Category Archives: Internet OS

Amazon Cloud Drive Logo

Amazon Updates Consumer Cloud Services

Amazon Cloud Drive Logo

Amazon joined the update parade by updating their Cloud Music offering and separating it out from their Cloud Files offering. Now Cloud Files and Cloud Player are different products with their own pricing, although existing subscribers still get combined and discounted pricing for some plans. Amazon purchased music doesn’t count against the the space quota, although it appears that the deal where all music was free, regardless of source, is over.

I installed the updated uploader and had problems immediately. In short, the uploader screen was blank except for the Amazon logo and the help link, Since provide feedback was all I could do, I did. I didn’t expect a response as this wasn’t a trouble report but I did get an email response rather quick. I provided the log file but as I told the Amazon rep, this isn’t important enough to me for it to be worth my time. The Amazon Music offering has been finicky at best for me, and downright unusable at other times. I have to admit, the DRM has yet to get in the way for me.

Scan and Match along with quality upgrades bring iTunes Match type functionality.The press release is here.

More exciting, at least for me, was Amazon’s release of a video player for the iPad. Amazon is the one service where I’ve been willing to “buy” DRM’d video. It still has all the negatives of DRM – it’s more a rental than a purchase and DRM is just one more thing to break (like a down DRM server). Amazon minimizes the impact by making the video playable many places, taking the hint from Netflix.

The Player’s UI is better than the other Amazon UI’s and it’s usable. The sorting is still weird, seems to be based upon purchase date which makes sense in a way, but it would be nice to have an alpha-sort option. Streaming over wireless was smooth and there’s an option to download the video for offline viewing, Wireless is required for online streaming, no streaming over LTE.

Maybe it’s me, but Amazon Cloud Player doesn’t seem usable for anything beyond a storage locker for the Amazon music I purchase. On the other hand, Amazon Video (including Prime) has become my primary online video source.

Anyone having a better Cloud Player experience than I am? Using Amazon Instant Video on the iPad?

OutlookIcons.gif

Microsoft Outlook.com

Outlook Icons

Microsoft is expanding is Outlook email branding to the web, with plans to replace Hotmail with Outlook.com. According to Microsoft’s blog post it’s a complete rework of email, rather than just a rebranding. I rarely use it but I do have a Hotmail (actually live.com) account so I took a look.  I like the new look. Others have said it’s metro-like, I’ll take their word for it since I’ve only seen pictures. Like GMail, there’s adds but they’re unobtrusive on the right, all text so far.

Outlook.com also allows up to 5 aliases so I claimed a few that I use for other email. It was also a nice touch that when the aliases were created I was given the option to create a folder for those emails and create a rule to put them there upon receipt. Also, I could use either the new @outlook.com or the old hotmail.com or live.com in the addresses. I could then change the default email for the account to the @outlook.com address.

Outlook.com doesn’t support IMAP but I was able to set up the account on my iPhone using Exchange Active Sync. I used the Hotmail server and account info but I see the folders I created on Outlook.com and could @Outlook.com as my sending & reply addresses. So it appears to work, at least until the band-aids come loose.

I’m firmly entrenched in GMail so it wouldn’t be easy for me to leave, although Microsoft does highlight configuring your Outlook.com mailbox to pull email from other services such as GMail. They do emphasize the social features which is a bit of a turn-off for me (so I turned them off). I’m set in my ways, I just want email to be email.

Microsoft is on a bit of a roll this year with new versions on the horizon for their main desktop and server OS’s along with their flagship Office product.  Lot’s of change which will drive people nuts at times (myself included) but it’s nice to see them thinking about their software and being willing to change it.

Any Hotmail users out there with first impressions of Outlook.com?

Image of a juke box

Cloud Music: Amazon and Google

Music Jukebox imageI recently wrote about my iTunes Match experience but despite being a long time user of the Apple ecosystem for music I also wanted to give Amazon’s and Google’s offerings a look. Amazon will allow an unlimited number of music files to be stored in their cloud music player, and Google will allow 20,000 to be stored. I have less than 20,000 songs so this makes the cost comparable – free. This compares to $25/year for iTunes Match.

