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Scott's Column
MP3 at CES, MP3 vs WMA, dusting off a Palm III, and the house progresses

February 1, 2001
By Scott Lewis

If you saw the table of contents you know I bought a Hewlett Packard Pavilion n5190 Notebook computer. You can read its review in the Feature Article. I spent more time playing with my Rio 600 MP3 player, and I got back to the land by surveying the property and positioning the house. Finally, I dusted off my Palm III to use as a PDA for the house project.

HP Pavilion Notebook

Obviously this is the biggest news this month. We bought a HP Pavilion n5190 Notebook computer. It fulfills our needs very well. We use it as a portable DVD player in the car, when visiting my in-laws or brother-in-law, and even in bed. But the primary use it gets is maintaining all the information about the house project.

My wife really likes MS Works 2000 that shipped with the laptop. When you launch Works it is a wrapper to the core applications of word processing, spreadsheet, and database. The wrapper provides a really nice environment to jump into projects with pre-built templates. This was the part that my wife really liked. Especially when it already had spreadsheets that covered home repairs and scheduling; not entirely different from building and scheduling.

I don't like the spreadsheet application because it does not support multiple sheets in a single spreadsheet like Excel does. I will probably install all the templates from Office 2000 to see if I can persuade my wife to use Word and Excel. I never bothered with Office's Toolbar application or its new documents and binder features. I prefer to go straight to the applications I need and build things from scratch. I don't know if Office's tools provides as nice a wrapper as Works, but I doubt it. I will try experimenting and let you know how it turns out.

Palm III

Quite a while ago I retired my Palm III. I found that I only used it because I forced myself. Although I am a technology nut, and a techie toy junkie, I just had a hard time justifying carrying the thing around.

With the house project getting underway I thought it would be a good idea to blow the dust off the old PDA and use it again. I went to Palm's web site and downloaded the latest (and free) versions of the software for the Palm III. This includes the Palm OS version 3.3 (3.5 is a paid upgrade), Desktop 3.01 and HotSync 3.04. I also downloaded the latest version of PocketMirror, 3.0,  to provide syncing up with Outlook's calendar, contacts, etc.

As it turns out the Palm OS version 3.3 upgrade was only for owners of version 3.0+. I ended up not upgrading the Palm's OS, but I did install the latest version of the Desktop Program and HotSync. (The reason I wanted the OS upgrade was for using the inferred port on the Palm and my laptop.) I have not installed the PocketMirror conduit for Outlook yet. I haven't decided if I want to use Outlook. The Palm Desktop application seems to be good enough for the moment. 

While I was having all this fun I downloaded Quick Office. This is a Palm utility that let's you edit Excel and Word documents directly on the Palm and sync them up with Office on a PC. This may be the thing to get my wife to use Excel instead of Works. Unfortunately it is $40. That might get my wife to forget about using Excel. If anyone knows of a free utility that can at least view Excel spreadsheets on a Palm, please let me know.

The House

We are well on our way. We expect to start the foundation in March. Hopefully the house will be complete in time to move in before Thanksgiving. My brother-in-law is the contractor. He is subcontracting out most of the big jobs. We will be doing a lot of the finishing work. We already rejected one plumber's bid because he would not do the job unless he could install all the fixtures (toilets, sinks etc.) He says that is where the money is. That is exactly the kind of stuff my brother-in-law and I can do to save money on the project. So we will be looking for another plumber.

The electrician we plan to use had no trouble with us installing all the light fixtures. He will do all the rough electric work, and then come back and install all the switches and plugs. Although my brother-in-law and I could do that work, we would not be fast enough to justify the savings. We will be on a time table dictated by the bank that provides the construction loan.

We have decided to use an electric based heat pump to heat the house. We live in South Central Texas and it doesn't get that cold here (for a Yankee like myself anyway). Heat pumps work by exchanging the cold air for hot air. They extract the heat from the outside air (yes, there is heat in the air even when it is cold to you and me). I have done some research on this but can't seem to find any objective opinions on the matter. Every source I found that put down heat pumps in favor of a gas alternative sold gas equipment or the gas itself. Every source that liked heat pumps sold them or the electricity that ran them. I wish Consumer Reports would do an objective article on them.

I want to use propane for our range top, water heaters, and the fireplace. The oven will be electric as will the dryer. Every chef I know prefers gas on the range. My sister is a chef in New York and she says you get better control with gas than electric on the range, but electric in the oven cooks more evenly. My brother-in-law says that water heaters won't be drastically more or less efficient overall in gas versus electric, but that gas water heaters recover more quickly than electric ones. As for the fireplace... I just want it gas. I hate dealing with starting fires and just assume use the gas as a starter/helper. It will still be a wood burning fireplace, but will use gas as a supplement.

We haven't made our final decision on propane vs. all electric. If you have an opinion please let me know.

I'll have more as the project continues.

More Rio Information

Last month, in my article on the Rio 600, I mentioned I heard some strange anomalies on some songs. I initially blamed this on the level of compression I was using (48 kbps WMA) to maximize the Rio's 32 MB of memory. I get about 90 minutes of music on the Rio at this rate. Then I read an article that enlightened me that it is bad practice to convert from one lossy compressed format to another. The algorithms that do the compression can get confused when the input is not as expected... free of defects.

