Live Mesh Tech Preview – First Impressions

My request to join the Microsoft Live Mesh Technology Preview program ( was accepted today and I have just finished installing on a couple of PCs to test it out. Live Mesh is a service that will allow you to synchronize files and folder to a central location that you can share between your PCs as well as giving you the ability to remotely access your devices. You can do many of the things that Live Mesh does right now (also for free) using a variety of technologies, however this puts all of it in one place and one simple application. Currently Mesh only supports Windows based PCs but in the future it will have MAC and mobile device support.

When you first log on to Mesh using your Windows Live ID, you see your Live Desktop (with 5 GB of space) as well as devices and the option to add a device. The first step is to add a device (currently only Vista and XP PCs). You download and install the client software (less than 2Mb) then add your Live ID and password. After the software installation has completed you then see the PC as a device in the Mesh. Once your PC shows up in the Mesh you can add folders to synchronize to the Live Desktop simply by going to explorer, right clicking and selecting "add folder to your Live Mesh". The folder will now appear in your Live Mesh Live desktop and you can access it via the web.

Live Mesh notifYou don’t have to directly access the Live Mesh website to see your devices and desktop either. When installed a piece of software that runs in your system tray called the notifier allows you to see devices, recently added folders and to connect to devices. If you click on Live Desktop it will open the Live Mesh website. From here you also select the folders that you would like to synchronize with the PC.

If you have more than one computer and you install Mesh on each PC you can synchronize the folders between PCs. After adding a folder to your Live desktop from one PC, you go into the notifier (system tray application), select manage folders and then select the folder to sync somewhere to your PC. Adding something to this desktop synchronizes it down to the other PC.

Remote Desktop. Also from your Mesh home page you can remotely connect to any devices that have been added, allowing you to drag and drop files between PCs or work the desktop like you are sitting in front of it. I on my Vista Ultimate and XP Pro systems this works fine. I wanted to test it on my wife’s Vista Home Premium laptop but I have been having software issues trying to get it installed on there. XP Home and Vista Home Premium and lower  have remote access built in but it is disabled. Right now I can’t say that this will give it remote access. Windows Home Server does not give this access to XP Home or Vista Home Premium. I have read reports though that Live Mesh does in fact allow Remote Desktop to XP Home and Vista Home Premium machines. Does Microsoft now realize that this is becoming a needed feature for home users too. This is something that I suggested being added to Windows Home Server when I was in the beta program.

Alternatives. As I stated earlier you can accomplish this with several technologies now that are either free or at a low cost. Using the free service at you can install the client on your PC and connect to your PC from any web browser in the world (including Firefox). Logmein also works on Macs right now. If you have a Windows Home Server you can also access files that are stored there via a web browser and remote control desktops running Windows Vista Business or better or Windows XP pro. Logmein also works with XP Home and Vista Home Premium.

foldershare As for sharing files and folders, that can also be accomplished with another free Microsoft Application that also works on MACS. is a small application that you can download on to your PC or Mac and share files from any connected PC or via a website. I believe that the Foldershare technology is built in to Live Mesh, but unless you sync the folders to your Live Desktop or connect via remote desktop you don’t have access to them. I chalk this up as a strength of Foldershare. See a screen capture of my Foldershare site on the left.

If you want an online storage folder with the ability to share drives, you can use Microsoft Live Skydrive Again this is a free service that allows you to store up to 5 GB of files on the web, maintaining private access or sharing with friends or everyone.

You can also do most of what Live Mesh offers if you have a Windows Home Server. You can add file sharing for all PCs and remote desktop (for XP Pro or Vista Business or better). However Vista home server also has add-on capability so you can add a lot more functionality to your home server (off site backup, photo galleries etc) in addition to expandable storage and data protection.

Conclusion. The idea of Mesh is not new at all. As I ave written you can do all of these things now except that you need other applications. There will be more functionality once you can install the software on Macs and mobile devices. It will be interesting to see if you will be able to remote control a Mac using the application but somehow I don’t think that this i possible. If you have multiple PCs and are mobile with a laptop, Live Mesh may be something that you are interested in.


Adobe Photoshop Lightroom…My Review

About a year ago, Jan 07, Adobe introduced a product called Photoshop Lightroom. The program was billed as a Photographer’s workflow tool designed by photographers for photographers. I looked at it briefly but didn’t really pay too much attention to it.

Fast forward to December of 2007 and I was browsing the Photoshop site at Adobe for something, when I started watching a flash promo for Lightroom. The little promo film intrigued me and I thought that this program was definitely something that I could use to manage my pictures. I downloaded the 30 day demo onto my MacBook Pro and started playing with it (Don’t worry it is available on Windows too). Within an hour and a half of playing with it I was sold and ordered the full version and I couldn’t be happier.

There are programs that I like to use, but rarely has a piece of software caught my attention so much that I wanted to use it all of the time! Lightroom has become one of them.

Is it for everyone? No. But if you take a lot of digital photos, have the need to tag and organize these and want to do some processing it could help you. If you have a need for a lot of specialized post processing, it will not replace a Photoshop or dedicated image editor. It’s strengths really are for workflow and quick processing on lots of pictures. It is not the cheapest software out there either at 325.00, but it is half the cost of Photoshop. In comparison Apple sells Aperture which is a similar application for 199.00 but only runs on Macs.

What is it?

How can I describe Lightroom? Lightroom is an application that helps anyone with a large number of digital photos to organize them, tag them and perform some post processing on the photos. The best thing about the application though is that the changes you make are non destructive to the original photos until you decide to "bake" them in! In terms of the photo processing, if you have ever used any applications that utilize Adobe Camera Raw, or Canon’s Digital Photo Professional, you will have seen some of the power of Lightroom. I have heard Lightroom described as Camera Raw on steroids. Another really nice feature is that the changes also work on all image files and not just RAW formats, so you can make changes to your jpg files and tif files too.

In addition Lightroom can export your photos and your changes to files, the web, slideshows or prints. It is when you perform these exports that the changes are "baked in" to the exported files. In addition with version 1.3 that was released as a free upgrade in November, developers can now create plugins to expand the use of the software. I currently use 5 export plug-ins that allow me to export directly to my Flickr, Picasa, Smugmug or Gallery 2.0 online photo galleries. I also use the LRMogrify which allows for some editing colour correction as well as add Watermarks to the files during export. I have donated to the author so I now have the full version that allows me to export more than 10 photos at a time.

How it Works.

When you open Lightroom for the first time, it asks you to create a catalogue file. This catalogue file is database file that stores the meta data from your pictures as well a corresponding preview database is also created. The database file can be created anywhere on your system or external devices with the exclusion of network storage devices. Once the Lightroom catalogue file is created you can import photos into it from your computer or directly from your digital camera or other media.

Here is a tip on how I have been handling my catalogue files. When I travel I download all of my pictures onto whatever laptop I have with me as well as on to a removable hard drive at the same time. When I want to import photos into Lightroom I create the catalogue files on the removable hard drive device and import those pictures into Lightroom, selecting import from folder. Doing it this way allows me to plug the external drive into another system that has Lightroom installed on it, open the catalogue and edit the pictures regardless of what machine the files were created on. It allows me to work on my various laptops or on my desktop. In addition I could always copy the folders and catalogue files to another storage device later and keep all of my adjustments. 

