31 March 2009

Why I won't buy Sony

It seems people have short memories. I told my brother I wouldn't buy a PlayStation 3 or a Bravia TV like him and he was nonplussed, he didn't know why I wouldn't give the giant megacorporation more of my money (I have a PlayStation, a Mini-Disc player and various other bits from years gone by). In short, here are the reasons behind my decisions:

Rootkits and DRM
It wasn't enough that Sony were putting rootkits on music CDs in 2005. When confronted with the info by Mark Russinovitch, they issued an uninstaller to remove the rootkit (something very difficult for an end-user to do short of completely reinstalling the machine), but replaced it with a dial-home program! In the ensuing outcry they issued a complete uninstaller. Sony also started using a protection program on their DVDs that didn't agree with plenty of DVD players (including some of the company's own models). Finally, it was discovered that their MicroVault USB keys also had rootkits installed on them. (Ed's note: Admittedly this rootkit stuff won't bother my brother since he is a member of the church of Steve Jobs)

Aibo was a really cool idea. A robot dog that you could teach tricks? How cool is that? Unfortunately Sony forgot that some of the fun of discovery is exploration and clamped down on people experimenting with new and expensive acquisition. Fortunately, people wanting to mess with robotic lifeforms now have Pleo, a robotic dinosaur, which positively encourages experimentation with its USB port and SD card slot. (Ed's note: Sony's robotics division was closed in 2005, and it seems that Ugobe, maker's of Pleo, are running into difficulties too - seems the time isn't yet right for robotic pets. Sigh.)

In total over seven million Sony laptop batteries have had to be recalled over between 2006-2008, despite Sony apparently knowing of a problem in their batteries' construction since mid-2005.

Blu-Ray Disc
I'm not going to argue over the relative merits of HD-DVD and BD but it does feel like there was some trickery going on here to ensure that Sony actually won this format war after having lost twice before (with Betamax and Mini-Disc and you can possibly add a third in there in the shape of the insidious Memory Stick format). Certainly the fact that the PlayStation 3 has a BD player was a big contributory factor in the format winning. Since it's the only choice in high definition I am sure that I will end up getting a Blu-Ray player at some point, but it won't be made by Sony (okay, okay, the drive will, or it will be licensed by Sony, but I can't escape that can I?)

Corporation - An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility. (Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary)

All these opinions are my own and don't belong to anyone else. Any errors made in this post are my own responsibility and will be corrected. They are on my blog to make sure I don't forget why I dislike Sony and are not there for any other purpose.

28 March 2009

Review: Logitech Z-5500 THX 5.1 sound system

I've wanted an amp and speaker setup since our Aiwa stereo packed in two years ago. That was only Pro-Logic, but there wasn't an easy replacement for it. Either we went for a dedicated tuner/amp and speakers or we were faced with having to buy a separate DVD player with amp and speaker combo, which I really didn't want to do. Then I spotted this set and found a few very positive reviews on it. Logitech's top-of-the-range speaker system has been around a while now (I found reviews from 2007), and I can see why in this age of rapid turnaround and obsolescence that is so. The Z-5500 handles Dolby Digital, Pro-Logic II, dts and is THX certified. The connections on the back of the control unit are one SPDIF optical, one SPDIF coax and three 3.5mm connectors. These can either be used for one direct 6-channel input, from a computer for instance, or three separate 3.5mm inputs - I have two used right now, one for an Airport connection and one for the Wii. There's also one 3.5mm input on the side for connections that aren't as "permanent" and a 3.5mm output for headphones.

The four main speakers are identical, while the centre speaker looks similar, but is on its mount horizontally rather than vertically. The Z-5500 comes with standard speaker cable for all five speakers in 4.5m lengths for the two front speakers and centre, and two 7.5m lengths for the rear speakers. The cables all connect to the sizeable and weighty subwoofer unit, as does the control box into which you plug the outputs from your sound generating devices.

We've tested the speakers with several movies now (Constantine, Kronk's New Groove and The Fifth Element) and speech was clear (apart from one sequence in Constantine we had trouble hearing in the cinema as well indicating a deeper-seated problem than just with this sound system), the surround was excellent and the bass was certainly rumbly enough. For playing music through iTunes (via an AirPort Express connection) was okay but seemed a bit thin until I swapped the effects mode on the amp to "Stereo x2", which duplicated the front speakers with the rear speakers. The Wii also outputs sound through the amp now and Sonic Unleashed (the only game I've tried so far) sounded great.

All is not perfect with the system. I would like it if the speakers didn't have their bases attached - the centre speaker is quite obtrusive in front of our TV. The 1-3 speaker switch isn't very well explained until you actually look into the manual, making the quick install sheet less useful, but the biggest problem for me is that considering Logitech also make a universal remote in the Harmony, the commands for the amp aren't very good. The effects switch between DD, dts, Stereo and Stereo x2 doesn't have discrete commands, but rather a simple toggle to switch between them meaning that you need to keep pressing that Effects button until your desired mode comes up, rather than simply hitting "dts" or Stereo x2 for instance. Considering the lack of feedback possible because the remote is purely a sending device, it seems daft to actually make it harder to know what Effects mode you are currently in.

