Posts Tagged ‘iPod’

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This iPhoneless Life #11 – iTunes’ Secret Agent

August 27, 2010

iPod To describe my life as iPhoneless is a slight exaggeration. There is definitely an iPhone in my life, my wife’s iPhone 4, and it robs me of sleep.

My wife is addicted to Angry Birds.  It has not quite taken over completely from reading in bed at night (I can thank the late Stieg Larsson for that) but there seems to be an unwritten rule that we have to get through at least 2 or 3 levels of the aforementioned smash hit game before calling it a night.  I am often called in to help out clearing a level if my wife is stuck on it and wants a break to read another chapter of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I am expected to keep going until every last grunting green pig has been blown to bits.


So I know all about the iPhone 4, it’s beautiful “retina” screen and gorgeous build quality. But for my own use I still have my old, battered Windows Mobile phone – an HTC Tytn II (in O2 “Stellar” livery).  It has done a job for me but now enough is enough and I want a modern phone.

Largely out of sheer bedevilment, I am determined not to become an iPhone user like everyone else in my family. And I’m wary of being a Windows Phone early adopter, much as I believe that platform holds out great promise. How could I forget what it was like to be an early adopter of Vista, when the pain of it is still faithfully documented in this blog? So I will go Android, at least for the foreseeable future, and currently favour the Samsung Galaxy S.

It was while I was checking out what the podcast client options look like in the Android world that I came across a free open source application called iTunes Agent. The idea is very simple. It makes your random non-Apple music device look, to iTunes, like an iPod. That means you can use iTunes directly and seamlessly to synchronise music and podcasts with any mp3 player or phone.  iTunes Agent has been around for quite a while and I can’t think how I missed it, particularly when I was casting around for a podcast solution for my HTC WM6 phone. As explained in an earlier post, I have a more than workable solution using iTunes for podcast capture and WMP for synchronisation, but iTunes Agent looked like a neater fix and I thought I should try it out.

I had no trouble installing and running iTunes Agent on my Windows 7 PC, and it hooked up immediately with iTunes. The difficulty I had was getting iTunes Agent to link up to my phone when the latter was connected to the PC via USB.

The way it is supposed to work is that you specify the folder on your music device where you want your synchronised music to live, in my case a folder on the HTC phone’s micro SD storage card. When you connect your phone, iTunes Agent is supposed to detect that this folder  is available on the Windows file system and therefore knows your phone is ready for synchronisation.  The limitation is that iTunes Agent requires your phone or music player to have been allocated a drive letter by Windows, but Windows was just listing my phone under “Portable Devices”. I could easily navigate through the phone’s folders and files using Windows Explorer but no way could I persuade Windows to allocate a drive letter.  And without a drive letter, iTunes Agent refused to accept any folder on the storage card as synchronisation target.

This stumped me for a while until, by dint of frantic Googling, I discovered the difference between the MTP and UMS protocols for connecting storage devices over USB. My phone naturally connects to my PC using MTP (Media Transfer Protocol) – a technology which is reckoned to offer the widest device compatibility with media players – as opposed to UMS (USB Mass Storage) which is targeted more at USB keys and SD card readers. Unfortunately Windows only allocates a drive letter with UMS devices, not with MTP.

More Googling and I found out about two applications that can be installed on a WM phone to make it emulate a UMS device and thus qualify for a drive letter, W5torage and Softick Card Export.  The former was written by a lone developer and is free whereas Card Export is a commercial product. Both were created so that you can in effect use your WM phone as a card reader.

I tried W5torage first.  It installed fine on my phone and appeared to be running, but in UMS mode my PC was not able to detect my phone at all. A quick uninstall and I tried Card Export, which is free to trial for 21 days. I took an instant dislike to the latter because it automatically added an annoying status display to my Today screen and an icon in the notification tray. It did however work. My phone now appeared as the G: drive and at last I was able to configure my phone in iTunes Agent. My HTC now showed up as a device in iTunes.

