Saturday, December 18, 2010

Upgrading your computer. Easier than you thought.

So, you want to upgrade your computer, but you don't want to spend a lot of money? It's easier than most people think. You already have a lot of parts that can be salvaged for a new computer. When most non-technical people think about computers, they think of the entire tower as the "brain" and the monitor as the "screen". Truth is, if your screen still works, you don't need a new flat-panel one -- they just look nicer. (Actually, in practice, a CRT monitor is capable of higher resolutions than an LCD monitor.) And your "tower" (or case, or chassis) is good as well, along with the optical drive (your CD/DVD reader/burner) and hard drive. Your power supply may or may not be.

The first thing to do is to open your case. This can be scary at first, but you're not going to break anything that wasn't right about to break on its own. Before you open the case, disconnect everything but the power cord. Leave the power cord plugged in. If there is a power switch on the back of the power supply, turn it off. Typically there are four or more screws on the back, along the sides and top. Note that there are a few screws around the power cord. Do not unscrew these as these hold the power supply in place. (You don't want that falling and busting up the inside of your computer.) With the case screws out, you should be able to remove the "top". If your tower stands up, it's technically on its side. The bottom of any case is the "side" the motherboard is on. That's going to be the right side of your standing tower, so what you think of as the left side is actually the "top". The "top" may slide off or lift off. In some cases, a shell will slide off the top, bottom, and side. In any case, removing the cover should not be a problem.

Now let's take a look inside the case. Rotate the case so that where you plug everything in, is facing you. This puts the front of the computer (where you put the CDs/DVDs in) away from you. That big circuit board in the middle is called the motherboard (or the "mobo" in geek culture). You don't need to replace it, but if you want to upgrade your computer, you're going to have to. You really don't want to take it out unless you have to, it's a real pain in the ass to put one in (geeks reading this are nodding), but never mind that for now. To the left, but sometimes to the right, is a block where the power cord goes in. This is the power supply, and it's your best friend right now. Because it's still plugged in, it's electrically grounded. Work on a computer on a high counter, standing, and keep your feet in one place. If you have to move, to get something, touch the power supply for a second to "ground" yourself. This will prevent you from "frying your mobo" (discharging static electricity onto a circuit board, short-circuiting it). On the far side of the chassis are your drives. That big 5" wide one is your CD/DVD reader/writer (they all look the same -- even Blu-ray drives, they all look the same). Hard drives are 3" wide. Depending on their connection type, they'll either have a 1.5" ribbon cable (IDE) or a 3/4" plug (SATA) plugged into them, and a four-wire plug. The former is data (either way), the latter is power.

Now let's look at the motherboard specifically. Basically they are all the same. On the right is the PCI cards. If you were to add something like a modem or a TV tuner, or a USB hub, to your computer, you'd plug it in here. It would slide in like a Nintendo cartridge to one of those slots, and its ports would face out the back of your computer. The leftmost one is either AGP or PCI Express and would support a video card, for playing games equivalent to what an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 can play. To the left of that is the processor, which you won't see under the fan and heatsink. This is the actual brain of the computer, a giant calculator, and it needs direct cooling. Beyond the processor and a little to the left is the RAM. One to four sticks that also plug in like Nintendo cartridges. This is your computer's memory. If someone says they have "four gigs of RAM" they mean they either have a 4GB stick, two 2GB sticks, or four 1GB sticks. Your crappy computer you're upgrading may only have two slots. That's a sign of a "value" mobo. It probably sucks in other ways. The rest is stuff you don't need to worry about... and where the power, drives, and front ports plug in.

Special note here: A monkey can probably upgrade your computer. Anyone can swap out the stuff, it's not exactly rocket science. Nothing can be plugged in wrong, it all goes in only one way. There is an exception though: USB and IEEE1394 (Firewire) plugs look exactly the same. You have to know which is which. If your case's front panel doesn't have Firewire, never mind. But you'll still need to not plug your USB line into your new mobo's Firewire port. That would be really bad and could fry your mobo.

Buying the parts: This part is easy. And you would do this before opening the computer, but you should know to read a guide before following its steps, so...

