Wednesday, January 1, 3000

Welcome to our new venue

Planned Reviews, Articles and/or Topics

As part of a total reset and redesign our publishing venue, we are busy creating new reviews, re-vetting some old ones of value, and will be posting them all when they are suitably ripe.  A list of those currently being scrutinized or being considered for in-depth reviews includes, but is not limited to, the following.  Some of the titles are expanded into what we might call a Quick Look:

FLASH: As soon as we updated our positive review of Roku 3 Gen 2, Roku announced their 2nd Gen power boxes in two lines, Roku Express and Roku Premier with Premier Ultra being the top dog.  We hope to get our hands on an eval unit to give a proper review.  Stay tuned!.

Here's a quick chart from the Roku site comparing the models..

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Jeff Expands Echo Series with the Tap and the Dot (v2 with ESP + Improvements)

Here's some products we hope to be reporting on in greater depth as soon as we get some units to evaluate.  Jeff Bezos' Amazon broke new ground with the wildly successful Amazon Echo home auditory appliance.  The phrasing, "Alexa, play Bruno Mars" or "Alexa, What's the weather tomorrow in Seattle", soon became part of the modern vernacular with numerous product placements in TV episodes (e.g., Mr Robot), and the movies.  Kudos to Jeff for achieving a product's global brand recognition an order of magnitude faster than we became familiar with "Google that".  The 1st Echo was really great in all respects except that it lacked audio output for connection to audio systems.   
Amazon soon followed with the "Echo Tap", a portable battery unit.  At first thought, it seems strange since the Echo series depends on WiFi for access to music sources.  But, on second thought, since the FCC ruled that carriers can't charge extra for making phones act as WiFi hot spots, any phone with a large data plan, can act as your streaming source and, voila, music in the fields.  It comes with a charging stand and accessory rubber cases for that sporty look are available. 

Without missing a beat, a diminutive sized unit called the "Echo Dot" was released for direct attachment to audio or home theater receivers.  Without the need for a speaker enclosure, it is no larger than a hockey puck since it connects to an audio system by RCA cables or Bluetooth.  Alas, the first version of the Dot was plagued with operator intelligibility issues since the Dot had the daunting task of operating in a huge array of situations with wildly varying acoustic environments.  It seems the engineers at Amazon were aware of the issues since they released the 2nd generation Dot less than 6 months after Gen 1 and addressed the speech recognition issue and added ESP, a method whereby 2 or more units within range of the operator could determine which unit was closest and respond with that one.  Top that off with a price roughly half of Gen 1 as well as a Buy 5 - Get one Free deal, and it's a very interesting proposition.  However, since the Dot requires an external output device, it is harder to use a bunch of them since each will require an external amp and speakers.

For the moment, bulk-buying the Dot only makes sense as a great Christmas gift purchase for all your friends who have an audio system they can connect to with RCA cables or Bluetooth.  However, many Lemminials don't know or care about audio quality so don't have audio systems.  I think Amazon may have had a next generation of usage in mind whereby a person's worn digital assistant (aka smart phone or smart wear for the young ones) will have Bluetooth INPUT capability.  Most such devices have BT output (e.g., sending to headphones) but few have input (where a sound source sends sound to the phone).  Even if they did, most BT implementations limit the device pairings to just a few and not at the same time.  So that limits the advantage of having more units than amplifiers.  However, since this is a common scenario, I'd expect there to be some solutions on the horizon with a BP protocol upgrade as well as some adapters to work around the problem through BT spoofing or emulation.  Bet you Amazon is thinking about that already.

Stay tune for our full review.

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  • DataColor's SpyderElite Studio & SpyderCheckr color correction tools.
    We're planning an in-depth users review of DataColor's screen, printer, and photographic color monitoring and color correction products.   Stay tuned!
  • Plex Media Server
    Plex Media Server
    Multi-purpose, multi-platform, media server.  A powerful, quirky, buggy, flexible, alternative to the beautiful, standard-setting, deceased and much lamented Windows Media Center.
  • Acronis Backup and Restore - TrueImage's Stronger Brother
    Acronis has a habit of creating not only multiple similar versions within the same product line but also of introducing new or renamed product lines that seemingly overlap or duplicate previous lines with little explanation as to the differences.  It suggests, rightly or wrongly, they are using the age-old marketing technique of flooding the market with product derivations to see which grab the market's attention.  Being a market leader, already, that's a shame when they could just as well spend the energy fine tuning their existing lines with much needed overhauls of GUI and ease of use improvements.  We are always hopeful that a new line such as this will truly offer something better and worth considering.  Time will tell.
  • ACDSee 9 Ultimate: Latest incarnation of ever-morphing ACDSee
    ACD System's ACDSee Ultimate 9 in Manage Mode
    Quick Take: ACD Systems takes aim at faltering Adobe Light Room with its Pro, now called Ultimate, version. Can it be a viable lower cost alternative?  There are few capable players in image viewing, editing, and management.  At the pro level there's Adobe's powerful, slow and bug plagued Light Room, PhaseOne's pricey, powerful, but slightly more limited Capture One, and at the advanced consumer level, ACDSee which has made slow but steady improvements over the years. 

