Archive for March 2007

Sony PSP

March 31, 2007

After roughly a decade at the top of the home console industry, Sony decided to tackle the portable system market–one heavily fortified by Nintendo’s Game Boy Advance and DS. Sony sought to take down Nintendo by adopting the tactic that made the PlayStation 2 such a runaway success: by offering sophisticated, graphically intensive games and a heavy dose of multimedia functionality. The device is called the PlayStation Portable (PSP), and in addition to playing games of PS2 graphical quality, it can play music and movies (downloaded or via disc) and surf the Web. It may not be the best handheld media product on the market, and the games lack the innovation of ones on Nintendo’s portables, but as an all-in-one device, the Sony PSP is king of the hill.

Design of Sony PSP:  From an aesthetic perspective, the Sony PSP is a gorgeous device. It’s one of those gadgets you immediately want to get your hands on but vigilantly want to protect once you set it down. Weighing essentially the same as the Nintendo DS (6.2 ounces, including removable battery) and measuring 6.7 by 2.9 by 0.9 inches (WHD), the body feels well built and solid in your hand. Although not a lightweight, it’s by no means a brick, nor, we suspect, would it be especially durable in a fall; you’ll want to treat the PSP just as gingerly as an iPod or a Palm-style PDA.  

The centerpiece of the handheld is its especially impressive 4.3-inch wide-screen display (480×272 pixels, 16.77 million colors). The screen is flanked by controls that will be immediately recognizable to fans of past PlayStations: the directional keypad is to the left of the screen, and the familiar square, triangle, circle, and X buttons are to the right. We dug how Sony managed to include an analog “joystick” below the directional keypad. The stick isn’t raised like the analog controls on a PS2 or an Xbox, but it conveys that multidirectional element that gives it a joysticklike feel.

In lieu of the PS2 controller’s four total shoulder buttons, the PSP has two: one per shoulder. Ergonomically, the device is OK but not great; as with most handheld gaming devices, you’ll have to do a little finger stretching every 15 minutes or so to keep from cramping up.

The PSP uses Sony’s recently created “cross media bar” interface. You use the directional keypad to horizontally navigate through Settings, Photo, Music, Video, Game, and Internet icons, and each section has other icons attached to it on a vertical axis. All in all, it’s a simple and elegant way to access the PSP’s many features.

Games and officially licensed movies come on Sony’s proprietary UMD (Universal Media Disc) media, which are housed in protective cartridges. The UMD drive is grafted to the back of the unit; you load it and snap it shut just as you would a camcorder. The top edge also sports infrared and a USB 2.0 port that you can use to link the device to your PC or Mac, though no USB connection cable is included.

The headphone jack is at the bottom left of the unit; Sony’s official earbud-style headphones sport an in-line remote to control basic playback. The nice thing about the remote is that you can use other headphones with it, not just the provided ‘buds. Like Apple, Sony has chosen to go with white headphones. We’re not sure why, since the PSP is black (though an iPod-white version is available in
Japan).
One gripe: Since the device has a glossy finish–and is mostly black–it’s a fingerprint magnet. A static-free cloth should always be at the ready when using your PSP, and the Value Pack had one bundled. Sony’s official carrying case is a padded soft case, but a variety of third-party versions are also available (see our list of PSP accessories for more information). 

