Have you ever thrown your iPod into the washing machine...on purpose? That's what the folks at ArsTechnica—a website worthy of daily visits—did with the new second-generation nano, following gushes of interest in similar tests inflicted upon the first-gen nano. And guess what? The nano continued to be playable. "Despite many requests to drop the nano into the toilet, boiling water, and cups of beer, I decided to quit with the washing machine," said tester Jacqui Cheng. Before that, it survived being sat upon. It also did well with scratch testing in a bag full of coins, keys, cellphone, camera, and other knickknacks, which left only minor blemishes on the new aluminum finish and none on the screen. Only with the sidewalk-drop test did the unit acquire a serious problem—one impact on concrete was all it took to render the screen useless. Note from our lawyers: Don't try any of these stunts, and if you do, we're not liable.
Red! Red! Red! Apple no longer sees the world in black & white. Aside from the newly reddened click wheel, the new iPod U2 Special Edition is business as usual. It is based on the 30GB iPod, fifth generation, and is the first iPod not to be offered in white. Clearly U2 will remain part of the iPod marketing program for some time to come and Bono can feed even more starving millions. Battery life is still 14 hours and the price is $329. In other news, 73 percent of college students surveyed by research firm Student Monitor said the iPod is "in," up from 59 percent last year, and surpassing beer at a mere 71 percent. Yes, the iPod is more popular than beer. Meanwhile, Apple has not only countersued Creative Labs but filed a second countersuit for good measure. Both companies allege patent infringements. And three more nations have taken up the aborted French proposal to make iTunes downloads interoperable with non-Apple devices: Norway, Sweden, and via the British Phonographic Institute, the United Kingdom. Apple is also feeling the heat from an anti-DRM group, Defective by Design.
Pope Benedict XVI is now an iPod owner. According to the Catholic News Service, employees of Vatican Radio honored the pontiff's first visit to their premises by giving him a nano inscribed on the back, "To His Holiness, Benedict XVI." The pope accepted the gift saying, "computer technology is the future." The iPod—in white, appropriately enough—is loaded with Vatican Radio programming, including a documentary on the life of St. Thomas a Becket, and music, including the works of Beethoven, Chopin, Mozart, Stravinsky, and Tchaikovsky. The iPod will allow the pope to enjoy Vatican Radio's daily podcasts, which are offered in eight languages.
Will Slacker do for Internet radio what Napster did for file sharing? Check out the beta version. At the heart of the multifaceted scheme is an Internet radio service that will build out to 10,000 streaming channels. There are Slacker-programmed channels, but you can skip songs you don't like, program your own channels, and even publish them on your website. Ads support the free version; or you can pay $7.50/month to ditch the ads and expand your skipping privilege beyond the free six-song maximum. Slacker works with any web browser. Then there's the Slacker Jukebox software, which integrates the music on your hard drive into the Slacker experience. The plot thickens this summer with the Slacker Portable Player, with capacity between 2-120 gigs and pricing from $150-350. A touch-sensitive side strip navigates what's happening on the four-inch color screen. The player syncs with the Slacker site via USB or wi-fi. Also on the way is the Slacker Satellite Car Kit. Slacker is shrewdly leasing unused satellite capacity rather than launching its own birds. I haven't tried Slacker yet but Gizmodo has. Since Internet radio is likely an endangered species, it's reasonable to question Slacker's prospects for survival. Best-case scenario: Slacker will dazzle users with its multifarious approach, build a large base of free users, and slowly turn them into paying customers as a lower-cost alternative to the potentially monopolistic Sirius and XM.
I've never given a price formula for putting together a system--you know, X percent for this, Y percent for that. But I recognize that impecunious readers may be tempted to save a buck on speakers or amps, if only as a temporary measure. So where's the best place to save? Is it better to mate expensive speakers with a cheap receiver, or cheap speakers with an expensive receiver? I think the first idea is a disaster in the making. The cheap receiver won't let the speakers live up to their potential. A paltry supply of dirty power will make them sound somewhere between mediocre and awful. In addition, if the speakers have low sensitivity and present too great a load, the stressed receiver may even damage the drivers or shut itself down. On the other hand, mating an expensive receiver with cheap speakers (like the nice-sounding and nice-looking Onixes pictured here) just might work. Sure, the speakers may not be the culimination of your high-end dreams, but a good receiver will get the best out of them. Of course you'll have to be careful not to blow them out with too much volume. Upgrade the speakers later when you can afford to. Your goal, of course, is to have both great speakers and a great receiver.
As a broadcast-basic cable subscriber, I'm entitled to receive unencrypted cable channels through my Sharp LCD HDTV's QAM tuner, including the HD-capable digital versions of the New York area's over-the-air stations. Imagine my dismay when the local Fox and CW affiliates abruptly disappeared from the digital channel lineup a couple of months ago. Going back to their wishy-washy 4:3 analog versions was downright painful.
Like Adam and Eve, an iPod eventually nano comes to the realization that it must cover its nakedness. Guilt no doubt plays a role. After all, the nano feels embarrassed when scratched, knowing how its manufacturer rushed it into production without taking durability into account. And it must feel the glare of the bright spotlight of conspicuous consumption. Among the many products rushing in to clothe the modest little player is the iSkin Duo. Mine was a nano-sized case in turquoise and lime, but there's an iSkin to fit just about any iPod model, in a variety of bright colors, bringing touches of flamboyance to the white-or-black dichotomy of iPod design.