    Alas, ACD Systems "seems" to be taking the same disappointing approach as Acronis in that they have 3 or 4 product lines that overlap and multiple variations of each product, with new versions and name changes 1+ times per year.   For example, the ACDSee line sprouted ACDSee Pro which then seems to have morphed into ACDSee Ultimate.   At first glance the Ultimate version now seems to have enough chops to become a viable viewer, editor, manager for amateurs, advanced amateurs, and semi-pros. 

    However, it needs to be noted that it does have some shortcomings such with its handling of some file formats.  E.g., if editing a layered Photoshop PSD file, it will collapse, thus destroying, the layers with little warning other than a caveat in its documentation.  It has had similar issues with the handling of EXIF data that it doesn't understand and thus drop some data when editing.  E.g, some camera accessory GPS units embed additional data within the EXIF data area besides the coordinates, such as elevation, bearing, roll, tilt, and pitch which ACDSee doesn't recognize and can drop if edited.  We are eager to test the latest Ultimate line to see if these issues are fixed. In any event, there is no question ACDSee Ultimate 9 has some powerful features and should be short-listed for advanced amateurs and semi-pros.
  • VueScan - Jack of all Scanners, Master of Most, Affordable by All!
    VueScan v9.x, Scanner Program
    First Look: This is a mature, powerful, multi-talented, and very affordable scanning program by David Hamrick.  It controls a vast array of scanners with a passel of capabilities.  It can scan reflective media, positive and negative films; create color matching profiles; OCR text documents; produce searchable PDF's; and more.  When I said "vast array of scanners", I didn't mean 100, 400, or even 1,000, but an incredible 3,400 scanners.  Despite the fact that some scanner families have similar interface protocols, David and his team had to investigate, incorporate and test each one.   That is a Herculean job that speaks to Mr. Hamrick's dedication. We can't figure out how he has the time to do all that he has accomplished.

    In terms of a multi-platform scanner controller, VueScan's only direct competition is SilverFast by LaserSoft Imaging which has an extremely powerful but deeply technical interface that is well-suited for professional scanner operators with a deep understanding of color technology.  The catch is that a single SilverFast license only covers a single scanner model, costs US$ 450 per license, and only supports dedicated, higher end scanners.  VueScan, on the other hand, supports almost every form of scanner available, including MFP printers such as the Epson Work Force printer line. 

    In our test case, we have 4 different scanner models: Nikon Coolscan LS5000 ED film scanner; Epson Perfection V750 Pro flatbed; 2 Epson Workforce WF-7620 MFP printers; and an HP L7780 MFP printer.  VueScan would cost only $90 to support all those devices, can be run on 4 different PCs, and is also available for Apple.   SilverFast would only support our Epson V750 Pro and Nikon Coolscan LS-5000 ED.  So, that's about $900 to license Silverfast for 2 of our 5 scanners versus $90 for VueScan that would support them all plus 3,396 more!  Price-wise, it's no contest.  If you are a pro shop with a couple of high end expensive scanners, then SilverFast is probably your cup of tea.  For the 99% of the rest of us, the price of its full Studio kit is miles out of out of reach.  If SilverFast were purchased to cover each of it's roughly 200 higher end scanner models at an average cost of $400 each, that works out to a cool $80,000.  To be fair, they do offer modest discounts for that many licenses.

    Overall, VueScan is a very competent program, has a utilitarian but effective interface, and keeps getting better with each new version.  On a bang-for-buck basis, it stands tall and alone.  We highly recommend you give it a test using its free trial version that watermarks output but allows you to test its operation and capabilities.  

    The image above is a VueScan scan of an old dirty Ektachrome slide in our Nikon Super CoolScan LS-5000 ED slide scanner.  VueScan was able to utilize the LS-5000's builtin infrared channel to eliminate nearly all of the dust and dirt particles with only a modest impact on sharpness. 

    This First Look is based on the free evaluation version that excludes some of the features and watermarks the output.  We hope to get our hands on a full Pro version to give it a thorough shake down for a full in-depth evaluation from an end-user's perspective.

