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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Geek time

A while back I was looking on the web for some technical information on Sky+, the TiVo-like UK gadget I use to time shift my television viewing. I was surprised by a couple of things. One was how few really good independent reviews of the system readily came up. Another was the fact that one that did come up was written by… me!.

No, it wasn’t an article that had fraudulently used my name or identity. I really did write it myself. It’s just that in the ensuing five years it had kind of slipped from my memory. I found what I had written so useful and interesting that it occurred to me that I should write about some of my favorite other gadgets that allow me to keep up with various sources of media. Even if no one else is interested, I might stumble across it myself someday and find it helpful.

So without further ado, here are some of my favorite media catching and playing aids:

  • Replay AV 8: This is a handy piece of software that does for internet radio what TiVo does for television. There are other programs out there that do the same thing, but this is the one that came to my attention and which I tried, and I have had no reason to try anything else. It does what it says on the tin. Basically, you leave the program running on your PC with your broadcasts scheduled. At the designated times, it connects to the appropriate web site and begins streaming the content and saving it to a file. You can specify it to automatically convert the resulting to file to virtually any audio file format (and choice of quality level), in case you need to play it back with a player that doesn’t support the original format. Can’t get much simpler than that. The program includes a web guide that locates internet radio stations for you and also specific radio programs, such as syndicated talk radio or National Public Radio. A standalone file converter is also included. The publisher is Applian, and they also sell lots of other programs for capturing media on your computer, including a recent one called Replay Video Capture, which will capture video directly from your screen output, which is handy if you want to save a video that you have streamed, but it doesn’t want to be downloaded. Replay AV 8 will download videos from sites that don’t mind being downloaded (e.g. YouTube) by saving a file from your computer’s cache. This seems to work fine with Windows XP, but I had less luck with Vista. But then there are other ways to accomplish this, so it’s not a big deal. The beauty of the Replay AV 8 software is that you can listen to whatever you want whenever you want (subject to the reliability of your internet connection), and if you set your PC up as media server, you can listen to your programs from other devices on your network. The down side is that you need to leave your PC running, at least for the duration of time for which you want to record and be able to play back your programs, but a lot of people seem to leave their PCs running most or all of the time anyway.

  • Freecom MusicPal: This is a very handy device for listening to those radio programs you have captured on your PC. It looks pretty much like a standard radio, and its chief asset is that it is extremely simple to use. It has a simple LED menu and only two large dials, which are also buttons for starting, stopping and pausing. You hook it up to your home network via Ethernet or wireless and, like magic, you can tune virtually any internet radio station in the world. And, yes, that is every bit as fun as it sounds. You just have to find the station you want through the menu system which lets you sort by country/state and genre. You can store your favorites, so you don’t have to go through all the menus each time. And, if you can’t find a station that you want, you can go to the web site of vTuner (which handles the streaming) and enter the URL yourself for playback on the MusicPal. And if you download podcasts or capture streams to your PC using, say, Replay AV8, then the MusicPal can stream them over your home network. Works great if you don’t want to be tied to your PC to play your audio files. Its own speaker is reasonable for a desktop radio, but it has the connections for your own speakers if you want better quality. It has to be plugged into the wall, so if its chief asset is simplicity, it’s main limitation is lack of portability, i.e. you can’t pick it up and listen while you carry it around with you. Once you find a place for it (mine is in the kitchen where I spend fruitful hours washing dishes), it’s pretty much going to stay there.

  • Archos 605 WiFi: The flip side of the MusicPal is this gadget made by a French company. It is not as simple as the MusicPal, but it is a lot more portable. It is basically a glorified IPod, complete with touch screen. It too uses vTuner to stream internet radio stations, but unlike the MusicPal, you can’t add your own ones to its repertoire, so you are stuck with what’s on its menu—not that there aren’t zillions of choices to listen to. And it can also stream your media files over your home network. Unlike the MusicPal, it has its own hard disk, so you can store lots and lots of audio and video files, which you can transfer from your PC with a USB cable or wirelessly. And it runs on a battery that last for hours, so you can take it anywhere you like for your listening and viewing pleasure. The screen looks great and is not hard to watch, even for a standard-length TV show. With an optional docking station, you can hook it up to your TV with RCA cables to watch the video. And the docking station also makes it possible to make digital recordings from your TV, using a built-in timer, making it more or less a poor man’s TiVo. I don’t actually use it for this because in my case it would be more trouble to set up than it’s worth. But it’s nice to know I have the option if I want it. One of its annoyances is that a lot of the cool things it can do are only available if you buy extra software plug-ins. For instance, you have to pay extra to watch IPod videos. And you have to pay extra to get the Opera internet browser to surf the net, using your home network. The Opera option is actually pretty cool, although it has its limits. You have to use a little plastic stick to type on a keyboard that pops up on the screen to fill in text boxes, but that goes faster than you might think. It’s a handy way to watch YouTube videos, but a lot of websites with video streaming can’t be handled. A real improvement would be an add-on for RealPlayer video. Supposedly, this is in the works, but every time I check it is never available, although there is a rumor than you can get it if you buy your Archos in China. A lot of web sites stream with RealPlayer (notably the BBC), and it would be really handy to view them on this gadget.

  • Microsoft Zune and Apple IPod Nano: We have both of these gadgets in our house, and I thought I would throw in my two cents worth on them. A couple of years ago the Missus thoughtfully got me a Zune for Christmas. Well, actually I bought it myself and charged it to her, but she was really happy not to have to shop for me that year. Anyway, the device itself is really well designed. It’s easy to navigate your audio library, and the screen is good for watching videos. A nice plus is the FM radio tuner. My problem with it is the software you have to use to organize your music files on your PC and sync them. Frankly, it was a headache from the beginning. It kept wanting to add files to my library that I didn’t want added and refusing to tag them the way I wanted until I did hours of research on the web to find the right tool and settings to get the result I wanted. And then, just when I would get things stabilized, there would be a software upgrade and I would be back to square one. The latest version of the software seems much improved, but I don’t use it much. I followed the advice of a fellow user, which I read in an online forum, and switched to Apple ITunes to organize my music and use the Zune software strictly for syncing. I have had even less reason to use the Zune software since one of the upgrades decided to cut me off from the Zune Marketplace because my IP address is not in North America. It’s just as well, since the ITunes Store is international-friendly, has a better selection and is easier to navigate anyway. Last Christmas, when it came time to gift MP3 players to the Missus and the Munchkin, I couldn’t get them Zunes (even if they were available here in Europe) since I have decided it is a gadget for dedicated hobbyists (kind of like my old Amiga computer) and not a consumer-friendly device. So they got IPod Nanos, and for the most part, like so much stuff that Apple designs and produces, they are blessedly user-friendly. A nice, but pricy, option for the IPod Nano is the cable that allows you to hook it up to a television and watch the video on a large screen with great quality. Easy and simple, as it should be.

    If any of this helps you with your Christmas shopping, then I’m glad. In the meantime, let me wish my fellow Americans a happy Thanksgiving.

    -S.L., 27 November 2008

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