Roundup 6/17/11

A few links to wrap up your week:

A look back at needles

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Scientific American dips into it’s archives looking at an article originally published in 1919 discussing needles on the “new” phonograph:

At the time of this article’s publication, July 5, 1919, the phonograph had only been a household item for 10 to 15 years. While it was still considered a novel invention, persons such as F.D. Hall of Chicago began looking for ways to improve upon it—specifically its sound quality. The phonograph made “tinny” and “harsh sounds,” and was also described as being “unduly loud.” Further, the metal needle often wore down the records after a short while.

The article goes on to share the story and pictures of using and manufacturing bamboo as a record needle. As the article points out at the end, we now use mostly diamonds in our needles. To think how far we’ve come…

Boxee Box

My wife (who knows me all too well) got me a gift I’ve been coveting since it was announed at CES last year:  the Boxee Box.

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I’ve been using Boxee on a Mac Mini hooked up to my home theater for almost two years now – and love it.  Unfortunately, the Boxee Box by D-link has been a disappointment so far.

Setting up the box was a breeze – plug in the power and the HDMI and on first boot it checks for new firmware, which it downloaded, installed and rebooted.  I’ve been a release or two behind on th Boxee software on my Mac Mini due to a bug it has with processing a full HD stream from my MythTV box, but using the new UI was simple.  It was easy to find where to adjust the screen size and add network shares to start scanning my local content.

And that’s where the problems started.

While scanning my content, I tried to watch The Daily Show from the Comedy Central website.  Video played fine but there was no audio.   Tried a Youtube video and the same thing.  I then tried to play a file locally from my NAS and guess what – no sound.

It appears I’m not the only one.  Sure enough, plugging the Boxee Box directly into my TV and not my receiver, sound and video work fine.  Connecting the HDMI into the receiver, I get video and no audio.

This has to be a problem in software – I’m familiar with the HDMI spec, and transmitting a video signal and not audio is not a physical problem.  I own a Denon AVR-4306 – it’s not like it’s a cheap receiver either.

The second major issue is that the MythTV support I’ve been using in Boxee doesn’t seem to work on the Boxee Box.   Rumor is that the mythtv:// protocol was removed, but I haven’t been able to confirm it yet.  What’s worse, trying to play back video via the MythTV UPnP doesn’t work for me either, which seems to be hit or miss for most people.

I want to love the Boxee Box.  I really do.  The fact that sound is not working for a small subset of people is concerning.  I love the software, but the hardware implementation just isn’t there yet.

Some other random observations:

  • I love the form factor.  I know some people don’t, but I love how unique it is.  I like how the Boxee logo lights up when it’s powered on.
  • The remote is awesome.  Perfectly sized and light.  The keyboard built into the remote is good too – not too big or too small.
  • I was happy to open the packaging, take out the Boxee Box and have a paper copy of the GPL.  That always makes me smile.
  • An HDMI cable is included.  A very nice touch.
  • I like the browser improvements they’ve made in the new WebKit browser.  It’s much easier to move the mouse cursor using the remote.
  • I’m happy with the new firmware updates – the changes they made to playing back local media and listening to their users feedback was impressive.
  • I won’t even comment on the lack of Hulu and Netflix support – they promise it’s coming, but it’s not out yet.

I want to love the Boxee Box.  Especially since my wife bought it for me.  But it doesn’t work for me and I don’t know if I’m going to keep it yet.  I may buy a new TV for a different room in the house sometime in the next year, but it seems silly to hang on to something I can’t use.  Please try again Boxee.

The Needle Doctor is moving

The Needle Doctor, Minnesota’s premier retailer (and online retailer) of everything related to turntable hardware, is moving.

After I first bought my turntable in April, I had gone on a buying spree of used records.  Most of them needed cleaning and I also needed something to get the dust that would build up on my cartridge.  Doing some quick Google searches, I kept coming up with links to the Needle Doctor.  I was pretty excited to realize they were in Minneapolis.

One afternoon I printed out directions (yes, I live way out in the ‘burbs) and took Zoe, my six year old daughter, along for the ride.  We get there and I realize I didn’t need directions – they’re located in Dinkytown in the heart of the University of Minnesota campus.

Whether you need something cheap and basic like cleaning supplies to a new turntable to $1200 cartridges, the Needle Doctor has it.  When we visited, there were 3 or 4 people working up front and another 2 or 3 in the back of this tiny store front.   The customer service rep answered my questions (and confirmed I had picked out the right cleaning solution!) and took care of me.  After the sale was completed, I realized I had forgotten to pick up a 45 adapter for my turntable.  After I asked, he reached into a drawer and tossed me a used one free.  Now that’s service!

The Needle Doctor has everything online – I highly recommend them if you need to pick anything up for your turntable.  I’ll make sure to be visiting their new location – especially as it cuts down on the drive by 50%!

Make sure to read this article as it has more detail than the City Pages article linked above and gives you a feel for what Dinkytown used to be.

Six Months Without Satellite TV

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It’s been six months since I cut the cable and canceled DirecTV, going over-the-air and internet only.

Do I miss DirecTV?

In a word, no.

This past Sunday started the real test as I’m a huge (American) football fan. Living in Minnesota and being a Green Bay Packers fan, this season is the first in ten years that I haven’t had DirecTV’s NFL Sunday ticket to watch out of market games (luckily the Packers were the national game this past Sunday). I also missed my beloved University of Wisconsin Badgers play the last two weeks, but I think I’m going to make it (especially as they play tomorrow on ABC).

None of this would have been possible except for three innovations: Boxee, MythTV and streaming Netflix.

The only hiccup I had was my antenna setup – the first couple of months everything was great, except NBC was a bit flaky, which was to be expected. The local NBC affiliate is the only TV station not on the HDTV antenna array here in the Twin Cities, and the antenna they use is notorious for its weak signal. But after a couple of months, I started experiencing signal strength issues with almost all of the channels. After doing a bit of research, I climbed up on the roof, and turned the antenna 90 degrees, as seen in the photo above so it faces the direction of the antenna tower. I was worried that even if I did so, I’d still have signal strength issues as the antenna is now parallel with the roof but under the roof line – but thankfully all of my signal strength issues appear fixed going in to the fall TV season. And now my satellite dish just sits on the roof, unused.

I’ve previously talked about my setup and with summer TV being mostly re-runs, I’ve been using Netflix. A lot. I’m glad to see Netflix continue to focus on expanding their catalog for streaming titles and was interested to read how much cheaper streaming is for them vs. mailing DVDs. With the new fall TV season starting, MythTV has proved invaluable in recording off-air TV shows and automatically removing the commercials helping make watching TV more enjoyable. I’m probably only using 20% of what MythTV is capable of. And for the cable shows I don’t have, Boxee’s Hulu integration continue to works pretty well. It’s standard def quality – but you get what you pay for, so you won’t find me complaining. Additionally, I’ve converted all of the movies I own and store them on my NAS, adding another library of content to watch through Boxee as well as stream to my old Netgear Eva in my bedroom.

I’m also keeping an eye on the Boxee Box, launching later this year. I’ve been using Boxee with my 60″ Sony HDTV in my man cave and if and when we replace the old analog TV in the living room, I’ll have some interesting choices to make. Between Google TV, Boxee and even litl working on a set top box, there will be some interesting choices to bring internet content to the TV. And with CNBC reporting this morning that 37% of adults 25-34 who subscribe to Neflix now use Netflix instead of cable and satellite service, DirecTV, Comcast and other satellite / cable providers are going to need to find a new business model. Fast.