What's interesting about the proposed merger of the XM and Sirius satellite radio operations is that their licenses, issued by the Federal Communications Commission, specifically prohibit one company from owning both networks. A press release lists benefits of the monopoly as more program choices, advanced tech innovation, enhanced hardware offerings for OEM and retail partners, better financial performance, and more competitiveness. Some of these claims are more credible than others. Will combining the two result in more choices for listeners--or will overlapping programs eventually be cut? How exactly will the removal of competition spur technology? And the big question, of course: Will the FCC provide conclusive proof of incompetence and/or corruption by saying yes to a monopoly and destroying competition in satellite radio?
From Sonos to Apple's AirPort Express, there are lots of ways to get music from a PC hard drive to a home theater system. One of them is Logitech's Wireless DJ Music System. It does not have all the features of Logitech's recently acquired Slim Devices line, including the latter's versatile connectivity and support for lossless formats. But it is simpler and a little less costly. It's also more functional than Logitech's step-down move, the Wireless Music System for PC, and has a far more functional remote control.
By now it should be no surprise that HDTV unit sales doubled in the fourth quarter of 2006 compared to 4Q 2005. What might lift an eyebrow is that a third of those bright shiny new HDTVs were 1080p models, according to Pacific Media Associates. Just six months earlier, 1080p had accounted for only five percent of HDTV sales. What a change half a year of hype can make. For the alphanumerically disinclined, "1080p" refers to displays that show 1920 by 1080 pixels with the entire picture drawn one full frame at a time. Back when guys delivered chunks of ice to cool cordless refrigerators, analog television began using an interlacing process that scanned each frame in two passes, and this process still survives, sort of like the coccyx. However, some experts point out that paying a premium for 1080p may not be a wise decision. Notes our video editor Geoff Morrison: "From where most people sit, you don't need 1080p in a 37-42 inch TV. It's arguable that you do in a 50-inch set." Deal of the month: Buy one Pioneer Elite PRO-FHD1 50-inch plasma, get one free. Next big thing: the 120Hz refresh rate.
There are ordinary mortals who throw Super Bowl parties. And then there is Pete Putman, occasional Home Theater contributor and the HDTV expert of hdtvexpert.com. He put the big game on nine different screens scattered throughout the house (and one outside it). So whose display chugged away in sub-freezing weather? Which had pride of place in Pete's workshop theater? How did the portable pocket projector do? And whose screen was featured in the bathroom, "positioned at an angle to viewers at the door, the sink, and on the throne"? Check out the fully illustrated story for yourself.
Hot on the heels of Wal-Mart Video Downloads, Amazon is looking to attract more customers to its Unbox service by teaming up with TiVo. Currently in beta, "Amazon Unbox on TiVo" would allow owners of Series2 or -3 TiVos to download and play Unbox videos. Sorry, Series1 and DirecTV TiVo owners can't participate. Besides the TiVo, you'll also need an Amazon account, and you'll need to link it to your TiVo account. A movie download will take anywhere from an hour (with broadband) to five hours (with dial-up). Your downloads will appear on the TiVo's now-playing list. They will not work with the TiVoToGo or multi-room features, but you can download to other devices using Unbox RemoteLoad. More details from Amazon or TiVo.
Just in case you've been living in a cave for the past week--or perhaps just live a normal healthy life, in which case I envy you--then you've heard about the Steve Jobs DRM manifesto. Jobs wants to have his DRM and denounce it too. His adroit repositioning of himself in the public eye bodes well for the continued vigor of iPod sales. The first and most amusing reaction came from the Recording Industry Antichrist of America, which enthused: "Apple's offer to license FairPlay to other technology companies is a welcome breakthrough and would be a real victory for fans, artists and labels." It would also mollify various European regulators who object to the binding of iTunes downloads to iPods. Only problem is, Apple offered to do no such thing. The emailed missive has not appeared on the RIAA site. More relevant, perhaps, was EMI's announcement that a large percentage of its catalogue would become available via no-DRM MP3 downloads. Apparently the Norah Jones experiment was a success. Warning: While MP3 is immune to DRM, it is not immune to watermarking that would embed purchase information in the track metadata. If a download with your name on it ends up in the P2P moshpit, you could be in big trouble.
