Archive for the ‘ Gadgets ’ Category

What’s Next for Apple TV?

Now that I’m used to surfing through YouTube videos on the television with my remote, I have to wonder: what’s next on the horizon for Apple TV?

I’ve been a fan (and owner) of Apple TV since its introduction earlier this year. Just as the iPod completely changed how I consume media while commuting, at work, and on travel, Apple TV has transformed video viewing habits in my home. Apple TV makes iTunes a more viable option for buying movies and episodic television shows, but it also brings Internet video to my TV and remote. I hate sitting in front of my PC to watch video content, which only leaves air travel and car waiting time for catching up on Ask A Ninja, MacBreak, and other Internet short-form content. But with Apple TV, my Internet video subscriptions are in my Den, up-to-date, waiting for my enjoyment. Apple TV and iTunes sync automatically through my home network; it all happens seamlessly and invisibly. And with iTunes’ ability to note and share my last play position for video content, I can pick up where I left off if I want to finish watching a TV show in another room or catch the end of the movie on my morning flight.

Is Apple TV everything I want it to be? No. Will it be? Maybe. With this device, Apple has created a platform that it can expand with both hardware and software. Happily, the signs point to just that plan. A few months ago, Apple released a new Apple TV model that bumps its introductory local storage capacity of 40GB up to 160GB. Now we’re talking about some decent room for video content. Shortly thereafter, Apple introduced YouTube on Apple TV. It’s a good start, but hopefully it’s just that: a start.

What’s next? Here are some options I hope that Apple is considering:

iTunesHD. Apple TV has the ability to deliver high definition video and multi-channel sound to your television, but where is the content? While the Xbox Marketplace is offering movies for paid download in 720p, movies on iTunes are still limited to sub-DVD quality. I’m hoping we’ll see high definition movies and TV shows for purchase through iTunes before the end of the year.

iClick&Buy. Just how much can I do with that tiny little remote? Not enough. Yet. I’d argue that I should be able to browse and purchase content on the iTunes Store right from my sofa. Apple could take iTunes Top Movies and similar features on the Apple TV to a new level with just one little option: Buy this Movie.

Appleflix. Netflix and TiVo never managed to get it together, but why not go for the same effect with Apple TV? The Apple TV is the ultimate device for PPV content – be it movie rentals or special programming. Its iTunes Top Movies and Theatrical Trailers features demonstrate that direct-to-device streamed content is already possible, and much of the back-end storefront architecture is in place today to support iTunes.

iDVR. With added capacity and a software update, the Apple TV could be the perfect platform for a completely new type of flexible DVR solution. Stackable, add-on components that share the Apple TV’s footprint could deliver channel-specific single and multi-tuner cable, satellite, or IPTV content right to the device for real-time or shifted viewing. How do you get your TV: DirecTV? CableCard? Digital cable/QAM? With swappable TV modules, it wouldn’t matter. This kind of solution could make Apple TV the first fully-integrated provider-independent DVR. If nothing else, I’d love to see the UI they’d create for a TV programming guide.

So that’s what I hope to see out of Apple over the next year or so for Apple TV. Clearly, Apple has been heavily focused on the iPhone and the Mac hardware and software updates recently. My hope is that they’ll come up for some air when Leopard goes to market and focus their creativity on the largely unrealized potential of this new entertainment platform.

One Week with My iPhone

It should come as no big surprise to anyone who knows me that I had an iPhone less than 24 hours after its availability. The next big thing in mobile communications…was there any doubt? Even the threat of two years’ servitude with AT&T didn’t keep me away. I had to have it. Now let me qualify: I’m no Apple fanboy. I own and use Apple products and PCs interchangeably. In fact, the iPhone replaces my Motorola Q Windows smartphone. That said, I’ve been eagerly awaiting this thing. After the first week, here are some [OK…quite a few] of my thoughts on this amazing device.

iPurchase. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the point of sale experience in Apple stores was wonderful, while the experience in AT&T stores sucked. I’ve heard stories of the AT&T purchase process taking as much as ten times longer than at Apple stores. While AT&T required their long, dragged-out approval process to purchase the phone, Apple stores required $599 + tax.

Unable (and unwilling) to wait in a long line on Friday, I set out to buy my iPhone on Saturday afternoon. The two AT&T stores I checked were out of iPhones. On to the nearest Apple store. Despite everyone’s fears that Apple wouldn’t have adequate supply, they surprised us all. I walked in, waited behind one other person in line, purchased my phone, and walked out of the store with a big smile on my face. The whole process took less than five minutes. No paperwork, no processing, no hassle. It was as easy as walking in and buying an iPod.

iOpen. As with most Apple products, the packaging is simple and elegant. The matte black box opens slowly, engendering anticipation like a Heinz ketchup bottle and finally revealing the new phone in all it’s glory. It’s smaller than expected. It’s black and sleek, largely devoid of physical buttons. Removing it reveals that it’s also quite sturdy.