This did not though constitute a happy ending. Before going much further I was determined to rid my phone’s Today screen of the unwanted Card Export status display.  I went into the phone settings and unticked the Card Export option from the list of Today items. This resulted in my phone locking up. A reboot later and the Today Screen was free of Card Export status, but now my program icons were missing. There was clearly some clash between Card Export and the application manager software from O2 which came with my phone. Now the O2 software is lot more important to me than use of iTunes Agent – my researches in that direction were more curiosity than need – so it was Card Export that was going to have to go.

It took about 10 reboots before the phone was working normally again, with no trace of Card Export, the Today screen displaying all the right items and no lock-ups when I tried to access the Today settings.  There was a moment when I thought I was going to have to ditch the phone as a write-off, or at least restore factory settings.

That is, unfortunately, one of the most problematical issues with Windows Mobile. Lots of apps but easy access by developers to the deep innards of the operating system, which can readily become unstable as a result. I don’t know why iTunes Agent had remained a secret to me for so long but I could have done with it remaining a secret.

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This iPhoneless Life #3 – Podcasts: Playback

March 16, 2009

iPod This is the third in a short series, documenting my experiments using a Windows Mobile 6 device (an HTC TyTN II) as combined phone and media player, in the manner of an iPhone. In the previous post, I explained how I managed to still use iTunes for podcast capture but then pass the baton to Windows Media Player 11 to get the podcasts synced to the WM6 phone.

The attention now turns to the playback experience. WMP on the PC may have succeeded in transferring the right podcasts onto the phone, but what is it like using the HTC device as an iPhone (or iPod) replacement for podcast listening purposes?

First off, could I get them to play in the right order? You might think I’m being a bit fussy but I want my podcasts to play in the order in which they were downloaded by iTunes. Most of the time it’s not important, but it can be an issue with daily podcasts. I don’t want to be presented with Friday’s Dail Giz Wiz before I’ve heard Thursday’s. Same sort of thing with daily news items. It is obviously confusing to hear the follow-up story before the podcast which broke a news item.

Getting the playback order right had not been trivial even when I was using an iPod. I had iTunes automatically sync the podcasts to my iPod, but for correct playback purposes I had to set up two playlists. I had a Smart Playlist on iTunes called “Latest Podcasts” which was defined so as to display the podcasts in the correct “date added” order. I then had another playlist called “podcasts” on the iPod. With the iPod docked, I would highlight and copy the items from “Latest Podcasts” on iTunes to “podcasts” on the iPod. Provided I listened to my podcasts using the “podcasts” playlist the correct running order would be preserved. I also had the option to make changes to the running order to suit personal preferences (for example, if I were desperate to hear the next episode of “Security Now!” or whatever) before undocking the iPod.

You can get something similar on WM6, but not quite in the same way. Remember the Auto Playlist dialog box from post #2 of this series?

There is a further useful criterion you can add by clicking on a green plus sign. Choose “Sort by” then on “click to set” and select “Date Added”. This does the trick, or at least nearly does it.

If you recall, we had to define two paths for locating podcasts as downloaded by iTunes. One had “downloads” in the pathname and one didn’t. Unfortunately, using the Auto Playlist “Sort by” criteria you can only get the sort order right for each of these paths separately. So the first batch of podcasts (from “Music\iTunes\iTunes Music\Podcasts”) will play in the right order, and then the second batch (from “Music\iTunes\iTunes Music\Downloads\Podcasts”) will play in the right order. But there is no way to define an overall running order for the complete set of podcasts. However, all is not lost as we shall see.

After syncing, the Auto Playlist is copied (and synchronised) to the phone. New podcasts are added and any podcasts which had been deleted on iTunes are removed. Note that it is safest to have WMP on the phone closed during the syncing operation, otherwise the removal of deleted podcasts can fail. On my HTC it is quite easy to see whether (pocket) WMP is running and to close it down, because there is a handy task manager utility accessible from the Today page. Windows Mobile users who don’t have a utility like that will have to use Start > Settings > System > Memory > Running Programs to check whether “Windows Media” is running and if need be select it and click “Stop” to shut it down.

