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July 21, 2005

MSDN

One of the perks of the new job (hah) is that I get an MSDN Blog. So, here it is.

July 11, 2005

Squeezebox

As Dylan said the other day -- I got a Squeezebox. (He posted some photos, too).

It's not bad at all, after a little warm-up. Some more thoughts below.

Internet Music
Squeezebox is the first device in my house which could reasonably be called a "thin client" Internet device. It's very simple and straightforward: a small processor, a high-quality stereo digital-to-analog convertor, and line output plugs to feed into an amplifier. Ethernet and WiFi, a fairly big memory buffer, and a display (with the "large" text setting big enough I can read across the room without my glasses).

Total setup time: five minutes. The installation is really easy: switch on, follow the prompts to connect to the house WiFi network, find our SlimServer (see later), browse for music (by album, artist, genre, or by folder) and play.

If this works, my stereo system will go from a stack of turntable, CD player, tapedeck and integrated amp, to just two: Squeezebox and power amplifier. It might even be worth hiding the amp in the basement, so the sitting room can have only Squeezebox and loudspeakers.

Thin Client
It's kinda strange having the hifi become an Internet-connected appliance. With power on, it can pull music from the home computer, or from Internet radio stations anywhere. With power off, it displays the time (from the home computer).

The server piece is SlimServer: manages the music library, playlists, per-client settings, and sends music up to the player. SlimServer has a very capable but slightly clunky Web interface (I've not tried the various skins available), which you can use to browse music, play music, adjust the volume, and so on -- everything possible from the remote control, and more. The server also has a commandline (telnet) interface, so it's possible to write other client applications to control the player. (The server is GPL, and there's a fairly active community of people building extensions).

The client is very lightweight, and the server is quite heavyweight (~50MB working memory at times -- so if you have a very low-spec PC, it won't be able to run much else). I'm surprised the balance is quite as extreme in favour of the server -- the Squeezebox itself seems to control the music, and the display, and just relay everything else to the server. So when you press a button on the remote control, that keypress is sent from the Squeezebox to the server, which responds appropriately. Even the clock runs from the server; a network outage stops the clock (which will cutely fast-forward back to the current time when reconnected). Browsing a big music folder, with the PC in use and a (slow, flaky) 802.11b network, can take a while; I'm not sure how much of that latency is due to the network and how much to the PC, but it's sometimes annoyingly slow (and indicative of too little work being delegated to the client, I think).

Unlike the Sonos approach of a handheld controller-with-display, Squeezebox has a traditional remote control. But the server has a Web interface, it's possible to use something like a PocketPC, or even a cellphone, to browse and control the player. That could be fun...

Sound quality
One of the selling points of Squeezebox is its attention to detail in the electronics. There's a high-quality DAC, and the company CEO seems very happy to hang out in the audiophile forum discussing the hardware, even suggesting tweaks to stretch performance.

To be honest, it sounded really rough at first. Sound quality definitely improved after a couple of hours play. But against my CD player, I was still a bit disappointed. Then I swapped the supplied audio cables with my Sonic Link pair from the CD player, and suddenly it was much better. Gaarrggh - cables shouldn't make that much difference, should they?

Anyway; now, I'm happy, the sound is all but indistinguishable from CD. I think you could comfortably match the Squeezebox with $20K of amp and speakers, and not feel let down by the source.

Now I need a bigger disk drive.... or maybe a LinkStation... :-)

July 10, 2005

Dennis
At 5 AM EDT Sunday, the center of Dennis was located near latitude 27.8 north and longitude 86.1 west, or about 170 miles south of Panama City, Florida . Maximum sustained winds have increased to near 145 mph with higher gusts, making Dennis a Dangerous Category 4 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson Scale. Dennis is moving toward the north-northwest near 15 mph. Some strengthening is possible as Dennis continues its trek over the eastern Gulf of Mexico during the next 24 hours. Dennis is forecast to make landfall in the Pensacola / Mobile Bay area as a Category 4 hurricane late Sunday afternoon...

Hurricane Dennis has a very compact, intense center and could produce sustained winds of 145 mph upon landfall and storm surge values of 14 19 feet above normal tide levels just east of the landfall location. Conditions will continue to deteriorate across the panhandle of Florida as the storm progresses along the forecast track. Sustained tropical storm force conditions (sustained winds of 39 73 mph) are expected to begin during the overnight and early morning hours across the western and central panhandle. Hurricane force conditions (greater than 74 mph) are forecast to begin impacting the western panhandle on Sunday afternoon and persist through the evening hours.

Good luck to the emergency response teams - people I have an unbounded respect for, since spending some time working with them over the past few months. And to panhandle residents, hard hit by Ivan last year. Hang in there.