Saturday, April 30, 2005

Call for better AM leadership

AM radio is the oldest form of radio. Despite repeated attempts to modernize it, including wideband transmission, various AM Stereo schemes, AMAX and others, we are left with a less than stellar AM listening experience overall. After listening to the harmful effect Portland Oregon's first AM HD IBOC digital broadcast has on existing AM radios, I wonder just how many more AM listeners we are going to lose before we figure out what it takes to get the most out of AM radio.

I think the core problem is the unaddressed need for leadership. The FCC badly mangled AM Stereo and looks to be making a bigger mess of things by allowing AM IBOC onto the air, but only during the daytime hours. (IBOC sideband noise is too high at night.) Ibiquity is in a position to help the AM band see more of it's potential through it's licensing of HD technology to radio receiver manufacturers.

We have understood how to make good quality AM radio broadcasts for many years, yet here we are in the 21st century still listening to poor quality narrow bandwidth audio being broadcast by an increasing number of stations. Despite what AM fans say, AM is not ever going to deliver the quality of service that newer technologies, such as FM and Satellite radio do, yet we are not seeing all that AM radio is capable of. Why is this?

I have come to believe it is because we are not taking the fickle nature of AM radio into account as we try to improve it and that's largely a leadership problem, not a technology problem. You see, AM radio is about tradeoffs. Everything is a give and take that demands a careful balance be maintained; otherwise we all fail to realize the full potential AM has to offer.

I'm not a fan of AM IBOC technology, largely because the quality of the digital audio is not good enough to warrant the harsh tradeoffs required for it's broadcast. AM IBOC stations must be narrowband analog to make room for the digital signals. That means harsh 5Khz, or less, brick wall analog filters that introduce ringing and distortion audible on even marginal AM radios. The digital signal itself adds noise to an already noisy medium, for those listening on ordinary AM radios. Given the just huge number of existing radios, it does not seem right to just slowly render them useless in favor of a marginal digital solution.

So what to do?

We need to coordinate the use of the AM band, keeping the interested listener in mind. It is these listeners, and more importantly potential new ones, that keep radio viable.

Interesingly, Ibiquity licenses it's digital HD radio technology. It is not possible to make an HD radio without first licensing the Ibiquity core technology and that licensing comes with terms. Normally, I am against this kind of thing, but perhaps it makes some sense where AM radio is concerned and that's the core reason for this post really. Maybe we can use Ibiquitys unique position to force the right kinds of AM improvements.

Look at the difference between the HAM radio spectrum and how it's used and the CB spectrum. The HAM radio operators work hard to get the most of their spectrum. They work together to innovate while not diminishing gains already made. The CB spectrum, on the other hand, is simply a mess with nobody doing much of anything besides shouting as loudly as they can in the hopes of being heard over the noise. The resulting experience is striking in that CB radio, though capable of long distance communication with clear and pleasant audio, is reduced to the worst of both. Narrow, distorted audio and local communications are the norm. Everybody lost with CB.

I do realize the issues surrounding CB radio are more complex. Just think about the leadership issue and it's potential advantages and let the rest go for the purposes of this post.

It's a given that no one AM modulation technology solves all the problems. This means that we really should not dismiss any one technology, out of hand, in favor of the others because we would not be gaining anything. The ideal approach is a well applied mix of existing technology that allows broadcasters to tune their programming and signal in a way that best serves their listeners.

The problem with this is that receiver manufacturers don't see a clear standard to build to so they end up building to the lowest common denominator. We learned this from the AM Stereo struggle where we did not endorse one technology, but let them compete to our mutual demise. AM Stereo is in wide use in many parts of the world that chose to learn from our mistake and support one technology solution.

If Ibiquity would include analog support specifications in their license terms, we would then have some leverage on how radios are made which would bring the combination of choices to the table necessary for AM radio to improve as it should be doing. There would be then two kinds of radios:

Ordinary analog radios, just as we have them today. These would continue to be a mixed bag with the receiver manufacturer free to do what they will.

Digital HD radios would support both AM and FM HD IBOC broadcasts and also support the analog AM options that make sense as well, namely: AM Stereo, AM mono and a narrow / wide option that could easily be incorporated into the treble control so users don't have to deal with another control. Impluse noise blanking would be a nice addition here as well.

