Costco ZT Affinity AMD Phenom II x4 945 Win7 Home Premium Review

Out of box:

The expectation and included pictures had it that the machine had PS-2 plugs for both mouse and keyboard.

It had one PS-2 plug labeled with a keyboard picture.

The included Microsoft keyboard and mouse were both USB.

Turns out, that’s perfect for me. I could use an extra, junker, USB keyboard for a current project. USB mice are as good as PS-2 mice. After I get the machine set up I’ll use one of the old NMB (AT/PS-2) keyboards. I’ve stopped using the IBM AT boards because programs want F11. And, the AT boards take too much juice to be run from a USB port, powered or not. Anyway, it’s important on a main machine to use a PS-2 keyboard port because of the Control key problems with PS-2/USB keyboards.

The system is a better configuration for me than what I thought I had bought. No negative points.

Let’s fire up Win7…

Win7 comes up asking your country, time, etc. There’s a glitch in the day selector’s display attributes and for some reason the time zone was Pacific but the time was Eastern. No biggy. No points plus or minus.

Norton comes up with a huge buy button labeled “Activate Now” and tiny text link: “Close without enabling security”. Negative points.

After the Norton thing, the UI went to the Control Panel. Since I always set XP systems to Windows Classic, the Win7 Control Panel was unfamiliar. It did not take long to remove Norton. And I spent a couple minutes playing with desktop backgrounds and such. Postitive points.

Played two or three games. The presentation was very good, both audio and visual. Ties to the net were well balanced. The whole “experience” in the game area was smooth, comfortable and pleasant. Many positive points.

Aside from Norton (a program that remains on PCs because the US government IBM-ed Microsoft), the only clutterware on the box was something called “Express Gate”. There was no indication of what it was, though it seemed to want to copy bookmarks from browsers. A quick web search found that it’s ASUS’s quick-OS. It boots Linux from motherboard flash memory in a few seconds when the PC powers on. That makes a PC act like a countertop device, able to hit the web quickly without all the time a full OS needs to start. Negative points for presentation inside Windows. Express Gate is not useful to me as I keep main machines on 24×7. But I know no downside to Express Gate being on the machine.

Express Gate: Must be turned on with an “Enable” buried in the BIOS. So only geeks would know it exists. There really should be something at the Windows level to explain it and to turn it on and off. But, it’s nice. Quick and clean. I didn’t look at it enough to see for sure, but the big gap appears to be no concept of a user. Without a user, the 3 communications pieces (Pidgen, Skype and Firefox) are not integrated and Firefox has no secure password storage. It’s easy to see why there is no integrated user name / password, though: slippery slope and probable customer troubles. They have links for support forums, etc. which I did not explore. The games page had its own feedback thingee. I was impressed by Express Gate. With an integrated, secure password store I can see a consumer PC not being fully booted very often.

Anyway, just to be clear, positive points for lack of clutterware, ZT.

Alerts: Win7’s alerts seem nice enough. Perhaps a bit too quick to go away and I did not see a way to get a history of them. With no Norton, they lead you quickly to IE8 and a Microsoft web page with a large list of anti-virus products. Once IE8 comes up you’re also led quickly and easily in to Windows Update, where the first download seems to be Microsoft’s anti-virus program. The “experience” is not too in-your-face and justified as it will be some time before anti-virus/firewalls disappear in to the fabric of the universe. Slight positive points. YMMV.

A Win7 background picture of note is the startup/shutdown/logon image. Its Rorschach ink blot impression to me is that it covers the human demographic completely. In the South East corner there is a leaf or snowflake or white bird or something appearing out of the glare. I’m thinking, “aromatherapy”. There’s estrogen in the South East, y’all. But, now look at the North West. Jet trails. Why no tiny outline of an F-16, I cannot understand. Anyway, the whole picture is Bauhaus sparse, but weird. Positive points.

Disk organization: It appears they’ve gone Unix-like to put users in their own directories off C:\Users. Positive points. But a hassle for me as the root directory is admin only and I have a lot of system things off root in my standard setup. Turns out, this was not a lot of trouble even for my evolved setup. A couple of environment variables and all the important things went under C:\Users\alex.

