Saturday, January 29, 2011

WardworksTech: Why I love the Sony Dash

The other day I was listening to my favorite podcast, Buzz Out Loud, and Molly Wood mentioned that she finally bought herself a Sony Dash when it was a Gold Box special on Amazon for $99. I was excited that she finally came around to check it out! Then, sadly, a few days later she mentioned she is already having second thoughts about the Dash and may send it back.

I obviously respect Molly's opinion--I will admit the Dash is not for everyone--but I wanted to make a case for why the Dash, and its cousins the Chumby and (Best Buy) Insignia Infocast series, are worthwhile Internet-connected devices. Here is why I love the Sony Dash.

I think the Dash, Chumby, Insignia Infocast are misunderstood. They are not tablet alternatives or smartphone replacements. They are gadgets that act as clock radio replacements that include widgets, local and Internet music and video, and photos. They are meant to be passive internet viewers with only basic input ability. Yes, they have so-so capacitive touchscreens. Yes, they have virtual keyboards. Yes, you can check your email and post to Twitter. These use cases are not the strengths of these devices.

The strengths of these devices is in their relative (I must emphasize relative) simplicity. They have alarm clocks, access to Internet radio like Pandora and/or Slacker, ability to play local or streaming audio and video (including Netflix and Hulu Plus on the Dash), and can act as digital photo frames with content from Flickr and Facebook. They can all use the Chumby application store to add additional widgets like stylish clocks, world photo viewers, news feeds, Twitter, Facebook, Google Calendar, and weather apps. They do these tasks well, with (mostly) simple controls, and usually just work as advertised. Nothing more, nothing less.

You could use a smartphone or iPad in a similar way, but then you lose use of the other functions on the device while it is docked. Those devices are also much more expensive. The Dash is a dedicated device, hands off for the most part, just sitting there and doing its job. It's like having a Roku to watch Netflix vs. hooking your laptop to your TV every time you want to watch a movie. The latter will work, but it's a pain and you lose access to your other programs when it's being tethered.

I got my Dash a little after it came out last year and have loved it ever since. Now my 4-year old son loves it too. He's figured out the basic touchscreen controls and knows how to set it to show his favorite clock, the RoboClock, full screen. I got my brother--someone who's not a gadget freak like me--one for Christmas and he loves it. I recently picked up the Insignia Infocast 3.5" for $40 over Christmas and I love that too. I even got myself the Chumby app for Android, and happily play my Chumby Clocks channel on my HTC Evo when it's not in use.

Now to the reality of the business world. The Chumby and Dash are probably not being marketed very well, and their pricing is also not ideal. I've always said these devices should be in the sub-$100 range for them to take off and really be worth the money. The Dash is finally hovering around that price point right now, and the Infocast 3.5" is well under that (I picked one up on sale for $40 during Christmas and now they're back to around $70).

They are devices that no one needs and do not compare to much of anything else available at the moment, but once you get one and learn it's sweet spot of usage (clock, picture viewer, radio, passive widgets), they are quite fun devices.

Finally, others have written about the Dash with similar thoughts, particularly Dave Zatz of Zatz Not Funny. Dave has even covered the upcoming refresh of the Dash platform, something I have been looking forward to. I think Chumby and Sony have created a good platform for a passive Internet device and I am looking forward to updates and improvements that may expand this to a wider audience. We shall see if it works, or if it becomes the 3Com Audrey of the 2010s.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Old School Tech: Rio PMP300

A few weeks ago I posted an Old School Tech photo, and no one (except my wife) ventured a guess. Maybe it was too easy? Maybe no one knew? Maybe no one bothered. :-)

In any case, here it is again for your viewing pleasure:

As you probably noticed in the title, this is a Diamond Rio PMP300. So, you might be asking, "What was the Rio PMP300?" Well, it was one of the first (or arguably the first successful) commercially available MP3 player in the United States. It came out in late 1998 at a price of about $200. That's about $263 in today's dollars, the price of a 32GB (not MB) iPod Touch or 64GB Zune.

I think I purchased mine for around $75 in early 1999 from a site like (an early competitor to during a promotion. (Aside: Said promotion may have been part of the downfall of this particular shopping website, as it no longer exists today. I believe the site burst its own bubble before the tech bubble burst in 2000.)

The Rio has 32MB of on-board memory and can be expanded using a SmartMedia card. I have an extra 32MB card. It connects to your computer via a parallel port adapter, as most PCs did not have USB ports back in 1998-1999. It runs on one AA battery. The battery door on mine is broken, which apparently was one of the Rio's design flaws.

The Rio is significant because it was the reason the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) filed suit against Diamond (maker of the Rio) claiming it violated a 1992 law. The RIAA did not like MP3 players in the early years, claiming they made people steal music and become pirates. The suit was eventually lost and Diamond was able to sell its Rio PMP300 again. This lead to the eventual rise of Digital Rights Management (DRM) for music for many years, thanks to the RIAA's paranoia. DRM was eventually dropped around 2009 on most every online music service.