Features of Sony PSP  The folks at Sony tout the PSP as, first and foremost, a gaming device. But in the next breath, they claim that it can do so much more, billing it as “the first truly integrated portable entertainment system.” Both statements are, in fact, true, and suffice it to say that as a portable gaming device, particularly from a graphics standpoint, the PSP is unparalleled. You’re getting a miniaturized PS2 gaming experience–or close to it, anyway–and Sony has amassed a decent selection of titles from various game developers to show off its handheld’s gaming chops. Beyond gaming, the PSP’s video prowess may be its most impressive trait. As we previously noted, the display is a 4.3-inch TFT LCD with a 480×272-pixel resolution and 16.77 million colors; by comparison, each of the Nintendo DS’s two screens has 256×192 pixels with 260,000 colors. The picture quality from a UMD movie such as Spider-Man 2 is superior to what you’ll see on most portable DVD players, though the majority of DVD players have significantly larger screens.  The only problem with video playback–and it’s a big one–is that it’s currently hard to watch anything but UMD videos on the PSP. Unlike Sony’s MiniDisc, UMD is not a recordable storage format, so you’ll have to store any video or music and images on a Memory Stick Duo card. The lack of affordable and recordable UMDs has put the format in dire straits. Sony is hoping to give the format a boost by bundling UMDs with its DVDs and creating an accessory that can transfer the video to TV, but it remains highly unlikely that the many studios and retailers that have jumped ship will come back. Thankfully, getting media onto a PSP is much less of a hassle than it used to be. The Sony Media Manager software lets you transfer photos, music, and videos from a PC to your PSP with relative ease. It also lets you back up your saved games and manipulate podcast feeds. It’s a worthwhile alternative to the bare-bones media management options with which the PSP originally shipped in March 2005, but it will cost you about $25–it’s not bundled with the PSP. Fortunately, there are also a wide variety of third-party and freeware software titles available, many of which focus on converting existing video files to PSP-friendly formats (see our “How to put video on your PSP” tutorial for one example). Unfortunately, “home brewed” videos are limited to scaled-down resolutions that fail to completely exploit the PSP’s native 480×272 screen. The exception: live, streaming video from Sony’s LocationFree TV accessory. This Slingbox-like device lets you watch live TV on your PSP while in range of any Wi-Fi hot spot. Still, it’s a shame that the only way to take full advantage of video on your PSP is to buy UMD-format movies or expensive networking accessories. What about music? Well, the good news is the PSP plays many types of audio files without your having to convert them to Sony’s proprietary ATRAC format first–a common problem with the company’s earlier MP3 devices. You simply drag your audio files into the music folder on your Memory Stick Duo card, and they’ll show up on the PSP. Firmware-updated PSPs can play MP3s, ATRACs, WMAs, WAVs, and AAC-encoded song files, though not the copy-protected versions from Apple’s iTunes Music Store. The device supports M3U playlists, but if you have your playlists in another format, you’ll need to find and download a converter. However, as basic as the PSP’s music player is (read: iPod Shuffle with a screen and no autosyncing capabilities), it will be adequate for many people. Those interested in replacing their iPod with the PSP will have to deal with the lack of on-the-go playlist functionality and, most important, the DIY storage. You can get a 1GB Memory Stick Pro Duo card for about $50, while double the capacity will cost you about three times as much. Sony announced 4GB and 8GB Memory Sticks at E3 2006 but no pricing. Player controls can be initially tricky–the in-line remote is handy–but we like the speedy precision of the fast-forward/rewind functions as well as the undulating background graphics. The PSP can also display album art when it’s available. The image viewer is also basic, with simple slide-show functionality. But again, it’s easy to drag JPEG files–or TIFFs, PNGs, GIFs, and BMPs, if you have version 2.0–onto a memory card, rotate them (if needed), and show off your shots to anybody who might want to see them. In addition, you can set a photo as your PSP’s background wallpaper, replacing the colorful splash screen behind the home menu. Unfortunately, you can’t view photos and listen to music simultaneously. Last but not least, the PSP has built-in Wi-Fi capabilities. Getting our handheld up and running on even a WEP-encrypted home wireless network was a breeze, and the PSP lets you save multiple wireless configurations so that you can connect from multiple locations without repeating the setup procedure each time. Though PSPs purchased before September 2005 were previously limited to WEP encryption, upgrading to v2.0 firmware adds support for the more secure WPA-PSK standard. Once you’re Wi-Fi enabled–and you’ve installed the latest firmware–you can access the Web using the PSP’s onboard browser. This slick, nearly full-featured app supports tabbed browsing, Javascript, and CSS, though Flash support is still lacking (read more about the PSP’s Web browser).  The browser looks great, displaying crisp images and reproducing colors very accurately. Typing isn’t quite the pain it could have been; Sony has augmented its standard cell phone-style input system with a few shortcuts, giving common strings such as http:// and .com their own keys on the virtual keyboard. Furthermore, the PSP remembers every address you type, so you’ll never have to tap in a long, complicated URL more than once. You’re given the option to reshape the browser’s display window, in much the same way that you can resize video clips during playback. This helps avoid the dreaded left-to-right scroll-back while reading articles, though it usually garbles the page’s layout in the process. You can easily save images from the Web to your Memory Stick Duo and subsequently use them as wallpaper on the PSP’s main menu; customizable wallpaper is another perk of the 2.0 firmware.  JavaScript works like a charm, cooperating with several JavaScript toolkit utilities, but the Flash player included in the latest update is version 6–the current standard is 8–which makes viewable content hit or miss. Our videos and the rotating feature images on the CNET main page, for example, require version 7 at the very minimum. On the PSP, the Flash images and movies change to text and still images, respectively. Some sites seem to mix and match Flash versions, which makes compatibility even more haphazard. We were psyched to see a Strong Bad e-mail start up, only to stop playing when the scene changed. We also noted that the Flash player struggled to work with compatible content, as Strong Bad’s typed response chugged out in full words rather than the smooth tapestry of letters that normally flows from his laptop. Adding to the Flash woes is the lack of a suitable keyboard emulator on the PSP, rendering most Flash games unplayable.  

