Tuesday, 11 December 2007

A couple weeks ago I rounded up three of my younger, somewhat crazier friends and (without telling them where we were going or what we were doing) jumped on a train to go from Portland to Seattle. This was our Secret Plan SecretPlan1 day, which sounds kind of stupid but really is a lot of fun. Especially for me, since I am the only one who knows the secrets, and the plan.

It works like this: I picked up my the guys - Broc, Cory and Dave - early in the morning on Thursday. All they knew was that they had to keep Thursday and Friday completely free. That's it - the rest is pretty much all trust and blind faith. But hey - what are friends for, after all? Broc and Dave I have known since I moved to Oregon (they were good friends of my son's years ago), and Cory I have known for a few years (he was in the Navy with Dave).

The whole time, each step of the way, they had no idea what was happening next, where we were going or what we were doing. After picking them up we went downtown and parked. We started walking and ended up at the Portland Union Station. I already had the train tickets in my cool Top Secret folder (heh), so we got on a train (which luckily was not announced out loud while we were in the building, so the guys didn't even know for sure which direction it was going), and pulled out of the station. It turned out we were heading for Seattle.

A few hours later we got off the train and wandered around a bit. We grabbed some burgers and then went to the Secret Plan Dane Cook 017 Pirate Store at Pier 57 on the waterfront, and finally ended up at the Seattle Underground tour for an hour or so, which is pretty fun and interesting. There's a fascinating and surprising history to the City of Seattle, and if you have not done the tour and find yourself in the area I recommend it. From there we checked out a kilt store next door (random, I know - and not part of the plan, heh) and then found our hotel over near Seattle Center.

By this time it was getting to be evening, and we headed out to find some food before the next secret plan stop. Of course, I was guiding us to the general area we needed to be in, but not telling why. We found a good pizza place near the Space Needle and went in. Then, once everyone was seated I told them I had to leave take care of some things and that I would be back. Oh, and that they should not get too drunk or anything since they'd have to walk from the pizza place.

I went out in the cold, found the will-call ticket window at Key Arena (which opened more than half an hour late - why is it that Key Arena staff never seem to be able to get information right, anyhow? Right-arm/left-arm issues are rampant, but I digress...). After freezing my butt off for a while, I had what I had come for (less a half-hour of much-needed time). So, I started running back to the pizza place with almost no time to spare.

I gathered they guys and told them we had to split (like right now), and we started walking toward Seattle Center. The frustrating thing about SPCrewWithDaneCook2Secret Plan Day is that at times it's nearly impossible to actually keep the secret - Eventually you want to say something because you're excited and don't want to keep it to yourself anymore, but you can't do that or you'd ruin the whole concept, ya know. Anyhow, I was pretty excited about the next part, so I waited (it was difficult) until we were standing just outside key arena before I took out the next part of the plan and showed it to them: Second row tickets for Dane Cook, who is one funny guy that these three friends of mine really like. The looks on each of their faces when they realized where we were going and what we were doing made it all worthwhile.

Then I pulled out the four back-stage passes and the looks got even better. Heh.

Since the title of this post makes it seem like it should be about Dane Cook, let me say that the back-stage meet and greet things they do with these special tickets (I won them in an auction) is really cool. We got to say hi real quick, shake hands and have our picture taken with him, which was cool. He autographed our tickets and stuff, too. And then we headed out onto the arena floor for some of the best seats in the house and really enjoyed the show. He did a lot of new material, which made it even more fun. It was a great performance. I was able to take a couple of pictures before my camera battery died... I really need to buy an extra battery.

Secret Plan Dane Cook 034a  Secret Plan Dane Cook 032a

It was a late night, and the next day we boarded another train and headed back home. It was a pretty cool couple of days. Hanging out with just your friends can be a really fun thing to do. Surprising them is even better.



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Personal Stories | Random Stuff
Tuesday, 11 December 2007 10:10:31 (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
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 Friday, 07 December 2007

Note: This article contains a cheesy workaround that worked for me. It is most certainly unofficial and not supported by HP or anyone else (including me). So, if you use it - just know your mileage may vary.

