Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

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A double twist in the podcatcher mix

February 5, 2012

Vista busy cursor My last post was a head to head comparison of DoggCatcher and Pocket Casts as if they were the only two contenders in the Android podcatcher market. If I say so myself I was really quite dismissive of others such as BeyondPod, ACast, Google Listen and a rag tag of also-rans.

Strikes me though there is another option coming up on the rails from a slightly different direction. DoubleTwist, which has for ages been the default choice for music playback on Android, is starting to flesh out its podcast credentials and pushing very hard to get into that niche. No doubt it sees an opportunity to win afficionados already using DT extensively for music playback.  Certainly there are attractions in having a single app to cover both music and podcasts, as with say iTunes in the Apple world.

Users of DT for music would once have had to get music onto their Android phones by syncing with their computer, using a USB cable.  Then DT introduced AirSync at extra cost which allows the same thing to be done wirelessly over the domestic wifi.  DT are now trying to peddle this wireless syncing as a key feature for podcast consumers, as if DoggCatcher and all the other established podcatchers had not been offering wireless podcast downloads from day one.

So is DT any good for podcasts? The short answer so far is “no”. Adding podcast feeds is a failure, on my phone at least. There appears to be only the choice of adding from a set list under each of a number of categories, and a “search” feature. I couldn’t get the latter to work – as I type in search terms the search symbol disappears and there seems no way to actually invoke a search. Nor is there any way to add an RSS feed directly from the URL, so far as I can see.

The other killer is that there is no option for variable podcasts playback speed. I would never get through my podcasts of a week if I could not listen at say 1.5x speed.

DT seems to be a long way from being a viable podcatcher right now. They would do better to fill in the gaps in their feature list before starting to push it. For myself I will continue to use DoggCatcher which is now the complete, almost faultless podcatcher.


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DoggCatcher vs Pocket Casts in More Depth

January 22, 2012

Vista busy cursor DoggCatcher has established itself as the leading Android podcatcher but is now facing serious competition from Shifty Jelly’s Pocket Casts.

There are other options. BeyondPod has its devotees but I could not get to grips with it at all. ACast served me well for a while but has now fallen by the wayside.  Google’s Listen is not a serious contender for podcast addicts.

Doggcatcher is clearly a stable, mature product and my podcatcher of choice for the last year or so, but I have on more than one occasion been tempted to give Pocket Casts an extended try-out. Currently I am back to DoggCatcher but until recently was using both: Pocket Casts for audio podcasts and DoggCatcher for video podcasts. It may seem like an odd thing to do but there are reasons for it, as will become clear soon.

I have already commented on the choice between these two podcatcher options, but now would seem as good a time as any to take stock of where they are up to and go into the relative pros and cons in a bit more depth.

DoggCatcher

Summary: Close to faultless. Very stable, force-closes are few and far between.  It does trip up very occasionally but mainly on BBC podcasts – for some reason BBC podcasts are surprisingly troublesome even on simple playback. DC’s visual design is fine, if not very distinctive. Don’t much like the logo. Overall, though, a sound, mature product and definitely the default choice.

Advantages:

  • Stable, lean, reliable, force-closes are rare
  • Good podcast search options when adding feeds
  • Audio and video automatically added to separate playlists
  • Option to play video podcasts in the external video player app of your choice
  • Variable playback speed, but you need to install the Presto app at extra cost
  • Virtual feed option (so you can add media files for playback manually rather than via an RSS feed)

Disadvantages:

  • Annoying bug when used with stereo bluetooth earphones or other such devices. Unpredictably can be unresponsive to the skip 60 seconds forward button (on the bluetooth device) and repeated attempts to skip can result in skipping to start of next podcast in the playlist, the current one being flagged as “done” and removed from the playlist.  Infuriating if you are listening in the car or otherwise not in a position to fiddle around with your phone to resurrect the podcast you were in the middle of
  • Rather conventional, dated design

Pocket Casts

Summary: A podcatcher with attitude. The ‘strines behind Shifty Jelly are colourful outgoing individuals, and their personality has pervaded their product. Staid it is not – the looks are modern and brash but stylish at the same time. Then again looks aren’t everything and PC still has plenty of iterations to go before it performs as smoothly and seamlessly as DC.

