What major U.S. retailer is offering free streaming music videos recorded in its own studios? Nope, I'm not going to make it easy for you by running the company logo as artwork of the day. Hint: It's the same company that's forced the music industry to market censored versions of hit CDs. Still in the dark? It's also the same retailer that accounts for two percent of the U.S. economy, according to NPR Marketplace. I'm talking about Wal-Mart, of course. Check out Soundcheck on the company's homepage. The young and photogenic artist currently featured is Yellowcard (yup, that's them in the pic). Switchfoot has already been featured and Miranda Lambert is coming up. It's all a come-on for Wal-Mart's download service which offers WMA files at 128kbps (with DRM, of course) at a competitive 88 cents per track. iPod owners should note that while iTunes will convert WMA files to AAC, it will not convert WMA-DRM. Oh, and you Firefox and Safari users will have to swallow your pride for a few minutes and use Internet Explorer. That's what you get for making deals with the devil.
I love Leo Kottke's virtuoso guitar playing. Still, I hesitated to buy his album Sixty Six Steps, with bassist Mike Gordon, when Amazon specifically warned: "This Sony CD includes SunnComm MediaMax Version 5 content protection software that may expose security vulnerability when played on PCs." I don't love anyone quite enough to put a MediaMax-tainted CD into my PC. And when I rip a new CD for use in my iPod, I prefer a nice clean MP3 to the WMA-DRM format dictated by MediaMax. The iPod doesn't accept WMA files with DRM.
Worried about taking your iPod out in the rain? You needn't if you're wearing the BlackCoat Work from Ohio-based Koyono. The "Made for iPod" jacket's five pockets include one for your iPod. You can manipulate the player through the Elektex five-button fabric interface, sourced from Eleksen, a five-layer laminate of conductive materials. It's light, flexible, durable, washable, and (the company says) superior to the hard touchpads, flexi-circuits, and polymer switches used in other products. The BlackCoat Work will be available in March or April and can be ordered direct for $179.
Are your fingers itching to store and manage 7500 CDs by dragging and dropping on a touchscreen? The Q100 Digital Music Entertainment (DME) System is the first music management system to include a drag-and-drop user interface, according to the manufacturer Qsonix. You can D&D tracks or albums, fool with playlists, and so it all without navigating multi-step menus. The product comes with capacity of 160-400GB and a 15-inch TFT LCD touchscreen controller. Says Mike Weaver, president of Qsonix: "Qsonix re-unites users with their music by incorporating an intuitive, engaging and visual presentation that allows music to be accessed with the simple touch of the finger." Re-unites—I like that part. He continues: "Designed for even the most technology-phobic users, our system can be mastered in minutes and enjoyed for years by the whole family." If he does say so himself. Qsonix also sells industrial level gear to bars, pubs, clubs, restaurants, eateries, coffeehouses, hotels, department stores, retail outlets, and offices. Price: $5495.
With so many new brandnames entering the flat-panel TV business, it's hard to keep track of them all. Would you know a Proton from a Protron? That's what seems to be worrying the Proton Electrical Industrial Co. of Taiwan, which has just filed a trademark-infringement suit against the Prosonic Consumer Group for marketing sets under the similar-sounding Protron brand. Proton has a 23-year pedigree as a high-end TV maker, is just re-entering the North American market with a line of LCD DTVs, and wants to avoid "confusion in the marketplace," says a press release. The name Proton is also used by numerous other companies, though not to sell TVs. The name Protron is also used by a computer-software company.
The Federal Communications Commission has a new member. Deborah Tate was quietly sworn in by chairperson Kevin Martin on January 3. A native of Tennessee, Tate is a lawyer with Republican credentials, but not necessarily a cookie-cutter political operative. Her varied public service background includes telecommunications, public utilities, senior mental health, and juvenile justice. That breadth of experience may prove valuable over the next few years as the FCC grapples with controversial issues involving obscenity, censorship, media concentration, digital rights management, and its traditional mission of regulating the broadcast spectrum.
"Image Constraint Token." A piquant phrase, yes? Roll it around on your tongue a few times before I tell you what it is. OK, ready? It's the name of the flag that will down-res HDTV in the soon-to-debut Blu-ray and HD DVD formats under the rights management scheme known as AACS (Advanced Access Content System). The restriction will apply only to the player's component video outputs, because they're analog, and therefore give the studios security nightmares. If your HDTV has HDMI, you needn't worry. HDMI is digital, easier to protect, and will work at full resolution. But if you're an early HDTV adopter and component is the only HD input on your set—ouch. The Image Constraint Token will halve resolution from 1920 by 1080 pixels to 960 by 540. It is an option, not a requirement. Studios likely to use it reportedly include Disney, NBC Universal, Paramount, and Warner. Fox has argued against it and Sony hasn't taken a position. The logic behind the ICT is staggeringly faulty: Does anyone really believe that cutting resolution in half will stop pirates in their tracks?