All of that could fit onto one chip. I'll bet such a chip already exists and could be put to the task right away, making this a whole lot easier.

The core idea behind this to be a solid platform for AM radio that is a known and stable quantity. This stability would then promote better quality AM broadcasts. Ibiquity could make this happen largely on their own to all our mutual benefit.

It would be nice to also begin work on a more realistic AM band plan. Over time, as stations upgrade their facilities, channel allocations and broadcast types (AM Stereo, AM narrowband, AM IBOC Hybrid, AM IBOC only) could be mixed and matched to the mutual benefit of everyone.

This alone would make the purchase of new HD radios justified, regardless of your position on AM IBOC because AM analog would improve as well. Since IBOC is not a cure all, an improved analog scene just makes AM that much better to listen to as a whole.

AM Stations could then choose to broadcast full time analog AM Stereo broadcasts and be assured of new listeners. AM HD stations could use AM Stereo to cover their night time broadcasts, or simply choose to broadcast wideband AM or whatever else they think might best serve their listeners.

That's it really. I'm not a fan of HD IBOC on AM because it ignores all the progress and quality gear we have today. However, I'm also totally aware of the analog issues too. There is no one stop solution that will fix AM radio. What we all really want is better AM radio, why not apply the full range of avaliable solutions to the problem and just make AM better?

Friday, April 29, 2005

1190 KEX First Portland HD AM IBOC Station

Interested PDX Radio listeners posted the news today and my AM radio confirms it. IBOC AM is now a growing reality here in Portland Oregon. My first impressions are not favorable at all.

Now we get increased daytime noise and hiss in addition to already narrow bandwidth and analog distortion caused by the harsh brick wall filters required for both analog AM and HD IBOC to co-exist on the same station. Every AM radio, I own reproduced the 1190 KEX IBOC noise, despite industry claims otherwise. My better radios really sound terrible now, just as I said they would.

Update: I've got AM HD Radio samples for 1190 KEX up now on the samples page. Ideally, I'll add analog AM samples to the mix in the next few days.

HD FM, at this point, is largely benign in that most existing radios do not see a change in service quality level. As I suspected, the story would be considerably different for AM. 1190 KEX now sounds like a weak, out of town station during the day because of the increased noise the new HD Radio signal brings with it.

Look for AM 620 KPOJ to be next in line for the noise treatment as the HD AM digital downgrade continues here on Portland Oregon Clear Channel stations.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Not Happy with Oregon Public Schools

After reading this post, I realize the issue is wider than my local school district, so I changed the title. I live in Parkrose and am writing about what I see.

Before I really get to the core issues, know that I appreciate the many quality educators working hard at Parkrose schools. I've talked with many of you over the years and you are appreciated. This post is not about you at all, please know that.

So, what's my beef?

  1. The negative impact CIM/CAM standardized testing has on the ability for educators to actually educate.
  2. In my district at least, a growing bad element combined with a sharply limited ability for the school to properly address the problem.
  3. What's with the poor quality food. Somehow I have never managed to be in the school during lunch time. That recently changed and it stinks! Literally. What are we feeding our kids? Old fast food quickly prepared?

These things are forcing me to consider alternatives and I resent the extra expense they are going to cost when our tax dollars should be providing a solid basic education environment. Something is really wrong and it's growing worse. I've never been a supporter of school vouchers, but that's beginning to change because I'm not seeing the minimum results I need to see for my tax dollars. Kids are important enough that I am willing to do what it takes to raise them right. If that means a voucher system and diminished public schools, maybe that's the right approach if change cannot happen otherwise. I hate to force the issue, but something needs to give. In a nutshell, we need to find a way to address the following, or I'm basically going to begin advocacy for vouchers. I just don't see any alternatives. Your comments on this are welcome and encouraged actually. The schools need us talking about this stuff because it really matters.