Even with this black mark, the Logitech Z-5500 is an outstanding system. It may have been conceived purely for a rich kids' PC but it works for my needs as an AV amp admirably. 4/5

24 March 2009


Pondering making a Home Theatre PC rather than having umpteen boxes (Sky decoder, Freesat HD decoder, Samsung DVD/HDD recorder) so that we can resell those things. I have a CPU (AMD Athlon X2 BE-2350) and graphics card (NVidia 8500GT) and the motherboard I am currently using (MS-7349) has 7.1 sound and HDMI out. I have an 80GB hard drive no longer in use (I know it's not too big) but the two things I really need are a DVB-S PCI tuner card and some means of making an IRDa remote control. I figure that my Harmony can drive it all with no problem, but I need a receiver. Oh yeah, and a case, which may well have the IRDa on it since it will be one designed to be an HTPC?

I'm thinking of going Linux with MythTV as the PVR, but I need more info, particularly on what tuner card to get and how to do the IR stuff...

Update: It seems that Logitech do a mighty fine set of THX-approved 5.1 speakers (ignore the price, I can get them for roughly half the amount Logitech sell them for on their own shop). I would like to get these anyway, regardless of setting up the PVR.

Update 2: Got the Logitech sound system and very good it is too. In my researches, I've found I need a Hauppauge Nova-SE2 DVB-S2 card to receive the satellite signal and record it and mythbuntu is looking good as an all-in-one Linux solution. It's unlikely that my AMD Athlon X2 BE-2350 is sufficient to drive a HD signal unfortunately, so the price for this box is going up. Right now, Hauppage card: 100€, CPU: 70€, memory: 40€, hard drive: 50€, case: 60€, new mobo for main computer 120€, IR stuff?

17 March 2009

Concatenating files

Had a problem in Thunderbird recently. For whatever reason, my wife lost all the mails in a specific folder. Thanks to our WD World Edition, everything is backed up, so I closed down Thunderbird and restored an older file, that I thought was the right one: afb-movie.msf. Folk who know Thunderbird are going to be screaming that a folder in Thunderbird is *two* files, not one, so although all the titles were back in her folder, the actual mails weren't. Anyway, I went back to the Restore and found a 74 MB file called afb-movie as well as the 100 KB or so afb-movie.msf. However, there were also new mails, that were there so I needed to join the two mailbox files together. Now the files are just text files, so I could have loaded the 74 MB into my text editor and pasted the new one at the end, but it probably would have taken a while, so instead I used a DOS command like so:

for %f in (*.log) do type "%f" >> aggregate.txt
I changed the (*.log) to (afb-movie*) to get the afb-movie2 and afb-movie2.bak files and join them together into a single file called afb-movie and changed aggregate.txt to afb-movie.

Easy peasy lemon squeezy. (when you Google "concatenate text files Vista" and find this website: http://www.howtogeek.com/howto/keyboard-ninja/keyboard-ninja-concatenate-multiple-text-files-in-windows/)

13 March 2009

Review: Philips 37PFL5603H 94 cm/37" LCD TV

Remember how I said I'd review the TV once we had it all set up? Well here we go.

This television looks fantastic. Its monolithic black construction might appear huge if not palliated by the fact that because it's so thin it doesn't seem to take up much space. The gloss black finish does mean it attracts dust like students are attracted to the Glastonbury festival though, so an anti-static cleaner is a must (or a Filipino maid on hand). Although we use our universal remote control (a Logitech Harmony 525), the remote supplied with the TV is a very no-nonsense understated black job.

This TV comes with three HDMI ports (two on the back with space for another, and one on the side), two SCART sockets, component and composite (on the side). The TV is a full HD set at 1920 x 1080p and has a built-in DVB HD tuner meaning that we get HD French TV. It also has a USB port on the side that you can put pictures, music and firmware upgrades on.

The first thing to do when you get the set is to turn off all the "intelligent" colour and brightness settings. They make the picture just too vivid, too saturated. Other than that picture quality is good, even on SD material and a good DVD really shines. The HD signal is something else entirely and it is amazing to see. Because our TV gets DVB, the French version of which is TNT, it means that some programmes, notably films, have multiple soundtracks, much like DVDs, so we can actually watch films that would normally be dubbed into French in their original English on French TV. Channel changes, particularly between HD channels feel very slow.

We bought this TV and then found that there was an offer in another shop that basically got the 42" version of the same TV for a little less than this cost, but it had only SD TNT and 42" would really be too big for our lounge I feel. So I am pretty happy with this set. It's still early days to be able to see how well it performs over an extended period and we haven't really explored all its features yet. It's our first HD set, so we might be overly amazed. An HD signal is great, but DVD brought over improvements than just resolution over VHS, so I'm still expecting to see something else - the fact that digital TV can have more language tracks and so on means that you do get additional features, but these are related to digital TV, not HD.