“My …” directory names? Negative points. Childish. A single word is good. i.e. Music, Pictures, etc. That keeps the space character out of the directory name, too.

Let’s play “find the IP address” – without cheating and running ipconfig. Or going to the firewall and viewing its table. … … Buried where it’s not too hard to find. But buried. A less buried window that shows “IPv4 Connectivity — Internet” could have included the IP address directly. I’m guessing that anyone who knows what IPv4 is would be able to guess what meant. Negative geek points.

What? Hold on. Let me check the date. 2010. Yep. And Windows dialog boxes are still not expandable? I fuss about Linux not remembering window size and locations. (Yes, “Linux”.) Negative points.

Windows versions: Home Premium (whatever that is) is like XP Home in that it does not remember networked drive connections. The bait and switch is still there. You can tell Windows to store your “credentials”. You can tell Windows to connect the drive when you log in. But Windows doesn’t listen. Negative points. And sloppy.

Negative points that Home Premium does not allow remote desktop. No ssh server either. Hmmm. Can 4DOS do ssh server? No. Cygwin, then. Yuck.

The usual negative points for Microsoft’s money stream of product differentiation. Windows comes in 11-teen confusing versions. You don’t care. You get whatever happens to be pre-installed on the box you buy. But these 11-teen versions remind you that Microsoft is – like any bank, insurance company, telephone company or government – not on your side. Count your fingers, my friend, after you shake these guys’ hands.

All in all. ZT gets a thumbs-up for a clean system. And Win7 gets thumbs-up for the same. Win7 does not scream “DOS 4.0″/”ME”/”Vista”.

Now. The grass sure looks green. Do I go back to Windows from Ubuntu?

Hanns G 28 inch monitor

At I got a new Hanns G 28″ LCD monitor to semi-replace the ailing Acer 24″.

The Acer has a very hard time turning on after the PC has gone to screen-saver black. It takes 10-20 minutes and several power cycles to get a flickery image and then another few minutes for the image to settle down. The text mode display seen during BIOS boot never settles down. Vertical flicker.

Anyway, the Hanns is big and cheap (~ $325). As on-line reviews indicate, the default color settings are pretty bad. I don’t mind bright. I want bright. But washed out? No.

I ended up with X-Contrast turned on (turned on after the other settings are made). And user color settings of R:100 G:88 B:67.

The color is still a bit washed, nice and bright, and not too bad, viewed straight on.

It’s the “straight on” part that’s the rub.

This monitor is very sensitive to viewing angle. And, at 28″, unless it’s used as a sit-back monitor for TV, you can see that the color at the top of the monitor is different from the bottom. So, for image editing, I’ll probably move the images over to the Acer for final look-see.

Other thoughts:

It’s nice to have two same-size monitors (1920×1200). And very nice to have a 2nd monitor that isn’t dark, dark, dark.

Together, they push out some heat. Sorta like feeling the sun on your face on a warm day.

Hanns G 28 inch LCD Monitor

Bad MP3 player

Sometimes you can buy a cheap, white-box device and find it’s better than the brand name item.

On the other hand, sometimes you can buy a Sly Electronics SL014G MP3 player.

That dies a few days after the 90-day warranty runs out.

That has an extensive, useless UI crammed in to a micro-sized screen – but no shuffle function.

Whose battery doesn’t last long.

That forgets where it is in the playlist whenever it’s plugged in to a USB power source. Or something.

That, perhaps like all non-Sony devices, takes a loooong time to skip to the next song.

Oh well. Better luck next time.

Your Government Failed You

Listened to the CD of Richard A. Clarke’s “Your Government Failed You” a couple weeks ago.

Figured it would be a tedious screed about Iraq. But what the heck. As a guy who’s always been 51/49 or 49/51 on American 200x Iraq involvement, I could at least hear it out.

Turns out that he’d already put his Iraq thoughts in an earlier book. Yes, this one had a lot on Iraq, but he used it as a springboard to what he considered more important things: how to organize certain national security functions of the US government.

