Sonos vs. AirPlay vs. Our House

At Christmas, we flirted with a Sonos sound system in my household, but ultimately decided to return it. I know smart people who adore their Sonos systems, but when I’ve played with the hardware and software in the past I’ve never been more than mildly impressed. So when it came time to commit to installing another technical system in my household — the Sonos meant more plugs, more boxes, more management — I just couldn’t muster enough enthusiasm to outweigh the hefty price premium that Sonos charges.

Frankly, we’re an Apple household, so by my reckoning, we already get most of the benefit that Sonos offers from the AirPlay system that’s in the house already. We’re heavy users of our Apple TV for all kinds of video — iTunes movie rentals, Netflix, Hulu Plus, even ripped MP4s streamed from other computers in the house — and we rely on it heavily for audio, too. It’s hooked up to a pretty powerful Onkyo home theater system in the living room and out of the box it streams my entire music library from iTunes Match, which is what we listen to most often.

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What Streaming Music Can Be

One gift that I won’t be giving to loved ones this holiday season is music, sadly. In the age of streaming services like Spotify and Pandora, music has become so readily available that it’s lost its thingness, that meaning and scarcity that makes wrapping it up and stashing it under a tree special. I know it’s possible to give a subscription to Spotify, say, as a gift, but somehow that’s not the same as a record or compact disc that has been sought out and acquired and then becomes owned, an object to be kept and identified with oneself.

Physical media’s ship has sailed though, and I’m certainly not making a case for its restoration. Streaming music is clearly here to stay. But when I think about Spotify, which I subscribe to currently, and Rdio, which I’ve subscribed to in the past, I wonder what it is that prevents me from feeling that sense of ownership over the music that these services make available so readily?

Is it streaming music’s lack of physicality, the absence of actual discs and packaging? Actually, no. When I look back at my old collections of vinyl and CDs, my stomach churns a bit. I spent all of that money on all of those albums, and now they occupy a greater share of the real estate in my home than I can reasonably justify, like old chests full of sunk costs. In truth, I don’t miss records as objects at all, and don’t aspire to own any more of them.

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When Designers Interview Engineers

The reality for most designers is that we are very likely to work at companies whose principal line of business is not design, but something else — media, services, widgets, what have you. This is slightly less true if you’re in the studio or agency world, but certainly if you do interaction or product design, you’re probably working in an environment that’s engineering-focused first, and design-focused second (or third). There’s a tech sector, but there’s no ‘design sector.’

Thankfully, as the design profession has matured designers have learned to assert themselves effectively in these situations. That includes having a say in the process of hiring new team members. Just as engineers and product managers (who more often than not come from engineering backgrounds) will often interview potential design hires, it’s becoming increasingly common for designers to interview engineering candidates too. I’ve done it a lot over the past several years, and it’s not uncommon at Etsy.

For designers though, interviewing an engineer does not always come naturally. In part this is because the language of engineering is so concrete and therefore more widely assimilated, and the language of design is comparatively soft and resigned to niches.

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Best Headphones Ever

The best deal I’ve gotten lately is this pair of DJ-style headphones from the unassumingly fantastic technical retailer, best known for selling incredibly cheap cables of all sorts. I’ve been a customer for years (and if you have any kind of cabling needs, you should be too), but I was surprised to realize lately that they are trying to branch out into more general consumer product categories.

Monoprice is tackling headphones and computer models — and soon high-end audio equipment, car audio, and home automation hardware — with the same pricing strategy that they brought to cables: they “try to make sure that we’re about fifty percent below what a retailer would be selling that product for.” In many cases, they easily clear this bar. The company’s earbud-style headphones, for instance, start at less than US$3 each. The headphones I bought cost just US$21. (Warning, each customer is allowed to buy just ten pairs. Sorry.)

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Salvaging a Blu-Ray on My Mac

One of my daughter’s favorite movies is “The Sound of Music.” We bought it for her as a Blu-Ray disc, but it stopped working in our player recently, owing I think to one of the periodic firmware updates that the manufacturer sends down the pike to us. It used to work wonderfully, but now gets caught on a loading screen and goes into an unending loop. Another strike against the addled monstrosity that is the Blu-Ray format. (I wrote about my major Blu-Ray complaints last year, so I won’t repeat them here.)

A software glitch is little consolation to a toddler who has her heart set on singing along with Julie Andrews though, so I resolved to somehow get a digital copy of the movie off the disc and free ourselves of the trappings of the Blu-Ray version we owned. Apple of course has decided to stay as far away from Blu-Ray as possible, so this took some work.

