Monday, June 11, 2007

Life with a SqueezeBox is good!

Ten years ago, few people had any idea what a MPEG-1 Layer 3 encoded audio file was, fewer actually possesed any. With the help of the free automated tools, the Internet and peer-to-peer file sharing, MP3s have grown dramatically in popularity. Today, MP3 audio files have become arguably the most pervasive format of audio. However, one of the biggest problems with having MP3s has been the inability to play them outside of the PC on which they reside.
Companies such as Creative, Apple and others addressed this with personal MP3 players, with much success. Nowadays, you can't go very long without seeing someone with little ear buds and dangling wires, walking (or jogging) by. However, for audiophiles (and couch potatoes alike), having to connect your iPod to the home stereo system has been awkward at best. This is where companies such as Roku and Slim Devices come in. They specialize in high-quality MP3 players for home and office use with their SoundBridge and Squeezebox products, respectively.
After looking around the industry for a means to stream my vast MP3 collection within my home and to my office, I settled on the Slim Devices Squeezebox. I had heard good things about the Squeeze Box so I decided to give it a try and took advantage of their discount on the purchase of two. I purchased one for home and one for my office. This is truly one of those devices that makes me wonder how I got along without one, especially at work.
The Squeeze Box is a very nice design. It supports both wired Internet connections (via Ethernet) or wireless (802.11 -WiFi). It also supports several audio ouput options including a 1/8" headphone jack, left and right analog RCA jacks and optical and coaxial digital audio outputs (S/PDIF). The SqueezeBox also has a very nice, large, vacuum-fluorescent display which can be seen from across the room. The included remote control is nice, especially from the couch. The Squeeze Box requires a server application to run on the PC containing the MP3 files, but also supports several Internet radio solutions. One of the things I really like about the server software is that it is free, has a nice web interface for controlling the SqueezeBox and is very open for development of third-party plug-ins. It is refreshing to see companies open to third-party development.
As I mentioned, I own two SqueezeBoxes. I have one at home, connected to my Home Theater system via the coaxial S/PDIF cable. All of the family's MP3s are on our home computer, where the Slim Server is running as well. While they can use the web interface to select the Album, Artist, Genres, Playlists and Years, the included remote control works very nicely as the sole interface to our over 50 GB audio library. The kids often dial up their favorite music on the audio system in the family room, just by switching inputs on the A/V receiver and selecting the Artist, Album, etc using the Slim Devices remote control. Now, with our new Logitech remote control (see below), it is even easier for them to listen to their favorite music.
At work, I have one sitting on my desk, connected to my PC speakers via the headphone jack. Clearly, this type of setup would make audiophiles cringe, but it gets the job done. I can either access my home library (via port forwarding in my home router) or I can access my library which I host on a server connected to the Internet. I am amazed how much more productive I am with the music playing in the background instead of the steady, white noise of the air conditioning system at work. The beauty of the SqueezeBox is that, similar to a personal iPod, I can select the music I want to listen to throughout my work day based on my current mood, musical taste, etc. Further, if I want to listen to the radio, I can do that as well thanks to the Internet Radio support offered by Slim Devices, RadioTime, and other Internet-based radio stations. Sometimes I want to listen to the radio, but couldn't with a traditional FM receiver due to the shielding, electromagnetic interference, etc in my office. However, with the SqueezeBox, I can listen to my local radio stations anytime, not to mention listening to radio stations all over the country and the world.
Interestingly, I found that owning such a high-quality audio device meant I needed to upgrade my MP3 library. I started converting to MP3 about 10 years ago when the first MP3 encoders became available. Over the years, I have amassed quite a library of MP3s through converting my CDs and purchasing via iTunes. However, the songs are not necessarily of the highest quality, especially those ripped early on. As such, it was a waste of the digital audio connection and my high-end sound system to stream 80K or 128K MP3s to it. So, I have been slowly reconverting my library to MP3 at much higher bitrates, so that the files are of high enough quality that my electric-guitar damaged ears can't tell the difference. Fortunately, with the low price of hard-disk storage, MP3s are becoming more of a de facto standard audio format and less of a means to squeeze as much music as possible into a small space. There are other formats out there which can offer high-quality audio, but none are as universally supported as MP3.
Finally, one additional feature of the Slim Devices solution that I find extremely useful is their support for a third-party developed software implementation of the SqueezeBox, known as the SoftSqueeze. While I take my iPod with me everywhere I go, it is not always charged. With the SlimServer and the SoftSqueeze java applet, I can listen to my music ANYWHERE I have internet access and a PC. I used to keep my MP3s on my work laptop, but the corporate police don't allow this anymore. However, with the SoftSqueeze and the pervasive availability of WiFi, I have access to my MP3 library almost everywhere. I am eagerly awaiting third-party players for my Motorola Q phone and my Sony PSP. Since the SlimServer is a free download from the Slim Devices website, you can setup and use the Slime Server without buying a SqueezeBox. But I would recommend buying one and enjoying music...

