Tag Archives: iRiver

Confessions of a Naïve Tech Enthusiast (Old Draft)

I’m doing a bit of housecleaning. This is an old post I had in my drafts. Moved to Austin in the meantime, blogged about other things…

Dunno that I’ll finish this one. Should have REROed. In a way, it’s the prelude to my ultimate handheld post.

I keep dreaming of different devices which would enhance my personal and professional experience. Not that I’m really a gadget geek. But technology has, to a large extent, been part of improvements in my life.

Though I would hesitate to call “addictive” my relation to computer technology, I certainly tend to depend on it quite a bit.

Some context.

Ok, ok! A lot of context.

Let’s go back. Waaaaay back. To the summer of 1993. I was 21, then, and had already been a Mac-head for more than six years. Without being a complete fanboy of Apple Computers, I guess I was easily impressed by many of its products. During a trip to Cape Cod that summer, I got to read an issue of USA Today. In that issue, I read a review of a new class of computers, the Personal Digital Assistant (PDA). I still remember how I felt. It might not have been my first “tech-induced epiphany” but it was one of the most intense. I not only started drifting off (which was easy enough to do, as I was in the back seat of my mother’s car), I actually started perceiving what my life could be with one of those devices.

Of course, I could afford any of them. Even when it became possible for me to purchase such a device, it remained financially irrational for me to spend that money on a single device, no matter how life-changing it might have been.

Shortly after discovering the existence of PDAs, and still during the summer of 1993, I discovered the existence of the Internet. Actually, it’s all a bit blurry at this point and it’s possible that I may have heard of the Internet before reading that epiphany-inducing USA Today article. Point is, though, that the Internet, not the PDA, changed my life at that point.

Whatever my computing experience had been until that point is hard to remember because the ‘Net changed everything. I know about specific computers I had been using until that point (from a ViC20 to an SE/30). I do remember long evenings spent typing from my handwritten notes taken during lectures. I still get a weird feeling thinking about a few sleepless nights spent playing simple strategy and card games on my father’s old Mac Plus. But I just can’t remember I could live without the ‘Net. I wasn’t thinking the same way.

Not too long after getting my first email account (on Université de Montréal’s Mistral server, running IRIX), the ‘Net helped me land my first real job: research assistant at a speech synthesis lab in Lausanne, Switzerland.

In late 1993 or early 1994, I had sent an email to a prominent ethnomusicologist about applying to the graduate program where she was and mentioned something about computer-based acoustic analysis, having taken a few courses in acoustics. She told me about Signalyze, a demo version of which was available through a Gopher server for that Swiss lab. While looking at that Gopher server, I became interested in the lab’s research projects and contacted Eric Keller, head of that lab and the main developer for Signalyze. I was already planning on spending that summer in Switzerland, working at my father’s cousin’s crêperie, so I thought spending some time in Lausanne interacting with members of Keller’s lab was a good idea. I was just finishing my bachelor’s degree in anthropology at Université de Montréal (with a focus on linguistic anthropology and ethnomusicology). So I was interested in doing something related to sound analysis in musical or speech contexts. Keller asked for my résumé and offered me paid work at his lab for the summer. I ended up spending both that summer and the whole 1994-1995 academic year working at this lab, being paid more than some of my mentors in Montreal.

Technologically-speaking, my life in Switzerland was rather intense. I was spending 15 hours a day in front of a computer, doing acoustic analysis of speech sounds. This computer was a Mac IIvx which had once belonged to UQÀM. A very funny coincidence is that the Mac IIvx I was using had become the source of part of the funding for a fellowship at UQÀM. After I met the incredible woman who became my wife, she received that fellowship.

As this computer had a fast connection to the Internet, I became used to constantly having online access. I was mostly using it to send and receive emails, including messages to and from mailing-lists, but I also got to dabble in HTML a bit and did spend some time on the still burgeoning World Wide Web. I also used a few instant messaging systems but I was still focused on email. In fact, I started using email messages to schedule quick coffee breaks with a friend of mine who was working one floor below me.