Start with the processor. The processor should account for about 60-75% of the speed increase in your computer. Make it count. Unless you have cash out the wazoo, don't even think about Intel. Intel spends a lot of money making pretty ads, and their customers pay for those ads for the priviledge of displaying the "Intel Inside" sticker on their case. I'm talking hundreds of dollars more. So go to, and under the logo, under the left, point at Computer Hardware and click on CPUs (or is it Processors?). Narrow your search to AMD processors. You can get a quad-core AMD Athlon II for about $120, a triple-core AMD Athlon II for about $80, or a dual-core AMD Phenom II for about $100. (Why is the dual more than the triple? It's a Phenom, they're better.) All three are good choices. Get the quad if you can afford it. If you really want to upgrade your computer, its processor probably only has one core. A dual core processor is two processors in one... basically. A triple is three and a quad is four. Yes, newbies, your computer can have four brains. They don't all work at once, but say you're booting up... One core is handling the basic Windows stuff... your antivirus comes on... another core takes that. Then you open up Firefox, because you're not a complete newb and you know how to block ads... a third core can take Firefox. Sort of. One last note: DO NOT BUY AN OEM PROCESSOR. It won't come with the heatsink or the fan. You need these. And no, your old one will not work. Retail isn't gonna be much more than $10 more, if that. And it comes with all you need.

Next pick the motherboard. I'm pretty sure all the processors I mentioned use AMD Socket AM3, but once you've picked the CPU, double-check in the specs. Open a new tab, back to, and motherboards under Computer Hardware. You want an AMD motherboard with an AMD chipset (not NVIDIA). The latest AMD motherboards all seem to come with HDMI (High-Def Multimedia Interface) as well as your typical VGA (old monitors) and DVI (newer monitors) ports. This is good for most users. There are a lot of choices here. I like Gigabyte; ASUS is a popular one as well. MSI isn't bad either. Can't say about the rest. Price-wise, you get what you pay for. You can get a really nice Gigabyte board for around $140. That isn't bad for really good stuff. ATX, if you see it (and you will) is just the motherboard standard. They're all ATX unless they're mini-ATX, which is smaller (and you may need that, check the measurements of your current mobo). There was a BTX but it failed. Anyway, you want to make sure the motherboard has onboard video (unless you're a gamer, in which case you won't want that... but this guide isn't for gamers anyway) and onboard audio.

Now pay attention to the kind of RAM the motherboard you want, takes. Search for that in a new tab. There will probably be 2-3 kinds (speeds) of RAM it takes; they should all be taking DDR3 RAM at this point. (If not, you're looking at an old and/or crappy motherboard.) You're pretty much shooting for quantity here. 2GB is fine if you're sticking with Windows XP, but that's not a wise idea at all as Microsoft has stopped supporting it. Windows 7 is great and it's good for pretty much everybody. For Windows 7 you should get 4GB. 2GB is okay... but you want 4GB. 8GB if you can afford it. Also, the more sticks the merrier, but it'll limit your upgrade potential. The bigger a stick is, the slower it is, generally, so four 2GB sticks would be faster than two 4GB sticks, even though both configurations result in 8GB of RAM. The only advantage the latter has is you can add two more 4GB sticks for a whopping 16GB of RAM (which would be epic). Anyway, the absolute best brands for RAM are Corsair, OCZ, and Patriot, pretty much in that order. Kingston is okay as well.

A note on brands: I've given my opinion based on my experiences... I haven't been paid a dime by any of these companies to drop their names here. If you want to save a couple bucks and go with something else, just pay attention to the reviews. If it's good (or bad), the reviews should tell you.

Building it... okay, now I'm assuming you've read this guide and you have (at least) a motherboard, a processor, and some RAM... and your old case.

First... I don't wanna say "rip everything out" but that's basically what you're doing to your old motherboard. Everything but the RAM and CPU. Leave those on the board (no reason to remove them). Start with power cables. These come from the power supply. There's a 20- (10x2) or 24-pin (12x2) (or possibly a 20-pin and a 4-pin together) cable going to the motherboard. There may be a 4-pin (2x2) going by the processor as well. The power supply also connects directly to fans and drives, but leave these alone. Next disconnect drives. Follow the data cables back, they should plug in somewhere on the motherboard. Now disconnect your front-panel stuff. Lastly, your expansion cards. These are typically screwed into the case on the metal part. Unscrew it, and pull the card out. Remember, hand on the power supply. And they come out like Nintendo cartridges, but pull back a little, as the little "bar" thing can get stuck between the motherboard and the case.

Now unscrew the old motherboard. Keep the screws in a safe place, you'll need them for the new one. Once you have all of them out, you can lift the motherboard up and out. Mount it on your wall or something. I think they make great decorations.

Under the motherboard will be a bunch of pegs. These are called "standoff screws". Screw hole in top, screw in bottom. They can be taken out by hand, or with needle-nosed pliers. Hopefully you will not have to remove any.

