How to improve iTunes sound quality

Ever since I purchased an iPod and started using iTunes, I’ve been very disappointed with iTunes sound quality. I don’t know if iTunes just flat out sounds bad or that I’ve become accustomed to the great sounding Quintessential Player with iZotope DSP plugin. Of all the audio players an DSP plugins I’ve tried, this combination sounds head and tails above anything else I’ve tried.

screen_2008-01-26 15.34.26

I’m surprised how few audio enhancement plugins have been created for iTunes which seems to be the dominant MP3 playback software given the ubiquity of the iPod. Having said that, there are times when I’ll use iTunes in spite of its crappy audio quality. But I’ve found a $20 product called Volume Logic that makes iTunes sound pretty good. The only drawback I’ve come across is that it’s basically a dead product, meaning it works today on iTunes 7.6 but it’s creator, Plantronics, is no longer releasing updates for it. 

But if you spend a fair amount of time in iTunes and care about sound quality, I still feel it’s worth the $20 to register Volume Logic. You can download it here and try it free for 30 days.

TurboTax Home and Business

Each year I wonder if I’d be better off gathering all my tax related document and dumping them at the door of a tax professional. Yet for the past ten years I’ve eventually just purchased TurboTax and completed my taxes on my own. image

This year was no different as I contemplated the idea of getting help since I received income from several side jobs that totaled more than a few thousand dollars. I figured it was better to play it safe and report that income and the Home and Business edition of TurboTax made it all quite painless. I spent about two hours going through the entire process and running through different scenarios. 

My favorite part of the product is the interview process which asks a number of questions upfront and then tailors the walk-through based on my answers. It’s easy to switch back and forth to view different scenarios. This is the first time I’ve purchased the Home and Business edition and I found it to be very comprehensive and polished. This edition costs about $90.

Technorati Tags:

Tripp-Lite UPS

I finally got around to purchasing a UPS for my home computer. I ended up buying the SmartPro Digital UPS from Tripp-Lite at Costco for $100. It includes 4 outlets for UPS and 4 more on surge protection. I’ve got my computer, DSL model, speakers and NAS on the UPS portion. View the complete specs here.

 tripplite

I’d like to add another for Kim and the kids computers as well as to my home theater and Tivo. So far it’s worked great although the real test will come the next time we experience a power outage.

This model also included a USB cable drives a console called “Power Alert” which gives me information on the a number of other setting include Input, Output and Battery Life. I like the LCD screen that shows my current input voltage.

I found it strange that the PowerAlert software didn’t come in the box. I searched around the Tripp-Life website and eventually found it available for download at this link.

Technorati Tags: , ,

My favorite products or services of 2007

I discovered some great software this year. Some of my choices have been around a while, but I didn’t use it till this year. Here’s a list of my favorites:

  1. Twitter – I’ll look back on 2007 as the Year of Twitter. It wasn’t till I  attended Gnomedex that it took hold, but I’m now addicted to this service that’s a mix of IM, email, chat, forums, and newsgroups. It’s hard to explain, but it’s the place I gather a lot of my news, hear about cool products and ask for trusted opinions. My favorite Twitter client is Twhirl although several friend swear by Snitter. Give them both a try.
  2. CallWave – Would you like to manage your voicemail on your PC? CallWave  makes it easy to do just that as well as a number of other things. It also includes a good audio to text converter that will email or text message me any missed messages. I cannot imagine managing my voicemail the old fashioned way.
  3. Slacker – Tired of the same old playlists? Download the Slacker client and  bring dozens of internet, ad-free radio to your desktop. I discovered more good, few music through Slacker than any other means. I keep it on at work all day on either the smooth jazz or classic rock station.
  4. LogMeIn – This is the remote access solution that doesn’t require bribing the IT dude in order to actually work properly. The best compliment I can  give this service is that it “just works”. And it’s free for the basics. I use this weekly to access my home machine from work and vice versa. Stop futzing around with Microsoft Remote Connection and try LogMeIn. 
  5. Ultramon – I added a second NEC 90GX2 to my home setup this year and it didn’t feel right until I discovered UltraMon. It makes working on dual  monitors a seamless experience. You gotta give this program a try if you’re using two or more monitors.
  6. Miro – Just an amazing product for watching your favorite    TV shows and whatever else you’re after. No need to go hunting down codecs since it plays most formats right from the get go.
  7. Windows Live Writer – I’ve already written a lot about this blogging editor so I won’t rehash it here. If you have a blog and are still using your  browser to update it, you should give this a try. It changed how often and posted and made the entire process a lot more enjoyable.