    Other product reviews we have in our candidate pile:
  • MediaMonkey
    A potent, multi-talented, configurable music manager, player, editor, and more.

  • Roku 3 v2 Media Streamer
    Updated review.  See Quick Take online now.
  • Adobe Light Room
    Most popular image developer/manager and CPU assassin.
  • Solmeta GeoTagger Pro 2 / N3
    Affordable, powerful GPS for geo-logging or tethering to Nikon/Canon cameras.
  • Visual Similarity Duplicate File Finder
    A strong, image content duplicate finder
  • Essays and Monographs
    Various writing on techniques, philosophy, ethics, and the future of media technology. 
~ ~ ~ 

Our studies strongly suggest that we will all die at some point.
They also found that if we all are peaceful and give others pleasure, 
We will all enjoy peace, have great satisfaction, and be very, very, happy! 

It all starts with you, right now!

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

First Look: SDRPlay RSP1
Powerful, Affordable SW Defined Radio (SDR)

SDRPlay's SDRuno Controller in a basic configuration

With the advent of faster computers and large scale integration, it is now possible for software to emulate most of a hardware receiver's functions like IF, tuning, filtering, discrimination, etc, using magic tricks like high speed math functions such as Fast Fourier Transform (FFT) analysis.  SDRs first appeared as Digital Signal Processing "DSP" helper functions in high-end receivers.  These circuits were soon reduced to dedicated chip sets that appeared as cheap "dongles" that could tune AM/FM/TV broadcasts.  
The folks at UK-based ( took things one step further by intelligently marrying the capabilities of existing components to produce a small, potent, and highly manipulable piece of hardware the size of two decks of playing cards.  It connects to an antenna at one end and to your computer via USB at the other.  For the EE crowd, here's a conceptual block diagram of the key circuits and signal routing within the SDRPlay RSP1.

The real magic happens when PC software uses the capabilities of the RSP1 box to provide all the controls, and more, of a high end communication receiver.  Using a standardized Application Programming Interface (API) developed by MIRICS for some of the circuitry within the RSP1 made by them.  The API allows external software to access and control the SDRPlay RSP1 and provide a GUI that emulates all the advanced controls of a high-end radio with additional goodies like; a "spectrum display" which shows all signal activity over a range of frequencies centered about the tuned frequency; an audio frequency histogram showing the dispersal of auditory frequencies; and the necessary hooks to work with a transmitter.
SDRPlay now includes its own approved GUI front end called called "SDRUno" which provides so many controls and options that even hard core radio nerds may have to take a breath!  To date it is the only software we found that works reliably with the RSP1 - but only after we got the configuration just right.  Connecting the RSP1 to it to a USB 3.1 port, e.g., quickly caused the infamous Windows BSOD (Blue Screen of Death).  Here's one of SDRUno's simpler GUI configurations:

Not only does this, and its peers, like SDR-Console, provide the expected "virtual receiver" with the typical two VFOs (just like modern receivers) that allow tracking 2 frequencies, they also allow you to define multiple VRs that can operate simultaneously.  This is great, for example, to listen to 2, 3, or 4 aircraft or EMS frequencies.  If a few channels satisfy your aural voyeurism, then its instant without scanning.  Of course you'll also have to listen to multiple conversations on top of each other, like at a party where you're in several conversations at once.  The image below shows one such a configuration but there are myriad possibilities.  Although SDRUno is still clearly a work in progress, what it does do is still amazing.  

Here’s a similar scenario created using another SDR controller called SDR-Console, a product from  It has a well laid out, simpler screen that some may find easier to wrap their heads around.  The image below shows it also configure with multiple VRs.  It takes a different and more concise visual approach making it a bit more manageable.  Also, all of its various sections are embodied within a single Window dialog.

On the other hand, every functional section of SDRUno is created in its own separate Windows dialog.  That means you have to open them separately then arrange them on the screen to your liking.  So, that's both a blessing and curse.  However, once you get the screen arranged the way you like, you can save the configuration and invoke it with a single click.  Since the various function dialogs have various sizes, you can never get all the windows to line up exactly - but that's a small price to pay for the flexibility that is provided.

Alas, SDR Console runs great until it drop dead with a simple, “Waiting" then it shuts down - as if it failed to do something important and was being nice enough to exit without crashing the system with a BSOD.  It’s probably due to my system's plethora of USB ports all vying for Interrupt priority regardless of the fact that my SDRPlay RSP1 is connected to a dedicated port.  