Take your new motherboard (again, hand on the power supply) and hold it over the standoffs. Keep in mind where they all are. Make sure you can see all of them through the screw holes in the new motherboard. Also keep in mind that you will probably not use all the screw holes. That's fine. You primarily want the four corners, under the processor (stability for the fan), under the RAM, and under the video card if you're installing one. This guide doesn't call for one though. You do not want a standoff to come up where there isn't a screw hole; that can fry your board. Remove/move any standoffs you do not need.

Once the motherboard is in place, most of the hard work is done.

"Seating" the processor is the easiest step you will take BY FAR. I'm dead serious. Next to the processor socket there is a lever. Lift it up. Look at the socket, the processor can only sit on it one way. (Look at the corners -- it'll be different in one corner by one hole.) Look at the bottom of the processor -- same thing. One extra or less hole. Line it up. Set the processor down. Push the lever down. It's stupidly easy.

Installing the heatsink is among the hardest, though. You will either get a dallop of thermal paste, or more likely the heatsink will just have it on the bottom, and you'll have to pull off a paper (like on a bow, when wrapping presents). Do not touch the grey stuff, it smears easily. You'll notice the heatsink has links, and there should be hooks on two sides of the socket. Or vice versa. The trick is to set the heatsink square on the processor and get the hooks in the links. This is real tricky. But it's not rocket science.

Now for the RAM. Look at the bottom (where the RAM will go into the motherboard. There's a "gap" in the chip dividing it about 60/40. Look for the same on the slot. That'll tell you what way the RAM goes in. Pull the hooks out either end and insert it as straight as you can. And give it a good hard push. When you have it right, the hooks will snap in and grab the gaps on the ends of the stick. Do this for each stick you have. If you have two sticks, you have to leave a gap between them. For example, if you imagine the RAM slots are 1, 2, 3, 4... insert the RAM sticks in 1 and 3... or 2 and 4. Your choice. If you have four, fill 'em all. You can't do 3. It won't boot.

Then you just have to connect your drives, power cables, and front panel connectors. The plugs may have moved a little, but they should all be there. You'll have to refer to the paperwork that came with the motherboard, it should tell you where everything plugs in.

If you have done everything right, connect all your peripherals and turn it on. Windows will go batshit crazy with all the new stuff, but it *should* be fine. You may have to restart a couple times. Once everything is good to go, you can put the cover back on.

Did you want a Blu-ray reader/writer, or even a DVD writer? DVD burners are all around $20 on Newegg, and Blu-ray burners start at $100. They're piss easy to install. Simply unscrew the old optical drive and pull its cables, then mount the new drive, and put the old drive's cables into the drive... unless you had an IDE drive (fat ribbon) and upgraded to a SATA drive, in which case you will need a SATA cable and a SATA power cable (or adapter). Bigger hard drive? Pretty much ditto, unless it's your C (Windows system) drive you want to replace. In which case, bad idea partner, just put it in as a secondary (or tertiary) drive. Mount it, find a free data and power cable, and plug it up.

Do you need a new power supply? They run about $100 for good ones. It's too big to fit in your little case? The power supply can actually sit outside the case (the case is actually optional -- wrap your noodle around that), just cover the hole so mice don't get in.

It should be noted that this guide does not guarantee your success at upgrading your computer. A bunch of stuff can go wrong -- this is why 99% of people pay Dell to build them a piece of junk from value parts what I pay to build a premium computer. No amount of reading will compensate for experience, and you can't read enough. This guide is only intended to show how easy it is. And it is easy if you know what you're doing. But the best favor you can do yourself is watch the newsstands for Maximum PC. Great magazine, and unofficially and without meaning to, perhaps, at least once a year they publish a guide to building your own computer. It'll just be an article, and it'll be mentioned on the cover. For the love of all that is holy, buy the damn mag, yes, at $10 or whatever (toss the disc -- all the software on it is 3 months out of date and free to download) and read the article a dozen times over. It was such an article back in 2004 that inspired me to build my first rig. And it worked perfectly on first boot and for six years thereafter.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

So, I had $20 to spend on the Android Market

Four months ago, my wife finally decided enough was enough with her Motorola RAZR 2, that ultra-thin flip phone with the touch screen on the outside. Motorola makes nice phones (my ROKR Slider was still in top condition) but this was a real piece of crap. So we went to US Cellular (where you have to go to get service outside of town out here) and told them she needed a new phone. She didn't want a free phone, she wanted something at least as good as the RAZR 2 when it was new.

