Podcasts on iOS – Beyond iTunes

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There was a time when you wanted to listen to or watch a podcast on your iPod or iPhone, iTunes was your only option.

Nobody can deny that Apple was instrumental in the popularity take off of podcasts since the early days in 2005 when the functionality was added to iTunes but Apple haven’t really done anything revolutionary with them since. In the days of the original iPod the current support of podcasts built into iTunes made total sense. The devices were not wireless and had no Internet connectivity. They needed to be physically connected or docked to a computer to allow iTunes to update their content.

This is no long the case. iPhones, the iPod Touch and the iPad are wireless Internet ready devices and yet Apple still required users to physically connect their device to update their podcast collection up until less than a year ago. Still, when it comes to podcasts the new “WiFi Sync” feature of iOS 5 is not ideal. Podcast management still needs to be controlled from the desktop in iTunes. You still need to go to your computer, fire up iTunes and let your podcasts update.

There are very strong indications that Apple have no interest in supporting podcasts in any more than they do already and this is understandable for a couple of reasons. Firstly the podcasting medium has come full circle in the fact that there are so many applications and websites that search, index and playback podcasts on both computers and portable devices that the reliance on iTunes has all but disappeared. Secondly there is no revenue for Apple when it comes to podcasts. The majority are free and iTunes has no facility (and the content producers have no desire) to give access to subscription based shows as far as I know.

I have absolutely no clue why Apple have not added podcast management features in the mobile versions of iTunes that you access from your iPhone or iPad. Only the most basic functionality is available. You can search for podcasts and you can even manually download them individually but no facility is available to automate the process.

To make matters worse not only did Apple not offer these features they prevented third party developers from offering them for a very long time. Apps that are commonly known today as “podcatchers” we’re banned from the App store until quite recently. They had a very strict policy that third party apps that replicated the functionality of native iOS apps we not allowed. Luckily this policy has gradually been relaxed and there is a good choice of apps available today.

So what is the advantage of using a podcatcher app? Let me describe two scenarios in getting new podcasts on to an iPhone.

Scenario number one: Using iTunes for podcast management, I would need to go over to my computer, fire up iTunes, give it time to go through all my podcast subscriptions and download them. Once that has finished I either have to plug my iPhone in or connect to wifi sync and update the content on my iPhone. This takes a little time, longer if I’m doing it wirelessly and iTunes may also do a backup of my device as well which will delay things further. Finally I can disconnect my iPhone and listen to my updated podcasts.

Scenario number two: I fire up my podcatcher app and it downloads the latest podcasts I’m subscribed to directly to my device. I start listening! :)

That’s the bare bones of it. Of course podcatcher apps do offer quite a few other features depending on which one you go for but even when comes to the basics it’s so much simpler. At the time of writing (as listed in Wikipedia) these are the podcatcher apps that are available in the App Store:

PodCruncher: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/podcast-player-manager-app/id421894356?mt=8
Podcaster: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/podcaster-4/id377195245?mt=8
Downcast: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/downcast/id393858566?mt=8
Podcatcher: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/podcatcher/id367314338?mt=8
Instacast: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/instacast/id420368235?mt=8
Pocket Casts: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/pocket-casts/id414834813?mt=8
RSSRadio: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/rssradio-podcast-downloader/id382552897?mt=8
iCatcher!: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/icatcher!-podcast-catcher/id414419105?mt=8

I have used a few of these and recently switched to iCatcher! so a review will most likely follow soon. In the mean time I wholeheartedly recommend you try one if you’re still using iTunes.

Update: According to this blog post Apple are planning on removing podcast functionality from mobile iTunes in iOS 6 and giving them there own app. Still a rumour, but interesting.

Raspberry Pi – initial impressions

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I’ve been having great fun tinkering with the Raspberry Pi the last couple of weeks.

For those who haven’t heard of this little computer (and there can’t be many who haven’t as it has had so much press lately) it is a tiny (smaller than an iPhone) PC powered by an ARM CPU and Videocore 4 GPU system on a chip (SoC) and you can get one for about £30.

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It’s an impressive little thing that already has a dedicated fan base and community growing around it. The Raspberry Pi Foundation is the charity responsible for it’s design and creation with the intention that it becomes an educational tool to try and regenerate an interest in computer programming in children.

This is a commendable cause. When I was at school all those years ago they actually taught BASIC programming as standard in what was then called “Computer Studies”. I am from the era of the BBC Micro computer and that is what I used to get my GCSE in computer studies! :) From what I hear, these days all kids are taught is how to make spreadsheets and word processing. Yes, these are great skills to learn but if kids aren’t exposed to programming languages anymore and their home computers (or most likely they have games consoles) aren’t geared to programming out of the box how are they going to be exposed to it? Well hopefully the “Pi” will be the answer. With it being so affordable it removes at least one stumbling block in creating the next generation’s software developers.

