Tag Archives: windows

Skipping Trailers and Warnings on Blu-ray Discs

There has been an increase in crimes against consumers. They are being held hostage. By what? Warnings and trailers on Blu-ray discs! I don’t steal movies off the internet, I rent them via Netflix, and rental discs1 are the biggest culprit.

Yes, you can fast forward, but on my PC’s BD player2 only goes so fast, so I’m still stuck for several minutes. Worse, I often need to stop the disc and get back to work, which means closing the player since it disables the Windows Aero interface and color scheme. When I start the player again, I’m back at square one! I’ve been looking for a player that allows me to skip anything, much like VLC Media Player and Media Player Classic (the open source version) allow me to do for DVDs. Unfortunately, I’ve seen no open source BD players and the commercial ones won’t dare allow you to perform a “user prohibited action” as defined by the disc makers. How they have the balls to charge $100 for that crap I’ll never know.

But we have a savior! It’s called AnyDVD HD. It sits between your BD ROM drive and your software player software and presents the disc as decrypted. It will also disable all your warnings and trailers.3. I just installed it and put in a disc and it immediately went to the main menu. It’s exactly what I was looking for and it’s currently going for about $75, with a 3 week trial so you can check it out first. Yes, a little pricey, but still cheaper than the other software players and I’ll make up for it in time saved. The bummer is that it only works on Windows, so when I have a home theater set up with my PS3, I’ll be back to slogging through trailers, or schlepping my laptop over to the coffee table.

  1. Denoted by plain grey discs featuring only the movie title. []
  2. HP MediaSmart DVD, which is just rebranded Cyberlink. []
  3. Of course, you can get to the trailers through the disc menu if you like. []
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Windows 7 (Get It While It’s Cheap)

Windows 7 actually appears to be worth the upgrade. I got a firsthand account from my roommate, who says it’s combines Vista features with XP efficiency. And for a limited time that upgrade is cheap: $50 for Home Premium and $100 for Professional.

To make it easy on the consumer, each version of 7 has all the features of it’s lesser brethren – no more Home Premium vs. Business vs. Ultimate BS. E.g., since Premium includes Media Center, so does Professional, even though it’s targeted at small business users. Here is a good article comparing the different versions. I think Professional is a pretty clear win (at least for me).

To ease the minds of upgraders, Professional and Ultimate include a fully licensed copy of XP SP3 that runs in a virtual machine. There is one big gotcha, though – not all Intel CPUs support Intel VT (Virtualization Technology), required for this XP compatibility mode. Here is a list of supported (and unsupported) CPUs.

Please comment if you’ve had any luck (good or bad) with Windows 7.

Apple Market Share Jumps to 14%!

This is pretty big news: Macs now account for 14% of all PC sales by units sold. By dollars spent, it’s 25% – yes, they are friggin’ expensive.

In my microverse, the laptop share must be 80% or more. What’s interesting is that even by techies, they’re not being bought for OS X. The reasons I’m hearing are that it’s very reliable and (this is coming from a very talented sysadmin, mind you) “it’s just so thin…”. Several people are using Windows as the main OS.

By non-techies, it’s totally the external form that sells it. Clearly Microsoft thought making Vista look more like Aqua would help, but it’s the container, not the guts, that’s grabbing buyers. I heard another story on Hacker News from a guy who explained to his friend how the Macbook Pro was so much faster than the Macbook, even though the specs look similar. His eyes glazed over, and then he proclaimed, “Yeah, I like look of the glossy black one better.” These aren’t computers, they’re accessories.

I think they’re cool, and I love the fact that it’s UNIX under the hood and runs Windows reliably. But I still have a hard time spending $600+ more for a laptop with fewer features than an HP or Dell. But I’d definitely take the Apple over the Sony.

Sandisk Sansa e200 Series MP3 Player Review

For Christmas this year, I treated myself to a longtime object of my technolust: the Sandisk Sansa e280 flash memory MP3 player. Part of the e200 series, the e280 is the 8GB version. I paid $185 at Amazon (no blogger bribes here!). All e200 players have many features to thrash those precious iPod Nanos:

  • Plays MP3, WMA, and secure WMA (see below)
  • 1.8″ color LCD screen
  • Image viewer
  • Video player
  • Voice recorder
  • Data storage
  • FM tuner, with record capability
  • microSD expansion slot
  • User replaceable, rechargeable Lithium Ion battery with 20 hours of play time (average)

That’s what everybody gets. The real kicker is if you have Windows XP [1] and a subscription service like Rhapsody-To-Go, Napster, or Yahoo! Music. This is a Plays For Sure player, so you can take subscription content with you. As long as I am a subscriber, I can transfer any track in my library, even though I didn’t buy it. Since I just got a great deal on Rhapsody-To-Go [2] I expect to subscribe indefinitely. That gives me any of Rhapsody’s 3 million+ tracks anywhere I want. It is the awesome.

That’s quite a feature list, in a very compact package. Here are the highs and lows.

