Happy New Year!

Well the last three months got pretty hectic both in and out of work which didn’t leave much time for keeping Macbitz up to date. Nevertheless the Mac world moves on and there’s new Mac hardware and software that I’ve purchased and can bore you all to tears with! I will try and get around to writing up more detailed thoughts and reviews in the coming months, but here’s what I’ve been buying (or had bought for me)…

  • A new Panasonic TX-L32V10B 32″ TV. It’s full HD (1080p and 24fps), has an ethernet port in the back but more importantly has a PC socket on the back. What better than to plug my Mac Mini into it!
  • An Apple Airport Express which is daisy-chained off my Airport Extreme upstairs in the study so that I can extend the network downstairs.
  • A Sony PS3 Slim that can talk to my Mac Pro via a couple of bits of software.
  • A copy of Blue Harvest that helped me with a problem with a BMW 120d !? Yes that’s a BMW car/automobile (depending on where you live).
  • Socialite – a great client for pulling your social networks (e.g. Twitter, Facebook, etc.) and other feeds together.
  • Busy Cal and Spanning Sync for lots of juicy calendar goodness. That’s seamless calendaring between the Mac, Google and my iPhone with a bit of Entourage thrown in for good measure.
  • Songbird is helping to remove some of the frustrations of iTunes. Plus BeaTunes and Song Sergeant have been doing sterling service.
  • I’m having fun with a Canon DMC FZ28 camera and a copy of PhotoShop Elements 8 for the Mac.
  • Yep is helping me organize all those paper documents I scanned using my ScanSnap S300M.
  • Some neat iPhone apps that I actually use.

There’s bound to be other stuff that I’ve forgotten for now, but will dig out and scribble about on MacBitz in the coming weeks and months. So a Happy New Year to everyone and may your ‘twenty ten’ be a good one.  PS – I didn’t even mention the rumoured Apple Tablet once…. doh, I just did!

Pandora Radio… In the UK… On a Mac (sort of)

picture-1I was a big fan of Pandora Radio when it started out. Both before and since I have tried music recommendation systems, including the new iTunes Genius, but I never found one that seemed to hit the mark better than Pandora. There was something about the way they analyzed the music (something they referred to as the Genome project) that made their recommendations very good – certainly in my case. and in the space of a year I must have bought about 12 CDs based on new music I heard on Pandora.

In their infinite wisdom, the various record labels and authorities decided that allowing me to listen to a radio station in the States given that I live in the UK, was a somehow damaging their profits and the sad day eventually came when I got the Pandora email saying they had been obliged to block listeners from anywhere outside the US. Go figure! So I put up with it and went on my merry way, but every so often I’d see a story about Pandora and I eventually started to miss discovering new artists so I set about looking for a way to solve my problem.

In essence the trick was to access Pandora via a service that would disguise my ‘UK’ IP address and make it appear as though I was just another user in the States. Trouble is, many of the services that do this either require some sort of monthly subscription or require you to download and install fairly invasive software. I did try a few in the latter category, including Firefox add-ons, but most didn’t work either relaibly or at all with Pandora. I eventually discovered HotSpot Shield and before long I was enjoying Pandora again.

Now HotSpot Shield falls into the category of ‘free’ installed software. You download a small client package (PC/Mac) which you install and there it sits doing absolutely nothing – until you need it, which is exactly what I wanted as I didn’t want my everyday browsing interfered with. I tried out the Mac version and it worked well enough, but given my lack of familiarity with OS X I eventually plumped for running the Windows version inside a small VMware Fusion session. So I set up a minimal Windows XP virtual machine 512Mb, single processor, and as small a hard disk as I could manage, patched it with the thousands of XP fixes you need then installed HotSpot Shield and that was it. Now every time I want to listen to Pandora I just fire up Fusion, load the little VM, load IE7 go to Pandora and I’m away. HotSpot Shield make their money by placing a small add in a frame at the top of your browser window. It’s fairly unobtrusive plus you have the option to close it anyway.