Planet Earth

If you haven’t already seen this breathtaking series from the BBC, move it to the top of your Netflix queue or just go buy the DVD set.

You won’t regret it. It’s that good.

The photography. The score. The chases. The scenery. This might be the perfect DVD series.

Kim and I watched the first DVD last night showing how the snow leopard hunts its prey, perched high atop the Himalayans. As the leopard moves across the rocks, the snow begins to fall in one of the most gorgeous sequences on film and the first time the snow leopard has been caught on film searching for prey.

The series took five years and $25 million to produce. The BBC has now managed to produce my top 2 favorite shows: The Office (“she’s not dead”) and now Planet Earth.

Review from IGN“Possibly the greatest television documentary series ever”
Review from The Washington Post“Years will pass before another program poses a serious challenge to this landmark”

Here is the nearly 5 minute Planet Earth trailer.

Technorati Tags: ,

Considering a Motorola Q?

I bought a Motorola Q a few months ago. It’s not a bad device if you text/email a lot, but it’s not a great phone. I wrote a review of this phone after I’d had it for three months.

I recently upgraded to the Motorola Q9M (I’m told the “M” stands for Music) which possess the same chip as the Q but includes several big upgrades. The biggest of which is the move to Windows Mobile 6. The Q includes Windows Mobile 5 which is quite sluggish in comparison. Windows Mobile includes some shortcuts when dealing with mail that are not included in WM 5. If you read a lot of mail on your phone, the small improvement can lead to big productivity gains.

It’s worth upgrading to the Q9M just to get Windows Mobile 6 but I’m not happy that Verizon and Motorola decided that the older model couldn’t be upgraded. Why would Verizon do this when the phones have the same chip? In order to collect more money from you, that’s why!

Here are a few more reasons the Q9M is better than the Q:

  1. Vastly improved keyboard – the Q’s keys are terrible. I made far more typing mistakes on the Q. The keys on the Q9M are still small but they have a much better feel and are spaced properly.
  2. Improved Battery – This is probably a benefit of Windows Mobile 6, but the battery life is much better on the Q9M than the Q.
  3. Lighter Weight – The Q9M weighs less, yet still feels substantial in my hand.
  4. Improved ergonomics – Not only does the keyboard feels a lot better, so do all the keys on the Q9M. The big arrow buttons and analog stick are much improved making menu navigation easier on the Q9M.

One question you might have is whether or not the Q9M is a better phone. I think it is for two reasons: keyboard makes it easier to dial and Windows Mobile 6 improves the phone functions. It’s still not a great phone and if you’re looking for a great phone, you’ll have to look elsewhere. But it’s serviceable. I can’t understate how much better the device performs under Windows Mobile 6 though which makes using the phone a much better experience.

I don’t know why Verizon continues to sell the Q except that it’s $50 cheaper than the Q9M ($199 vs. $149). The only thing I like better about the Q is the scroll wheel sticks out a bit further and seems to have a better tactile feel compared to the slicker wheel on the Q9M. But that lasted a day and now I can’t imagine going back to the Q.

If you’re considering one of these devices, go with the Q9M. Even if you’re not a heavy text/email users, you’ll appreciate the substantial performance upgrade that Windows Mobile 6 brings to the phone. I wish I had upgraded sooner.

image

image

 

 

 

 

 

     

 

 

              Q9M                                                 Q

Latest BMW 3 Series vs. Infinity G35/37 Reviews

Car & Driver

1. BMW 328i vs Infinity G35 Sport

Conclusion: “The G35 scores points for comfort, capable moves, and thrust in surplus, but BMW still builds the best tools for driving”

Winner: BMW

2. BMW 328i vs. Infinity G35, Cadillac CTS, Mercedes Benz C300

Winner: BMW

Conclusion: “Once again, a 3 series rises to the top of a comparison test. It is simply the best executed, best conceived, and best sports sedan currently available for the price”

BMW 3 Series named to 2008 10 Best List for a record 16th straight year.

image

Road and Track

1. BMW 335i vs. Infinity G37

Winner: Tie

Conclusion: “It’s a simple choice, the 335i for the track, or the G37S for the Autobahn”

image

Automobile Magazine

1. BMW 335i vs. Infinity G37

Winner: BMW

Conclusion: “With its highly entertaining dynamic aptitudes, near-BMW speed, and hot appearance, the Infiniti G37S easily tops the value chart. Anyone seeking a passionate fling will be well served in this seat. Those more interested in a long-term relationship should dig several thousand dollars deeper into their wallets for the 335i”