Possibly the hottest story in home theater is the rollout of video-delivery services from the telcos. AT&T is just getting started while Verizon is going strong. Verizon has just announced that its bleeding-edge FiOS TV service will make its debut in Massapequa, New York and Woburn, Massachusetts. It's already available in parts of Texas, Florida, and Virginia. Eventually it will reach half the states in Verizon's service area with the addition of California, Connecticut, Delaware, Indiana, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Washington. FiOS TV is 100 percent fiber, piped right into your home, and it's just one facet of Verizon's longterm plan to upgrade all its copper lines (someday) to fiber optics. The cost is $34.95 per month for 180 channels. If you want to receive 20 HD channels, add $9.95 for the HD set-top box, bringing the total to $44.90. The triple-play package with TV, net access, and phone service comes to $104.85 (again, add $9.95 for HD). Keep a vigil at the external link below for availability in your area.
This is the final season for WB and UPN. In the fall their owners, Warner and CBS, will launch a new network as a joint venture. The name is CW and the programming blocks will resemble the current WB. Nighttime programming will run Monday-Friday 8-10 p.m., Saturday 7-10 p.m., and Sunday 5-7 p.m. Daytime programming will run Monday-Friday 3-5 p.m. and five hours on Saturday morning. Pooling current UPN and WB affiliate stations will reach 95 percent of the U.S. TV audience, while cutting costs, making this a logical move for CBS (close to breaking even with UPN) and especially for Warner (struggling with the WB). The fates of many current series remain in doubt but UPN's wrestling programs and WB's Smallville will probably be ported to the CW.
Guitarist Robert Fripp recently visited Microsoft HQ in Redmond, Washington to record sounds for Vista, formerly Longhorn, the next-generation PC operating system. The occasion is commemorated by a 25-minute video on a Microsoft website. Fripp was told to generate sounds for a "clean, connected, confident" operating system with emphasis on the colors blue and green (which he translated as the keys of D and E). The musician’s recent switch from an IBM ThinkPad to a Mac goes unmentioned during the session.
The beta version of the Google Video Store is now online. The surprise is that it offers an abundant amount of free material in the form of short, amusing, amateur video clips. (Pick hit: a video editor ranting on "Why Mac's Suck.") The pay-for-play material includes a motley assortment of movies, NBA games, music videos, and TV shows like The Brady Bunch, The Twilight Zone, and Star Trek in two flavors—Deep Space Nine and Voyager. Pricing varies according to the nature and length of the material. Movies cost from $12.99-24.99 while TV shows are $1.99 per episode. In some cases you can also pay $2.99 for a Day Pass that will allow you to download the video and view it within 24 hours on the Google Video Player. Google's software is required for paid material but the free stuff will work on any player that handles AVI files. Picture quality is standard-definition with heavy video compression artifacts, but this being Google, the user interface and search features are user-friendly. Even if you have no intention of paying for anything, the Google Video Store is a great way to while away idle hours. Click on the external link below. Or, from the Google homepage, click on More, Video.
Flying is brutal. And the cramped seat and substandard food aren't the only things that do you in. Noise is the unseen enemy. You may think you can merely adjust to it and ignore it—but that is physically impossible. Jet-turbine noise gives your eardrums and the other delicate parts of your inner ear a beating, and that messes up both your hearing and your sense of balance. That's why you often feel disoriented after a long flight. The wise traveler is therefore one who carries a good set of noise-canceling headphones or earbuds.
Steven Soderbergh's Bubble will soon become the first major movie to be simultaneously premiered in theaters and on satellite television. On January 27 the movie will be shown on HDNet while rolling out in theaters nationwide. The DVD release will follow on January 31. However the actual opening night was January 12, in Parkersville, West Virginia, where the tale of murder in a doll factory was shot with real-life people on high-definition video. Theater chains are crying foul, so it's uncertain if or when the movie will make it to your local cineplex.
AT&T has snuck into the television-delivery market on silent cat feet. Without fanfare, the company formerly known as SBC has begun providing TV-over-IP service to a lucky handful in its hometown of San Antonio, Texas. Ironically, that's the same state where arch-rival Verizon has premiered its own television service. Unlike Verizon's capital-intensive all-fiber-optic approach, which extends fiber directly into the home, AT&T is building fiber only as far as "nodes" in the neighborhood, then compressing the signal into copper lines for the final leg of the journey. AT&T's initial offerings include 200 channels, including all the major networks, and some on-demand programming. This is a huge story and I'll get back to it as soon as I know more.