My Rio still has music on it and still works, though I don't have a Windows 98 machine from which I can load software so it's stuck with the Josie and the Pussycats album for now.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Old School Tech: Compaq Presario 5900Z

We gave this to my brother a few years back. It still runs, albeit very slowly.
AMD Athlon 600MHz, 256mb of RAM.

It's going to be recycled now.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Really great class by @shanescows this week. I learned and re-learned a lot about SharePoint 2010.

I found myself with some time, and a class on SharePoint 2010 administration just happened to pop up in my email. Having already dabbled in SharePoint 2010, I wasn't sure if the class would be worth my time. Aftering being in class for five days, I can say it was definitely worth my time.
We went over the basics, like installing and configuring SharePoint. We dove in to the deeper topics like Managed Metadata, Search, and the UPS. While I already knew about all of these topics and have dabbled with them myself, the fact that we were going over them as as a group and learning real world, actual experiences from our instructor Shane Young (aka @shanescows) was invaluable. You can't get that from a book. The mix of admins, developers, and even a DBA made the class very lively. I don't think Shane was expecting so many questions.
That said, books are still great resources. If you need a SharePoint 2010 planning and administration book, check this one out:

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Clear QAM Channels remapping in Windows Media Center.

We have Verizon FiOS internet and TV service. We've had it for years now and love the speed of the internet and the relative slickness of the TV and DVR guide service.

However, I love to push the envelope so I've set up a few Windows 7 PCs with Media Center to use TV tuner cards and a Silicon Dust HDHomeRun network tuner. These tuners can either get over-the-air ATSC content or Clear QAM digital cable channels. They can't get encrypted digital cable channels (that will be solved by the upcoming HDHomeRun Prime network tuner or the existing Ceton card). Most cable providers only allow the local channels and maybe a few extra channels, like the Weather Channel, via unencrypted Clear QAM.

In any case, this was a supplement to our regular FiOS DVR and cable boxes so it has never been a priority. That said, I always like things to work properly.

Alas, when using the PC tuners to get ATSC OTA content, I could never get a consistent signal via antenna because of the location of our house. We get horrible cell phone reception and even radio reception is so-so. Digital TV reception has been less than desirable.

So, since we already had FiOS TV service, I had tried using the Clear QAM feed over the coax cable to get the local channels in Windows Media Center. Almost immediately after setting this up, weird things would happen. After a few days, channel 5.1 and 20.1 would switch, as would 4.2 and 50.3. Other channels would switch seemingly at random intervals. Different PCs in the house would have different channel mappings. It all seemed so random.

After searching the Internet for a solution I finally gave up for a while and went back to the antenna. But a few months ago I had enough and decided to figure it out once and for all.

I did some digging and the issue was NOT Verizon. The back-end Clear QAM channel numbers never changed. You can find the Clear QAM channel mapping on sites like SiliconDust. If you manually enter the channels in the settings, the channels never change.

After some trial and error, I found out that it was the Windows Media Center guide update and scanning process that was screwing them up for some reason.

I found the solution. Here is a recent post about it:

Also see:

Basically, you need to disable the BackgroundScanner. For the most part this works fine, except if you need to rescan for channels. In which case you can re-enable it.

In the Registry Editor, go to HKLM\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Media Center\Service\BackgroundScanner.

Set the PeriodicScanEnabled DWORD value to 0

The SiliconDust HDHomeRun software for Windows has a checkbox in the settings to do this for you. If you have another tuner card you can edit the registry as mentioned in the link above.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Old School Tech Series

I love technology and I especially love gadgets.

A few weeks ago we began cleaning up our basement. We had a bit of extra stuff down there, some of it useful, some of it excessive. As we were perusing through old stuff I came across a few gems from the past that I wanted to give the respect they deserved. So I posted some photos to Twitter and solicited guesses about each item.

It all started with this old school tech:


I got some guesses on Twitter and Facebook but it was a tough one. Only my wife--who I had to disqualify--got it right away. It's a Gemstar VCR Plus+ scheduler. Outside of the United States it was known as the G-Code, VideoPlus+ and ShowView. 

VCR Plus+ came out to make Video Cassette Recorder (remember those?) scheduling easier. This was before On Screen Programming became easy (though it was around) and well before the Digital Video Recorder (DVR) came to fruition. Codes for each show would be published in the local TV guide in the paper or TV Guide magazine. Then you'd enter the code in to the VCR Plus+ and it would automatically send infrared codes to start recording at the right time. It was rather neat, but as a professional VCR programmer I never really needed it.  I could work magic with the LCD console. 

Interestingly, it appears that still exists and you can still get codes for modern day TV schedules. Who knew?

There's more of this good stuff stashed in our house, my parents' house, and elsewhere. I'll post more gems as I find them. I hope you find them interested too.