The Zune Tune is Getting Louder

The Zune is a very easy to use and capable portable media player. The second generation brings some nice hardware design changes, however I currently own a first generation and was glad to get the firmware and software upgrade that all the Zune2 models had. I would say that I prefer being able to click through menus as the way to manage and use the device. I have yet to get used to the sliding interface that the iPod and other players use. It plays music, video, photos, and now podcasts 😉 iTunes still has a one up on the software and marketplace that the Zune has, however Microsoft has definitely stepped up their game and now the device/software combination gives a pretty slick experience to the user. The Marketplace uses the Microsoft point system that XBox 360 owners will know and it is indeed the same system. Each song is 79 points, which is about $0.99 same as iTunes. It also offers a subscription service at $15/month, which if I might think about getting in the future when I have a steady job as I hear it works very well (as long as the song you want is in the 3 million song library). Well lets get on to some of the nitty-gritty details.

Under the Hood (Wikipedia Specs)
The Zune 80 and Zune 30 each have a nice display featuring 320×240. The Zune30 is the older model with a click pad, where the Zune 2.0 models have a new Zune Pad ™. It has built-in wireless. Supports MP3, AAC, Zune Marketplace DRM, and WMA for audio;JPEG for photos and WMV, MPEG-4, and H.264 for videos. Also supports US and Japan radio. Supports video out @ 320×240, as well as 640×480 on the Zune 80 only.

Note: that with a standard video out cable I had to plug the Red audio plug into the Yellow jack on the TV – basically the Zune switched the wires to make you buy a Zune accessory.

My Experience
I have been playing with and using my Zune for about 4 months now. It is the Zune 30 model which is the first generation Zune. I have found the Zune 30 to be easy to use and I enjoy the clicking sensation when scrolling through the menus and content instead of the dreaded iPod scroll wheel I never could get used to, though the ZunePad does offer a similar touch experience in the 2nd gen models. I have found the battery life to be excellent for music and audio giving me a full 2 skiing days worth of listening (approx 16 hours), with video it’s about 6 hours.

The audio quality is great, the video and photo viewing is good. I have found the size of the Zune 30 to be acceptable, though the newer versions are smaller and more sleek. Finding songs is fairly quick even in long lists as it uses an accelerated scrolling speed where it scrolls quicker the longer you hold the button down. It also shows a big letter which signifies where you are at in the list. This is of course only necessary when scrolling through all artists or albums or songs when the list is very long. The integrated radio seems to work very well and is very clear, haven’t noticed any static at all really. I could see the smaller Zunes being more useful at the gym especially if they support listening to TV over radio, however I have watched video while I’m on the elliptical machine ;D

The podcast support is nice, but it could be slightly better, though it works fine for me. The video support is also a little lacking, but that is hopefully improved over time with customer feedback, again it’s fine for my needs as I have a Xbox 360 which I have already had to convert video for watching on the television. The Zune also allows wireless sharing of music, photos, and podcasts which is a neat feature if all your friends own one too. It does lock the media with DRM which allows you to play it 3 times, this restriction is not enforced on podcasts or photos however. It’s sort of fun, but for me is limited to only testing purposes as I know only one friend with a Zune and they only use it for testing at work.

Quick Tips for first time Zuners
– Make Playlists: you can create a quick list from within the Zune and it works well, but to get the full experience make playlists so you can just take it with you and start playing music right away without having to search for songs. This is how to best use the iPod as well.
– Turn off wireless: Unless you are going to use it for sharing songs, or for wireless syncing, I recommend saving the battery by turning wireless off.
– Be sure to setup how you want your content to sync up, do you want all content, or do you want to choose what to put on the device like have the most recent 2 episodes of a podcast synced up. That way you won’t sync everything right away. The default settings here are probably fine for most users.
– Try out the neat tip to: Share music w/out DRM
– Enjoy your new Zune experience

Overall I would rate the Zune a very comparable player to the iPod Nano and iPod Video. The content sounds and looks great on the device, and the software goes well with the device. I have to give Microsoft a big round of applause for getting this one right!

When Robots Attack, er, I Mean Help You

The future of robotics is entering the present. As an Engineer and Computer Scientist finishing up school I have had an increasing interest in the technology behind robotics and artificial intelligence.

