Sunday, September 27, 2009

iTire of iTunes

I've really become tired of iTunes.

I started out sync'ing to my iPod using Amarok. It managed my collections well and even was able to perform transcoding on the fly, turning my FLAC and OGG collection into easily-digestible MP3 transmogrifications. However with my sixth-generation iPod I started noticing clipping artifacts and had problems with video cover art, so I decided to give iTunes proper a whirl.

First off, all my music is stored on a central file server downstairs. My upstairs LAN is connected to the downstairs LAN using a 10Mbs HPNA 2.0 bridge, so file transfers aren't exactly fast between the two. Still, with Amarok this wasn't an immense problem as I could transcode once during synchronization and just be done forever until I wanted to sync another album with the iPod. With iTunes however a choice few tracks (say 200-some out of 10,000) were always synchronized, so I was saddled with 30 minute synchronizations every time I plugged in the iPod. It was ridiculous.

On top of that the interface isn't exactly great. I'd like to list things by album and then by track as a tree-like hierarchy, which iTunes doesn't do very well. While browsing by artist was fine browsing by album was not, taking multiple-artist albums and littering them around. Plus album art was choppy at best; sometimes it would apply the album art, sometimes not.

I'm reverting back to Amarok now. Not only should synchronizations (especially podcast synchronizations) be more efficient, I now am not tied to the iPod as my music vehicle of choice. Should I decide to sync instead with a FAT32 thumb drive, or a smartphone, or a wax cylinder, it doesn't matter as long as I can mount it as a filesystem.

I still have transcoding problems... without a doubt; but now I know iTunes isn't a solution.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

ARM and a Teg

It has been interesting to passively watch news concerning embedded processors and system-on-a-chip designs since I started my irrational rationalizations about smartphones. The landscape is much wilder than conventional notebooks/desktops.

The weird thing is that the Qualcomm MSM7201A gets anecdotal low marks on the speed of its accomplice platforms, but Qualcomm claims that it has an ARM11 processor, an ARM9 modem, Java acceleration and can do 3D acceleration with 4 million triangles per second with a 133 million pixels per second fill rate. Perhaps hardware sporting the Qualcomm chipset has similar problems to my old VIA EDEN - acceleration was largely borked at the driver level. There seems to be a resonant believe with many developers/users that the 3D acceleration just isn't there, although with Android maybe it is. Either way it doesn't inspire a lot of confidence.

NVIDIA's efforts with Google and Tegra are somewhat more reassuring, as NVIDIA is definitely wanting to get its foot in the Android/ChromeOS door with Google. NVIDIA already has great consumer-ready hardware with Tegra on the Zune HD. This sparring match will only get more interesting as Intel launches their systems-on-a-chip, which have a gazillion different chipsets crammed into one. Intel is even wedging the PowerVR chipset in their designs.

I just need to remember that all this nifty hardware comes with a big caveat... without driver support, all of this functionality just sits idle between transistors.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Consumerism Gone Wild

I'm still comparing smartphones. Because I'm a big dork.

iPhone GSHTC HeroMotorola SholesNokia n900
CPUARM Cortex A8, 600 MHzQualcomm MSM7201A, 528 MHzARM Cortex A8, 600 MHzARM Cortex A8, 600 MHz
GPUPowerVR SGX 535NonePowerVR SGX 530PowerVR SGX
Memory256 MB DRAM288 MB DRAM256 MB DRAM256 MB DRAM
Display320 × 480 LCD320 × 480 LCD854 × 480 LCD800 × 480 LCD
OSiPhone OS 3.1Android 1.5Android 2.0Maemo 5
Market Share60%12%12%<1%
(Subsidized) Price$199$180$199?$649

Judging solely on hardware, the n900, iPhone and Sholes are in a dead heat. The n900 and Sholes will have expandable memory options however, making them more appealing. The Hero completely lacks OpenGL hardware acceleration... a real downer.

I'd like to develop apps on the handset also. Mebbe to distribute or sell... mebbe just for a lark. With the Hero I wouldn't have any graphics acceleration which makes game development a pain in the butt. I don't want to compromise vertex counts and lighting algorithms. As far as market share goes everyone but Maemo comes out just fine... Android and the iPhone will be neck-and-neck in the foreseeable future.

There is also the question of price and carrier. Unless T-Mobile picks up and subsidizes the n900, the price is a bit prohibitive for me. While I don't actually talk on the phone that much (which may seem weird considering I'm so intent on shopping for smartphones) I do want to actually have coverage and intelligible audio, so AT&T is out. Verizon's data plans are too pricey for my liking. This leaves us with Sprint & the Hero.