On opening WMP on the phone and selecting “Library…” from the “Menu” option the following view appears:

Clicking on “My Playlists” (where “clicking” is my shorthand for normal use of the stylus) should bring up this screen:

In practice, this doesn’t always happen, which is a minor annoyance. It depends on whether the phone is “looking” for playlists in its built-in memory or on the storage card.  If the latter then it will find the “podcasts” playlist and all will be well. If not, there would be no playlists showing under “My Playlists”. In that situation, select the Library view again, “click” on the “Library” drop-down (in the menu bar, next to the magnifying glass icon) and ensure “Storage Card” is selected.

Click on the “podcasts” playlist to bring up a listing of your podcasts, which if you are lucky will already be in the right order.

Another annoyance. WMP does not always pick up the podcast name first time. Quite often the bottom few items will display as “download”.  If you select one of those items and click “Play”, then pause and select “Now Playing” it will take you to what looks like the same playlist (except that strictly speaking it is now the “Now Playing” playlist) and the correct podcast name will now be displayed, and maybe some of the other “download” items will also now be displaying the correct podcast name. It may take a couple of goes to get all the names displayed correctly as in the example above.

This is where you can do some re-ordering to suit your preferences, or to correct errors in the ordering as described above. To do this, select any podcast you want to move and click the up or down arrows at the left side of the lower menu. To check the correct overall order I look at my “Latest Podcasts” Smart Playlist which I can still refer to on iTunes.

Then just select say the top item on the list and click “Play”, and the podcasts will play in order.  You get a graphic (as you would with a recent iPod) and all the obvious controls for navigation, volume, etc.

Once you’ve got the hang of this, it works pretty well and is not specially worse than using an iPod. But WM6 phones started off as PDA+phone combinations and are fundamentally more complex beasts than iPods, which were created as very user-friendly, intuitive devices for playing back music and that was it. For that reason, a WM6 device will not be as slick as an iPod when used for media playback, but it is perfectly livable with.

I’ll go into a few more of the practicalities in part #4.

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This iPhoneless Life #1

February 27, 2009

iPod If you want a single device to be both your mobile phone and media player, why look any further than the iPhone? But if you don’t have one – how far would you get using say a WM6 phone to do the same things?

Well, I have been a Windows Mobile PDA-phone user for years and still have the best part of a year to run on my latest WM6 phone (O2’s XDA Stellar which is the HTC TyTN II under a different name). I might very well switch to the iPhone when the contract runs out, but for now I’m stuck with the HTC.

I had become used to going everywhere with both my WM6 phone and my ageing iPod mini, using the latter extensively for podcasts and audiobooks as well as music. When the battery on the iPod mini finally gave out around a month ago my first thought was to replace it with a current iPod nano. But then I got to wondering whether the HTC could be persuaded to play iPhone stand-in. I had always dismissed that as impractical, if only because I could not imagine how it might cope with all my podcasts. But I can now buy a big memory card, the HTC can play music and video and has a big screen. And I would only have one device to carry around, just like the iPhone.

That’s how the experiment began.

Memory

Step one was to buy a suitably capacious memory card. The HTC supports SDHC micro cards and it cost around £16 to get a top brand 8GB card, that’s more memory than I had with the dead iPod.

First (minor) drawback – the display on the Today screen of the HTC misreports the spare capacity on the memory card. It is currently telling me I have only used 1% of the total whereas I have filled over 2GB. I think this is a problem with the WM6 OS and the newer SDHC cards. I previously used a standard density 256MB microSD card with the HTC and the capacity was reported correctly. In any case, the device certainly reads/writes fine with SDHC.

What next?

I assumed music wouldn’t be too difficult.  I was more worried about podcasts.  With iPod and iTunes working in tandem, podcasts are a breeze and I had everything set up with a smart playlist to get the podcasts in the right order. If I couldn’t get something similar working on WM6 with Windows Media Player 11 that would come  as a complete showstopper.

How did I get on?  That will be #2 in this short series of posts.