We both left with new phones that day. The best deal they had on decent phones was a BOGO on the Samsung Acclaim, a touch-screen slider running Google's Android Linux operating system. This wasn't a proper cell phone, it's a handheld computer with, among other things, a phone program. And in addition to a cell phone antenna, it's got GPS, a camera, an accel... uh, it knows it's moving and in what direction, and a magne... uh, it knows which direction it's pointing. And a 3 megapixel camera.

But the really neat thing about an Android phone, like an iPhone, it has a Market where you can add new apps. Most of them are free, but there are some that cost real money. The best things in Android are free, just like anything else, I suppose, but US Cellular gave each of us a $20 gift card to use on the Android Market. Because it's a Google Checkout gift card, the first thing I did was try to buy The Beatles: Rock Band on a Google Checkout site. It didn't work. So I started buying apps. And not just any apps, stuff I wanted for various reasons.

Here are the apps I bought, in the order I bought them, what they do, and why I paid for them.

Aldiko Premium ($2.99)
This paid version of the Aldiko eBook reader removes the ads that would show up in Aldiko from time to time. The ads never showed up in the books themselves, or even your bookshelf. It only ever showed ads when you were browsing its virtual bookstore. So this paid app is really a donation, but when you consider how awesome it is to have your books on your cell phone (handheld computer, whatever) I think it was worth donating to the developers.

ASTRO File Manager ($3.99)
My most expensive purchase. The "File Viewer" that comes with Android sucks balls, and I previously tried the file manager by EStrong. It had some nice features, but once I tried the free ASTRO, I was converted. Unfortunately, while EStrong is free, ASTRO displays an annoying banner ad on the bottom all the time. This gets in the way, but more importantly, I just wanted to support a good product. This file manager lets you move files around, and includes a task manager. Good stuff.

Overkill ($0.99)
The first of two games I bought, and the price is misleading. I bought it on sale. It's a side scrolling space shooter that you can control by tilting the phone. It's hell hard and I bought it on a whim. I rarely play it, but it runs great on the Acclaim (which I understand is an entry-level phone), which can't be said for Angry Birds, a more popular phone game. So part of this purchase was impulse, and another part was to reward the developer for making efficient code.

TxtPad ($1.00)
Finally, an app that doesn't have a price ending in 9. Does anybody even fall for that gimmick anymore, or is it just expected? Anyway, for being a handheld computer with a hardware keyboard, Android doesn't have a text editor. The free version of TxtPad is very nice and doesn't have ads, but I bought TxtPad for the extra features (editing stuff, nothing essential) and because I figured I'd get a lot of use out of it.

Solitaire for Android ($0.99)
One of the first things I did when I got this thing was download a ton of Solitaire apps. There were a lot of stinkers, but this one stood out. I kept the ad-supported one for a while, always intending to pay to remove the ads. After a few purchases, I wanted to get this one before I ran out of money (which wouldn't happen for weeks).

Droid Talk Pro ($0.99)
This text-to-speech toy has been a hit with every child I've shown it to and even a few adults. Type in some text and it will say it. You can add a British accent, and a slider controls the pitch. It never sounds unlike a robot, but it's decent. The free version had an ad, I think, and the paid version will let you make anything it can say into a ringtone. Both versions have common phrases you can tap to make it say, I suppose if you have a sore throat. The app also features a translator, anything you type into it can be translated into a dozen or so (maybe more?) languages, and it will speak them. It also has speech-to-text (-to-speech) so you could carry on a conversation with a foreigner, if they speak into it and you translate it back to English. So this may be the most useful app here. (Not sure if the translator is available in the free version or not.)

Ultra Keyboard ($2.79)
Pro-tip: The default touch keyboard sucks. You want to replace it ASAP if you want to use your screen to type anything. I tried SlideIT, which lets you trace across the keyboard, and I didn't like its accuracy. I then tried SwiftKey, which claimed to predict the next word you were going to type. That was nice, but it didn't work in some strange places, e.g. text messaging. So that got uninstalled in a big hurry. Ultra has all the features. It has the keyboard tracer, and it actually works! I have yet to warm to the feature, but it being accurate helps a lot. It has text prediction, which isn't as accurate as Swift's, but since it's dictionary-based and not habit-based, it pulls stupid guesses a lot less. I mean it may not be as accurate, but its guesses make sense. Oh, and they come up when using the physical keyboard as well. It has another feature the Acclaim isn't powerful enough to use: It'll activate your camera and let you see what's in front of your phone, I guess so you can text and walk without running into stuff. Also, it will calibrate your screen, have you type something, so it can correct your mistakes better. I can't say enough nice things about this app. It's the one keyboard on Android Market worth paying for, and it isn't even the most expensive.