Does it work? Is it charged? I instinctively press the (one) button on its surface. It’s beautiful. The LCD screen is crisp and vibrant. It seems as if the glass surface itself is the screen. In low light or sunlight, it’s clear and readable. I touch it, and the surface is incredibly responsive. Forget the stylus, those crazy Palm script gestures, or finding the one of thirty-some buttons to turn on the phone. This device is simple and easy to operate. Michael Okuda’s vision of the touch display is finally realized.

The box also includes product information, concise instructions (with the complete manual available online), a polishing cloth, headphones, charger, USB cable, and two Apple window stickers. Every layer – every item – has a tab or tongue to aid in its removal from the box. Designed by Apple in California [cue the angels’ voices].

iActivate. Dock, click, click, click, …, click, Done. Seriously, it’s that easy. I’ll be buying stock in the company that built the systems to support this process. It was amazingly painless. It was a little slow, but what do you expect with hundreds of thousands of people all trying to activate their phones at once? Within an hour, I received my first iPhone call.

iConfigure. Setting up the iPhone is just slightly more complicated than setting up your iPod. It was a little more complicated for me since I run iTunes on my Mac Mini but manage my personal information (contacts, mail, calendar, photos) on my PC.

For contacts, I experimented with Yahoo! but ultimately settled on Plaxo to sync my contacts between Outlook on my PC and Address Book on my Mac. So far, so good, but it doesn’t want to sync contact photos. That’s an issue I’ll have to revisit later.

For mail, I initially chose Yahoo! but quickly learned that outbound mail from my iPhone doesn’t respect the Reply-to address defined on my Yahoo! mail account. Since I want my personal e-mail address on all outbound messages from my iPhone, I went back to the hosting service I use for my personal e-mail service. They offer IMAP. I upgrade. It doesn’t push. I’m disappointed. Ultimately, I’ve settled on using my personal e-mail service while also forwarding all messages to Yahoo! This way, I’m alerted immediately when I receive a new message, since Yahoo! pushes messages to the iPhone as soon as they’re received. I read and reply to all messages from my personal account, though, so I can use my personal e-mail address. It’s redundant, but it works. And it gives me more immediate notification of personal e-mail than any mobile device I’ve previously owned.

For calendar information, I rely on Google. I already use Google calendars for work and personal activities, so it’s just a matter of bringing that information into iCal on my Mac. I keep iCal open now, so it gets regular updates from my Google calendars. It’s a one-way connection, but that works fine for me, since I can add events to the appropriate calendar(s) online.

I still have to figure out a solution for photos. I use Picasa to manage my photo library on my PC, and I’m not aware of any easy solution for syncing my fixed Picasa images with my Mac.

It would clearly be easier if I chose to sync my iPhone with my PC or manage my personal information on my Mac. But I don’t. These environments are purposely separated for me, so getting the information that I need to my iPhone is probably a little more complicated than it would be for most people.

iCall. Call quality on the iPhone is very good. In fact, the whole phone experience is terrific. You can initiate a call from contacts, favorites, recents [a new word?], web pages, maps, e-mail messages, …even voicemail messages. And if you insist, you can also make calls from a very usable numeric keypad.

The voicemail service is…amazing. Review and listen to voicemail messages anywhere, anytime – even on a plane! Messages are downloaded to the iPhone, so you don’t need phone service to access them later. Listen, delete – even undelete – any message in any order. This is how voicemail should be. If only I could get something this easy and convenient for missed calls at home.

Putting a call on hold, making or taking another call, adding a third party, and initiating other call functions are simplified in a way that no phone has ever before achieved. And canceling all ringers and noise during meetings or quiet times requires just a simple flick of the only switch on the phone’s exterior surface. Adjusting the call and ringer volume is also easy, using a perfectly-located volume rocker on the side of the device

The iPhone comes with Apple’s infamous white earbuds, this pair sporting a tiny, integrated mic with surprisingly good sound quality. When you receive a call, the iPhone gently fades the volume of any playing music, cues your preferred ringtone, and presents you with caller information and big option buttons on the screen. Touch the big green button to take the call or the big red button to pass. The integrated mic on the earbuds also has a hidden, invisible switch – squeeze it to answer and end calls.