Advantages:

  • Attractive modern look and feel – very fresh
  • Very fast check for feed updates (because check is carried out on server not by app in phone)
  • Perfectly adequate podcast search options when adding feeds
  • Variable playback speed, but you need to install the Presto app at extra cost

Disadvantages:

  • Seems to hog more and more of the phone’s resources with continued use, with a corresponding tendency towards ever more frequent force-closes. With heavy use, can cause your phone to crash more often than you’d like (maybe less of a problem if you have a recent high-spec device).  Is getting better, with upgrades, but still a fair way behind DC
  • Breaks a number of implicit Android UI design conventions. Settings are selected only through the menu built in to the app’s UI, not accessed through the hardware menu button. Behaviour of back button counter-intuitive – typically exits app rather than returning you to previous screen
  • Episodes which could not be downloaded at the first opportunity (because, say, app was set for wifi download only and at the time no wifi was available) do not then automatically download once the phone reconnects to the wifi. The user has to instigate these downloads manually
  • Single playlist for audio and video – very inconvenient if you are on a long car journey and only want audio podcasts, saving video for when you can watch it rather than just hear the audio
  • No virtual feed option

So why was I using PC for audio and DC for video for a while? I mainly listen to podcasts over bluetooth stereo and DC’s podcast-skipping bug mentioned above was starting to drive me nuts. PC does not suffer from the same problem so I switched but then found I was getting my video podcasts mixed in with the audio ones. So using PC for audio podcasts only and DC for video only looked like the best of both worlds, particularly since DC allows me to use the excellent MX Video Player for playback. In the end though the force-closes and crashes with PC were too much and I am back to DC for everything.


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Rocky Gibraltar Earth

October 5, 2009

Books Finding time for reading has been hard for years, and to compound the frustration most of my recent book choices have been disappointments.

Normally I have both a paper book and an audiobook on the go, thus using technology to extend “reading” time to commuting, dog walking and the like. Now a third front has been opened with ebooks on my Windows Mobile phone. I was getting fed up with my increasingly absurd “dead tree” book, The Interpretation of Murder by Jed Rubenfeld, and had nothing else to read so bought Gibraltar Earth by Michael McCollum in PRC format (mobipocket), based on a ringing endorsement by SF fan Steve Gibson of Spinrite and “Security Now!” fame.

Buying Gibraltar Earth as an ebook made it both cheap ($5) and near instantaneous by the miracle of Internet file download, followed by a dangerous dabble with WMDC (aka ActiveSync) to straddle the final, short hop from PC to phone. I’d have preferred to get it on a Kindle but such delights have yet to make their way across the Atlantic.

My wife has denounced my ebook venture as a terminally geeky thing to do. She insists the very idea of attempting to read a book on a phone, even one with a large high-res screen, is wacky beyond redemption. I was sure to wreck my (already pathetic) eyesight. I pointed out that I can adjust the font size so that it is bigger than the paper book I was reading, as readily proved by a side by side comparison. You end up with rather fewer words per screenful than you would have on a page of a paperback, but navigating from screen to screen is very easy with the phone’s “joystick”. The wife remained unconvinced, even when I pointed out that I no longer needed to worry about losing my place or fannying around with bookmarks, as the software would always keep my place.

I can even do a text search, so if I come across the name of a character in the story and can’t remember where they last appeared, I can search for previous occurrences by name rather than having to scan the pages of a physical book by eye. Best of all, because my “book” is in my mobile phone, I always have it with me so if I have a spare moment, say waiting outside school to collect my daughter, I can steal a few minutes of reading time. So whether or not reading a book on a phone sounds or looks ridiculous, it is perfectly feasible and has many enumerable advantages.

Sadly, though, this did not turn out to be the hoped for happy solution to my reading material crisis. Not because of any particular issue with mobipocket books on Windows Mobile phones in general. It’s just that the book itself turns out to be dire.

It is such a let down, after the build-up Steve Gibson gave it. The premise sounds riveting. Centuries from now, mankind makes first contact with alien life but discovers that the galaxy is ruled by an all-powerful cruel race which enslaves or destroys all other life, so humans are only still around and free because they have yet to come to the super-aliens’ attention. But it is only a matter of time before they are discovered, which raises the question of how mankind will deal with the problem. Fascinating concept, which unfolds over a trilogy.

But the writing is so amateurish and cliched. Almost stomach-churningly so. I may stick with it a bit longer but am finding it hard to take.

I had been tempted to start reading some SF by Peter F Hamilton, based on Steve’s effusive praise, but have been put off as I’m not sure I can trust his judgement. This is possibly unfair on Hamilton who is a far better known and more prolific author. Maybe I’ll sneak a read of a couple of pages in Smiths or Waterstones just to make sure it’s not another complete turkey.