This 15-months stay in Switzerland is also when I first got a chance to use a laptop. A friend of my father had lent me his laptop so I could work on a translation contract during weekends. Though this laptop (a PowerBook 170, IIRC) wasn’t very powerful, it did give me a vague idea of what mobile computing might be like.

Coming back to Quebec about my Swiss experience, I began my master’s degree in linguistic anthropology. After looking at different options, I bought a PowerMac 7200 through a friend of mine. That 7200 (and the PowerMac 7300 which followed it) greatly enhanced my stationary computing experience. I probably wasn’t thinking about mobile and handheld devices that much, at that time, but I was still interested in mobile computing.

Things started to change in 1997. At that time, I received a Newton MessagePad 130 through the AECP (Apple Educational Consultant Program). This was a great device. Too big for most pockets. But very nice in almost every other respect. While my handwriting is hard to read by most humans, the Newton’s handwriting did quite a decent job at recognising it. I also became quite adept in Graffiti, Palm Inc.’s handwriting recognition software based on a constructed script from uppercase latin alphabet. I was able to take notes during lectures and conferences. For a while, I carried my Newton anywhere. But it was so bulky that I eventually gave up. I just stopped carrying my Newton around. At one point, I even lent it to a friend who tried it out for a while. But I wasn’t a PDA user anymore. I still needed the perfect PDA. But the Newton wasn’t it.

In early 1998, I went to Mali for the first time. Before I went, I bought a portable cassette recorder to record interviews and some musical performances.

When I moved to Bloomington, IN in September 1998 to do my Ph.D. coursework, I literally had no computer at home. As I had done for a long time during my bachelor’s degree, I spent long hours in computer labs on campus. The computers themselves were quite good (and updated fairly regularly) and IU had one of the best Internet connections available.

In mid-to-late 2001, when rumours of an Apple-branded portable device started surfacing, I was getting ready for my main ethnographic and ethnomusicological fieldwork trip to Mali.

I kept thinking about different tools to use in the field. For some reason, portable equipment for computing and recording was strangely important for me. I still had my Newton MP130. And I was planning on using it in the field. Except if something radically better came along. So I was hoping for the mysterious handheld device Apple was launching to be something of a Newton replacement. Sure, I knew that Steve Jobs had always hated the Newton, apparently for personal reasons. But I secretly hoped that he would come to his senses and allow Apple to revolutionise the handheld market it had spearheaded back in 1993. When I learnt that the device might be related to audio, I thought that it might be both a PDA and an audio device. More importantly for me, I thought that it would have some recording capabilities, making it the ideal field research tool for ethnographers and ethnomusicologists. I was waiting impatiently for the announcement and, like some others, was disappointed by the initial release, especially when I learnt that the iPod didn’t have any recording capabilities. Soon after this, I bought the main devices which would accompany me in my main field trip to Mali: an Apple iBook (Dual USB) laptop with Combo Drive, a HandSpring Visor Deluxe PDA, a Sony MZ-R37 MiniDisc recorder, and a Sony ECM-MS907 microphone. I used all of these extensively throughout my field trip and, though Internet access was spotty, being able to regularly send and receive messages from my iBook was very beneficial for my research practises. I left the MiniDisc recorder and microphone with Yoro Sidibe, the main person with whom I was working in the field, and had to buy other equipment on my way back.

By mid-2004, I bought a used iPod through eBay. I was still living in Montreal but was moving to South Bend, IN, where I was going to spend a year on a teaching fellowship. To make things easier and cheaper, I had the eBay seller send the iPod to my future office in South Bend. When I arrived in South Bend a month or so later, I finally took possession of my first ever iPod. It was an iPod 2G 20GB with FireWire. It came in a rather big box which also included: the original AC adapter, two extra adapters (including a car one), two pouches, the original headphones, and the original remote control.

