New synth: Oxford Synthesiser Company OSCar

For many years the synthesizer that I have most desired has been the OSCar, so recently I thought ‘what the hell, let’s just get one’. So I met a nice man in Twickenham who sold me one for a comparatively reasonable amount of money. They aren’t particularly cheap, but at least vintage synths tend to gain in value, so I would probably make a profit if I decided to sell it again. (It’s almost certainly a better way to invest money than putting it in a savings account at the moment.)

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Watchmen: pretty good, I thought

I thought Watchmen was a really interesting and unusual film. Despite its long running time it didn’t bore me because of the enjoyable mixture of history, character development, extremely graphic violence, and darkly weird goings-ons. I’m not really into comics so I have no idea how ‘true’ it was to the source material, but I certainly liked it. Also, Silk Spectre I is super-sexy.

The new Prodigy album IS GOOD, yes?

It had been a long time since I’d been through the traditional album-buying process:

  1. Get excited about impending new album release.
  2. Shortly after album release, go into town and buy CD in a high street shop.
  3. Get CD home and thoroughly enjoy hearing some exciting new music.

It had been a long time until Invaders Must Die, that is. Buying the CD in HMV felt like going back in time by about ten years. Listening to it makes me think how nice it is to hear some new music that’s really exciting and enjoyable, unlike practically all the other mainstream crap that’s around these days. It’s quite ‘old school Prodigy’, but the sounds and production help to make it valid and current, so it’s a fine balance of old and new as far as I am concerned. And what a massive improvement on Always Outnumbered Never Outgunned, which to me always seemed largely tiring and monotonous.

Well done, Liam and pals. I’d really like to see them live but I just don’t think I’d enjoy the experience of being surrounded by thousands of people in an arena.

Twitter: social networking gets dumber

I’ve never been a huge fan of Facebook but at least it comes in handy now and again. Twitter, on the other hand, seems to offer practically nothing of any worth. Rather than helping you to get to useful data quickly, it seems to expose you to huge amounts of low quality output and is thus a frustrating waste of time. I guess that this is an inevitable result of people constantly outputting their immediate thoughts into ‘tweets’ without having the space to provide worthwhile details.

Perhaps I’m just missing something, since more and more people seem to be getting into it. Twitter didn’t fare too well in my social networking poll which I did in July, but it would be interesting to see how differently it was regarded now.

Alternative media centre software for Mac: Plex best, Boxee not bad

Front Row isn’t too bad as media centre software goes, but it doesn’t do a particularly brilliant job of displaying collections of movies and TV shows which you have on your hard disk. It also doesn’t allow plugins (although a couple of hacks have tried to get around this) and it doesn’t have a mechanism for launching other applications (which I particularly want for my TV software because Front Row doesn’t support TV hardware). I therefore decided to look at alternative media centre applications.

Firstly I looked at a demo of MediaCentral by Equinux. This initially seemed to have a lot of promise but in practice it appeared only half finished: slow and buggy with bits missing. I quickly gave up on that and moved on to Boxee and Plex. These have quite a lot in common as they are both open source applications which are based on the XBMC media centre application.

Boxee is a cross-platform application which is particularly good for watching online content and for sharing your tastes and activities with other Boxee users in a ‘social networking’ kind of way. Personally I’m not too keen on this aspect because sitting down and watching films and TV is an opportunity for me to get away from the Web for a while, and I don’t really want my media viewing to turn into an interactive Facebook-type experience. I also found Boxee to be rather buggy and rough around the edges with a lack of support and documentation. To be fair, though, it hasn’t reached version 1 yet, so it can probably be excused some wobbliness.

When I tried out Plex, however, I felt as if I’d found just what I’d been looking for. It’s solid, it has a slick feel and a professional look, and it has excellent help and support. I didn’t find it totally intuitive to start with but I got the hang of it fairly quickly with the help of the online documentation. Once I’d done a bit of sorting out of my media files and folders, Plex was able to index my films and TV shows with covers, artwork and information from online sources such as IMDB. Very nice.