As expected, overall Web performance is a little slow. On CNET’s reasonably fast connection, we still had to wait a good 5 seconds before images started popping up on the pages. Once the images began to load, the cursor would freeze in place until they were finished downloading. This sort of thing isn’t a problem on a computer, where you can still read plain text and click links without images, but the PSP’s small screen made the wait a bit more frustrating.  The PSP’s strong slate of features–as well as the many bells and whistles that Sony has added via its first major firmware update–proves that the handheld is still under development and hints at even greater things to come. Some of those future upgrades are more fully developed than others. Sony highlighted a few of the more noteworthy forthcoming PSP features in the pipeline at a business conference in March 2006. In terms of gaming, an emulator is being developed that will allow the PSP to play digitally distributed (that is, pay-per-download) PlayStation 1 titles. Later in the year, Sony is pledging to add Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) support to the PSP, with an EyeToy-styled Webcam peripheral to complement it. A GPS-locator accessory is also in the works, with compatible games slated to support it. Finally, Sony is said to be preparing a major upgrade to its Connect online service that will create a more iTunes-like music and movie download service, but details remain scarce. In fact, since these new features were announced, Sony’s been mum about new details–the camera was shown off at E3 2006, but no new information has been revealed about any of the other new PSP concepts. It’s more than likely that Sony is waiting until the November release of the PlayStation 3 nears to comment on most of them, as it’s likely that numerous features of the next console–accessories and downloads, among them–will be shared between the two. Performance of Sony PSP The Sony PSP runs on a proprietary 333MHz processor and comes with 32MB of built-in memory, some of it reserved for the PSP’s operating system and applications, and 4MB of embedded DRAM. While we would have preferred more built-in memory, game developers we spoke to were happy it has what it has, given that early rumors suggested Sony would include only 16MB of RAM.  One of the issues with using an optical disc format such as UMD as opposed to Nintendo’s flash memory-based cartridges is that load times tend to be significantly longer. After we previewed beta versions of games, we were concerned that load times would indeed be a serious problem. But now that we’ve run graphically intensive games such as EA’s Need for Speed Rivals, Konami’s Metal Gear Acid, and Sony’s Twisted Metal Head-On, we can safely say that it’s a relatively minor hindrance. Yes, games can take a good 10 seconds to load, but it’s not much worse than what you’d expect from the PS2 itself. (As one might expect, content loads very quickly from a Memory Stick Duo card.) That said, the Nintendo DS and the Game Boy Advance SP are much zippier in this regard. Luckily, the wait is usually worth it because most of the games look spectacular. As we said, you’re getting close to a PS2-like gaming experience, and many of the titles are ports of their PS2 counterparts with only small compromises made to the graphics. For the most part, games play smoothly, though you may encounter some frame drops in bigger action sequences in certain games. We played Twisted Metal Head-On against four other players in multiplayer peer-to-peer (PSP-to-PSP) wireless mode and were impressed by the smooth gameplay. We also played Twisted Metal via the Internet with two other people and had good results. But we imagine that when you get up to a dozen players (Twisted Metal supports up to 16-player multiplayer), you’ll probably encounter a hiccup or two. And, of course, wireless gameplay depends on your connection–or, in the case of peer-to-peer action, the distance and potential obstructions between devices. As far as distance goes, we were able to move about 60 feet apart with a clear line of sight in an office setting before our connection became spotty. We felt the Nintendo DS offered better wireless coverage.Before we get to battery life, a few sentences about the PSP’s audio. Using the earbud-style headphones, sound quality was fine with games, but we would have liked the maximum volume to go a tad higher when we listened to our MP3s, especially in noisier environments. When you play games and watch movies such as Spider-Man 2 on UMD, you can boost the volume a bit via a special UMD volume-settings menu, which is helpful. A few preset equalizer settings (Heavy, Pops, Jazz, and Unique) are on board to tweak the sound, but you can’t manually set treble and bass levels, which is too bad. The PSP’s external speakers can’t put out booming sound, but they’re certainly adequate for gaming and casual video watching; using the headphones, however, will give you a much more immersive experience. Conveniently, volume can be raised and lowered from two buttons just below the screen or via the headphones’ in-line remote. 
Battery life? Well, a lot of numbers have been bandied about, with some critics suggesting its relatively short run time would be the PSP’s Achilles’ heel. Here’s what we got:Running on full brightness, we managed about 5.5 hours of gameplay before having to recharge the included 1,800mAH lithium-ion battery pack; gaming time can vary significantly depending upon screen brightness (two dimmer settings are options) and the game you’re playing. It’s worth noting that recharging a battery to full capacity takes a lengthy 2.5 hours. Playing in peer-to-peer wireless mode reduced game sessions by a little more than 2 hours; the battery pooped out after 3 hours, 15 minutes. For music only, the PSP was able to run for a decent 11.2 hours.  And finally, we managed to watch Spider-Man 2 all the way through twice and got 20 minutes into a third showing before the battery died. All in all, that’s not too bad and slightly better than we expected. Still, the easiest way to ensure that your PSP doesn’t go dead at an inopportune moment is to purchase an additional battery pack; kudos to Sony for making it replaceable. Transfer rate over USB 2.0 to an inserted Memory Stick was a reasonable 2.2MB per second.

 

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Top PSP Download Sites

March 31, 2007

Psp Blender

  This club has the largest variety of PSP games and movies with the fastest download speeds. Over 20 million items and growing! Download PSP movies, music, software, backgrounds, and themes. Play and watch them on your PSP! Membership also includes FREE DVD to PSP movie software.
PSP Blender was the only reviewed site that offered a ticket based support system which was very useful when it came to getting support.
Highly Recommended !!!    
Lifetime Unlimited Access $37.00 * Best Value 

Unlimited PSP Games 

Brand new club and growing at rapid rates. Extensive variety of PSP games but also movies, music, and software are continuously added. Search and download as many PSP games as you want!
PSP Upgrades & Downgrades, Homebrews, Software, and many movies, Hacks and cheats.
Best choice for games and movies. Fairly new on the PSP scene and rapidly growing

 

Lifetime Unlimited Access$34.95

All PSP Games

 After we got everything installed and configured (which took a surprisingly short time), the first impression we got was of an enormous selection.
We took the website for a test drive, and we found almost everything we could think of, in very short order.
Needless to say, were seriously impressed. We’ve never seen this much variety before, and while the website navigation leaves a bit to be desired, the program certainly merits our praise.

