Crap I love: Signal turns your iPhone into a really nice remote control

iphone_03_small.jpg I’ve been hoping that someone was working on using the iPhone browser as a media controller and when I saw Signal, I decided to give it a try.

It works like this: you install the app and it runs an internal webserver that you connect to using safari on the iPhone. Whatever is running in iTunes on your computer shows up on the phone exactly as if it was in the iPod mode (with album art, controls, etc). So if you have an airport express hooked up to a stereo, you point your iTunes at the speakers and start playing some music, then walk away from your computer.

Once you pull up Signal in your phone, you can control your entire iTunes library remotely. You can pick playlists, set them to shuffle, change to specific songs, try different genres, even pull up podcasts and video. The interface on the iPhone is really what sells it — it looks and functions exactly like a real iPhone app, but it’s all in safari. It’s really quite amazing and turns the phone into a whole house audio remote for me.

For actual coupon codes, use RetailMeNot

The other night, I got a coupon over email for a product I’ve been meaning to buy (direct from the company). I took advantage of the offer and picked out a completely customized product ready to ship, entered the coupon code but the discount didn’t work. It was midnight on a Sunday, and there was no chance I was getting any customer support. I still really wanted the item, so I went looking online for similar coupons (maybe mine expired?). I searched Google for [$Company_Name coupon code].

What I found was a bunch of horrible results thanks to the search engine gaming (SEO) industry. The first result was unhelpful, hard to read, and basically tried to get me to sign up for various discount services (not really coupons at all) before they would show me anything, while the remaining results on the top 10 page were simply affiliates of the first page, basically shell sites trying to get you to the first site to sign up for discounts (even less like coupons). I didn’t continue paging through worthless results.

Then I remembered the BugMeNot people did a coupon site last year, so I went to bugmenot to find it and found RetailMeNot. The experience was night and day. A quick search for the product I was buying turned up half a dozen coupons including the one I was trying. It also lets you quickly vote on which ones worked and didn’t work, and reported how successful each coupon was (they sorted by success rate, so the best stuff was at the top). Thanks to the site, I got to help others and report that my coupon code didn’t work and I tried a similar one that did end up working. The RetailMeNot site is also easy to read and navigate, letting you get in and right out as quickly as possible. The other “coupon code” sites seemed more interested in acting like quicksand and trapping you into their site.

I have less and less time for things and a lower tolerance for hassles as I get older and I have to say both bugmenot and retailmenot offer handy ways to save a little time and money. I don’t know how either site makes any money, or if that’s even a goal, but I do hope they stick around and keep doing what they’re doing.

Satisfaction – People-Powered Customer Service

Satisfaction has launched (more on their blog). Disclaimer: officially I’m a “member” of their “advisory board” (airquotes because it sounds more important than it seems — unofficially, I talked to Lane every so often over the past few months and they patterned some design/interaction decisions similar to the ways I run MetaFilter and Ask MetaFilter).

I’m happy to see the site going public, I think they’ve got some great ideas and a great design, and it’ll be interesting to watch them grow. At the moment, they’re a great way to get tech support help from regular folks instead of the large companies that typically have bad tech support and I’m sure a lot of smaller companies might just use them for all their support needs (why reinvent the trouble ticket wheel for the 1000th time?). If enough small companies get on board, it’ll be interesting to see how larger corporations interact with the service. I think the challenge out of the gate will be to keep things helpful and on a positive note, without descending completely into a consumer rant/spew/rage kind of thing that sites like Consumerist sometimes veer into.

Check it out — there’s not much there now but I think it’ll turn into something really useful and novel in a short period of time.

Playstation 3: complete failure for casual gaming

The other day this thought popped into my head and since several people asked, I wanted to expound on my original point.

First off, let me just say I’m a casual gamer — for the past seven years I’ve usually owned one console game system and I play it about once a week for a couple hours. I might get obsessed about a new game and play everyday for a week, but on average, maybe once a week. I mostly like “organic” sports sims, games where no two plays are alike (tony hawk’s skate games are my favorite). I also bought the PS3 for the blu-ray DVD player and it works ok for that (more below), but for gaming, I wish I bought a xbox360 instead.