I have not imported a lot of files into the same catalogue file yet either as I am not sure how performance would be or what the max size of the database is. By keeping my catalogues to all of the photos of a single trip or event, then I am using smaller catalogue files and making them easier to move around. Also if a database does get corrupted not all of my adjustments are in the one file. It does make a little trickier to search photos though as I have to open catalogue files for each group of photos that I may want to search keywords on. Lightroom does have the ability to back up and create scheduled back ups of your catalogue files as well and you are prompted when you start Lightroom with a catalogue file.

Lightroom is divided into 5 modules, Library, Develop, Slideshow, Print and Web.

Library.  The Library module is where you can view your pictures, edit metadata (keywords copyright info), make picks as to what photos you want to process and rate your photos. You can even apply some quick development settings. You can search for keywords in your photos, sort by camera, date or even lens used to take the picture.

Develop. The Develop module is where the real power of Lightroom is. Here there are a number of settings where you can tweak and adjust your image. What is very important to note here is that any changes that you make here do not affect the original images. The editing process is completely non-destructive. All changes are stored in the database itself and not "baked" into the image until the image is exported or printed. You can also crop photos (again non destructively) heal spots and fix red eye. You can adjust White Balance (more options if you shoot RAW images), tone, tweak a tone curve, adjust colour saturations, split tone, reduce noise, apply sharpening and more. 
One thing to note though is that adjustments apply to the whole image and can’t be applied selectively, so while Lightroom can do just about everything a photographer needs, if you want to be really creative you will still need an external editor like Photoshop or Photoshop Elements.
You can select the images you want based on the criteria set in the Library module.
Lightroom comes with a wide variety of presets to apply certain effects to your images (such as converting to B&W or applying a Sepia tone). In addition you can save your own presets. This is very valuable as you can adjust one image from a shoot and then apply all the changes to all of the images from that shoot, and save it for later use.
You can save changes to a virtual copy as well so that you can save your changes as one photo and then have the original as well.
If you do need the additional power of an external editor, you can move directly from Lightroom into Photoshop, Photoshop Elements or any other Image editor. The advantage of using the Adobe products mentioned is that you can work on the image in those applications, hit save and because the data is stored in a sidecar XMP file bring those changes into Lightroom.

Slideshow The slideshow module allows you to create an Adobe PDF slide show of your photos. There are some customized options that allow you to create background images, apply your identity plate, adjust the layout and more. Again you can save presets of your favorite styles.

Print. The print module allows you to create prints of your photos. There are several layouts available as presets or you can create your own custom layouts and again save your preset for later use.

Web. In this module you can create Flash based or HTML web galleries that you can publish to your own web sites. Again there is several options for customization and the ability to use presets and save presets.

A little word about presets. Lightroom comes with a large number of presets for every module. As I indicated you can also create and save your own presets. In addition several users are creating and making presets available on the Internet that you can download and use in your software.

My Workflow with Lightroom

I shoot a large number of Digital Photos especially using 3 cameras (Canon 30D, 40D and Powershot G9). When we travel there also also images that come from the kids cameras and my video cameras. Here are a couple of ways that I use Lightroom. One is to pick, adjust and export images from a family trip to a Photo Sharing web site and the other is how I handle shooting a soccer game where I just sort and pick images for sharing online.

Importing Photos.
The start of my workflow is a little different because of the way I deal with my photos. Because I store images in a couple of places, I don’t use Lightroom to copy pictures off of my media cards, although it can. I import photos using a card reader and the Canon Media Card program. This program is set up to import my pictures to a folder created based on the date that the image was taken. Once all of my images are imported to the PC, I then copy the folders to an external drive. It is from this external drive that I import the pictures into Lightroom.

Once all of my folders are copied to an external drive, I open Lightroom. For something like a trip I create a new catalogue specifically for that trip. Likewise this year I am shooting a variety of soccer teams for my community soccer association, so I have a catalogue set up just for those images. Something that I just recently learned about Lightroom is that I can import other catalogues into a master catalogue as well.

So I have a new catalogue file and I am ready to bring the images in. In Lightroom I select the file import photos from disk option. I point the file browser to a folder that I want to import folders from. Once the folder is chosen I can choose not to import suspected duplicates. If all of the photos are from the same location and time I will add the keywords I want to use with them, If they are from a variety of subjects I will just use general keywords (like Hawaii, Trip etc). I also add my copyright information to each photo.

Once I have imported all of my folders, I go into the library mode and if I want to add specific keywords to certain folders, I use the thumbnail view and the spray can tool to add the specific keywords. Next I go into single photo view and using the arrow keys and the p key (to pick an image) I pick all of the images that I may consider exporting. Once I have gone through the folder and picked the images I set a colour flag for those images (say yellow). I then go through the images again and unpick any that I will not export using the U key. I then usually take one more pass at them. Once I have the files that I want to export I select all and change the colour flag to another colour based on where I want to export them (I have developed my own settings for example I use green for Smugmug exports).

Once I have selected my pictures I change to the develop module and filter the images that I want "picked with green colour flag" and process each one, fixing red eye, adjusting exposures, cropping etc.

Once all files are processed I use an free export plug in I have and export those photos to the site and the gallery that I want. for pictures of a soccer game that I want to export I usually use the same process but do not do any processing of the images.

In this way I can go through a large number of images quickly and export to them to the web. For example last night I went through 580 images shot at a soccer game, selected 260 that I was going to export, and exported them to Smugmug all from Lightroom. Total time for three passes to select was about an hour to an hour and fifteen minutes. The way I used to do this took a considerably longer amount of time, as I would import the images to my PC, then using Canon’s Image browser go through and select pictures writing down the ones I wanted. I would then select and copy those images to another folder. Then use a batch resize to make them smaller and then another piece of software to export them. This sometimes took me a couple of days to accomplish! It would have been even longer if I had wanted to process any of the images!

You can see the results of one of these processes by going to the following site Smugmug Kauai 2008 gallery.

The Future

Adobe has recently released the Lightroom 2.0 public beta. You can download a 30 day trial of the Beta now, and existing Lightroom, will be able to use the Beta until the end of August. The beta is installed separately from your existing Lightroom installation and both can be used at the same time.

Version 2 allows for localized correction, so you can work on a specific area of a photo. 64 bit support, better organizational tools, better print package functionality and Multiple monitor support. In addition if Adobe stays true to form, updates to the new Lightroom will continue to add new features as they did with Version 1.0. I really like the changes I have seen in Beta 2.0 and will probably have it within a fews day of it’s release sometime this summer or fall.


Once I started playing around with Lightroom, I started kicking myself for not looking into it earlier. Now that I use it extensively on both my PC and MAC I can’t be without it. It has peaked my interest in photography again and I am shooting more and more. My workflow has changed and I have switched my cameras to only shoot RAW images because they are so easy to post process with Lightroom. I still shoot jpg only for sports photography.

While Lightroom comes with a fairly hefty price tag and doesn’t replace Photoshop, for someone that takes a lot of pictures, especially of you shoot with a DSLR and RAW images. I feel that it is an indispensable tool!