Amazon Cloud Player

Of the two, I’m more likely to use Amazon Cloud Player since I’m a heavy Amazon user, being an Amazon Prime member and Kindle Fire owner. I have purchased about 600 songs from Amazon.

Things did not start off well with Amazon. I had long ago loaded my music to the Amazon Cloud Player, primarily as a backup. I hadn’t kept up with uploading new songs so I wanted to get current. To do this I had it scan my music again. It saw each song as new and wanted to upload it. I could see this for songs that may have been modified by iTunes Match, but it also saw the 600 Amazon purchases as new along with the CD rips I had uploaded long ago and were unchanged (these weren’t in iTunes so couldn’t have been touched by Match).

I decided to delete all my music and start over. Deleting the music was a pain as Amazon only did about 100 at a time (with considerable variation in this number), despite a message saying all had been deleted.

Unfortunately I still had a lot of duplicates after the upload. Since Match had replaced my MP3 files with M4a (iTunes formatted) files within iTunes. Since I scanned my MP3’s along with iTunes both were uploaded. I’m still trying to decide how I want to deal with this. As a backup destination I’d want both. But unless I want to hear every song on an album twice it does screw up playback. But this really isn’t the players fault unless your looking for it to identify songs, rather than files. This isn’t really an Amazon Player issue as long as it’s not expected to recognize actual songs or match meta data, but rather work simply off file names.

Things got better when I concentrated on playback. Amazon doesn’t have the concept of smart or genius playlists and I’m not one to manually create playlists so playback for me is strictly by album, artist or genre. I can do shuffle play but that’s about it.

The iOS app is nice, but suffers from the same limitations as the web player, no smart playlists. It can read in local playlists from iTunes but they are not refreshed when the iTunes playlist changes, they need to be re-imported. The first time I fired it up it needed to sync with the Amazon Cloud Player and performance suffered during this sync After this if was fine.

The iOS player did great over wi-fi, no complaints here. As I test I left the comfort of wi-fi and went for a drive were I’d use 3G, The first song that loaded after I was on 3G has serious stuttering problems at first. But once it got going it was fine. I went for a 60 mile drive, switching among many cell towers during the 60+ mile highway drive. There weren’t any problems or noticeable buffering during the drive.

The Kindle Fire was disappointing, to put it mildly. Despite using the same wi-fi network as the problem free iOS app, the Fire had serious performance problems. While iOS seemed to download basic information from the Cloud Player at initial startup, the Fire seemed to load from the Cloud every time I picked an artist or album causing frustrating delays while browsing. There were frequent messages that the player wasn’t responding and I was offered the option to kill it. I waited instead and eventually got a response. There were also frequent delays between songs while the player loaded the next song. Browsing while playing was unbearable.  I gave up on the Kindle Fire although I can’t help believing there must be some problem as it couldn’t possibly be this bad. I didn’t bother copying files locally since space is limited and I didn’t want to have to manage files on the device level.

Google Music (aka Google Play Music)

I’ve never bought music from Google. I do have a bias against Google. I don’t see them as a consumer focused company, unless there’s an algorithm that can manage those consumers. Android users would benefit the most from Google Music and I’m not an Android user so I expected my evaluation to be quick. There is an unofficial iOS app for Google Music, but I didn’t buy it so can’t comment.

I found Google easy enough to upload too, and they were the only service I tried that allowed me to throttle the upload bandwidth used. Google Music had the same problem as Amazon Cloud Player – it saw both the MP3 and M4a files of the same song as unique and uploaded both. They were grouped in the same album and given the same name since the meta data was the same.

Google provides a few more features than Amazon, Each song can be given a thumbs up or thumbs down as a rating. A playlists of thumbs up songs is automatically created. The also have an “instant mix” feature that will create a playlist based on an initial song you select. Google also as more social features, integrating with Google+. It’s no surprise these features revolve around song purchases.

Overall I liked Google Play Music’s web interface better than Amazon’s. They seem to have put more thought into it. Unfortunately there’s no official iOS support. Music can be played through Safari, but background play stops when the current song finishes. I haven’t tried any of the third party apps. Since the Play account is also my full Google Apps account I don’t want to put the password in any non-Google app or web page.