So, I’m happily listening to Pandora and discovering and buying new music again. What could be better? Maybe the record labels seeing sense and removing this daft restriction?!

Shameless Plug – The Buzzoutroom

What goes perfectly with the coolest computer around? How about the coolest music.

If you like chill out to ‘downbeat grooves’ then head over to The Buzzoutroom and have a listen. It’s perfect for when your passing time on your Mac. My favourites? Blackfish, Chilled CQuence, this list could go on and on.

It doesn’t take a Genius

One of the rumoured new features in iTunes 8 is the Genius which according to Kevin Rose’s blog “makes playlists from songs in your library that go great together“. That got me thinking… how will it achieve that?

I can see it working in one of two ways. Firstly there’s the algorithm method – some clever coding akin to what they do with Pandora or in applications like (the name escapes me right now). For that to be the case, Apple’s developers would have had to have done a lot of research or have bought out a company that already does it. Can’t say I’ve seen anything like that in the news.

The other method is the for iTunes to track what you listen to and then make recommendations based on what other iTunes users who listened to the same track, then chose to listen to. The second method, which I suspect is more likely, means iTunes phones home every time you listen to a track and Apple then builds a ‘Who Likes What’ database from which it’s recommendations are made.

I’ve never had much joy with services that use the second method, much prefering the way Pandora does it, but it will be interesting to see what Apple comes up with. Sadly I still don’t think a ‘Watch Folders’ feature will make it into iTunes 8 which speaks volumes about Apple’s attitude to it’s users.

Speeding up my USB hard drive

Freecom 400Gb... meet Mac Pro

Freecom 400Gb... meet Mac Pro

As my Mac-mania gathers momentum, my Windows PCs have less and less to do. My latest change was to move a Freecom 400Gb USB drive from an XP machine across to my Mac Pro. In the looks department it’s actually a match made in heaven because both sport a brushed aluminium case and minimalist styling that I quite like. Anyway, naturally enough the drive was formatted as FAT32 from it’s days in Windows slavery and I thought why not erase it and format it with something more Mac-friendly? So, out came Disk Utility and in no time the drive was formatted as Mac OS Extended (Journaled). After all, that’s the format used on all my internal hard drives, and I didn’t think twice about it.

Next job was to populate the USB drive with my music collection (245Gb), my photos (27Gb) and my documents (1Gb). Now that says a lot about me – I’m always buying music, I take a lot of photos and I rarely write letters! Still, as I already had all this data on one of the Mac Pro’s internal drives, this USB drive was to act as a second backup location (in case Time Machine lost the plot – which is not unheard of).

I have become a great fan of ChronoSync, so this was my application of choice for copying all this data to the USB drive. Starting with my music collection, ChronoSync started copying the files and cheerily told me it would take around 2 days and 7 hours to complete the job. Wait a minute. Over TWO DAYS??! What the… My first reaction was to cancel the copy and check my settings in case I’d set some performance hungry verify option or something. No, everything seemed fine so I set ChronoSync in motion again, but the estimated time to complete was the same!

Well I knew that my Windows PCs could manage the same job in a fraction of that time so I reached for the trial version of Super Flexible File Synchronizer, just in case there was something about ChronoSync that was the problem. (I’m looking at Super Flexible’ because as a SyncBack SE user on Windows it offers a similar interface and feature set). Same outlook though, Super Flexible’ estimated the task would take days rather than hours. Surely slow file copying wasn’t a side-effect of using USB drives on Macs that I’d have to live with? I now started to recall comments I’d seen on the web about how an external USB drive can slow a Mac down and I was wondering if this was the same problem.