So far, I’m unexpectedly pleased with AT&T’s service. Their GSM coverage is far from ubiquitous in the continental states, but the service is much better in my area than it was a year ago. I even get five bars in my house now. AT&T’s new online account manager is also quite good – paying the bill, viewing call history, and upgrading service is easy, easy, easy. Maybe this really is a new AT&T.

iType. If there was ever a reason for people to hate the iPhone before it was even available, it was the touchscreen keyboard. I heard more consumers and pundits dismiss the iPhone’s viability as a true messaging device for this reason alone. Now that people can try it for themselves, maybe the critics will give it a fair try?

The reality is that the touchscreen keyboard is much easier to use than I expected. I’m not a fan of touchscreen buttons – I like an appropriate tactile response from buttons. But with my average-size hands, I have little problem hitting the right ones on this screen. The trick is to aim for the button with the flat part of your finger – the part of your finger that you would use to press a key on a traditional keyboard – and not the tip of your finger. Apple makes it even easier by “magnifying” the pressed key so you don’t have to look away from the keyboard itself. Brilliant.

When you do make a mistake, the iPhone’s predictive text is phenomenal. It’s a little like using the force – you just have to trust it. In one week’s time, I’m already typing faster than I ever could on my Q and much faster than with T9 texting.

iMail. The iPhone delivers the best mobile mail experience I’ve ever known. E-mail messages are much more readable than, say, on a Blackberry. Messages leverage most of the screen real estate and retain some formatting of the original message. It’s not HTML mail, but it’s a lot better than plain text. You can also view various attachments (WYSIWYGish) and send and receive images by mail.

Reinforcing Apple’s consumer demographic, the built-in Gmail support doesn’t work with Gmail for Your Domain. Unless your Gmail address ends in @gmail.com, you’re out of luck. Of course, the iPhone has standard support for any mail service with POP or IMAP access, so that’s always an option for those accounts.

iBrowse. Thanks to Apple, the mobile Web experience doesn’t suck anymore. Seriously. Safari on the iPhone loads full Web pages (not just dumbed-down mobile versions), and a simple double-tap of your finger magically frames columns, tables, images, and other block-level elements for easy viewing and reading. With a flick of your finger, the page glides smoothly to any other region. Zoom in, zoom out, or rotate the phone for a larger, landscape view. Standard Web pages look and work great, but I can’t wait to see more Web sites and applications optimized for this viewing model.

The iPhone seamlessly switches from EDGE to wireless whenever it’s available, so browsing is essentially uninterrupted. Define your preferred networks, and the iPhone looks for others as they’re available. EDGE is typically slower, but it’s tolerable. Your experience may vary.

Oh no…it doesn’t support Flash! Again with the haters and another excuse to dis the iPhone. It’s kind of like saying, “What do you mean you built the biggest and best house known to humanity? But it doesn’t have a pool!” My thoughts on this: someday, it might support Flash. Until then, we’ll survive. This is a better Web than you’ve ever held in your hand before today.

iMap. Apple has implemented Google Maps better than on any other device on the market. It offers streets, satellite, traffic, search, and directions with ease and style. It’s quick and responsive, and it integrates smoothly with your contacts and the device’s own phone and web functions. Think of it as map-based yellow pages.

It would be great if it could already know where you are (via Bluetooth or, better yet, integrated GPS), but you just feed it a location (address or zip code), and then search for a business, restaurant, etc. Once you find and select the business you want, you can see where it is, visit the web site, maybe call for reservations, and get turn-by-turn directions. Then bookmark the location for later reference.

iListen. The iPod functionality on this phone is a nice improvement to the 5th generation iPods…mostly.

First the good: Song lists are large and readable, and “album” art adorns the album, podcast, audiobook, and video lists. Scrolling through the lists is quick and smooth, and Cover Flow view lets you flip through your music visually. Cover Flow is cool, but like in iTunes, I’m not entirely sure how useful it is. Shuffling or repeating music is much easier than on any previous iPod [well, maybe, except for the Shuffle itself], and the album art that displays while playing audio is big, bright, and beautiful.

Remember that hidden button integrated into the the included headphones? Squeeze it once while listening to pause or restart and twice to skip to the next track. I’m looking forward to the accessory that adds this capability to any standard headphones. You can also control audio volume with the rocker on the side of the device.