Bottom line: He came across as exactly what he said he was: A self-respecting, professional, government guy specializing in national security. That his specialty is the core purpose of the federal government helped make the book quite readable. And he spelled out the case for his kind of person having great control over national security policy and procedures. He went a bit schizo when acknowledging that the professionals’ job is to implement the political policy makers’ policies – at the same time being driven, himself, by being in strong, strong disagreement with the Bush peoples’ particular policies. But, there’s never a perfect balance in things of that sort. So whaddayagunnado?

For me, all that was not the most interesting thing in the book.

Let’s go back to Saigon, ’70. My bicycle had worn out break pads. No problem. I had walked most every street of that town, taking pictures, so I knew where the bike shops were. Zinged over there. Walked in the first shop and asked how much brake pads were. Got a price. Har. Har. Well, of course, it must have been 10 times what it should be. Right? No problem. I go to the next shop. Same price. Hmmm. That’s odd. Prices from tourist-rip-off people are generally all over the map. Third shop. Same price.

What I learned: Around a military base, you’ll find a whole crowd of people whose every moment is spent, as a cell phone company exec once said in a meeting, “Extracting value from the customer.” In other words, bases are surrounded by con artists, crooks, etc.

But, in those bicycle shops I was not near the base. These shops were run as normal businesses for normal people. They had no thought or inclination to pull any scams. That I was not their ordinary customer didn’t change a thing.

The thing is, the interface between the base, with its transient, military people, and the surrounding people “servicing” that base is like the shore ‘tween land and sea.

Now, in the world I live in, the shore is where everything important happens. Innovation happens on the shore.

Back to Clarke’s book.

The book dripped with disdain and suspicion for private contractors involved with national security. And tech. That attitude was very, very nearly the attitude of any aware military person toward the scammers just outside the base. And, that attitude was clearly a result of Clarke’s experience! In other words, it was not out of line.

Now, here I am, on the other side of the fence, with much the same attitude toward professional government people.

But, though I disagreed with some of what Clarke recommended, I never doubted that he could be right and that his heart is in the right place. He came across as a guy running a bicycle shop.

So, is it a law of nature that the worst sort of behavior is concentrated at the interface between two different worlds? Does the nature of such interfaces require that behavior be “bad”?

XP SP3 Install

Wherein I promote a fleeting computer experience to cosmic proportions…

It was a slow night of continuing to get nothing done, so I figured, “Why not go ahead and do the XP SP3 update?” Why not, indeed.

Let’s go back to the late ’70’s or early ’80’s. At the time I called Microsoft “the GM of 2020”. Remember GM – General Motors? They are still around, losing a few billion dollars now and then. Cadillac and Saturn are both GM cars. GM makes some other cars, too. Something called a Chevrolet, for instance. Sold to corporate/government fleets, one must suppose. Anyway, back in the day, GM was the company. And my faith in computers said Microsoft would be the company in 2020.

Fast forward to 2000 or so, when Microsoft made their catastrophic decision to not split up in the face of being IBM’d by the feds. That was jolting. Microsoft had done a very good job of not catching the monopoly disease, but they took a wrong turn with that decision. The pundits said that Microsoft had rolled the feds. I was never sure what these guys were smoking. Microsoft is a rounding error on the fed’s budget. Charles Atlas can’t roll an aircraft carrier. Microsoft decided, in brief, to acknowledge that they were no longer a private company but were an adjunct of the US government. Brussels, too, continues to claim a piece of ’em! Sad.

But I bought the stock. Heck. They were local. They had a lot of strengths and were fundamentally in great shape and would be for a long, long time.

Since Bubble 1, though, the big, center parts of Microsoft have been drifting. Their treatment of IE is a perfect micro-picture – ignored until the world has long passed them by. Then a sort of a “me too” upgrade.

They had caught the monopoly disease.

A couple of years ago, I test-installed Ubuntu on a new, vanilla box. Then, for fun, also installed the Vista RC1. Hmmm. Ubuntu struck me as very competitive against Windows from a few years before then. Ubuntu was “getting there,” but not quite “there.” It could have been called quite different from, but equivalent to Vista. Not quite up to XP level.

Recently, Ballmer decided that it would be a good idea … here’s the punch line … to buy Yahoo.

I sold the stock.

