New Portable Player

My mobiBLU cube that has given me so much trouble over the last year and a half finally became too much trouble to keep using. When I mounted it and tried to move files to it from my iBook I’d get file errors. If I retried up to 10 times, eventually it would work. I tried resetting the device, newly formatting it and nothing made it difference. It’s always been a pain, so it is out.

To replace it, I bought a Creative Zen V Plus 4 GB Portable Media Player (Black/Blue). It was $109 at Best Buy. I was actually there to get the 2 GB at $79, but they were out of stock in that model so I said screw it and just got the 4 GB.

I had a moment early on where I thought maybe this was a bad decision. If you pause a track and then the device shuts itself off from the “idle timeout”, when you start it back up it will be on your track but at the beginning. If you had been 90 minutes into a 2 hour podcast, that tends to fry one’s ass a little. There is a bookmark function, but when you return to a bookmark you are going to a single track. I had setup a playlist of all the shows I wanted to listen to, and it was a little irksome first remembering to bookmark the track and then having to navigate off the single show back to the playlist every time I used a bookmark.

However, after some exploring on the Creative Zen forums I found out that although pausing and auto-shutdown loses your place, doing a hard power down with the switch does not. That’s almost exactly backwards from what you might expect, but that is what it is. I also found the setting to up the idle timeout from the default 5 minutes to 30 minutes. The combination of these two things makes it good again. If I really don’t want to lose my spot, shut it down before I walk away from it. Most times, I’m back to it in 30 minutes anyway during my workday. It has a setting to shut it off entirely, but I suspect that’s a fast track to a dead battery.

There are a lot of positives about this device. It has a nice screen, reasonable controls and a very good small form factor. With its rounded edges it feels a little like an overgrown Chiclet. It does play video, although not any format that anyone would actually be using. It only plays uncompressed AVI files, no codecs whatsoever. The Sync Manager program has the ability to transcode on the fly, and I’m testing it out for the first time this morning. A bunch of the vlogs I’m subscribed to are moving over as I type and I’ll try them out today. The downside of all this is that the Creative programs to manage the device are Windows XP only. There are workarounds that work on Mac and Linux via this XJNB program but they are bare bones compared to the official program. They will let you move files and create playlists but won’t transcode, for example. I bit the bullet and revived my brother-in-law’s dead XP box that has been sitting in my office since XMas and have made it my podcast-reciever and syncing box. The upside of that is that I won’t be filling the hard drive of my laptop most nights. If you already use Windows XP or Vista, this wouldn’t be much of an impediment but for me it was.

So the summary from the first few days is that it seems like a nice device with a fair number of hoops to jump through to use it. I probably wouldn’t suggest it for someone with only Macs in their house, but for Windows users I probably would. I’ll report back if my experience changes over the next few days and with the results of the video experiment. Overall though it seems like a nice little device and a very good value for the price.

It’s got to be better than the mobiBLU cube, which I bought from a recommendation of Dick Debartolo on the Daily Giz Wiz and almost immediately regretted. It was the last time I paid attention to Dick and not that long after I unsubscribed from the show. Dick doesn’t recommend these things because he integrates them with his life like I’m after, he fiddles for a day and then puts it on a shelf. I’m in it for the long haul in a way he is not, so I decided he’s not a good source of reviews for me.

Here’s When I’m Getting the iPhone

Scoble asks where people are going to get an iPhone. I’m answering as if the question was “when”, because that’s more interesting to me. This is right in line with topics in the podcast I published today about how you spend your money, and has a very easy answer. I will use the same rule of thumb I have with every cell phone I have ever owned – when it is free with a service contract, I’ll get it. If that is never, so be it. I’ll live.

Ebook Detractors Live On

Frequent correspondent Derek sent me this link to an article stating that ebooks are doomed. I suppose I could do some point by point contrarianism, but nine years after I left my job at Intel to go work at an ebook startup I just don’t have that much energy for a real comprehensive job of that. I’ve had the same arguments so many times that it wears on me. In fact, I made a lot of these points just a few months ago. I will dispute this one in particular:

Likewise, do people want to “curl up” with a battery-operated plastic screen?