I have a HP Pavillion dv9620 laptop with Vista 64-bit Ultimate preinstalled. It's a big-ol' laptop and has a webcam built into the top of the display. But the camera has hardly ever worked. For months I am grumbled at it each time it has failed to work in MSN Messenger and in HP's own QuickPlay software. It worked for a while, then it worked only when I first started the computer, and eventually it would not even do that, so I pretty much gave up. HP drivers did not help, one bit. Heck, just finding them on the HP web site is a painful task.

Tonight Carl Franklin asked me to help his test his webcam. We fired up Live Messenger and I was able to see and hear him just fine, but of course mine was not working. Pretty lame.

Call that inspiration. Nothing worse for a technical person than to have a broken system, especially in front of other techies, heh. I decided to start searching the web again this evening for some sort of solution, and after finding a bunch of the same-old forum and newsgroup posts, I ran across what appears to be a real gem. And it seems to have solved my problem: No more failure to see and use the HP webcam, at least so far in Messenger and in QuickPlay.

chicony1

The camera is made by a company called Chicony, and it turns out Acer also uses their cameras (as do some other manufacturers). Note that not all HP notebooks have Chicony webcams - some have Ricoh models and possibly other brands. Check your Device Manager to see who the hardware manufacturer is listed as to help determine whether or not this is the right method for you (or just try it and deal with any glitches if it's not). But, according to this post in the forums at notebookreview.com, people are having great success using the Acer drivers on their Vista Pavillion machines with the built-in webcam.

I downloaded the drivers, checked them for safety, and updated my system by following the simple instructions. Voila! It works! It shows up in device manager as an Acer webcam, but I can live with that, for sure.

image

With a little luck it will keep working. Before posting this I rebooted and rechecked the camera, opened a few programs to try to screw it up, etc. So far, so good.

Here are the brief instructions (as slightly adapted from the post by Dylan Bennett at notebookreview.com):

  • First, download the drivers. I got mine from here, and yes -- these are the drivers I used on my 64-bit Vista install: Acer Extensa 5210 Chicony Webcam Driver 5.7
  • Next, unzip the installer executable file, then run the setup program and do the reboot thing.
  • After you log back in Windows should tell you it's setting up your devices and finding the drivers. Let it finish.
  • Open the Control Panel and then open the Device Manager.
  • Find the webcam under "Imaging Devices." On mine it was listed as a generic USB 2.0 device. Yours may be different.
  • Right-click on the webcam entry in Device manager and select "Update Driver Software..." from the menu.
  • Choose "Browse my computer for driver software."
  • Choose "Let me pick from a list of device drivers on my computer."
  • Uncheck the "Show compatible hardware" checkbox.
  • Scroll in the list to find Chicony in the dialog's manufacturer list.
  • Choose the "Acer Crystal Eye webcam."
  • You're most likely going to be warned that the driver cannot be confirmed to be compatible. You can tell it to install anyway.
  • Wait for the driver to be installed.
  • Check Device Manager under the Imaging devices section again and see what you have. Note that the webcam will likely now be listed as an Acer Crystal Eye webcam.

devicemanager4webcam

Now, go and use Messenger or whatever program has given you fits before and see what your results are. Be sure to reboot and try all your webcam-enabled programs. Give it a real brutal test before declaring success. For me it's been great, but your mileage most certainly may vary, and I am certain HP will not consider this a supportable configuration, heh.

Proof it works for those that need it, here you go. Gotta love the reflection-in-the-glasses thing, heh:

Good luck!



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Tech | Things that Suck
Friday, 07 December 2007 21:31:37 (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
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 Tuesday, 04 December 2007

UPDATE re CompUSA: I'm still not sure where the $150 price cut came from, but Reuters and everyone else is now reporting that CompUSA is being sold and, from the sounds of things, pretty much shut down. Stores will remain open over the holidays with some likely fire-sales, so might be the time to see what can be had over the next few weeks... This might explain why the company didn't try to sell me their obligatory extended service plan when I purchased the home server...