Now the bad: What the frack were they thinking by recessing the headphone jack so far into the top of the device that no other headphones but Apple’s own would fit into it? This just baffles me. It’s even worse that Apple doesn’t include or even make an adapter for third party headphones, and the only device currently available is a hideously designed, gray rubber thing that sticks out of the phone like an antenna. Yeah, that’s going to look great with my Bose headphones plugged into it on the plane. Good grief.

iWatch. I don’t imagine I’ll spend much time perusing YouTube videos on my iPhone, but the video quality of purchased, downloaded, and converted video (movies, TV shows, podcasts, etc.) is stunning. This is where the quality of this screen really shines. The small capacity of the player (7.3GB on the 8GB model) makes it a little cramped for any video collection, but the iPhone will definitely be my device of choice now for watching movies and TV shows on a plane. With a simple iPhone Video playlist, I can drop the videos I want to watch onto the phone right before traveling.

iClick. I’ve never given much thought to the camera on any phone I’ve previously owned, but with a 2 megapixel camera, the iPhone gets a little closer to something I can take more seriously. It’s extremely fast and extremely easy to use. All it does is take pictures. It doesn’t zoom, it doesn’t shoot video. It just takes pictures. Quite nice pictures, in fact. Do I care that it doesn’t support MMS, for which AT&T would likely charge me each time I chose to share a picture over their network? Hell no!

iConnect. Syncing the iPhone is as simple as syncing an iPod. It’s a breeze to keep just unplayed music, podcasts, and videos on your device; or you can be more creative with how you populate the device using Smart Playlists in iTunes. And of course it charges while it syncs.

Supported Bluetooth connections are also a breeze. In no time at all, I had the iPhone paired with my car and my Jabra earpiece. I have, however, experienced some problems with my earpiece suddenly “taking over” a call when I was having a perfectly nice conversation on the phone itself. I’ll need to look into that. In the meantime, I just keep my earpiece off when I don’t want to use it. Connecting with other devices isn’t so smooth. From what I understand, the iPhone doesn’t (yet) support Bluetooth stereo headphones or sharing contact info through Bluetooth.

Compatibility with iPod accessories is basically a crap-shoot. I’ve learned that the XtremeMac iPod cable in my car doesn’t work with the iPhone. It powers the device, but there’s no sound through my audio system. My Griffin iTrip doesn’t work with the iPhone at all, so RF audio is out of the question for now.

I’ve had mixed results using my iPhone with Apple’s so-called “Universal” Dock. Upon docking the device, I’m warned that this accessory is not made to work with the iPhone (despite the new inserts I purchased from Apple for said purpose). With the Universal Dock, I sometimes get sound through my external speakers…I sometimes don’t. I’ve also experienced problems syncing with the Universal Dock, so I’ll be sticking with the new, smaller dock included with my iPhone.

Accessory-wise, my best experience has been with the DLO HomeDock. While it doesn’t pump out any video [I’m assuming the iPhone isn’t designed for video output], the external sound and all of the remote’s functions work perfectly with the iPhone. Presumably, Belkin, XtremeMac, Griffin, and a host of other third-party manufacturers are clamoring to get new accessories to market.

iRestore. iPhone 1.0 is not without its quirks. Today I restored “to factory settings” in an attempt to remedy numerous crashes in iPod, Maps, and Safari modes. So far so good – it’s behaving much better now. And I’m happy to report that iTunes backs up all of your settings (except passwords), so you don’t have to reconfigure the device with all of your preferences after you restore. Nice touch, Apple.

iSmile. I’m staggered by this product that Apple has introduced. It has the potential to shake up the mobile devices market in a way that no other company has as of yet. The iPhone has met all of my expectations and, if the stock price is any indicator, all of the market’s expectations, too. I’m happy to be an Apple stockholder today.

I eagerly anticipate what’s ahead. If past history is any indicator, we can expect that it will only get better – which should turn the industry on its head. The iPhone is already revolutionary. Just imagine how the competition is going to deal with Apple distributing regular patches, updates, and enhancements to this device through iTunes. That’s a support model that no other company can provide. It will be interesting to see them try, though.

Logitech Harmony 550 Universal Remote

I’ve been trying to like the newer Harmony remotes that Logitech has released. Really…I have. When I saw the Harmony 550 on store shelves, I had to give it a try. Essentially, the Logitech Harmony 550 Universal Remote is a somewhat (but perhaps not significantly enough-) improved version of the budget-minded Harmony 520. Borrowing from the Harmony Xbox 360 remote, Logitech smartly improved the arrangement, feel, and sensitivity of most of the buttons on this device. It’s also a more sturdy device. While the 520 seemed a bit flimsy, this remote has a nice, solid feel to it.