CIM / CAM Standardized Testing

I'm opposed to these tests for these primary reasons:

  • they artifically focus the classroom on a fact-based rote education aimed at passing the tests,
  • they do not take into account different learning styles and critical thinking skills; thus removing individuality from public schools,
  • educators are held accountable for more than they have control of,
  • the program is costly and has yet to provide any demonstrable value in terms of educational benefit (where is the Return on Investment?),
  • the incentive to "dumb down" the material presented is higher in a standardized testing environment.
Lets take these briefly, one at a time. My experience with my children, over the last 10 years or so, has seen a increased emphasis on fact based learning a the expense of critical thinking skills. A significant and growing percentage of middle school kids cannot reason as they should be able to at their age. I'm seeing kids tapping buttons on calculators and getting answers but not understanding what those answers mean. Writing assignments are similar. They are being asked to recall facts, but not offer opinion and provide solid support. Education in civic matters is cursory and not adequate for their understanding of what it actually means to be an American citizen. I know that last one is touchy, but should they at least know their rights and how they got them? In short, kids are learning lots of facts (and likely forgetting a lot of them), but they cannot tell me what they really mean.

Everybody learns differently. This demands an evaluation environment that can take this into account, further meaning such an environment cannot by it's very nature be standardized. Interested parents (and yes that's another big problem) educators and kids should be able to all participate in their understanding of where they are and what they have accomplished. This is more than a number on a chart. What about the kid who is highly creative, but maybe is not great at math? They are going to see low numbers and in the standardized environment thus be discouraged from learning because they cannot see progress. What about the kid who can remember anything but lacks critical thinking skills? They might be shown to be doing really well, but will wash out in secondary education. We need to be reviewing more than just ability to output facts and make computations. Standardized tests do not encourage this and that's a mistake.

These burdens hit home in the classroom in a frustrating way for many of the quality educators I have talked to. They are held accountable for many things they cannot easily control. Given a large class size, and diverse skill set they are somehow supposed to manage to achieve uniform testing results? That makes zero sense to me. Further, the tests don't apply each year so a kid can slide backwards for a while, then be tested only to find out they are behind and lack time to catch back up! The material on the tests also forces them to build their class plan in such a way that might not make optimal sense given the students at hand. The amount of material required also limits focus where it might be needed. Ask yourself these questions:

Would you rather your kid be able to read well, write well and understand basic mathmatics if that meant some sacrifice on other facts they can easily get for themselves at a later time given the ability to actually read and think for themselves? Is is really important to know all the nations of the world, for example, but not be able to properly read, understand and consider the information in their local newspaper?

My point here is that we need to stress the ability to learn and reason given the facts at hand, not make sure all the facts are properly remembered if we are to build people that possess the ability to learn and grow on their own.

All of this testing is expensive. Money spent on expensive testing programs takes away from the classroom, resulting in less attention per student. Given less potential student / teacher interaction, the incentive to dumb things down and focus on fact based learning is emphasized. We are not doing our kids any favors in this.

Ok, these are state issues not unique to Parkrose schools. However, I do live here and am going to speak from my experience because that's all I have.

Growing Bad element / limited control potential

This one is a biggie. I've met a lot of the students attending Parkrose Schools. They are good kids working hard for the most part. It's the growing percentage of problem kids that is making things hard on everyone. These kids are why at least two of my children are not going to attend the full course of Public Education our tax dollars pay for. It's our inability to manage this problem that is leading me to support vouchers. The testing issues are not helping either, by the way.

Here is the core problem we need to somehow figure out a way to address our our public schools will see nothing but growing trouble:

Kids today know there is little the school can really do to them. Many kids will not work to do the right things unless doing the wrong ones are not worth doing. All of the limits (I don't know if they are self-imposed or not) on the schools ability to address this are the root of the problem. We need to empower the school to enforce a solid and safe learning environment. Somehow we have forgotten the importance of doing this.

I see kids walking around with cell phones text messaging in class, despite clear rules banning their in-class use. Why are we not checking phones at the door, or confiscating them to be returned during a parent / teacher conference of some kind? The kids do this day after day after day. Why?

Foul language, inappropriate dress, insubordination and other common infractions every kid is tempted to engage in happen over and over and over. Simple parenting solutions, obvious to anyone who actually has been a caring and dedicated parent, are denied to the school, leaving useless options in their place. Ever see those television shows where the detention room is nothing more than a play house? Believe it. I have seen this and it's wrong. When I was a kid, the school used to be able to do more to make bad behaviour not worth doing. Today that's not the case with obvious bad results. Maybe we have too many lawyers working to limit the schools liability and too many parents all to willing to believe the school is at fault when the reality is likely their own parenting and failure to instill fundemental values and expectations?