 

1 Year Membership – $34.95

Lifetime Access $44.95

  

PSP X Studio

 It’s rare when a program does everything it promises to do, and even rarer when that same program is easy to use. In this case, we’re glad to say that all of our expectations were met, and more! More specifically, this program promised a fast connection, lots of sources, unlimited downloading, and best of all, ease of use.
We were pleased to see that everything worked almost immediately, installing and configuring with virtually no user input. Just plug and play!

 

Lifetime Unlimited Access $29.95  My PSP Download 

This is the new guy in the block and a lot of people are falling for this. We usually dont post negative reviews so this is a first for us. This club offers a generic version of what other sites offer, probably because they rip their content from other sites.
We received many complaint from people that signed up for this site. It appears that they are in the business of ripping off unsuspecting visitors and ignoring their requests for refunds.

Click here to see some of the complaints on this website

 

Lifetime Unlimited Access $39.95 * Buyer Beware

Net PSP Downloads 

We decided to add a 6th place since we found that the same people from the site above had opened up another site that we have been receiving a lot of complaint on. Again, we usually dont post negative reviews but we’ll make an exception here.
We received many complaint from people that signed up for this site. It appears that they are in the business of ripping off unsuspecting visitors and ignoring their requests for refunds.

Click here to see some of the complaints on this website

 

Lifetime Unlimited Access $39.95 * Buyer Beware

Denon AH-C700 In-Ear Headphones

March 24, 2007

Think about it–there’s something like 42 plus million iPods and who knows how many other MP3 players out there–and they all come with crappy headphones. Clearly, it’s a heady time for aftermarket headphone manufacturers. Denon Electronics, a name we normally associate with high-quality home theater components, apparently took note of the burgeoning sales opportunities and recently introduced five headphones, including two in-ear models, the AH-C350 ($50) and the model we’re reviewing here, the AH-C700 ($200). The latter is available in either a silver or black finish.

 

 

 

As with most canalphone designs, the AH-C700’s eartips must be pushed directly into your ear canals to deliver the full sound-isolating potential and bass response. To that end, the headphone comes with small, medium, and large hemispherical silicone earpieces, and chances are that one of the three will be a perfect fit your ears. We found the AH-C700 easy to wear over long periods, but some listeners may find the AH-C700 (and other in-ear headphones) uncomfortable, and their sonic isolation makes them less than ideal for jogging outdoors or walking on busy city streets. We can’t fathom why, but Denon neglected to include any sort of travel pouch or carrying case with the AH-C700. We stowed the headphones in our pockets where the earpieces picked up a small amount of dust and dirt. Yuck! We removed the earpieces from the headphones every few days to wash them under running water.

The headphones’ all-metal design feels more robust and “high-end” than more typical molded plastic designs and its beautifully finished aluminum connector is fitted with a gold-plated, 3.5mm mini jack. The 45-inch long OFC (oxygen-free copper) cables cable proved to be less tangle-prone than most headphone wires.

The AH-C700’s sound is definitely bassy, but the treble is still very lively and detailed. To be honest, the plump bass might be a bit too much for those that prefer balanced audio, but as guilty pleasures go, the AH-C700 sounds very right to us.

The headphone’s sound-isolating talents were put to the test on the
New York City subway system. It didn’t do much to banish the low rumble of the trains or dramatically hush the screeching sounds of the wheels against the tracks. Its sound-isolating abilities are about average–our reference
Etymotic ER 4 Micro Pro in-ear headphones ($299) more effectively blocked out the din. Ah, but when we played
Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible the AH-C700’s bass clobbered the ER 4’s. The mighty 500-pipe organ in the Saint Jean Baptiste church in
Montreal that opens “Intervention” positively thundered over the Denon and the bass drum’s thuds were more convincingly percussive and drumlike. The Etymotic’s sound offered somewhat greater clarity, but we missed the Denon’s soul-satisfying warmth. In the end, we’d call it a draw.

 

Alternatives to Apple TV

March 24, 2007

Thanks to Apple TV, all the music, TV shows, and movies purchased at Apple’s iTunes Store will no longer be trapped on your computer. Instead of watching on your comparatively cramped desktop or laptop monitor, you’ll be able to enjoy iTunes-purchased movies and TV shows on a big-screen TV. While Apple TV will almost certainly remain alone in being compatible with iTunes content–the company has thus far refused to license the FairPlay DRM to any third parties–it’s not the only “content box” that you can attach to your TV.

MovieBeam MB2160

It’s a promising idea: a rotating selection of 100 movies–including some in high-def–are automatically queued up on the MovieBeam’s hard drive (the content is downloaded via a proprietary over-the-air service–if it’s not available in your area, the company won’t sell you the box). You can view any of the movies on a pay-per-watch basis (a onetime fee of $2 to $5 gives you a 24-hour viewing window), and because they’re already on the hard drive, there’s no waiting for a long download. Unfortunately, the video quality leaves a lot to be desired, and the fact that you’re limited to just 100 choices–determined by the company–makes it a tough sell. Perhaps new owner Movie Gallery can reinvigorate the MovieBeam concept

RCA “Akimbo” Video On Demand Player 

In addition to Akimbo’s video content–which ranges from the familiar (BBC, Discovery, and National Geographic TV shows) to niche-oriented programming (anime, extreme sports, international TV, adult content)–RCA’s Video On Demand Player also provides access to all of the films from Movielink. But its combination of a flat monthly fee plus pay-per-view and subscription charges–depending on what you want to watch–remains confusing, and none of the content is available in HD (unless you sign up for the software-only version).

