Friday, December 31, 2010

Apple iPad Remote and the 1st Gen Apple TV

Apple TV MC572LL/A (2010)
I saw my brother in law over the Christmas break and he asked me about the Apple Remote iPad application and Apple TV and whether I used it or not.  He was seriously considering buying the AppleTV now because of this capability.   Wow, what a great question.  I have had the Remote app on my iPad since I purchased it because I downloaded it for my iPhone many eons ago.  I never really used it on my iPhone because it didn't seem that much better than just going through the TV menus.  But my brother in law was right that the idea of the iPad controlling the AppleTV was kind of a game changer because of it's large screen.  I had tried the Apple Remote iPad app to control iTunes on my computer and it was nice but I rarely want to control my iTunes remotely.  When I tried it I was mostly disappointed that it didn't replace the Air Video app for iPad (The Air Video app is also very cool but it's not from Apple and I think Apple's implementation would be better).  Basically, I wanted to watch and listen to my iTunes content on the iPad itself without having to store it on the iPad.  The Remote app doesn't do that.

Anyway, I was curious so last night I gave it a try.  I found the Apple Remote on the iPad and turned it on. I then switched to the AppleTV and went to settings.  I selected the General / Remotes screen and nothing happened.  Bummer.  I then did a Bing search and read something about enabling Home Sharing and using that technology.  Well my 1st Gen AppleTV doesn't support Home Sharing.  Double bummer.

Right about now I was starting to get AppleTV 2nd Gen envy when I decided to give it one more try and did a search on the Apple site and found this article.  The way to set this up on the 1st Gen AppleTV is to:
1) Add an iTunes Library to the iPad Remote App by clicking on the Gear icon and then selecting the Add Library button.  You will see a 4 digit code appear.  Leave this on.
2) Then go to the AppleTV and under Settings navigate to the General / Remotes screen.  Your iPad's name should appear.  Click on it and then type in the same 4 digit code that the iPad Remote app displayed.
3) Click Done.  You should see the 4 digit code disappear on the iPad and the AppleTV contents will then be displayed.

After this the Remote App is paired with the AppleTV and all of the music and videos appear on the iPad. You can do a search on the iPad and then start the song or video from there.  It's very cool.  There is also a mode where it acts like a regular remote.  Click on the 4 arrow icon in the bottom right corner of the remote app to get to this mode.  Swiping right or left will go right or left in the AppleTV menus.  Swiping up or down will go up or down the AppleTV menus.  This is the way to control and get to non-music and video content such as pictures.

This is definitely a game changer and might possibly be a reason to buy an Apple TV over a Roku box.   Think of a supped up Sonos system (I don't have one of those but I imagine it's kind of like that).  I think it's a definitely slam dunk if Apple starts allowing iOS apps on the new AppleTV.  I would love to have Pandora, Sirius XM, HuluPlus and other apps some of which are already supported on Roku.  I would upgrade my AppleTV for those new capabilities.

Issues Setting Up My New Onkyo TX-SR608

Onkyo TX-SR608 7.2-Channel Home Theater Receiver (Black)
My big Christmas present to myself this year was the Onkyo TX-SR608 purchased at  Amazon always has a great sale on this model type every year around Christmas where the price drops below $400.  I think it's usually around $470.  I've been eying this for awhile but it never quite made it high enough on my list of things to buy until this year especially since I already have an A/V Receiver.

You might ask yourself, why the heck did you buy it if you didn't really need it and how did you sell the wife on it?  Well a couple of things worked in my favor.  One she purchased some expensive jewelry for herself which meant I could spend a similarly extravagant amount on myself and two she was complaining about the cable clutter in the back of our TV.  Ah I have just the right solution - the Onkyo TX-SR608.

My previous Onkyo A/V Receiver the TX-SR502 is about 5 or 6 years old and was made in a time when HDMI was something new and expensive to support so it doesn't really support it.  I purchased the new Onkyo TX-SR608 for the following main reason:

1) 5 HDMI in ports so I can eliminate all of the optical audio cables since HDMI supports both audio and video.
2) Video up-conversion so I can plug the Wii in the receiver and it will send an upconverted picture over HDMI to the TV.  This means all of my cables can go directly into the receiver and all video and audio switching can be done by the receiver.

The bottom line - less cables and higher video and audio fidelity and reliability.

My system before was a mishmash of cables going in lots of different places.  The PS3, U-Verse set top box and the XBOX 360 was plugged directly into the Samsung Plasma TV using HDMI.  One of the HDMI cables stuck out from the side of the TV.  The optical audio cables were plugged into the Onkyo.  My Wii and AppleTV were plugged into the TV too using component cables but the audio also went to the receiver.    Of course I have a PhD in Harmony Remote programming and was somehow able to get this all switching correctly most of the time.

Now its a very straight forward setup.  All video and audio go into the Onkyo via HDMI for the PS3, U-Verse, Xbox and AppleTV along with the component video from the Wii.  There is a single HDMI cable from the receiver to the TV.  That's it--nice and simple.