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There may be hope for 2008 after all

January 14, 2008

Clapperboard I started the year with scant hope that many or indeed any of my “Eight for 2008” would come to pass. Well, numbers 4 and 8 materialised in short order, and now my hopes for no. 5 have been kindled by the fact that “The Assassination of Jesse James by the blah blah blah” managed only one nomination at the Golden Globes (Casey Affleck for best Supporting Coward Actor) and didn’t win that.

golden globes

The Jesse James film did get me thinking about whether there might be a good example of a slower-paced film that did manage to hold the viewer’s attention. There must be many, but I came upon one shortly after New Year. Someone had recorded “Girl with a Pearl Earring“, the Scarlett Johansson film, on our Sky box, and I watched it with my wife. It has quite a lot in common with The Assassination of Jes… TAoJJbtCRF: great cinematography (in this case inspired by the works of Vermeer), little action, sparse dialogue. Focus on the visuals and on nuances of relationships, more hinted at than spoken. And yet, both my wife and I remained engaged with the film throughout, and very much enjoyed it.

The difference between GwaPE and TAoJJbtCRF is that the former has a clear narrative with sufficient momentum to sustain it. The story is always unfolding, in a rational and persistent way. There were a few moments when the pace sagged a little, maybe too many shots lingering a tad overlong on Johansson’s physiog, but these were the exception. I’m not suggesting that GwaPE is in all ways an exemplary film. I’m merely citing it as a counter-example to TAoJJbtCRF, as evidence that a Director can make a film which is primarily visual and short on action, but still regulate the pace to stop it flagging and tell a coherent story worthy of the filmgoer’s full attention.

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The Assassination of Jesse James: One for the Critics

December 3, 2007

Clapperboard The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, to give it its full title (and plot synopsis), is the kind of film you can look back on and find tons to admire.

  • The jaw-dropping cinematography.
  • The attention to detail in period-perfect costumes, sets, locations.
  • The standard of acting, particularly Casey Affleck as the semi-eponymous Bob Ford, the snivelling Jesse-James-obsessed, wannabe gunslinger.
  • The studied exploration of James’s descent into paranoia as he realises his career as outlaw has gone on too long, there is no-one he can trust any longer and there is no way out but impending death.
  • The insight into the obsessive cult of the celebrity as Ford, who worms his way into James’s gang as a puny but adoring hanger-on, becomes the instrument of James’s voluntary escape to oblivion.
  • The irony of Ford becoming transformed by that deed into a victim of the cult of celebrity himself, and meeting a similar fate.
  • The complete absence of cliché. As Westerns go this is a far cry from the John Wayne era.

It’s just such a shame that it’s a real effort to stay awake through the film. The pacing is pitched too slow, plain and simple. Ultimately, for a film to be a genuinely good film (never mind a great one or even Movie of the Year) it must grip and sustain the attention of a real audience.

Brad Pitt Jesse James

I can see cinema-buffs and critics drooling over this one. Trouble is that films aren’t made for critics. They’re made for real, ordinary people who need to be drawn in and taken on a journey they can get something out of there and then, as they’re watching it, not just when discussing it later in the pub.

I saw it with my wife and another couple. It was the first night the film was being shown but the cinema was all but empty. Our friends slept through most of the showing. My wife was also bored and I felt uncomfortable because it had been my idea to see the film, on the strength of a review by one of those drooling purist critics, the good Doctor Mark Kermode. Maybe the feeling that I was responsible for taking my friends to a film they weren’t enjoying put me off it. I did stick with it all the way through but was often conscious of time dragging. As we came out we compared notes with some of the other people who’d been watching the film. They were equally underwhelmed.

Is this a case of “audience failure”? Are we now too used to all-action mindless blockbusters so that we can no longer appreciate a thoughtful, well-crafted piece of quality cinema? I think not. I’m not particularly attracted to noisy, effects-laden, big budget blockbusters and neither are my wife or friends. The Director saddled the film with an unduly ponderous pace, failing to immerse us consistently, and thereby undermined its many virtues.

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Dites à Tout le Monde

October 29, 2007

Clapperboard I know which films are any good because I listen to Mark Kermode’s reviews on Simon Mayo’s radio show (belatedly via podcast), but rarely get to watch any. The other night my wife came home with a rental DVD for the family to watch. Judging by some past choices this could be a reason to panic, but I was hugely relieved when it turned out she had rented Tell No One, one of those rare films the good doctor (Kermode) has seen fit to heap praise on.

Naomi (my wife) had just finished reading the book, which is by American thriller writer Harlan Coben, and had really enjoyed it. It’s next on my list when I finish The 13½ Lives of Captain Bluebear by Walter Moers.