I bit the bullet this past weekend and went online over at CompUSA.com and found that a HP MediaSmart Server (the new Windows Home Server OEM device) was in stock at one of the Portland stores (Jantzen Beach, specifically). So, I reserved it online for in-store pickup and headed into the city to get it.

HomeServer2 Much to my (very pleasant) surprise, when I got to the store and they rung it up, the $599 price was automagically reduced by $150 as an instant savings at the register (nice!), so I ended up with the 500GB model (the EX-470) for $450 -- which was just fine by me! All that saved money can go toward another hard drive to add to the system's storage capacity.

When I picked up the new server, I was on my way to the Van Halen concert in Portland with a friend (more on that later and in another post), and then we spent the entire next day skiing at Mt. Hood Meadows on Sunday, so the Home Server didn't even get unpacked until late on Sunday night.

HP's packaging is top-notch, and the documentation was excellent. Seriously, the quick setup steps for the hardware are literally three simple steps - Connect the power cord, connect to your LAN router with the Ethernet cable that comes in the box, and push a button. After that, go to a computer on your LAN, pop in a CD, and follow the instructions on the screen.

Windows Home Server is a very cool system. It allows local LAN and remote access, including web-based access for visitors (friends, family, etc). It will back up your computers each night in case something goes wrong with them (Unless you're running an x64 version of Windows - more on that in a minute) and creates a centralized place on your network for media files (audio, video and pictures) as well as installable software. You can copy any type of file to the system (in backup mode or otherwise). The multimedia capabilities allow you to use your Xbox 360 to play the multimedia content stored on the server. The HP flavor also includes iTunes integration (one central library for all your computers) and some other nifty stuff. I pretty much hate iTunes these days (more 64-bit compatibility gripes plus its just so frustratingly bloated), so I am not sure I will actually use that capability, but it's nice to have.

I have one compliment and one gripe at this point in my story about setting up the Home Server out of the box. On the positive side, the setup software is run on a client PC attached to your LAN, and the setup wizard is very user friendly, simple and quick to execute. You don't have to be anything close to a computer expert to install and run this system, which is a huge victory for Microsoft - Great job! However, when I tried to do the setup the first time I did so from my main laptop, which I bought a few months back at a consumer store (also from CompUSA). It would not work. The problem is that my laptop has Vista Ultimate 64-bit installed on it by HP, and the Home Server Client software simply does not support 64-bit Windows. This strikes me as pretty ridiculous in this day and age, and I was more than just a little disappointed. I suppose I could (should) have done my Google homework before I purchased, but seriously... Bill Gates was stating Microsoft's commitment to 64-bit computing back in 2004 and 2005 (and since), and with 64-bit operating systems being installed on consumer computers and sold in retail stores, it seems to me it's time to be shipping 64-bit support in all software right up front. It's really not just about early adopters anymore. And Microsoft's not the only culprit here - there are a number of manufacturers of software that decide for whatever reason not to build in 64-bit support. But I think that's a mistake. That said, word is that 64-bit Home Server Connector bits will be available in early 2008. Okay, so I wish the situation was different but it's not. And yes, building software is expensive and complicated, etc. etc. etc... I know. End of rant.

Once I set up the server using a different client computer (one running 32-bit Vista this time), things went very well. It took very little time and was flawless. My DLink router has UPnP enabled, but for some reason Home Server was not able to automatically configure the Home Server's remote access settings on it, so I had to set that up manually (just three port-forwarding settings after establishing a fixed IP address for the home server on the router). Once the router was configured (the setup program provided all the information I needed in clear and plain language), everything checked out just fine.

From the 32-bit machine I can access the Home Server via a slick console application that lets me configure and access data. It's really a terrific interface, especially for a v1 product. It shows the value in building a clean, network-enabled Windows application over a browser-based web app, for sure. I especially like the remote application capability, which is basically a limited RDP connection for administrative purposes. In order to access the server from my 64-bit machine I can map a drive and/or access the file system via a UNC share name(\\servername\sharename), so I was able to upload a slew of pictures to a shared library that way. I can also RDP into the server from the 64-bit laptop with the standard Windows remote desktop client and launch the Home Server Console that way from the server's remote desktop (a stern warning page is displayed when you login via plain-old RDP, saying be careful and that the preferred method is to use the management console installed on a remote client machine). I'll be glad when the 64-bit client software is available so I don't have to do that anymore.