Now to where it gets complicated.  Theoretically this should all just work but for some reason it took me 5 hours to get it setup.   If you have this receiver and haven't set it up yet my one word of advice is to turn it off, hook everything up and then turn all of those devices on, and then turn the Onkyo on.  There must be some sort of way that the receiver knows if something is connected to a source that is working or not because I believe this is where my trouble began.

I originally hooked everything up but didn't turn them on until after I turned on the Onkyo.  I think this was a major mistake.  The second piece of advice is to check the source to make sure it works before trying to hook the receiver.  I know it's installation 101 but this caught me this time.

Basically in my rush to eliminate wiring from the back of the TV, I must have kicked out the Ethernet cable from my U-Verse set top box and it doesn't like it when you do that.  For the first 2 hours I tried everything I could to get video to show up using the U-Verse set top box.  Nothing appeared to work.  I tried changing channels.  I tried DVR.  Nothing.  All I saw was a black screen.  After the second hour I accidentally hit the menu button and low and behold the menu popped up.  Huh?  So I'm able to see the menu but no video even when trying to play back DVR content?  I looked at the back of the set top and noticed the Ethernet cable wasn't plugged in.  OK, I get why live video didn't play but not even video from the DVR?  So I plugged it in and guess what it started working.  So it was working the entire time but I couldn't see anything because the ethernet cable was unplugged.  What the heck?

OK, now on to the XBOX.  With a few changing of settings and other things some how it starts working but I don't hear anything.  I'm OK with this since I'm just focused on the video.  Now the PS3.  Nothing.  Blackness.  Apple TV.  Same thing.  Nothing.  I try other video settings - 720P, 1080i, Some crazy CrYb stuff, Wide screen, Zoom, etc but nothing works.   I try to connect it directly to the TV and it works fine so I know it's the receiver.  (You probably shouldn't do this but I'm switching the HDMI cable why everything is on -- probably another reason it's not quite working right).

It's really late like 3 or 4 in the morning and things get a little hazy from here on out.  I decide to program my Harmony Remote so my wife and kid can use the TV in the morning.  When it's done uploading the software, I get ready to use it and the TV and Receiver turn off.  I forget if I clicked on the ON/OFF button or not but for some reason it goes off.  I turn it back on and it appears to be working.  I then decide to give the PS3 one last try before calling it a night.  I read through the AVS Forums and read something about pressing the VCR button along with the Return button and that this some how turns off up-conversion and causes the receiver to just pass thru the HDMI data.  Someone noted that this worked for them so I give it a try.  I go to the PS3 source and I get video.  I go to AppleTV and it also has video.  WTF?  I'm a little skeptical that the VCR button and Return button did anything since it didn't appear to change and nothing showed up on the screen?  I think it's more likely that just turning the receiver off and on probably was the more important factor.  At this point I really didn't care since things were working.  The only issue appeared to be the audio.  On my previous receiver the audio was usually set to about 20 or so.  30 was really loud.  So I set the volume on this thing to about 30 and I didn't hear anything.  Remember it's like 3 in the morning and I didn't really want to wake up the family.  Just for chuckles I turned it higher and higher and guess what the audio starts to be audible.  It sounded great at 50 or 60.  Now I don't know if there is a stereo volume board that sets the numerical value for volume so it could be that I still have some issue in my setup which is the reason my volume values are so different between models but I'm just happy its working.

So the bottom line, I'm relatively happy with my Onkyo 608 even though it was kind of painful set-up but I'm guessing most of it was my fault.  I really like that it has an on-screen menu which helped a lot when I was trying to fiddle with the settings and of course the picture and audio quality are very good.  Plus less wires in the back of the TV and the simpler Harmony remote setup are also big bonuses for the system.   Since the Onkyo 608 supports 3D TV do you think I could convince my wife we need a new TV...probably not but at least our a/v system is ready when we want to upgrade.

Does Apple ID for Game Center and FaceTime Conflict with App Store?

Apple iPod touch 32 GB (4th Generation) NEWEST MODEL
As I mentioned in a previous article my son received an iPod Touch for Christmas.  One of the issues he ran into was that every time he launched a game the Game Center prompt would appear asking if he wanted to join Game Center.   When this happened the screen would display my Apple ID since my ID is the one that's tied to his iPod so we can share content.  Oh Oh, now what do I do?  My dilemma was whether he could create his own Apple ID for Game Center and FaceTime but still keep the App Store and the content on the iPod Touch tethered to my Apple ID.  Clearly making sure the content continued to work was the most important thing.   So I gave it try to see what would happen.

I'm happy to report that Apple again designed this correctly in that Game Center and FaceTime can each have their own Apple ID and that there isn't a monolithic Apple ID that governs the entire iPod.  Yeh!  On my son's iPod he now has his own Apple ID associated with Game Center and FaceTime and for his apps he uses my Apple ID.  Problem solved.  By the way FaceTime works great on the iPod Touch and he was able to FaceTime with my wife on her iPhone--very cool.  

My one little nit with Apple is that they don't let kids have an Apple ID.  At least the website said that my son's birthday was too recent (meaning he's too young) to have an Apple ID.  So I had to lie.  I'm guessing this is a legacy issue because of app purchases but it doesn't make sense in the Game Center and FaceTime world.  My suggestion to Apple is to allow parents to create Apple IDs for their kids that are tied to the master Apple ID or to allow the child to get parental approval for the creation of an Apple ID.  I appreciate the desire to protect kids (and Apple's desire to protect themselves from kid purchased apps without the financial backing of their parents) but I think there should be a way to support this especially since Game Center keeps popping up every time someone tries to launch a game.  Very annoying.  Kids play games too.