The obvious answer is no.

And that’s the simple reason why e-books will never even come close to replacing paper books.

The end.

The answer is not obvious to me. I’m a bibliophile and a book collector, and I have no problem curling up with an electronic device. I’ve done it many times. This is perhaps the single most common argument in the anti-ebook camp. I’m only surprised that Mike Elgan did not mention reading in the bathtub.

I’d love to have one of those e-ink devices and would not be the slightest bit bothered by its singleness of purpose. My main problem now is price and value. There is no chance I will pay $700 for one of those. When they are $100 and are open enough to easily allow any open format documents to be placed on them, then we’ll talk. I will admit that I have been tempted by the eBookwise 1150 multiple times and in the right mood, I might have already bought one. If the device used a more common memory card it would be a lower hurdle to a purchase in my opinion, but these guys are playing the hand they are dealt. These devices are what Gemstar was selling when they drove their business in the ground.

I also find the article’s discussion about price points to no longer be a compelling point. My use of any such device would not involve buying $10 versions of what is out in paperback. It would be reading books from Project Gutenberg, ones freely given out by people like Doctorow and Stross, or sold multi-format and open from Fictionwise or Baen Books. I find the experience of reading on a device highly agreeable and have read dozens of books that way. Back before my old Handspring device took a dump for the final time, that was my primary use for it.

I don’t think the received wisdom of the death of ebooks is correct. I’ve been hearing it for a decade now, and while the industry hasn’t advanced much, neither has it gone away. However this always seems to be from the perspective of the media industry who try to sell ridiculously priced electronic editions as protectionism for their paper versions. That’s a model that will not work, I agree. However, I think the value in ebooks is not and never was in that crap. It’s in the things outside of the big media machine, public domain books and such. I just want you early adopters to buy some e-ink devices, so either the prices come down from the volume or so there are used ones I can buy off of you for cheap.

Shuffle Swap

Yesterday afternoon, I plugged in my Shuffle to the iBook to refresh my listening content. It didn’t mount as a drive, it didn’t mount in iTunes and it didn’t flash as if it were recharging. I tried a few things like plugging it into a powered hub, plugging into every USB port on every computer in the office and on none of them did it start flashing. It still played and worked, but it wouldn’t communicate or charge. This make me think something was boned in the USB connection part.

I decided to not fart around and go straight to the Apple warranty page, on the assumption that the earlier in the day that I set up the exchange, the fewer days it would take. In fact, the replacement unit was sitting on my front porch at 9 AM EDT. The old one is packed up and ready to drop in the DHL box. All in all, that was a fantastic transaction. The new one has already been pressed into service, is charged up and loaded with my playlist. Nice!

Microsoft Music Slights Pocket PC

According to MS Mobiles, music downloaded from the new MS music service doesn’t play on Pocket PCs. Ouch, that sounds kind of like a spit in the face of all the millions of people who have been paying their $500 bucks for a PDA and staying in the Microsoft camp. Their suggestions are extreme but funny:

For god’s sake: we have now very cheap SD cards (each Windows Mobile supports SD or mini-SD card slot) and we have very fast Windows Mobile devices (200 MHz for Microsoft Smartphone and 624 MHz for Pocket PC) – all with stereo sound output, but stupid Microsoft employees cannot understand that these devices constitute excellent music players and rolled out Music Download service which Pocket PC and Microsoft Smartphone can’t use.

We recommend to Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer to fire at least 50% of people from Windows Mobile and MSN departments, so they could learn at last to pay more attention what end users really need.

They later published another report that support is promised for the future with the belief that this will be an “iPod killer.” I think they underestimate the sexiness of iPods and the total unsexiness of the MS options.

