Category Archives: Technology

In-Car DAB gets a new home

Bit of a break in posts, but my attempts at a coherent post on ILR haven’t worked so far… probably thanks to needing a few more decent sources to help make the points I want.

So I’m going back to one of my favourite topics and a quick break from my State of the Nation series…

One of the main issues regarding the planned DAB migration is the problem of in-car DAB. I previously blogged in January about upgrading the tape deck in my car to a DAB radio. And I’ve been very happy with it.

At least until my car broke.

After a failed journey to London (it made it to Maidenhead), the gearbox breaking 5th gear and a hydraulic leak, the car is, for want of a better phrase, beyond economic repair.

I’ve since replaced it and have had my new car for a month (bye-bye Australian travel fund savings) and it is, in pretty much every way, a better car.

This post is solely about my experiences with moving my awesome DAB car radio to my new car. Since the number of people that have fitted proper DAB radios to their car is pretty small, I’d guess that I’m probably one of the first to have moved one to another vehicle. So it makes sense to be the first to blog about it, to share my experiences of it and why it’s going to make DAB migration a little bit more difficult…

As I’ve already said, my new Mazda 3 is, in pretty much every way, a better car than my old Mazda 323. Though I’m mourning the loss of the much loved sun-roof. There’s also the small problem that DAB radios weren’t fitted as standard on 2005 model Mazda 3’s.

In case that wasn’t enough of a problem, I was faced with this:
Mazda 3 factory installed radio

Helpfully, it doesn’t have a standard DIN slot (officially, ISO 7736) to do a simple straight swap – a standard that’s existed since the early 1980s.

£180 later, and it looks like this:

To break down the costs:

  1. £40 to remove the radio from my old car.
  2. £35 to buy the faceplate with the all important ISO7336 slot (and a handy 2nd slot for storage).
  3. £15 for the electrical harness adapter – perhaps not a necessity but it certainly saves time installing the radio.
  4. £50 for a replacement DAB aerial (they start at £35 but as I’ve had good results from the identical previous aerial that came with the package I bought I’ve no complaints – other than DAB aerials are apparently only good for a single installation)
  5. £40 for the fitting to the new car

So not cheap. Especially after the £410 I originally paid to have it fitted to my old car.

(as a reminder, the original cost was £350 for the radio/DAB tuner and aerial package, £15 for the harness and £45 installation).

Obviously, that price is way beyond what most people would consider reasonable. For me, I can fully justify it as the radio in question is a highly functional Swiss Army Knife of Car Radio’s (LW/MW/FM/DAB with mp3/wma CD playback, Bluetooth and a spare USB port. Not to mention iPod compatibility (even if I’ve no intention of using it).

And – unlike in my old car – the hands-free part actually works for phone calls. Clearly the garage I used to install it are prone to mistakes (especially as this time round they’ve not connected the light cables for the heater controls or for the day/night colour modes for the radio).

More importantly though, I’ve found that even in South Wales it can be extremely difficult (particularly in eastern Newport where all the Cardiff & Bristol FM services collide) to find a clear FM frequency for FM transmission. My old phone had a built in FM transmitter which did a decent job but would always suffer from some kind of static. As for London…

So I thought it best to buy a full on head unit with a separate DAB tuner. This is what it looks like in bits:

The DAB tuner shouldn’t be too difficult to spot and isn’t much smaller to the full head unit. As with the average PC the microphone is connected to the pink socket, with the old harness still plugged in behind the main unit. The extra cable is the rear USB socket which has the Bluetooth adapter connected (the old aerial is on top of the head unit).

My concern with buying something like the much cheaper Pure Highway is that it doesn’t directly play the DAB signal – it pumps it out on an FM frequency. Since my attempts to play music over FM rarely work without some interference, it was worth the extra to have one combined unit that bypassed FM whilst also offering plenty of extra features.

What’s it like? I’ve already blogged that answer. But I’ve actually found my thoughts on DAB have shifted somewhat… and it’s all in the speakers.

My old car did a pretty good job of bass heavy music – but beyond a volume of 20 I had to drop the bass EQ settings to prevent speaker distortion – and even then going much louder would bring it back. I’m all but certain the new speakers are much better, especially as I can play dubstep tracks at 35+, on the hip-hop EQ setting, without any distortion (so far the only track that causes problems is the Caspa remix of I Remember by Deadmau5, and then only at 40+. Which is insanely loud – to the point that you can feel the bass resonating even at 50mph).