The Logitech Harmony 550 (center) side-by-side(-by-side) with the Harmony Remote for Xbox 360 (left) and the Harmony 520 (right)

Side-by-side, the 520 (center, above) looks significantly like the 520 remote with six additional buttons: Page Up, Page Down, Sound, Display, A and B. Additionally, Mute and Prev have been relocated down below the volume and channel buttons, respectively. Let me address these changes separately:

  • Page Up and Page Down. I don’t get it. I just don’t get it. When nearly every consumer device uses the channel up and down buttons to scroll through the guide or menu by one full page, why is it necessary to have separate Page Up and Page Down buttons on this remote? And why are they arranged horizontally, instead of vertically? The biggest mistake here, though, may be that locating these buttons immediately above the navigation pad puts critical buttons – like Guide, Info, Exit, and Menu – even further from the navigation controls. Argh!
  • Sound and Display. Most Harmony remotes support auxiliary custom menus, intended to tweak the sound and display aspects of your selected activity. For example, when watching a DVD, you might want to switch between your a/v receiver’s various sound fields or adjust your TV’s aspect ratio. The Sound and Display menus allow you to expose those commands in separate menus on the LCD screen. By adding the Sound and Display buttons at the bottom of this device, Logitech reintroduces this feature to this line of remotes. I think this is a good thing, though I probably would have placed the buttons closer to the LCD screen (since they, ultimately, change the commands available there).
  • A and B. While I’m sure some people will applaud the addition of generic programmable buttons to this remote, I’m not a big fan. I buy the harmony because it’s easy to use. I think obscurities like A and B detract from this remote’s simplicity. Besides, isn’t that what the LCD screen is for?
  • Mute and Prev. I like their new location and I like their shape and size, taken directly from Logitech’s 360 remote. Win, win.

In general, most of the buttons on this remote feel better than those on the 520. They’re rubberized like on the 360 remote, and they don’t have that extra resistance I complained about on the 520. Even the navigation pad and the volume/channel buttons are easier to use, but I still do not like the incorporation of the volume and channel buttons into the bezel that surrounds the navigation pad – a trend that Logitech seems to have embraced entirely. In general, the keys are responsive. That said, the default delay the remote uses between sending IR codes may make this remote seem sluggish. Scrolling through recorded items on my TiVo (down, down, down, down, …) there was a noticeable delay between when the remote sent each code. As a result, the remote lags behind, and it’s easy to under- or over-navigate, since you’re not controlling your devices in real time. When talking with a Logitech representative at CES, I was assured that this can be customized, but it requires digging pretty deep into the innards of their configuration software.

Speaking of which, Logitech has released yet another version of the Harmony Remote software. We’re up to version 7 now. Again, I ask WHY? You don’t need this software. All you need are the plug-ins that allow your browser to communicate with and download data from their online configuration tool. Install the software so those are installed on your system, but I recommend just going to their configuration site at http://members.harmonyremote.com/ and logging on. Just be sure to use Internet Explorer or Netscape [yeah, I know…Netscape; what are they thinking?]. Oh yeah, and why would I want the Harmony software running in my tray every time I start Windows? By default, the Harmony Setup program adds the Harmony configuration software to your Startup folder. This is completely unnecessary, so I always remove it. Instead, just remember to run the app before you connect the remote to your PC with the supplied USB cable.

Finally, I’ll note that the backlighting on this remote is much better than on the 520, but it’s still a bit inconsistent. Unfortunately, the backlight does not stay lit unless you press Activity, Glow, or one of the LCD function buttons. Pressing any other button simply illuminates the remote for the duration of the button press…which isn’t so helpful. The blue backlighting is appealing, but it doesn’t provide sufficient contrast for the LCD screen, making the text on the screen somewhat difficult to read.

My vote? Well, there are some nice improvements here, but I returned the 550 earlier this week. This device still doesn’t live up to some of Harmony’s earlier models in terms of ease of use and ergonomic design. Between my issues with this particular volume/channel button design, the layout of other key buttons, and the annoying lag in sending consecutive commands, this remote just wasn’t doing it for me.

2007 Consumer Electronics Show coverage for CNET

At CES this week, I created two short photo blogs for CNET, available here and here. Additionally, you can see the two video reviews I did for CNET: one with Molly Wood on the Moxi Multi-room HD Digitial Media Recorder and one with Veronica Belmont on the SideLink remote control for Windows Vista Media Center.

For CNET’s complete coverage of the 2007 Consumer Electronic Show, visit http://ces.cnet.com.