Zaurus and Macs

I haven’t been posting much about the Zaurus lately. I’ve been busy and haven’t been doing anything beyond simple everyday stuff with it, so there hasn’t been much to talk about. Thanks to a passerby who left me some information in a writeback, I was informed that you do need a Compact Flash card to flash the ROM on this thing, so I’m buying an old 32Mb card from a coworker for $10. Maybe this weekend or so I’ll flash the ROM to Open Zaurus. Sitting at the get-together in Schaumburg, all the guys running OZ seemed to have a cooler setup. Things on my standard Sharp ROM got a little funky when I installed some of the Opie apps anyway, so why not?

There’s this professor in Germany, Dr. H. Nikolaus Schaller who seems to be doing a lot of stuff with Macintoshes and Zauruses. He has the aptly named Dr. Schaller IT Research Initiative that is doing this work. I can’t tell if this is an organization, an idea, a collection for stuff he is doing at his university or what. I really don’t care, as long as he keeps making it easier to combine Zaurii with Macs. This is the group that does the OS X to Zaurus cross-compiler, and they are working on the project to add a true Zaurus sync to the Mac. Recently they’ve added a discussion forum so if you have any questions, there is the place to do it. I just asked a question on the forum today asking if ZMacSync will always be 10.3 specific or if they have plans to add in compatability back to 10.2. It’s all interesting stuff. If you are a Zaurus owner and a Mac user, that’s a place worth checking out.

Actually, I see now from further reading that Dr. Schaller’s ZMacsync is only for the Sharp ROM (and only V3.10 of that). Apparently ZaurusMacSync is supposed to work for OpenZaurus. Man, this tower of Babel is really a problem with the Zaurus!

Ebooks, E-ink, E-yawn

I link less to this slashdot item about an e-ink driven ebook reader and more to the discussion thread. Starting with the very first comment, you see all the same bullshit few remarks I always see in ebook conversations. It’s to the point where I can map out what people will say before they do, because they are so invariant. Bring up ebooks and at least one person will reply that:

  • Paper books are just fine. Why do we need ebooks?
  • The screen sizes are too small/the resolutions are too low/I don’t like reading off of screens all the time
  • You can’t read ebooks in the tub
  • I like the feel/smell of paper books

Having been through these arguments repeatedly for the last 5 years, I’ve hit the point where I no longer feel like engaging with people that say these things. My experience, having read dozens of full novels on various handheld devices of higher and lower resolution, grayscale and color, is that it is not one bit less agreeable than reading on paper. I just the other day read a discussion of how the DPI was too low on a handheld device for comfortable reading. Bullshit! I read all the time on a device of about 80 DPI and it is perfectly fine. Like I’ve been saying in this blog, the enormity of the paper books I own overwhelms me so I am getting rid of them. There’s really nothing to say to someone who can’t see how a 10 ounce device that is always on my person and contains the text of hundreds of novels is preferable to me than having those hundreds of novels spilling off my shelves and onto the floor. I’m tired of hearing these opinions about how handhelds are no good for reading from people who have never made a good faith effort to try reading on one. I wouldn’t dream of writing a restaurant review of a place I’ve never eaten at, but these people are happy to expound on why these devices make for poor reading. As Cory Doctorow points out, “More people are reading more words off more screens every day.”

I’m a bibliophile. I love reading, and I love books. Just as much as anyone, I like that musty old books smell. However, that doesn’t mean that I have a romanticized view of the book as an artifact. Books are great, I love them. I have some books I’ll never give up, such as my copy of Buckminster Fuller’s Synergetics. Most books in my house, though, I have for the words and I couldn’t care less if those words are printed on the page or bits on my secure digital card. These are the books that I want to have electronically, which more and more I get that way. For several years now I have subscribed to Asimov’s and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction via Fictionwise. I wish I could trade in the 15 years of paper copies of each that live in my basement and make them electronic. I don’t care about the artifact, just the words. If you can’t understand this feeling, I’m not engaging you in this discussion. When it comes back to “I just love paper so much” we just don’t have anything more to talk about.