HomeServer1 The hardware is nice, looks good, is fairly quiet and has plenty of expansion room. I've started looking at 750GB and 1TB drives online to determine what I want to buy to build the system out. It has three internal drive bays free and three USB ports as well as an eSATA port on the back, so expansion is pretty flexible. In a podcast that my friend Scott did a while back where he interviewed Windows Home Server product unit manager Charlie Kindel (it's a great show, so you should go listen), Charlie said they had one test system where they added something like 26 drives - wow... The way the system works is cool. You add new drives to the system and it recognizes them and basically through the magic of the underlying software your storage pool grows larger. So, you don't have to worry about multiple drive letters or anything. Also, once you add drives beyond the first one you can set up duplication of folders between different drives for data redundancy. That way the content you mirror will survive the failure of any given drive. Not quite the RAID level of fault tolerance but a good and easy-to-use compromise that provides novice-level flexibility and usability you don't tend to find with RAID controllers. In all, the whole Windows Home Server disk/file subsystem is pretty darn cool.

Perhaps one of the most exciting aspects of Windows Home Server, which I plan to check out over the next few days, is the fact that they opened the system up to allow developers to create add-on applications that expand and enhance the Home Server capabilities. There are already a number of really cool apps, which you can check out here.

So, that's my first impressions. Initial software frustrations aside (and with a future resolution on the horizon), the HP hardware and software and the Windows Home Server operating system check out with very high scores. I can recommend this system without hesitating, and even if you don't know much about computers or networking you'll be able to set this system up and start backing up and sharing information both on your home network and over the Internet with family and friends.



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Tech | Home Servers
Tuesday, 04 December 2007 14:56:27 (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
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 Monday, 26 November 2007

I spent the better part of the last week at my dad's place, along with family and extended family for the holiday. They live in Los Altos, in the South Bay area of California. I decided, in a phase of misguided insanity, to get up at 4:00 a.m. on Friday morning to go down to the local Sears store in order to take  advantage of the Toshiba HD-A3 deal they had going (see an approximately equal Amazon deal here). The HD-A3 is a HD-DVD hd-d3_clfront player, and if you were willing to deal with the crowds, you could score one of the $300 players for $169, which is quite a deal. And it comes bundled with two movies (300 and Bourne Identity - good ones), and Toshiba has a deal where you can get five more HD-DVD movies for free from a list of titles.

Unfortunately, I forgot in my excitement and planning frenzy that Sears sucks. I should have stopped to - oh, I dunno - think or something.

Imagine the lonnnng line at Sears, waiting for the doors on the east side of the store to open precisely at 5am. People were giddy, and excitement poured from the mouths of people in many languages. Since I (of course) was late and was not really all that excited about being the last guy in, I just looked at the line and decided to wander down the sidewalk to the corner to see what other doors might eventually open up. If I was going to be last, I could at least get a good loser seat, you know?

This, friends, is where Sears made it's first mistake. Three other people stood with me at the wrong door, in sight of the long line of people who had been there for presumably hours. My door companions, too, had that dejected, partially confused look of glazed donuts in their eyes. And at about two minutes before the magical hour of 5am, the employees inside the store opened our door - before they opened the door where the long line was waiting.

Now, I don't know if some Sears employee thought that was funny or what, but I can tell you the line of people was collectively pissed, and vocalized that fact as we walked right in our door. Some bolted for our door, as well. Others stood their ground. It turned out it was no big deal, since the long line was at the entrance closest to the stair leading down to the electronics department (which is where everyone was headed - more on that in a minute). But the initial opening of the wrong door had the people worked up, and as we marched down the steps of the non-working escalator to the electronics floor, elbows and attitudes started to fly.

Now, if that was it, I'd say it was really no big deal. But there's a more to the story.