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iPhone RAM issue not going away

January 29, 2009

iPod Most of the hits on this website now are coming from iPhone users who are desperately trying to find a solution to the much-loved device’s tendency to crash.  The problems are due to insufficient RAM for all those functions and apps, as described in depth here.  The iPod Touch is similarly affected.

As the number of iPhones and iPod Touches in circulation increases, the more the clamour for a fix. Here is a taste of the search strings which brought visitors here just in the last few hours:

iphone ram
iphone not enough ram
iphone specifications ram memory
iphone flush memory
how to clear ram on the iphone
iphone songs gone, but memory still in u…
iphone touch memory usage
iphone memory usage
ram in iphone
open iphone add memory
iphone memory swap device
iphone available memory
how to use less ram memory on ipod touch
128 mb limit iphone

I really can’t understand why Apple haven’t done something about this yet. Come on guys! There’s a problem here.

Sort it!

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Traffic lights don’t stay red nearly long enough

September 18, 2008

Most of the time when I’m driving around I curse the slow traffic lights, stuck on red for what feels like aeons, and the half asleep drivers who take ages to get going when the lights eventually turn green. Which makes me no different to most drivers.

It’s a different story though if I have forgotten to connect my iPod to the car stereo.

I enjoy listening to podcasts, audiobooks and music when I drive. But what if I have just dropped someone off somewhere and had not got round to getting my iPod out of my jacket pocket to connect it up? My jacket is on the back seat so I need the car to be stopped, just for a few seconds, so I can stretch over and bring the jacket into the front. My battle-hardened enemy, the red traffic light, can be counted on to come to my aid.

Sure enough, it’s only a matter of time and yes, I’m stopped at a red light. Hand-brake on, turn to grab jacket, where’s it gone, damn it’s fallen into the footwell … and suddenly every car behind me is honking. I look up to find the cars in front of me have vanished and the lights are green. What? When did the lights change?

Dammit, I grit my teeth, grab my jacket and drive on. I now need another stop to get my iPod out of the jacket pocket and plug it into the cable in the glove compartment. Ideally the lights will turn red just as I am coming up to them so I get the whole red part of the cycle to do my connecting up without having to hurry.

But it never works out that way. There I am pootling gently up towards each set of green lights, hoping they’ll change just as I get close. They of course remain resolutely viridian as I amble through with a lengthening queue of frustrated cars behind me convinced I must be a 90 year old woman.

Next time the lights do turn red in front of me they are far too far away, and the cars ahead coast up to a gentle stop, taking forever to form a queue and wasting valuable seconds of red cycle. Why can’t they each drive at full tilt up to the car in front and slam on their brakes at the last minute so the queue forms quickly? To hell with their tyres and brake linings! But just as I screech to a halt the lights are turning green. Blast! And now the drivers aren’t half asleep any more. From dopey morons they’re suddenly imagining themselves to be Lewis Hamiltons, Felipe Massas and Kimi Raikonnens at Monza. I’ve only been stopped 5 seconds, was hurriedly fumbling for the iPod cable in the glovebox and the queue is moving again. A resigned expression comes over my face, I slam the glovebox shut and follow them.

I’m now running out of traffic lights before I join the motorway and find myself condemned to an hour of FM radio drivel …

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AudibleReady Zune … Sune

April 22, 2008

iPod Audible.com and Microsoft have finally reached agreement on audiobook support for the Zune.

It’s confirmed by Paul Thurrott so I would trust this.

I gather the delay has been something to do with firmware. Audible require compatible devices to have the required support in the firmware, but MS were being difficult about this.

Maybe they didn’t like the idea of an outside party dictating what goes in the Zune’s firmware, but Audible support is too important these days. For many people, lack of Audible support alone is a deal-breaker. That would certainly be the case with me.

The Zune (in its second incarnation) is a credible and attractive proposition, but I am one of a growing army of converts who enjoy listening to audiobooks in the car or otherwise out and about. I have enough junk to take with me when I am travelling around so there is only going to be one mp3 player type device. If the Zune remained unable to play audiobooks it would definitely not come into contention when I retire my current iPod.