My iBook (Dual USB) only had a 10GB hard drive so most of my MP3s were on CD-Rs that I had burnt for use with a CD-MP3 player (at the time, a Rio Volt that I had received as a gift a few years prior). I had also brought in my CD collection, in CD Projects (and similar) carrying cases. Hundreds of CDs, a rather heavy and voluminous burden.

I eventually got a good part of my CD collection on the iPod. And I rediscovered music.

Funny to say, for an ethnomusicologist. But pretty realistic. I had lost touch with this type of private music listening. As convenient as it was to use, my Rio Volt didn’t really enable me to connect with music. It merely allowed me to carry some music with me.

Fairly early on, during my first iPod’s career as my main music device, the remote control started acting funny. Sometimes, it would reboot the iPod for no reason. Using the headphones directly (without the remote control), I didn’t have that problem. Though I know very little about electronics, it seemed to me that something was wrong in the connection between the remote control and the jack. I asked the prior owner who said he never had had a problem with the remote control. I resorted to not using the remote control and went on my happy way to iPod happiness for almost two years. Apple was releasing new iPod models and I would have liked to own them, but my finances wouldn’t allow me to purchase one of them and my iPod 2G was still giving me a lot of pleasure.

When Apple introduced podcast support in mid-2005, I became something of a podcast addict. I subscribed to tons of podcasts and was enjoying the iTunes/iPod integration to its fullest potential. A portion of my music MP3 collection was still taking the largest amount of disk space on my iPod but I was spending more time listening to podcasts than listening to MP3s from my personal collection.

In early 2006, I finally transformed my whole CD collection to MP3s thanks to the large hard drive (160GB) in the refurbished emachines H3070 that I had to buy to replace my then-defunct iBook. The complete collection took over 90GB and it took me quite a while to sort it all out. In fact, large chunks of this MP3 collection remain unexplored to this day. My main “active” collection represents about 15GB, which did fit on my iPod’s 20GB hard drive with enough room for lots of podcasts. So, despite being quite outdated by that time, my iPod 2G was giving a lot of pleasure.

Then, in mid-2006, I started having problems with the headphone jack on this iPod. Come to think of it, I probably had problems with that headphone jack before that time, but it was never enough of a problem to detract me from enjoying my iPod. By mid-2006, however, I was frequently losing sound in one headphone because the jack was moving around. My music- and podcast-listening life wasn’t as happy as it had been. And I started looking elsewhere for audio devices.

Which is how I came to buy an iRiver H120, in July, 2006.

Should follow this post up, at some point


Zune Debacle: Worse Than Expected

Microsoft’s Zune media player is out:

BBC NEWS | Technology | Zune goes head to head with iPod

We already knew the sharing feature was crippled, even for non-DRMed user-created files and that Microsoft’s own “Plays for Sure” DRM will not play on the Zune. The Zune is crippled in other important respects.

  • Doesn’t use Windows Media Player.
  • No podcasting support.
  • The Zune software doesn’t allow for sharing between computers (the way iTunes does).
  • No PDA features (not even the iPod’s calendar and contacts).
  • Apparently no recording feature.
  • Apparently no add-ons.
  • Some music studios are asking for a share of the profits on unit sales, even though the device could be used with non-studio content.
  • The store’s “point system” is even more confusing than it first seemed. (A song is worth 79 points, costing $0.99, the minimum number of points is rather high…)

Actually, I just read Duke University’s report on their early iPod initiative. Since that report, the iPod has improved a lot and several features and services are especially useful for educational or academic use. Podcasting support in iTunes and iTunes U is far from perfect but makes the iPod a very desirable device for course-related use. With the help of an inexpensive add-on , the latest iPods can record in much higher quality audio than the version Duke had for its iPod initiative. Since recording was the most appreciated feature through that initiative, the iPod is a much better academic tool now than it was at the time of the Duke initiative. In fact, my iRiver H120 lacks many of the feature expected from the latest generation of media player but has proven an extremely valuable tool for academic purposes due to its recording abilities and the bookmarking features of the Rockbox firmware (ideal for podcasts).
Microsoft Zune’s goes in the opposite direction. No podcasting features, apparently no support for recording.