DARPA Challenge – Robocars

I recently read up on the DARPA challenge, an autonomous vehicle challenge where teams build real cars capable of navigating the course setup for the competition without the aid of any human presence. This isn’t your standard remote vehicle operation, but instead the vehicles have brains (computers and software) which perform all functions such as acceleration, braking, navigating, etc. fully autonomously. The major feat of the most recent competition is that six of the contestants actually finished the race. This is a huge step in the field of robotics and control systems. It is something I’d love to work on myself.

Wired Report on the DARPA Challenge
Driverless Cars

RoboCup’s Urban Search and Rescue (USAR)

Good Samaritan (CSU)

For my senior design project we attempted to create a robot that could navigate a disaster arena according to the rules for the RoboCup USAR competition. The goal of this competition is to develop robots that can search for victims in a building collapse or other disaster while mapping out the area as it searches. This would enable the rescuers to know exactly where to dig, or remove large amounts of debris. Studies have shown that 90% of rescuers time is spent searching for the victims, while only 10% of the time is actually used to get the victims to safety. This is the reason for the interest in these types of robots. The ultimate goal for the robots is to become fully autonomous while being able to relay video and other information such as states of victims and the surroundings back to a control center.


Along with this competition is a robotic soccer competition which is the reason the organization created this competition. This is their mission as stated on their homepage: “By the year 2050, develop a team of fully autonomous humanoid robots that can win against the human world soccer champion team.” It might seem like a daunting task since it’s well known among the robotic community that imitation of the human form is much more difficult than just designing the best possible form and capabilities. However, there’s something intriguing to me with developing something from scratch that could play in the same league of a sport as the world champions.

Doctor Doctor – RoboDoc
In the near future mechanical robotic arms and tools might be used to work on you during surgery.

There is some fear of using the internet which is amazingly robust, but still highly problematic in connection quality and guarantees. Especially in crucial situations such as performing a surgery where even a 30 second connection loss could be fatal. I’m not sure how long it will be before risky surgery or even anything related to health that has any very short term risks will be common place. However, for diagnostic checkups, non-invasive surgery, as well as assisting roles will probably be conducted in the near future, and in fact are currently being tried in a number of hospitals in North America.

So far this remote presence is mostly restricted to allowing doctors to check up on lab work, performing diagnostic activities, communicating with patients, and watch over surgeries and other labs. I’m excited to see where this is heading, even though many feel that this borders on creepy. It is only going to get more “creepy” because it will become increasingly difficult to understand especially as nano-technology including nano-bots enter into the mix.
Detroit hospital rolls out robotic “doctors”
Robotic doctor marks breakthrough

The Other Robot Overlords
The Roombot – A sort of silly device to be discussing, since it does not work very well yet, but I thought it would be fun to research and think up some ideas on robotics entering our lives in the near future.

ASIMO – This humanoid robot can walk, talk, understand gestures, climb stairs, and even run (albeit slowly) just like a human. It has the shape of a human in a space suit. It is quite fun to see in action.

Killer Robots from Silicon Valley – Soon these robots will replace the front lines, or soldiers on guard duty. Just hope that these robots will understand and have the knowledge to not shoot our own troops, innocent people, nor our allies.


ExoSkeleton – Do you want to have super-strength? I know I would. Well the Sarcos‘ robotic system will allow you to life more weight than you could possibly lift. It could help you run faster, jump higher, and perform similar human functions with extraordinary ease and endurance.

Lego’s Mindstorm – These legos come to life with the use of a computer chip, sensors, and actuators. I used to love playing with legos and even had the set we used in school which was the earliest form of this modern product. I used battery powered motors along with the standard legos, gears, and a few other simple devices in order to create mechanical models that could move. No there is a computer brain, sensors, and even an SDK and easy programming environment to enable a “sky is the limit” toy.

E-Ink Kindles Books Into a Paperless Future

I do not own either of these products, and thus my review is based on other reviews, along with the product information found at the company websites, and through other sources.

Update 11/28/07: So I’ve been thinking about this new kindle, and I have to say that I like the concept and am still excited about the technology. However the economic aspects of the device as well as the design are much to be desired as many have stated in their reviews.

Update: Cali Lewis gives her first hand review of the Kindle on her GeekBrief podcast #262.

Update: Tech crunch has two interesting first hand posts about the Kindle, and a short Jeff Bezos interview.