Photo Sharing on the Web

A few years ago, I heard someone say Digital Cameras are great but they never see the pictures that people take like they did when they had prints. When I thought about this I realized that it was true.

I take a lot of digital photos myself and in the past have been publishing to my own web sites and displaying them using server software called Gallery 2. But what if you don’t have your own web site?

I use three public sites for publishing and sharing my photos now. Picasaweb, Flickr and Smugmug. Here is some info on these three Photo sharing sites

Picasaweb Picasaweb is a free Photo sharing site from Google. You can make your Albums and photos public or private. They give you 1 GB of free storage space and you have the option to buy more (1 GB equates to around 4000 pictures). You can also download Picasa photo software which allows you to organize edit and post all pictures in your collections.

One of the things I don’t like about Picasaweb however is the way albums are displayed. All of the public albums are displayed on a single page so if you have lots of albums it can take a while to load the page.

You can see my picasaweb gallery at

Flickr Flickr is a free photo sharing site brought to you by Yahoo. Flickr has gotten very popular over the last few years. They offer both free accounts and Pro accounts. Free accounts do have some limits, there is advertising, as well as a 100MB upload limit per month. You are also limited in creating collections and sets. A Pro account that has all of the limits and advertising removed costs 25.00 USD per year (well worth it in my opinion).

Again you can control who has access to your photos, add keyword tags to make your photos searchable, edit your photos online and your visitors can view the photos in a variety of photo sizes. Visitors can also add comments to your photos.

Something fairly new with Flickr is that Pro users can now also upload short videos to the site.

Flickr is a considered to be a community site. You can add your friends sites to your account and see whenever they upload new photos, as well there are thousands of groups that you can join that have photo pools where you can add your photos and discussion groups where you can ask questions related to the group and photos.

Uploading photos is easy as you can use the free Flickr uploader software or many photo editing software packages will allow you to upload directly to Flickr from the application. I have a free plug in for Adobe Lightroom 1.3 and greater that allows me to upload directly to Flickr.

One of the problems that I have run into with Flickr is that images can easily be used by others. When you upload a photo you can choose the type of license that the photo is uploaded with. This license can be private, public or using creative commons you can select different licensing terms. However there is no real way (other than making images private) that you can protect your images. I have used Flickr to find photos for my kids school projects and downloaded them (yes I only selected public images). With this shortfall Flickr is not a good choice for professional photographers.

Flickr also offers stats so you can see how many times your photos are viewed.

All in all I really like Flickr and will continue with my own Pro account for a while. If you want to see my photos please visit

Smugmug . I found Smugmug via the discussion groups on Flickr. It is a site that a lot of professional photographers use to display images for their clients as well as to sell their photographs. Smugmug does not have any free accounts but they do offer three levels of accounts, Standard, Poweruser and Pro however they do offer a two week free trial. One of the big reasons I like Smugmug is the way that they display photographs for your visitors. When you upload photos they create a flash based web gallery with thumbnails of your images and when your visitor moves through the thumbnails the selected photo appears in a larger window beside the gallery. Your visitor can also click on the photo and choose several sizes of the photo to view. As with the other sites your visitors can also view a slideshow of your photos (or you can control what and how they see).

The Standard accounts offer unlimited storage, the ability to order backup DVDs, your visitors can order prints, personalization of your galleries, the ability to hide your galleries and more. A Standard account costs 39.95 USD per year. Power Users accounts (what I have) for 59.95 USD/year, give the same features as the standard accounts, plus the ability to customize more using headers and footers, add DVD quality videos, use your own domain names and right click protect your images so they can’t be downloaded if you choose. Pro accounts (149.95 USD/year) include all of the features of the Standard and Pro Accounts as well as the ability to set your own pricing for your prints (make some money), sell digital downloads, watermark your images, create guest upload passwords and offer more protection features. If you are interested in getting a Smugmug account you can save 5.00 using my coupon code (XUgaKlvXVMo0Y), just enter this in the referred by field in the sign up. Alternatively you can add use my email address if you know it.

There are also other specials, if you are a Flickr user you can save 50% on the first year by moving your account over as well.

Smugmug gives you the ability to add keywords and captions to your photos and edit them on line. Your visitors can add comments and rate your photos as well as order prints and gifts.

Again Smugmug has all kids of tools that you can use to upload your photos and you can upload directly from several photo editing applications. I have a plug in that I use from Adobe Lightroom 1.3 to upload directly.

Privacy is very easy on Smugmug as you can create Smugislands that protect your galleries from search engines and other users stumbling across it. In addition you can password protect your galleries as well. This is one of the reasons I chose Smugmug as I have an assignment coming up that will allow me to post the images privately in an unlisted gallery (the viewers will need the exact url to see the gallery) and  I can also password protect the gallery.

Smugmug also is a community based site so you can add friends or families accounts. Your visitors can also get an RSS feed of your galleries and they can view any uploaded photos in their RSS reader.

Smugmug’s stats can show you how often an image has been viewed and in what sizes.

At first I found Smugmug a little difficult to figure out, but after playing a little bit I am getting more comfortable with it.

If you want to see what I have dome with Smugmug visit my site at

If you are interested in becoming a Smugmugger please be sure to use my coupon code, XUgaKlvXVMo0Y to save 5.00 off your account.


What? OK let me explain. Last week we got our demo Drobo unit from Data Robotics. We ordered a not for resale version via distribution and have it to review and show off to clients. Sysguy Consulting is happy to announce that we are an Authorized Drobo Partner!

So what is the Drobo? The Drobo is a USB based enclosure that protects your data. The box itself is a little smaller than a shoe box and it has spaces for 4 Sata Hard Drives. You simply install a couple of hard drives, power up the unit and connect it to your computer. After being formatted the drive spans your data across the hard drives that are installed in the unit, protecting it by basically making copies of the data to both drives. This might sound like a standard Raid 5 configuration but it is not as there are some key differences.

With a Raid 5 set up you need a minimum of 3 hard drives, all of equal size (or the only the size of the smallest drive will be used on all drives). With the Drobo you can start with as few as 2 hard drives of any size (not necessarily matched) and both sizes will be used to the fullest. Also with a Raid 5 device expanding the size of the array means that you have to remove any data, add the additional hard drive (again same size as the others) and then rebuild the array. With the Drobo it is simply a matter of popping in an additional drive of any size and it automatically gets added to the storage pool! OK what if there are 4 drives in the Drobo and I want to increase the size? Again no big deal. Pop out one drive, replace it with a new larger one and the size increases.

The data is protected by Data Robotics Raid 5 like proprietary system so redundancy is spread across all of the drives. You do lose some of the space on the drives but this ensures that your data is protected. There are 4 drive lights on the Drobo. Each one indicates green if the hard drive status is fine. If you start running out of space and have empty bays the indicator light will turn yellow on the Drobo indicating to add a drive there soon. If the drive fills the indicator light will turn red in the empty bay indicating to add a drive right away. If the light is flashing red it means that the indicated drive has failed and should be replaced ASAP. Simply replace the bad drive with another of equal or greater size and the unit will automatically add the new drive to the system. It makes Data Protection simple for any user!