How does that affect DAB. Not in a good way… it sounds better than it did in my old car, of that there’s no contest as it’s generally brighter than before – but I am finding a slight dullness on both BBC R1 and Kiss 101 in the midrange compared to the FM frequencies – which is a big surprise as they both sounded better on DAB in my old car. Clearly, the quality of speakers makes a big difference – that and the electrical connections are all that have changed.

It could be worse though. Kerrang! on DAB in Birmingham is definitely far worse than on 105.2FM with some pretty nasty compressive sounds. But that’s down to the poor bitrate (64kbps mono rather than 128kbps joint stereo) which, in all honesty, didn’t sound much better than MW (complete loss of cymbals on the high-range being the most obvious on Suede’s Animal Nitrate).

To be clear though, in case anyone misunderstands me – the dullness I’ve heard is extremely subtle – you need to be specifically listening out for it to hear it. Worst case scenario, I’m finding in-car DAB  to now be equal or slightly worse than FM, compared to equal to or slightly better than before. The difference is clearly down to the improved quality of the speakers used in the car.

I’ll add that I’m not drawing too heavily on numbers, stats or general perception (except for Kerrang, but then it was obviously worse than the other stations on the same mux – MXR West Midlands if you wanted to know). I’ve based the above purely on my experiences with the unit and what I’ve heard – nothing more or less. Especially as it’s a significant U-turn on my previous thoughts on the sound quality of DAB (i.e. it sounds better than FM so I can’t understand why anyone would complain about it unless they’ve got an agenda of some kind. I can now genuinely understand the view-point. Even if I don’t agree with it – see this excellent post by James Cridland – I share the opinions he’s expressed).

Note that the above is about audio quality, not signal strength or breakup/bubbling of the sound due to poor signal. The new aerial is mounted vertically down the side of the windscreen (the old aerial was horizontally along the top on my old car ). Apart from the aerial being visibly more noticeable, the actual strength of the DAB signal hasn’t changed and is still faultless on BBC/D1 with some dropouts on the local CE Birmingham mux in the usual places in Birmingham (my old uni stomping ground of Bristol Road in Selly Oak being one example where it struggles for signal).

I’ve also found one minor advantage of DAB aerials – they can’t be damaged by a car wash…

I’ve got plenty more to say on DAB – I’ll leave the more general opinions for a dedicated post as part of my State of the Nation series (it’s definitely coming!). But the specifics of this post:

  1. My Mazda 3 dispenses with the ISO7736 standard and does something completely different for it’s in car radio – something that seems to be pretty common on most cars from the last 5 years or so. My old Mazda 323 (and the older 323 I had before it) both had them as standard (even my first ever car, an F reg Fiat Uno had one). Whilst £35 isn’t that much, it’s still an extra expense that should really not be necessary. Some Government intervention would be welcomed from me!
  2. DAB aerials are apparently single use – the one I bought with the package I bought in January is now in the bin. Whether it’s an issue specific to the type I’m using or a general problem of all DAB car aerials is another matter… hopefully I’ll find an answer
  3. It doesn’t matter how DAB aerials are orientated – vertically down the side, or horizontally along the top of the windscreen – the signal strength seems to be the same om both old and new cars
  4. DAB aerials have one big advantage over their FM counterparts – they can’t be damaged by a car wash.

Until I get my head around some ILR numbers…

In-car DAB radio… awesomeness defined, but can it be a bit cheaper please?

As someone who has an unhealthy interest in radio I’ve spent many years being told by the radio industry that I should buy a DAB digital radio (first by Matt Deegan at the 2007 Student Radio Conference in York). Over the last twelve months I’ve invested heavily in devices that support the platform and following a Pure Evoke Flow given to me in Christmas 2008, I’ve arguably gone further than most in the radio industry by buying an in-Car DAB head unit.