E-Ink is the future!
People have been talking about the paperless office for years, and now the book industry is taking interest. New paper book size devices using an electronic ink technology are entering your personal time and space. Sony and Amazon have finally hit on products that should stimulate the growth in this market shift. The technology and experience of electronic ink systems will be akin to science fiction newspapers, or those similarly found within the Harry Potter universe. We will soon have cereal boxes, newspapers, and then clothing that have embedded e-Ink allowing the reader or publisher to update the content in real-time. Especially with this new partnership between Amazon and Sprint, things are looking to advance into the area of what used to be found only in fiction.

The Shift
The entire printed media industry will be moving to this new electronic format and form-factor. Newspapers, Books, Magazines, and even the written word that already exists online and in electronic form like blogs will invade your space on that plush reclining chair that you curl up in next to a fire in to enjoy the relaxing and intimate relationship with that special book.

The Hardware
Sony has delivered a 2nd generation product with their e-reader. It is light, small, and sleek. It uses the newest e-ink technology to deliver a high contrast display that looks like a real paper page while also allowing a long usage period between charges. Amazon is using a similar technology (seems to use the same e-Ink technology) with their new Kindle service and e-Reader. The reader has a keyboard and looks like an oversized PDA designed by IBM, it is white, plain, and a little too square. However,


  • Storage: 200 books
  • Weight: 10.3 ounces (lighter than typical paperback)
  • Battery: 1.5 days / 7 days (wireless on / off)
  • Charge Time: 2 hours
  • Display: 600 x 800 pixel resolution at 167 ppi, 4-level gray scale
  • Other: Keyboard


  • Storage: 64MB internal (memory card slot for “unlimited” # of books)
  • Weight: 10 ounces
  • Battery: Read 7500 pages on single charge (~15 500pg books)
  • Charge Time: 4 / 6 hours (AC / USB)
  • Display: 6″ diagonal E-ink(tm) with 4-level grayscale
  • Other: plays mp3 (not sure why – i guess for audio book – just get an iPod/Zune)

The Services
Sony does offer a service to purchase books from, but it isn’t as grand a scheme as Amazon has devised and just recently released details of their new Kindle e-reader and service. Amazon will utilize Sprint’s national EVDO network in order to bring books and other content to the device from almost anywhere in the US.


  • 88,000 books, Top Newspapers, 250 blogs
  • No Computer Necessary (all downloads are free and wireless)


  • Thousands of books
  • Windows XP or Vista

What does the future look like?
As I mentioned before this has more profound consequences than what lies on the surface in relation to how we interact and communicate. Sure you can get books anytime and anywhere you want, however think about other uses and you’ll quickly realize that the always connected everywhere we go future is actually something possible in the near future. Obviously it won’t be perfect, but this is sort of like 1995 with the internet coming into existence. We didn’t know then that we’d be watching video on a little pocket touchscreen phone. We have no idea yet, or just a small idea, of what is to come. People are probably think of the new advertising models, and the ability to get other types of content. However, that’s really already been done as the iPhone is probably currently the best overall e-book of its time. Battery drain is the main problem that the e-Ink technology attempts to fix.

Imagine being able to highlight in the books, have multiple bookmarks, sync this information online, download personal documents to the device, utilize an integrated search both within a book as well as across many different books. Just like we carry around our personal contacts, our music, and our photos (camera phone), we will soon carry around all our paper content including homework, textbooks, novels, magazines, newspapers, references, dictionary, translation books, study guides, DIY guides, etc.

There are so many things that can be done with technology when it is used in new ways along with inventions, and innovations. The e-Book was an innovation in the way we read printed materials, Kindle is an innovation in how we get that printed material. I’m only more excited about the future now, and hope I don’t become disinterested as I get older in the exciting innovations that the world brings to us each and every day.

Unexpected Results with iPhone Launch

I didn’t think the iPhone would do so well in the opening weekend, but I did expect them to sell most of their inventory. I guess they had more in stock than I thought, and people waiting in line seemed to be very pleased with their new $600 phone. A little too much for my taste, but after hearing and reading from real users of the phone I have to admit that I would love to have the money lying around, and be willing to switch carriers. Alas I do not.

The phone has many neat and cool features, Apple has managed to fit an amazing amount of technology into a sleek slim form factor, and the tests have shown that the iPhone lives up to many of the claims made earlier in the year. Also, as discussed at the WWDC the iPhone has no real 3rd party support, but instead relies on the Safari browser and quicktime to bring users all the good and bad of AJAX and web applications.