Feature Suggestions for TiVo

I have HD TiVo (Series 3). I wish it would:

  1. Display the caller ID information for incoming calls. Your most direct competitor – Windows Media Center – already offers caller ID support.
  2. Allow me to watch content from TiVo Series 2 devices elsewhere in my home. There’s no reason that transferring external content to the HD device would jeopardize the digital content on the HD device.
  3. Provide me with the subscription content like TiVoCast, Rocketboom, etc. Series 2 devices can do it – why not Series 3?
  4. Let me know the remaining storage space and alert me know when a show is in immediate danger of being deleted. Again, Media Center can do it.
  5. Give me an option to avoid recording two scheduled programs at once during typical viewing hours. Dual tuner is great, but if TiVo schedules two recordings at the same time, I still can’t watch anything else. With an option that avoided simultaneous recording when possible, TiVo could attempt to schedule other showings of an episode at an alternate time.

Xbox 360 HD DVD Player

I didn’t think I’d pick a side so early in the ongoing high-definition video disc format wars, but with Microsoft’s introduction of the add-on HD DVD player for the Xbox 360, I couldn’t resist. The Xbox 360 HD DVD Player is a USB device that plugs into your existing Xbox 360 game console, further expanding the 360’s home theater capabilities. But the hook for me was the price point: $199.99. So…for significantly less than any other high definition disc player, you’re ready for next-generation DVD video.

What You Get. The Xbox 360 HD DVD player comes with the drive, a separate power brick, the necessary power and USB cables, and (for a limited time) a copy of Peter Jackson’s King Kong on HD-DVD and the Xbox 360 Universal Media Remote. Together, the disc and remote carry a retail value of about $70, so you’re really only paying about $130 for the HD DVD player itself. One more time, for effect: you are getting an HD DVD player for just $130!

What You Need. Clearly, I’m not suggesting that you can add HD-DVD playback to any high definition home theater system for under $200. This player is designed to connect to your existing Xbox 360 game console; and for HD quality video, you’ll need to invest in an Xbox 360 HD cable system (for somewhere between $20 and $60 – but that’s a 360 upgrade you should absolutely have already). That said, many industrious consumers have already discovered that with the right drivers and software, you can use the Xbox 360 HD DVD player as an external HD DVD (read-only) drive on your Mac or PC.

The Bad News. So far, I only have a few gripes with the drive. First, I don’t like the form factor. The drive shares the book-like form of the game console itself, though it’s somewhat smaller and apparently only designed to lay flat, as opposed to the console’s ability to stand upright on it’s end. This makes it difficult to stack or configure the devices near each other in any way that seems natural. I’d have preferred a piggy-back design that clamped onto the side of the console itself.

Second, the 360 differentiates your add-on HD DVD tray from its own built-in disc tray by splitting the graphical on-screen eject button into two halves. Rather than representing the drives separately, this seems somewhat convoluted and is further complicated by the fact that the Eject function on the 360 remote seems to only function with the internal drive.

Finally, I wish the drive and the console were smart enough to turn on and start playing when an HD DVD disc is inserted into the drive. With the system powered down, the Eject button on the add-on unit’s face still functions. While this allows you to insert a disc while your XBox console is off, the system isn’t smart enough to turn on when the drive detects the inserted disc. Hopefully, this is something that can be addressed in future software and firmware updates.

Why HD DVD. Did I mention the price? Seriously, with the widespread adoption of the Xbox 360 game console, many homes have a ridiculously-low adoption cost of under $200. No other player can come close. Of course, the PS3 will play Blu-Ray discs, but good luck finding a console in the near future. Or good games. There are many other reasons to like HD DVD, including superior use of available compression technology (currently, HD DVD discs use Microsoft’s VC-1 codec), transparent menu overlays on movies in play, available hybrid DVD/HD DVD discs that are backward compatible with existing hardware and software, and overall better hardware availability. HD DVD also employs a consumer-friendly copy protection scheme that is designed to allow consumers to extract the content of their discs to a home media server. Plus, as of the Christmas 2006 shopping season, HD DVD appears to be winning the battle – at least by the numbers.

Why Not Blu-ray? First off, it’s yet another proprietary format introduced by Sony in direct competition with the industry heir apparent. Beta, anyone? MiniDisc? SACD? I am genuinely sick and tired of Sony bucking the industry with its own unique solutions that muddy the waters, confuse consumers, and ultimately damage technology adoption for an entire market. And did I mention, it’s Sony? Sony…the purveyor of desktop root kits in the name of protecting the intellectual property of musicians. Then there’s the hardware. All of the Blu-ray hardware costs more than the comparable available HD DVD hardware. Why? And while ultimately capable of storing far more data…who cares? You don’t need all that extra storage with the new compression codecs supported by these discs.