Following threats from the National Football League, the Fall Creek Baptist Church of Indianapolis was forced to cancel its Super Bowl Bash, triggering a wave of cancellations in churches across the country. The Indianapolis church party would have involved a 12-foot projection system. No more than 55 inches are permissible, said the NFL, and you can't charge admission. However, the NFL admitted making exceptions for sports bars, leading to an interesting situation: If you're serving jello shots to the demimonde, you're an honored member of the NFL audience, but if you're serving tuna casseroles to raise money for new altar decorations, you're a copyright criminal. The initial news report from the Indianapolis Star brought the newspaper more than 1000 emails and 100 phone calls. Fall Creek's senior pastor, Dr. John Newland, thanked his church's supporters and offered "heartfelt congratulations" to both the Colts and the Bears. Meanwhile columnist Dan Carpenter had a field day: "Forgive us, Football, for we have sinned, and we beseech Thee to show mercy and not visit a pestilence of lawyers upon us. Nor forsake us when we seek to prepare our house for your XLV Coming.... Yea, verily, a state that prides itself on praying in public and legislating chastity got a revelatory taste last week of what America's true religion is.... The bald presumption! To raise a craven [sic] image on the big screen of the holiest occasion on the nation's calendar without a dispensation from on high?! Who do these people think they are, Hooters?" Unfortunately, few of the many commentaries noted that the jaw-droppingly lucrative telecast, festooned with multi-million-dollar ads, occurred over the public airwaves, which are owned by the public and regulated in the public interest. Since when has the NFL usurped the function of the FCC?
What's remarkable about Wal-Mart's just-unveiled Video Downloads is not that America's number one retailer is venturing into online distribution of
movies and teevee. The real story is that Wal-Mart has convinced all six major motion picture studios and at least some of the networks to pour a
total of 3000 titles into the fledgling service. Wal-Mart tells
you how to enjoy its downloads on TV, PC, or portable player. Pricing ranges from $1.96 for a TV episode to $19.88 for a fresh movie title.
Shop around and you'll find movie titles well under the maximum. For example, Rugrats Go Wild for a mere $7.50. Still, even that's
not much of a bargain compared to your basic Blockbuster movie rental fee of less than $5--so much for the "always low prices" slogan. Moreover, there's no mention of HD, compatible portables do not
include iPods, and Wal-Mart's web developer is guilty, guilty, guilty of a major gaffe: The service seems to have been optimized for Internet
Explorer (I used version 7). In Firefox 1.5, it's an unusable mess. Any Safari or Opera users having trouble with this page? Let me know. In fairness, the service is in beta, and improvements may follow.
A federal judge has ordered DirecTV to suspend TV ads claiming that its HDTV is of higher quality than that of cable. For years, videophiles have complained that DirecTV's signal--HD or otherwise--is overcompressed, pixellated, and full of video artifacts. But this is the first time the satellite operator has been rebuked in court. The triggering event was a lawsuit by Time Warner Cable in response to ads starring William Shatner and Jessica Simpson with the slogan: "For picture quality that beats cable, you've got to get DirecTV." Has Captain Kirk steered us wrong? How the mighty have fallen. TWC also objected to claims that its subscribers weren't able to receive certain NFL football games. While TWC (and Cablevision) don't carry the NFL Network, the eight specific games in question were aired by broadcast stations available on cable. In addition to the TWC suit, filed in December, DirecTV is also fighting a class-action suit filed in California three months earlier. That one alleges inferior HD picture quality on HBO HD, HDNet Movies, Bravo HD, Showtime HD and DirecTV HDTV pay-per-view. Attorney Philip K. Cohen claims DirecTV sends HD at a data rate of 6.6 megabits per second, versus the industry-standard 19.4mbps.
China may be just starting to lose the momentum that has made it the world's biggest manufacturing economy. True, Chinese factories make tremendous quantities of stuff, and some of it is of very high quality. But as China's booming coastal factories move up the ladder, costs are rising too, including wages, office rents, and utilities. That leaves manufacturers looking to stay on the leading edge of cost-effectiveness with two options: either move deeper into the Chinese mainland, or move to other nations with seaport access. The Economist reports that Intel has raised a previously announced $350 million investment in a Vietnamese chip-making plant to a cool billion. Mark Schifter of Onix tells me he's moved some (though not all) of his company's loudspeaker production to Cali, Colombia, where labor costs more but MDF and veneers cost less. His Chinese factories have to import those things. Also contributing to corporate unrest: recurring concerns over China's wild-west attitude toward intellectual property.
