EARS ON

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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Mar 19, 2007 7 comments
Like Poe's purloined letter, some stories lay in plain sight, unnoticed. On rooftops, no less. I'm talking about the return of the humble TV antenna in the age of HDTV. As Newsweek's Johnnie L. Roberts says so eloquently: "The irony is marvelous. Pushed into obsolescence by the technological advances of cable and satellite, antennas are re-emerging thanks to one of the most promising high-tech services of the digital age. High-def channels can be plucked out of thin air by antennas just like regular broadcast signals--no cable, no satellite dish, no monthly bill, no waiting for the cable man." OK, if you've got a Jon Stewart addiction, the dear old antenna will do nothing to help. But how many such addictions do you really have? If the answer is just one or two, try this exercise: Get your cable or satellite bill. Multiply what you're paying for television by 12. That's what you're spending every year for Jon Stewart. Still think it's worth it? Then multiply the figure by 10--that's the amount of cash you could have put in your retirement fund over a decade. And what with cable's constant rate hikes, the final figure will be considerably larger than this simple calculation. If free TV seems like a good idea after all, the Consumer Electronics Association maintains an antennaweb site expressly to help people like you save money every month. Consumer hints: All HDTV channels live in the UHF band, so make sure your antenna works well at those frequencies (like the Terk indoor model shown here). You'll need a TV, set-top box, or DVR with an ATSC (meaning digital) tuner. But the results are worth it. Broadcast HDTV operates at a higher data rate than cable or (especially) satellite. So over-the-air HD picture quality is more than competitive. Salut!
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Mar 15, 2007 0 comments
Will Slacker do for Internet radio what Napster did for file sharing? Check out the beta version. At the heart of the multifaceted scheme is an Internet radio service that will build out to 10,000 streaming channels. There are Slacker-programmed channels, but you can skip songs you don't like, program your own channels, and even publish them on your website. Ads support the free version; or you can pay $7.50/month to ditch the ads and expand your skipping privilege beyond the free six-song maximum. Slacker works with any web browser. Then there's the Slacker Jukebox software, which integrates the music on your hard drive into the Slacker experience. The plot thickens this summer with the Slacker Portable Player, with capacity between 2-120 gigs and pricing from $150-350. A touch-sensitive side strip navigates what's happening on the four-inch color screen. The player syncs with the Slacker site via USB or wi-fi. Also on the way is the Slacker Satellite Car Kit. Slacker is shrewdly leasing unused satellite capacity rather than launching its own birds. I haven't tried Slacker yet but Gizmodo has. Since Internet radio is likely an endangered species, it's reasonable to question Slacker's prospects for survival. Best-case scenario: Slacker will dazzle users with its multifarious approach, build a large base of free users, and slowly turn them into paying customers as a lower-cost alternative to the potentially monopolistic Sirius and XM.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Mar 14, 2007 0 comments
Philips has decided to say goodbye to the initial version of its Aptura TV-backlighting technology. As Philips explained, it used "high-output fluorescent lamps, operated in scanning mode." In effect, the backlight blinked rapidly. This, Philips said, would "cancel out the sample-and-hold effect, which is characteristic of LCD technology," thus reducing motion smear. Better contrast was another benefit, as the backlight dimmed for dark scenes, and worked in tandem with video processing to reduce light leakage. The "deep dynamic dimming" also increased viewing angle. Philips has long been selling non-switching backlit TVs in its Ambilight line, and plans to explore a new and little-used backlighting scheme using LED technology. Philips already markets LED products through its lighting division. (Thanks to Geoff for spotting this one.)
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Mar 13, 2007 4 comments
Just arrived is a long-awaited plan to subsidize digital-to-analog convertors for old TVs to be affected by the final switchover to digital television on February 17, 2009. Each household may request up to two $40 coupons from the National Telecommunications and Information Association. Congress allocated nearly a billion dollars for the program, though critics claim that's not enough, and another half-billion eventually may follow. That should take care of the 15.4 million households wholly dependent on broadcast TV. Also potentially affected would be cable subscribers plugging analog signals directly into their sets. They may have to get convertors from their operators. Affected households may request coupons starting on January 1, 2008 and no later than March 31, 2009 via mail, web, or toll-free number. While the coupons can be used only to buy convertors, there are other ways to make the transition to DTV. You might buy a recording device with an ATSC tuner. Or, of course, a new TV. See NTIA's consumer fact sheet and final ruling.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Mar 12, 2007 1 comments
A new royalty structure approved by the federal Copyright Royalty Board has webcasters quaking. Formerly they paid the music industry's SoundExchange between 6 and 12 percent of their revenue. But under the new royalty structure, they'll pay $0.0008 to stream one song to one listener, rising to $0.0019 in 2010. That may not sound like much, but it would amount to 1.28 cents per listener per hour, more than estimated current ad revenue of 1.1 to 1.2 pennies per hour. And that's just for starters. Rates would continue to rise every year. More bad news for small webcasters: There would also be a minimum charge of $500 per year per channel. And the new rules don't apply to songwriter publishing royalties, potentially an additional expense. Whether all this will kill web radio as widely predicted remains to be seen. But the fledgling medium will certainly have to find a more lucrative business model if it wants to survive. So, a speculative question: Just how much would you be willing to pay for Internet radio?