Too little, too late.


iRiver H120 (Digital Audio Jukebox)

Recently purchased a brand new iRiver H120 with remote control on eBay from OutletMP3. Paid 132.50$ plus 18$ shipping. Also purchased a 3-year warranty through SquareTrade for 16$.
Item arrived as described, with both the European power adapter (in the original box) and a North American power adapter (in the shipping box). The remote control is included in the package but is outside of the original box. OutletMP3 sells those iRiver H120 devices with or without remote control (usually at about the same price).
Yes. “Would do business with OutletMP3 again.” (As it turns out, they sell iriver products quite frequently on eBay and they have an eBay store with “Buy It Now” iRiver H120 devices without remote for 150$ each.)
The best things about this device are its recording features. Those iRiver H1x0 models can record uncompressed sound in WAV format at 16bit with a sampling rate of 48 kHz (so-called “DAT quality”), 44.1 kHz (so-called “CD-quality”), or lower (“FM-quality,” “voice quality”). It also records directly to MP3 files (with the official firmware) in a variety of encoding settings (up to 320 kbps). It has an internal microphone for voice dictation as well as an input for external microphone, analog line in, or optical in.
The box includes a surprisingly decent lavaliere-style monophonic microphone. Not an excellent microphone in any way but clearly better than one might expect (though Laith Ulaby had told me that this microphone was decent).

In terms of operation, the unit has some strengths. The overall interface is much less convenient than that of the iPod, say, but the battery lasts longer than most iPods (for playback). The iRiver H120’s remote has a small LCD screen which shows enough information for most needs making it possible for me to keep the H120 in my pant pocket and operate the device with the remote. While, among portable players, only the iPod has native support for AAC and lossless formats, iRiver players support Ogg Vorbis and WMA. Haven’t done anything in Ogg format yet but it might be an interesting option (though it does make files less compatible with other players).

Apart from navigation and interface, the main differences with my previous iPod 2G have to do with iTunes integration. The iPod‘s synchronization with iTunes made it rather convenient to create and update playlists or to transfer podcasts. iRiver’s models may not be used in the same fashion. However, the iRiver H120 can in fact be used with iTunes through a plugin meant for Archos players. However, this plugin seems to have some problems with a few files (probably because of invalid characters like ‘/’ and ‘:’ in filenames), generates non-working playlists on Mac OS X, and puts all filed in an “Artist/Album” hierarchy which makes iRiver navigation more complicated.

What surprised me somewhat was that the H120, a USB 2.0 device, works perfectly well with my old iBook (Dual USB) which only has USB 1.1 ports. No need for special drivers and the device then works pretty much like a (20GB) USB drive. Since the iRiver H120 works as a USB drive, it’s easy to transfer files to and from the device (contrary to the iPod which makes somewhat more difficult). All audio files can be put at the root level on the iRiver and audio recordings made on the iRiver are in the “RECORD” folder at the root level of the drive. While the iBook’s USB 1.1 ports are much slower than USB 2.0 ones, they do the job well enough for my needs. (Will be going back to my entry-level emachines H3070 in a few days.) A 400 MB file recorded on the iRiver (about 40 minutes of 16 bit stereo sound at 44.1 kHz) transferred to the iBook through USB 1.1 in less than ten minutes. Slow, but bearable. My old iPod used a Firewire 400 (aka IEEE 1394 or i.Link) connection which is about the same speed as USB 2.0 in most conditions. My entry-level emachines desktop has both USB 2.0 and Firewire 400 ports (thanks to an inexpensive Firewire card).