As it is, with this latest news, it stands a good chance.

I’m assuming here that if, as suggested, it is all about support for Audible in the firmware, then existing Zunes can be made compatible by means of a firmware upgrade, as opposed to having to wait for the 3G Zune.

As for when all this will happen: by the end of the year according to the link above, … so reasonably sune.

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iPhone’s limited RAM struggles under the stress

February 28, 2008

iPod Most iPhone users may not be conscious of problems with software crashes, but for some owners this happens all the time. Applications close without warning and the iPhone returns to the home screen. It can happen while surfing the ‘net on Safari, while selecting or playing music, watching video, anything. The effect is indistinguishable from using ‘Force Quit’ to close an application (by holding down the home button for 6 seconds) except that it happens unexpectedly rather than at your instigation.

The same thing happens with the iPod Touch, particularly the new 32GB version, only worse.

It is not a widely reported issue, but is definitely real. It was confirmed by Engadget when they reviewed the iPhone in July.

“We managed to continuously crash the iPod app while listening to music and doing other things, namely browsing. We wouldn’t call it incredibly unstable, but we wouldn’t say it’s rock solid, either.”

ipod touch 32GB

My son Alex recently bought a brand new iPod Touch 32GB and promptly loaded it up with 20 or so GB of music, videos etc from his computer. It started misbehaving. He would flick through albums using Cover Flow and would suddenly find himself looking at the home screen. It was starting to get difficult to play music without a song crashing halfway through.

He thought he must have messed up the setup so he returned the device to its factory settings, flattened the memory and started again. Same result. He went straight back to the Apple Store and they seemed puzzled, had no explanation, but replaced the device without a quibble.

Alex set the new iPod up with the utmost possible care and for a time all seemed well, but later on the problems started to reappear. Ultimately, it became clear things were no better than before.

What then? A bad batch of iPods? Some rogue corrupt music or video file? If the latter it could be a real needle in a haystack job to find it.

I tried Google and found that many iPhone and iPod Touch users have had the exact self-same experience. It is all there on Apple Discussions. All there, that is, except an explanation or solution.

A Hard Reset (hold Home and Sleep/Wake buttons simultaneously for at least 10 seconds) does make the problem go away, at least for a while. That got me thinking, as did the fact that using Safari (via the domestic wifi) seemed to encourage the misbehaviour. In particular, under no circumstances could Alex fully open the home page of my personal blog without his iPod crashing. As the images downloaded it would get to the point where it gave up and died. Now there are a lot of images on my blog home page, and many are large high resolution files, so memory, or insufficiency thereof, would seem to be implicated.

My conclusion is this. It is not that hard to completely run out of RAM space on an iPhone or iPod Touch. It depends on how many applications you leave open and the memory usage demands placed on each application.

Early on some iPhone users thought it was a Safari related problem because they first encountered it while surfing the ‘net. It wasn’t though anything to do with Safari specifically – it is just that the easiest way to crash an iPhone is by navigating to a web page with a large amount of embedded content, particularly images. If there is more on the page than RAM can hold it will just crash. I do not think there is an equivalent of a Windows Swap File or this would not happen – slow down yes, but not crash. Alex still has a fair few GB spare on the iPod’s flash memory.

With the iPod Touch there is greater likelihood of a crash while, say, using Cover Flow particularly if a large proportion of the 32GB is filled up with music files. It means Cover Flow has that many more album art images to display. Overdo the flicking back and forth from A to Z and at some point it will crash. Less likely to be an issue with the iPhone or Touch 16GB because the flash memory doesn’t hold as many albums/music files.

There is no solution reported in Apple Discussions because there is no solution. The 128MB RAM in the iPhone/iPod Touch will simply run out if challenged too hard. Users just have to live with this, adapting their behaviour to minimise the impact. That means avoiding some websites, closing down applications (with Force Quit) when not using them, using Cover Flow just to locate music not as a pretty plaything.


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