BMW 3 Series and G35/37 named to 2008 Automobile All-Stars

image

Motor Trend

BMW 335i vs. Infinity G37

Conclusion: “More muscle and technology deliver BMW brilliance on a budget”

Winner: Infinity

image

Edmunds

BMW 335i vs. Infinity G35 Video Review

Conclusion: “In the end, the BMW 335i is a better drive….more intimate and more engaging driving experience. The real thing comes out on top”

Winner: BMW

Pixoo review

I signed up for the Pixoo beta a while back and finally received my invitation yesterday. The concept is so simple it’s hard to imagine I’ve not come across a similar service till now. Basically, you send Pixoo a picture of your self and they touch it up and then format it for 49 difference online communities such as Digg, Facebook, Flickr, LindedIN, MSN Messenger, Revver, Twitter, Yahoo Mail and many others.

The number of fixes Pixoo can make to your picture is extensive. Just a few of the fixes include changing the background, removing blemishes, changing your clothing, removing distractions, whiten your teeth, and even touch up your mustache or beard. There are many things they can do. There’s an area on the picture submission where you can give them any special instructions if your fix isn’t listed.

Here is the picture I submitted to Pixoo

brett 

I asked  Pixoo to lighten the background, remove the shadows, remove skin blemishes and make me look professional. Basically, make me look like Brad Pitt. That’s not too much to ask!  Here is what they sent back about 12 hours later.

brettn

They did a great job. I love the background. They also removed the shadows and they made me look look better than I do in person. A few of my Twitter pals and coworkers told me I look like a weatherman. Ok, not the look I was after. Some figured I was interviewing for another job. The picture looked a bit on the formal side, but Pixoo makes it easy to send it back for additional touch up at no extra cost.

This time I told Pixoo to keep the background but put me in a Steve Jobs approved, black mock turtleneck shirt. Here’s what they sent back about eight hours later.

brettcasuaul

Hey, that’s more like it! When I told Pixoo this would work, they sent me to a page that was filled with all versions of this photo. That page looks like this:

screen_2007-12-12 01.01.58

The pages includes several nice touches. First, they show a preview of how the picture will look on the different services. You can download each picture individually (Not sure why anyone would want to do this) or one can download a ZIP file that contains all 49.

I believe the pricing for the service is $20 per picture. If you’re accepted into the beta program they charge $10. The service is so impressive that even 20 bucks feels like a bargain.

One other thing. I never realized till today how often I use a picture icon like this. I went around to the different services I use and updated my picture. Almost immediately I received feedback on the picture. If you blog or you Twitter or whatever that little picture is your brand. It’s often the first thing someone sees as they come across your profile.

I’m sure many people already have a high quality picture of themselves. If you do, great. If you don’t I highly recommend Pixoo.

Technorati Tags:

Our kids favorite toys of the year

My father bought our kids two Kettler “Kettcars” this summer and it’s become their favorite activity. We live on a cul-de-sac with a grass island which gives the kids plenty of room to cruise around in these well-made pedal cars.

The first Kettcar he bought is called the Classic Flyer. Its looks are old school, but it’s a seriously fast racing machine. It’s perfect for smaller kids, but three of our kids (ages 6, 4, 3) all love it and fit well. One feature I like about this model is the seat takes just seconds to adjust as no tools are needed. This makes for an ideal choice when you have different ages who will be sharing time behind the wheel.  It includes a hand brake that works well when the kids remember it’s there.

Here’s a picture of Lincoln on the Classic Flyer. He probably shouldn’t be wearing his Croks to pedal, but at least he’s wearing his sister’s Dora helmet.

image

After we had the Classic Flyer for a few weeks my father decided that we needed one to grow into. So he ordered the Grand Prix model. This one has bigger wheels and looks very sporty. The older neighborhood kids show up when we pull this out. It also sits off the ground a bit higher and is perfect for kids ages 5-9 or so. The seat is adjustable too but requires basic tools to do so. The kids loved placing the many stickers on the Grand Prix. In fact, it took longer to place the stickers than it did to assemble.

image

Our kids have driven these Kettcars for hours on end. Having two is a lot of fun because they can invite friends over and race around the grass island. I like these pedal cars a lot better than the battery operated models you find at Target because the kids have to pedal to get them moving which results in a good amount of exercise. And you’ll get exercise too as you try to chase them down because they won’t want to stop.

The Classic Flyer can be found online for around $140 while the Grand Prix runs about $170. Both can be found at Growing Tree Toys or Amazon.

Note: A friend of mine has told me that the Kettler tricycles are great too.