A week or two ago I upgraded ‘alexlap’, the 7-8 year old Ubuntu Dell laptop. This upgrade was to Ubuntu “H”, Hardy Heron. 3 problems:

1) 2 obscure config files fussed about being changed and what should be done about them?

2) With those 2 files, I experimented with the option to see the “differences side-by-side.” The side-by-side display is unusable. And the UI flow is a little disconcerting when you step through the options to check out the config file differences. You can’t go wrong, but you’re given a single, ambiguous button after you view the “side-by-side” comparisons.

3) Apache (custom installed on ‘alexlap’s desktop version of Ubuntu) didn’t start up properly. Apparently, the machine name, “alexlap”, is used somewhere in Apache’s configuration. I’d not put “alexlap” in /etc/hosts as a special name. Or something.

Put another way, the upgrade went very smoothly. Surprising, as the previous “G” upgrade from “F” presented a lot more fussing to ignore. And the laptop is unquestionably unusual hardware stocked with extra programs left over from various experiments and tests.

So, last night it was XP SP3 time for my main PC. This PC is a stock box, already completely up to date with respect to Windows Update.

Result: Infiniboot.

Here’s the nice part about the XP update experience: They offer, as a pop-up when Windows is booted in Safe Mode, something called “System Restore”. I tried it because of the reassuring message that the “restore” could be undone. The system booted OK after it was “restored” to a couple of days in the past. So there is the good and troubling news: The Windows mechanism to handle catastrophic failure is quite smooth.

Cosmic conclusion: No new information. Microsoft should make a note to wake up when Apple’s consumer share shoots past 30. Can you say “Christmas 2008?” Is Microsoft on the road to specializing in fleet sales of their Impala of OS against a world of Crown Vic Linuxes?

A new toy: GH615B GPS watch

Background: This is my first GPS device. I wanted a device that I could use to geo-code pictures and to track hikes. It needed to internally store several hours of very frequently sampled locations. And it needed to get those locations back to the PC later.

There is a $100 device that reviews say has good PC software for geo-coding pictures. But, though the GH615 is more expensive, $140, it:

  • uses the Sirf III chip (which the reviews all say is a good thing)
  • is in a watch form factor rather than needing to be stashed in the daypack or something.

A guy at Semsons was very helpful and seemed to know whereof he spoke. He leaned me toward the $100 device just a hair, but didn’t say anything to stop the watch-form-factor being the deciding factor. The 8 hour battery life on the GH615 was reported to be just at the edge of what I could use. The $100 device had much, much longer battery life.

So there it was. I placed the order.

Got the watch in a couple days.

Let’s get to the bottom line:


Watch form factor.

Display is handy (other devices I considered have no display)


PC software (version ?) should not have been released. It’s that bad.

Design flaws in storing and sending the location data to the PC.

Cable is a custom job and apparently not robust.

Very version 1 product.

Let’s be frank. I have somehow allowed myself to be sucked in to writing software to support this device, handle GPS information in general, and to geo-code jpg’s in particular … for 2+ weeks … straight … with not a lot of sleep. Fun, perhaps, and behavior that’s a bit of a throwback to my 20’s. But … Well, this product is not something that says, “Oh wow! This is cool.”

The PC software:

There is reason to believe that other versions of this device come with a newer version of the PC program (on a support forum someone told of using a feature not in my version of the software). But the US GlobalSat web site does not have newer versions of the PC program or firmware. The parent, Taiwan site didn’t resolve DNS when I first tried to use the PC software. It does now – AND they have updates for the PC software and watch firmware. I just tried the updated PC software. It has not fixed the key problem of the original software: very unreliable communications with the watch. Some of that problem could be the watch firmware, but COM port monitoring tells me that there are obvious bugs in the PC software. And the new version does not appear to be substantially different from the version on the CD. So I just don’t know what to think. One thing: If I take a chance and try to update the watch’s firmware, I will surely log the COM port data so that I’ll not need to use that PC program again!

Let’s let that rest a moment.

So, why did I “go away from the world”? Well, for starters, I wrote a Windows (probably portable) program, gh615_grab that as reliably as possible gets the locations back from the device to the PC. This is no mean trick. The watch and/or serial/USB cable and/or Windows driver spew garbage often enough. The protocol would make any weak engineer from the ’70s comfortable. The watch’s reactions to unexpected input are not robust. Etc. You get the picture.