For me, the choice is obvious. I want HD DVD to win this format war, but we’ll just have to see how it really plays out. In the meantime, I’ll be requesting HD DVDs from Netflix and buying only DVD/HD DVD hybrid discs…just to be safe.

D-Link DGS-1008D 8-Port Desktop Gigabit Switch

I suffered from the same problem with this switch that others here have reported [periodic resets]. I returned it to D-Link for a replacement, because they had no record of any customers having such a problem and no idea what could cause it. When the replacement device arrived, I experienced the same problem–whenever I sent something to my network printer, the switch would reset, dropping all connections. I believe I’ve isolated this as a power spike issue. Each time I experienced this problem, it’s because my laser printer is coming out of sleep mode. Note that my switch is NOT plugged into the same power strip as my printer. In fact, I have my switch plugged into a surge/UPS block. One other point worth noting that I think speaks poorly of D-Link. Though they sent me the replacement product, I was charged twenty-five dollars when I hadn’t included the original “mounting kit” in the return package. The mounting kit consists of two screws and two plastic wall anchors. TWENTY-FIVE DOLLARS! Unbelievable.

Logitech Harmony 880 Advanced Universal Remote

Imagine a remote that feels just perfect in your hands. It has the right curves, the right fit, even the perfect weight. It sits snuggly in your grip with an all-too-familiar shape and contour. Close your eyes, and move your thumb over its top surface to find the Volume, Channel, and Play keys. Can’t find them? Right…exactly. And that’s my biggest issue with this, the flagship of Logitech’s line of Harmony remote controls. For $250 – not outrageous for a universal remote, and certainly not the most I’ve paid for one, but still pricey – I had higher expectations.

The Harmony 880 Advanced Universal Remote puts a whole new face on the standard, yet outstanding form-factor of earlier Harmony remotes. It’s a face with a beautiful, bright, color LCD display. Unfortunately, it’s a face that lacks critical tactile differentiation between buttons. In a dismal design move I’ll never understand, Logitech gives new life to the horrid ring-of-buttons first introduced on the Harmony 688. The 880 is the first of a many models that blend the most used remote buttons – Volume and Channel – into a bezel that curves around the navigation pad and display screen at the top of the remote. Look carefully at the image of this remote, and notice that this affords you no means of differentiating the Volume and Channel buttons from any of those surrounding, including the Previous Channel, Mute, and some odd up and down arrow buttons. Raised dimples on each button at least let you know where on the bezel to press, but without actually looking at the remote, it’s nearly impossible to identify any one button from another.

The problem prevails with the shuttle control, numeric, and other buttons. These appear as though they were once one button carved into smaller segments. There is nearly no detectible physical differentiation from one button to another, again, making it impossible to know what you’re pressing without looking at the remote. That, in itself, sucks…but the situation is worsened by the poor backlighting that pales next to the bright LCD screen.

And that screen is so bright. It’s clear, it’s beautiful, and it seems completely out of place in the otherwise artificially-organic design of this remote. The sharp corners and hard edges scream next to the over-accentuated curves of the neighboring buttons. That said, the screen is large and offers up to eight customizable activities and functions per page, which can be navigated both forward and backward – an improvement over older Harmony remotes, which only let you page forward through activities. One additional benefit this remote offers is the ability to specify the order in which activities display on the screen. This is a long-needed upgrade for Harmony, but quite frankly, there’s no good reason why the same improvement couldn’t be made to earlier models with simple firmware and software upgrades. Of course, that wouldn’t encourage devoted Harmony users to upgrade to a remote…would it?

One final point: Who thought it would be a good idea to have to dock a remote? If you don’t regularly place this device on its home base, it will be brain-dead in just a few nights’ use. This, supposedly, is Logitech’s answer to the poor battery consumption of earlier models. But seriously, do you have a plug readily accessible to your coffee table that wouldn’t require exposing a power cable across walkways frequented by you, family, friends, and pets? ‘Cause I don’t. And the dock design itself makes it far too difficult to properly place the remote so that it actually makes the right contacts and recharges.

After about three weeks’ use, I returned this remote to the store from which I bought it. I continue to seek out the perfect remote. While Harmony remotes come closest to this target, Logitech just keeps missing the mark.