So it was back to square one and I fired up the OS X Disk Utility thinking I’d reformat the drive and start

Disk Utility

Disk Utility

over to see if there had been some glitch. This time round I got to thinking about what file system I’d used and whether FAT32 might be a better bet after all? Well the answer wasn’t quite that extreme. You see my initial choice of having journaling enabled was the problem. I headed on over to the Apple support site to investigate this disk format and there was my answer. Journaling offers a degree of protection against disk corruption when there’s a power-loss for example… and the price you pay is performance.

Easy then, I changed the disk format for my USB drive from Mac OS Extended (Journaled) to just Mac OS Extended. Problem solved! Without the overhead of tracking all file changes, ChronoSync now reported that the job would take a little under three hours and I was happy again.

Incidentally, I’ve been using four Freecom external USB drives (two 500Gb drives on my server and one 400Gb drive on each Windows PC) for several years. They’ve been rock solid, and the bonus is they’re silent, they look pretty stylish and they cost less than comparable drives from LaCie and Super G. You can also choose from USB 2.0, Firewire 400/800, eSata and NAS (although only the USB ones are silent).

Given the nature of external USB hard drives, once I have copied all my data across and am just doing small incremental backups I may switch the journaling back on for that extra protection. In the mean time I’m comfortable in the knowledge that when it come to disk formats, Mac OS X has got the measure of Windows.

Whatever happened to Vista’s WinFS?  Ssshhhhh….

XBox 360 and Mac – in harmony.

I have an XBox 360 I was given a couple of years ago on my birthday. Well strictly speaking that’s not true – my first XBox 360 suffered the dreaded ‘red ring of death’ so this is a replacement. Anyway, the main thing is that as a gamer I’m hopeless, so the XBox’s main duty is as a media extender. Previously I used Windows Media Player so I could listen to my mp3’s on the stereo in the lounge via the XBox and that was pretty much it. Now that I’m using the Mac more and more, the inevitable question was “Can I hook the XBox up with the Mac”?

Absolutely you can, and my choice was Connect360 from Nullriver. Now if you’ve ever set up sharing using Windows Media Player on the PC, you’re about to find out that yet again it’s easier on the Mac. No running around typing codes from the XBox into the PC because getting Connect360 working is simplicity itself. Connect360 installs as a ‘prefpane’ meaning that you access it’s controls via System Preferences undert the ‘Other’ section.

On opening it you’re greeted with a Status page from where you can stop and start the sharing service, and see what’s being shared. Clicking the settings button will provide you with five tabs where you can change setting for general stuff, iTunes, Movies and iPhoto as well as restricting access to certain IP addresses or ranges. All nicely laid out and all very intuitive. Of course for music and photos it does require that you actually use iTunes and iPhoto, but that’s a given for so may Mac users these days. For movies you just place your movie files in your Documents/Movies folder and Connect360 shares them.

The type of movie files supported is actually down to the XBox Team and what codecs are built-in or available for the XBox (you can find a list here). I’m no expert on video codecs but I had some TV shows in .avi format and they played perfectly. Access from the XBox is also really easy, just chose the type of media you want to play, press the ‘X’ button to change the media source, then choose your Mac from the list.

Another really nice feature is the ability to redirect Internet radio to your XBox via Connect360. I listen to a variety of Internet radio stations including the Buzzoutroom, DI.FM and Soma Radio. I have all three in iTunes grouped together under a playlist called Chill Radio. All I do on the XBox is choose to play music then browse to my playlists where I can see Chill Radio. I open the playlist, pick the station I want to listen to and there I am – falling asleep on the sofa to the soothing sounds of the web.

I hadn’t even got round to showing off photos on the XBox, before I’d decided to divvy up the $20 registration fee (the only limitation around the un-registered version is the number of songs you can load up).

Back on the subject of music and iTunes, I still haven’t found the ideal replacement(s) for managing and playing music on the Mac, but for now iTunes gets the job done so it’s no real problem having it there to support stuff like Connect360. Obviously the same caveats apply when tagging your music to play on the XBox, which reminds me – I’m about due to have another look at Jaikoz as there’s a newer version out (released July 14th 2008). No rest for the wicked!