I've now tested both SDRUno and SDR-Console using the highest quality USB 3.0 and USB 3.1 controllers and SDR Controller also produced a BSOD.  That strongly suggests the issue is with the MIRICS API that the SDRPlay RSP1 uses to control it.   SDRPlay is aware of the issue and is working on a solution since newer machines may come only with USB 3.x ports.  It is likely that MIRICS will be the one to iron out that wrinkly since it is their API and driver.  We shall see.

But don't let my USB issues deter you from giving it a whirl.  A lightly loaded or dedicated system with a direct USB port connection (not through a hub) and few background processes to steal CPU cycles, your results will surely be better. The good news is that the bundled SDRUno software hasn't crashed on me once while using either a dedicated or hubbed USB 2.0 port.

For the present, SDRUno is the most stable of front ends since SDR-Console eventually crashes out even with a USB 2.0 connection.  I miss having stability in SDR-Console and love the stability and features of SDRUno.  My ideal would be for SDRUno to have a consolidate single main Window interface and the user friendly memory (aka Favorites) of SDR-Console.  

Be forewarned!  Due to the intense activities performed by any of the several software front ends that can control SDRPlay, a medium-powered PC can be brought to its knees.  You also have to pay attention to hardware idiosyncrasies such some hiccups if using USB 3 rather than USB 2 which is more stable and also the sheer number of USB ports you are running off of the same controller.  Our system crashed like a rock trying to use USB 3 on a controller with several devices daisy chained on it.  After rebooting and switching to USB 2, SDRUno ran like a champ.

So, with a little coddling and experimentation, you can end up with an amazing computer controlled radio on your PC screen.  For all this power and flexibility, SDRPlay costs only 150 USD (and seems to be dropping with each passing month).  This places it in a niche of its own, priced above the many cheap and far less capable "dongle" units and well below (in price only) the high end units costing 10 times more!   

Ham Radio Outlet is the exclusive US distributor for SDRPlay.  
Shop their windows for this and many other goodies at

Stay tuned for a more in depth review when we get our hands on the latest generation of this amazing gadget!  Our current model is one of the 1st production models so is likely lacking some of the stability improvements of the latest generation.  One thing we did find from our limited testing is that it has outstanding FM reception.  With a decent antenna in a metro area, you can easily log 30+ listenable stations with 10+ being in the pleasurable listening category.  73s.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Alert - MediaMonkey Makes a Splash!

With so many apps to play and manage your music library, few actually take management seriously.  MediaMonkey is the real deal and will soon be a heavy hitter if their feature set and power continues to improve as it has in its latest few incarnations.

Windows Media Player was a strong jack of several trades, master of a very few, but a fairly weak library manager.  In 2004, MusicMatch made a good stab at library management as part of its music player but, after being bought by Yahoo for a cool 160 million, they folded 4 years later.  Music players and library managers is a confusing app category that any one has yet to master.

And then there *was* Windows Media Center - a work of art unequaled to this day but limited itself to being a beautiful GUI player that you liked to fondle but left you seeking others for your deeper manipulations.  It's not too surprising that Microsoft dropped the product with Windows 10.  After all, that's what they do.  Create or buy incredible products, develop them to a very nice sweet spot, allow just enough time for a select group to recognize them, then mysteriously drop the product.

Ditto for Microsoft Money, the undisputed kind of elegant and efficient personal finance management.  Of course, once they mastered that category, they dropped the product.

MS just hasn't mastered the art of the con as so beautifully executed by Apple who have made the world believe they've been inventing things after the Apple ][.  Of course, what they have really mastered was the art of selling the least for the most using slave labor and selling them for insanely egregious markups. Jobs was a showman. Wozniak was a genius.

Back to MediaMonkey.  It appears that what they have managed to do is create one of the most advanced music library management systems to date - all wrapped up in an exceedingly capable, albeit complex, music player.  It's like the highest end model of the Swiss Army knife.  It has a huge list of functions that needs a delicate touch else you'll nick your finger.  Our quickie summary is that it has few frills, a lot of controls, and an efficient interface that operates like greased lightning with the power of skins, plug ins, a scripting language, and much more to come. But, like an F-15, you don't just jump in the seat and pull the throttle.

However, it appears to be a work in progress. But what I mean by that is not that it is incomplete but, rather, its designers have given it a design that obviously allows for even more wonderful things.  And that's what we plan to track.  We're anxious to get our hands on a full copy to see how far it has been pushed, how far we can push it ourselves, and what we forecast its designers will be able to due in future versions.  We hope to have a copy in-house soon to start fiddling under its covers.

Although this is just just a product alert and not even a First Look, we heartily recommend you put it on your short list to evaluate.  Its free version already does most of what many users need and more.  We hope to have a First Look soon and a full evaluation in the coming months.  Stay tuned!

~ A Great Deal More to Come ~