Specifically, I bought the JVC KD-R801 – a Swiss army knife of in-car radio head units. Along with DAB, it offers FM/MW/LW, Bluetooth (including A2DP music streaming and handsfree calling), an auxiliary input and even a USB socket. It also happens to play CDs, arguably the least useful addition for me (though as a bonus it manages mp3/wma CDs)… it even comes with a remote in the box!

Buying the head unit on its own isn’t a problem – the cheapest price I’ve found is £140… but there’s a significant catch.

The standard unit doesn’t immediately support DAB – there’s the small matter of the necessary DAB tuner not being supplied in the box. It’s a separate tuner which will cost an additional £120. And you’ll need a DAB aerial – add another £35… and finally you’ll probably need a harness to convert the electrical connections provided in your car to the necessary jack that’ll fit the unit (£10-£20)… along with fitting costs if you want it installed.

I took what was undoubtedly the most expensive option, though I did buy over the counter rather than online price included the head unit, DAB tuner and aerial. I also needed a harness and took the lazy option and paid for installation, which took an hour for the guys trained to do the job – goodness knows how long I’d have needed to fit it (and I know I wouldn’t have done it as neatly).

Here’s the big catch… it’s cost me £410.

Was it worth it? Absolutely. It’s nothing short of stunning.

I had it fitted in Birmingham on Saturday and spent Sunday travelling back to South Wales via London – nearly 300 miles and 4 hours. And my experiences so far are so good that it’s put many of my doubts about DAB radio permanently to rest.

Firstly, I’ve found that the DAB radio is, in terms of audio quality/fidelity, equal or better than FM on most stations – I listened to Radio 1, BRMB, Kerrang, Capital, Galaxy, BBC Berkshire and Kiss 101, all of which sounded as good as or better on DAB than on FM. Only dabbl seemed to be lacking in treble and bass – though that could be down to it playing live music rather than a poor bitrate (and it’s not available on FM).

There’s some cracking features – I love that it can recognise that a station may be broadcasting on both FM and DAB, and switch on the fly to the stronger signal (as it did with Kiss 101).

I shoud add that this test is based on one head-unit, in a 2001 model Mazda 323 using the standard factory-fitted speakers using my ears… but I really could not hear DAB being any worse than FM quality and in most cases was significantly better (I had previously thought that DAB was slightly inferior, but have since realised that FM on my Panasonic Hi-Fi is better than FM on my Evoke Flow… and DAB/FM on the Evoke Flow sound the same).

I only have two concerns…

1) Simplicity… not in terms of use (it took about 10 minutes to find everything) but more specically the limitations, at least with my car radio, particularly compared to my Evoke Flow.

The Evoke Flow can be tuned in a similar manner to a Digital TV Freeview Box… tell it to automatically add all available stations and it adds all of them to the channel list, regardless of frequency/multiplex they are broadcast from – any available DAB station can be chosen simply by spinning the dial. My new car radio is far more limited in that it can only actively tune into one specific multiplex.

I’ll quickly outline multiplexes in this paragraph to be certain I’m making the point correctly (feel free to skip this paragraph if you wish). I’ll use the example of  MXR Severn Estuary, which uses frequency block 12C (12 have been allocated by OFCOM – 10, 11 & 12, each having 4 blocks A-D). On FM, Kiss 101 is broadcast on 101MHz. With DAB, Kiss 101 is broadcast on block 12C at a frequency of 227.360 MHz – along with Real Radio South Wales, Choice, Heart, The Arrow, Jazz FM, LBC, UBC UK and UBC Inspirational.

Here’s the issue – my new in-car radio tunes by DAB multiplex… so for example, I can use the up/down buttons on teh head-unit to switch to any of the stations listed in the previous paragraph. But I don’t get the full list of available stations, as would be listed in the station list on my Evoke Flow – I have to switch to a different DAB channel to access other stations (using Kiss/Radio 1 as an example, with FM I simply go to 99.5 from 101 – with DAB, I have to retune from block 12C to 12B, then find Radio 1 from the available stations).

It sounds like a very pathetic point – and one most people reading this blog will, I’m sure, be very dismissive of. But trust me, it could cause big problems for the average consumer of DAB radio.