Spark ($1.50)
The only other evenly-priced app I bought. Spark is an Xbox Live client for Android that lets you send and receive messages from fellow gamers. You can also see their gaming history (and your own). It's very nice. It used to be free, but Microsoft changed the way Xbox Live worked (around the time they released the new Dashboard for the console) and it broke the app. Since the new Windows Mobile phones do Xbox Live stuff, I imagine Microsoft is gonna fight this guy some more. I don't know how successful he's gonna be keeping this app running, but I enjoyed it before and wanted to help out. (Didn't have a choice -- there is no free version. But I would have paid either way.)

Tapatalk ($2.99)
A forum interface for Android. This replaces the frontend you see on Internet message boards with one familiar to Android and lets you read and post messages through it. A free version lets you read, but not post. The catch is that the forum owner has to specifically enable Tapatalk access, and 99% of them haven't. And I can't find any forums worth posting on in its directory. Still, I've been calling for an app like this for the better part of a decade (albeit for PCs) so I felt obligated to support somebody who was trying to make that happen. Hopefully it works out for him.

Chandroid ($0.99)
Like Tapatalk, this is an Android frontend to various image boards (channels, as they're known in Japan, where the concept apparently originated), including the infamous 4chan. I really only got this for shits & giggles because I had $1.47 left and nothing to spend it on. /b/, the "random" board on 4chan, is literally the crotch of the Internet, but 4chan itself has its purposes. I like to look on /wg/ for wallpapers, for example. (And no, I'm not above looking to see what's on /s/.) Anyway, Chandroid provides access to another app called Meme Maker (memes are Internet fads) that makes funny pictures. I see great things in this app's future. Chandroid itself is kinda slow, but do the math... image board... cell phone Internet... it's not a smart combination.

Whew! I didn't do a very good job selling some of these apps, did I? Well, the money wasn't really mine to start with, and I couldn't do anything else with it, but buy Android apps. If I didn't have the gift card, would I have bought any of these? Probably not. However, I did buy LauncherPro Plus, which wasn't listed because it's not on the Android Market. Google takes a third of Market purchases, and either LP didn't want to share, or they didn't want to raise their price to include Google's take. In any case, it had to be bought with PayPal, and I actually ponied up $3.99 out of my checking account to buy that.

For those of you with Android phones and thin wallets, here are some cheap alternatives:

Aldiko Premium >> Aldiko. The free version does everything the paid version does. Just spread the word about it, they ask for that more than they ask for donations on their Facebook page.

ASTRO >> EStrongs. EStrongs isn't a bad file manager by any stretch of the imagination. Or get ASTRO and deal with the ads.

Overkill >> Any Android game, there are tons.

TxtPad >> TxtPad. The free version is fine.

Solitaire for Android >> Solitaire for Android. Deal with the ads... or use one of the other Solitaire apps.

Droid Talk Pro >> Droid Talk. The free version still talks and is just as big a hit with the under-five-feet-tall crowd.

Ultra Keyboard >> Ultra Keyboard Demo. I forget what the limitations are. But if the demo doesn't convince you that $2.79 isn't too much to upgrade your keyboard, you're probably fine with the default or the slide-out keyboard anyway.

Spark >> in your web browser.

Tapatalk >> Forums in your web browser.

Chandroid >> 4chan in your web browser.

Now, that being said, here are Android's heavy hitters that are just free, in alphabetical order:

Catch (free!)
This app takes notes, pictures, and scans barcodes, and syncs with so you can see the stuff on your PC. You gotta tell it to sync though. Never mind the pictures and the barcodes, just imagine your favorite multiplayer game and imagine "Notepad multiplayer" and you'll have a good idea.

Dropbox (free!)
Lets you download files on your computer's Dropbox folder. It's not a proper sync app though as you can only upload and download, and it's not automatic. (Not that you'd want it to be, but some people...)

Google Sky Map (free!)
My second-most-impressive app. People just love this thing. Point it at the sky and it will tell you what stars are what. It's a planetarium in your hand. You can even see what stars are below the horizon. It's pretty f***ing amazing.

Our Groceries (free!)
Multi"player" shopping list. You make a shopping list, and your partner can see it as they shop. You can even watch as they cross stuff off. Loads of useful features. Ads. Shame there's not an ad-free version. I would have paid for this.

Photoshop Express (free!)
What costs about a thousand bucks on the PC is legitimately free on Android. Okay, this doesn't have even 1% of the features of the real Photoshop, but it lets you touch up photos, and once you learn it (doesn't take long) you can turn crappy cell phone camera pics into pics that look like they were shot with an expensive camera. I do this by bumping up the saturation a hair, the exposure up or down a hair depending on the image, and messing with contrast. It does a lot!