Zaurus

Those of you arriving here from the recommendation at PalmAddicts, you might want to look at just the handhelds view of this blog. I appreciate the link in and the traffic and all but the luck of the draw is that I haven’t posted about the Zaurus that much in the last week. Not that I want to discourage anyone from reading all the various and sundry stuff I talk about, but I don’t want y’all to feel like you were duped into coming here. There are some Z posts on the horizon, particularly the fallout from my meeting with the other Zaurus guys in Schaumburg last week.

Geeks in Schaumburg

I’m in the Coffeehaus right now, blogging from the Zaurus over the wifi. We sure are a dorky lot. I’m understanding about 30% of what is being said. Hopefully I’ll be able to catch up.

Zaurus Users Meetup in Schaumburg

The Wisconsin/Illinois chapter of the Zaurus Users Group will be having a get together in Schaumburg this Sunday at 1 PM, according to this thread. The location will be the Coffeehaus at 209 W Golf Road (847 755 1233). The place has free wifi, which I’m pretty sure is why it was chosen. So, that’s a dozen or so lattes they wouldn’t have sold otherwise to help defray the cost of it. See, free wifi can pay!

My goal, besides the fun of meeting and hanging out with like-minded dorks, is to prepare my list of questions and/or things I need to be shown how to configure or make work properly. If I am going to be there in a place with free internet and lots of knowledgable users, that’s the time to go crazy adding packages and things. Maybe I can get folks to show me how to get package feeds working correctly, which I never could do myself. Even better, I’ll bring my power cord and see if someone will help me flash the ROM.

I’ll be heading out there a little early so that I can lunch at Todai. If I have to go all the way out to Schaumburg, then I might as well. All you can eat sushi! Anyone reading this that is planning on going too, and wants to eat some sushi with a stranger first, drop me an email or a writeback.

VGA Zaurus is Released

Several people have wrote or messaged me to let me know that the VGA resolution Zaurus 6000 models are now available. While it looks cool, and the bigger screen and better resolution are always a plus and onboard low power Wifi is turly wicked, it doesn’t look so cool to me as to be worth three times what I paid for the 5600. I do hope that this move a few units. I’ll do what I can to nudge this towards critical mass as a platform.

More Linux Handhelds

Via correspondent Mike comes two more Linux based handhelds that I never would have known about without his heads up. Royal has the Linea LX coming out soon. It seems to have similar specs to the Zaurus (although lacking a few of the goodies I most like.) The nicest part is that it has a built in SD and will feature CF via a detachable sled which will have its own battery. Thus, the draw of CF devices will not run the PDA dead quite so quickly. That’s good thinking. This device, which will have a 320X240 screen is targeted at the $400 price.

Picopeta has the Simputer, designed for use by the developing world (India is the first target). It runs on AAA batteries so that wall power isn’t needed, and it is voice activated to account for the fact that many that use it might be illiterate. Interesting notions, although as that article points out, the $220 is a years wages for most of the people it is targeted towards.

Zaurus Package Feeds

I felt logey this weekend and not up to actually flashing my Zaurus ROM. I did install some of the packages from the Opie 1.0.3 feed though. I downloaded a random MPEG-4 video from the Internet Archive to see if I could play it. Neither the standed Sharp Media Player nor the Opie Player played it, although I might be lacking a codec. I tried to set up the Opie stable branch as a known feed in my package manager and could never get that to work either. The best I could do was load it in Opera and download the packages I wanted one at a time. From what people say when they say “Install Opie 1.0.3” it makes it sound like there is a short simple way to do it, but I could never figure out what that was. All in all, it was a frustrating time with the Big Z.

One positive thing though was finding out that the Opie Mail application does do the 90 degree rotation. That’s good for me when I want to compose emails offline with the folding keyboard. I might give that a try today, in fact. Overall, I didn’t make any real progress and some very simple seeming tasks eluded me completely. Such will be the nature of this platform.