We get to the bottom of the escalator (mostly by force, as the crowd behind is pushing hard to get to  its destination), and see that there is no way to move once there because the growing number of people who have already made it downstairs are all stopped about 20 feet away, looking down at something, shoving and jumping over each other. I work my way through the throng and walk around to the other side and discover what was essentially a small, round end table on the floor with a festive red tablecloth draped over it, and a pencil. One woman among the staff started yelling to the entire crows that they would have to sign up on the paper to be served.

You have got to be kidding me, I thought. Who was the genius who came up with this idea?

I stood there and took a few body-blows to my back and shoulders as a couple fireplugs of individuals tried to force their way through the huddled masses to get to the magical service lamp table. It quickly got to the point where I decided to let a couple of controlled elbows loose when one particular individual got to be a little too rough... Just enough to point out he might want to stop, which he did. Then a seven-foot Neanderthal of an individual tried to barge his way through, and failing that then tried to lean and reach over everyone to sign up that way. He was arms-a-swingin' and managed to elbow my jaw a good one, which I didn't particularly appreciate, so in the true holiday spirit I responded with a quick and (relatively)harmless knuckle jab to the ribs. After a couple of those (hey, I was protecting my face), he decided to back off. At least people were able to recognize they were acting like idiots. Good thing no one was drunk.

Anyhow, this story is supposed to be about finding the HD-DVD player for my dad (which I eventually did), not about wrestling at Sears. Needless to say, I gave up on doing any business at Sears almost immediately. The store had almost every DVD player in their arsenal in boxes on the floor except for the Toshiba HD-DVD player and a couple others. So the only way to get what I needed was to sign up on a list that I could not get to and risk a bruised face. No thanks. I think maybe I'm giving up on Sears for good.

I left and did what all good 'Mericans do at 5:30 a.m. on a Friday. I went to Starbucks and got a latte and an expensive muffin. Then I decided to drive down the street in a city I am completely unfamiliar with (in the dark) and see what other stores/crowds I could find. Not too far away, Circuit City was incredibly freakin' packed. The line went around the back of the building even 30 minutes after they opened, and this was a very large building. I didn't even consider getting in line, but it was a sight to see. Same was true for Best Buy. The line was not as spectacular, but it was equally crazy. At both stores they were well-organized and seemed to have a gameplan in place. Much better than Sears, for sure.

Anyhow, I went back to my dad's house and sat down to finish a good Vince Flynn novel I was almost done reading and spent a couple hours that way, with some more coffee and food. I also got online to see what Costco might have in the way of HD-DVD players, since I know they sell them and I have found Costco over the years to be a great place to shop. Sure enough, they have the "club warehouse" version of the same player that was advertised at Sears, dubbed the HD-D3. And low and behold, once you subtract the in-store discounts, it was pretty much the same freakin' price, and  not just for five hours on that one Friday morning. Plus it comes with a HDMI cable, to boot. So, I jumped back in the car around 10:00 a.m., fired up Google maps and followed the directions to get to the nearest Costco.

Sure enough, there were tons of them stacked up and in stock. I also grabbed a 4GB USB thumb drive for my das for $25 after the coupon, which the guy at the register offered up since I didn't have one with me. That's what I mean about shopping at Costco. Between the prices, the service and the great return policy (which I've rarely had to use but it's great when you need it), it's always a good experience.

Anyhow, in my typical Costco-shopping fashion, I also picked up the entire Mitch Rapp series of paperbacks by Vince Flynn (fun books if you're into the whole CIA fiction novels and stuff like me) at for about $8.00 apiece (great deal), and then headed back to the house. Later we grabbed a HD-DVD copy of Planet Earth from Target (Costco only had the standard DVD version in the store, bummer...) to go along with the new player. My dad hooked it up and we watched some HD and standard DVD content, all of which looks great.

hddvd HD-DVD technology is amazing, especially at 1080 resolution. The HD-D3 outputs at 1080i and looks great on my dad's Sharp LCD he just bought. the standard DVD upscaling done my the Toshiba player looks great, with just a few "jaggies" in sharp diagonal lines showing themselves from time to time. The new James Taylor One Man Band DVD (standard DVD resolution) looked awesome on it. I use the Xbox 360 Elite with the HD-DVD drive at home on my 1080p projector, so I get the full 1080p with my setup and it's truly awesome. The HD-D3 has an ethernet port which we hooked up to dad's LAN, and we easily updated to the newest available firmware via the player's menu system.