How freakin' frustrating. I guess we can just wait until October and see how everything pans out, but right now the worst hardware (of the four) is dedicated to the best carrier, and the best hardware is dedicated to the worst carrier(s).

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Cellphone Crysis

The smartphone wars are finally on. I love the irony... first the cellular carriers said pre-paid plans would never take off, then the European (and veeeeeeery slowly American) markets proved them wrong. Then they thought that having a closed platform and refusing to let independent developers write apps would allow them to market "exclusive" content, and Apple drop-kicked that notion in the groin. Finally carriers posited the Blackberry theory of economics where only business users would pay for unlimited data plans. And now Sprint, T-Mobile and AT&T have cost-effective calling plans for personal use. In fact, Sprint just announced $70 "everything" plan to really give T-Mobile and AT&T some competition.

All this fighting and vying for consumer dollars has worked on my feeble willpower. I my brain is pretty suggestive when the marketing war machine comes charging at me. I'm at the point now where I've self-justified the purchase of some smartphone in my near future, especially since I'm going to be re-negotiating my contract in the coming months. This is a complete 180 degree turn-around for me... three years ago I swore off multipurpose devices entirely because of my craptastic PalmOS smartphone.

This is a new era however. Now phones can have OpenGL acceleration, hardware video decoding, unlimited fast data access and capacitive high-resolution touch-screens. The PowerVR mobile chipsets are especially compelling, offering decoding and OpenGL ES acceleration using tile-based rendering.

Currently the only readily available smartphones with hardware-accelerated OpenGL are the iPhone 3GS and the Palm Pre, with the Motorola Sholes supposedly launching with Android and PowerVR soon. However, Palm quite stupidly offers no way for developers to tap into the power of hardware-accelerated OpenGL with their inspid WebOS SDK (as far as I can tell). Supposedly Motorola's Sholes will offer PowerVR acceleration with OpenGL ES soon, but it's landing on the overpriced Verizon network. And the iPhone's exclusive carrier AT&T has reputation for poor service and dropped calls; indeed most people I speak with on their network drop or cut out. Ultimately Nokia's n900, which runs on the custom Maemo OS and a PowerVR chipset, would offer the best platform / hardware combination of any other smartphone out there... but the hardware purchase currently isn't subsidized by any carriers and so is a bit prohibitive.

Out-of-the-box VPN connectivity is important to me also. I connect to clients using Cisco's VPN gateways (using vpnc) often as well as OpenVPN. With Nokia's Maemo OS I can do both vpnc and OpenVPN, with iPhone OS 3.x I can do Cisco VPN IPSec, and with Android I can do neither (without root access). However, ports of vpnc and OpenVPN clients are likely in the future with Android, since it's a Linux-based embedded system that does support tun devices.

With Sprint wanting to win the smartphone war on its own CDMA network it has made some compelling decisions. Their consumer-friendly data plans are nice, but it's upcoming launch of the HTC Hero means it has a well-received handset to push the service as well. Engadget reviewed the European model a little while back and thought it seemed like an ambitious OS on insufficient hardware, nagged by stuttering and slow rendering. Their review of the US Sprint model found the exact same issue, however CrunchGear gave the smartphone high marks and said it doesn't suffer the same stuttering and lag that previous incarnations of the Hero suffered.

So which to choose? The iPhone GS definitely has superior hardware, but its current exclusive carrier makes it a hard pill to swallow. Why by a smartphone when the "phone" part doesn't quite pan out? The Palm Pre has a great UI and fantastic hardware, but the developer SDK is limited and so independent development is stifled. The n900 would be fantastic - it uses Qt 4 for application development, has a very open SDK and OS and runs on some great hardware. If the n900 could find a home on a good carrier that would subsidize it's purchase, it would easily be the #1 contender.

Is Sprint's Hero the best choice? It hasn't even launched yet... it's due October 11th... but it already has been opening to good reviews. However the Hero appears to not allow root access and doesn't permit tethering, limiting my ability to tap into the subsystem and have vpnc or OpenVPN clients running. It also lacks hardware acceleration such as the PowerVR chipset, although it does offer OpenGL ES support via software rendering. Sprint's carrier service is quite good - however I'd have to compromise on both of my "must have" features.

Bleh. Maybe I'll just wait until Q4 and see how this all pans out. Right now there's no phone that has a reliable carrier, hardware accelerated OpenGL and OpenVPN clients. Or maybe I'll just buckle because my self-restraint is remarkably weak.