Abhi 2.0 on Technology

Abhimanyu Radhakrishnan’s Tech Archive: Columns, reports and video

Tech Tonic #6: Summer Tech Projects

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Tech Tonic 5

Ours is the generation, straddling the analog, digital and now high-def. We remember taking photos with film cameras, watching scratchy VHS tapes, later VCDs and listening to cassettes before making the changeover to CDs. Stuff is getting outdated faster than ever before and keeping up with involves constant conversion of personal media into newer digital formats for convenience, archival value and easy access. If Con-version 1.0 was about converting VHS tapes and audio cassettes, then 2.0 involves disposal of what was once cutting-edge. The problem is that all this involves engaging in some fairly monotonous tasks that will never get done in the regular routine and cannot as yet, be outsourced easily. They’re best left to lazy days, whilst watching sitcom reruns, test matches or mindless movies that don’t need full concentration. Typical summer vacation stuff! Now most of us don’t have the luxury of two whole months like the good ol’ days anymore, but if you do, here are some summer tech projects I recommend. :

Music:
Apple has officially overtaken Wal*Mart & Best Buy as the US’ number one music retailer and while India has been slow to catch on to the legal download bandwagon, the future is pretty bleak for CDs. “Ripping” your CDs ie. converting them to a friendlier digital format like MP3 is relatively easy. You can use a program like iTunes if you’re an iPod user or the default Windows Media Player for one-click ripping. If you’re connected to the net, these programs automatically pick up song, artist and album information. You’re literally a zombie, ejecting, inserting and replacing CDs and before you know it, the music collection is fully wired!

Video:
With the new high definition format, ‘Blu-Ray’ players and discs, trickling into the market, VCD is officially TWO generations behind the curve, even as DVD reigns supreme. As most people upgrade to big-screen TVs, VCDs will look stretched and awful. The only displays that will justify their existence are the ones on small portable media players such as the iPod Touch or the Cowon A3. Ripping VCDs though is much more painful than CDs. You have to pop the disc into your PC and open the MPEGAV folder, in which you’ll see many files with .DAT extensions. Typically, the largest sized file will be the movie while the rest will be annoying trailers that VCDs usually force on you. Rip the movie into a compressed format such as MP4 using a program such as Free iPod Video Converter available at jodix.com. The next problem is that most VCDs are spread over 2-3 discs, which means you have to repeat this fairly time-consuming process for each disc. After half an hour or so you’ll have three MP4 files which need to be stitched together. Yamb is one of the simplest programs for this and can be downloaded free at softpedia.com or download.com.

Documents & Photos:
This is most worthwhile one. Buy a basic scanner, and just put your head down for a whole day – you won’t regret it. On most flatbed scanners, you can arrange four or five photographs in the preview and select them individually for final scanning. Some of the higher end visiting card scanners are easier to use for small 4×6″ photos. Most scanners will save multi-page things like passports or contracts into a single PDF file – all you have to do is remember to ’scan as document’ and not as ‘image.’ Trust me, the effects on quality of life of this one-time painful task are immense. About nine months after the fun and frolic, when nasty surprises come your way (I’m talking about tax deadlines, whatever were YOU thinking?) you’ll be grinning like a Cheshire cat!

I would highly recommend outsourcing these tasks to your kids, especially during hot summer afternoons, when there isn’t much to do. If you have some to spare, do get in touch – don’t worry, I have considerable experience in exploiting underage labour for technological pursuits. I remember one particular summer vacation just after first year of college, when I wanted all my hand-written articles and essays converted into digital format. Having just turned 18 and with more interesting things to do, I decided to offer my 13-year old brother the task. About a week of 4-hours-a-day labour for 50 bucks. My brother couldn’t believe his luck: “FIFTY whole bucks AND I get to use the computer? All to myself? Which means if I type it out fast I can use the remaining time to play games? Deal!” Sigh. No wonder, the Indian IT industry was my calling as a journalist – I’d understood the business model way before its time!