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Ikea Takes on the Living Room Problem

Home furnishings mega-retailer Ikea is intent on remaking the living room. This fall they will start selling Uppleva (apparently the Swedish word for experience; you have to admire its inherent optimism), a home theater furniture system that integrates a flat-screen television, a 2.1 channel sound system, a Blu-Ray/DVD player and wi-fi-based networking. The Verge’s write-up is an excellent overview of what we know so far about this just-announced line.

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Reading “Game of Thrones” in the Real World

Just about every book I’ve read over the past few years I’ve read in electronic form, either on my iPhone or on my iPad. But for a recent weekend getaway, I bought a paperback copy of George R.R. Martin’s “A Game of Thrones” on a whim, so that I’d have something to read on the beach. It’s nice to not have to worry about a book overheating in the sun or electrically shorting from water.

“A Game of Thrones” is a long book. A really, really long book. I’m still reading it, which means I’m toting it around with me on my commute. It’s a supermarket-style paperback, small and compact enough to fit just barely into my jacket pocket, but it sticks out just enough for people to see.

One thing I had completely forgotten about is how communal popular books can be. A few people have spotted “A Game of Thrones” in my pocket or saw me reading it on the subway and then started friendly conversations with me about it, something that never would have happened if I were reading it on my phone, where every book is effectively invisible to everyone but me. I remember reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs on my iPhone just after it came out, at a time when lots and lots of people were reading it too, but I realize now that I was reading it in a kind of isolation, where people around me were unaware of the concurrency.

I’m not sure that this communal feeling is enough to outweigh the benefits of reading books electronically, but I know I’ve enjoyed it while reading this novel. I’m not a sword and sorcery fan, really, and I find “A Game of Thrones” to be frustrating and somewhat ridiculous even as I admit it’s extremely well-crafted and probably more entertaining than it is tedious. It’s been fun debating this ambivalence with both friends and strangers, most of whom I never would have guessed were fans of the series.

It would be nice if there was a way to replicate that part of the reading experience electronically too, that kind of real world happenstance that doesn’t require signing up or signing in to anything, just carrying around whatever book you’re reading and being open enough in your body language to welcome small talk from perfect strangers. It just goes to show you that the electronic reading experience has a long way to go, and all the time and effort we’ve been putting into crafting perfect layouts might be better used fleshing out some of the things that really make reading a rewarding experience.

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When High-Def Goes Low-Res

It used to be that we assumed companies had access to better technology than consumers did, and therefore understood it more deeply than us, but I think that’s no longer the case. Very often, it seems to me that ‘regular’ people now understand technology better than many companies do.

This occurred to me over the past few days as I traveled to Austin and then Minneapolis. In each city I stayed in a pretty nice hotel, both of which had flat-screen televisions in the rooms. Of course it’s not unusual that hotels will have LCD or plasma televisions these days, but what I’ve found is that no matter how nice the hotel is or how many stars it might rate, they all fundamentally misunderstand what a flat-screen television is for.

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Android Doubles Down on Design

It’s probably a good idea for everybody involved in design to follow closely what happens with Android Design, a portal that Google launched yesterday as part of a new initiative to raise the mobile platform’s user experience to the next level. Aimed squarely at Android developers, the site sets out a creative vision (tied closely to the awkwardly-named Ice Cream Sandwich, or Android 4.0 release); its central tenets are “enchant me,” “simplify my life,” and “make me amazing.” Those three ideas are supported by a series of design principles and a library of design patterns and building blocks that should make it easier for developers to adhere to the vision.

All in all Android Design is a well-executed package, and it’s significant in that it’s the first — or at least the most cogent — articulation of what designing for Android is all about. It puts forward clearly delineated concepts that Android developers should hold in their heads when they set out to create a product on this platform, and backs those up by identifying the specific, tactical methods that Google feels are most effective at arriving at these ends. Good stuff.

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The Miracle of WD-40

WD-40An apparently common problem that many iPhone users encounter is that, after many months of use, the home button — the sole physical button on the device’s face — starts to lose its responsiveness, sometimes precipitously. When this happens, it may take several presses, or a prolonged press, to get the button to produce any results. And sometimes where one press of the button is intended, the device registers two. Very annoying.

I was surprised to discover from a friend that Apple technicians diagnosed this problem on her phone as software related, which struck me as counter-inuitive, as it seemed to me to be very much a hardware problem. There has also been talk of the button needing software recalibration. I don’t know if that approach works or not, but I’ll tell you what worked for me: the miracle “water-displacing spray” WD-40.

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