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Mozy Online Backup Service

Keeping in the spirit of technological products and services that keep my digital world turning… For anyone who has ever lost data due to a computer crash, lost CD, hard drive crash, or just wandering fingers of a toddler, Mozy has the solution.

Mozy is an internet-based, online backup service, which after using for 6 months, I highly recommend! Having experienced a hard-drive crash recently at work, the importance of a data protection plan was pounded home. While work data is clearly important, what with the Powerpoint presentations, Excel spreadsheets, hundreds (if not thousands) of Word documents and eons of email, one may wonder what personal data at home warrants the kind of protection that is often afforded to more business critical data. While there are many things that one should probably backup at home, there is one category of data that trumps them all: Pictures. Sure, if you lose your Quicken data, you are in a world of hurt, but there are ways to get back on your feet after such a loss. But if you lose the picture of your 5 year old daughter placing sunglasses on the cat, you are lost forever. This is where Mozy comes in.

At our house, we have four desktop PCs, two laptops and a couple of printers. The primary computer for our pictures, banking, etc is our primary home computer in our game room. In the past, we used Rewritable CDROMs, and then DVDs, to back up our critical banking data, pictures, etc. However, this only works if nobody has removed the CD/DVD from the drive (remember those wandering fingers?). Further, I recently found that CD-ROMs don’t necessarily make good long-term storage media. I used CD-ROMs at work to annually backup Outlook PST files (a.k.a mail folders). At the request of the legal guys, in response to pending litigation, I attempted to search those disks for specific mails, presentations, etc, to no avail. Some of the discs have unreadable sectors, rendering files comprising those sectors, useless. Lesson learned. Note to self: don’t backup important data on CDs/DVDs.

On our home PC, I have added a RAID-5 array which serves as my primary backup mechanism. For the non geeks out there, RAID stands for Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks and level 5 is one of the better, fault tolerant versions of RAIDs. Anyway, this has served us well. Should one of the disks in the array die, I can remove it without losing ANY data. If you are interested in doing the same, Tiger Direct has many solutions for RAID arrays. There is one chink in the armor though… If we experience a fire, tornado, etc, (flashback to New Orleans…) we stand to lose the data we are protecting on the RAID 5. In order to truly protect the data, an off-site mechanism is required.

Historically, internet-based backup services, such as those offered by Verizon and others, were fairly pricy and were priced on a per-Gigabyte basis. Mozy is different. Mozy is much cheaper! Mozy offers two flavors of backup. First is a free, online backup service for up to 2GB of data. Second, is an unlimited service which costs $4.95 per month. In looking through the data I wanted to protect, I discovered I needed more than 2GB so I signed up for the Unlimited Service. I am currently backing up over 50GB of pictures, Quicken data, emails and MP3s.

Mozy provides a small application that resides on your computer and performs daily, incremental backups. This means that it backs up only the information that has changed, greatly expediting the process. However, the first backup is killer! Mine took over a week and I have Verizon FIOS with a 2 Mbps uplink. If you have a cable modem or DSL it will take longer and don’t even think about it via dial-up. However, as I mentioned, once the initial backup is done, the daily backups are quick and painless.

Fortunately, I haven’t had to restore from the Mozy backup yet, so I can’t comment on how well that works. However, I have played with the web-based access to the files and restored a single file quite nicely.

One of the obvious questions is security. To maintain the security of your data, the files are encrypted using either a Mozy-provided key or a customer-provided key. For most users, this level of security should easily suffice considering that it is more secure than my home, where someone could break in and steal the computer (which contains un-encrypted data)… Hmm… Maybe that should be my next project.

Overall, I highly recommend Mozy Unlimited Backup. Check it out!

Next time, life with a SqueezeBox is good!

Friday, June 8, 2007

Logitech Harmony 659 Remote Review

Just thought I would share my experience with my new Logitech Harmony 659 which I purchased at TigerDirect with my new Vizio 47" 1080P LCD TV. So far, I HIGHLY recommend this universal remote.

You set it up via USB and an internet-enabled configuration application. They had ALL of my devices: Samsung TV, Harmon Kardon A/V Receiver, Verizon FIOS Motorola Settop and SlimDevices SqueezeBox. It can’t control my PS3 since the PS3 uses Bluetooth controllers, however it can set everything else up to enable using the PS3.

It knows the discrete codes for not only On and Off, but discrete inputs on the Samsung. It is setup with several “activity” buttons such as “Watch TV”, “Listen to Music”, etc. Via the software, I told it which devices were involved in each activity and which inputs were used. It did the rest. When you switch from one activity to another, it turns off the unused components. So for example, if I go from Watching TV to Watching a Movie (on the PS3), it switches to the appropriate inputs and turns off my FIOS settop box. It remembers the current state of the devices to prevent unnecessary turning on & off.

The best part is the Help feature. If you hit an activity button and for some reason the settop box doesn’t come on, you press Help and it resends the codes. If this doesn’t work, it walks you through a short list of questions such as “Is the TV on?, Yes or No” until everything is the way you want it.

Of all the remotes I have owned, so far, this is easily the best.

Nick