Category Archives: Hardware

The “Creative” Patent

I continue to receive periodic email newsletters from Creative, hoping that eventually they will update the firmware for my poor little Zen Touch MP3 player. Today’s email included a teaser subject that I couldn’t resist:

Creative patents industry-standard MP3 player technology

If you guessed that we have another example of patenting the obvious, you’d be right! Here are some choice excerpts from the press release (emphasis mine):

Creative’s invention for the user interface for portable media players enables selection of at least one track in a portable media player as a user sequentially navigates through a hierarchy using three or more successive screens on the display of the player. One example would be the sequence of screens that could display artists, then albums, and then tracks. When the user selects an artist, the player displays a list of albums for that artist. Selection of one of the listed albums then displays a list of tracks on the album.

“The user interface covered by the Zen Patent was invented by Creative research and development engineers in our Advanced Technology Center in Scotts Valley, California,” said Sim Wong Hoo, chairman and CEO of Creative.

“I am very excited that we were awarded the Zen Patent, which helps to protect our invention and recognizes our innovation in portable media players,” said Sim. “After a major investment of time and effort by a group of our research and development engineers, we developed a way for a user to efficiently and intuitively navigate and select tracks from a significant number of tracks stored on a player. Before this invention, there was no intuitive and efficient way to deal with the large number of tracks that could be stored on a high-capacity player.”

Talk about patenting the obvious. Hmm, let’s see…select artist, then album, then track…genius! I wonder what the “major investment” consisted of? It would be nice if Creative would instead create firmware updates for their existing products like the Zen Touch to support Windows Media subscription services and fix their playback problems.

And of course, there are plenty of mentions of the iPod and how this Creative patent covers work that predates the successful audio players from Apple. Anyone smell a lawsuit coming?

Read more: Technorati

'Zen Patent': a new product or just a scam?

Zen Touch Playback Problems

For the past couple of months, I’ve been getting good use out of my Creative Zen Touch 20GB MP3 player. I’ve copied over about 20 of my CDs but use it mostly for podcasts during my commute. Overall I’m quite happy with the device, but have noticed a problem with certain podcast files which would play back at the wrong speed — usually 1/2 or 1/4 speed.

Searching the web I didn’t find any similar problems reported, so I sent a detailed explanation to Creative technical support. Their responsiveness was okay, basically responding overnight to each of my queries. The tech support responses went like this:

  • “Download the latest device firmware” (which, coincidentally, had been released that same day). This didn’t fix the problem, but at least I have the latest software now.
  • “MP3 was probably ripped from a copyrighted CD”. Huh? This one makes no sense, and in this case it was a downloaded MP3.
  • “Our player can only support bitrate of 40kbps and above”. Aha! That’s the missing piece.

I did some experimenting and found that it’s not the bitrate but rather the sample rate that’s limited here on the low end. Two of the podcasts I had trouble with had sample rates of 11kHz and 12kHz. I used LAME to re-sample at various rates and found that 16kHz works fine. The filesizes are slightly larger, but they plan fine on the device. (I should note that these original files play fine on WMP, iTunes, and Winamp. They probably work correctly on an iPod as well but I need to ask someone to test.)

Now I’m going to modify my Bloglines enclosure download script to re-sample any files where sample rate < 16kHz. (Update 2004-12-15: Script now updated to work around this Creative bug.)

I closed with Creative by requesting that they forward this issue to the development team for future consideration. Perhaps someday this will be fixed. I can see how the problem would happen from the development side; they’re aren’t too many audio MP3s at such a low sample rate, but for podcasters trying to minimize download times, these low rates are essential.

My favorite piece of the exchange with tech support:

Creative: Since other MP3 files play properly in the player, then the problem could be with the audio file.
Me: Since other MP3 players play this audio file correctly, the problem could be with the Zen Touch.

For those interested, here are some files I had trouble playing on the device:

Update 2006-01-17: I just discovered that Creative finally released a firmware upgrade to support the PlaysForSure format (Yahoo! Music, Rhapsody, etc.). This firmware update may also help these playback problems, but I haven’t tried it yet: [][].

File Sync with Portable USB Drives

Portable USB drives (loaded with flash memory from 64MB, 256MB, and up) have become quite popular and are really handy for carrying files or data around with you. I've started carrying around a 64MB drive from Jungsoft, keeping with me several files that I'm working on. It saves the trouble of emailing files to myself or burning CDs.

What would really be useful is a way to “synchronize” the files quickly with whichever PC I'm working with. I'd like to be able to plug the drive in, sync, do my work, then sync again when I'm done. The tool should automatically copy the latest of each file in the right direction.

I looked at using Windows' Offline Folder Synchronization feature, but it appears to only work for true network drives. I also looked at Briefcase, but I've had trouble making that work in the past and it seems flaky.

Instead, I came up with my own solution using Unison:

Unison is a file-synchronization tool for Unix and Windows. It allows two replicas of a collection of files and directories to be stored on different hosts (or different disks on the same host), modified separately, and then brought up to date by propagating the changes in each replica to the other.

Unison has an added benefit of working on Unix/Linux as well as Windows, so it can be a cross-platform solution. They have some support for Mac OS X, but it doesn't yet handle resource forks so it's probably not viable for Mac users.

Unison comes with an excellent manual and is pretty straightforward to set up. Basically you run Unison from the command line, giving it the two locations (directories) you wish to sync. There is also a third location where Unison stores its data files to keep track of file modifications. For my application, I set up one location on the PC (in a desktop folder), then the other data location plus the Unison data are on the USB drive itself in two separate folders. I put the Unison executable on the drive itself along with a simple batch file. (_Update 2003-01-08:_ For times when I need to manually resolve file conflicts, I've created an 'interactive' batch file as well.)

Now I just plug in my USB drive, run the Sync.bat file to synchronize, and I'm all set. Being a command-line tool, it's a little rough around the edges. A nice, simple GUI application would be a good improvement. Also, this solution won't sync files that have been modified on both sides; these need to be resolved manually.

New Server

Murphy’s Law was in full bloom recently when our home PC’s hard drive started to fail and my server’s drive just locked up cold one day. Thus began the great computer fix-up of 2003 for the Cantoni household.

Step One: New hard drive storage for the server.

Continue reading New Server