Written by Abhi 2.0

April 20, 2008 at 9:07 am

Posted in Hindustan Times

Tech Tonic # 5: The Mythical Centro-Q

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 Tech Tonic 5

The PDA-phone market is going to be a two-way race in 2008 as Apple’s iPhone takes RIM’s Blackberry head-on both in the corporate-IT and in the consumer tech space. Surprisingly the pioneers of both the PDA and the mobile phone – Palm and Motorola respectively, are struggling since neither managed to merge the two categories together as succesfully as the (relative) newcomers.

However, earlier this week, two PDA-phones from these fallen legends landed on my desk for review. One was the Moto Q8 and the other the Palm Centro. The first thing that struck me even before I opened the boxes was the price. Both these full-keyboard phones are priced at around Rs.14,000! That’s a good 10k less than the (hacked) iPhone or the Blackberry Curve. After exactly, half an hour of probing each device, it suddenly struck me: “Oh My God! Palm and Motorola should.. like …totally merge dude!”

I’m no investment banker and am barely familiar with the financials of either company. I have no clue about valuations, strategic fit, anti-trust implications, blah blah. I’m just a long-time fan of both companies’ products and as a consumer I would LOVE to see ‘MotoPalm’ emerge as the third player, who according to the “Rule of Three” management mantra, will shake-up the market in style!

Just hear me out on this. The Palm Centro is the most compact smartphone with a full QWERTY keyboard that I have ever seen. It’s not particularly slim, but neither is it a brick. My first thought on seeing the tightly packed keys was, “No way my fingers are going to handle this.” Surprisingly, not only are the keys beautifully beveled, they also provide the softest, yet most tactile feel on any phone keyboard in the market. There are lots of nice touches that can only come from a company that knows its users well. Let me give you two quick examples. The biggest problem I face when using touchscreen phones is that my earlobes keep pressing on the screen and often end up deleting contacts or setting off alarms – its eerie! Sure, in some phones, you can turn the screen off just after dialing or taking a call but thats painful. The Centro has a simple setting that allows you to lock the screen whenever you’re in a call. Next, I work in television so I’m often rushing into a studio and fumbling last minute to silence my phone, lest it ring during a live recording. “Unlock keyboard.. whats the key combo?? drat! ok, find ‘profiles’ in the menu, activate ‘silent’ … woops in a hurry I pressed “loud” … too late .. cameras rolling… I’m done for!” Palm pioneered the physical silent-switch on the outside that just puts all sound off with one slide of a button. I love it – no wonder Apple copied it on the iPhone!

The Moto Q8 on the other hand is the slimmest Windows Mobile ever. In spite of having a full keyboard it’s way thinner than nearly all Windows phones that don’t have keyboards! Do you see what I’m getting at? The Centro’s keyboard on the Q’s ultra-thin body with a silent-switch thrown in could be the ultimate smartphone!

What software will this as yet mythical phone run? Palm’s hived-off software division was acquired by a company called Access which has turned the once proprietary Operating System (OS) into a Linux-based open-source platform. The Centro is among the first phones to use this new Linux-based OS. Motorola has thrown everything and the kitchen sink at its phones as far as software is concerned. It has made phones running its own OS, Palm, Symbian, Windows and pioneered mainstream mobile Linux resulting in current models such as the MotoMING. It also acquired a company called Good which is basically makes messaging software that competes with Blackberry, and from what I’ve heard, is superior if not as good in most aspects. With both companies having great Linux-on-smartphone experience, they’re best positioned to use Google’s upcoming Android mobile OS that promises to liberate phones and make them more like PCs.

Anyway, while “researching” some facts for this column, I was dismayed to learn that my brilliant merger idea was not original by a long shot! Half the corporate world seems to be clamouring for Motorola to acquire Palm. As of writing this piece, no such thing has happened though by the time you see this in print, MotoPalm may be for real. However, if you see a Centro-Q running Android in the near future, please do contact me and volunteer your services as a court witness when I sue the new entity for royalty.