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Mar 09, 2007 0 comments
I'm looking for a lead. Let's see, famous people named George. OK, my pick is George Harrison. Asked what he called his then-unusual Beatle moptop, he replied in a magnificently deadpan manner: "I call it Arthur." In similar spirit, Chestnut Hill Sound calls its iPod-centric compact audio system George.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Mar 08, 2007 1 comments
Are you an AT&T Homezone customer? If so, the set-top box you're using to access video-on-demand has learned a new trick: cellphone-activated DVR programming. There's no charge except for the existing Homezone charge of $9.99/month. AT&T hopes that will keep you happy until U-verse, its fiber/copper hybrid IP-over-TV service, reaches more areas. If you're a Verizon customer, you needn't feel left out. A long promised arrangement with TiVo will come to fruition soon. The charge will be $1.99/month. Sprint is getting into the act too, in association with Comcast and Time Warner. A Jupiter Research survey quoted by Reuters said fewer than 10 percent of respondents were excited about cell-driven DVR recording. Then again, none of them had had a chance to try it.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Mar 07, 2007 1 comments
Let's say you spot a bargain on the Best Buy website. You go to the local Best Buy to buy the product. Sorry, says the salesperson, that's not the correct price for that product. How can that be?, you ask. The salesperson boots up the site and shows you and then you feel like a ninny. But you're not a ninny--you've merely been robbed. Best Buy has confirmed to Connecticut state investigators that it maintains a second site, an intranet site, with different prices. I'll let "Consumer Watchdog" George Gombossy of the Hartford Courant tell the rest of the story: "State Attorney General Richard Blumenthal ordered the investigation into Best Buy's practices on Feb. 9 after my column disclosed the website and showed how employees at two Connecticut stores used it to deny customers a $150 discount on a computer advertised on BestBuy.com. Blumenthal said Wednesday that Best Buy has also confirmed to his office the existence of the intranet site, but has so far failed to give clear answers about its purpose and use. 'Their responses seem to raise as many questions as they answer,' Blumenthal said." Best Buy's serpentine response is to blame its employees: "We are reminding our employees how to access the external BestBuy.com web site to ensure customers are receiving the best possible product price."
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Mar 06, 2007 2 comments
Sales of Blu-ray titles have decisively pulled ahead of HD DVD sales. Nielsen VideoScan figures for the week ended February 18 gave Blu-ray a 65 percent share of the market. HD DVD had been faster out of the gate and had maintained its initial sales lead throughout most of 2006. But Blu-ray made its move shortly after Christmas, buoyed by sales of Sony PlayStation3 game consoles. Blu-ray also has more titles print, at 179 vs. 163, though that's a pittance compared to regular DVD and several video download services. The format war is still on and both formats are still struggling for survival. Progress has come in the form of combi players and lower hardware prices. Chin up, high-def disc lovers.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Mar 05, 2007 0 comments
With government cuts in financial aid and sky-high student loans, getting through college isn't easy these days. It just got still harder thanks to the Recording Industry Antichrist of America. The RIAA is now sending courtesy pre-lawsuit notices (you read that right) to a dozen lucky universities. The notices make two demands: that the schools turn over the names of students tied to IP addresses suspected of file sharing, and that they pass on the notices to students. This leaves the schools in a curious position. The Digital Millenium Copyright Act requires them to crack down on the use of technology to violate copyrights. At the same time, the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act forbids them to turn over student records to every Tom, Dick, Harry, and Antichrist who wants them. If the universities rat out their kids and pass on the notices, lucky recipients will get to settle out of court for what the RIAA calls a "substantial" (but undisclosed) discount in lieu of the usual average $3000 damages. But only if they call the RIAA or register at p2plawsuits.com. The first round of courtesy notices has gone out to Arizona State, Marshall University, North Carolina State, North Dakota State, Northern Illinois University, Ohio University, Syracuse University, U-Mass Amherst, University of Nebraska at Lincoln, University of South Florida, University of Southern California, University of Tennessee at Knoxville and the University of Texas at Austin. This latest gambit echoes another recent RIAA move: Using ISPs, in lieu of the courts, to demand payouts from their own customers.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Mar 02, 2007 15 comments