Click here to sign-up for an AppleID.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Apple has a Customer for Life

My son received an iPod Touch for Christmas.  I must admit he's an only child and is a little spoiled but that's another story.  Anyway, on our way to Fry's Electronics to get a case and a screen protector he accidentally dropped his brand new really expensive iPod Touch in the Fry's parking lot.  Quite honestly I wasn't too worried since I've dropped my old iPhone many times and never received a scratch.  Unfortunately for him...and I guess for me...he didn't have the same rosy experience.  The bottom right of the screen was cracked and totally messed up.  You could feel the shards of glass on the screen and probably wouldn't be able to use it anymore for fear of cutting your finger.  Oh my goodness (I said something a little harsher than that :-)!!!  What to do now?  I've heard how expensive it was to replace the screen from friends who cracked the screen of their iPhone and it was pretty prohibitive---pretty much the cost of a new iPhone.  My son took it pretty well.  He basically said he'll make it work.  I would have started to cry, curl up in a corner and start to mutter to myself the mantra that everyone that has done something dumb does -- "how could I be so stupid".

The next day, I decided that we would go to the Apple Store to see how much it would cost to fix.  I was hoping it would be something like $100 and I knew my son had roughly $50 saved up from lots of christmas' and birthdays and we would chalk it up to a really expensive lesson.  We walked in and asked the first sales associate what we should do and he looked a little stunned with the "wow you're screwed look" on his face and then proceeded to tell us we needed to set-up a genius appointment which we did.   I wasn't too hopeful after this.  When our name was called we spoke to Charlie and my son told him what had happened.  Charlie asked if it was a Christmas present and my son said it was.  Charlie then said that since it was a present and that we had just got it he would simply swap it out for a new one.


He typed something into the computer and then printed out the forms.  We signed some papers and walked away with a brand new iPod Touch.  My son was so stunned he kept asking me what was I doing with that new iPod Touch.  I told him that the guy just replaced his cracked one with a brand new one and we didn't have to pay anything.  He couldn't quite grasp what had just happened.

Wow, that's customer service.  I didn't even buy it at the Apple store.  Charlie the Apple Store Genius didn't even care or ask.

We were so amazed that after we walked out of the store my son and I agreed we were Apple customers for life.  For the $50 bucks or what ever it would cost Apple to replace the screen they turned us into giddy fanboys.  That was kind of a tough reality to admit for this Microsoft employee but Apple deserved it.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Making Digital Movies from DVDs - Handbrake Tips and Tricks

The original idea for this blog came about because of all the time I spent trying to rip DVDs and to learn the ins and outs of Handbrake.   It took me months of trial and error to get to a point where I felt that I had a pretty good idea of how to do various things and to get around various issues.  This is when I thought it was a waste to leave all of that info stuck in my puny brain and that it would be somewhat useful for others if I could write it all down so they could save time and avoid the months of learning that I did.  There may be lots of blogs like this already but through my Bing and Google searches I didn't find a single place for all this kind of info.  More specifically I found lots of great newsgroups with threads of information but it was kind of time consuming to read through hundreds of comments to pick up the few tidbits of really good information.  It really did take me months.  I wish I was kidding.  Most of the stuff I picked up from other sites so I'm no expert but I thought it might be handy to have a bunch of these in a single place.

First off, some of you may be asking what is Handbrake? Handbrake is an open-source free application that will convert your DVDs to a digital format.  In my case an M4V.   If you want to convert your personal purchased DVDs to back them up or to watch them on your iPhone, iPad, AppleTV, XBOX, PS3 or other device you will also need to download the VLC Media Player application which is able to read these discs including the copy protected stuff.  The guys and gals that wrote this stuff are pretty darn smart and are truly nobel in that they've donated their time to write some incredible software and have given it away for free.  Wow!!! Hats off to you.
    Handbrake must be matched up with the right version of VLC and OS so make sure if you're using a 32 Bit OS that you're also using the 32 Bit Handbrake and 32 Bit VLC.  If my memory serves me right I think both apps have to be at the same level in the file system so that Handbrake can find VLC.  At least on my Mac I have both in the applications folder with all the other apps.  I think I originally had VLC in a folder and it didn't find it.

    Anyway, now for some tips.
    1) Universal preset - In Handbrake there are Preset Templates.  Always use the Apple > Universal template.  What this means is you can play the movie on your iPod, iPhone, AppleTV, Mac and Windows computers and pretty much everything else.  I used a different preset and the movies wouldn't play properly on my AppleTV.  I would get video stutters and the picture would turn white every now and then.  I also stopped updating these presets.  I updated once and it changed my defaults to a different present and a bunch of videos I ripped turned out bad and I didn't realize it until a few weeks later when I actually tried to watch one of the movies.  Bummer.

    2) Don't bother with changing the video quality settings.  I tried moving the slider to increase the quality but then the video wouldn't play on the Apple TV.  I'm probably just doing something wrong but I could never get this to work. 