Little of what I see today would have been tolerated in my own school as a kid. (And it was not even that good of a school.) I'm missing something here and would like to know what it is. We know how to solve these problems, why can't we empower the schools to do so? When I go to ask my school for more aggressive discipline, they grant it and say they cannot do it otherwise without my agreement, I shake my head and wonder why not?

I have not asked for much, by the way. Cleaning walls, maybe some writing or work after school. Nothing big. Just enough to get the kids to think a little and move on. Maybe this is our fault as parents. Maybe the schools could work harder to educate parents a little bit too. Maybe provide ready options and get consent for those kids who need more than the tame options at hand otherwise.

Kids come to school high, they bring weapons, they combine into groups and harass other kids. We know these things, it's nothing new. Why the reluctance to just step up and address them. If I were in charge I would. Would I then be fired? Is that the problem the school sees today? How can we fix this?

What is with the food?

The elementary school lunch room actually stinks. It smells like grease and fat. The kids are eating fast food every day and we wonder about attention and weight problems? School lunches used to be made at the schools. Does farming out this to Taco Bell really cost us less in the longer term? Don't we need the jobs and community involvement? I'll gladly pay for this to happen rather than see my kids eat fast food. Lord knows we do enough of that as a busy family. Do you other parents reading this actually know what your kids are eating and why? I am beginning to reconsider my foul memories of school lunch as a kid. It was better food than we see today!

(That's scary to me, isn't it to you as well?)

Ok, so those are my gripes. I know it's harsh, but I really needed to get this out today. So where do we go from here? I don't know the answers, but I will tell you what I am doing. Maybe you can join me, or tell me what you are doing as well. Together we might achieve change.

I want to support my public schools. Paying a bit more for better schools is one hell of a lot cheaper than what I am doing right now. However, if I can't get the minimum quality needed, I would rather do something terrible like consider vouchers to force the issue. That's the last option in my book. Can we not find alternatives to the issues presented above? They are basic things. We should be able to fix them and move on.

What I am doing today:

  • I'm an involved parent. I set high expectations for my kids and work hard to help them meet those expectations. We are getting it done today, but it's hard and expensive.
  • Advocacy such as what you read here. I talk with educators when I can and other people in the community. I haven't spent time with the school board, but I plan to in the near future.
  • I do not allow my kids to participate in the CIM / CAM program to send a clear message this is not the right path to follow. If you want to join me, let me know and I will tell you how. It's easy to do and costs you nothing. (It does cost the school though.)
  • Volunteer at the school. I do work a lot, but my wife goes to class just to keep the kids in line and help those that need it. With 30 kids in a class, just one or two bad apples spoil the whole lot. This also consumes a lot of time, but it helps a lot.
  • Write your legislators. I do this often. Maybe it matters, maybe it doesn't. I think if there are numbers doing it, then it does matter.

Again, I value the hard working educators at Parkrose schools. Know you are appreciated. We need to fix our schools because the long-term harm is beginning to show in that our future leaders are ill-equipped to actually handle the tasks set before them. Our nation is being diminished as a result.

Comments, ideas, whatever? Feel free to express your ideas and experiences below. Think I am wrong? By all means please tell me why. I want to help and am willing to accept all input because our kids matter.

Monday, April 25, 2005

A short news media fast

I just got done doing one of these and I highly recommend it. Take a week, maybe just the weekend or a few days and just don't consume mainstream media, particularly news media, during that time.

The first day is tough, but the days after get kind of interesting in that your mind begins to wander in places that it does not go often. In this, I realize the level of attention we have become accustomed to granting our media companies is too high. What do I mean by that exactly? Glad you asked.

I mean too high in that our ability to just ponder things is diminished by all the information we are taking in. We just don't take time to think about things we want to think about anymore. Of course this is not true for everyone, but I can honestly say that it is true for me.

While tuned out, I thought about my life and family more than I usually do and came away with some ideas to help improve that without too much work or money being involved. That's worth it in itself, but there is more. Local TV news is quite shocking after not watching for a while. What I see now is a sales pitch for local business and other interested parties and a lot of crime reporting along with some light local politics. No solid disucssion of any real issues from what I can see. Where are the investigative reporters I used to see? Were they really there as I remember from childhood? I'm tempted to get some archives to see for myself.