So what can you do with it at the moment? Well pretty much anything you can do on standard computers. The Pi primarily runs on a version of Linux, built for the ARM processor. These CPUs are predominantly used on mobile devices because of their low power consumption making them ideal for battery powered devices. Your Android or iPhone runs on an ARM processor. Linux is the de facto choice of operating system as it is Open Source, fully customisable and so portable to just about anything.

At the time of writing there are a few Raspberry Pi Linux distributions available to try. They are all a “work in progress” but are being developed and improved on almost a daily basis. I’ve tried most of them so far and having used Linux on desktop PCs and laptops for years I enjoy the tinkering that sometimes is involved.

The Raspberry Pi makes a remarkably capable “media centre” device too. It’s GPU is capable of playing back Blu-Ray quality video as libraries are available for Linux distributions to access it directly for hardware acceleration. So far there are two dedicated Linux distributions for the Pi that specialise in multimedia playback and they use the fantastic XBMC open source media centre software. OpenELEC, whose Pi distribution is based on the existing standalone Linux “distro’s” for x86 PCs and Raspbmc, a new distribution built from the ground up for the Pi. I have tried both and both work really well.

From my testing the initial OpenELEC build struggled with the XBMC menu and other CPU intensive actions but the GPU performed fantastic on video playback of HD material, streaming HDTV from my DVBLink server and other content.

Although some have had problems booting Raspbmc from certain SD cards (this issue seems to be fixed now in later builds) I never had such a problem and I found the performance of Raspbmc superior to that of OpenELEC as it didn’t have the same issue of slow down when accessing XBMC’s menus. I also got plugins to work without any issue. I installed the BBC iPlayer and TV Catchup plugins and both streamed HD quality video fantastically.

Of course, there are fully featured Linux distributions available for the Pi giving you a home computer with all the software packages you’d expect, from office suites to graphics software, with the ability to download extra packages you require via their respective software centres, all for free. The “official” Linux distribution being recommended by the Foundation is Debian “Squeeze” as this is the most user friendly version for novices but there are others if you are feeling adventurous. So far I’ve tried Debian “Squeeze”, Raspbian (a version of Debian “Wheezy” built from the ground up for the Pi), Gentoo and Arch.

If you have an interest in tinkering with computer technology I couldn’t recommend the Raspberry Pi enough. You’ll have hours of fun playing with this little computer. You may struggle to get one at the moment as the demand has been so high but keep trying, it’s worth it!

I will certainly continue to tinker with the Pi and I can’t wait to see what the community has in store for this little device.

You can find more specific information on the Raspberry Pi website and forums.

UnoDNS – Watch Geo-targeted US content like Hulu and Netflix from the UK

 

UnoDNS from UnoTelly.com is a great way to access internet content that would normally be “geo-targeted” (restricted to you based on your location), such as Hulu, Netflix and Pandora radio.

 

There are basically only a handful of options when it comes to gaining access to geo-targeted websites. You either go the VPN or Proxy route or the DNS route. Proxies (especially free ones) can usually be ruled out straight away when it comes to streaming high quality video since they usually won’t have the required bandwidth to achieve a decent and stable stream. A VPN requires you to use a totally separate IP to “piggy back” on and with this comes the limitations of that network meaning even if your home ISP is super high speed is won’t matter, all that matters is the speed and reliability of your chosen VPN provider.

 

This is where a service like UnoDNS becomes a very attractive solution. Instead of having to tunnel through using a completely separate network the service alters the DNS (Domain Name System) settings of your existing network connection provided by your own ISP. This means you continue to use and take advantage of the stable high speed connection you are already used to, local services from your ISP that rely on detecting your IP address will still work as well.

 

I have been testing the UnoDNS service and I’m impressed. Within minutes I had access to US restricted websites and services but most importantly I didn’t lose the ability to use local UK services such as BBC iplayer. If I had been using a VPN service I would need to constantly switch off the service to use these.

Their service is structured slightly different to similar services such as Unblock-US in a couple of ways.

Firstly, instead of just offering a standard subscription to access the service they offer tiered services. The tiered model is broken down into “channels” of internet content that the service will allow you to access and what’s interesting about UnoDNS is comparison to their competitors is they have a basic tier of websites that you can access for free. $4.95 per month gives you access their Premium service that includes the Hulu and Netflix and the $7.95 Gold service adds another whole group of mostly US network content. They also offer an 8 day free trial on the Gold subscription.