Scoreboard (free!)
Sports fan? This app from Google asks you your favorite teams from each sport/division and notifies you when they start a game and the final score. I'm not even into sports, but I do have opinions on certain teams, and I like to know if they win or lose. (Does that make sense?)

Simple Spreadsheet (free!)
Another app I'd pay for. I use this for data entry at work. Think Microsoft Excel minus all the bells and whistles.

The Weather Channel (free! came with the Acclaim!)
Weather data for as many cities as I want. Need I say more? Oh, and with GPS enabled, it'll follow you on the road, giving current and future weather info wherever you go.

TweetDeck (free!)
I saved the best for last. Or the alphabet did. Whatever. Anyway, forget Twitter and Facebook apps and forget about accessing them in the Browser. TweetDeck rolls your social networks (Twitter, Facebook... and a couple others if you use them) into one social timeline. You get a second timeline for Mentions/Directs (Twitter) and Notifications (Facebook) and you can add timelines based on searches (e.g. I could search for Rockband and add the result as a timeline, and every time somebody mentions Rockband, it shows up. This is a resource hog so I don't do it, though).

So, as I said, the best apps are free, but if you have money to burn, hopefully this helps!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Android song identifier testing: Shazam vs. SoundHound

Test Purpose:

Song ID software for Android devices, head-to-head competition. Both programs allow five IDs a month for free, and cost $4-5 for the full version with unlimited IDs thereafter. (Shazam came with a 7-day trial of the unlimited tagging version, actually.) Both programs will be tested with the same five songs, the same section of each song played for as long as the program requires for identification.

The Android device used will be a Samsung Acclaim, on US Cellular's EVDO (3G speed) network. Voice signal strength is good, 4-5 bars, and the data signal should be good. The Acclaim is running Android 2.1, and is plugged in on its charger for optimal power.

The songs will be played on a generic Dell office computer, the kind that has just one speaker... somewhere in there... this will simulate the poor listening conditions of being in the car or the supermarket or some other awkward situation where identifying a song can be challenging. (The quality of the sound isn't really all that terrible, it's just far from optimal.) The computer runs a 3GHz Pentium 4 with 1GB of RAM, Windows XP Professional Service Pack 3, and Windows Media Player 11. Volume all the way up.

The songs:

GOODNIGHT TECHNOLOGIST by The Main Drag. The drummer for this independent Boston rock band works for Harmonix, who make the Rockband games. "A Jagged Gorgeous Winter," featured in Rock Band 2, might have been too easy. This is the last track on the album "Yours As Fast As Mine". Identification will begin 2:40 into the song. Watch this song performed in Rock Band 2 on YouTube.

JUPITER by Holst from The Planets. I decided to include a classical piece, and this was the first I came to that didn't make me think "a-ha! I know that one!". I don't believe that this is necessarily obscure, but it's not really common, either, at least not in the sense that Beethoven's Fifth (or even Ninth) are. Or "1812 Overture", or "Ride of the Valkyries" or any of that cool stuff. Identification will begin 5:20 into the song. Listen to this song on YouTube.

LOVE ME OR HATE ME by Lady Sovereign. This is a remix featuring Missy Elliot, and I'm going to play her part of the song. I like Lady Sovereign, mostly for her accent, I think, but her songs are fun... her album's pretty easy to hate, and I have to be in a certain mood to listen to it, and I can only listen to a couple songs. I don't think her album or singles were ever very popular, but I expect this should be the least challenging for the software to ID. Identification will begin 0:33 into the song. Listen to this song on YouTube.

MELODY (SALVA NOS VERSION) by Yuki Kajiura. This song was on one of the Noir soundtracks, and is one of the five studio versions of her song "Salva Nos". A song sang in Latin, from Japan, should provide quite a challenge. Identification will begin 1:20 into the song. Listen to this song on YouTube.

STILL ALIVE by Jonathan Coulton from the Portal game, only this is a .mid of that song that somebody played on a MIDI keyboard. This promises to be challenging because its similarity to the original varies. (This is the equivalent of the "hum-it challenge" that people say I should do for SoundHound. I was gonna hum the synth part of Europe's "The Final Countdown" but changed my mind.) Identification will begin at the very start of the song. Listen to this song on YouTube.