Netgear EVA8000 Digital Entertainer HD

In addition to offering HD video output and compatibility with a wide range of file formats, the Netgear is said to enable playback of YouTube videos on your TV. Netgear is also touting the Digital Entertainer HD’s ability to play back video files purchased from the new BitTorrent Entertainment Network. We’re getting one next week, and we’ll be able to do a head-to-head streamdown with the Apple TV.

Digital Media Adapters 

Already have a hard drive full of music, movies, and photos, and just want to watch them in another room? A digital media adapter will let you stream them from your PC to your TV. Originally limited to digital music files, the latest digital media adapters (known by a variety of names, including “network media devices” or “digital media receivers”) handle audio, photos, and video–but getting one that’s compatible

“Exclusive”… Introducing…Apple TV

March 24, 2007

Back in September, in an unusual move for Apple, the company tipped its hand by demonstrating many of the features, as well as the availability and pricing, of what was then known as “iTV.” But the show left us with as many questions as answers, and we wondered whether the little box would live up to the expectations of Apple fans and pundits who have long been clamoring for a “home iPod.” With the official unveiling at Macworld today, we now have some of these answers–though we won’t know for sure how the device, now dubbed Apple TV, stacks up to current network media devices until we’ve had a chance to test it.

Apple TV is a network media box that streams movies, music, TV shows, podcasts, and photos from the iTunes library on your PC or Mac to your HDTV. The box, which looks like a squashed Mac Mini and measures 7.7 by 7.7 by 1.1 inches (including an integrated power supply), connects to your TV via either HDMI or component video and audio, and wirelessly syncs content from your iTunes library so that you can enjoy it in the living room using the included remote. As promised, Apple TV will be available in February for $299; you can order it online now. 

The first bit of good news is that Apple TV uses 802.11n; it can connect either to an 802.11 AirPort Extreme Base Station–also announced at Macworld–or directly to a newer Mac with integrated AirPort Extreme. If you do not have 802.11n, you can also connect it via wired Ethernet. The faster 802.11n protocol means Apple TV should deliver smoother video streaming, even at HD resolutions, and make the product more futureproof. (Whether you can stream from existing 802.11g devices–or do so at acceptable speeds–is unclear.)

Once Apple TV is up and running on your network, iTunes automatically recognizes it, and you can set it to automatically sync unwatched or new purchases or manually choose the content you want to stream to Apple TV. The device can sync with as many as six computers. We were surprised to see that Apple TV has its own storage, specifically a 40GB hard drive that Apple claims is sufficient to store up to 50 hours of movies and TV (in H.264 1.5Mbps video at a resolution of 640×480 with 128Kbps audio). Alternatively, the drive is sufficient to store 9,000 songs in iTunes standard 128Kbps AAC format or 25,000 photos. The advantage of local storage is that, since it doesn’t actually stream in real time, it is likely to work even if your computer is not turned on. Theoretically, it is also possible to bypass your computer altogether and download content straight from iTunes to your Apple TV, but so far, it sounds as if this functionality may be limited to movie trailers and similar short-form content from Apple.com rather than the iTunes Store itself. Further, it sounds to us as if you first need to stream an entire movie or show to the Apple TV’s hard drive before you can begin watching it. (We’ll need to get our hands on the product to verify all of this.)  

Another big question mark was the file formats that Apple TV would support, and here we have some clear answers. It goes without saying that Apple TV will work with any standard iTunes format. Audio formats include AAC, protected AAC (from iTunes Store), MP3 and variable bit rate MP3, Apple Lossless, AIFF, and WAV. But the bigger news is it supports wide-screen, high-definition video, more specifically 1,280×720 at 24 frames per second, aka 720p. That means you will be able to view movies and TV shows at better-than-DVD quality–as long as you can get them from the iTunes Store. Other video formats include H.264 and protected H.264 (from iTunes Store), 640×480 at 30 frames per second; 320×240 at 30 frames per second; and MPEG-4, 640×480 at 30 frames per second. Finally, Apple TV supports all standard photo formats, including JPEG, BMP, GIF, TIFF, and PNG; you can view photos in slide shows on your TV.

Right now, the movie selections on iTunes Store are limited to Disney and its affiliated studio brands, such as Touchstone and Miramax. But at Macworld,
Apple CEO Steve Jobs also announced a deal with
Paramount that makes an additional 250 movies available for iTunes, the iPod, and now Apple TV. That’s a great step, but with the exception of a few “season passes,” Apple still charges a flat fee for movies ($9.99 to $12.99) and TV shows ($1.99 per episode). The introduction of Apple TV makes it more apparent than ever that Apple should rapidly expand the video offering of iTunes Store, make more of it available in wide-screen HD formats, and especially provide the option for a monthly subscription fee like many of its competitors do.
 There are other network media receivers that offer more features, but the clear ace up Apple’s sleeve is that Apple TV works seamlessly with iTunes and, most notably, with the iTunes Store–something nearly no other streaming media receiver can claim. And given Apple’s market share with the iPod and iTunes Store, the advantages of Apple TV will outweigh what appear to be shortcomings–at least on paper.