VGA Zaurus

I love it! Just by typing impressions of the Zaurus, it’s creating a crystallization point. People are mailing me cool things about them and leaving me writebacks and such. A correspondent named Mike who sends along this link to the Japanese announcement page for the Zaurus SL-6000, with VGA 640X480 resolution. It looks cool, but not life-alteringly different from what I have unless it has a killer CPU in it. It’s worth noting that my 5600 has a faster CPU than my Linux box which was my main work desktop in 2000.

Mike also notes that while he likes the hardware specs, its still too plug and pray for him to get involved as an average consumer. I definitely agree with that. I’m doing far more farting around with code and configuration than I ever did with the Palm platform. I do think it’s on the way though and I hope that Sharp is patient enough to let the line mature, encourage developers to create enough software for it to reach a tipping point and most of all, get some more and better desktop syncing solutions out there. As much as I’m enjoying it, I couldn’t recommend it for the average salesperson at your company – and these people are the core constituency of PDAs. Without too terribly much effort it could get there, and that’s what I’m hoping for.

Zaurus Wish List

I had a Zaurus brain flash this morning about what I really want out of it. Given that its role is as an information nexus with intermittent connectivity, I want lots of stuff centered around “storing and forwarding.” Rather than having the mail client that needs to sync to a desktop mail app or worse one that must have connectivity to send, I want to have a local MTA to which it sends immediately. Later on, at a point when there is connectivity, the MTA sends. If you have a Linux laptop, chances are you already do something a lot like this. Same thing with web pages, usenet and RSS feeds. There should be a way of definining the resources you want to follow and/or aggregate on the PDA. At the point where connnectivity is established, a fresh fetch of all these things is attempted. If connectivity remains, at some interval these resources are refreshed.

With this kind of architecture, it doesn’t matter whether the connectivity is in the form of some transient Wifi or Bluetooth connection, or the TCP/IP over USB of sitting in the cradle. However we are connected, if we are, do this stuff. Other than the MTA, which might be slightly tricky only if you want some kind of UI indicator of status, all of this already exists today in off-the-shelf components that could simply be glued together. I think this might be my contribution to this world, trying to integrate together these things in a way that makes the Zaurus overall a more efficient tool for getting things done. More on here as my thoughts solidify and I do some research to determine which pieces already exist and how hard they would be to glue together.

OpenZaurus

So I’ve been studying up on it and I’m going to flash my ROM to OpenZaurus. I’m a little trepidatious about the whole thing, but I will be doing it. While it is usable as it came out of the box from Sharp, I think this will make it closer to what I want. I believe that I’ll be able to finally sync something with my Mac OS X box if I do. Overall, I’m sure it will be a good maneuver, I’m just nervous in that “breaking the seal on the box” sort of way.

I’m not 100% sure if I can flash the ROM from the SD card. I’ve seen references that imply that ROM flashing can only happen from the CF, but then others that imply either. I’ll be finding out the hard way, I suppose. Looking around, I’ve seen a number of people who seem to flash from ROM to ROM at will so it can’t be that terrible of an operation to do. I have a 256M SD card and could fit a number of ROMs on there. If I can flash from it, I’m in business. All I need is to keep the OpieReader, the Pocketop driver, and Kismet installed and I’m in hog heaven. If I can sync then I can actually get some use out of the PIM stuff that PDAs are supposed to be for. Right now, losing the QTopia Address Book and Calendar isn’t much of a hit when there is nothing in either. I’ll report back here after I work up the courage to take the big step.

Here is one guys blow by blow account of installing OZ, in excruciating detail. I’m definitely keeping this to hand for a few gotchas when I do it. If worse comes to worse, I belive I can restore to these version of the Sharp ROMs.