Here is a list of why I think the PS3 I’ve owned for almost a year sucks:

  1. While blu-ray movies look great on my 46″ 1080p Sony LCD TV, after about 30 minutes of any movie playback, the unit’s fan goes to 11 and it sounds like a hair dryer was left on in my media rack. Keep in mind I have a fully vented system with plenty of air circulation and space around the unit. I could understand if the PS3 got hot when it had to render a billion polygons per nanosecond, but does 30 minutes of Meryl Streep really tax a modern system?
  2. I’ve got it hooked up via HDMI, at 1080p, the max resolution. The menus feature teeny-tiny fonts that look about 8px tall, max. I’m only ten feet away from my almost four foot wide screen, but I can barely read text within the PS3 dashboard menus and online features. I’m not an old man complaining about tiny fonts — I stare at small fonts all day on my computer screen, but the PS3’s menus look ridiculous even on a large screen TV. Who was their target market for the tiny font choice? 12 year olds with 103-inch plasmas?
  3. Since I’ve owned it, there have been over a dozen updates to the OS. While it’s cool they keep fixing bugs and adding features, if you want to use any online aspect of the PS3, you are blocked and told to update your system. For someone that plays once a week, this means about every third time I fired up the device, I was told I had to download some 100Mb+ file and let it do its update thing for about an hour or so, rendering it unplayable.
  4. System updates and demo games are often in the 100-600Mb range in size. I’ve got a 8Mbit cable modem line at home and typically a couple hundred megabytes comes down in 10-15 minutes. The Sony network servers are really slow and I’ve had downloads take overnight to complete.
  5. Some of the online features are worthless. It has a web browser, but it renders pages vertically in a portrait-like layout (even though TVs are landscaped layout) and features those great 6px fonts. It’s basically worthless and after I tried Google on it once, I never launched the web browser again.
  6. Signing up for an online account is tedious and seems to take forever. Periodically you get kicked offline while trying to view game demos. Currently, I can’t stay logged in for more than 30 seconds before being dropped. This means downloads no longer work, since I get disconnected
  7. Every couple weeks, there are new free game demos to download. I’ve only successfully downloaded and installed three game demos in the past 10 months of owning the PS3. Downloads that fail in the night can’t be resumed and have to be restarted. It’s all very frustrating. Imagine if Microsoft’s Windows Update failed on more than half of your update attempts and took all night to successfully work the few times things went well.
  8. Games cost $50-60 each and the release schedule has been very slow since the introduction of the PS3. I’m still waiting for a GTA title and Guitar Hero to come out for the PS3. Most PS2 games play fine on it (though I didn’t own any when I got my PS3 — I sold my PS2 about two years ago), but some of the most popular don’t (like Guitar Hero and DDR, which just sort of work with some hacky attachments)
  9. The PS3 has an online store, but despite entering my credit card info into my profile twice, I’ve never successfully purchased anything. I get errors when I attempt to buy a downloadable game.
  10. The video player is ok, they just added video streaming from other computers in a recent update, but it’s nowhere near as flexible as something like the free open source XBMC I used to have.
  11. My other game system, the Wii, is still highly playable, fun, and innovative. Playing the average PS3 game still involves memorizing some button mashes. I’ll never play a button-mashing golf or tennis game on the PS3 when I can swing a Wii controller around and have much more fun.
  12. The controllers on a PS3 are wireless which is nice, but they use bluetooth. While that’s cool and forward thinking, it means that makers of alternate controllers (universal remotes, steering wheels, dance pads, etc) are way behind and the choices are non-existent. My nice Harmony universal remote can control thousands of devices but not the PS3, so I have to use a Sony DVD remote when watching movies. Driving games suffer from not having peripherals out there and things like DDR and Guitar Hero simply don’t exist for the PS3 yet, almost a year after launch.

Now that I’m almost a year into owning the PS3, I kind of wish I bought a xbox360 instead (which I would have last year if they only offered it with a HDMI output back then). I hear the xbox360’s online component works really well and brings a social multi-player component to games in a way I’ve never gotten to work on the PS3. I hear you can download games and movies without having to wait overnight, and there’s the HD-DVD option for that system (oh how I wish for a decent <$500 hybrid HD-DVD/blu-ray combo player instead).

I’ve never been much of a fan of Microsoft, but in the world of console gaming, they look a heck of a lot better than the PS3. So that my friends is why the PS3 sucks and why you should avoid it.

Dwell as economic indicator

While walking back from the mailbox today, I was reminded of the old “number of pages in WIRED closely matches the NASDAQ” thing as I heaved the latest Dwell magazine back to my house. I have about three or four years of back issues in my new bookshelf and just looking at the spines, it appears that the magazine has gone from ~75 pages to about 300 in each issue. That kind of bloat can’t go on forever and I know they’re becoming a popular brand but I have a feeling there’s a direct relationship between how well people are doing financially and how much they care about how modern their house looks.