    3) Subtitles don't automatically appear - I copied one of those cool kung-fu Chinese movies and none of the subtitles appeared.  It was a little difficult to understand.  Basically in Handbrake click on the Subtitles tab and then change the Track drop down to Foreign Audio Search.  This doesn't always work so you'll have to play with it a bit to get it to work.  The Foreign Audio Search is ideal if your movie is in English and sometimes in a foreign language where there are subtitles.  In fact I always set the Foreing Audio Search feature now because there were many times where I didn't use this setting thinking the movie didn't have any subtitles only to find that it did later but of course I didn't get them because I didn't turn on subtitles.  For example the Godfather is mostly in English but there are times when they are speaking Italian where subtitles should appear but wouldn't if you didn't set the Foreign Audio Search feature.  If the movies is always in a foreign language or you want the English subtitles to always appear then you can use the English Subtitle.

    4) Handbrake doesn't always get the movie right - When I first started ripping movies I simply put the disk in and let Handbrake pick the move and then I would click the Start button.  This doesn't always work because Handbrake always picks the longest track which it assumes is the movie.  The movie studios figured this out and created dummy movie tracks to trick Handbrake.  If you rip this movie it will actually move chapters around so you'll start watching a film and after a few minutes you'll jump to the ending of a movie and then it will jump to the middle.  What I do now is put the DVD in the computer and use the built-in DVD player.  I use the DVD navigation and click on Play Movie.  From here you can see what track it goes to.  This is the track that you want to rip.  On a Mac I use DVD Player.  If you click on the screen that shows the minutes a couple of times it will eventually show you the Track / Chapter information so you can figure out the track to use.  Then in Handbrake I switch to this track to rip.  This is the drop down labelled Title.

    5) Getting around bad tracks - Sometimes a copy protection scheme the studios use is they have a bad track that will always confuse Handbrake if you're trying to read the entire disk.  I think this is how the movie Click is done.  I kept trying to rip it and it would get stuck at track 32 or something.  I kind of gave up until I realized Handbrake allows you to read a single track and skip all of the others.  Go to the File menu and select Open Source (Title Specific).  After doing this a dialog appears.  In here just type the track number and Handbrake will read only that track.  It also saves time because it's not trying to read the entire disk.

    6) Sometimes movies and TV shows have lines in them - On the American President DVD I kept getting really poor quality in that the video always had lines in them.  It looked like I was watching a video tape recording of a move that was filmed off of an old picture tube TV set.  I think I read some place that this is because the video was prepared for old TVs that had interlaced video.  To fix this go to Picture Settings and switch to Filters.  I'm not exactly sure what picture filter to use but I've been using Detelecine = Default and Deinterlace = Fast.  After this I've noticed the picture quality isn't as sharp but it gets rid of all of those horrendous lines.   A lot of times old movies end up needing this or those extras on DVDs that were created for TV.

    7) Some DVDs can't be read...but they can be - Handbrake uses something called libdvdnav.  I'm not exactly sure what this does but for some reason on some DVDs this method prevents the movies from being encoded.  If your DVD for some reason doesn't appear to be rippable.  Try going to Preferences and click on the Advanced tab.  Look for a checkbox labeled Dvd-Video and uncheck it.   Try encoding the DVD again.  Sometimes this will work.  I think libdvdnav is generally a more reliable method of ripping the DVD but sometimes it doesn't work so unchecking this preferences tells Handbrake to use the old method which happens to be better in some cases.

    8) MetaX to get Movie Info and Ratings - I had been using Handbrake for roughly 6 months when I was talking to a friend complaining that there was no way to add movie ratings to iTunes which meant parental controls wouldn't work.  He told me I should be using MetaX.  I couldn't believe that I had been ripping my DVDs for so long without ever hearing about this application.  MetaX is an awesome free application that will read the M4V file and will automatically find the DVD cover, actor and description information, movie rating, and chapter information.  With a click of a button all of this information gets added as meta data into the movie which then in turn gets picked up by iTunes.  It will make your Movie library look really good because it will use the actual DVD covers as the representation of the movie.  I had been doing that by hand.  Wow what a time saver.

    Well that's a brain dump of what I know.  I hope you find this useful.

  • Click here to download Handbrake.

  • Click here to download VLC.

  • Click here to download MetaX

  • Is SlingPlayer Mobile for iPad Worth $30?

    Sling Media Slingbox SOLO (SB260-100)
    I love my SlingBox.   If you aren't already familiar with the SlingBox it's a device that sits between your cable box and TV.  It basically takes the video signals from your video provider such as Comcast, DirecTV or in my case U-Verse and broadcasts them over WiFi and the Internet.  It also has some IR blasters that sit over your cable box and allows you to control the box over the Internet.  The iPad is pretty cool but I would argue this is even more magical.  You hook it up and it just works.

    However, it's a little hard to explain to the wife why you really need this thing but here are some ideas:  1) You'll be able to watch your TV and your recorded shows while on vacation so you won't miss the Dancing with the Stars finale  2) You're originally from Ohio but are currently living in California.  You miss your favorite sports teams and want to be able to watch them regularly and your parents are OK with letting you setup one of these things in their house. 3) You like to watch TV at home on your iPad in bed with head phones (so you don't disturb the wife) and this is a way to get the video to your iPad, or 4) You just got a bonus at work and are into cool gadgets and have nothing better to do with your money. I kind of fall into category 3 and 4.