Written by Abhi 2.0

April 6, 2008 at 11:15 pm

Tech Tonic #4: Tech Audit

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Tech Audit

It’s the end of the financial year and while I collate my bills and claims, it’s also high time I audited FY08’s tech purchases. I bought lots of stuff, some cool, some junk so lets take a hard-nosed look and pass judgment:

ASSETS

– Shower Radio:
Technically I didn’t buy it since it was gifted but what a great gift! It really doesn’t get better than (a waterproof) FM Radio in the bathroom. This inexpensive cute chunky plastic box has just two knobs – one for controlling the frequency and one for volume.There’s a small digital clock and holes for the in-built speaker. It takes 4 AA batteries nevertheless highly recommended!

– Nintendo Wii:
This one was swung by WAF (Wife Acceptability Factor). There was no way an Xbox or PlayStation was entering the home and having me glued to it 24×7. The Nintendo Wii on the other hand is the most fun, stress-busting and yet addictive gaming experience I’ve had. We’ve thrown Wii-kend parties with friends who just can’t get enough of it. Whoever said gamers have no social life?

– iPod Touch
I bought this purely on a whim – no iPhone yet in India and I desperately wanted to “flick and pinch” (before dirty thoughts enter your mind) photos, songs and videos. But once this thing gets on the net, it’s the best handheld internet browser EVER made. Its also among the best resolution screens on so slim a device and my VCD collection is now being ripped for use solely on the Touch.

– SMC Mini Wi-Fi Router
It costs less than four thousand bucks, is incredibly easy to set up (just plug the internet cable in) and doesn’t require software installation. Multiple laptops and Wi-Fi gadgets (such as the previous two on this list) then easily share the single net connection at home. Just remember to password protect your router lest the neighbours decided they don’t need to buy their own.

– HP Scanjet 2400
I had no idea that scanners had become so cheap – less than 3k – though when I did order it, I questioned the need to pick up such a big dust collector. However, a little discipline from my side in scanning EVERYTHING to make life paperless has proven to make this the best decision of the year. I’ve not had to pull out anything from old files to xerox – just browse, attach and email/print!

LIABILITIES

– Skype Wireless Phone
This is nothing but a plastic “phone” shaped Wi-Fi device that has no software except on it except Skype. You connect to Wi-Fi, login to Skype, access your friends list and call them. Its basically a substitute for having to sit in front of your PC with headphones and mic. Nice concept, but not worth 5k considering I’ve used it less than a dozen times all year!

– Digital Photo Frame
I bought two of these as gifts, but was too tempted and opened one to keep for myself in the drawing room. The image quality is poor, it has an ugly cable for power supply that gets in the way and most importantly I haven’t had the time or “enthu” to replace the memory card with pictures that I slotted in, when I first opened it nearly a year ago.

– Onkyo Gladiator 5.1 Home Theatre
This one was heavily subsidized thanks to credit card points but took a dozen follow-ups over 4 months with HDFC bank before it landed up. It takes up tons of space and has created a wiring mess. Moreover there aren’t enough movies out there in the market with 5.1 Dolby sound to enjoy. White elephant alert!

– LG xCanvas 37″ HDTV
Its on the same table that the much bulkier “tube” was on, so the space-saving of the thin LCD is redundant. TV signal in India is not HD (High Definition) so my cable actually looks worse on this than on my old 29″. I don’t have an HD gaming console and I don’t intend to buy a Blu-Ray disc player till prices hit 10k ie. mid 2009! Early adoption be damned, this could have easily waited; I’m sure a 46″ will be the same price by next year!

– Sony Cybershot T-100
Never buy a digital camera which requires that the battery be taken out and charged separately. I have no issues with the camera itself; its only the painful charging that has ensured that I’ve never had it ready when I most needed it. In any case, in the future, I’m going either for a great mobile phone-cam or an entry level Digital SLR . The era of these in-between pocket “digicams”, for me, is over!