Out of Box Experience

As indicated we picked up our demo unit last week. As well we also picked up 4 Seagate Sata 500 GB drives for the unit. Set up was simple. Unbox the Drobo, remove the magnetic front plate, unpackage the hard drives and slide one in to each bay. I downloaded the latest version of the Drobo Dashboard Software  from the Drobo support site site, installed it on my Vista Ultimate laptop, plugged in the Drobo via USB and the device was recognized. To this point it took about 5 minutes.

The dashboard software popped up and asked how we wished to format the unit. This is where you have to think a bit (although it is easy). You have the option if formatting as NTFS or Fat32. If you will be connecting the Drobo to an XP PC or a Vista PC select NTFS. If you will be connecting the unit to Windows 9X systems, XP or Vista systems and Macs select FAT32 (although there are some restrictions such as file sizes with Fat 32). In less than 5 minutes the unit was formatted and ready to go.

Vista sees the drive as 2 Terabytes of storage, however the Drobo Dashboard indicates that there is only 1.35 Terabytes available as some of the space is being used for data protection. Below is a screen shot from the dashboard software.


Performance wise, reading and writing to the Drobo seems no slower than writing to any external USB drive.

I decided to go through the process of simulating a drive failure to see what would happen. Here is a screen shot of the drive status before the test.


Next I removed the magnetic front plate and popped a drive out. There is a brief time while the data protection is partially unavailable as the unit reconfigures itself as indicated in the screen shot below. It only for about 2 or 3 minutes but there was nothing on the unit yet either.


After the 2 or 3 minutes the dashboard changed to this screen and data protection was again available.


Getting the unit back to it’s original status was as easy as pushing the drive back in. Something to note is that the unit was powered on the whole time that I was doing this. I did not have to turn it off or disconnect it at all from the laptop.


As a serious amateur photographer and a small business owner I plan on using the Drobo to back up and store my digital photographs on it as well as my Adobe Lightroom catalogue files.  I also will use it to backup some of my various machines. The Drobo works well with folder sync utilities such as the Microsoft Sync Toy or Allways sync. In addition you can use it with Windows backup or drive imaging software such as Runtime Software Drive Image XML. If formatted with Fat32 it also works with OSX Leopard’s Time Machine backup. You can connect it to a server or PC and share folders on it directly (if attached to a domain server you can add NTFS security to the shares) or use something like Microsoft Foldershare ( to access it on your network or across the Internet.

One of the knocks I had against the Drobo when it was first released was that it was a local only device (connected to one PC). Data Robotics sort of answered some of my concerns in January when the released the DroboShare product. The DroboShare is a small box that connects to your network and has 2 USB ports on the back so that you can plug in up to 2 Drobo units to share on the network. The DroboShare retails for 225.00. While this allows you to share your Drobo on a home network, there is a performance hit because the Drobo still operates as a USB device and this causes the unit to be even slower than hooking it up to a PC and sharing it out. As well there is no active directory integration or DFS support so it would not function well as a Network Attached Storage device in a large domain environment.

I plan in in the near future hooking the Drobo up to a Windows Home Server to see if it will work with that.

Comparing Drobo to the Dlink DNS-323

While there are some differences in the devices I would like to compare the device to my DNS-323 from D-link. The DNS-323 is a Network Attached box about 1/3 the size of the Drobo with space for 2 SATA hard drives and a 1 GB Ethernet port as well as a USB Print server port. The DNS-323 can be set up with 2 drives as two individual drives, two mirrored drives, both drives (can be different sizes) configured as 1 Hard Drive or a striped raid (requires identical hard drives where data is written to both drives functioning as 1). Cost for the enclosure is also cheaper than the Drobo.

Once you have chosen what type of drive you want to set up with the DNS-323 any changes to the configuration require removing data re-configuring and reformatting the drives. In fact D-Link warns that even to upgrade the firmware you should back up the unit in case the firmware update reformats the drives. this is not the case with the Drobo as mentioned above.

Across the network though the performance is better for writing and reading files on the D-Link product than a shared PC attached Drobo or a network shared Drobo. The D-Link also offers many other features built in.

The DNS-323 has it’s own security software built in (it’s basically a Linux file server) so folder level control can be assigned on the unit itself. In addition it features an FTP server (for Internet Access to your files), a UPnP media server (stream media content on your home network), an iTunes server (share music via iTunes). Recent firmware (May 08) has added BitTorrent support so the device can download torrents and some other enhancements.

I have been using a DNS-323 for almost a year now and have been very happy with it. It has allowed moving files between systems easy and with it’s built in security it is an ideal product for a small office that may not want a full file server. However it does not offer the same protection and expandability that the Drobo does.

There are several other NAS RAID 5 devices available on the market. While these should perform better they also suffer from the standard RAID 5 limitations for upgrading and scalability.

Drobo Wishes

There are a few things that I really hope to see in upcoming Drobo releases.
I would like to see Firewire 400 or 800 added to the Drobo unit and the DroboShare unit. This would address some of the network performance issues and would make this a killer product when connected locally to a PC or Mac.

Alternatively I would like to see a NAS Drobo unit with GB Ethernet built in. Again I would be very happy with this configuration and it would make it an ideal product for small businesses. Make it Active Directory and DFS aware and nothing could touch it!

I have tried to find out what may be in store for the Drobo, however Data Robotics will not talk about future product releases.

Is it for me?

If you have read any of my backup posts on this blog, you will have seen that I am a very strong proponent of making sure your data is backed up somehow both locally and offsite. While the Drobo doesn’t handle offsite backups, it can be a valuable product if you use it to store your critical data (pictures, accounting data etc) on it. Professional Photographers have flocked to the Drobo and swear by it. As someone who has been backing up to external USB hard drives for years I must have close to 15 of them in various sizes and all full of data. With the Drobo I can use one unit and just add a larger hard drive as needed instead of buying a new USB enclosure. My old enclosures will be re-tasked with storing data that I want to back up offsite.

While the Drobo is not the least expensive option for backups it is one of the safest. The Drobo unit itself retails for 499.00 and the cost of the hard drives will vary depending on configuration. For my Drobo I picked up 4 500 GB Sata drives at a local retail store for 84.00 each. Compare this with the cost of your memories if your system hard drive fails and all of your photos and personal information is lost.


I am very impressed with the Drobo unit to date. I have solved some of the sharing problems on my home network by using Microsoft’s Foldershare and the performance on small file transfers across the network has been fine. While it may appear to be a little pricey to begin, the expandability and flexibility of the unit make it worth the cost, especially if you have sensitive data to protect.

You can learn more about the Drobo by visiting You can actually check out the Drobulator that will show you available storage space with a variety of different drives. Or if you wish to see the unit hands on, we would be glad to arrange a Live Demo for you.

Interested in purchasing? Call or email us and we can help!


Sync Google Calendar with Outlook

Like a lot of people if there is one application that I use an awful lot it is Microsoft Outlook. Not only is it my email program, but I use it as my calendar application as well as my contacts and my to do list. With 2 Windows laptops and a desktop that I use trying to keep all the information up to date on my machines can be tough. What makes it even tougher is that I have two different email services (other than web mail) that I use. I have my main domain email that is set up with my hosting provider and my MS Small Business Server Exchange email which is the primary email address for my Blackberry.