Secondly, which I think is a great feature, is that you can migrate the service to different locations temporarily like a friends house or a holiday home. The service works by logging your home IP address and only allows you access via this address. This is how most of these services work to ensure you are using it fairly and not sharing your account with a friend for example. If you were to take your laptop to your friends house to watch a bit of Hulu for example and logged into their network then since the IP would be different the service would stop working. UnoDNS actually allow you to register multi IP addresses to your account so that you can use the service when your on the move by simply switching them over in your account settings.

 

How easy is it to use? Once you have an account the service only requires that you change some basic network settings and you will be up and running in minutes. The advantage of the service being so simple for the user is that these DNS settings are alterable network settings in the majority of multimedia devices such as the Xbox 360, PS3 and the Apple TV which means the service is fully compatible with these too with full set up instructions are available on the website.

 

 

TeknoCratik have teamed up with UnoDNS to offer a limited number of our readers 25% OFF any paid subscription. All you need to do to be eligible is to tweet a link to this post using the hashtag #UnoDNS making sure you include a reply to @teknocratik. In the mean time give the free trial a whirl.

 

 

Windows 8 Consumer Preview – Metro UI The new face of the HTPC?

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February 29th 2012 saw the release of the Consumer Preview of Windows 8.
Of course I had been following the progress of the new OS from the developer preview release but I had not actually installed it myself. This was partly because of the controversy surrounding the future of Windows Media Center in Windows 8 (the developer preview did not include it) and the fact that I wasn’t convinced that the new Metro UI would work on desktop systems. After watching a fantastic live video Q&A session hosted by The Digital Media Zone I was convinced to give it a try for myself and I’m glad I did.

I had a spare HP laptop to test it on and this in itself presented a bit of a challenge as the laptop, an HP Pavilion zv6000 is at least 6 years old. The minimum system requirements for Windows 8 indicate that pretty much any machine capable of running Windows 7 competently should run it. The only caveat to this I found is it would not install the x64 version of Windows 8 as it needs at least 2Gb of RAM and this machine only has 1.25Gb so instead of doing an upgrade I had to clean install with x86 Windows 8.

The second hurdle was graphics card support. With new versions of Windows this always seems to be the area where it gets a little unstuck. Since I was installing on to a pretty old laptop it wasn’t a surprise to find that the graphics card wasn’t particularly new. In fact the ATI Radeon Mobility Xpress 200M is considered a “legacy” card and hasn’t had driver support for quite a while. This wasn’t a problem for Windows 7 as it seemed to pull the correct Microsoft WDDM driver via Windows update after initial installation. Windows 8 couldn’t seem to do this and I was stuck with the new “Basic Display Adapter” drivers of the new OS and my screen resolution wasn’t flexible enough to test out some of the better features of the Metro UI.
Countless attempts to manually install correct drivers failed and I was beginning to give up hope. After a lot of research and advice from follow users I managed to manually install a VISTA certified WDDM driver via a manual download from Windows update and it worked! So Windows Vista was good for something after all! ;)

Now that I had a fully working system I could relax and take a look at how it felt. My initial thoughts are that I am liking the Metro UI more than I thought I would. Actually I am thinking that Metro UI could be a nice interface for an HTPC. The live tiles are nice and big, colourful and the UI has basic remote support. I am a Windows Media Center user but I am also a XBMC user and I can see myself using the Start Screen and remote to effortlessly flip between the two apps. With future innovations in Metro apps when it comes to multimedia I can see this interface as a very attractive HTPC frontend.

As expected Windows Media Center itself hasn’t changed from it’s Windows 7 version at all but it does seem to feel more responsive to me. Bare in mind I am testing it on an old laptop that would chug away navigating Media Center menus under Windows 7 but in Windows 8 it glides through them effortlessly. This is perhaps due to the fact that Media Center was recompiled for Windows 8 and perhaps gained a little performance enhancement as a side effect. I am tempted to convert one of my HTPCs to Windows 8 due to this and because I really want to put the Metro UI through it’s paces in an HTPC setup. I eagerly await a Hippo Remote profile for Windows 8 so that I can control it all via my iPhone.

In conclusion, I will be keeping my Windows 8 installation on the test machine and I will be taking a closer look at some of the available Metro apps. A few have already made an impression. The handful of desktop apps I have already installed went without a hitch and setting up Metro tiles for access is simple and quite effective. Microsoft, you have won me over although being a tech geek I am in my element. I’m not so sure that general computer users (never mind business users) will be as quick to adapt to this “new way” of using Windows so it will be interesting to see how it all unfolds.