Written by Abhi 2.0

March 23, 2008 at 7:28 am

Tech Tonic #3: (Audio) Book Worm

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It had been a while since I’d done a 10-hour long road trip and options to keep myself busy such as reading a book or watching a video on my iPod Touch had been ruled out because of motion sickness. The only alternative was audio but listening to music for more than half an hour, isn’t really my thing. I decided that this was the time to try out Audible.com – the world’s leading ‘audiobook’ provider. I’d read that Amazon had just announced it was buying Audible for 300 million dollars and I’d made a mental note to try out the concept of “listening to a book”.

The night before the trip, I logged on to Audible.com and punched in my credit cards details and other information. The site has a nice clean design, loads quickly and the registration process, at first seems smooth. I initiated the one-time download of the Audible Manager software and while it downloaded in the background, I got down to making the tough choice of picking my first audiobook. You can chose books by category or look at the bestseller lists or even the site’s own recommendations. The most brilliant part about the interface is the ability to hear how the book is going to sound. Under a small image of every book cover is a play/pause button that on clicking, immediately starts a sample excerpt. You get a feel of the narrator’s voice and style which is critical to the selection process. For instance, listening to Lord of the Rings could be a disaster unless you’re a certified Elvish speaker! The narrator pronounces all the names and places using the exact guidelines laid down by author JRR Tolkein himself for these (fictional) languages, which is mind-bogglingly confusing compared to reading it yourself and mentally pronouncing stuff however you want. On the other hand, something like The 4 Hour Work Week by Timothy Ferriss had narration which sounded easy and conversational. I decided that this was my pick and clicked the ‘purchase’ button.

“This title has not been authorized for sale in your geographical region”, was the response – ouch! It became pretty apparent soon, that almost nothing had been authorized (by the publishers who hold the rights) for India. I decided on a whim to try a fabricated address. I didn’t think it would work since many similar services (eg. Apple iTunes store) are able to detect your country from the credit card number itself. Anyway, I made up a posh California residence – hey, it’s the only place in the US whose Zip Code I could remember. Watching ‘Beverly Hills 90210‘ as a teenager in the early days of STAR TV sure came in handy! To my surprise Audible accepted my address at face value and this time around I was able to purchase the book. The download of the eight hour long, 115 MB file had begun. I left the computer on standby since with my ‘Fraudband’ connection from Exatt, it would take all night. Indeed, all I had to do in the morning was drag and drop the file from iTunes onto my iPod Touch.

The listening experience was nothing short of excellent. The book itself was very good and on a player which has video display, you can see which chapter you’re on and skip back and forth easily. The downsides are that its much more tedious to rewind or fast forward compared to turning back a few pages on a real book. Also with the dreadful headphones that most players come bundled with, your earlobes start aching in a couple of hours.Finally, Audible is still an expensive option, especially for a country like India. Books are priced between Rs. 600 and Rs. 1000 which is more than what the hard copy will cost you in a bookstore.

Also, all the files are protected by DRM (Digital Rights Management) which means they are stored in a proprietary format called .aa and you can’t (officially) rip them into any other format like MP3 to make copies for your friends. In fact you can burn only one copy of a book onto an Audio CD. Geeky types can find workarounds pretty easily with a little googling. Also, this system works best on iPods with iTunes and is a bit cumbersome with other devices and software. However, since I own an iPod am not particularly keen on making copies, everything is fine by me. The problem now is that I’m so taken in with the theme of The 4-hour Work Week that you might just not see a column next fortnight!