It’s worth noting that I tested this remote nearly a year ago. This is significant for two reasons. First, after almost a year, I still harbor the same ill feelings for this device. Secondly, though the physical design of newer Harmony remotes (like the 520 and Xbox 360 models) was a fresh and unique departure for Logitech, they continue some of the bad design legacy established by this particular model.

Logitech Harmony 720 Advanced Universal Remote

It’s that time again…time for another Harmony remote trial. Despite its obvious absence from Logitech’s own website, a new Harmony universal remote, the 720, has made an appearance exclusively at your local Costco wholesale outlet.

This one shares the slim-line form factor of the 520 and Xbox 360 models, and it sports a smaller version of the full-color LCD screen used on the 880 and 890. While the color screen is a welcomed addition, it seems to take up an awful lot of room. In fact, this remote is a full inch longer than the Xbox 360 Harmony remote. Strike one.

Though the LCD screen and lighted bezel around the Activities button are very bright, the buttons themselves are very poorly backlit with [what I assume to be] blue LEDs. Apparently it must take a lot of juice to power this sucker, because the 720 has a rechargeable battery like the 880/890, which requires that you place the remote in a dock to recharge when you’re not using it. My annoyance that the home base for this remote would have to be somewhere near an outlet [and therefore not near the sofa] was quickly overcome by my annoyance with the dock itself. I found it far too difficult to seat the remote properly in the dock. It would slide around, lacking any sufficiently satisfactory click or physically noticeable reaction when properly positioned for charging. I should be able to feel it fall or slip into place without so much effort. Strike two.

With the 720, Logitech has warped the Harmony’s most-used buttons–the navigation pad, volume, and channel buttons–into a rectangular form. Even the navigation pad is now a rectangle, with the OK button barely perceptible in its center. I’m not sure how someone with large thumbs would even find and press the OK button. I think this is a bad design decision. The square design makes the already-difficult-to-use navigation rocker even more awkward. Making matters worse, they’ve incorporated the Mute and Previous Channel (Prev) buttons into the bezel into which the Volume and Channel buttons are also formed. I’ve ranted about this bezel design in previous reviews, but I believe that the bezel-bound buttons are Logitech’s worst design decision in their evolution of the Harmony remote line. These buttons are difficult to discern without actually looking at the remote, and they’re far too difficult to press. For whatever reason, you must push these buttons until they click, and if you exert the same amount of pressure required to push the Menu button (which is a rubber button that presses very easily) on these bezel buttons or on the navigation pad, they will not fully depress, or click. It’s just a bad, bad design, and I’m sorry to see Logitech continue it in another model. Strike three.

Three strikes, and it’s out. I’ll be returning this one, too.

Logitech Harmony Advanced Universal Remote for Xbox 360

Yeah…we’re still not there yet. For those of you, like me, who have purchased an Xbox 360 gaming console, the Harmony Remote for the 360 might seem like remote control nirvana. Unfortunately, this 520-knock-off doesn’t hit that target.

Logitech did introduce several notable improvements in this model:

(a) The introduction of Back, Clear, and other new buttons makes this not only more suited toward Xbox and Media Center configurations, but more useful overall;

(b) the Mute and Prev buttons are now below the Volume and Channel buttons, respectively, allowing the Back and Info buttons to be close to the navigation pad—this is a much more natural configuration, keeping your thumb from having to stretch too far for these functions;

(c) the introduction of the color coded Y/X/A/B buttons not only makes it possible to access basic Xbox functions, it adds more programmable buttons that you can leverage (such as the pre-programmed Live TV button);

(d) changing the shuttle (play/pause/stop/etc.) buttons from hard plastic to rubber makes them much easier to press;

(e) the green backlight makes the small text much easier to see [the picture here does not show the actual lettering, but an artist’s rendering], and the ring of light in the navigation pad is a nice addition;

(f) overall, the contrast of the text and symbols on the remote is much easier to see in dark lighting conditions than with the 520; and

(g) this remote has a much more solid and sturdy feel to it than the 520.

That said, it still has a few problems that I just can’t get past:

(a) The ridiculous “ring-of-buttons” rears its head again, with the volume, glow, and channel buttons formed together around the navigation pad—this makes each of them hard to differentiate by just feeling around. I’d much prefer simple rockers for both volume and channel. These are the most used buttons on any remote, yet they’re among the hardest to find here.

(b) The volume, glow, channel, and navigation pad buttons all still require a hard click, which requires far more pressure than seems appropriate. Again, rubber buttons on rockers could solve this problem.

So, I’m closer to finding the perfect remote, but not quite yet. I love the Harmony concept, and I truly hope that Logitech gets it right in the near future. In the meantime, this one went back to the store.