Highs

  • Screen is sharp, photos and videos look good.
  • Sound quality is quite good, both for WMA (160K) and FM stereo
  • Using Rhapsody’s jukebox software, transferring music is quite easy. You either drag and drop files, or synchronize with your Rhapsody Library. If you needed to, you could pick and choose from your Library instead of copying the whole thing. Personally, mine is a giant “best of” collection, so it’s very convenient for me to connect it to my PC have it automatically sync up. Right now I’ve got around 600 tracks that I’ve chosen over the last year, and it takes up about 2.7GB.
  • The design is very nice. It’s shiny! And black. It’s not quite as compact or beautiful as the iPod, but… duh. As far as I can tell, Apple has kidnapped the best designers on the planet (minus Agent Hulagun), so nobody else can have such elegant-looking products. It’s the modern day equivalent of Ivan the Terrible poking out the eyes of Postnik Yakovlev after he built St. Basil’s Cathedral.
  • New batteries are only $20 from Sandisk, compared to $60 for iPods.

Lows

  • Like just about every other MP3 player I’ve read reviews on, the earbuds kinda suck. Sound quality is decent, they’re just these big round discs that don’t feel like they were designed to go in your ears. They’re too big for your ear canal (I think they’re more bellybutton sized), and I haven’t figure out a way to place them so they don’t feel like they’re about to fall out. I’m looking for a replacement, and have my eye on the Sennheiser PMX60 headphones. I’m pretty sure the larger drivers will drain the batteries faster, but at least they’ll be comfortable without messing up my incredible hair.
  • The voice recorder seems to record a high-pitched whine along with your voice. It’s annoying, so don’t expect to make any podcasts from it. And you have to speak into the mic, so I don’t think you can use it to record lectures. Of course, the mic hole is about 2mm in diameter, so it’s a wonder it works at all. At least you can pause and continue the recording.
  • When using the thumbwheel, your thumb rests on the left side of the wheel, which is not optimal. You scroll down, you’re turning counterclockwise, and the screen scrolls up. This is really an artifact of using a very compact device, and I don’t see a solution – that’s just where your thumb naturally rests. To make this more ergonomic you’d need to make it bigger, which nobody wants. I’m sure most compact MP3 players have this issue.
  • When connecting to my PC for transfer, the Rhapsody software needs to scan the device for tracks. This takes several minutes, and I only have about 600 tracks (“only” meaning it’s only 1/3 full). In “mass storage” mode, you can’t transfer subscription content, only drag and drop files. So it doesn’t scan your tracks when you connect, but when you disconnect it essentially reboots and does this “Refresh Database” thing that also takes a couple minutes. You can’t win.
  • The only way to recharge the battery is by hooking the device up to a USB port via the included cable. Not an issue – unless you want to travel with it. Luckily, there are many 3rd party Sansa accessories that solve this, and they’re even blessed by Sandisk. This includes USB charging ports for your car’s cigarette lighter, as well as wall chargers.
  • The LCD stays on when the device is connected to a PC. Since you connect to charge the battery, it seems dumb to be draining it by lighting up the screen.
  • Photos and videos can’t be placed on the microSD card.

I’m nitpicking a bit with the lows, but I’d rather be thorough in case one of them is a deal-breaker for you. Overall, I think the highs far outweigh them, and I’m quite happy with my purchase!

[1] And presumably Vista, but don’t hold me to that. I think it just needs Windows Media Player 10 or better.

[2] I’m afraid it’s gone now, but during the holidays they offered the to-go service for $8 month. I’d been paying $10/month for the Unlimited service, which doesn’t allow you to transfer to MP3 players, and the upgrade price was $15/month! I created another account, hoping to merge the two, but the best customer support could do was cancel the old one. I downloaded the entire library from my original account and then imported it from the new one, so I was able to save just about everything. After spending a year carefully selecting 600 tracks (out of several thousand), you don’t want to have to find them again!

How cool is Skype?

Very cool. I just loaded it yesterday and did a couple test runs with Agent Hulagun – kudos to him for his part in the vital mission. Overall, it was pretty simple. You have to click download a few too many times, but eventually you get there. When running the installer, remember to click the [ Options… ] button and make sure everything’s kosher.

I had a slight issue due to a non-standard microphone configuration. I have an Audigy 2 ZS card with an I/O plate for the front of your case. It has a 1/4″ mic input with preamp, into which I have plugged in a Shure SM58 mic (pretty much the most famous ball mic ever). This shows up in audio/sound programs like Audacity as “Line-in 2/Mic 2″, but most programs just show the sound card or “windows default” (or something like “system”) as an option. This requires you to use the control panel to select that mic as the system default. Problem is, programmers who think they’re oh so clever will change the system default to “Microphone”, and this is very frustrating when troubleshooting!!! I had to uncheck an option in Skype that says something like, “Let Skype mess up my options that I’ve taken a while to get right”. I am paraphrasing to accentuate truthfulness. When that was done, though, it worked.

And it works really well. Granted, I’m using a $100 mic and $60 headphones, but it’s pretty clear on both sides. And of course, totally free. There is a slight chance that Yahoo! Messenger with Voice will also work with my setup, but it doesn’t have a “don’t screw things up checkbox”, and it definitely screws things up when you use the voice setup wizard. I’ll have to find another test subject to troubleshoot that.