I decided to research this some more. I found a song that had a very clear anomaly. John Melloncamp/Cougar's Jack And Diane. I could hear some distinctive electronic bleeps and blips starting almost exactly 3 minutes into the song. So I did some testing. I re-ripped Jack & Diane from the CD into 96, 64 & 48 kbps WMA format. I also took my existing 128 kbps MP3 (from that same CD) and converted it to a WAV file, and from that WAV file to 48 kbps WMA. The last one was to see if the anomaly would not manifest itself if the convert to WMA just need an intermediate step.

The results were amazing. All the 48 kbps files sounded about the same. They all experienced the bleeps and blips. Listening to the original 128 kbps MP3 let me hear they instruments as they were supposed to be heard. The problem is concentrated on the left channel of the stereo sound. You can clearly hear something very wrong between 3:00 - 3:15 of the song.

I was correct in my original assumption in that the level of compression deteriorated the sound quality. However, I discovered that the 64 kbps WMA file experienced the problem as well. It was not as severe as the 48 kbps files, but you could still tell something was quite wrong. At 96 kbps WMA it sounded reasonable, but if I listen real close I can still hear a problem at 96 kbps. I mention all this because I am forced to retract my statement from last month. Last month I talk about the 64 kbps WMA files and said, "it was good enough I can now believe all MP3 players when they say they hold an hour of music in 32 MB." I don't believe that anymore. There is a distinct loss on this song going to 64 kbps WMA that is not a problem with 128 kbps MP3 files.

Further testing revealed that the problem is not consistent. I have found some songs that sound just fine at 64 kbps. But the fact that I hear these distortions on any of my music means I just assume stick to 128-160 kbps MP3s as my preferred format.

Prior to these tests I was considering normalizing my music into the 64 kbps WMA format when the 340 MB backpack becomes available for the Rio. With a total of 372 MB of space I could fit approximately 11 hours of music using 64 kbps WMA files. By normalizing all my music in that format I would not have to waste disc space with multiple copies of songs. Now that I am aware of the loss in quality, I will not use the 64 kbps format in the long run.

I will start keeping track of the songs that have the worst anomalies. Then I will play around and see if 96 kbps is good enough for those songs. I still may consider that for my long term normalization plans. At 96 kbps I will be able to store over 8 hours of music in 372 MB. Then again, that is not as drastic a space saving to justify all my time. With 128 kbps MP3 files I can store almost 6 hours of music in 372 MB. That should be enough for my needs.

Other than dealing with an abysmally low amount of memory I really like the Rio. It sounds great. In fact, I might not have discovered the problem above if it wasn't for the amazing clarity of the Rio. It was much harder to detect the anomalies from the cheesy speakers I have attached to my computer.

MP3 at CES

Just before CES (Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas), Intel announced an MP3 player that comes with 128 MB of memory. This is amazing. When I first wrote about MP3 players, in December 1998, I said that they need more memory before I would get one. (Yea I know I bought the Rio 600 with the same 32 MB I complained about; but I bought it based on the expansion it will have when they ship the backpacks for it.) Finally someone put enough memory into a digital audio player. It only took a little more than two years. Hopefully others will follow Intel on this one and start supplying more memory built into these devices.

I have not heard the Intel unit yet, but from what I have read about it I can highly recommend it. At $300 it is a little pricey, but with 128 MB of memory you won't have to play games with bit rates like I am with my Rio. Check it out before you drop your own money down on a MP3 player.

In that article I wrote over two years ago I closed stating, "What is needed is a Discman that plays MP3 files from a CD-ROM. I could burn a single CD-R with close to 200 songs in MP3 format, and play them anywhere, anytime. Now that would be cool. Sony, are you listening?"

I guess Sony was listening. Sony announced at CES that they are making CD players that will play CD-Rs with MP3s. Sony uses its own file format (ATRAC, pronounced 8-track) in its portable digital audio devices. This is to help control piracy. Now they are going to support insecure MP3 files. How ironic. I wonder how much internal conflict went on between Sony's electronic division and their music division. After all, Sony Music is one of the 5 biggest music companies, and part of the RIAA that is whole hardily against MP3. Sony Electronics must have really hated being beat out with a MP3/CD player by Philips and their eXpantium.

This kind of news means that MP3s will be around for a long, long time.

DataPlay

TechTV gave one of its two best of show awards at CES to DataPlay for their new optical discs for portable devices. In case you don't know, DataPlay discs are small optical discs about the size of a quarter. They hold about 500MB of data in a write once operation similar to CD-Rs. They are supposed to cost around $10 each. On the DataPlay web site they show a Rio 600 with a DataPlay backpack. This is the reason I bought the Rio. Hopefully the DataPlay setup will be available soon. In case anyone from SonicBlue or DataPlay is reading this... I will buy it as soon as you make it available.

Creative has a special limited edition 256 MB version of its Nomad II MG player available on its web site for $800. Holy Cow! That is a lot of money. If you have money burning a hole in your pocket you better hurry, they are only making 800 of these units. Personally I would rather get the Intel unit.

Conclusion

I plan to start taking more pictures of the land as work progresses. I may even get off my lazy butt and take some pictures of the plans to display here. Next month I will report more on the laptop and Palm as helpful tools in planning and organizing our house project.

Stay tuned, the house plans should be getting exciting soon.

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