travel Basket and Tote Bag

A short while ago I wrote a post about Red Oxx, their Air Boss bag, and coupon codes. I had nearly ordered an Air Boss along with a few other items when I realized there was a spot to enter a coupon code, along with a note admonishing me to take advantage of any special offers I had received. Clearly, I’d better wait for a special offer!

So, I decided to order a few of their less-expensive items first. I decided to get a travel basket and their tote bag, both in red.

Cartpics 01 mod

You can see the basket above. I’ve seen similar items in catalogs before, and always kinda wanted one but couldn’t really get over the idea it was kind of a frivolous item. Then my wife and I stayed with some relatives, in a well-used home-office that was a pretty good black hole for absorbing items – so far two packages of stuff we’d forgotten have been sent to us. Having a place to put keys, wallet, etc. when you travel suddenly made one hell of a lot of sense. I’m far more muddle-headed than usual when traveling, and I misplace stuff plenty often at home. A portable “right place” to put stuff makes sense.

It’s big enough without being too big, and the foam padding in the bottom is a nice addition, which makes the thing useful even as a makeshift pillow (to soften an airplane or car window, for example).

The tote bag is, well, a tote bag. We’ve gotten several giveaway bags but they’re usually not very robust. They’re also not very deep relative to their footprint, so when you put them down things tend to tumble out of them. Of course, a deeper bag can invite the same thing if you overload it but depth is nice for things like 2–liter and wine bottles. This tote bag seems deeper, and the handle-straps go all the way around. The thing I noticed about the straps was their softness and suppleness. This makes them more comfortable than the stiffer stuff you often find. I noticed the same thing on the Tumi bags I own.

Both items use waterproof coatings on their fabrics, so presumably you could use either as a vessel for holding or carrying water, if you had such a need.

So, Red Oxx’s reputation seems to be upheld by these items. I’m still lusting after an Air Boss, but haven’t yet found a coupon code.

Using a U3 flash drive

I’ve had a U3 flash drive for a while now, and overall it seems pretty slick. You can read about what U3 is here.

While it is slick, I’m still not using it exclusively for applications yet, mostly because there isn’t much software available for it. I’m talking freeware here, and John T. Haller’s Portable Application Suite is far more complete than what’s out there for U3, at least so far. On the upside, it’s very easy to install new applications to a U3 drive from the launcher program that starts (usually) automatically when you insert the drive in a computer.

The U3 software data, such as the settings for Firefox, are not easy to find. You’ll find a “system” folder on the data portion of the drive. Under that you’ll find a fold for each application with a very long name that seems randomly generated. Unfortunately, copying settings from another instance of Firefox didn’t work, and there’s no way to import settings, so it may be a manual process depending on the application.

In the Portable Apps Suite, I could just copy the relevant files over and save myself the hassle. I must state that I have tested this only with Firefox, not with anything else.

I downloaded RoboForm, which is a kind of password safe/auto-filler for web logins. It wants to work only with the browser loaded into the U3 portion of the drive, and I’m too lazy to manually re-enter my bookmarks, so I haven’t used it much.

The anti-virus is really quite nice. I’m talking here about the ability to contain it – most AV programs want to scan everything constantly, and as a result become so problematic they get turned off. This one can be run only when you want, which makes it much more manageable.

The system also has a security feature, which requires a password to access the files. The files are not encrypted, so it’s not the most secure thing in the world, but it is very fast and secure enough to thwart the casual person who finds a misplaced drive.

I found that on one of the computers I used the drive, Windows wanted to reboot after discovering the system portion of the U3. Sometimes Firefox just gives an error on startup. The system doesn’t always autorun, but the “launcher” can be started manually – required if you have security turned on.

So all is not perfect in U3-land, but it is a good idea and those who find installing the Portable Application Suite or similar software too intimidating, will like the ease of installation.

Portable Data – PAS, U3, etc.

I’ve written a bit in the past about the fundimental problems of data portability. We all have data, email, files, etc. that we want to have with us when we travel. However, how do you take them with and leave the computer at home?

There are online solutions, USB flash drive solutions and of course PDA solutions. It looks like the USB flash drive solutions have just gotten much more sophisticated.

First, John Haller has created PortableApps.com, which has full office suite of free software that runs nicely from a flash drive. I’ve been using this for a week, and it’s very nice to have all your settings and whatnot stay in the same place. However, it’s a strictly open-source affair, and if you don’t care for Firefox, Thunderbird, OpenOffice, etc. you’ll have to look elsewhere.

Second, the folks at Sandisk and M-Systems have invented U3, a trick where the U3-compatible flash drive tricks the host computer into thinking it’s a CD rom drive, thereby allowing applications to run completely off the flash drive. The advantage with U3 is that it’s likely to attract more software vendors.

Then there’s Migo, which puts your MS Explorer and Outlook setting on a drive, so that when you use someone else’s computer your settings are used.