 

The “Newest” in IPodware

March 24, 2007

iDump

If you’re looking for freeware to copy songs from your iPod to a PC, iDump is the way to go. Small enough to keep on your disk mode enabled iPod, but powerful enough to show you every song’s iPod path–cracking Apple’s unusual file-saving protocol–this 5-star software is a must-have freebie for any iPod user.

iGadget

 

Some apps sync your Outlook info to your iPod; others back up songs, playlists and podcasts to your PC. iGadget supports all of those and throws in local movie listings, weather forecasts, driving directions, RSS news feeds, and even personalized horoscopes. iGadget syncs and manages the info, then installs it into folders in your iPod’s Notes section.

Plato Video to IPod Converter

With every new iPod model, it seems there’s a new niche to be filled. The Plato Video Converter fills one created by the iPod video, taking on all video formats and making them viewable on the iPod. It’s slightly buggy, graphically, but that doesn’t affect the output.

iPod Copy

iPodCopy offers full integration with the 5G iPod, so you can copy not only your music but also your videos from your iPod to your hard drive. Easy-to-find buttons also allow you to back up your contacts, notes, and calendar. Although plagued by occasional sluggishness, iPodCopy is worth the wait. 

J.River Media Center

Forget about small apps to improve iTunes; if you’re a PC user, you’ve probably wondered how to ditch the program entirely. J. River Media Center provides full iPod support for playlists, video and image files. It also can record sound, and even includes a TV tuner. It’s worth the $40 since it’s the only media player you’ll need. 

MediaMonkey

Geared towards managing extensive collections, but suitable for all music aficionados, MediaMonkey is a great iTunes alternative if you don’t mind the lack of video support. Two automated functions keep untagged tracks from falling through the cracks, and plug-ins are available if you want to tinker with the engine or add additional sound processing effects.

HD-DVD vs. Blu-ray

March 24, 2007

DVD is, by some measurements, the greatest success in consumer electronics history. Following its 1997 debut, it took the format just a few years to completely conquer the home-video market previously ruled by VHS tapes. Before it even reaches its 10th birthday, however, the electronics industry and the
Hollywood studios are already putting DVD out to pasture. Two rival next-generation formats–Blu-ray and HD-DVD–are already vying to become the successor to DVD’s throne. Both display movies in full high-definition resolution, addressing one shortfall of the current DVD format, which is only standard-def. But to get that improved visual fidelity, you have to decide to buy either a Blu-ray player
or an HD-DVD player–and be willing to live with a list of caveats a mile long. To explain why we’re so cautious, we’ll take a look at both formats, examine how they compare to one another, and highlight the advantages–and disadvantages–they offer compared to the current generation of DVD.

Blu-ray, HD-DVD, and DVD formats compared  

Blu-ray and HD-DVD are rival incompatible formats, a situation that recalls the Beta vs. VHS battle that stifled the early growth of the VCR and home-video market in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Despite an attempt to unify the two standards in 2005, the corporate godfathers of the two formats–Sony for Blu-ray and Toshiba for HD-DVD–failed to come to an agreement.

What that means to you is that no Blu-ray player will be able to play HD-DVD discs, and no HD-DVD player can play Blu-ray discs. If a movie comes out in one format, there’s no guarantee that it will be available in the other. Certain studios could release movies in both formats, but you’ll still have to be careful not to buy the wrong version of the movie. Adding to the frustration is the fact that the capabilities and features of the two formats are far more similar than they are different–as shown by the chart below.

Feature

DVD HD-DVD Blu-ray
Maximum native resolutions supported via HDMI EDTV (480p) HDTV (720p, 1080i, 1080p) HDTV (720p, 1080i, 1080p)
Maximum image-constrained native resolutions supported via component video1 EDTV (480p) EDTV+ (960×540) EDTV+ (960×540)
Disc capacity 4.7GB (single layer)
8.5GB (dual layer)
15GB (single layer)
30GB (dual layer)
45GB (prototype triple layer)
25GB (single layer)
50GB (dual layer)
100GB (prototype quad layer)
Video capacity (per dual-layer disc)2 SD: approximately 3 hours
HD: n/a
SD: approximately 24 hours
HD: approximately 8 hours
SD: approximately 23 hours
HD: approximately 9 hours
Audio soundtracks3 Dolby Digital EX, DTS-ES Dolby TrueHD, DTS-HD, Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby Digital, DTS-ES Dolby TrueHD, DTS-HD, Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby Digital, DTS-ES
Manufacturer support (home theater)4 All Toshiba, LG, Thomson/RCA
Hitachi, Mitsubishi, LG, Sharp, Sony, Panasonic, Samsung, Philips, Thomson/RCA
Manufacturer support (PC storage)4 All Microsoft, Intel, HP, NEC, Toshiba Apple, Dell, Benq, HP, LG, Panasonic, Philips, Pioneer, Samsung, Sony, TDK
Studio support4 All Paramount,Studio
Canal, Universal, Warner, the Weinstein Company
Sony Pictures (including MGM/Columbia TriStar), Disney (including Touchstone, Miramax), Fox,
Paramount, Warner, Lions Gate
Compatible video game consoles PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, Xbox, Xbox 360, Nintendo Revolution Xbox 360 (via forthcoming external HD-DVD accessory, sold separately) PlayStation 3
Player prices $99 and less $499 and more $599 (PlayStation 3 with HDMI port); $999 and more (stand-alone players)
Movie prices $6 and more (retail) $20 to $28 (retail) $20 to $28 (retail)
Number of titles available by the end of 2006 50,000-plus Dozens to hundreds Dozens to hundreds
Players are backward compatible with existing DVD videos Yes Yes Yes
Set-top recorders available now Yes No No
Can record high-def at full resolution (eventually)5 No Yes Yes
“Managed copy” option6 No Yes Yes
Copy protection/digital rights management7 Macrovision, CSS AACS, ICT AACS, ICT, BD+, BD-ROM Mark
Region-coded discs and players8 Yes No (currently; could change in future) Yes

