Friday, March 17, 2006

iPod battery bad? Might not be the battery.

Lithium Ion batteries are pretty impressive for having much better performance than NiMh or NiCd, but they have an inherent problem of not being able to charge to the same level over time. While there are many sites that decry Apple's handling of the battery issue, other pages focus on the hardware issues around the batteries.

I beg to differ.

Whatever problems are endemic to lithium-based batteries, the problem is compounded by Apple's poor battery management hardware and software, a problem I am familiar with that seems to to have gone unresolved by subsequent iPod software versions.

You might ask, who are you to accuse Apple, the greatest user interface design company in the entire known universe, that their software is less than prisitine? Well, a few years ago, a small group at Creo built a little pda-like device we code-named metabadge, which was powered by a lithium ion polymer battery, and we learned some stuff about battery management that Apple should know.

The first is to know that when you build a device that uses lithium batteries, you need to include room for the battery management hardware - a complete tiny microprocessor system whose job is to allow this battery to get charged without exploding, and discharge without burning up. This is a good thing to have.

The second thing to know is that is takes a bit of time after you start up to assess the battery condition. Unfortunately the iPod software appears to decide way too quickly what the state of the battery is, and then (sometimes) catches up to reality. You know this is a problem when you wake up your ipod after charging and it shows a very low battery level. How can that be? It was charging overnight! If you are lucky, then over the next few minutes, the battery monitor will start to show the battery having a growing amount of charge, even though the charger is unplugged! If you're unlucky, then the dreaded "Your ipod battery is out of power" screen comes up.

Many people are replacing their ipod batteries, and some of them may not be neccessary, or even provide better results. Until Apple fixes the battery management system, users may be misled into thinking they have reached the end of their battery's life-cycle when in fact the battery is fine, but the software is telling them different.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Shaw Digital HD Review - mostly sucks

Last year I bought a shiny big LCD TV that was not just HD-ready, but has a built in HD tuner. This is a feature. Unless you are Canadian, in which case it appears that you have wasted your money.

The friendly neighborhood state monopoly of Shaw cable insists that you buy yet another huge outboard space hog from Motorola. While the CRTC allows cable companies the option of supporting the tiny cable card, or the gargantuan and expensive outboard digital cable box, Shaw only chooses to support the latter. I'm looking for a petition to join.

So having exhausted all the alternatives, of which there are, let me see... none, I dragged home this huge package and hooked it up to my tv using the 5 wires of high-quality component video and stero pair. What do I find? Well, of the 9 stations that broadcast HD, most of the programs seem to be HD but not 16:9, instead taking the familar 4:3 ratio.

What's much worse, is the standard 75 or so channels look TERRIBLE! They are washed out, full of moire, and subjected to smoothing then "sharpening" that makes every face look wrinked and every edge wavy. When you plug the same cable plugged straight into the analog tuner, there is no comparison - the analog signal is far better quality. The only advantage to watching the stations on digital - you can see the show name and episode summary. That's a high price to pay for low video quality.

It's suprising and disappointing that the digitization and compression that Shaw is using to send digital cable compared to analog degrades the signal so much. The repair technicians will say it's not a problem with the equipment, the help staff will tell me no one has ever complained about that before, so I will go back to analog cable on my HD tv set, and once in a while when there is something in true HD on one of the several 3xx channels, I'll dust off the HD digital cable box and watch.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

King Solomon and the Tim Hortons Cup

Today's CBC story from Quebec about the Roll up the Rim cup is a pretty clear example of unclear thinking about ethics, and the conflicts we get into when money colors our values of doing the "right" thing.

A 10-year old girl picks up a cup from the garbage and when she finds that she can't "roll the rim" she askes her 12-year old friend for help. When they see the cup wins a $28,000 RAV4 they take it to their teacher who calls the parents. The mom of the 12-year old claims she deserves it. The dad of the 10-year old was going to claim it and share some.

All the pointers on my ethical compass go with the finder. The 10-year old is the one who identified the potential win, and put her hand in the garbage can to retrieve the chance. Everyone else is a help. Her helpful friend did not find the cup, which is the key point. No more than the teacher can claim a piece because she made a phone call.

When you read that the 12-year-old's mother called a radio station for "legal advice" it seems pretty clear (albeit from this one article's representation) who is being a "mensch" and who is grabbing for cash.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

The Mac Mini Media Center - Where Is It?

Ok, Apple, listen up. We've drunk the kool-aid, we have our iMacs and iPods, I even keep the boxes because their designed to be prettier than my office chair, and you can show them off to your friends.

But you have to help me out with the media center thing. It's driving me nuts. There aren't many companies on the planet who could get this stuff together, and G-d knows you may have Steve and 173 engineers working on it already, so maybe this is old news, but - I need a really elegant solution to the living room media center. I even know what it looks like, and what the heck, I'll tell anyone.

I just want one box by my tv. One small box. Oh, and it has to be pretty. And have a simple remote control. Y'know, the Mac Mini gets close. But it is missing one thing. It doesn't do cable.

Yes, I know it is messy and frought with peril. It might even put you at odds with Motorola, that communications giant that in spite of great hardware technology can't build a user interface, an iTunes phone, or a remote control as simple as Apple's. The convertor box they want to put in my house is huge and ugly. Who needs buttons and displays on the thing - cable boxes should be unseen and unheard.

But at least it's easy to say what the Apple Mac Mini Media Center has to hook up to. The DVI connector might get augmented to HDMI so I don't need audio cables as well to my nifty HD LCD TV, but most of all it has to have an f-connector, and a slot for the cable card, once Shaw catches up to the 21st century and moves to renting cable cards instead of selling behemoth ugly black boxes.

Then, and only then, might you be able to start positioning those great Apple LCD monitors in the same room as the flurry of Aquos, Brevia and assorted devicia flowing into the living rooms of the world.