Which would you prefer: To buy a new PC with Windows Vista, or go on using your iPod? You can't have both unless you're extremely careful. Apple Computer--oops! sorry! Apple Inc.--has issued an advisory with a couple of warnings. First, when ejecting your iPod from a Vista-loaded PC, use the eject command in iTunes, not the one in the Vista system tray. Otherwise the PC "may corrupt your iPod," Apple says. Other potential problems: Songs purchased on iTunes may not play in the iTunes software, and since the DRM-wrapped tracks won't play in any other software, that means they won't play, period. Contacts and calendars won't sync. And adjustments can't be made to some settings. Apple explains and offers a patch, but you might want to wait for the next full version of iTunes ("available in the next few weeks") before letting iTunes and Vista butt heads.
Somewhere back in the dusty corridors of time, in a house in New Jersey, a child found an old radio in the basement. It was a Sears Silvertone with a dark brown plastic chassis. No FM, just AM, and therefore not of much interest to the increasingly music-aware child. But he--oh, all right, I--was fascinated by the tubes inside. Unlike all the other radios in the house, which immediately started blaring when turned on, this one took time to warm up. When ready to play, its single speaker emitted a rich tone. Not exactly a silver tone. More of a chocolate tone. But I did love it, and was sorry when it suddenly disappeared from the house, as so many artifacts of my childhood did in those days.
Is it possible for the download wars to get any nastier? Having lost its lawsuit against a single mother who refused to settle, the Recording Industry Antichrist of America is now suing her children. Patti Santangelo's son Robert is 16 years old and his sister Michelle is 20. They were five years younger when, according to RIAA allegations, they infringed copyright law by downloading music. The Associated Press sums up the position of Robert's lawyer: "that he never sent copyrighted music to others, that the recording companies promoted file sharing before turning against it, that average computer users were never warned that it was illegal, that the statute of limitations has passed, and that all the music claimed to have been downloaded was actually owned by his sister on store-bought CDs." Attorney Jordan Glass also asserts that the record companies behind the RIAA "have engaged in a wide-ranging conspiracy to defraud the courts of the United States" by acting as "a cartel collusively in violation of the antitrust laws." Michelle Santangelo has been ordered to pay a default judgment of $30,750 for downloading 41 songs. The RIAA has filed more than 18,000 lawsuits against consumers in recent years. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has undertaken a petition drive: "Copyright law shouldn't make criminals out of more than 60 million Americans--tell Congress that it's time to stop the madness!"
Google-owned YouTube flunked its first test as a copyright-compliant media company. The Financial Times reported a month ago that a "content identification system" promised for the end of 2006 has failed to materialize. GooTube had been promising the tool to large copyright owners as a first step in converting its often dubious legal status into something sustainable. Instead, Google will be forced to go on making piecemeal deals with whoever threatens to sue. Is GooTube intentionally dragging its feet to prevent a catastrophic exodus from its user base? With hungry and well-funded players like AOL Video charging into the arena, GooTube may be playing for time. For my own part, I spend an impressive chunk of downtime with my armchair pulled up in front of the PC, watching amazing concert videos on YouTube that aren't available on DVD. The future belongs to whoever can deliver that experience while staying on the right side of the law, hitting the sweet spot between legality and comprehensiveness.
Somewhere over the rainbow there's an iPod color we haven't seen before. It's orange. And it's one of four new Apple iPod shuffle color options. The others are already familiar to second-generation nano enthusiasts. They include pink, lime, sky blue, and "silver." Cue Jerry Seinfeld voice: Have you ever noticed that manufacturers say silver when they really mean aluminum or grey? What's up with that? If I can't melt it down and make jewelry out of it, it's not really silver, is it? Noticeably absent is the red used for special-edition nanos. And if you've been holding out for yellow or, ah, "gold," keep dreaming. Capacity remains one gigabyte, price is still $79, and earbuds have been upgraded to the new and supposedly better-sounding ones. Me, I've still got a first-generation nano that's in good health, thank you. But if you're a completist, don't let that stop you from grabbing that new orange shuffle. Mind if I borrow it for a day or two?