Email has never been much of an issue to keep synced up. If access my primary email account from one of the laptops, it downloads the messages but leaves a copy on the server. When I download the messages on my main desktop it actually removes all of the messages from the server. In addition each laptop or PC has it’s own email address (including my MacBook Pro and Mac Mini) that I can use to forward important emails too, as well as a few distribution lists that send to all machines if needed. I usually just forward contact information via email (vCards) too if I need it on my other machines.

Using the calendar features are a little trickier. If I forward a meeting request to my Blackberry from my primary email, the request shows up sent on a behalf of the original person by myself. This creates a few confusing items. This past fall I started using Google Calendar as well for a home calendar as well as a personal calendar and one for my soccer team. Using Google Calendar was easy as I could copy events between calendars easily, since it was online it was very accessible by all machines. In addition I could overlay the calendars over my calendar in Outlook 2007.

Shortly after that I found a program that would allow for syncing of the Google Calendar with my Outlook Calendar SyncMyCal, available at, brought things together because I could sync two ways between my Outlook Calendar and my Google calendar in both of my Outlook profiles (pop and Exchange), although I had to open each profile to do so. The software was a reasonably priced 25.00 although it is not the easiest software I have ever tried to install as I needed to install several components and it was not always successful on the first install.

Fast forward to last December when Google added a sync tool for Blackberry that allowed syncing of the Google calendar with your Blackberry calendar over the air. This meant that if I added a calendar event to my primary Outlook Calendar, syncmycal would sync it to Google Calendar and then the Google Sync tool would sync it to my Blackberry and then to my exchange server and vice versa. All of my calendars were synced up.

Just yesterday Google announced their own sync tool that allows you to Sync your Google Calendar with Outlook. As usual the Google tool is free. If you are a Google Calendar user, sign into your account and you will see the link to get the software in the upper right portion of the screen.

The download is very small (667KB) and the install is a piece of cake. When it starts it asks for the Outlook profile that you want to use, whether you want full two way sync or just one way, Google to Outlook or Outlook to Google, and the interval of the sync (every 10 minutes is the shortest). The program resides in your task bar and you can toggle it to sync anytime. It does not start automatically with Outlook but it the icon is in the PCs startup folder so it will start with a reboot or login. It can create a shortcut on your desktop to your Google Calendar if you want.

So far limitations I have found are that it will only sync your primary Google Calendar, so if you use more than one calendar it won’t sync those. There are no options for the amount of events (2 weeks worth etc) you want to sync, and no indication of conflict handling. But it is a first generation product and I am sure will get better. Also the only program it supports is Outlook which means Windows only. It works fine with Vista and Outlook 2007.

Syncmycal has two versions, the lite which is free but limited use and the Pro version which can sync multiple calendars and allows for more control may be a better solution for some people now. The software is not expensive and allows for installation on 2 PCs. Installation though can be difficult although it is much better in the latest version and online support isn’t too helpful. Once you get it installed and working it works very, very well.

If you are a Google Calendar and Outlook user and want to keep things in sync, then the new Google Calendar Sync tool is what you need. The price is also right!

Quick update on Zune 80 review

I have found another little quirk in my Zune 80 MP3 player and the way that it handles mixed (audio and Video) podcasts.

It appears that if you have a single podcast feed that contains both audio files and video files, when they are synced to the Zune, although the podcasts show up under both Audio and Video on the player, only the audio files are visible and available to play. If you remove all of the audio files (listen to them) then the videos are available  until the next audio file is there.

My iPod touch works in a similar way via the podcast menu, however at least video podcasts are available via the video menu. Not so with the Zune. This is another little knock against the player that does not effect everyone. I will look to see if a solution is out there on some forums somewhere.

I should be getting my 8 GB Zune player today so look for a review of that unit coming soon.

Zune 2 80 GB Review

In January 2008, at the CES Keynote, Microsoft Announced that the Zune will for the first time be available outside the United States and will start selling in Canada in the spring of 2008. Indications are that the Zune Marketplace, their music store, however will not be available outside the US for a little while longer but it will be coming to Canada sometime in 2008.

One of the first questions I get asked is what the heck is the Zune? The Zune is Microsoft’s designated "iPod Competitor". The first version was released in the fall of 2006 and was not very successful. The 30 GB version was physically larger and heavier than an iPod, the colour scheme (Brown), was not really liked, the software was kind of a nightmare and the device just did not sell very well. In fact it became the butt of many jokes.

Fast forward to November of 2007. Microsoft released a new line of Zunes, an 80 GB version up from the 30 GB version, as well as a 4 and 8 GB Flash memory versions. The 30 GB version is still available in new colours but with new firmware. The Zune software was also re-written from the ground up. Credit does go to Microsoft though, because unlike Apple, when they announced the new versions, they also made a firmware upgrade available to owners of the old version that adds most, but not all features of the new players. The new features that relied on hardware changes could not be incorporated.

The new 80 GB hard drive versions sold out very quickly, but thanks to a friend that was in California at the time we managed to get one. Here is a quick review, and why you might want to wait to buy a new player until these are released in Canada.

This is my 4th MP3 player in as many years, and so far I really like the device, although it has some little quirks. I have upgraded from a 60 GB Creative Zen Vision M, so there will be some comparisons to that player.

Physical Dimensions: 
The 80 GB Zune comes in with the following dimensions.

Size: 61.1 mm x 108.2 mm x 12.9 mm (w x h x d)

Weight: 4.5 ounces (128 grams).

It features a 3,2" glass wide screen big improvement over the 30 GB old plastic covered screen from all indications. 320×240 resolution

Colour for the 80 GB unit black only

Battery life (estimated) 30 hours for music (wireless off), 4 hours for video. 3 hour charge time (2 hours to 90%)

Wireless Support:

The Zune has always had a built in wireless card. Wireless card (802.11 B/G) supporting Wep, WPA, WPA2 for wireless sync and wireless sharing (sorry no Internet surfing). Range up to 30 feet. In addition you can send songs to other Zune users that they can play 3 times before they have to purchase or delete the tracks. There used to be a time restriction on transferred songs (3 days) but this has now been removed. For some reason these restrictions are also applied to transferred Podcasts too.

Audio Support:
Windows Media® Audio Standard[3]  (WMA) (.wma): Up to 320 Kbps; constant bit rate (CBR) and variable bit rate (VBR) up to 48-kHz sample rate. WMA Pro 2-channel up to 384 Kbps; CBR and VBR up to 48-kHz

WMA Lossless

Advanced Audio Coding (AAC) (.mp4, .m4a, .m4b, .mov) – .m4a and .m4b files without FairPlay DRM up to 320 Kbps; CBR and VBR up to 48-kHz

MP3 (.mp3) – Up to 320 Kbps; CBR and VBR up to 48-kHz

A couple of notes on audio support. This device does not support the previous Windows Plays For Sure DRM scheme found in the Creative Zens, Sandisk Sansa and other Windows based  players. This means in Canada you cannot purchase music via Puretracks, Napster or Sympatico (unless they are DRM free tracks). You can burn your purchases to CD and then rip it back to use the files on the player. This also rules out Spiralfrog as an option. However, Microsoft has indicated that the Zune Marketplace will be available in Canada "later in the year". The Zune marketplace features millions of songs (almost identical to iTunes’ library) as well as over a million DRM Free MP3 files. Another feature is the ZunePass ( a subscription service) in the US (currently 14.95) that allows subscribers to download unlimited tracks to their Zunes Music will expire if the subscription is not renewed. It appears that the ZunePass subscription will work on up to 3 Zunes and 3 PCs and that you can change one device a week. I cannot test as I do not have a US Credit Card.