Since July last year I’ve been working full time as a service engineer – basically if your TV breaks, I’m tasked with driving out and either fixing if possible or collecting it for the fully qualified engineers to take it apart and repair it. Most of what I’ve seen in the last six months are items that are usually not repairable in the home (e.g. LCD screen failure, DVD lasers breaking etc.) but I have seen some problems that are simple misunderstandings (like assuming a letter/number combination on a homecinema system with hard disk is an error code, rather than the recording quality and available time remaining), finding a DVD player that doesn’t receive analogue TV… because the aerial cable hasn’t been connected, or having a poor picture on a brand new TV… without considering that the 5 year old cable box might be the problem. They’re very simple things to spot but can easily be overlooked – and it’s not necessarily older people who are doing that….

…which is my concern for in-car DAB radio. I can see someone trying to get Radio 1, only to be offered 9 stations on a single multiplex and thinking that their radio is broken, or that the DAB platform is inherently a failure because of it.

2) My other concern is one that most people will have… Cost. Clearly a £129 premium on having DAB is not going to be a mass-market option… indeed, I’d have happily fitted the JVC radio I bought myself if it wasn’t for having to install a separate aerial for DAB. It certainly works well but prices simply have to fall, and very quickly (within the next twelve months) if the scheduled 2015 target date for the digital upgrade is to be realistically met.

Saying that, some perspective is required. The model I bought is very high-end (not quite the highest of the high end that JVC make, but I’m only losing out on playing CDs with AAC files… hardly a major loss for someone who converts all iTunes purchases to mp3 files). I’ll highlight two significantly cheaper options that, while lacking features or not being fully integrated, do at least make it easier to access DAB on the road.

The first is the Pure Highway – which can be purchased for £60. It’s easy enough to set up though this video suggests it’s not fantastic at receiving every station (the BBC article on the rest of the page about DAB vs pirate radio is a fascinating read in its own right).

The other option is to, as I’ve done, replace your car-radio head-unit. I’ll happily link to this entry-level JVC model, which, if it’s anything like mine, should be phenomenal. It also betters mine by having the DAB tuner is built in (and a DAB aerial is included in the price). It’s £170, though add £45 if you want it fitted (it’s from the company who installed my own and I can’t recommend them enough).

To be honest, I’m surprised by just how good in-car DAB radio has been so far – whilst not perfect and arguably in need of refinement it’s very good and more than usable (a price drop wouldn’t hurt though). And based on the audio fidelity I’ve heard I can’t reasonably argue that the UK should hold out for DAB+ – it may be better but I’m very much in agreement with Tony Moretta (and his views on 3g/wimax).

It’s certainly a worthwhile purchase for me. Having  just clocked 15,000 miles in my car since I bought it a year ago nearly to the day… I can comfortably say that the next year will, at least in terms of in-car entertainment, going to be far more fun.

I can't get no (Facebook) satisfaction

I normally ignore all sponsored polls in the Facebook newsfeed and never see any adverts thanks to my browser add blocker, but this one was too interesting to ignore.  The question:

“How satisfied are you with the new Facebook redesign?”

The results:

 Fits in with the number of people who have signed up to Facebook groups demanding the return of the old version.

While I don’t particularly dislike the redesign, there are a few options I’d like to see changed:

  1. Status updates: they are automatically posted at a significantly larger font size.  You can alter the size of the font but you can’t change the default setting, unlike every other item that appears in the newsfeed,
  2. Wall: it’s no longer possible to only view messages from people via the wall, something that really needs to return
  3. Inability to minimise “applications” (they should be called widgets): I couldn’t care less about the majority of widgets people add to their profiles and the old design allowed me to minimise the majority so I could only see what I wanted to: that is no longer possible
  4. Tabs: it’s more time consuming to get access to the info I want as loading profile pages defaults to te “wall” tab…. why can’t everyone have the option to choose a different default page to load?  The info tab is far more useful.

I’ve already raised these points with Facebook though chances are they’ll be ignored: a generic reply doesn’t really give me much confidence, though I wouldn’t be surprised if there aren’t enough people to reply.  And it hasn’t cost me anything to use Facebook.

It’s certainly quieter than I’d expect it to be: possibly as most of my friends have now graduated and have better uses of their time.  However I don’t see myself abandoning Facebook soon: it’s too useful to communicate to the wider student radio community to ignore.