I would like to point out that while I may look like a real bastard for picking such obscure songs, the fans of each of these programs make some pretty outlandish claims about their favorite in the Android market -- and when I proposed a few of these songs on an Android forum, I was told by both sides that these choices were "too easy" for their favorite app. Let's see how they fared, shall we?

The test:

Song: Goodnight Technologist
Shazam ID: No match
Notes: none
SoundHound ID: No match
Notes: none

Song: Jupiter
Shazam ID: No match
Notes: Gave up several times immediately after the song started, but it let me retry until it actually did its "Listening... Sending... Matching..." gig.
SoundHound ID: No match
Notes: none

Song: Love Me or Hate Me (Missy Elliot Remix)
Shazam ID: Love Me or Hate Me
Notes: It didn't react at all to Missy Elliot's singing, and only tagged the song after Lady Sovereign came on with the chorus. Also, it tags it as the original, not the remix, and it got the album wrong.
SoundHound ID: Love Me or Hate Me
Notes: Also tags it as the original, but it didn't wait until Lady Sovereign came on to make the tag, so it actually recognized Missy Elliot's singing as the Lady Sovereign song, so technically, it did tag the remix.

Song: Melody
Shazam ID: No match
Notes: It came to the conclusion that it didn't recognize this song a lot faster than the first three tests.
SoundHound ID: Salva Nos
Notes: It tagged the third or fourth version of Yuki Kajiura's epic as the fifth version, I assume based on the lyrics.

Song: Still Alive (MIDI)
Shazam ID: No match
Notes: Refused several times to try this song -- must have told it to retry a dozen times.
SoundHound ID: No match
Notes: None

Shazam final thoughts: This thing is a real piece of work. Half the time it doesn't even attempt to tag the song, it just says no. But at least it doesn't force close or anything, one click makes it try again... and again... and again. Since I have unlimited use of this thing, I'm going to throw some more popular tunes at it. This is not officially part of the test, I just want to find its limits... because I can. Played Europe's "The Final Countdown", and after refusing a dozen times, it showed me the correct artist and title, but it got the album (and album cover) wrong. OK, "Crazy B***h" by Buckcherry, it didn't refuse, and got all the facts right, so far as I can tell. It similarly got "Prayer of the Refugee" by Rise Against. And it recognized what is probably Yuki Kajiura's most popular song, "Key of the Twilight", but did not know the album name (of the version I have, or the soundtrack the original comes from -- .hack//SIGN). This app is kinda pretty, but it likes to vibrate a lot. (Ringer is on full.) It vibrates randomly as it listens, and it vibrates when it's got something (or nothing) for you.

SoundHound final thoughts: SH is a little nicer than Shazam in presentation; my only gripe is that I like Shazam's blue theme better than SH's yellow. SH's pie chart is nicer as well, as it starts from the 12 o'clock position rather than the 1 o'clock (WTF's up with that?) and it finishes its test before the pie chart fills, as opposed to well after. And SH never flat-out refused to make a match. Lastly, it shows a volume meter that shows how well it can hear the source, so you can adjust your positioning if you can. SH doesn't give an unlimited trial, but it doesn't count its failures against the user, so I have 3 more IDs left before I have to wait 30 days (or until October, however it does it), so I'm going to throw some songs at it. I'm going to be harder on it, because it has already proven itself to be more resourceful than Shazam. It recognized "Cry Little Sister" by Seasons After almost immediately, a song I haven't heard of, but my wife got. It recognized "Sing Along" by the Blue Man Group featuring Dave Matthews (though it didn't identify Dave Matthews as being involved). It failed to recognize an early demo by Evanescence called "You" that was the subject of some controversy when some fans built a hoax around it, saying the band didn't want people to hear the song, or some such mess (which was later proven false). But that was a cheap shot at the program, I would have had to have been very impressed if it identified that. Lastly, it identified "Atonement" by Parabelle, an independent lite rock group fronted by former Evans Blue vocalist Kevin Matisyn. Also, after the fifth successful tag, it prompted me to pay for the full version, or continue using the lite version, which would be reloaded with five more credits "next month" (in four days? Or 30? 31?), but until then, could be manually searched for lyrics.