The family sat round the TV expectantly as the DVD player drawer closed. We had to endure what felt like 30 mins of unskippable trailers for films we had no intention of ever seeing. It was probably only 5 mins, or maybe less once we found that fast-forward still worked. I think only rental versions get these adverts; guaranteed to get everyone hacked off before the film even starts.

ne le dis a personne

When it did start it became rapidly apparent that it was a French film, with English subtitles, under the title Ne Le Dis À Personne. Had Kermode mentioned that? If so I hadn’t picked up on it. We pressed pause while Naomi fetched out her copy of Coben’s book, turned it over in all directions and gave it a good shake before proclaiming that it was solidly English (or at least American) through and through. No trace of anything Gallic about it.

Undeterred we pressed play and proceeded to watch the film. I don’t propose to go into an in-depth review here because the film has been out ages now and there are countless reviews on the Internet already. What I will say is that on this occasion at least Dr Kermode was spot on. The film was long but never quite got to the point where it dragged, we bought into the characters, enjoyed the action sequences and the suspense built up to the inevitable dénouement when the extraordinarily convoluted strands of the plot were all neatly resolved. I did come close to guessing one of the key plot points in advance and got a steely look from my wife for my trouble.

The cast were all French (or so I thought) but one of the actresses looked very familiar. It turned out to be Kristin Scott Thomas. But she was speaking French and very convincingly – to my ears at least. I was following the subtitles while listening along to the French as best I could. My eldest son who is in his final year studying French and German at Oxford was following the French dialogue and didn’t remark that one of the actresses sounded incongruously foreign. Well Kristin, I since discovered, lived in Paris for a long time and trained at the French equivalent of RADA so maybe it’s not so surprising she could carry off that role without difficulty.

I’m now looking forward to reading the novel (in English) just to be completely sure I did understand the plot in all its intricacies.

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Influences strange & Mr Norrell

October 18, 2007

Books It is most curious, but I am starting to wonder whether the writing style so characteristic of Susanna Clarke’s epic tale of gentleman magicians in the 19th Century, “Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell” (Bloomsbury 2004), might not be starting to have an extraordinary effect on me. Indeed, it seems strangely infectious.

Of course, it is entirely appropriate that such a worthy novel, relating magical happenings in the early 1800’s, should assist the reader’s sense of immersion in the spirit of the time by adopting appropriate language. I am tempted to describe the style as sanitised Dickensian. It is however altogether more digestible than real works by say Dickens or Austen, and is a little faster-paced. For example, the reader is spared whole chapters describing the appearance of some character of secondary importance (see Footnote 1). Nevertheless, Ms. Clarke’s manner of writing is highly evocative of the classic 19th Century novel.

I have to say that I am becoming quite used to the character of the book, having now completed more than 28 chapters of it. So much so that I scarcely give it a second thought. I cannot, however, help feeling that the book in general, and the writing style in particular, are having an influence on me in ways I cannot master. I might almost be inclined to describe it as a rewiring of the circuits that make up my mind.

Why, this very morning, while driving my daughter to school I made a remark that seemed very ordinary to my ears but occasioned an odd look from her, as if she were beginning to have concerns about my sanity. My remark was this:

“I think, my darling, that you should ensure you have a warm garment with you when you journey to Manchester with your schoolfriends this afternoon. I fear the weather looks set to turn distinctly inclement”.

Her reply of “Yer what? You gone loopy? What’s with the weird lingo?” I found baffling and quite at a tangent, not to mention bordering on the impertinent.

Her observation did though prompt a double-take on my own part. It is not inconceivable that the book is starting to change the very essence of my waking thoughts. It is important to bear in mind that I am not, as might be imagined, reading the book in a conventional manner, holding an object of paper bound in leather and scanned with the eyes. Indeed no. The content of Ms. Clarke’s publication is, rather, being delivered direct to my ears in an audible form for I acquired it as an audiobook, and use the electronic apparatus in my motor vehicle to reproduce it as sound. The narrator is a gentleman named Simon Prebble, whose agreeable voice and manner of delivery are very apt for the task. This is so much the case that I cannot seem to expunge Mr Prebble’s engaging tones from my head. And whenever I write, it is as if I hear his voice dictating the words to me from within my mind, and spoken in the language of Ms Clarke’s excellent book.

It has not escaped me that I should complete the aforementioned work as soon as I can manage it, and purchase a quite different audio book, before the effect becomes permanent.

Footnote 1: By way of illustration, in his novel, A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens obliges the reader to endure an entire chapter dedicated to introducing a single somewhat unsavoury character, Jerry Cruncher, who is of little more than incidental relevance to the plot.

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