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.

Boing Boing redo

I gotta say that I’m enjoying the Boing Boing redesign so much that I’m actually breaking down and making a real blog entry about it (as opposed to a witty twitter quip, or simple delicious link, or a lowly screenshot posted on flickr).

I thought the old design was showing its age and the ad layouts were very distracting (the jokes about it looking like NASCAR weren’t too far off). I even sent a mockup of a cleaner layout to Xeni and Cory a couple years ago, but I never thought it would change and assumed it would putter on for several more years in its previous state. I don’t know what prompted the change, but the new look is a great improvement. It’s way cleaner, easier to read, and the ads are no longer distracting. I disagree with Nelson on the change (though I agreed with his previous assessment). At this point in the lifespan of Boing Boing (one million dollars!), I no longer compare them to other blogs and instead to major media outlets, so I’m cutting them slack on three ad zones. Look at any page at even nicely designed media sites like the New York Times and you’ll see 3-5x more advertisements. So among top-shelf media sites, their advertising is barely noticeable.

I’m also happy to see a new gadget blog that’s unlike all the other million gadget blogs out there. It helps that it’s authored by my all time favorite gadget blogger, a man that deserves a medal for getting hired to write a regular column on Gizmodo, only to get fired after Gawker editors and readers took his first essay way too personally and seriously. It’s clear from day one of this new Boing Boing blog that this won’t be another shopping or wishlist gadget blog. Free from all the pointless gadget lust that powers other sites, this looks like it’ll be more along the lines of “interesting crap someone built that looks cool/works in a cool way.”

Bottom line, it was a great surprise to see Boing Boing’s new layout and direction today and I think it’s a huge positive change (and adding comments was nice too).

Testing out .Mac, iMovie ’08, and the Panasonic AVCHD

I used PCs on a daily basis for about ten years, but over the last three or four years I’ve become a full-fledged Apple fanboy convert. I buy a new mac about once a year or so and have tried out pretty much every product they’ve released over the last few years. So when Steve Jobs debuted iLife ’08 and mentioned iMovie worked with the new AVCHD format available in $700 Panasonic cameras, I bought one to give it a go.

Today I put all this new software and hardware to the test. I carried the video camera around and shot a few things during a visit to the Oregon Garden. I came home, imported all the clips into iMovie, arranged a few and threw a song on top of it. Finally, I uploaded it to my “Web Gallery”.

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Here is the resulting 3 minute movie

Quick review of each aspect

Panasonic HDC-SD1 Camera

This is a great camcorder. I’ve had and used a couple mini-DV camcorders over the last few years and this was easier to use and packed with more features than I was used to. My favorite thing is that it writes all video to a special 4Gb SD card (most card readers can’t understand it, so I just use the included USB cables with the camera). What is great about ditching tapes and simply using a memory card is the unit is much lighter than a camcorder that uses tapes, and if you’re reviewing ten previous recorded clips, say clip 1, and you hit the record button, it’ll start recording clip 11 in the right place (no more fast forwarding or taping over previous video).

It charges fairly fast and video looks fantastic on my 46″ 1080p LCD. I can’t believe a little $750 camcorder can do such nice high def stuff. About the only downside I’ve found in use is the microphone which is about what you’d expect (only works well if someone’s standing directly in front of it speaking) and if I really wanted to film a nice movie I’d need some external microphones.

So far in two weeks of using this, I’m finding that since I don’t have to fumble for tapes or worry if I’m taping over something, and since it’s small and light, I use this much more than my previous camcorders.

iMovie ’08

iMovie is completely different in the new iLife suite. David Pogue has written a scathing review because they changed everything compared to the old version and actually removed some functionality, but I followed the use-case presented by Jobs in the last Apple demo: I recorded some clips about a trip and assembled them really quickly in the editor. Compared with iMovie ’06, I’d say the new version is much easier and faster to make short videos. I used the previous version on a handful of occasions and found myself using the help files more than the iMovie tools themselves. With iMovie ’08, the things Steve Jobs did in his demo pretty much covers the entire application. I edited my movie in about 20 minutes total, which is at least twice as fast as me doing the same thing in the old version. The “skimming” feature where you mouse over clips is incredible and really handy for testing out sections of clips you want to cut.

.Mac and the Web Gallery

I’ve never been much of a fan or user of the .Mac service. I only had to pay for it once when coworkers used to share some tools and I let my membership lapse until today. So far it seems like a nice backup space to keep 10Gb of files but mostly I wanted it for the tight integration with iMovie. I have to say it’s really, really easy to upload something to your .Mac webspace by simply clicking a menu item and telling iMovie to do its magic. Time will tell if it’s worth keeping for more than a year but so far I really like the photo galleries and movie player pages.

A smarter audio manager

Here’s what I typically do in the course of a day.

  • Start iTunes, play some new songs while I code, read email, and surf the web
  • About every 15min or so, I run across a youtube video, mp3 link, or vimeo post that I want to watch, so I…
  • pause iTunes, let the video/music play in my browser, then return back to what I was doing

Here’s the rub: anywhere from 10 minutes to 2 hours later, I’ll realize I’ve been sitting in a room wearing headphones with nothing coming out of them. I don’t mind it, but I do wish I could have an app that could manage iTunes automatically for me.

This is my wish: I start playing iTunes music, surf along while some magical app watches my sound output. When something else sends output to the soundcard (I’d have to disable iChat message alerts), hit pause in iTunes for me, then when the soundcard is clear, push play on iTunes automatically (maybe with a bit of cross-fading to bring it up smoothly).

Is this impossible? I think I’ve seen something like this before — it doesn’t seem like it’d be impossible for a computer to manage for me.

A Wii little story

A friend from college visited me a few months ago and we played a few rounds of Wii tennis and he fell in love with the game and wanted one. Then I had to break it to him that it was still currently almost impossible to buy a Wii. He recently told me a story of his coworker tracking one down:

So my friend is walking through Wal-Mart on a Sunday morning and I guess it’s when the Wii shipment comes in because just as he’s walking past the video game area, he watches an employee put four Wii console boxes on the shelf. He picks up a Wii box and he’s reading the label for maybe 30 seconds. He looks back at the shelf, and the three other boxes are gone. Then someone taps him on the shoulder.

“You gonna buy that Wii you’re holding?” says the shoulder tapper.

“Yeah, I think I am.”

And he did.

Now that’s consumer demand for a successful product.