The watch firmware has some version 1 issues – minor UI things and such. But nothing a v2 couldn’t fix. Examples:

You need to explicitly put the watch in a PC communications mode to transfer data other than the user information.

A button lets you “page” between various views. One view is the stopwatch/clock. That view has several variants that the up/down buttons cycle through. But when the main view is changed, the current stopwatch/clock variant showing is forgotten. Next time you see the stopwatch/clock view, it reverts to showing the stopwatch.

When you “download” (Really, “download” is the word they use. They mean “Copy to the PC”.) the “trackpoints” or “Activity Info” or “Files” or “Training Data” or whatever the location data is called, you don’t get all the locations from the watch! On the watch, you must first go to the stopwatch/clock view, push the ESC button, “Reset Training Data and Save? | Yes”. That zeros the stopwatch, too.

Overall, though, the watch has a pretty reasonable UI. Watches don’t have a lot of buttons, so they are hard to do UI for. This one is almost consistent, button-push-safe, and easy to grok. They did a pretty good job with their 6 buttons.

And the watch buttons are physically great. They are big, take a strong push (no accidental pushes), and give very clear tactile feedback.

The screen is fine. Only the power button lights the backlight. (Another flaw, since the buttons don’t push too easily.)

I’m not clear why there is a compass function on the device. It doesn’t work. It probably should work. But until they get it working, it should not be there. The compass often showed north to be due west in my testing. But mostly it was random. Finding true north is not hard, except in a whiteout. Walk 30 or 40 feet in one direction. Look at the direction of the graphical tracks and compare it to N on the screen.

Anyway, I built up a page of QA-like notes on things wrong with the device and PC program. But why bother? In the end, I’ve gotten it running for my purposes.

Or have I?

Let’s see what a couple weeks of time on a critical component has done:

Cable on the way south

Since this cable is not something you can pick up at the corner computer store, I’ve put in a trouble ticket on it. We’ll see what happens. They should not have used a custom cable. Doubtless, they used the funky 4-pin plug for watertightness reasons. But they should have provided a solid, robust dongle that had the 4-pin on one end and some standard socket on the other.

Speaking of flaws, here is a typical, but big one: If you stop the stopwatch, the watch stops remembering GPS locations. Fair enough. It’s clear after some dinking around that running the stopwatch is what causes the watch to remember locations. But, the kicker is that the watch does not remember the time associated with each location. Instead, it remembers how much time has passed since the previous location acquisition, the “delta” in engineer-speak. Storing time deltas can take significantly less memory than storing the absolute time, so such logic makes good sense. The problem is that when the stopwatch is not running, time does not pass. Pause the stop watch and you don’t know it, but you have just lost all ability to use subsequent location data to geo-code pictures.

Too, the “deltas” are returned to the PC in 16 bit 10ths of a second. Locations are not stored when the watch can’t get a satellite fix. So, if you go inside, or hike up a narrow canyon for a bit less than a couple hours, the delta value wraps or pegs (I’ve not checked) and all subsequent times are ambiguous.

That this device is flawed is really sad. The watch form factor and the inherent simplicity and utility of it should make it a very, very compelling gizmo. Yes, I’ve heard comments about it being a huge watch, but it’s very light and surprisingly quite wearable. But then, I’ve always tended to go with hefty watches.

GH615 with other watches

Anyway, given that my watch is serial number 344, what can I expect?


To fix the cable, they wanted the whole unit back!

I asked why.

“it is company policy…”

It’s not such a good day, anyway, but I take back my post on their forum about feeling sorry for this:

Top Google search for GH 615 GPS watch

I’m peeved, but will probably cool down sometime.

A Good Product

A few days ago I decided that my eyes deserved a break and I deserved a treat. I ordered an Acer 24″ AL2423W LCD monitor from NewEgg.

Let’s get to the bottom line:

This monitor is one of the few things I have bought in many years that I really liked right out of the box and beyond.

Nowadays, I live in a world that habit and a slippery slope has filled, to my constant irritation and chagrin, with “stuff”. Lots of stuff. A houseful of stuff. Useless stuff. Wasteful stuff. Stuff that should never have been aquired, bought, stolen, accepted or allowed in to this house. Stuff. Stuff. … … … … Stuff.