So, if you're looking for a great deal on HD-DVD players, there are some terrific deals on the Toshiba models (I also hear the HD-A2 is blowing out for around a hundred bucks some places, wow). Check your local Costco store if you're a member.

And skip Sears. Or if you do go there, just be ready to fight dirty.



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Random Stuff | Tech
Monday, 26 November 2007 18:41:14 (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
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 Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Funny how eight years ago can feel like yesterday. My son died the day before Thanksgiving so many years ago, and while much has happened and changed in my life in the intervening time, there's a slice of me that was sort of put on hold, almost like one dimension of time has just stood still while another kept on moving along. I miss Brian, but I am thankful for the time we had together.

So, Thanksgiving is always a bit of a tough time for me. Each year, however, I try my best to remember what the day is all about and to reflect on the things in life for which I am truly grateful, and there are many. Last year I said many of the same things I'll say here, but that's what it's all about really - reflecting, changing and growing.

Not too terribly long ago some friends of mine impressed upon me the importance of taking on an "attitude of gratitude" in life. What they meant - at least in part - was that the place where you focus your mind is pretty much where you'll end up and that being grateful for what you have - rather than obsessed with what you don't have - is a positive thing to do. For the most part I think they're right. This time of year I tend to think about a lot of things, some difficult and some pleasant. But every year I try to take some Thanksgiving time to remember that even though life is crazy and time is often too short, there are so many thing in life for which I am grateful and give thanks.

Life's not perfect, and from the depths of the situations and experiences that substantially change us - often things that we would never wish to have happen again - we are destined to learn and grow, and hopefully to become better people in the end. I know I have experienced that over the years, and my life is quite different as a result.

Sometimes we learn and grow quickly, other times a little too slowly. I still make mistakes. Fear is a great motivator, one that can be leveraged for good or bad. Best to try for good.

But this is supposed to be about what I am thankful for. About gratitude.

I am thankful for my friends, my family, my good career, my home, my dog. I am grateful for talented surgeons and for the people in my life who have cared enough to stop their lives and take care of me when I was truly in need. I sometimes wish I was better to those who have been so good to me. I truly appreciate them, and am thankful they are a part of my life.

There are many people in this world better than me, and a few of those good people I have the privilege to know personally. I am thankful for them, even if I don't or can't always show it when it counts. I only hope in the future I can be more much more worthy of their qualities.

Finally, I am grateful for my life, the people in it, the goods and the bads, and for the possibilities of the future, whatever they may be. I've been very fortunate in many, many ways, and am truly thankful for that. As they say, "with all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world."

Yes, it is.



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Personal Stories | Random Stuff
Wednesday, 21 November 2007 22:25:44 (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
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 Tuesday, 13 November 2007

I'm doing more and more audio recording lately, and between a little dictation, some random music recording and more importantly the interview needs for the Internet IT talk show I co-host, I decided to go ahead and purchase my own portable digital recording system and microphones.

ZOOM_H4Note: I'm going to explain what I was looking for and a little bit about why, but before I do that let me cut to the chase and tell you that I bought a Zoom H4 Handy Recorder (lots of details at that link) and a couple Shure Beta 87A microphones with the appropriate cables. The feature set of the H4 turns out to be amazing, and I'm pretty excited about using it. I can also tell you that my early initial tests are quite encouraging quality-wise, but the real test will come over the next several weeks as I go to conferences and other places and get to put the gear through some real-world paces.