UPDATE: in the hour since I saw the poll results, it’s changed to 30%, 23%, 23%, 11%, 10% (from extremely dissatisfied to very satisfied).  Clearly relatively few people have taken the poll so I’ll update again once the numbers have settled down.

"Blocking" Facebook Chat

Have to give kudos to WordPress for this one.

I’ve been getting far more page views than usual on this blog and it all seems to be about my last post, where I discussed Facebook Chat.  WordPress allows me to see what people are searching for and about 40% of people who have visited my blog today searched for “blocking Facebook Chat” or a variation of those words.

So…

Facebook Chat

Since I don’t (yet) have the ability to upload images, I’ve taken this one from CNet News. The image above shows Facebook Chat, as it appears in the bottom right corner of the browser window, just above the browser status bar (if you have it switched on). All you need to do is click on the “Go Offline” button to close down Chat.

This doesn’t remove it completely and will replace the chat bar with a small icon in the bottom right.  So it won’t block it completely, but it will prevent people from contacting you using Facebook Chat and is effective.

As for blocking individual people, I haven’t found a way of doing that yet… which may give you a reason to stick with Windows Live Messenger!

Facebook Chat…. the end for Windows Live Messenger?

Perhaps a bit early to make such a big claim but it could be all change in the instant messaging market.

I know plenty of people who use instant messaging: Windows Live Messenger (formerly MSN Messenger) being the app of choice.  But I do know one person who has never been convinced: me.

I used MSN Messenger a fair bit when I started university but I only used it to speak to 7 people tops.  I’ve since switched to making phone calls.

But there have been two recent announcements that could change that.

  1. Microsoft announcing the launch of Invite2Messenger, a simple website that allows people to add Facebook contacts (more contact lists will be added in the future) and invite them to use Windows Live Messenger.  Based on 2006 figures (the most recent I could find), Windows Live/MSN Messenger (WLM) has a 61% market share.  I would expect this to increase slightly but more importantly it will connect people who aren’t aware that their Facebook friends are available on IM, sending more web traffic to Microsoft.
  2. Just 11 days after I read about Microsoft’s announcement, Facebook countered with Facebook Chat.  This will integrate an IM client into the web browser and allow people to start conversations without launching a separate app: a big speed advantage.  But although officially announced on the Facebook Blog, it’s not yet available.

It’s difficult to decide who has the upper hand.

The Facebook app has clear advantages: it’s one less application that people need, assuming of course that they don’t already use WLM, AIM, Yahoo Messenger or another IM app: and Yahoo Messenger and WLM users can already add friends who use the other app.  Google Talk requires a Google account, something people probably won’t have unless they use Gmail: and how many people want to send instant messages when they are trying to send emails?  I remain unconvinced.

But Microsoft already has more than half of the IM market and will certainly gain new users: perhaps not many but enough to make a difference and while I doubt many people will switch from one IM client to another, if people are invited to use WLM it’s unlikely they will shop around to look at the alternatives.  And, in the short term at least, WLM is available to use in minutes, whereas Facebook Chat is still to launch.

So what’s the likely outcome?  It’s difficult to predict: Facebook isn’t used by everyone, far from it.  I’d expect it to make a difference but I think most people will stick with what they know.

As for me: well I have just 11 contacts on WLM and all of them have Facebook accounts.  I also dislike the huge amount of advertising on WLM, which I can’t completely block and isn’t even for things I’d spend money on: I can easily block all adverts when web browsing.  

I think the choice, for me at least, is pretty obvious…

Developing Student Radio: it's my new job!

Once again, another long break from the blogosphere but it’s been a busy couple of months.

On top of having my dissertation to complete (now safely submitted), I’ve also been looking to the future: especially as the end of uni is looming.

I decided on standing for a position on the Student Radio Association Executive team at last year’s conference but had to decide which position…. well that was rather obvious for me.

So I went to Bath, having no choice but to miss all of the conference talks on both days thanks to an early Easter and uni being different and having the final week of term when most unis decided to have Easter.  Nevertheless, I was duly elected as the Development Officer.

To say I’m pleased is a masterpiece of understatement.  My role will be to support new stations to start and existing stations to maintain their quality of output.  At a basic level I have to keep an eye on the licenses for radio broadcasting: specifically OFCOM, PPL and the MCPS-PRS alliance, making sure I understand the latest versions of the licenses and which licenses student stations need to have.  Helping new stations start is also one of my main jobs.