The national news is a joke as well. I see human interest stories that really don't matter, sprinkled with health warnings, crime and some bonehead "what the president did today" stories. There is lots of opinion too. In my opinion, this bias is in favor of the President in that good things get reported to death, probably because there just are not that many of those to report on, real issues get only the most cursory treatment. (This is a disservice to all of us.) Again I ask where is the investigative reporting? Anyone can publish a press release. Is this really where our national media has diminished to?

My newspaper is somewhat more interesting than the television or radio is, but it still avoids the heavy hitting topics far more than it should. Where are the stories about voting, health care, social security, Tom Delay, etc...?

During this little fast, I did seek news and opinion on the Internet and found something very interesting there, missing from mainstream media. What is is you ask?

I found facts and truth mixed in with an amazing variety of opinion. Lots of people, such as myself right here on OpenGeek, writing about stuff and talking with one another, exchanging views all over the map. What a refreshing and colorful medium compared to the bland traditional media.

I'm not saying the Interent should be king, though I must admit I am giving it a lot more attention from now on. I am saying there is something really wrong with our mainstream media that needs to be fixed. Our vibrant culture is being dimmed by a media that grows more tame by the day. As an American I am ashamed really. We used to be better than this. At least I remember us being better than this. Were we, or did the enhanced communication possible with the Internet just open my eyes a little more than they were before?

Do it. Turn off your TV, Radio, and just give your paper to your less fortunate neighbor who might not otherwise have one to read. Do it for a week, or maybe just a few days. Enjoy a brief fast as I did. It's easier than you think and well worth it.

Spend a little time online searching on things you think you might find interesting. Participate in a message board. Interact with your family and talk about things. Your kids will bring up very interesting things to talk about I assure you this is time well spent. Keep a notepad handy and write down those meandering threads that bubble up when given the chance and follow them.

When you come back to plug in again, wonder about your reaction. Will it be the same as mine? I'm betting it will.

I plan to take a little time this week to write my local media and let them know what I just learned. I'm going to ask them how they got where they are today and encourage them to consider the longer term cost. Afterall a vibrant and questioning media is in all of our best interests. Will this be the Internet going forward, or can our traditional media step up and do what they are supposed to be good at in like kind?

My expectation of getting answers is pretty small really. Maybe they will think a little, maybe not. Maybe if they hear it from more people things will change, maybe not. For me, things have changed in that I am now going to make sure and carve out a little space for me and my thoughts. Why not do the same? Better, do as I am doing here and write something about it. Interested others will be better for it just as you will.

Monday, April 18, 2005

The Black Dot Game

This little game is simple and actually kind of stupid really, but has lots of attitude! I must confess, I really enjoy goofy little web games. They are one of the best things to happen to gaming in my opinion. The limits of the medium force us to get back to essence of gaming, namely: simple hand eye contests, puzzles and a little mindless shooting mixed in from time to time. The focus is on the game rather than the experience so often found in modern console and computer games today. I like those too, but sometimes I just want to play a simple game. This is one of those games.

Give this one a try, you will either have a great time for 15 minutes or so, or totally hate it. They have other games on the site too, but I liked this one the best.

Site Update and general roundup

I've had a misstep or two lately. Sometimes the writing just works and other times it doesn't. After looking things over, I've pulled a couple posts to work them over when I'm in a better space. Lots of anger and worry in my life at the moment and it seems to be coming out in my posts here from time to time. Sorry readers, everybody has their moments.

The other changes are light this time around. Mostly minor formatting and general cleanup to various posts. That's an ongoing task that will take a while longer to complete, i'm afraid. I see it this way: I can post when things are perfect and never likely post, or post when I can and cleanup later. Despite a couple of poor choices over the last couple of weeks, I think I'm going to continue posting when the mood strikes me and get the cleaning done as time permits. At least that way, things get out there for you to enjoy. As always, your feedback is important to me.

Despite what everybody might be telling you, the real killer application the Internet brings us is simple human to human communication.

I've started digging through my bookmarks for places and people I find interesting. The first batch is in the sidebar on the right, with another healthy bunch on the way soon.