I don’t easily buy more stuff. Buying stuff hurts. Bad.

But this monitor I like.

Online reviews say it’s too bright. It is bright. I like it bright. It made my 21″ CRT look dim by comparison. Yes!

It runs 1920 pixels by 1200 pixels. That’s nice. And it’s big enough that you don’t need to squint to see those pixels.

The out-of-box is great. Both DVI and VGA cords are included. A class outfit, Acer. Make the customer smile. Make it easy for the customer to like the product.

Again, I do.


Except for one tiny thing:

Turns out, a cap on the top of the stand comes off.

And, if you’re inadvertantly holding the monitor by that cap while you attach the VGA cable to a rather hard to reach plug, and the cap does come off, then the monitor falls on the corner of the keyboard and …

Broken Acer LCD Monitor

I screamed. I swore. I hated the thought of even using the computer without this monitor. This monitor is the kind of thing you start using and in 30 seconds you never look back. I screamed some more. I swore some more. … What are the stages of grief? Who cares? I screamed some more.

It’s not the cap’s fault, really. I just blew it. It really hurts. I liked that monitor. It simply made me smile to look at it and use it. It brought moments of happiness to me. I’m not 12. Stuff doesn’t do that any more. This monitor did.

But, now it’ll be hard to justify a third one to twin the replacement up. 6 bills is 6 bills, after all. And, the kids aren’t completely de-nested.

Windows Vista RC 1 Tryout

Since asuka didn’t migrate to the new box easily, that box is sitting on the floor now doing nothing except keep a backup for asuka’s disks as of a couple weeks ago.

Hey, why not download the RC1 version of Vista?

Did – after much trouble with the official download mechanism, simply downloaded a bit-torrent version. Microsoft tells the MD5 and SHA1 of the ISO, so the bit-torrent version can be verified without any trouble. Thank you, DCRC.

Was warned off trying the 64-bit version by various web postings.


Took a while, unattended, after a couple of simple, basic settings (e.g. Language).

First log on took a long while, too. They try to keep you interested with fading in/out promo notes.

I installed Vista x86, 32-bit in the little 9 gig Linix swap partition. There was some fussing about it not being the right sort of partition, but that was very easy to fix.

The install leaves a very clean directory structure. I like that the users are put under “\users”. Too bad that “\Program Files”, with its embedded space, is pretty much unchangable to “\programs”.

Disk properties says that there remained less than 2 gig, so this DVD image expands out from a compressed image for sure.

Windows networking:

I could map my XP box’s shared drive. I could map the Linux servers’ Samba shares. I could not map any Win98 box’s shared drives.


Transparent windows are confusing, messy, and really don’t bring much to the table, in my view.

There were a couple of gratuitous icons, but they are easily tossed and unobtrusive. Nice.

The gadget toolbar confused me for a bit ’cause I did not even notice its existence until I tried to move the trashcan over the unpopulated part of the gadget toolbar – which was indistinguishable from the desktop background. And, what possible value is there in putting gadgets inside some specialty area? What is wrong with them going anywhere you like on the desktop? Heck, Microsoft seemed to intend to encourage people to create smart icons (“gadgets” seems to be the word the world is converging on for these mini-window programs) quite a few years ago. The tragedy of them is that, as they appear simple, it should be simple to create ’em. A few lines of code in some scripting language (e.g. Python, C#, Java) should get you an “Hello World” gadget. But, I digress.

The windows generally have a cluttered look.

The new minimize-size-close buttons on the upper right are nice. Their mouse-hover glow is a great improvement. And these buttons’ larger size is nice. And the big red close button is superior to the old windows style. Keep in mind that I have always used Windows Classic mode. For all I know XP may already has “fixed” these buttons. Anyway, they are almost, but not quite, as nice as OS/2 was a decade ago. Would that you could put the X in the upper left, away from the sizing buttons.

Vista does a bit of selling something called Windows Live. Like “Dot Net”, Windows Live is something … I’m sure. Yes. Quite sure. And, without question, it must have something to do with Windows. Or something. The red X worked fine in Windows Live. Or something.