If you purchase your music from iTunes, protected music will have to be burned to cd and ripped, back but if you purchase iTunes plus music, it will play fine on the Zune and you can transfer it straight to the device.

A big knock I have against the Zune is that there is no support for Audible audio books. I have an Audible account and download books monthly, however these will not play at all on the Zune, In order to listen to my books I would have to either keep my 60 GB player or burn the books to CD and re rip them but each book part (usually 2 parts) can create up to 7 CD’s each. I am hoping that Audible support can be added via firmware, but for now I am using my test 8GB iPod Touch for listening to books. I suspect that the reason may be that the Audible has an exclusive deal with iTunes for distribution and Microsoft may not be able to sign a contract. I can still hope. With recent purchase of Audible by Amazon, things may change in the future.


JPEG – (.jpg) only

Windows Media Video (WMV) (.wmv) – Main and Simple Profile, CBR or VBR, up to 3.0 Mbps peak video bit rate; 720 pixels x 480 pixels up to 30 frames per second (or 720 pixels x 576 pixels up to 25 frames per second). Zune software will transcode HD WMV files at device sync

MPEG-4 (MP4/M4V) (.mp4) Part 2 video[4] – Simple Profile up to 2.5 Mbps peak video bit rate; 720 pixels x 480 pixels up to 30 frames per second (or 720 pixels x 576 pixels up to 25 frames per second).  Zune software will transcode HD MPEG-4 files at device sync

H.264 video[4] – Baseline Profile up to 2.5 Mbps peak video bit rate; 720 pixels x 480 pixels up to 30 frames per second (or 720 pixels x 576 pixels up to 25 frames per second). Zune software will transcode HD H.264 files at device sync

DVR-MS[5] – Zune software will transcode at time of sync (This requires Zune software running on Vista Home Premium or Vista Ultimate, MCE 2005 does not work.)

A nice feature is that the 80 GB version also features video out through the headphone jack, or component and composite video via the optional dock. However the cables required are sold separately either as cables alone or with a Home Docking Station and cables. I was hoping that the video cables for my Creative Zune Vision M would work as the connectors are the same. However Microsoft has changed the pin out of the mini pin and it is similar to an iPod’s (audio is swapped) or similar to a Camcorder’s video output cables. The cables for my Panasonic DV camera works, but the red right audio cable becomes video and the yellow video jack becomes R audio. No big deal and saves 40.00 USD.

Podcast Support:
The Zune finally features podcast support, both video and audio. Using the Zune Marketplace, there are several popular Podcasts that you can subscribe to, or you can add your own via the Zune software. The player will play iPod video so you can download iPod formatted Podcasts from iTunes as well. The exception is QuickTime files (mov). The software really doesn’t like these at all and mine can’t seem to convert them.

Zune Software:
The Zune software has been completely re-written from the ground up. Buyers beware the software only runs on Windows and there is no Mac support as of yet. The software seems to install very well, although it is not the speediest software I have installed (even on a fairly high powered laptop). All I can say is be patient. Installation does require an Internet connection.

Once he software is installed you plug your Zune in,with the included USB cables, the Windows drivers will be installed, and in some cases you will have to update the firmware on the Zune right away. I have installed the software my MacBook Pro’s Vista Ultimate Boot Camp partition, and have been able to plug my Zune in while running Vista in a VMWare Fusion session. I can see the device and transfer music and Podcasts over.

Even in Windows though the Zune doesn’t see the device as a Mass Storage Device so the only way to access the Zune is via the Zune software. I believe that this is a negative aspect of the player. As well you can connect as a guest (no automatic syncing) to other computers running the Zune software. I have the primary PC set up as my XP laptop and the MacBook Pro as a guest.

My first MP3 player (an IRiver Ih120) was a folder based player so I wasn’t worried about tags on all my songs and never really cleaned up. When I moved to my 2nd player, a Creative Zen Vision M 30 GB, I discovered it relied on tags in the files and I got lazy and just created playlists for all the folders of misc music I had. When I moved to the 60 GB creative, I just synced the playlists. Because I have to use the Zune Software to mange my music on the device, all of my songs had to be fixed and tagged otherwise it would be a mess on the device. I have at least been able to fix almost all of the tags by using the free MP3tag software available at

One thing that I have noticed about the Zune software, it doesn’t use the artist tag to sort music.. I discovered this after lots of frustration trying to load a folder that contained  2 different albums. I checked the artist and album tags but they would still not display properly in the Zune software. Finally I found the answer on one of the Zune support forums. Sorting in the Zune Software uses the (not often used) Band (sometimes called Album Artist) tag. I was able to sort my mixed folders of music using the Band tag for an artist (Mixed Folder 1) and left the artist tag and the album tags alone. The albums that the tracks come from show up as individual albums and can just be synced to the player.

When you launch your Zune software for the first time, it automatically searches your My Music, My Video and My Pictures folders to add items to your collections. You can have the software set up to automatically sync all of  your collections, (Music, Video and Pictures), or to manually add items to your player. This is where my second biggest beef is with the software.

I had a few albums in my My Music folders on my laptop, I added these to the player. Then I decided that I didn’t want to keep the music on my laptop, so I deleted the files. The next thing I know the files were also deleted off of my Zune. I backup my Music files to several places, my Network Attached Storage drive or an external USB hard drive, my Windows Home Server and also onto Data DVD’s so I don’t need them on my PC and especially taking up valuable on one of my travelling laptops. If I want to listen to my music at home I can stream it from the NAS or WHS or plug my Zune into external speakers. Again I turned to turned to the Zune forums. I was in for a surprise, apparently this is working as designed, as the player is designed for average users with a single PC and who keep their music on the one PC. Furthermore when I read some threads with other users asking about the same thing, there were replies from several Zune Zealots that people should stop whining and buy more storage because it is cheap. For some people this is just not practical. I had read a post saying to put the software in a non watched folder, drag the music folders over to the Zune software, sync and delete the files leaving the folders. I tested this and it seemed to work. I went a step further and deleted the folder all together and no problems, the tunes stayed on the Zune. Although this means that any music I download on that machine won’t automatically be synced to the Zune,  I can live with that. My Podcasts still do sync automatically and these are the items that change enough that they are synced frequently.

I have put a couple of photos on the player and the process was very easy as well.

I have also been able to rip a couple of DVD’s using Handbrake (a freeware DVD to MP4 converter)  to the Zune. Experimentally I used the settings for PSP and it worked fine. I have Plugged the Zune into my 50" Widescreen Plasma using my Panasonic camcorders AV cable and while not the greatest quality it still looked pretty good. This is a nice thing for travelling as you can rip a few DVD’s to the drive and watch them on a hotel TV.