Plex is a Mac-only application and this seems to work well in its favour. It comes with the Plex Media Server which connects Plex to Apple applications such as iPhoto and iTunes, which means that it accesses the libraries from those applications directly in just the same way that Front Row can. In my view, this is absolutely brilliant. As if all of this weren’t enough, they’ve just added an ‘App Store’ plugin architecture which enables you to watch online content from YouTube, Hulu, etc. And you can easily launch other applications, so I can get to my EyeTV television software without any hassle whatsoever. Plex quits whilst EyeTV is running and then automatically restarts when I quit EyeTV. Very smooth indeed.

All in all, then, I’d say that Plex is very impressive, and it’s still some way off version 1. And it’s free! Amazing. For anyone needing media centre software on their Mac I’d definitely suggest looking at this straight away. Take an hour or two to learn how to get the best of it and I’m sure you won’t be disappointed. However, there are a few issues I’ve had with it, and I’ve listed them below in ‘wishlist’ style:

  • I’m currently using Plex on a Mac Pro which means I can’t use an Apple Remote, so I use a Keyspan RF Remote with IOSPIRIT’s fairly excellent Remote Buddy software. However, using Remote Buddy with Plex seems to be a massive palaver for some reason. It took me ages to get this combination working, and in the end I had to tell Remote Buddy to trigger the Plex keyboard shortcuts. Each of these had to be set up manually. This was because none of the available menu commands would work properly with buttons that were set to do different things depending on whether they were pressed quickly or held down for longer. I don’t know why this didn’t work as it should and I couldn’t find any help online, so I hope this gets properly sorted out at some point.
  • Every so often the library scanning is a bit hit and miss, so Plex might not notice a new film that has been added or it might get confused when something has been deleted.
  • I think the way that Plex navigates iTunes libraries could be improved. If I choose a genre, it immediately shows me a mix of artists and albums which I find confusing. When I choose a genre I want it to show me just artists, and if I choose an artists it should then show me their albums. Also, each of these navigation pages should have an ‘all’ option at the top which should then drill down to an option to start playing all the songs in that genre in shuffle mode. Basically I want to be able to access my iTunes library in precisely the same way that I can in Front Row, because that’s a very nice way of doing things.
  • Last.fm scrobbling isn’t working for some reason.
  • Plex doesn’t play DVDs. I know it’s not a huge amount of hassle to start up the DVD Player application, but that’s a slightly messy way of doing things and I’d much rather play DVDs from within Plex.

I can’t think of any other negatives at the moment, and I have to say that Plex is extremely impressive and it just keeps on getting better. I’ve been using it extensively for a couple of weeks now and I imagine I will be sticking with it for some time.

Safari 4: a mix of speed improvements and ‘borrowed’ UI changes

Apple have tried to make my ‘Safari or Firefox’ dilemma more complicated again by releasing a beta of Safari 4. It seems to be an interesting mixture of speed improvements plus features ‘inspired’ by other browsers.

They’ve nicked the ‘Most visited’ idea from Chrome which takes the form of a handy set of tiles of your 12 ‘Top Sites’. They’ve also stolen Chrome’s method of putting tabs in the title bar, which seems sensible as it saves space. I wish they’d also stolen Chrome’s wonderfully simple Address Bar which does everything – including Google searches – in one box, but unfortunately there’s still an unnecessary second box for searching. The ‘Web inspector’ tool for developers is incredibly similar to the wonderful Firebug plugin for Firefox. I’m not sure if that’s new or whether it’s been there for some time and I’ve only just noticed.

In addition to grabbing various handy UI improvements from other browsers, Apple seem to have worked hard to make Safari’s JavaScript engine incredibly fast and versatile. The CSS animation stuff is quite cool, and the speed at which it renders pages and processes JavaScript is indeed impressive. MacRumors.com have written about this quite extensively and linked to some demos of the animation capabilities.

I’m sticking with Firefox as my main browser though, because there are still too many things I miss about it when I use Safari.

High prices on new Macs

I’m not very au fait with the current costs and specs of PC components, but isn’t 500 quid a bit much for a 2.0GHz Mac mini with only 1GB memory and 120GB hard drive? Maybe I’m missing something. Is there something particularly special about the NVIDIA GeForce 9400M graphics hardware which pushes the price right up?

I don’t personally care as much about the new iMac or the Mac Pro at the moment, but some initial comments I’ve read seem to suggest that the prices on these are a little silly as well. Apple appear to be reacting to the recession in the opposite way to most companies. Not very clever.

Edit: Oh, and still no Blu-ray support. Disappointing.