Zaurus Mac Syncing Sucks

First real big bummer of the Zaurus era, the state of syncing the 5600 to a Mac OS X box is shabby. I was able to get the USB networking working without that much problem but none of the syncing solutions I could find worked at all. I tried the Zaurus Mac Sync Sourceforge project which didn’t work (if I head RTFM I could have known that it wouldn’t) and worse, makes my Mail app stop connecting to my POP server after I try. I can’t find anything else that makes any claim for syncing with the 5600 on the standard Sharp ROMs. According to this guy, I will be able to if I move to OpenZaurus which I might very well do this weekend.

I have not tried making a samba connection via the USB interface to move files but I might to move all my Fictionwise books over. What I really would like is a generic syncing solution for the 5600 to Mac OS X that need not talk to a desktop or anything. All I want is a “File Installer” wizard like the Palm installation manager and the equivalent iSync conduits to sync to my existing calendars, To-Dos and Address Book. Ideally, this would be open source in keeping with much of the platform. Again, if anyone at Sharp is reading this you should put a hacker or three on the payroll and point them at this problem. It could even be me! With PalmOne dropping Mac support, having a nice solid solution for this would be a good competitive advantage for the Zaurus line.

I also (re)found via a google search the MobileWhack device weblog. It has a Zaurus subcategory which I read. I noticed the “syndicate” links were all for the top level but considering that Rael Dornfest the proprietor of the blog is also the author of blosxom, I figured that maybe one could syndicate the subcategories just like you can with any blosxom blog. Hey, I was right!. The RSS for the Zaurus category is now in my aggregator.

Big Z part umpty

After thinking I needed to install some rotation software on the Big Z, turns out that it is built into the IRK driver. Doh! I found a random reference to it in a webpage or I wouldn’t have even known that this functionality existed. All I had to do was to install the rotated fonts, and voila. Shift-cmd-space on the keyboard will start or stop rotation mode, which means that new windows will be popped up sideways if that app supports it. So far, it seems like most of them that I’d want the keyboard for do except for the mail client. That’s kind of a bummer, because typing mails away from the house would be one of the things I want to do. I couldn’t see any way on the interface to start or stop the rotation mode, which bit me once when I had put up the keyboard only to realize I had put it away and needed to stop rotating. There really should be a button on the UI somewhere.

I downloaded a few of my iSilo formatted books from Fictionwise to try them out with the Opie Reader. They worked pretty well. The internal hyperlinks were not live and a few of the characters just showed up as blocks but by and large they were quite readable. I might well redownload my entire library to the Z just to have it there.

If I can get the Mac syncing stuff up and running today, I’ll have hit my goal for the day. I’m not expecting everything to be as simple as it is on the Palm, but things are coming along nicely.

Pocketop Working

The next step in the path to getting the Zaurus how I want it has been taken. Thanks to Tim Wentford’s pointer I got the driver for my Pocketop keyboard installed and working fine. The trick here is to not go to Pocketop at all but Zaurus User Group. It’s worth noting that there are links to two different drivers. The one labeled “irk-5600_0.9.2_arm.ipk” didn’t work for me and didn’t really even seem to install. What did work was the one labeled “IRK driver for Targus and Pocketop keyboards”. What’s very nice is that it inserts itself as an input choice in the popup on the status bar, so when you choose whether to use the handwriting recognition or the pickboard, etc, you can instead choose IRK (IR keyboard, I assume.) This gives you a quick handle to a control where you can turn this on and off – mostly off as the IR drains the battery if you aren’t using the keyboard at that moment. Once I got it installed, it worked great. Now I need to find a screen rotator! I did all my test typing whilst reading sideways.

Soon I’m going to have to get courageous about flashing the ROMs. I’m interesting in experimenting with both pdaxrom and the Open Zaurus ROMs. I’m trying to make a habit of putting stuff on the card so that it will survive flashing the ROM. I’m installing what I can there and trying to remember to leave a copy of all the .IPK files there at least.