A promising new video display technology suffered a potentially fatal setback last week. SED stands for Surface-conduction Electron-emitter Display. Whether marketers would come up with a sexier name for the ultra-flat tube technology is something we won't find out in the near future because a federal judge has ruled that Nano-Proprietary, the licensor, can wiggle out of its agreement with Canon. The agreement dates from 1999. Subsequently Canon brought Toshiba into a joint venture that would have brought SED to market. That made sense--if you want to sell TVs, you work with a TV company. Meanwhile, with an eye on the burgeoning market for flat panels, N-P apparently became unhappy with the arrangement. So the company argued that by bringing in Toshiba, Canon had violated the licensing agreement. N-P refused to call off its legal pit bulls even after Toshiba sold its stake to Canon and cancelled plans to show an SED prototype at the Consumer Electronics Show two months ago. If N-P wins the appeals, Canon will have to negotiate a whole new licensing agreement with N-P, if it chooses, possibly in competition with Samsung. Fun facts:
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Mar 01, 2007 0 comments
A bipartisan group is pushing new federal legislation that would chip away at the worst abuses of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act--the law often cited by the Recording Industry Antichrist of America in its "legal" campaign against consumers. The Freedom and Innovation Revitalizing U.S. Entrepreneurship Act, also known as the Fair Use Act, is sponsored by Reps. Rick Boucher (D-VA) and John Doolittle (R-CA). It would allow audiovisual compilations for classroom use, commercial skipping, home networking, library archiving, and access to works in the public domain or those "of substantial public interest solely for purposes of criticism, comment, news, reporting, scholarship, or research." It would also give manufacturers some wiggle room, eliminating statutory damages for those who unwittingly aid others who commit copyright infringement, and shoring up the 1984 Betamax Decision by sanctioning devices "capable of substantial, commercially-significant non-infringing use." Critics say the bill does not go as far as Boucher's attempts in previous legislative seasons. They point out that while the acts listed above are sanctioned, the tools that perform them are not. The RIAA condemned the bill claiming it would "repeal the DMCA and legalize hacking." And the Consumer Electronics Association praised it, saying it would "reinforce the historical fair use protections" of existing law.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Feb 28, 2007 0 comments
An unexpected legal snafu may have makers of music players and ripping software shelling out bigtime for MP3 or possibly even abandoning the popular audio codec. At the heart of the storm is Alcatel-Lucent, a networking-equipment company and heir to the legacy of Bell Labs. Alcatel claims that Bell brought two key patents to the table when Bell joined the Fraunhofer Institute of Germany and Thomson of France in developing the MP3 format as the audio soundtrack of the now-forgotten MPEG-1 video standard. This claim is a surefire money maker. Alcatel has already persuaded the federal district court of San Diego to hit Microsoft with $1.52 billion in damages for the use of MP3 in the Windows Media Player. That's half a percentage point of the value of all Windows PCs sold. Ironically, WMP didn't begin supporting MP3 till 2004 with Version 10; before that MP3 ripping was a third-party plug-in. Microsoft will appeal, arguing that one of the two disputed patents does not apply to WMP and the other was covered when Gates & Co. paid Fraunhofer $16 million to license MP3. Before you get all giggly and anti-Redmondian, consider the fact that iTunes also offers MP3 ripping, and that iTunes purchases in AAC account for only a tiny percentage of all iPod-stored content. If Steve Jobs wants to keep his gravy train rolling, he'll have to fork over too. As will every purchaser of every MP3-compatible product. Pray for Microsoft.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Feb 27, 2007 0 comments
A major advantage of HD DVD over Blu-ray has diminished with Sony's announcement yesterday of the BDP-S300 at $599. True, it's still not quite as good a deal as the Toshiba HD-XA2 at $499. Moreover, the lowered price is not unprecedented. Sony has already been offering Blu-ray via the PS3 consoles for $499 and $599. But for non-gamers with an achingly empty space in the component rack, the new Blu-ray player costs significantly less than the BDP-S1 at $999. And, unlike the pricier player, the BDP-S300 plays CDs. Sony's latest move puts Blu-ray in a better position, building on the title-releasing momentum that may enable Blu-ray to surpass HD DVD's software sales this year.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Feb 26, 2007 0 comments
Reading patent applications provides happy bloggers with ample fodder for blue-sky speculation. I rarely report these what-ifs for the same reason that I avoid Japanese new-product introductions: it may not happen, or it may not happen here. But the San Jose Mercury News uncovered an especially interesting what-if in an Apple patent application several months back, one that may affect the user interface of the iPod—revered by many as the Michelangelo's David of industrial design. Reporter Troy Wolverton explains: "The company had previously explored replacing the click wheel with a virtual one as part of a touch-sensitive display." As it has with the iPhone, touching off speculation. "But now," Wolverton continues, "Apple appears to be looking at a third option: a touch-sensitive frame surrounding the display. Rather than click a physical button or press a virtual one on the screen, users would touch an area on the frame to operate their iPod." Needless to say, Apple didn't return the reporter's calls, and this cataclysmic ergonomic shift may never happen.

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