    The cool thing about the SlingBox is that you can watch your TV from any web browser on Windows or Mac or mobile device if you purchase the mobile application.  There are currently applications for the Apple mobile products, Android, Blackberry and even Windows Phone.  I've been using the SlingPlayer for iPhone for the past month or so and it does a decent job but the video quality is pretty poor on the iPad since you have to 2X everything.  It's pretty unwatchable and makes for a poor demo to friends and family.  At least my friends and family were not too impressed - The majesty that is Dancing with the Stars (sarcasm intended) just gets lost when shown on a tiny blurry screen.

    The good news for iPad owners is that SlingMedia has finally shipped their SlingPlayer for iPad.  I immediately plunked down my $29.99 and downloaded it from the iTunes store.  When I tried to launch it the first thing it said was that I needed a firmware update.  Ugh.  My first question was, how the heck do I upgrade the firmware on my SlingBox.

    It's turns out to be pretty easy.
    1) Use any web browser when you're at home and go to the SlingMedia site and click on the Watch tab at the top of the web page.
    2) Since I typically don't use my web browser to watch TV it asked me to upgrade my browser plug in.
    3) After I did this, I clicked on the Slingbox Setup button.  There's a link at the top but you can also find one under the big Options button.
    4) It asks you to stop the video stream and I agreed to stop it.
    5) My memory is kind of fuzzy now since I did this last week but I think it told me the firmware needed upgrading and I said go ahead.
    6) It upgraded itself and then I was ready to go.

    The bottom line is wether or not the player is worth $29.99.  Well I wish it was free but I can't argue that it provides a lot of value.  I think it's worth it.

    My only complaint is the UX.  I find the choices for buttons kind of strange and the placement to be pretty odd.  Clicking DVR brings up buttons on the left bottom and right of the screen.  But it has buttons that I don't find that useful like Live, Record, Pg Up, Pg Down, Red, Green, Yellow, and Blue.  I find it odd that they don't have Jump Forward and Jump Back which I use all the time to skip commercials.  I wish they let me pick the functions of the buttons.

    Anyway, overall it's still magical that this all works.  If you have a SlingBox and an iPad it's definitely worth another $29.99 to get it all working together.

    Saturday, November 27, 2010

    Canon 7D DSLR Camera Doesn't Turn On

    Canon EOS 7D 18 MP CMOS Digital SLR Camera with 3-inch LCD (Body Only)
    This probably can happen to anyone's camera but in my particular case it was a Canon - a Canon 7D...a very expensive Canon 7D that was only about 10 months old.  I was standing by the skating rink in Rockefeller Center in NYC (Yes, 30 Rock) marveling at the golden statue and all of the familiar sights and thought...gee wouldn't it be great to get a picture of this.  That's when it hit me.   Or more specifically that's when nothing happened.  I turned the camera on and nothing showed up on the LCD screen on top of the camera.   I switched it off and on again and still nothing.  This is when I hit the camera on the side in my usual Neanderthal method of fixing things and still nothing.  It was dead.  Then I tried the second battery that I had and still nothing.  Dead. Dead. Dead.

    I went on the Internet and someone suggested taking out the little watch battery in the battery compartment that stores all of the state information for the camera.  I actually didn't even know that battery existed so that was interesting to discover.  Not the typical way I would like to find out about stuff like that but interesting none the less.  Anyway, this did nothing too.

    When I got back to the Golden State I called Canon support again and after the usual rigamarole of questions making sure a real battery is in the compartment and that I actually switched the right switch to turn things on they suggested I send it in.  A week later it comes back and guess what the problem was?   Drum roll please....


    Huh?  Yes, sand.  We took a vacation to Hawaii in the Summer and I guess sand got into the battery compartment and shorted the system.  I have an electrical engineering degree and I had no idea sand had such power.  Of course I barely got my degree but that's another story.   I guess I've now figured out the difference between a professional camera like the Canon 1Ds and my camera - one can look sand in the face and scoff and the other can't.

    Anyway, before you send your camera into some repair shop and pay UPS exorbitant amounts of money for the privilege, please try to get one of those can's of air and blow into your battery compartment to try to blow sand out or take a vacuum cleaner to see if you can suck it up.   I think this what the Canon repair people did since it didn't look like the fixed anything.  I wish the tech support people at Canon would have suggested that so I could have fixed my camera myself and taken some pictures on my vacation.  Despite what iPhone 4 users say, there is a slight difference in picture quality between a Canon 7D and an iPhone 4 -- just slightly.

    iPhone 4 and Windows Phone - Swappable Sims?

    Microsim Adapter for Ipad Iphone4g Convert Micro Sim to Regular Sim Adapter
    I'm in a unique position in that I purchased an iPhone 4 in the Summer and just recently purchased a Windows Phone 7.  This was made possible by Mr. StevieB, CEO of Microsoft, with his generous offer of buying all employees at Microsoft a Windows Phone.   I felt a pang of loyalty and decided to take the plunge.  I'm sure that most of you out there who are not similarly compensated would never give up on their brand new shiny iPhone 4 for a shiny new AMOLED enabled Samsung Focus but if for some odd reason you are then this might be an article for you.