Some of the Cool Features
The photo experience is very good with the touch capabilities making it seemless and intuitive to use. Visual Voice Mail is a neat feature that allows you to treat voice mail just like you do email and play any individual message and manage them through an inbox. Using the Safari engine and having a great interface to navigate the internet experience is very good as well. The touch screen itself is an amazing feature, and will continue to invade other areas of our lives as the technology progresses, it allows both innovative UI like the pinch and slide, but also allows such things as the keyboard to change over time with software updates. The last cool feature I’ll mention is google maps, even though no GPS is built in, having a map available anywhere is a great feature in my opinion. Maybe in the next generation of the iPhone we’ll get a real mapping experience with GPS.

Real World Tests
According to CNET’s German the iPhone has a very good battery life, with talk time around 8 hours, and video and music playback times around 7 and 24 hours, respectively. This is very good in my opinion, and is close to the limit with the current technology, only efficient utilization can extend it much further until new technology arives. The WIFI device drains the battery, so beware of using it for surfing all day long without a power source near by. I’m sure an extra battery accessory will be available shortly.

Also people are raving about the photo experience on the iPhone, especially showing off the photos. The intuitive nature of the experience is what makes it actually fun to show people photos on your phone. The camera is okay, but not great. It’s only 2 Megapixels, and there is no optical zoom, or flash (not that phone flashes work), but it does take decent photos in daylight, and you can always bring along your hefty camera for any real photography work, as I’m sure no one is using their smart phone yet for any real photography.


Steve Jobs introduced the SDK for the iPhone at the WWDC Keynote. He said that it is the web standards, bleh to that! No native 3rd party support from Apple, but instead all of the technology used to create web applications can be immediately used with the iPhone.

Even though this makes it much easier for people to develop for the iPhone, at least if they’re currently in the web space, it doesn’t allow for any creative, and ingenious uses of the full technological capabilities of the phone. I support the use of AJAX and web standards, and even think this is a strategic move, but I’m not sure that such a capable media device is benefited by limiting technology.

Currently, you have to use Quicktimefor any video content you want to share with iPhone users; except for Youtube, which is converting their videos to use the H.264 standard that natively plays in Quicktime. No Flash, Java, Silverlight, AIR, or any other media and rich application technologies are currently incorporated into the iPhone and probably won’t be for a while, if ever.

All this said, web applications are powerful and even without these other technologies the iPhone will indeed have a decent if not excellent application experience, especially since anyone can put up a website in a few days or weeks and have a fully capable application that works on the iPhone and on any browser. Once you start to see the apps that are coming out on lists like’s Top 25 Web Apps or you realize that Apple’s move wasn’t such a terrible idea or strategy. It makes sense to want to have people be able to make and use the apps as quickly as possible.

There are a few drawbacks to the iPhone currently. The price is high, but comparable. You can only use this with AT&T for now, at least in the US and this will likely be true for a year or two until people make Apple break their contract with AT&T. Hackers have already claimed that they have made an iPhone unlocked and didn’t need to activate it through iTunes.

The display is great, but be careful as it is made of glass and can break easily from a hip height drop [link]. Another thing that’s tough to use is the keyboard, as it provides no tactile feedback. It would have been great if they used a little vibrating device to have each keypress give a slight haptic feedback to the user. No real 3rd party applications will be allowed for now, unless partnered with like YouTube. Finally no GPS is a downfall, but would have hampered battery life as well as the size and weight of the device.

As a final thought I believe that the iPhone is an amazing and even revolutionary device, with some shortcomings that will hopefully be resolved in the near future through firmware updates or hacks. If you already have an iPod, and use iTunes regularly than this phone will definitely be a great device for you. If you are a hard core Apple fanboy, or a disciple of Steve Jobs, then I you already have one of these and you shouldn’t have read this post.

I will, however, stay away until the following generations before I’d purchase this phone, and I’ll probably never switch to AT&T so hopefully there will be a way to get an unlocked version eventually.

Will it blend
WDDC Keynote
A look at the iPhone @ WWDC enclosed in glass
Funny Conan Spoof
Macbreak Weekly on the iPhone
Revision3’s Systm Cracking the iPhone
The Apple Phone Show Podcast