It’s a voluntary position and is unpaid, so I will need to find paid work of some kind, hopefully in the radio industry if I get my way.

However the position has far more to it than the above.  The as yet unpublished Student Radio Survival Guide is nearly complete and I’ll be having a look at it before it’s sent out to student stations. 

I’ve also got a few ideas to play with, one of which I suggested over a year ago but discussion has really taken off in recent weeks… I’ll talk about it in more detail if the exec decides to trial the service.

I believe that student radio has more going for it than it has ever had: try finding a commercial station that has made better use of Web 2.0 than any in the student community.  Facebook is a good place to start, but even older Web 2.0 websites like Flickr have been more widely used than the commercial industry.

So if you do anything tomorrow, I suggest you try finding your local student station and give them a listen: chances are you might find something rather special.

Bye Bye desktop (and good riddance)

I was hoping it would last a bit longer (6 months, to be exact) but the main hard disk in my desktop computer has died.

While I’ve still got all the important stuff (music, photos etc) the computer is as good as dead, thanks to Windows being on the dead disk.  I’ve got my laptop so it’s not as bad it it could have been (like it was 12 months ago!) but a 2nd computer has been really helpful.

Am I disappointed? Yes, but for the last year it has been so unreliable (this being the fourth major failure with the computer), I’m not really surprised.

So I’ll take the opportunity to plug my other blog; I’ve been planning on replacing my desktop anyway this summer, so I’m now considering on getting a replacement sorted out sooner.  But I’m not planning on buying one: I’m planning on BUILDING one.

I’ve had a project blog on the Custom PC website running for about 5 months, where I’ve gone into the bits I’m thinking of getting…. check it out here.

The Sony Walkman RH1: a fantastic piece of kit, but 6 years too late to save the MiniDisc format

Which is unfortunate.

I bought one earlier this week and have been playing with it for the last 24 hours. As you may know from my previous posts, I also have a Creative Zen Vision: M, which has a capacity of 60GB.

So why did I buy a new MiniDisc player? The RH1 is the only model MiniDisc player that allows me to convert my old MiniDiscs into uncompressed wav files (which I can then convert into mp3 using other applications). It also happens to be gorgeous and it isn’t exactly big, being a shade larger than the discs themselves. It’ the 3rd recorder I’ve owned an the previous 2 recorded superbly; this one isn’t any different. The RH1 also supports mp3 and wav playback natively.

The audio quality is also better than anything I’ve tried, supporting gapless playback (most players don’t, though 5th gen iPods do) and even sounds better than my Zen Vision: M, which isn’t exactly bad (it’s certainly superior to my old iPod).

But it’s come far too late to revive the MiniDisc format for the mainstream market:

  1. Price: Unless you’ve got £210 to willingly spend and you don’t need to do any audio recording, then it’s not for you.
  2. Not only do you have to buy the player, you also need the discs as the RH1 doesn’t come with any. The 1GB discs are still expensive at £5 each… considering that the 80GB iPod is £159, there is no contest for most people who are willing to part with that amount of money for a high capacity mp3 player. Standard MiniDiscs are far cheaper because so many companies made players, but only Sony produced products that would use the 1GB Hi-MD discs.
  3. The only limit on the storage capacity is the number of discs you have but you do need somewhere to store them. It’s no different to owning hundreds of CDs/DVDs/VHS tapes/cassettes in that you need somewhere to store them (admittedly you need a far smaller space). Having around 130 discs, it seemed a sensible purchase for me, but for most people it just isn’t worth buying into the format.
  4. The software: the name SonicStage sends most people who know what it is into oblivion. An example in point is editing tracks if you’re playing music through the application; an error message will pop-up, telling you to stop playing the track before you can edit anything!
  5. Like wma and aac (m4p), Sony’s ATRAC is superior to mp3 as an audio file format (especially in it’s ATRAC 3+ incarnation); but only Sony players support it (and even then Sony have announced that they are closing their Connect music store and are registering with Microsoft’s Play For Sure programme for their new players).