    First off let me explain that my family and I are heavily locked into the Apple FairPlay system which is a digital rights management system from Apple.  Our first iPod was a 2G many years back and we've continued our love affair with the tiny music device with iPod shuffles, Nanos, Touches, iPhones and now iPads.  It's safe to say we have a fair amount of FairPlay content locked up in Apple's very capable licensing DRM technology.  All of which will not play on a Windows Phone.   Also with the Windows Phone being a v1.0 product I wasn't quite sure I was going to love the device enough where I could live without my iPhone.  So I basically wanted to hedge my bets.  The problem is that the iPhone 4 has a the tiny Micro-SIM and every other phone out there uses a Mini-SIM so they aren't swappable.  Problem!!!

    Here's what I decided to do.  I purchased an adapter from Amazon for about $3 that converts an iPhone 4 Micro-SIM to a regular phone Mini-SIM.  Basically the adapter is a piece of plastic and the iPhone 4 SIM snaps in making it the size and dimensions of the Window Phone SIM.

    I took this to my local AT&T store and asked them to use this hybrid SIM when I purchased the Windows Phone.  The sales guy told me it wouldn't work. I of course squeaky wheeled it and whined and he eventually brought out his manager.  She was very nice and told me that they just couldn't guarantee that the SIM would still work in my iPhone 4.  She also went on to explain that the iPhone has a unique data plan that is different from the Windows Phone and that even if it did work I would lose some features like Visual Voicemail since the Windows Phone didn't have that feature.  I then plopped my iPhone 4 SIM hybrid converter thingy into the Windows Phone and they proceeded to provision it.

    The Windows Phone launched and everything worked.  After I brought it home I popped the SIM out of the converter and put it into my iPhone 4 and it also seemed to work.  Now I don't know if AT&T gets some signal that says I've switched and then could in theory turn it off but it worked for the brief time I tried it.

    Since I've switched to my Windows Phone permanently I haven't tried it again but my guess is that it still works.  Anyway, I thought I would blog about this since it might be something people were wondering about.  I'm guessing this will be primarily for my fellow Microsofties who are doing similar things or maybe on the slim chance that you are one of those people who are fed up with dropped calls from the iPhone 4.

    Anyway happy SIM converting....

    12/27/2010 UPDATE:  So far so good.  It's been about a month or so and no issues with this SIM card.

    1/31/2011 UPDATE Part 2: Ahh well I just tried it again and I guess the data part of this equation never worked.  The phone worked fine but the data plan didn't.  I think what happened before was that when I tried to do data things I was actually using my Wi Fi network and not the 3G data network.  Now when I try it without the WiFi I get the error message that there is no Cellular Data Network available.  Bummer.

    I added a MicroSD Card to my Windows Phone Samsung Focus and it worked

    As many of you Samsung Focus owners already know we got the great screen but the lame 8GB of memory.  Well no problem since there is a MicroSD card slot, right?  Ah...hum...well not exactly.   If you opened up your iPad (or other web reading device) and started to read Engadget you probably were not too happy when you read about the 'Windows Phone 7 microSD mess' story.  Yah me too.  WTF?

    Basically the flash memory card has to be of a particular tolerance and quality or the phone gets into a bad state.  I guess it makes sense given that the Windows Phone OS will combine the 2 flash memory items into a one single giant drive with data spread across the 2.  Of course if any part of the memory sucks, this could confuse the OS and mess everything up resulting in the phone rebooting and losing data.  I think the really interesting tidbit here is how bad and unreliable flash memory production is because a lot of flash memory cards simply won't work including many from big name manufacturers like Sandisk and Lexar.

    So begins this new adventure in tech....

    First Things First
    So I Binged it and read as much as I could about the problem and the solution.  One of the best sites I found was WM Power User and they pointed me to XDA Developers which is a site that is hosting a grand list of flash cards, their manufacturers and the class or speed of the cards that appear to be working and the one's that aren't.

    The Purchase
    Well I was a little nervous since you can't just buy flash memory, open up the Fort Knox-level impenetrable plastic sheathing that encapsulates the card and then return it if it doesn't work.  In other words there was a real possibility that I would have to eat it if the card didn't work.  Here's my very scientific and painstakingly researched decision on what to buy:

    1. There was no way in hell I was going to buy 8GBs since that's what the phone should have come with in the first place.  I needed more memory than that to feel like I got the better deal and that I wasn't a schmuck.
    2. Wow 32 GBs costs something like $100 and that's real money.  I'm not going to risk it.
    So I settled on 16 GBs.   When I first read the list, all of the San Disks were failing so I decided to go with Kingston.  Of course now that I look at the list all of the SanDisk 16GBs are working so go figure.  Anyway, I searched at Best Buy.  Nothing.  I searched at Costco.  Nothing.  I even searched at Office Depot and Verizon and nothing.  So I went to a local store called Fry's Electronics and nothing.   Well they actually had something but it wasn't the Kingston brand that I was looking for and I really didn't want to eat the $50 bucks if I didn't have to.  Of course at this point I'm extremely frustrated that no one sells Kingston branded memory.  Fry's did but they were out of the 16GB.  They had other brands of 16 GB MicroSD cards but not Kingston.  Oh my what to do?  Buy the Kingston 8GB and feel like a schmuck or roll the dice with the no name 16 GB memory and possibly eat $50.  