Each offers potential advantages and disadvantages, but it’s clear that vendors are catching on to the data portability problem. How long will it be before computers are just appliances, and the data and software are the personal part, carried in portable memory?

Into the abyss? Bought Maytag Neptune Washer & Dryer

The other day our faithful washing machine finally died – it started draining the fill water on the floor. Since we had gotten it for free, and it was at least 30 years old, we decided it was better to buy new than to fix the old.

After looking around a bit, we decided on the Maytag Neptune series. Admittedly, we made our choice in a bit of a hurry – living without a washing machine isn’t really living – and we might have been better off looking a bit longer. It seems that the neptunes that were sold 4–5 years ago had more than a few problems, and Maytag was sufficiently incompetent in solving them to drive some lawyers to file a class action lawsuit. But I discovered all of this while waiting for the delivery 😉

Anyway, Appliance World delivered them at about 6pm. It would have been nice to know it was going to be so late so I wouldn’t have wasted a day waiting for them, but they didn’t lie about when they’d arrive. Still, if I was running a business where my customers had to wait at home for me to show up, I would be investing a lot in whatever technology would allow me tell them precisely when I would be arriving. If I ordered appliances from a store that told me they’d be there at 3:15 and they were there at 3:15, they’d have to screw up the rest of it pretty bad before I wouldn’t order from them again. But I digress.

The new machines are, so far, pretty awesome. The washer is so quiet it’s very hard to tell if it’s running at all. Even when it’s spinning things dry (at 900 RPM) it’s still so quiet we can’t hear it upstairs. The dryer is the same way. Test loads are so far coming out nice and clean, and the dryer is pretty speedy as well. We got the pedestals for the units to sit on, both for the storage (they each have a large drawer) and for the height. They were expensive, but after changing the laundry only a few times I can see that not having to bend over to load & unload makes them worth every penny.

So, if Maytag has fixed their issues, and the control board & motor don’t blow up and the inside doesn’t reek of mold in a year or so, we’ll have made a good choice.

 

On Contact Management

I’m writing this on the train back from Chicago, where I attended Print ’05 for the past week. Print is a large graphics trade show, and I spent several days doing competitive research. It’s somehow a lot of fun, kind of boring, and very tiring all at the same time.

Anyway, I also ended up learning a lot more about contact management, Outlook, my iPAQ and Activesync, Plaxo and LinkedIn than I expected or wanted to. All of these things are wonderful inventions and each provides a lot of value. However, when you connect them together across two computers and a PocketPC, life gets interesting. Here’s the story:

As always at a trade show, the main benefit is meeting new people and the resultant networking. I believe networking is one of the most powerful things a person can do in life, and trade shows are the ultimate opportunity. Aside from that, having quick and ready access to a great contacts database is a key tool for getting the most out of a show. So I’m busy meeting folks, collecting cards, and in the evening working to get them entered and a thank-you email sent out. I fire up my laptop and enter a bunch of contacts, or I add few to my iPAQ while riding a shuttle or waiting for colleagues at happy hour. I then started to run into problems.

First, trying to sync my iPAQ to my laptop results in a lot of confusion on the part of the iPAQ, which wants to sync to my desktop back at work, and keeps going out on the net to find it. I had been desperately trying to get my iPAQ to do this via a wireless connection, and never could get it to create the proper VPN link on it’s own, but somehow got something set that has it trying very hard to do the same thing when connected to my laptop.

Second, trying to sync my iPAQ to my laptop proved to be a problem because I normally sync with my desktop at work. Activestink wants to duplicate all my contacts, which is not a good thing.

Third, I finally get the contacts entered into my laptop and then try to email the contacts – they won’t show up in the address book! I look in the contacts list, but when I try to enter then in the To: line of an email, it doesn’t work…

Finally I decide to skip the emails and get the contacts uploaded to LinkedIn so I can invite folks to connect. I go through the upload process, but the contacts won’t upload. LinkedIn tells me there are no new contacts.

Grrrr!

After a bit of searching, I finally find that the problem is that each contacts folder has a checkbox in it’s properties that specifies that that contacts folder should be a visible outlook address book. This is the magic button, so to speak, and as soon as I check it I have contacts visible and ready to email to. I also find that LinkedIn now finds them just fine.

As for the syncing, I went ahead and allowed the duplicates to be created. I realized that Plaxo has an awesome feature that removes & resolves duplicates and near duplicates – a feature that frankly ought to be built-in to any contact manager. After the sync, which dutifully duplicated everything, I ran Plaxo which then fixed everything. Plaxo rocks.

In the end I got everything entered, and all the email sent, and the LinkedIn invitations will go out soon enough. But I beseech Microsoft to consider the 3-computer syncing problem. It seems that anything designed to synchronize data sources seems to choke with 3 computers – the extra path just gets things confused. I’ve got to believe the industry can figure this out, and it really needs to. The days of working on just one computer are over, and we need our stuff to sync between whatever computers & PDAs we have.