One thing I do like about the software is the search features. Doing a search pulls results from both the Zune Marketplace as well as from your device and collection.

Other cool things you can do with your Zune.. Plug it into your XBox 360 and customize your game soundtracks, stream your collection wirelessly to your XBox 360 from the software, listen to FM radio, sync your Zune wirelessly, or customize your backgrounds with your own photos.

Wireless sync – This is something that I have just tried recently and really like it. From anywhere in the house I can initiate a sync wirelessly (the Zune software has to be running on the PC) and add and remove items. Since I listen and subscribe to several Podcasts, these are added and deleted on my player wirelessly. It is a little slow but it does work. I can plug in my Zune to my AC charger sync and when I get to it in the morning it has new content.

One thing that I really liked, I added an album from an Canadian Artist (Brad Sucks) to my collection. The Zune software actually added the correct Album Art on the player and software. Likewise when I tried the same thing via iTunes to add the album to my iPod Touch, the album art could not be found. Chalk one up to the Zune here.

I want to add that I am not a big iTunes user. In fact I get very frustrated trying to use iTunes to load music and audio books onto my iPod Touch. I really do prefer the interface of the Zune Software. I find it way easier to burn a CD of purchased music (drag and drop), I don’t have to import music into my collection (I can drag existing folders in and they stay were they are instead of being copied to the Zune folder). Once I got used to it (it took about 10 minutes), I found it way easier to navigate, sort and see things than in iTunes. Visually I find the Zune software more appealing.

In the box and accessories:
The Zune ships in a tiny box with very little in it. You get the Zune, not much of an instruction manual, no CD,so software has to be downloaded from the web, a USB cable and with 80 GB a good set of in ear canal, fabric wrapped ear buds and 3 other sets of tips for best fit. To be honest the ear buds perform extremely well, although sometime I can here noise if rubbing the headphone cord (similar to the sound through a stethoscope), but they do a good job of cutting external noise. In fact I recently used the device on an aircraft and they buds did an excellent job of cutting aircraft and cabin noise almost completely. A nice touch are the magnets in the ends of the ear buds that allows them to stick together when not wearing them and preventing them from tangling.

Other accessories were available at shipping, I got the brown leather case with magnetic closure for 35.00. There are Composite video cables for 39.00, or a full Home theatre kit with component cables, dock, ac adaptor and sync cable for 99.00. AC for charger 29.95. Travel Accessory kit featuring a large case, AC plug for USB cable, USB sync cable, a set of premium ear buds and tips, ear bud case and a dual headphone remote control unit. Note I have read recently that the remote unit only works with the older Zune 30 units. The case holds all the accessories and a single unit and is well padded. Normally retails for 79.99 but I got mine at a Radio Shack on sale for 39.99.

Zune Marketplace:
Until the Marketplace is launched in Canada you will need a US address and credit card to open a Zune account. No problem here is away around that. If you are travelling to the States or know someone that is, they can pick up a Zune Points card for you. Oh yeah did I mention that the Zune Marketplace uses points to make purchases. Microsoft says that this is due to credit card transaction fees, but it is kind of confusing to figure out. 79 Zune points is .99 cents. so an album may sell for 800 points. In the US you can add points from your XBox 360 account to your Zune account and vice versa, so I am assuming that you will be able to do the same thing here. Cards are sold as 1200 points for 15.00, 2000 points for 25.00.

Anyway you can set up an account using US address (a mall or Starbucks works), use a gmail (or other account) and add your point from a pre-purchased card. I may also try a prepaid US Visa card in the near future as well. BTW you can do the same thing with iTunes and US iTunes cards giving you access to the US Store, including TV shows and now Movie rentals and purchases. I was informed of this by an Apple retailer here in Calgary when I asked what good was the Apple TV in Canada that they were selling.

Navigating the Zune

Navigating on the Zune is actually very straight forward. The main menu screen features large typeface on the menu items. You can navigate in two ways, either using the touch pad (or Squircle, a square circle) as a rocker switch clicking up down left or right. Or using the touch feature of the pad. The pad is touch sensitive so if you click on Music, push centre of the pad, to scroll through your selections you lightly run your finger down the pad. The faster you move your finger, the faster the scrolling. As your Music scrolls by large letters pop up showing you where you are in the alphabet. To stop just touch the centre of the pad. I find I can scroll through my list of artists, albums, songs very quickly. Alternatively you can click on the side of the touch pad you want to go to move a single step. There are two additional buttons on the Zune, a back button and a play/pause button.

As I indicated the Zune has several menu choices at the main screen, Music, Video, Pictures, Social, Radio (FM), Podcasts and Settings. Once you make a selection of the main category, there are sub selections that scroll left and right across the top of the screen. For example selecting music brings up, Albums, Artists, Songs, Playlists, Genres. Videos brings up Music Videos or all Videos, and Podcasts gives you audio or video podcast choices. Selecting an Album, artist or Podcasts will show you the songs, albums or episodes loaded on the player, also with it’s own sub menu. For example if I go to music and artists and select Barenaked Ladies it shows me all of the albums I have and a left or right click will take me to the next artist. Clicking on the album will show the songs with an option to play all, select a song or shuffle songs. Clicking left or right will move to the next album. I find the interface very intuitive and easy to navigate. Each category creates it’s own context sensitive sub menu.

The Social menu is unique as you can see your inbox (songs that you have received wirelessly) or nearby, which shows other Zunes that are turned on.

While playing a song clicking on the touch pad allows you to rate the song, shuffle it, repeat it, send it wirelessly to another Zune user or go to the artist. Clicking on the touchpad while playing a podcast allows you to turn repeat on, send it or subscribe/unsubscribe to the podcast feed.

Volume is adjust while playing by sliding your finger up or down on the touchpad and fast forwarding/rewinding is accomplished by pushing down left or right on the touch pad. Holding down does a true rewind, a single click does next and previous.

I really like the navigation interface with one exception that I will cover in the negatives section a little further on.

Playback Experience

Although some people see the lack of an equalizer on the Zune a big over site, I have found that the sound quality for all media has been excellent. Volume control is good (when I am lying and bed listening a setting of 2 is adequate) and with the included premium headphones, drowning out the sound on an aircraft was easy as I stated earlier.  While I am not a true audiophile, bass and treble sound good to my ears and even hooking up to external travel speakers everything sounds good.

While playing music, the high res album art is displayed on the screen while back lit and it is still visible when the back lighting goes off, except in very bright surroundings. The song duration as well as song name, album and artist are visible in the lower third of the screen.

There is a lock button also on the top of the unit to lock and prevent inadvertent key presses but with the Zune leather case I have not needed to ever use this.

Video playback is very nice. The screen is clear and bright. When playing video, the unit converts to a landscape mode and the controls also change based on the orientation of the device, so volume is always up or down and fast forward rewind are also still left and right. There is also a black overlay over the edge of the screen which is supposed to make the video stand out a little more and it does a good job of this. The device is excellent for watching video Podcasts although screen captures and movies can be hard to make out at times. A little of the DVD I watched played smoothly all the way through.

