TuneChecker and I Love Stars

Legally downloading music has started to take off as more buying choices become available. At one point iTunes was the only buying option but there are now many places that sell digital music. TuneChecker is a great website that shows you where to buy music online at the cheapest price and the potential savings are pretty huge.

The site allows you to browse the Top 40 UK Album and Singles charts and also browse by genre and new releases. If that’s not enough you can search for any artist or track and the site will return the price ranges for that album or single. Searching for Radiohead shows just how wide a price there is for their Best Of album. £12.99 on iTunes and £3.47 from Tesco!

The only thing not covered is the quality of the music you are downloading and if it’s DRM’d so tread carefully before making the purchase on price alone. You can’t really go wrong with this website although the site design, in my opinion, is awful. It’s been developed in conjunction with MoneySavingExpert.com so maybe they saved money by doing the design themselves ;-)

Once you’ve downloaded your new music if your like me then rating your music is an essential step in iTunes to getting better more intelligent playlists…but I always forget to do it meaning I need to do catch up sessions every so often to rate my tracks. Step forward I Love Stars, a menu bar app for the Mac. This app displays only when music is playing allowing you to adjust the rating of the track without having to move to iTunes. A video saves a thousand words…

It supports 1/2 star ratings and won’t display during podcasts – what’s not to love? For tracks you haven’t rated the app can play an alert, which can be annoying, or flash discretely alerting you to your unrated track. The latest version now supports keyboard shortcuts too so rating doesn’t get in the way of working. Did I mention it’s free? Get rating.

360Live

For 360 gamers and iPhone owners there’s finally an app that allows you to easily browse your complete friends list – 360Live.

Previous app’s have always been pretty disappointing as you had to manually add friends to your list on the iPhone which to be honest is a pain in the backside. 360Live connects to your Live account and shows you all your friends including those offline. In fact it groups your friends neatly into Online, Away and Offline. It also does this quite quickly, more so than other app’s I’ve tried.

360Live allows you to select a friend and view their profile, their Gamercard and delve into the games they have played. You can also message them directly from the app.

One tip – on the friends list rotate your iPhone and you can swipe through your friends gamercards. A nice feature but in practice it’s a little bit slow.

As well as messaging your friends you can also pick up your own messages via the app. This only includes text messages – to hear audio messages you need to be connected to Live on the 360 or PC. You do however get a message on 360Live alerting you to a voice message. Another neat feature is you can make friends requests from 360Live.

The latest version of 360Live has added a games catalogue that allows you to search through 100’s of 360 games and see some stats about the game – screenshot, features etc. This is a bit limited and feels tacked on although if there was links to FAQ’s, community forums etc for each game then this would be a nice way of getting to that kind of information quickly. It would also be nice to tag the game as being owned but again that doesn’t feature in the app.

Overall a nice app that’s free and very useful for 360 and iPhone owners. There has been some server issues over the last few days but hopefully they will settle down in the new year.

Handbrake and Perian

Handbrake is a great video ripping utility for the Mac. Handbrake was initially a DVD ripping tool which was always reliable but for video transcoding I relied on VisualHub. That was until the company behind VisualHub shuttered development. For a few months there was a bit of a gap in the Mac market but Handbrake stepped in and not only does it do DVD ripping but it covers video transcoding as well.

Handbrake is open-source, GPL-licencsed, multi-platform and multi-threaded. The latest update to version 0.9.4 included over 1000 updates and a 64 bit version for Snow Leopard. It includes support for presets which come with Handbrake so it’s easy to create a video for Apple TV or iPhone – the settings are automatically set making encoding very easy. You can create your own presets so if you want to repeatedly output video in a particular format you can create a preset which guarantees the sam format each and every time.

There are a massive amount of settings and options in Handbrake which can affect the final output. You can see a preview of the video as it will appear allowing you to check for any quality issues before running an encode and you can add multiple video’s to the encode queue so Handbrake can run through your queue while your away.

When downloading Handbrake you can opt to grab the command line version instead of the GUI and that becomes useful when you want to automate your ripping process. For example, this fantastic tutorial – How-To: Automate DVD & Blu-Ray (Backup, Encoding & Tagging) on the Handbrake forums takes you through the process of ripping, tagging and moving your content automatically on the Mac – something I hope to be setting up in the new year. If you have any problems the forums are definitely the first place to visit as it’s a goldmine of information.

That covers encoding but what about playback? On the Mac Quicktime is the default video player but many install VLC as it supports many more codecs than Quicktime but there is an alternative – Perian.