    Being the highly decorated in the trenches tech geek that I am I decided to get a little extra help.  Actually I simply remembered that I could revisit the list of working memory cards since my Windows Phone actually has a web browser.  Wow what a cool invention.  After Binging it and reading through the list I discovered that PNY 16 GB cards supposedly work.  Fry's had a Polaroid branded PNY card so I took the plunge and plunked down my hard earned $43.69.  By the way it's cheaper at Amazon so I would highly recommend clicking on this link to purchase the flash card.

    The Test
    I came speeding home and before I proceeded to give this thing a try I first had to give the boss the heads up that I may have just thrown away $50 bucks on memory that might not work.  My wife looked disgusted.   I smiled and continued to get the diamond cutting tools so I could open the vacuum sealed plastic casing.  After a few minutes, I finally opened the package, took out the memory, opened my phone, dropped the flash card in and then did the 3 finger salute to reformat my phone - VOLUME DOWN, CAMERA BUTTON, POWER KEY.  Nothing.  I then turned on the phone and tried again.   This time I got the message that asked if I wanted to reformat my phone.  I nervously clicked OK.  In a matter of minutes it was done and rebooted.  It came up fine.  I checked settings and the phone said I had 22 GB.  I'm not sure why it's not 24 GBs but close enough for government work.  I then synced the phone with tons of videos, pictures and music to stress the memory and to see if I could get it to fail.  After this was done I shut the phone down and turned it back on.  This is the stage when it supposedly went south for others.  I also decided to take out my battery and to reboot the phone again just in case.  So far it's been running for about 5 hours and everything appears to be working well.  I'll let you know if anything comes up in the next few days.  I'm keeping my fingers crossed.  It's far too cold to be sleeping in the dog house.

    Friday, November 26, 2010

    My Adventure With My New Windows Phone 7

    Samsung Focus Windows Phone (AT&T)

    For my first real post I thought I would take you through my journey learning, experimenting and using my new Windows Phone 7.  Of course this could be career limiting since I do work for the "former" evil empire.  I say "former" because I think Google is the shiny "new" king of that crown.   I know, I know it's pretty terrible to say that using Google servers and writing my blog on their free service but it had to be said.  This blog will aspire to always be a no spin zone kind of a place which I'm sure will get me in trouble at some point but who needs a real salary when they have a blog that earns absolutely no money.  Cool huh that I've got my priorities straight.

    Anyway... back to the Windows Phone 7.  First some background.  I'm an Apple toting Mac, iPhone and iPad user.  Weird since I work at Microsoft but I'll leave that explanation to another blog post.  Also for full disclosure I didn't have to pay for my Windows Phone 7 since all Microsoft employees get one free.  You may say that I don't have enough skin in the game to be entirely unbiased and you would be correct.  In fact I come to this adventure fully wanting to love my new phone.  First and foremost since I've completely switched to it and will have to use it day in and day out.  Second being a Microsoft employee I would like to see people get excited about our products for once.  It gets old to hear all the doom and gloom from people.  Gee by the talk from some critics you think that we were going out of business or something.  Anyway, so what's my unabashed, fully biased first impressions.

    I like my Windows Phone 7- Samsung Focus.

    Don't get me wrong, it's not perfect, but I can honestly say that I like it and it's growing on me.

    First Impressions

    The Good

    • Beautiful, Bright AMOLED screen.
    • Big Lettering.  For an old guy like me with bifocals this is kind of important.
    • Dynamic Tiles - This is what the Microsoft advertising is trying to sell and it's really good.  I wish more things did it.  For example I picked the Weather Bug app over the Weather Channel app only because of the dynamic tile.  Once you get into the app itself I actually prefer the Weather Channel but the dynamic tile is the most important factor in my decision.  
    • Zune - The music app is very slick.  When you load up your music a photo and a bio of the artist gets automatically loaded into the UI.  It's very polished and adds visual flair to the music experience.
    • Hubs - These are great.  A hub is a grouping of different apps that melds them together like a single apps.  There are Hubs for Games, Office, People, etc.  In fact I wish there were more.  Why not a News hub with a top stories dynamic tile?  I tended to create this type of thing on my iPhone anyway where a single page of apps were generally grouped together by topic or content type.  Games on one page and News on another.   The Windows Phone takes it one step further by making it a tightly integrated part of the OS.  But again there needs to be more of these and not less.
    • Facebook integration.  I really like that Facebook is integrated into people and that it's really easy to see what's going on with friends and to comment on their wall.  I wish there was more integration.
    • Did I mention the beautiful screen?
    The Not So Great