The Small Details that Make a Difference

Most products I use work. They do the job for the most part, but they fail to delight. Every once and while a product comes along that includes a detail or feature that’s so impressive, that it elevates the experience to a higher level. Such small details can make the difference between merely doing the job vs. delighting the user.

Below are a few products that include a small detail or feature that’s delighted me lately:

The Tivo Remote – How come most remotes are such a pain in the butt to use? Tivo comes along and create a remote that makes others feel 20 year old. Tivo understands the remote is something that users actually “feel” each time they use their product. They created a remote that just feels right in your hand. It’s balanced and elegant. Most remotes include buttons that are all the same size. But the Tivo’s buttons are big and colored. Even my three year old can use it without trouble. These small details set the product apart from anything else on the market.

20040315_tivo_pioneer_remote_controls 
Which remote do you think more time and research went into? Link to Tivo.

The Moleskin Notebook – Lots of small details set this notebook apart but my favorite is the ribbon placemarkers. Such a tiny detail can save a lot of time each day. No more thumbing through pages looking for where I left off. I can immediately turn to an open page and start taking notes. I keep a couple on hand at work and a small Moleskin on me at all times to jot to down ideas and short reminders.

moleskine_1973_4357373 
The ribbon placemarker makes for quick entry while the elastic band keeps it closed when not in use. Link to Moleskin store.

Tweetr

I love unexpected but smart animation like the one John Ballinger added to my favorite Twitter application for Windows. The one I’m talking about is the quick “cube spin” that happens when I click on a persons icon. It’s just enough to let me know what I’ve clicked while adding something unexpected. I love it!

screen_2007-11-21 19.28.44 
You can see the first icon just as it starts to rotate. Link to Tweetr site.

Nikon D40 Camera

How can a DSLR be easier to use than a point and shoot? That’s what I asked myself after using the D40 for a few weeks. Being new to photography, I was concerned that a DSLR would be difficult to use and I’d spend too much time futzing with settings and hunting down menus instead of taking pictures.

Then Nikon comes along and sets a new standard on DSLR ease of use with the D40. Here’s a camera that knows its user base is made of first time DSLR owners. The menus are a pleasure to use! I can’t overstate that. During my few training classes I was mixed in with Canon DSL owners, many of which had less experience than I did which wasn’t very much to begin with. The instructor would ask us to change certain setting on our camera and it was funny to watch many of the Canon owners struggle to do so. Many had purchased too much camera for sure. After comparing the D40 to similar Canon models I decided on the Nikon mostly due to the camera’s ease of use and super clear menu system. Not only are the menus easy to navigate but they help you understand different settings by giving you a dynamic thumbnail image that shows setting changes in real time. Why can’t all cameras be this intuitive? DPreview has a full of screen of D40 menus here.

D40menu 
A smart and concise menu system makes the D40 a pleasure to use. Link to D40.

BMW Steering Wheel

BMW does so many things right which helps explain their obsessive fans and years of automotive accolades. I love how the instrumentation is clear and simple. I love how they angle the controls towards the driver. Every knob, switch and button has just the right about of tension and feedback. In just minutes behind the wheel and you can tell this is a car that was created and assembled by fanatics. But my favorite interior detail is the steering wheel. Only the most useful buttons have been included, and they fall right where your hand expects them to be. Each button has a little bit different shape so you can use each without looking down. BMW also figured out the best angle to mount the steering wheel. This isn’t easy to describe but the wheel just feels like it’s always in the right place. Other cars I’ve owned required frequent adjustment to the wheel or seat or both and sometimes the arrangement never felt right. It’s as if BMW measured my limbs and figured out the ideal position of each instrument. It’s uncanny how this works but it does work!

BMWinterior 
A driver-centric cockpit can be found on all BMW models

Fred Meyer, Nordstrom and Applebees

I like how Fred Meyer places a bottle of hand sanitizer near the grocery carts as you walk into the store. There are also hand clothes there to wipe off your cart if you do desire.

Nordstrom probably deserves a post of its own but one thing I’ve noticed is how clean they maintain their restrooms. I’ve never been in one where a toilet was taped off or a stall divider broken. There’s never water puddled up on the counter or paper towels strewn on the floor. Nope, someone at Nordstrom understands that even their bathrooms are a reflection of their brand and service.

A small detail I’ve noticed when we’ve been to Applebees for lunch or dinner is that, when they see our family walk towards the door, someone always heads to the door to open it for us. A small detail, no doubt, but a very helpful one when you’re trying to heard three wild kids in the right direction. They do the same on the way out, and it leaves a good impression each time we enter and exit. Very nice touch.