The media player tries to sell something called, as Dave Barry would say, I’m not making this up, “Urge.” That’s right. They are trying to sell you a … what? … urinal?

So, that’s the 10 minute look. I may never see Vista again until some machine I get for Windows comes with it.

Overall impression:

Incremental update. Not irritating.

Looks like they are doing as good a job as they can to default-to-secure-mode. Kudos!

They are moving toward trying to make the whole PC experience one that is more like buying a car rather than buying a fixer-upper boat. That’s the proper thing for them to do, of course, given that if you want a fixer-upper boat, your best bet nowadays is Linux. And they are doing a pretty good job of it, it seems.

As the only “car” manufacturer, they are on the uncompetitive slow-road. Since their disasterous decision not to split the company in to pieces, it’s a safe bet that they will plod on relatively successfully, but gradually downhill for many years to come. That “many years” could be shorter than anyone would imagine if certain machines ever take off:

  • “Audrey” type machines (cheap, throw-away, distributed-around-the-home appliances with built-in web browsing)
  • smart-phones that can drive any neighboring screen and keyboard/mouse.

But, that’s another subject.

Sony Network Walkman MP3 Player

Through an untold story involving serial ports I aquired a Sony Network Walkman flash memory digital music player. NW-E507, serial number 1329621. 1 Gig of memory. FM radio.

Why you want it:

  • Battery life is infinite.

Why you don’t want it:

  • Plays only ATRAC, klunkily converted by a PC program from only MP3, WMA and WAV formats.

Detailed look – while the grass grows tall and the battery drains:

To use this device, you must install Sony’s XP/Mac CD SonicStage program. SonicStage’s purpose is to sell you music. But, you are forced to use it to convert and transfer music to the device. SonicStage is also a music player, CD ripper and burner, etc. Since you already have 11-teen of each of those, SonicStage is redundant – of negative value. Knock 30% off the device value.

Update! Turns out that there is a simpler program available for download at Sony’s support site. But, then, that program, an MP3 transfer program, which is installed to a directory on the device itself, has simple instructions describing a control screen that does not seem to appear on my PC. The program, as it runs on my PC, allows only browsing the device and deleting content. So, the program is worthless on my system.

The device apparently does not play MP3 files (nor OGG files). SonicStage slowly converts MP3 files to Sony’s proprietary ATRAC format (I guess) before it copies the files over to the device. Be prepared to leave the device copying while you do something else, if you are filling up the device’s memory. There may be a way to pre-convert the files that you’ll want on the device later. Or maybe not. I can only guess that the ATRAC format gives the device its strong point: battery life. Otherwise, we’re talking negative value here, relative to a device that allows you to drag and drop or DOS-copy files over directly.

<RANT>Given that adding OGG file support to SonicStage may take a day or two of engineering time, it’s hard to fathom the downside of such a capability. Heck, given the cost of OGG and/or FLAC file support, one wonders how Sony could not sell enough extra devices to pay for the feature-add. But, there you have it.</RANT>

In any case, files take room similar to MP3 files: i.e. 5 meg per song. I got only about 190-210 files on to the 1Gig device. Ouch. If they had been negative one quality OGG files, then my whole “card” list (all 600+ songs I can listen to at any time without displeasure) would fit on the device. OGG files of walking-around quality can be 1.2 meg per song – 800 songs on a 1Gig memory card, playable on the Palm. SonicStage has settings for quality, I believe. I will fool with the settings to find if ATRAC can withstand OGG-like compression.

At least one file I transferred could not be played. It was an MP3, 11k sampled, 16-bit mono. Where was SonicStage’s conversion logic?

The manual is shipped as a PDF file. Unfortunately, it’s buried on the CD and installed to the hard drive somewhere obscure enough for me to have used an abominable shell program to view it. The manual is wordy and picturey to the point of confusion. It contains the same picture and words over and over and over and over and over again. For each menu option.

It is physically possible to read the manual and find out what you need to know.

The device UI is of the vaguely Japanese style.

You’ll need the operator’s manual to tell you how to kick the device in to “shuffle” play mode. (Unless you really, really want to explore the Walkmen Cavern.) And, the manual explains the meaning of some cryptic options in the unlikely chance that you may want to use them.