    • Real tactile hardware buttons or lack there of - There's something to be said for iPhone's single button at the bottom of the phone.  When in doubt, click it.  The simplicity is important but something even more critical that I didn't fully appreciate until now is the fact that it's a hardware button and not a touch sensitive screen-based button.   What does this mean in terms of Windows Phone 7 and more specifically the Samsung Focus implementation of the phone?  Well many of my gripes are because the Focus' buttons are not real buttons.
      1. To wake your phone you have to click the On/Off button on the right side of the phone.  I totally miss the ease of just clicking on the iPhone single button on the front of the phone which is entirely intuitive and easy to do.   I always find myself clicking on the Windows Logo button (which is conveniently located in the same spot as the iPhone button) and briefly getting frustrated that the phone doesn't wake.  Then I suddenly remember and contort my fingers in awkward ways to wake my Win phone. which further makes me annoyed by the entire process.
      2. I mysteriously always end up in Bing.  You see the search button is in the bottom right of the screen and it's easy to accidentally swipe and hit this button which naturally launches Bing.  Now I love Bing and it's photo front page but not when I'm trying to check out the latest news or play a game.  Good thing there is a back button but speaking of back buttons...
      3. How do I get back.  On the iPhone one could argue that having a software only back button is limiting and that the Windows Phone implementation is actually better where the Back button is always located in the same spot on the phone.  Well it doesn't really work out that way.  Maybe because it's never lit so there's not a reminder that there is a back button but when I use WIndows Phone 7 I constantly find my self wondering how to get back only to remember that I have to hit the back button on the phone and not in the app like I do on my iPhone.  I think most of the above items could have been solved if Samsung implemented real hardware buttons.
    • Lack of Apps.  I think this will be solved over time but there is a lack of key apps now.  Like I wish there was UrbanSpoon, Kindle or New York Times.  I'm sure many of the best apps will eventually show up but in this early adopter stage it's a bit painful to go from "there's an app for that" to "there's an app for that but on another phone". 
    • Doesn't run iPhone apps, movies or music.  Well I think it has to be said.  If you're already an iPhone, iPod or iPad user it's kind of tough to switch since any purchased apps, music, movies or other stuff won't play on the Windows Phone.   In fact you'll have to buy them all again.  That kind of sucks.  
    • No Favorite Contacts - Going to the people app to find someone is kind of painful.  I wish they allowed you to create a favorite list like on the iPhone so you can just get to the people you contact the most.   
    In Conclusion
    The Windows Phone team should be very proud of what they accomplished.  They didn't just build an iPhone clone but instead developed a unique and pretty exciting phone experience.  Believe me that's pretty hard to do in a big company like Microsoft and is truly amazing that they made it happen.  I'm using my Win Phone full time and haven't missed my iPhone yet and actually as I play with the various free apps I'm liking the overall experience more and more.  The user experience translates well.  In particular I think the Facebook and Open Table apps are actually better than their iPhone counterparts partly because of the Windows Phone user experience. 

    If you have already bought into the Apple ecosphere and have apps, music and other stuff under this umbrella I don't think you should move.   The iPhone is still a great phone and Apple is continuing to innovate and come out with great stuff.  However, if you aren't locked into that world I think the Windows Phone 7 is a pretty compelling smart phone that you should check out.  I'm not going to switch back.  One of the benefits of the Windows Phone is that it ties really nicely into a Microsoft IT corporate environment which we obviously use at Microsoft so SharePoint, Office, Exchange and Sky Drive are all part of the DNA of the phone and work really well.    Plus if I stick with this phone I don't have to fear SteveB stepping on my phone at a Company Meeting.

    I'm a Windows Phone 7 convert.

    Thursday, November 25, 2010

    On the Bleeding Edge

    Wow.  What is it and I'm starting a blog.  I'm like grandpa who proudly tells you that he just got a My Space account not realizing everyone else has moved on to Facebook.  D-I-N-O-S-A-U-R.   Well this sad tale gets even worse since I actually work in high tech.  More specifically I've worked at Microsoft for over 13+ years off and on with a few stints at Claris, Apple, Lotus Development, Nortel and a bunch of start up companies along the way.   I live in SiliconValley for heaven's sake.  Before time ticks completely away I've decided to finally defend my tech props and write a blog.

    So what does one write about for their first blog?

    Well I've chosen to write about tech.  Gee, what a surprise.  Quite honestly I don't know much of anything else.  I'm a total geek.  I don't watch football.  I don't coach my son's soccer team.  (Of course my son is like his dad and doesn't play soccer but that's besides the point.)   What I do know is technology.  I work in the industry but more accurately I buy a lot of gadgets and stumble just like the rest of you on trying to figure out how they work.   I also spend a lot of time...far too much time or so my wife says...researching and reading up on how to get my stuff to work.  I can't let the wife be right that I've totally wasted our hard earned money on some crap that doesn't do anything.   Since most of you aren't like me and actually have lives I thought it might make sense for me to write about my experiences with my gadgets so you can learn from my experimentations and don't have to waste time doing your own experimenting.  Call it my public service to all the guys out there who are like me and have to fight the evil dragons of complexity on an odyssey of gadget discovery.

    Hence the title...My Adventures in Tech.  

    Welcome.   I hope these few steps lead to an interesting and fruitful exchange of gadget knowledge and geekdom using that hot new bleeding edge technology of people journalism called blogging.  Take it away maestro....