 Sources include: thedigitalbits.com, dvdfile.com, blu-ray.com, Toshiba HD-DVD, Blu-ray Disc Association, CNET News.com, Business Week, HDbeat.com, About.com, and Wikipedia Notes

  1. Each movie studio may choose to implement the image-constraint token (ICT) on a disc-by-disc basis, which constrains or downconverts the movie’s resolution to 960×540 via the component outputs (HDMI output remains at full resolution). However, most major studios–Sony (Columbia/Tri-Star/MGM), Fox, Disney,
    Paramount, and Universal–have publicly stated that they will not make use of ICT, at least initially. There are even rumors of a backroom deal among studios to withhold use of ICT on HD disc releases through 2010. If true, movies from those studios will display at full resolution via the component outputs.
  2. Video capacity will vary depending upon the type of encoding used. Discs encoded with MPEG-4 or VC-1 offer more compression and, therefore, more video per gigabyte (standard-definition or high-definition) than those encoded with the older, less efficient MPEG-2 codec.
  3. All HD-DVD and Blu-ray players should incorporate built-in audio decoding and analog audio outputs. Those features should enable the newer Dolby TrueHD, Dolby Digital Plus, and DTS-HD surround formats to be heard by using existing A/V receivers and audio equipment–but the resulting soundtrack may be a downmixed Dolby Digital or DTS-ES version that lacks the theoretically better audio fidelity that’s encoded on the disc.
  4. Manufacturer and studio support is subject to change. With the exception of Sony’s devotion to Blu-ray and Toshiba’s to HD-DVD, other manufacturers and studios can (and already have) switch sides, or they can support both formats. Also, the depth of support for companies aside from Sony and Toshiba has yet to be determined; for many of them, “supporting” one or both of the formats has been limited to issuing press releases or scheduling future product and/or movie releases that remain theoretical until they are available for purchase by the public. Meanwhile, Microsoft’s support for HD-DVD does not preclude Blu-ray compatibility for Windows; Blu-ray discs will be usable with Windows XP and Windows
    Vista PCs through the use of third-party software and hardware.
  5. Early-generation set-top (non-PC) HD-DVD and Blu-ray players are players only, with no recording capabilities. Future set-top recorders are expected to become available in both formats in 2007 or later, but look for copy-protection and digital rights issues to severely restrict the HD programming you’ll be able to record from TV.
  6. Managed copy refers to the ability to make an HD-DVD or Blu-ray movie viewable via a home network or a portable video device. The details haven’t been worked out yet, leaving managed copy as more of a theoretical option than a usable feature for the foreseeable future.
  7. It is likely that HD-DVD and Blu-ray will feature additional copy-protection methods (including Macrovision or other protections for analog outputs) than the ones listed here.
  8. As of spring 2006, HD-DVD discs and players are not region-coded, but that could be changed at any point in the future–for example, the appearance of region-coded discs and a firmware upgrade for the hardware needed in order to play them. Blu-ray discs are coded to three regions (roughly, the Americas and Japan; Europe and Africa; and China,
    Russia, and everywhere else not included in the previous two regions) that are far more streamlined than the nine-region DVD system. That said, HD-DVD and Blu-ray players should honor the nine-region system when playing standard DVDs–so don’t expect to play out-of-region discs.
     

HD-DVD in-depth

The Hardware:  HD-DVD beat its archrival to the marketplace by a couple of months. The Toshiba HD-A1 ($500) has been available for purchase since mid-April. Three other HD-DVD players are currently or will soon be available as well, but all of them are little more than clones or rebranded versions of the base Toshiba model: the Toshiba HD-XA1 ($800; adds a motorized front flip-down panel and backlit remote), the Toshiba HD-D1 ($500; the Wal-Mart version), and the RCA HDV5000 ($500).

The Movies:  The first wave of HD-DVD movies is currently available. There are three versions of HD-DVDs: single- or dual-layer HD-DVD-only discs; hybrid discs (a single-sided disc with a standard 4.7GB layer that plays on any DVD player as well as a 15GB HD layer); and twin-format discs (with a standard dual-layer 8.5GB DVD on one side and a 30GB dual-layer HD-DVD on the other). The advantage of the pricier hybrid and dual-format discs is that you get backward compatibility of a sort: watch the movie in high-def on your HD-DVD player in the living room, but use the DVD version in your bedroom or portable player. Early HD-DVD titles available for purchase include The Last Samurai, Million Dollar Baby, Phantom of the Opera, Doom, Apollo 13, Serenity, Swordfish, Goodfellas, and The Bourne Supremacy. On deck for June and July are
Constantine, Pitch Black, The Rundown, and The Perfect Storm–to name just a few. Other titles pledged for the format–albeit without specific release dates–include 12 Monkeys, Dune, The Thing, End of Days, Backdraft, Waterworld, The Bone Collector, Spy Game, Conan the Barbarian, Dante’s Peak, The Italian Job, Tomb Raider, U2: Rattle and Hum, We Were Soldiers, and The Manchurian Candidate. Suggested retail prices are $28.99 for catalog titles (movies already available on regular DVD), $34.99 for new titles (films coming to any home-video format for the first time), and $39.99 for hybrid/twin-format discs, which will work on HD-DVD and regular DVD players, as described above; however, online pricing seems to have settled into a more affordable $20-to-$28 range