Mac Music Management – Jaikoz 2.4.1 build 1046

JaikozIn my search for the ultimate music management tools for the Mac, I have spent a while playing with the latest version of Jaikoz. For Windows switchers it falls into the category of a sophisticated MP3 tagging tool rather like the excellent Tag&Rename. Pitching right in – Jaikoz exposes pretty much every ID3 tag available to you so that you can edit them singly or in batch through a very easy to understand and nice looking interface. At the top you get the iTunes like navigation pane where you can sort and choose genres, artists and albums which are then displayed as tables in the centre section. The bottom selection can then show you a detailed view of whichever track you’ve selected.It’s all very easy to get on with and customizable for those who like to tweak.

Moving on from this, there is a mind-boggling variety of ways in which you can auto-correct tags, guess tags from filenames, rename files from tags, move files, swap tags and even jump to MusicBrainz, Amazon, Discogs etc. to view more information about the chosen artist, album or track. So whether you’re planning to edit the data by hand, or by retrieving it automatically via other means, you can label up your music with a huge amount of detail. The manual tag editing is done either in the table itself by double-clicking on a tag field or in the detailed view at the bottom and it’s simply a case of typing in what you want. Easy for small numbers of files but a pain when you’re dealing with larger collections, which brings us on to the automated retrieval of data, and MusicBrainz. Now as someone who’s quite fussy about the accuracy of tag data, (well if you’re going to do it you might as well do it properly), I am not that convinced about the quality, consistency or accuracy of the way MusicBrainz works with Jaikoz, and I found that it was all too easy to completely mess things up. To be fair though, that’s a criticism of MusicBrainz more than it is of Jaikoz, and  it’s a shame that Jaikoz Audio tagger doesn’t let you use other sources like Amazon or Allmusic for auto-tagging your music.

To give you a quick example, let’s take a well known album like “Original Soundtrack” by 10cc. Now in my collection the album has all tracks present and is already tagged correctly, but I let Jaikoz and MusicBrainz have their way with it for the purposes of this experiment. So for each track the Artist and Album Artist are both “10cc”, the Year is “1975” and the Album is “Original Soundtrack”. After MusicBrainz had done it’s thing, the Year of tracks #1 & #3 changed to 1975-04, while the rest remained as “1975”. The Album Artist for track #2 got changed to “Various Artists” and the Album to “Super 70’s disk 2” whatever that is! I repeated this with other well known artists and albums and all too often it was the same story with odd anomalies creeping in and in a few cases, entire albums be re-tagged incorrectly. Basically it was difficult to get consistent data without vetting each track carefully, taking away much of the benefit of automated tagging in the first place. You can tweak MusicBrainz settings from within the Jaikoz preferences to improve accuracy but I still found this feature required very careful scrutiny in use. Compare this to the way Tag&Rename imports tag data from Amazon which is far more slick and controllable, plus you get a preview of what it’s going to do before it does it. MusicBrainz and MusicIP are great concepts but I feel they have a way to go yet so be cautious and don’t let them run wild through your precious collection.

So is Jaikoz a good replacement for switchers used to a program like Tag&Rename? Well if it’s manual Tag&Renametagging you want then it’s a resounding ‘Yes!’ because Jaikoz has all the bases covered in that department. In fact if you’re happy to expend effort in checking the consistency of MusicBrainz data for your automated tagging needs, then I’d also recommend it. However, if you’re used to better control and consistency when pulling tag data from the web to bring order to your collection, then my vote would still go to Tag&Rename running under VMWare Fusion, and because Tag&Rename has many of the other tagging functions of Jaikoz covered as well, I’d find it hard to splash out on another tagging program just to get some native Mac functionality.

I know there are licensing issues with programs that want to pull data from Allmusic.com but if Jaikoz could read information from Amazon in the same way that Tag&Rename does, then it would seal the deal for me, but until then…