Read the fine print on some DVD and CD releases and you'll see the phrase CarbonNeutral. What's that? CarbonNeutral, formerly known as Future Forests, has convinced a variety of manufacturers to offset the CO2 emissions caused in the making of plastics by paying landowners to plant trees. Celebrity enthusiasts include Atomic Kitten, Beth Orton, Coldplay, Pink Floyd, and the Rolling Stones—not to mention Gwyneth Paltrow and Leonardo DiCaprio. Unfortunately, critics of the scheme say that the company is just selling the carbon rights for trees that would have been planted anyway. Still worse, Mike Mason of Climate Care told The Times of London: "When Mick Jagger's trees die in 50 years' time, they will release the CO2 they have been storing at a time when the situation is likely to be more critical." You know what the road to hell is paved with. Bit of a heartbreaker, isn't it?
The HDMI interface promises to deliver high-def video and surround through one wire. But this potential garden of electronic delights is more a desert of frustration for anyone whose DVD player won't talk to a newly purchased HDTV. How to protect yourself? One thing to look for is Simplay certification from Simplay Labs, a subsidiary of Silicon Image, a major player (though not the only one) in the development of HDMI. There is of course a Simplay website and the featured products page lists a dozen Mitsubishi LCD panels and DLP projectors, four Thomson DLP rears, and a lone Sanyo 32-inch CRT. Covering mainly the HDCP content security system, Simplay may not be the final word in HDMI compatibility—among other things, it doesn't cover all potential audio-related issues—but it's a good start.
A little while back I ran an item about Google Video. Guess what? Google's andYahoo's video departments have been overtaken by a classic two-guys-in-a-garage web startup, youtube.com. Some of the user-posted content probably violates copyright but there is an appealing early-Napster-like breadth. Check out this goofy pick hit (from press agent and audiophile Jonathan Scull). I searched Robyn Hitchcock and came up with several music videos, including a great radio appearance from public-radio treasure KCRW, a lovely duet with violinist Deni Bonet, and others obviously shot on someone's cell phone. The look is blessedly utilitarian, the user interface simple and versatile. And the underlying video player is the Macromedia Flash Player, something most of us already have installed. Check it out before it gets bought up or outlawed.
Here's to the mating of the ampersand and the asterisk. Mayor Michael Bloomberg is expected to attend tomorrow's grand opening of J&R Express at Macy*s in Manhattan. Founded in 1858, Macy*s has been the city's leading department store for generations. It's a major tourist attraction and its advertising props up the city's newspapers. But Federated Department Stores, owner of Macy*s, has never found a way to make electronics retailing work in NYC. J&R's story is totally different. It started as a great little record shop back in the pre-CD days, then successfully branched out into electronics, but until recently never aspired to move beyond its peculiar cluster of far-downtown spaces near City Hall. Locals love it, but most people reading this probably know the Internet operation better than the stores. So now Macy*s will have the ideal partner for selling electronics, and J&R will expand into midtown, with its flocks of tourists and shoppers, just down West 34th from the Empire State Building. BTW, the weeping statuary pictured is a memorial for Isidor and Ida Strauss in tiny Strauss Park at Broadway and West 107th Street. Isidor acquired Macy's (then with no asterisk) in 1896 and moved it to the current iconic location in Herald Square. In 1912, he and his wife Ida went down with the Titanic.
No one writes iPod reviews like ArsTechnica's questing Jacqui Cheng. Already notorious for putting two generations of iPod nanos through a washing machine, she upped the ante by dipping the second-generation iPod shuffle in beer, then running over it with a car. Did it survive? I won't deprive you of the pleasure of finding out for yourself. She also literally took the unit apart, as you can see from the pic. One of many things I learned from her review is that Apple has eliminated the "universal" 30-pin docking connector. Instead, the new shuffle's mini-jack handles power and transfer as well as audio output.
The Japanese government is asking broadcasters and DVR manufacturers to relax the "copy once" rule, according to Nihon Keizai Shimbun. It allows programming to be copied from DVR to DVD, but the program is then erased from the DVR, and the DVD cannot be copied. News and educational programs will be the first to allow relatively unfettered copying. Other kinds may take longer, depending on the preferences of copyright holders, and it's hard to imagine budging (say) the movie industry from its existing anti-copying vigilance. Why this, why now? The government is looking ahead to Japan's transition from analog to digital broadcasting, currently scheduled for 2011, and wants to salvage at least some of the viewer conveniences associated with analog. A panel of broadcasters, manufacturers, copyright holders, and consumers will begin studying the matter and the first copy-once exceptions may take effect before year-end.
Steve Jobs has finally found a situation he can't bluff or bully his way out of. He has, however, bought his way out of a longstanding tiff with Creative Labs, which holds valuable patents on the workings of music players—including the iPod. A $100 million settlement will end court battles and heal all wounds. Jobs' comment on the outcome is wry and brilliantly understated: "Creative is very fortunate to have been granted this early patent." And in case you were wondering, he adds: "This settlement resolves all of our differences with Creative, including the five lawsuits currently pending between the companies, and removes the uncertainty and distraction of prolonged litigation." The settlement will leave him freer to contemplate finer things, like warm batteries and cool Scandinavians. Folks at Creative, meanwhile, are looking forward to a harmonious future with Apple. Says victorious CEO Sim Wong Hoo: "Apple has built a huge ecosystem for its iPod and with our upcoming participation in the Made for iPod program we are very excited about this new market opportunity for our speaker systems, our just-introduced line of earphones and headphones, and our future family of X-Fi audio enhancement products." Unmentioned: Creative's Zen player, pictured. He's also pleased about the 85 cents per share Creative stockholders will reap from the settlement. Who wouldn't be?
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.