The Gaming Wild Card:  While the Xbox 360 is capable of 720p and 1080i high-def output–it can display games and downloadable video clips in full HD–it’s limited by its internal DVD drive. That’s kept the price down to a reasonable $399, but it also means that the Xbox 360 won’t play HD-DVD–at least, until Microsoft releases a promised HD-DVD add-on drive, which the company has officially announced is coming later in 2006. That accessory will enable HD-DVD movie playback, though 360 games will continue to be released on DVD-ROM discs to ensure compatibility for all systems. Because it will require an external drive, though, it seems destined to be a kludgy solution, no matter what the cost.

Upside: Players and movies available now before Blu-ray; players are much more affordable than initial Blu-ray units; decent selection of movies slated for release throughout the year; some movies include standard-DVD version on the same disc; “managed copy” requirement means movies are technically able to be transferred to other devices and/or viewed over home networks.

Downside: No HD-DVD movies from Columbia, MGM, Fox, or Disney; Xbox 360 requires as-yet-unreleased accessory to play HD-DVD discs; initial HD-DVD players not capable of 1080p output; studios can program discs to not display full HD resolution on older HDTVs without HDMI inputs (though they have not yet opted to do so); “managed copy” details are vague and may involve additional charges.

Outlook: HD-DVD players are already available–and not obscenely expensive–but only a handful of movies will be available before midyear.

  Blu-ray in-depth 

  The Hardware:  The first of many Blu-ray players arrives just a few weeks after the first HD-DVD players. On or around June 20, Samsung’s BP-D1000 ($1,000) will hit stores, followed soon after by the Pioneer BDP-HD1 ($1,800), the Sony BDP-S1 (July, $1,000), and the Panasonic DMP-BD10 (September, less than $1,500). By the time of the CEDIA (Custom Electronic Design and Installation Association) trade show in September, even more Blu-ray models from various manufacturers should be available or, at least, announced. Unlike initial HD-DVD players, all Blu-ray players are expected to be capable of outputting video at 1080p.

The Movies:  The first wave of Blu-ray movies is scheduled to hit stores the same week as the initial players, though a few titles may dribble out beforehand. Stealth, Saw, Ultraviolet, Lord of War, Crash, Robocop, Terminator 2, 50 First Dates, The Fifth Element, Hitch, House of Flying Daggers, A Knight’s Tale, The Last Waltz, Resident Evil Apocalypse, Underworld Evolution, and XXX are scheduled to be among the titles you’ll be able to pick up before the end of June. Those will be followed later in the summer by Kung Fu Hustle, Legends of the Fall, Species, SWAT, and The Terminator. That list should begin to swell later in the year when additional titles, such as Fantastic Four, Behind Enemy Lines, Kiss of the Dragon, Ice Age, Black Hawk Down, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and Reservoir Dogs are released. The wholesale price for Blu-ray movies will be $17.95 for catalog titles (movies already available on regular DVD) and $23.45 for new titles (films coming to any home-video format for the first time), but online preorder prices are in the $20-to-$28 range–exactly the same as HD-DVD. 

The Gaming Wild Card:  Now that the 2006 Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) has come and gone, we finally have the relevant details on the PlayStation 3. It’ll be available on November 17 in two configurations: a $600 “deluxe” model and a $500 “entry level” version. Gamers are already grumbling that they’re paying a hefty overhead just to subsidize Sony’s Blu-ray ambitions, but for gamers who are also movie fans–or movie fans who don’t even care about the PS3’s gaming capabilities–either version of the PlayStation 3 will be the most affordable Blu-ray player you can buy. No, it won’t have all the home-theater options–analog audio output, for instance–that more expensive Blu-ray players will but for $400 cheaper, who’s complaining? But before you add the PS3 to your Christmas list, keep two important issues in mind. Anyone who’s even remotely interested in Blu-ray movies will want to stick with the $600 version; the cheaper PS3 omits built-in Wi-Fi, the flash memory reader, and (most critically) the HDMI output. And while Sony is pledging to ship 4 million units before the end of the year, it’s still likely to be sold out–even at those prices.

Upside: EveryHollywood studio except Universal has pledged to release movies in the Blu-ray format; PlayStation 3 will play Blu-ray movies; Blu-ray movies and players are optimized for 1080p output; Blu-ray discs can hold more data or video than HD-DVD counterparts; most studios have pledged to not constrain resolution via component outputs.

 Downside: Initial Blu-ray players will be much more expensive than their HD-DVD counterparts; Blu-ray-compatible PlayStation 3 not available until November; studios can program discs to not display full HD resolution on older HDTVs without HDMI inputs (though they have not yet opted to do so).

Outlook: Blu-ray’s broader coalition of corporate support may be negated–at least in the short term–by higher hardware prices and the PlayStation 3’s November arrival. But its broader support from hardware manufacturers and movie studios can’t be underestimated.