Perian is a free, open source QuickTime component that adds native support for many popular video formats. A full list of the formats can be found here. Perian is easy to install and once complete it’s settings can be accessed via a Systems Preference pane. Like Handbrake there is an active forum where you can find answers to any questions but for me it’s been trouble free. A great plugin for any Mac, especially if your using yours for media playback.

Click To Flash

Flash on the Mac is painful. Anytime I hit a website that uses flash my CPU usage takes a hit, along with my battery on the laptop. Not good. This is more obvious if it’s video content on Flash, particularly HD video. There are rumblings that Flash 10.1 will address some of the issues but I’m not holding my breath as I’ve always had issues which is frustrating when you look at how good it performs on Windows. So, what to do? For Safari users the answer is ClickToFlash.

ClickToFlash is a flash blocking plug-in for Safari with a few neat features. Firstly and most importantly it blocks Flash content allowing you to choose when you want Flash to run, not when a website wants to. To view the flash content, click on the box seen on the website with Flash inside it and the Flash content is loaded as per usual. This has the benefit of not only reducing CPU drain and increasing battery life but also making websites more readable, removing some of the in your face advertising that’s becoming more and more common. There are some websites though that you will always want Flash to run on so thankfully ClickToFlash has a whitelist which means Flash on those sites will always be loaded.

One other benefit from this plugin is on YouTube. YouTube is a Flash based video site but they have encoded many of their video’s in iPhone friendly H.264 format. ClickToFlash detects if an H.264 format is available and allows you to view that instead of Flash meaning the video is loaded in Quicktime. Happy days as the video looks and plays better.

If Firefox is more to your tastes there are a number of Flash blocking plugins available but the best I’ve found is Flashblock. This works like ClickToFlash without the added H.264 detection. These two plugins combined should give you a far better browsing experience on the Mac.

Reeder

Reeder is an iPhone app built for Google Reader. Until now I’ve relied on Byline as my Google Reader client on the iPhone but I was disappointed by the sync speed on Byline. it could take ages to sync feeds which was pretty frustrating. I tried Reeder as the sync speeds were allegedly a lot better than Byline – I wasn’t disappointed.

When you first start Reeder you enter your Google Account details and it then sync’s with your Google Reader account syncing unread items, starred items and your notes. If you have a lot of starred items or notes this first sync can take a while although you can change the amount of itms synced via Reeder’s preferences if you think this could cause problems. On first launch i could immediately see that Reeder was far faster than Byline at syncing feeds.

Another improvement with Reeder is how good the app looks. I much prefer reading articles in Reeder than in Byline. The buttons at the bottom allow quick sorting by data or feed and also viewing unread and starred articles. There is also support for a number of third party services – Instapaper or ReadItLater, Delicious or Pinboard and you can tweet or e-mail a story from Reeder.

The latest update also includes swipe support so that you can quickly favourite or read an article. Swipe left on an article to mark/unmark as favourite and swipe right to mark as read/unread. You can also quickly mark as read a number of articles and thankfully there is a warning before doing this step in case you select by accident. In usage so far I’ve had no issues in syncing with Google Reader and the app and the website have kept in sync.

One area that Reeder is poor in is offline reading. At first I didn’t think that Reeder had an offline mode but it does – one that is pretty buggy. When offline, selecting a post takes around 20 seconds to appear. I can only assume this is a bug and it’s not intended to work this way. Another issue with offline content is that images are not cached as can be seen in the screenshot above. These two flaws mean I still have Byline installed for when I’m travelling by air.

If the next update fixes these issues (which according to the dev’s Twitter stream it will along with even faster syncing) then Reeder becomes a must have app for anyone that uses Google Reader. If you never need offline access then it’s a must buy now at only £1.79.

Hans Rosling and Gapminder

One of my favourite TED video’s is by Hans Rosling. He makes statistics interesting and his presentation style is superb. His full set of TED video’s can be found here but of more interest is GapMinder.

Gapminder is a non-profit organisation founded by Rosling and his daughter which developed the software used in his video’s, software which was bought by Google in 2007. The software is flash based and can be ran on the website to compare a wide array of data from 1960 to 2006. It’s fascinating and eye opening when you start to play with the data available and also look at examples that other people have done.

The Gapminder website has an informative blog and also a large number of video’s highlighting talks form Rosling and the facts behind the data that can be uncovered.

You can also make use of the Gapminder software on your own Google document. Follow this guide to setup the data and then insert a Motion Chart gadget to visualise your data. If you don’t find the software useful I urge you to at least try the video’s as you won’t fail to find them interesting.