Which gets to specific UI nits:

  • The play order starts over again at the first song after the device is connected to the PC.
  • The shuffle (random) play setting is not persistent. You gotta kick it back in to shuffle mode after any connection to the PC.
  • The jog dial has a bad feel when it’s used to fast/skip forward/reverse. Especially reverse. Someone didn’t tune the feel of skipping to the previous song. I’ll admit that this tuning isn’t easy. I wrote such code myself in a player program and it takes more than a few minutes of testing to get right. Too, in shuffle mode track-reverse apparently doesn’t even work! It would seem that the programmer could not find 200 bytes of memory to store a reasonable past-play list. Or could not build a reversable PRNG.

Front side of Sony NW-E507 Large image Front side of Sony NW-E507 Large image

But, the UI isn’t so bad.

There’s a play/pause button that’s intuitive. Push it to play. Push it to pause. 🙂

There are two volume buttons on the shoulders.

There’s a jog dial, push-pull switch that has 3 push-pull positions allowing 3 modes, two of which are “control the device” and “hold – ignore the buttons”. The third position is apparently, “what was in the mind of our ADHD designer the day the UI was spec’d”.

There are a couple of other buttons that rely on either normal-press or press-hold to access a menu or to change the display/play mode, depending upon the button.

Back side of Sony NW-E507 Large image

There is a secret, almost recessed button on the back that you’ll need to use ’cause Sony’s engineers could not find a way to add a couple of items to the UI’s main menu.

And, there’s a working Reset hole on the back. I needed it ’cause the firmware update to v2 didn’t take – twice – before I gave up.

The screen is OLED, hidden behind a good-old-boy, silver reflective sunglasses look.

The whole device is a like a slightly large and heavy USB flash drive. Solid and nice feeling.

It sounds real good. The little ear-bud headphones are good – like modern headphones of all prices and types. And comfortable.

There is no equalizer. Base/treble control with two presets available. That’s good, in my opinion.

The FM radio received some stations ok out here in the sticks.

Battery charging is done through the USB connection – using a standard mini-USB plug on the tail end of the device under a rubberish cover that will probably disappear with use. I used a Palm TE cable already plugged in to my PC.

The device can be used as a USB drive.

So, folks, here are my current alternatives:

  • Korean MP3/OGG player (256 meg, AAA battery)
  • Palm Tungsten TE with PocketTunes playing OGG files off a 1 Gig SD card.
  • Sony 1Gig ATRAC player

The Korean MP3 player has 1 problem: a single AAA battery lasts only one and a half hikes. And, for gosh sakes, I can’t find any of my old rechargable AAA batteries. Since the Korean device plays OGG files, it’s easy to randomly copy a subset of my “card” files to the device using a shuffled .BAT file. I do that once every couple hikes to get a new 170 song random subset of the 600+ songs.

The Palm’s problem is its battery, too. The bright color screen drains the battery half way in to a long, eBook-reading hike. Playing songs would shorten that time. So I carry the MP3 player. Music and forest go well together. Anyway, the color TE is inferior to the dead M500, which could not play music. Someday, I may return to an M500. Who knows?

The Sony sounds better than the other two devices. (Negative 1 quality OGG files are detectably inferior to normal OGG/MP3/ATRAC. The Palm gets kinda busy at times and can glitch.) If the Sony’s battery lasts forever (effectively), then the Sony may be superior to the other two. I can imagine a way to gimp SonicStage to get the device loaded in a usable way. And, if ATRAC can acceptably compress file to sizes touted on the Sony’s box, then – OK.

Battery story:

This device has battery life that just won’t stop. I played the device for 16 hours and the battery indicator showed maybe 80% full. Then, I connected the device to the PC for a couple of minutes while installing the MP3 program. The indicator zinged up to a hair (maybe) under full.

If you have a USB hub, be it in a PC or be it standalone, then this device has a battery “feel” like the early Palm devices – simply not even something you think about. Unless you play this device 16 hours a day and simply hook up the USB every day or 3, it’ll be so long ‘tween charges that the real problem will be forgetting to charge it at all!