We are getting a Freesat HD box in the post shortly so I will update this review once we have that. 4/5

12 March 2009


I was a fan of the U3 portable app standard. I had an Emtec USB key that had it and it worked well. Unfortunately that key is nearly dead now, so I got a new one of the same type expecting the U3 launcher to still be on there. The key I got is pictured to the left, and as you can see it's an 8 Gig device (my previous one was 2GB) and cost about 25€.

The new key comes with a portable app launcher called Em-Desk and the drive is just one device (the previous USB key was seen as two devices by Windows, one a CD so that the U3 app could be in a protected space).

Unfortunately, Em-Desk is pants. You don't seem to be able to add new programs to it and it's pretty ugly. I used U3 for two things above all - running Directory Opus on machines that didn't have it, and running password keeper Keepass. Neither of those could be easily added to Em-Desk, so I went looking for an alternative. I found PortableApps pretty quickly and the versions of it with more than just the app come with Keepass. Directory Opus has drivers specifically for U3, but having a portable version is very easy with PortableApps too, just use the Backup and Restore... function in your Dopus Settings menu and choose "Export to USB Flash Drive". Once you've copied your installation there (and everything comes across from your 'normal' DOpus installation) you just need to move the DOpus.exe file and DOPUS directory into the PortableApps dir on the USB key (you do end up getting three Opus icons in your PortableApps list as shown here, but you only need run the first one in the list).

The key seems pretty fast reading and writing and it's nice that you only have one icon for it now (no fake CD) and the form factor is great. I am disturbed that the red LED stays on all the time the key is inserted in the machine now, but other than that, highly recommended just get rid of Em-Desk and get the open source PortableApps instead from http://portableapps.com/ Needless to say this is a Windows-only thing.

10 March 2009

New TV

Finally we got ourselves a new TV. We're sticking with Philips since our old set has done us proud for ten years. It's a 37" 1080p device catchily titled the Philips 37PFL5603H. I've downloaded the current firmware upgrade (bizarre, eh? How times change that we can upgrade our tellies!). The only fly in the ointment is that our local Intermarché is proposing a similar Philips 42" set for the same money and with a bunch back on our fidelity card. However, two strikes against it. 1, 42" is really too big for the distance we're playing with and 2, it doesn't have an HD tuner for the French equivalent of Freeview - TNT. I think I'm happy with this set. It's purty and there's an actual power switch to reduce the standby consumption of electricity to, well, 0w. Plus there's a chance I won't even need to reprogram the remote since it's a successor to the Philips TV we already have, and so the remote commands are likely to be similar enough.

I shall review it once it's here tomorrow night.

Yay! Greasemonkey's back

I've been without the invaluable Greasemonkey for about three weeks and have finally had time to sit down and work through it methodically. All the solutions proposed to create new profiles etc. did not work for me. The only thing that did in the end was remove extensions one by one, restarting each time and adding Greasemonkey and restarting again to see if it got installed. I removed extensions in ascending order of importance, starting with Greasemonkey collections from Lifehacker since obviously they couldn't be used without Greasemonkey in the first place. I removed; restarted; added Greasemonkey; restarted about five times in total, each time making a note of what extension I removed. The fifth one removed was Distrust, an extension for secure browsing, and that did it. Greasemonkey was installed. I reinstalled the extensions I had removed and all still works well.

5 March 2009


Okay, is the film any good? Well, the delay and the false starts have certainly been long and many so people's expectations of Zack Snyder might be too high to live up to. Certainly, the boy dun good wiv 300 (and there's a nice nod to it in the first 10 mins or so of Watchmen). I will give you my impressions, there may be spoilers involved so I shall ROT13 them so they aren't immediately legible. ROT13 is easy enough to decrypt by hand and there are many, many websites (or even Thunderbird extensions) devoted to the task too should you wish to read them.

Okay, first the non-spoilers. The film is okay. The characters are quite well-drawn; Rorschach's mask is splendid; Archie is well-realised and Bubastis is lovely. The CG is for the most part quite invisible and yet this is not the masterwork we all want it to be. The fights are too frequent and go on too long - imagine if half of three of the twelve issues was devoted to fight sequences? Sometimes, the words feel forced, as though the actors are unnaturally trying to repeat verbatim what is said in the comic and don't feel comfortable doing it.

There are a couple of my favourite bits missing: Znaunggna genafsre, Ebefpunpu trggvat uvf znfx, naq zbfg vzcbegnagyl gur snpg gung na nyvra vainfvba erhavgrf uhznavgl.

Jon Osterman deserves a paragraph to himself. His creation is beautifully done, although I think they make him look too melancholic, not distant enough. He works well at all scales and unlike in the original comic book his knob is on full display! :D There's no explanation of why he has the hydrogen symbol, nor how he reduces his costume, but there are several shot-perfect sequences, such as him getting himself dressed for the TV interview and his first large-scale appearance when Rorschach comes to visit.

Overall, if you are not expecting any more from this than other filmed Alan Moore works (with the possible exception of From Hell, which I never read), it will be fine. If you don't know Watchmen at all it will be fine. If you deeply love the original story it will be okay and
you'll be relieved that it didn't come out worse. I'm glad I've seen it, the DVD with all the extra stuff, like Tales of the Black Freighter, will be a must-buy, and I'll give it 3/5 overall.