That's basically it for now. I've got a couple of short political essays in the works, soon to appear here. I find writing about technology and its potential effects on society fairly easy. However, political stuff is really hard. Normally I would let this kind of thing go, but the need to express these things seems to grow daily... The plan right now is to keep the mix light on political issues and ease my way in while trying not to step on my own feet too often. We shall see how that goes.

The reality is that recent polls indicate a growing majority of us are increasingly uneasy about the current state of things today. That means we all need to be expressing our views, whatever they may be, in the hopes that greater understanding of the right solutions will result. The alternative is to simply sit back and do nothing but hope. I'm not one for doing nothing though...

In that vein, my primary political issue remains the untrustworthiness of the electronic voting machines and the highly secretive Voter News Service. Both of these do not have any direct public oversight and almost no news coverage of any kind, despite many thousands of documented problems and complaints. More on this later. For now, you can find two essays on the topic in the QuickLinks section of OpenGeek Sidebar.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

iPod Mini

After toying around with various lower-end portable music players, I decided to take the plunge and grab an iPod Mini today. Overall I am pretty happy with this little device and thought I would jot down a few initial impressions and experiences and see where things go from there.

UPDATE: My iPod Mini has been working very well. I use ephpod for my music transfers and have been storing lots of useful text files on the iPod for reading later. Of course somebody went a step further and enabled all of us to put e-books on our iPods for reading later. Way cool.

The Purchase

Being the sort that wants instant gratification on something like this, I purchased my iPod Mini from the nearest vendor I could, namely Circut City here in Portland Oregon. I like this particular store. It's close to the house, they offer new DVD's at a nice discount when you buy them on release day, have decent sales people and don't work too hard to upsell. (Hope they stay around because I appreciate that.)

Having said all of that, I must say I was surprised with my iPod experience there. They didn't have any models running for demonstration purposes. For me, this was basically a non-issue because I had plenty of time to sample players and had already decided on the iPod unit. Still, one would think they would have a couple of different units running. Same for the headphones too. How can anyone buy headphones without first hearing their performance, unless they know about that in advance?

Minor demo issues aside, I quickly pointed out the model I wanted. Surprisingly the sales person there didn't unlock it from the cabinet, but offered the Creative Labs Nomad to me instead. Lets just say that if one is in the mood for an iPod Mini, the Nomad is simply not the same kind of player and leave it at that. (Liked the Nomad, but just liked the Mini better.)

That conversation was interesting in that the sales people actually work pretty hard to sell against Apple iPod products. They brought up every showstopper possible for the Mini while positioning the Creative Labs product at the same time. I have asked which sold more and the answer has always been Apple though. Hmm...

Anti Apple Points:
-can't change battery easily or under warranty (true)
-does not hold as much music for the dollar (true)
-more DRM (debatable)
-have to use iTunes (true, but I just know somebody is working on this.)
-"The wheel Interface sucks"(True if you only want buttons, which I didn't!)

Pro Creative Points
-can change battery
-holds more music
-more industry standard (twisted truth in that it is a more PC like product, but false otherwise.)
-no wheel to wear out (True, but the buttons are going to see a lot more action too)
-less DRM (Don't actually know or care.)
-bigger (This is a downside for me personally.)
-better sound (debatable given the input source material.)

I was hit with all of those before bringing up:

-size and form factors
-user interface (hell yess!)
-industry standard (I don't see a lot of Nomads around, sorry.)

Let me say right out of the gate, the first two on my list are the primary drivers behind the iPod Mini purchase for me. (More on that in a minute) While the last is just simply obvious though not too important for me, in that I run Linux, use SGI machines, build my own stuff, etc...

Apple probably knows this, but still it's gotta be tough to have a winning product that your own distributors don't want to sell. Grade C

Out of Box Experience

I liked the packaging. It's small size and well thought out ongoing use makes keeping it good sense. The only throwaway is the thin plastic shrinkwrap. I am not used to this and I like it! Grade A+

Initial Installation and configuration could have went well, but I didn't quite do the right thing the first time through. There is clear instruction on the packaging that asks me to install software before connecting iPod. (I am using a win32 machine for the time being. Mac Mini is next for me though.) However, the program installation software suffers from the same problems most win32 programs do. I reached a screen that implied I should have the iPod connected, so I did. That ended up being a bust in that I had to uninstall, then reboot, then reinstall without iPod, then connect, etc...