If only it was available in 2000; I believe that many people would have switched to MiniDisc if it existed then, especially as CD-RWs were more expensive and much bigger. And you can edit the tracks directly with the player.

The discs are also far more durable than other optical discs (CDs/DVDs and even HD DVD/Blu-Ray), which have no protection when not in a box. The plastic case means that only a small part of the surface is exposed at any one time and then only when inside a player. At least Sony learned from Betamax, as the format was licenced to other manufacturers who made MiniDisc players.

I won’t be surprised if it outlasts my Zen; my original MiniDisc recorder (which I had in 2000) still works and I used it daily for over 4 years. It’s also been designed so that the battery is replaceable and in the unlikely circumstance that you break one of the discs, you can simply buy another (try replacing an iPods Hard Disk).

It has so much more going for it, but the world has changed thanks to the iPod and the mobile phone market; music players are now being designed for style over substance (the iPhone being a good example, is costs far more on all of the contract options than Nokia’s N95 which has far more features).

It is the last piece of kit I need to digitise all of my music to mp3 files and I’ll be using it for some time to come. But it has come far too late to save the MiniDisc as a mainstream format.

Bye-Bye iPod, Hello Zen

Very recently I posted about my iPod failing yet again.  Typically within 24 hours of making that post it started working but within another 2 weeks it was finished.  After taking it to the Apple shop in the Bullring it was revived, but was also told that the problem was terminal and that I should probably get a new one as the warrenty had ran out.  Handing in my old iPod would get me a 10% discount.

But considering that my iPod Photo (40GB) retailed at £359, I’m far from impressed that someone with an iPod mini could get the same discount (admittedly I paid much less for it on eBay).  And I really need the space; less than 40GB isn’t a viable option as I can’t get all of my music on a 30GB player (something yells me that Apple realised this and would hope that someone like myself would opt for the 80Gb version).  But as mp3 player prices are falling quickly, I now own the player I’ve wanted for 18 months: the Creative Zen Vision: M.

Even better, Amazon had it for £155, which for a 60GB mp3 player is a steal.  Even better, it’s the slim version of the 60GB model, so all the accessories designed for the 30GB version will work.  And considering that Amazon want £159 for the 30GB iPod… it was a simple decision.  Having said that why the 30GB Zen isn’t less I don’t know, but it’s listed on Amazon at over £250 which is insane, considering that the model I own with double the capacity is less…

First impressions?  Well it’s better in some areas, worse in others.  I now have 5 additional applications, just a few more than the iPod requires (iTunes and the iPod updater).  I now have separate applications for video conversion, podcasts, Creative Zen Media Explorer and  a removable disk manager.

The sync manager simply compares the contents of various media folders (music, video, pictures) with the folders on my Zen and shows the difference; it will then duplicate the files on my Zen if I wish.  iTunes does exactly this.

Zencast organiser is just a podcast programme; while I can link and RSS podcast feed to it (unlike iTunes, where you can only download podcasts listed on the site), it’s still an extra application

I’ve yet to fully try the application suite provided by Creative but it’s obvious that Apple’s software is better.  The Media Explorer is a nice touch, appearing in My Computer and being a decent interface to manage the files on my Zen manually.  But in the context of software Apple win hands down; it’s far easier to use iTunes and have everything run in the same application… my only problem with it has been memory usage, something Apple really need to sort out; it shouldn’t need 75+MG of memory to play mp3’s, especially when Windows Media Player (WMP) uses less than 20.

Talking of WMP, the Zen does have an advantage in that the supplied software isn’t essential as it syncs directly with WMP; so you don’t need to install the Creative software suite.  But so far as I can tell, it’s not possible to manage pictures using it.

So to the player; and here the iPod is seriously challenged.  The Zen is far more flexible and more colourful; rather than having to stick with the white background and blue highlights, the Zen offers 6 themes, along with the option to choose any picture as a background.  Playlists can be named on-the-fly, tracks can be deleted/moved/renamed; things that the iPod can’t do unless connected to iTunes.  It has a custom EQ setting, something the iPod doesn’t (although it has more presets).  And the basic operation is just as good as the iPod.

It’s not without faults though; the scroll bar isn’t as easy to use as the iPod clickwheel.  There are minor niggles with song selection, whereby you have to be more precise with the menus chosen (unlike the iPod, you can’t, for example, choose the genre menu and list all the tracks within that genre; specific artists and albums have to be chosen).