The Bottom Line

For better or worse I’m neck deep in the Apple ecosystem for playing music so this makes iTunes Match the best choice as my cloud music player, despite its flaws. If I wanted to leave Apple I’d pick Google provided they either came out with an official player or I wanted to create a music only Google account for a 3rd party iOS app.

But as a Music backup destination I’d prefer Amazon. I may upload music yet again. This time using the iTunes files as a source for the player, and uploading my MP3’s and lossless music as regular files, simply for backup purposes. These backups wouldn’t be counted as free music files since they aren’t supported cloud player files. I also need to consider if I really need the MP3’s. In addition to the .M4a iTunes fileI have the original CDs along with FLAC and Apple Lossless encodes should I ever need to re-encode them as MP3. But to be honest, this is more thought than I want to put into my music as this time. I’d rather just backup everything and continue to use iTunes for playing them.

How do you manage and play your music library? Thoughts on Amazon or Google cloud players?

iTunes Match Settings

Cloud Music: iTunes Match

iTunes Match SettingsIn the past I stored my music on Amazon cloud storage more as a backup than as a way to play it “from the cloud”. I purchased much of my music through Amazon and storing it was free (now all music stored there is free). Google also redid their cloud music offering and then there’s iTunes Match. I took a look at all three, this article gives my impression of iTunes Match.

I held off subscribing to iTunes Match until a couple months ago. Then my primary reason was to get the DRM off some old iTunes purchases, a secondary reason being to upgrade some lower quality songs. I never enabled Match on any iDevices until the past week.

iTunes Match PlaylistI started off with enabling it on my iPhone (it’s already enabled on my Mac Mini that has me entire music library). I was warned that it would replace my local music library. Since the local library was just a subset of my Mac Mini’s library I didn’t expect much change. I got a brief scare when my playlists disappeared, but they eventually came back. It looks like match did the right thing and kept the music that was already on the iPhone and marked the rest as being in the cloud. As the picture to the left shows, the first 3 songs are in the cloud while the last 4 are already on the iPhone.

There is no option to exclude unchecked songs, they are all available. I do have the option to only included checked items enabled in all my smart playlists created in iTunes, but this is ignored in Match on the iPhone.

Match will manage what songs are cached locally, using the songs already there as a starting point. I can also have it download all songs in a playlist, for an artist, or on an album (probably other criteria too, but those are the obvious ones) so they would be available when I’m offline or if I want to avoid using cell data. Cell data usage can also be turned off for iTunes Match to avoid eating up a data plan.

There was a noticeable delay in playing a cloud based song when it wasn’t in the queue. For example, when the first song in a playlist was cloud based. But once the songs were queued up it was seamless. Most of my usage was over my home wi-fi but I didn’t have any issues when I ventured off wireless. Admittedly, I didn’t use it much on 3G and most of that was in my house with wi-fi off for testing. The 3G performance will only be as good as the local network. I use Verizon which has been a solid performer for me locally.

I’m not a fan of the iTunes Music player interface on the iPad so I use Diner Jukebox instead. Diner Jukebox ad no problem playing songs using iTunes Match. I played songs that were local on the iPad and those in the cloud.

While I can’t create or edit smart playlists on my iDevice, the playlists are updated as songs move in and out of matching the criteria and these changes are synced across iTunes Match devices (as expected).

As someone who likes iTunes and the iPhone as a music player I find that iTunes Match enhances the experience. Anything that eliminates a reason to fire up iTunes simply to manage a device already starts out on the plus side. It does cost $25 a year which is a minus, but for this first year I got the added bonus of removing DRM from my older iTunes purchases. This was less than I would have paid under Apple’s old upgrade policy.

I would like the ability to create and edit smart playlists on my iPad. I suspect the iPhone screen size would make the UI for that too cumbersome but it should fit fine on the iPad. I don’t add or edit smart playlists much these days so this isn’t a big drawback for me. Since Amazon and Google don’t have a smart playlist concept for their players they probably won’t be much of a contender for iTunes Match. But I’ll be giving them a try.