Written by Abhi 2.0

March 9, 2008 at 2:12 pm

Posted in Hindustan Times

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Tech Tonic #2: Smile Please! Say Eee

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Tech Tonic 2

Until someone from Taiwanese computer giant Asus told me that the three Es in Eee PC stood for the incredibly unimaginative “Easy to learn, Easy to work, Easy to play”, I was hooked onto the name. Although it’s pronounced just E-P-C one can’t help but get excited at the sight of so many ‘E’s and conjure up a dragon stance aka Bruce Lee all the while shrieking “Eeeeeee PeeeCeeee!”. Its a laptop straight out of Pokemon world and the name is so much better than DV3244SX or some similar variant of the alpha-numeric combination disease that the laptop business seems to suffer from. The Eee PC is a “subnotebook” that’s light, sleek and surprisingly good looking with a nice metallic glossy finish. The specs are bare bones – a low end Intel chip, 512 MB of RAM, a 7-inch screen, basic ports for LAN, mic, headphone, VGA output and three USB jacks. Memory cards can be inserted into an external slot and there’s even a VGA webcam in the model that I tested out. There’s no hard drive on the Eee PC but a flash memory based ‘solid state’ disc ranging from 2GB to 8GB – my model had a 4 gigs. This ensures lightning quick startup and shutdown, lesser risk of data loss and much lower power consumption. The battery manages to consistently give just over 3 hours with Wi-Fi on throughout.

However the make or break in a low budget PC was always going to be the operating system and this one comes bundled with a Linux distribution called Xandros. I’ve mentioned before in this column that I’m a Linux-skeptic as far as consumer PCs are concerned. However the one very smart thing that they’ve done is to load a very simple tab-based version of Xandros as the default rather than the full fledged interface. In fact it looks very similar to good old Windows 3.1 with folder groups and nice large icons. You can see lots of familiar stuff such as Firefox, Skype, Google Docs, a PDF reader etc. on the opening screen. One of the most unnerving things for a first time user about firing up Linux is to see these tons of programs with ultra geeky sounding names like Konqueror, Amarok, Phonon etc. It could make you feel like you’ve been abducted and placed on an alien planet. The Eee PC is the first machine running Linux that I would recommend even to people with nothing but the most basic knowledge of Windows. It opened all websites flawlessly, detected external hard drives, played most common audio and video files and opened all documents that I threw at it.

It’s not without its flaws though. There’s too much wastage of space around the screen. Shifting the stereo speakers from either side of the LCD seems as if it would easily allow for 25% more display. The button below the touch pad which serves as both left and right mouse-key is hard and often unresponsive. External volume controls should have been provided. There are tons of  kinks in the software too. For instance the Wi-Fi setup is a tad complex (an average user should not be left wondering whether he uses WEP or WPA as his security protocol) and refuses to remember your password forcing you to enter it every time. Also, good luck on installing something like an iPod or a digital camera – its a pain getting Linux drivers for most hardware. None of the cellular providers who make USB modems have bothered to throw in Linux drivers, which is a pity since Wi-Fi is not very ubiquitous in India and having this logged on through GPRS would have solved the connectivity problem once and for all.

However in the final analysis, the Eee PC is a winner. I’d still not recommend it to power users for whom their notebook is the critical, primary machine. You don’t want to be stuck ploughing through Linux forums on the net when push comes to shove. However for those of you who have a primary desktop at home or work and just want a portable add-on sort of notebook for infrequent travel or even mobile usage within the home, I vouch for this baby.  If the Linux bit is making you a bit queasy relax – it supports Windows and in the US at least, Microsoft has agreed to sell Windows at a super-subsidized rate of $40 with the Eee PC. The Eee PC is currently available in white and black though light shades of metallic pink, blue and green will be on the shelves soon. At Rs. 18,000 it’s definitely a bargain and more importantly, for some, looks way more expensive than it is.

Written by Abhi 2.0

February 24, 2008 at 6:17 am

I’m A Soundbyte!

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Thank God I remembered stuff from the Google Bombing piece I did for JAM magazine – I was sufficiently qualified, I guess to be an “expert” on the topic … actually expert is pushing it, but knowledgeable commentator is fair 🙂

I made my first news appearance as a “soundbyte” on Al-Jazeera, thanks to a former colleague who now works for a production house that does a weekly show for the English channel.