Was thinking about putting Rockbox on the H120 but SquareTrade tells me that it may void their warranty, which would be an inconvenient. The Rockbox has some neat features and seems safe enough to use on “production machines,” but its features aren’t that compelling for me at this point.
The H120 has a radio (FM) tuner, which could be useful to some people but isn’t really a compelling feature for me. Haven’t listen to much radio in the past several years. Podcasts are soooo much better!

Speaking of podcasts… One of my reasons for purchasing this machine (instead of a more recent iPod) was the ease of recording. This is clearly not a professional recording device but the sound quality seems quite decent for my needs at this point. Should be using it to record lectures and distribute them as podcasts or “lecturecasts” (yeah, ugly name, sorry!). In my mind, educational podcasting can supplement lectures quite nicely. Have been to a few workshops and presentations on technology use in teaching and most people seem to agree that technology is no replacement for good pedagogy but that good pedagogy can be supplemented and complemented (if not complimented!) by interesting tools. Had been thinking about a recording iPod to integrate podcasts with course material. It would have been quite useful, especially in connection with iLife and iWork. But an iPod 5G (with video) is already much more expensive than my iRiver H120 and the add-ons to enable 44.1 kHz / 16 bit recording on the iPod are only now getting to market at a price almost half that of my brand new iRiver H120. Plus, though the iPod is well-integrated with iTunes on Windows, iLife and iWork applications are only available on Mac OS X 10.4 and, thus, will not run on the entry-level emachines H3070 which will become my primary machine again in a few days.
In other words, my ideal podcasting/lecturecasting solution is out of my reach at this point. And contrary to tenure-track faculty, lecturers and adjunct faculty get no technology budget for their own use.
Ah, well…

Still, my iRiver H120 will work fine as a recorder. Already did a few essays with voice and environmental sounds. The lavaliere microphone was quite convenient to record myself while taking a walk which sounds like an unusual activity but was in fact quite relaxing and rather pleasant. In terms of environmental sounds, the same microphone picked up a number of bird songs (as well as fan noises).
Among the things that distinguish the H120 from a professional recorder is the lack of a proper calibration mechanism. It’s not possible to adjust the recording levels of the two channels independently and it’s even not possible to adjust volume during recording. (There’s a guide offering some guidance on how to work within those constraints.) Quite unsurprisingly (for what is mostly an MP3 player) but also making the device less of a professional device, its jacks are 3.5 mm “stereo mini-plugs” (instead of, say, XLR jacks). For that matter, the iRiver H120 compares favourably to several comparably-priced MiniDisc recorders, even Hi-MD models. Did field research with a used ATRAC 4.0 MiniDisc recorder. That setup worked somewhat adequately but this iRiver H120 is much of an improvement for me.

Got a few pet peeves about the iRiver H120. For instance, it has no actual clock so recorded files do not carry a timestamp. A minor quibble, of course, but it would have been useful. The overall navigation is as awkward as that of my first MP3 device, the RioVolt (which also used iRiver firmware). One navigational issue is that navigating up and down in the folder hierarchy is done through the stop and play buttons instead of, say, using one of the three jog switches on the remote. Some functions only work when the device is stopped while others work while it’s playing. Switching from hard-disk playing to recording or to FM is a bit awkward and cumbersome. The unit takes a while to turn on and doesn’t really have a convenient sleep mode. While it is possible to resume playing on a track that has been stopped, this feature seems not to work every time. Fast forwarding rate (“scan speed”) is set in a menu instead of being dynamic as on the iPod. The device doesn’t support ratings or, really, descriptions (although Rockbox might be able to support those).

Also got a few well-appreciated features, apart from those stated above. The EQ and SRS presets are appropriate and relatively easy to use. Contrary to the iPod 2G it is possible to play files at a higher rate (increasing the “playback speed”) making it possible to listen to voice at a higher speech rate (and higher frequency). It’s also possible to delete files directly from the device.

At any rate, that’s already a long entry and experience with my H120 will probably push me to write more about the device.

Feel free to comment or send questions through email.