The other interesting thing I encountered was that iTunes Match seemed to turn itself off in iTunes. My account says the computer is associated with iTunes match, but it’s not available in iTunes and I had to re-enable it. When it was added back it quickly saw it had all but 4 songs, which it uploaded. This was considerably less than when I first enabled iTunes Match. Now I could delete all those unchecked songs from iCloud to get them off my iDevices but I’m not sure I want to do that. While I could keep the physical files they’d be gone from iTunes and iCloud. Even though I don’t play them my packrate nature keeps me from clicking delete. I could create multiple libraries and I may eventually do that, but a first glance it seems like more effort than I’m willing to make.

Do you use iTunes Match as a cloud player? User another cloud player?

image of WWW on gold

Google DNS – Close But No Cigar

image of WWW on goldAmong Google’s recent announcements was their introduction of Google Public DNS. I’ve been using OpenDNS and have no complaints. Well, actually I recently found I had defaulted back to using my ISP’s DNS (Comcast), probably during a router firmware upgrade. When I switched to back OpenDNS I also didn’t notice a different over Comcast. I wouldn’t have noticed unless I was in the router config for another reason and happened to see it.

Comcast and OpenDNS both do typo hijacking and display a search page with ads rather than an error page. I went through the process of opting out of Comcast’s typo hijacking. OpenDNS also allows an opt-out for typo hijacking which I have set. Interestingly enough, the advertising company – Google, doesn’t hijack typos for ads and they display the error page for typos. But this lack of hijacking wasn’t a benefit for me since my opt-outs were already in place and were working fine.

To be honest I didn’t notice any performance difference when I was set to use any of them. When I first switched from Comcast to OpenDNS long ago I did notice imroved performance, but not this time. So I went looking for a way to benchmark performance and came across namebench. It’s simple to use and provides useful information.

Just download namebench and run the executable. You’ll be presented the following screen:

namebench main screen

The “Benchmark Data Source” is a drop down that let’s you pick one of your browsers or the Alexa Top Global Domains as a data source. Picking your most used browser provides results that are specific to the way you browse. Some people have complained that this could send all your browsing history to one person (the Google developer). Since the source code is public it’s easy to confirm it doesn’t. But, if your still concerned, picking Alexa will use generic sites.

Click “Start Benchmark” to get things going. Once the benchmarking is done (took about 10 minutes for me) a page with the results will open in your browser. At the top will be the information yiu really want:

namebenchresults

The above result is from a run after I’d already re-configured for it’s previous recommendations and OpenDNS is the second fastest DNS server according to the benchmark. The right box displays the recommended DNS servers that should be used. In my case the first one is the internal IP of my local router so should be ignored. (I didn’t include it in the screenshot but you’ll get detailed info on the servers tested. See the previously linked namebench page for samples.

The bottom line is Google Public DNS didn’t make the cut. So, while the accuracy of the benchmark may be questioned (as would any benchmark) it’s pretty clear there’s no Google favoritism. M5Net, UltraDNS and Comcast were my recommended DNS servers. Another note, because of caching the first time run of namebench will deliver the most accurate results.

So, I started off by looking at Google Public DNS but by the time I was done I was off of it. But looking into it I considered the following:

  • This gives yet more of my information to Google, which at it’s core is an advertising company. Their privacy policy is pretty good and Google hasn’t monetized DNS yet. Of all the info Google has on me, my DNS info is probably less of a concern. Let’s face it, someone is going to have this data. It’s Google’s recent cavalier comments about privacy and all the other info they have that’s a concern.
  • Google doesn’t have to match the info to me to benefit. The additional information they collect about were people surf and how often is a treasure waiting to be mined. They don’t need to put ads on error pages to profit from DNS.
  • Google does continuously hit on speeding up the web so it’s likely they’ll keep improving performance. They have studies showing that slow response on their search results generates lower revenue.
  • They also promote security and Google certainly has the money and talent to keep DNS as secure as possible.

Like my recent foray into Google’s Picasa/Eye-Fi deal, Google Public DNS is yet another Google offering that sounded good but wasn’t quit right for me. Like Picasa, Google DNS will stay on my radar and I’ll check it out sometime down the road. Anyone else trying Google Public DNS?