I had a number of priorities on my list when I started looking for a recorder. In a perfect world I'd get all of them. Wouldn't a perfect world be nice? Anyhow... The priorities were:

High-priority items

  • High-quality digital audio - Simply put, the fidelity of the recorded sound must be terrific, clean and without distortion, and I have to be able to count on the recording to be properly timed (not compressed or stretched when compared to other recordings from the same session).
  • Ability to use two or more external microphones with phantom power built into the recorder - Depending on the various mics I might throw at it, phantom power may or may not be needed.
  • Digital recording to commonly-used removable media, preferably SD cards - I already have a number of SD cards that I use for various purposes, and my laptop and other equipment all have SD slots, so it just makes sense.
  • Ability to leverage storage above 2GB - If I'm buying SD cards, I want to be able to buy high density, large capacity ones, and many devices are limited to 2GB.
  • Easy to get recorded files to the PC for editing.
  • Uncompressed audio capability and multiple bitrates to choose from.
  • Usability - It needs to make sense to use and I have to be able to set options and use it without earning a graduate degree in the ABC-brand device.
  • Small and portable in size - Ideally the microphones should be the largest part of what I have to carry around.
  • Removable batteries - The industry is rife with stories of devices that have built-in batteries that can't be serviced by the owner, which in my book is over the edge of ridiculous.
  • Runs on AC power as an option.
  • Firmware upgradable - Audio gear is also famous for being buggy, so I want to be able to download new firmware and apply it myself.
  • It has to be under $500.00 or else it's off the list.

Lower-priority items (good- or nice-to-have)

  • A built-in microphone for quick recording and portability would be nice for quick and dirty sessions and open environments (non-interview or -instrument or what have you), but it has to be of high-quality, or else it just doesn't do me any good.
  • Native MP3 recording as an option - if the quality is there, I want to have the option to record in this (compressed) mode since much of the time that's where it will end up, so in some cases it may help save some time and storage space to create native MP3s at a high bitrate.
  • Let me plug it straight into my PC or laptop via USB to move files, ala drag-and-drop.
  • As long as we have USB transfers, powering the device over USB 2.0 would be perfect for all those I'm-out-of-battery moments.
  • Instrument capabilities - I'd like to be able to plug my guitar in and record away, for example.
  • Guitar tuner built in - as long as it's plugged in, why not?
  • Multi-track mode - While we're at it, more than two channels to record on would be nice. I'll record the guitar and then add the vocals or another instrument later. Yeah I know, asking for a lot.
  • One button for really easy - even magical - menus and navigation. I'm thinking about interfaces like you find on the Zune, iPod or even iPhone (I can dream eh?), etc. here -- easy to use and quick to do stuff.
  • And a price under $300.00 would be even better, please (for the recorder only that is, the external mics are going to freakin' be a couple hundred bucks each, I know that).

So, how did I fare? At $243.0, the price was right, so that's a good start. The Zoom H4 meets almost all the requirements on my list (which is why I bought it), with a couple notable exceptions. The navigation and controls are not exactly simple (which is ironic since they call it their "handy recorder"), as you have to juggle a jog wheel with one hand and a directional button control with the other to establish your settings and navigate the menu. The screen is small, very small.

But, the latest upgrade of the H4 software (v2.0 which I had to download and apply to my new device as it was just recently released) makes some improvements to the readability of the screen, plus it does things like add support for the larger SD-HC cards up to 8GB (yay!) and a variety of other improvements as well as some cool new features. There have been five updates to the H4 software released over about the last year providing fixes and enhancements, which shows they're seriously improving as they go - a good sign.

My first experience recording with the H4 was a good one. We recorded two live shows for RunAs Radio at the Microsoft Dev Connections conference. I found a problem though when I tried to use my new microphones and cables. I had bought XLR-to-1/4 inch phono cables, not paying close enough attention to the jacks on the Zoom recorder, which can take either 1/4 inch or XLR on a combo socket. The problem is that the only way the recorder's phantom power works is if you plug in an XLR connection - There is no phantom power available when you plug in a 1/4-inch jack. So, I had to replace the cables I bought with the ones I need.

I've used the recorder in some test scenarios as well as in one formal, must-work recording session, and it performed very well. I've also just arrived in Barcelona, Spain for TechEd Europe, where I'll be recording a number of interviews. So, after this week I will be able to do a hands-on review. So far, so good, and I anticipate the same results after using the H4 as a production recorder.



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Tuesday, 13 November 2007 02:47:56 (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
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