The Google bombing story starts at 5:15 in this nearly 12 minute video:

Written by Abhi 2.0

February 12, 2008 at 10:51 am

Posted in Al Jazeera

Tagged with , ,

Tech Tonic #1: Micro Going Soft?

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I’d barely finished putting the final touches on my first column for this magazine when the news started flashing on the wires, that Microsoft had made a 44 billion dollar bid for Yahoo. There had been rumours floating for a while but they’d been the usual, ignorable ”everybody buying everyone else” theories that keep circulating on the wonderful interweb. In any case this column was supposed to be about everyday tech not corporate takeovers and silicon valley politics. However this particular bit of news was slightly different. Unlike January’s other mega-deals like Sun buying MySQL or Oracle buying BEA, which matter only to IT departments of companies, this story is a reflection of how humble users like you and (often not very humble) me are driving the world’s most powerful software company to make such a big gamble.

The text of Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s letter to Yahoo’s board clearly says that Google is the common enemy and that this merger is a play for the online advertising market which is expected to touch 100 billion dollars in the next two years. However, what is not obvious in the letter is the growing threat of Microsoft being rendered redundant in the life of the common user. Now lets get this straight. I’m no Microsoft-bashing open-source evangelist trying to change the world by defeating evil capitalists. Heck, i’ve been a Windows user forever. I tried installing Linux a couple of times and was not convinced, I hated the alternatives to MS Office such as Star Office and Lotus Notes and the very fact that I need to write a column to make a living is proof enough that I can’t afford to be a Macintosh user ;-). I just want to be able to use the best and simplest software out there to help me get on with my life – period. Of late though, Microsoft isn’t the best at providing that.

Lets start with the Operating System of my home desktop. I’ve steadfastly refused to upgrade to the new Windows Vista. It gives my poor PC an inferiority complex with it’s hardware requirements and yet does not have any real fantastic reason for convincing me to upgrade. More importantly my operating system doesn’t matter all that much anymore. The only thing I’m doing of late is starting up my PC, firing up my web browser and going bersek online. That’s the other thing. I’m among the 10% (and growing) of web users, who use a web browser called Firefox instead of the default option that comes with Windows called Internet Explorer. It’s just plain better!

Now let’s get to Microsoft’s other big cash cow. I have a secret to reveal. I haven’t installed Microsoft Office on my PC. I’m banging out this column on something called “Google Docs” which is frankly, the best thing I’ve used in a long, long time. If you’re a Gmail user, you’ll see a small link on the upper left side of your screen, saying “Documents”. When you click on it you’re transported into a world of stripped down, ‘essentials-only’ versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint. All your documents are stored on the web and you can collaborate with other users by giving them permission to view or make changes to your stuff. Make no mistake, if you make a living on spreadsheets and presentations then Google Docs is not an alternative for MS Office. But the point is I have been able to manage very nicely. Of course every now and then, a merchant ship in the Mediterranean will plonk an anchor onto an undersea cable thereby cutting off internet access to most of India and leaving pompous journalists with no way of retrieving their half-written columns.

What about the gadgets in my everyday life? Let me do a quick survey of the gizmos around me right now. Umm lets see, theres a Nintendo Wii (currently outselling the Microsoft Xbox 360), an Apple iPod Touch (currently outselling the Microsoft Zune) and a Blackberry (currently outselling Windows Mobile). Yes yes, I agree this survey is completely unscientific using a random selection etc. but if I were to invest using Wall Street legend Peter Lynch’s philosophy of ‘look around you’, I would certainly be short on Microsoft.

Let me admit, I still don’t have the guts to put my money where my mouth is as far as my desktop computer is concerned. I need the safety net and familiarity of my good old Windows XP. The laptop though is a different story and I’m willing to experiment. Asus, HCL and ACI  have all just launched super cheap, tiny laptops that run on allegedly very user-friendly versions of Linux. I’ll be done playing with them within a fortnight so watch this space for the verdict!

Written by Abhi 2.0

February 10, 2008 at 9:51 am