And the equal?  Both require propriaty cables and have their own “dock connector.”  In Apple’s case, it means decent sales on accessories.  The Zen is slightly better, in that the small supplied sync adaptor takes the DC power cable, AV composite and standard mini-USB cables.  But why couldn’t Creative have these ports built into the player itself?  I wouldn’t have a problem with the player if it was a big bigger and had these ports built-in.

But it does have a built in FM radio, which for me is an essential; buying a wired remote remains te only option for the iPod.

The really big problem I havce wit Apple is the introduction of the video iPod;  because Apple removed the power connector next to the headphone socket; several of the accessories I bought won’t work with a new iPod; no doubt I’ll be selling them on eBay soon enoungh! 

So what if you want an mp3 player?  I do think the Zen is the better player, it certainly can be manipulated more easily than the iPod and is far more customisable (i.e. in the interface rather than in skins, cases etc.).  But it’s not an option for anyone not using Windows and it does take some getting used to.  The iPod is, in my opinion, more intuitive and took me less than 5 mintes to have the entire menu system sussed; I’m still not there with the Zen after 24 hours.  The software is also far easier to understand and it’s ideal for anyone who isn’t confident with gadgets.  But if you like to make your mp3 player more unique, don’t mind hardware that requires a bit of time to understand and are happy with being able to choose any music download service (except iTunes), the Zen is definitely the better option.

The Midnight Cash Quiz & Xu; what were GCap thinking when they thought of these?!

It seems to have been on the radio for a few months but I heard this show for the 1st time on Thursday on Red Dragon FM. It’s one of thirty-eight stations that form GCap Media’s “The One Network” which in their own words broadcasts the “Best mix of the 80’s, 90’s and now.”

I’ll leave my annoyances with these stations for another post as it’s the Midnight Cash Quiz that’s my biggest grip (even more so than “Late Night Love with Graham Torrington). If you haven’t heard it yet, then I can explain the premise of the show very easily: take one presenter; a format similar to the rubbish concept created by ITV for ITV Play, which has been copied by Sky, MTV, EMAP (for The Hits) and Five on TV; offer cash prizes for giving the answer that matches come obscure and nearly impossible to think of answer that matches the ones on the card and you win a certain amount of money.

I’ve always detested any form of TV that exists purely for profit now it has infested the radio industry; I’m assuming that the Midnight Cash Quiz is broadcast on all thirty-eight stations that make “The One Network” at the same time (it certainly is on Red Dragon for South Wales and GWR Bristol; both of which I can get in Newport; both are part of The One Network). Therefore it’s not only cheap radio, as they can save the cost of thirty-seven presenters, but they even make money out of the premium rate number.

There’s the arguement that very few people listen between midnight and 2am. But I know that there can still be a big number of texts to work with on am overnight shift (especially in Birmingham).

Perhaps the obvious arguement for this is that of providing the shareholders with the maximum profit and having this show does this on the two levels described.  Which brings me on to Jack FM and Xu on XFM stations (which are also owned and operated by GCap Media).

But that could be done much more effectively as will probably be proved by Jack FM which is launching it’s 1st station in the UK later this year in Oxfordshire; the simple solution is that of ditching presenters with the expection of the breakfast show, where presenters and competitions are vital for success and market share. At least their decision is based on research that indicates that most people can’t stand some presenters and would rather just have the music. Unfortunately for Jack, GCap quickly reacted to this and are now using it on their XFM brand for their stations in London, Manchester and Scotland with the launch of Xu. It’s cleverly marketed as a glorified request show, making it a very close second to the Midninght Cash Quiz.

Presenterless shows are bad enough; admittedly some presenters are terrible but there is a fantastic solution to this. It’s called the sack.

As for the Midnight Cash Quiz, it’s a blatent money-making scheme that reduces innovation & opportunities for presenters wanting a 1st break.

And Xu; get some decent presenters! It’s far better than having a glorified jukebox!

But wait! You can beat a glorified jukebox! And how can you beat a glorified jukebox that you can only use in London, Manchester and the M8 corridor and coming soon in Oxfordshire? Buy an iPod!