That cost about an hour or so of futzing around with things. Other than that, everything else made good sense, happened quickly and seemed to work. Grade B

Note I did say initial above. To make a long story short, I quickly ran into problems with iTunes. Overall the application itself was decent. It did have the look of something written for the win32 environment that really didn't want to be there, but Apple computer is not the first company to do this and won't be the last either. Not a big deal.

So, what was the big deal then? In a nutshell, iTunes just didn't work well on my system. Without listing a bunch of specs, lets just say the machine is perfectly capable of handling iTunes and leave it at that. Using the music store was flawless, but using iTunes to handle other music sources was a mess. Importing CD media is risky and crash prone and so was managing mp3 files. Both tasks are crash prone and slow at times. This is enough of a problem that I chose to learn how to use my iPod without iTunes. Apple needs to put a bit more polish on iTunes for win32 systems if it expects to get all its new iPod users onboard. Grade F+

I know several happy iTunes users, so the application does work for people. It just doesn't work for everyone yet. In the end, I put together a CD Ripping program, mp3 encoder and iPod management tool that together replace iTunes quite nicely. After Apple has had another revision or two, perhaps I'll give iTunes another try.

If you find yourself in a similar situation, be sure and visit the ipodlounge. The forums are full of interesting and informative iPod related discussions. You will find solid answers there given some common sense and a willingness to look around. Highly Recommended.

The iPod Mini Itself

Software issues aside, the iPod Mini is just great. I find the package stylish and highly functional too. I have no complaints, only a suggested improvement on the overall screen latency. The display, while crisp and legible, does suffer from blurry moving images. A faster screen would help this, but might cost more in terms of power too.

How come we don't have a black iPod yet? With all that power in such a small package, I would think a black model would be a great complement to the other colors. iGoth! (Hehe)

There are plenty of hardware reviews on the net, full of screenshots and glowing praise, so I'm not going to go there today. Lets just say I'm fairly picky about these things and am quite happy with the iPod Mini from a hardware standpoint.

That leaves the little extras and some observations to cover before wrapping this whole thing up.

If you are planning to use your iPod in the car, I would not bother with the FM modulators because they degrade the sound quality too much, in my opinion anyway. Depending on the radio you have, the number of and proximity to your local FM stations, you might actually experience additional noise when using the FM modulator with your iPod mini.

I found the inexpensive ones also pass along the internet iPod RF noise and suffer from pretty bad EQ as well. The one more expensive, "designed for use with iPod" unit did a fair job of keeping noise to a minimum, but didn't improve much where EQ is concerned. FM is limited in almost every way when compared to the iPod. Overall frequency response is only 15Khz, dynamic range is in the 70's on most gear too. While I don't have the stereo seperation specification handy, it goes without saying the iPod is superior there too

Put simply: Don't expect to hear the quality iPod audio through an FM adapter.

Since my particular car radio does not have an external input I can use easily, I chose one of the cassette adapters and was quite happy with the performance. The cassette adapter was up to the task in every way but overall noise. It's easy to have the iPod turned down too low and not realize the problem because the cassette input adapter seemed able to handle a wide range of inputs without any significant clipping or distortion at all. Given a good high setting on your iPod, you can expect to get some very good sound from one of these little adapters. Recommended.

The few CD tracks I was able to import into iTunes encoded very well. The Apple format is very good compared to your average mp3 encode. Bit for bit, the Apple format is better. If you are planning to use iTunes, the 128Kbps encode default will work for most people. If you are a bit picky about your audio, I would suggest either the 160 or 192Kbps settings. There is plenty of room in the player either way.

If you are planning to stick mostly with mp3 files, I would suggest getting a copy of LAME to do your encodes with. This encoder beats the Fraunhoffer reference encoders hands down. A good balance for everyone is the -q3mix quality settings that are part of the LAME defaults. (~160Kbps) My personal experience with the two (Apple and LAME) is a wash with both encoders having their strengths and being capable of enough quality. Sadly, most mp3 software encoders shipped today do not do the format justice. That's an advantage for Apple in that their format works very well out of the box.

And that's about it really. I'm a happy iPod owner that isn't going to be using iTunes for a while just yet. The application shows promise, but just isn't cooked well enough for my tastes yet. If I can get it to install properly, I'll probably keep it around for the occasional download, but that's about it for iTunes.