I recommend either a headset or mic/headphones combo. Using a speaker will turn it into – surprise! – a speakerphone. And those are annoying for both parties. However, you probably want to be able to unplug the headset/headphones easily; I know my computer will mute speakers when headphones are plugged in. You can uncheck that option, but then you’re driving both at the same time, which seems like kind of a waste.

I originally wanted this set up to communicate with East Coasters without burning up all my cell phone minutes. If I call them 9pm their time, it’s still 6pm (primetime) for me. Of course, this also works for locals with only cell phone access.

So feel free to add me using my Crack Team email address. If you don’t know it and can’t figure it out, email me and I’ll clue you in.

Rhapsody.com Review

On a lark, I subscribed to the Rhapsody Unlimited music subscription service, lured in the by their 14-day free trial ($10/month after that). I had fun with Pandora, but wanted to try something that gave me more control over what I listened to. In this case, complete control. Rhapsody has over 1.3M songs, and gives you the power to listen to any of them in any order. That sounds like a lot, and it is, but you’ll still run across missing albums, and occasionally missing artists. At least they have a button that reveals all of an artist’s missing albums.

Listening on the go

One of the benefits of the Unlimited service is Rhapsody To Go, which allows you to download tracks to a compatible portable device (the ones that say Subscription). There are 3 catches in that statement: 1) you are a current Rhapsody Unlimited subscriber, 2) your MP3 player is Janus/PlaysForSure compatible (iPods aren’t), and 3) you’re using Windows XP. And 4 catches if you include the fact that not all Rhapsody tracks are Subscription tracks, but in my experience almost all are. The quality of purchased and downloaded tracks is 128K, in WMA, AAC, or MP3.

Since I don’t see myself dropping the service anytime soon, I’m highly motivated to get a Subscription compatible player. Because I’d like an expandable player, I’m leaning towards the Sandisk e200 with a microSD slot, removable recharbable battery, FM tuner, and voice recorder, due out in March (happy birthday to me). [Attention Sandisk: when your marketing dept. launches a product at CES, without so much as a press release on your website, it’s time to fire them.]

Listening at home

You can listen two ways, through their web interface or their dedicated client. I usually use the client/jukebox software for its interface and convenience features. If you add a track to your library, it can download it so you can listen to it even when the site is down (which happens occasionally). Assuming you’re a current subscriber, of course, and are using Windows XP (I’m guessing it’s a DRM issue). You can purchase tracks for $.89 and albums for $7.99.

I don’t know how much music I listened to before, but I find with Rhapsody I listen to about 3 albums a night. It allows me to more thoroughly explore artists and genres. I find I’ll listen to classic rock musicians from past to present, until they start sucking (which happens pretty consistently as they approach the 1980s), and indie musicians from present to past, for pretty much the same reasons. I’m generalizing, but there’s definitely a pattern there, and it’s cool to see how the artists evolve (or devolve).

They also have several pre-programmed radio stations to help you explore new stuff, and allow you to create a station based on your tastes, like Pandora. I haven’t tried the custom station feature, and would be impressed if it was as good as Pandora, but I’ve been too busy albums to check.

Print to PDF

I recently tried to reinstall my copy of Movie Magic Screenwriter 2000, and it immediately informed me that without a printer, it would not install. Claims it needs printer settings to know how to set up the document. Now, anyone who’s written a screenplay knows it has a rigid format, so requiring a printer seems stupid. Especially since I don’t have access to one right now.

Enter PrimoPDF. It acts as printer driver, which fakes out programs into thinking there’s a regular printer. It can also be useful to print to PDF for sharing documents, or sending them somewhere else to be printed. Of course, Movie Magic Screenwriter has a built-in PDF creator, making it even less necessary!

Well, at last I’m free to unleash my creative genius. It shall be a daring tale of love, where an ingenue played by Emma Watson falls in love with a much older, but quite obese, American screenwriter…

7-zip: Fast, Free (De)Compression

When I installed Windows XP, I noticed it could treat .zip files as directories. This is nifty at first, but slows things down, especially if you have a directory filled with .zip files (like, I don’t know, your Downloads directory???). It has to decompress them all internally, throttling your CPU and blocking UI events (like switching directories to stop the slowdown). In contrast, if you try to actually decompress a zip file using the built-in wizard, it takes f o r e v e r. I have a hunch they’re making it a low-priority background process, so you can do other things while it’s decompressing. Problem is, 99% of the time, I just want to work with the files it’s decompressing! I didn’t see an option to speed it up, although I haven’t looked very hard, because it should be easy enough to find. Conclusion: Microsoft is stupid.
     I found a nifty utility called 7-zip that has made my life much easier. It decompresses things right away, using a context menu. Just right click on the file in Windows Explorer, and choose Extract Here (or Extract Files…). It works right away, no waiting, and handles a multitude of file types (originally 7 different kinds, hence the name). This includes .rar files and mulit-part files (where the files have sequential suffixes, .1, .2, …, .n), using the same, easy interface. It’s completely free, open source software. You don’t even have to deal with WinZip’s nagware.