I don’t think I have seen 30 hour battery life on the device although I have not really paid attention, I have used it watching video Podcasts and listening to audio and I can generally get about 12 to 15 hours of listening in. No big deal as I do sync and charge it regularly. I would probably get far better battery life I manually shut down the player when I finished with it rather than let it time out and auto sleep. I will do some further testing and report later.

No device is perfect and there are a few negatives that I have found on the Zune.

No audible support.. I have mentioned this already but it forces me to have a second player that has Audible support. This is not a big deal for everyone but for those of us that have Audible accounts it is a pain.

One that I have found that starts to go away with more use is the touch pad and the navigation form time to time. The touch feature works very well, but it can create some frustration. When you want to select an item after scrolling to it you have to click on the centre of the touch pad. However you do have to be careful when clicking on the touchpad because from time to time even if you are slightly off centre you will end up clicking on up, down, right or left instead. A quick click on the back button puts you back were, but it can be a pain if you are trying to start something quickly.

Video conversion. Using the Zune software video conversion can be a little slow. The player does not support on Divx or Xvid video and these formats have to be converted to WMV. While it is slow process, it appears that the software will convert multiple videos at the same time. The Zune does play iPod formatted videos (MP4 and h.264) so that actually works well and doesn’t require conversion. I have been frustrated however that QuickTime files (mov) are not converted.

Collections, If you remove a song or album from your collection it is automatically removed from the Zune player. There are workarounds (dragging a folder from a different drive). But this requires manual sync. Not a real big deal for me but it may be some for some people.

Mac Support Again not a big deal but it may stop from some people from getting Zunes. There are workarounds if you are on an Intel Mac, but how many people will add VMWare Fusion or Parallels or do a Bootcamp Windows install just for Zune software.

Unable to install Zune software on Media Center 2005. Not critical for most people but for those of us that have MCE machines it is a little factor.

The fact that the device does not show up as Mass Storage Device. I understand that the player is designed for the average user but it would be nice to be able add content via explorer to the device.

Lack of browsing or mail on the device. There is so much that they could do with the integrated wireless that is not done. Adding applications for basic email and web surfing would be nice like Apple recently did with the iPod Touch. This is still a real possibility. The release of the new Zunes and the firmware release that  came for the older Zunes indicates that Microsoft is willing and able to add features to the older players and not alienate buyers.

Final Thoughts

Since I started using my Zune 80 in December I have really been happy with it! I like the sleek form factor, the screen for watching video is bright and clear. Music sounds great and the navigation is easy and works well. I ended up having to buy an iPod touch so that I could play Audible downloads but I like having a slightly smaller player as well.  I have not regretted my decision to switch to the Zune.

Last week an announcement was made that games will soon be coming to the Zune. Early indications are that the games look better than those available for the iPod and will be available from the Zune Marketplace

Like I said at the beginning  of the post the Zune will be available in Canada this spring some time with the Marketplace coming later this year. If you are looking for a new MP3 player you may want to wait until the Zunes get here. They are available in 4 and 8 GB flash versions, with US pricing 149.00 and 179.00 (just dropped form 199.99) or the 80 GB version for 249.00. I feel that these players are worthy competitors to the iPod or other devices that are out there and the future does look promising.

Any day now I am expecting to get an 8GB Zune player in black and a pair of Altec Lansing iM414 speakers for the Zune. Keep watching here as I will post reviews of both items.

Free Music??

I recently heard about a new music service called Spiral Frog ( They are offering free music downloads. My first visit to the site was interesting. Their music catalog is not bad (700,000 songs) and they do in fact give the music away free, but there is a catch!

Here is how their service works… You sign up for a free account, download their music download manager (IE and Firefox) and start browsing. The download manager becomes an embedded control in your browser window when visiting the site. The catch? Well the music is DRMMed and you have to use Windows Media Player 10 or 11 so it means Windows Vista or XP only. You cannot burn your music to a CD, although you can transfer it to up to 2 "Plays for Sure" portable players, sorry IPod and Zune owners! Next you have to renew your membership every 30 days (and from what understand) answer a short survey. The key here is they can tell their advertisers that x% of their users plan on buying a new car in the next 6 months.

Why is this important? Well it is related to the way their download manager works, which is I admit kind of a pain in the neck. When you are signed in at the site you select the music you want to download and add it to your download manager. To start your download you click on the download button, and for your first download you have to manually enter the code shown to start. Once the download has completed you have to click on the download next button for your next song. So you have to stay at the site till all of your downloads are done, although you can continue to browse their site. This is how they make their advertising dollars because the site becomes sticky and they get ad exposure.

There is some debate here as to whether people will like this or not. You don’t actually ever own the music and you can’t play it on the most popular portable players (Ipod and Zune). If they ever do go out of business then all of your downloaded music from them will also be unplayable. It will be a great way of downloading an album to see if you like it and if you do you could either buy the cd or buy it from another source (like ITunes).

All in all it, I think it is a great service, although it is slow and cumbersome to download from, but that is the cost you pay for the free music. Whether it will survive remains to be seen, especially since they are excluding the largest player segment. Alternatives right now for low cost music downloads are (limited selection though) and Itunes.


Update! Another PIA issue. If you sign out or close your browser while logged in and downloading, when you log back in your download queue will be gone. However if you leave your browser open overnight you can continue downloading later. S

Lots of new gadgets

I am in the process of playing with and testing several new gadgets that I picked up this summer. Keep an eye out as we will have reviews of the Nokia N800 Internet Tablet, RCA Small Wonder Digital Video Cameras, Canon HV20 HI Def Camcorder, Gary Fong’s Light Sphere II, The ION USB Turntable and maybe the Toshiba HD AH 2 HD DVD player (still not sure if I am keeping that one).

Doh – Did I act too soon!

You may have read my review of the Blackberry Curve that I wrote just a while ago Well the day after writing the review I started having problems with battery life. The phone was going through it’s charge in a day and a half even after it was turned off at night. Neither was there heavy email or even voice usuage on the phone. At first I thought it might be because of a low signal where I had the phone, after moving the phone there was no difference. Well I set the backlight to 30% (which is not noticeable to most people) but then I noticed something. I was getting a number of messages from Twitter via the google talk client. Turns out my Google talk client was running the whole time. This is what was draining the batterries of the unit. I signed off Google talk and the last charge lasted 5 days again!

But now going to the subject line of my post. While looking for solutions to my battery life problem, I stumbled upon some blogs with product leaks for Blackberries, in particular a new Curve 2, Pearl 2 and 8800 V2 phone. It would appear that CDMA versions of these phones are coming out (Telus and Bell customers will be able to get them) but the biggest feature on the new GSM versions is the addition of WiFi (802.11bg)! Apparently these phones will seemlessly switch from Edge to 802 seamlessly for mail downloads and we browsing. his is the one feature that I wish my current Curve had because it lowers data costs for mail and web surfing and it is much faster than the edge network. Although I have also seen that Rogers is testing their new HSPDA in some of the major centres (Calgary, Vancouver) I have seen no indication that these phones will be able to connect on that network.

Rumours have the phones coming out in the US sometime between September and December so they should not be far behind here. Well I am happy as I am eligible for an upgrade frome Rogers December 1 of this year so I will keep watching.