Conclusion: Shazam can identify popular songs, but it utterly fails to recognize anything remotely obscure. It does give you seven days of unlimited tagging for free, so you have plenty of time to play around with it and see if it's worth your money. SoundHound is a little more resourceful, and has a nicer interface, although Shazam gives you more things to do once you've ID'd a song. Emailing, Tweeting, or Facebook'ing the information, there's a whole list. SoundHound pretty much links to the lyrics, if they're in its database, and YouTube, though the rest may have been buried in the menus. I cannot wholeheartedly recommend either app, and would go so far as to say that many of the posts on the Android market in the comments for these apps in support of the other one are false, and possibly planted by people with something to gain from the other one being purchased. Neither of these apps are nearly as good as people say they are. Then again, their phone's mic could have better noise cancellation, or perhaps other conditions were different. But mine were more than fair considering the magic some will say these apps can work. Based on what I have seen, if someone told me they were walking down the streets of Manhattan, and saw a guy whistling a tune across the street, and they held up their phone, and either Shazam or SoundHound identified it as Frank Sinatra, I wouldn't believe them even if their tongue were made of solid gold and notarized. If I buy one, it's going to be SoundHound, just because it's more resourceful. But it's not going to be because I think it's worth the money; Googling the lyrics has always worked for me. It's going to be because US Cellular gives customers who buy Android phones, $20 gift cards for the Android Market. They don't work for anything else -- I tried. If, by November, when my gift card expires, I may buy SoundHound. No promises though.

PS -- I rated each app on the Android market a number of stars equivalent to the number of songs it got right. I show up there as Nathan or Dark Reality, I forget which, but I mention the test, and will update my comments with a to this post.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Does Ridley Scott hate Robin Hood?

According to IMDb, the only Robin Hood movie Ridley Scott enjoyed was Robin Hood: Men in Tights (source). Not the 1973 Disney cartoon. Not the 1938 Adventures of... with Errol Flynn. And not even the 1991 Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, which, in my opinion, was the best of the lot. I'm also fond of the other two. Of course, I like Men in Tights as well, it's a great parody. Anyway, why do I care that some d-bag has taken a crap all over a great legend that has spawned many good movies? Well, it might have something to do with the fact that he tried to make one of his own this year.

Here's the thing: Robin Hood is not supposed to be "great". It's a fun story about an archery nerd who fights the law and gets the girl. The rest is just details, and is probably not well known and/or made up, as each Robin Hood film deviates from the others on these points. The big difference is that the Disney cartoon, Men in Tights, and the 2010 version have a Prince John, a brother to Richard the Lionheart, who seeks the throne. Other details are more minor.

When it comes to criticizing Prince of Thieves, it always comes down to Kevin Costner not having a British accent. That is the only flaw in that film, and frankly, it's so damn good, it's hard to notice. Not to mention the great cast supporting him. It looked good, it felt good, and aside from Mel Brooks' parody, it really didn't need to be messed with, as Kevin Reynolds had created, pretty much, the perfect Robin Hood film. With or without the directors cut that came later (which only added to the Sheriff's backstory, though, the more Alan Rickman the better).

So where did Ridley Scott's version go wrong? Well, right from the beginning, you know this movie has no soul. It's dark and dreary and everything kinda looks the same. It's like they really wanted you to know that this movie takes place nearly a thousand years ago. Because the color TV colorized the world. Yep. And thank God for HDTV, we really needed those extra dots, the world was so blurry before. Yeah. I mean "Amen".

But is looking like crap enough to tarnish a movie? Not if it's excellent. Which this isn't, but giving it a pass -- okay, King Richard is done with the Crusades (a holy war to get the Infidels -- the Muslims -- out of Jerusalem) so he's sacking all the European countries on his way back, specifically France -- wait, what? This has to do with Robin Hood how? Oh, and then instead of staying back and commanding the armies, he's earning his Lionheart title, he's out there playing catch with arrows, blocking them with his shield, making an ass out of himself. Spoiler: He misses one. Catches him right in the throat, too. So right in the middle of battle, he asks for, and receives, wine. Under fire of arrows, his trusted men who didn't have his back before are right there with the wine. I don't think a single one gets shot. Oh, and the guy who shot the King is bragging about it. France and England/the UK have been allies longer, historically, than they've been enemies. Do you really want to be known as the guy who killed the King of England? No, you don't. So shut the f**k up and keep shooting. At most you just wanna say "I got one!" and then go about getting another one.

Oh wait. It gets better. Maid Marian lives on a farm (except it's Marion now, because Ridley's cool like that) and some little kids in masks come and steal all her grain. From a barn two miles from where she's sleeping. But she gets woken up, and she fires a flaming arrow two feet from where one is standing -- and two feet from the barn, which is covered in hay and straw. Good thing she's as good a shot as Robin Hood. She should have fired a second one to split the first one to show how awesome she is.

All the while the movie throws a bunch of characters at you. They may or may not be important. They may or may not be named. An hour later... oh and he's not Robin of Locksley anymore, he's Robin Longstride now. And he meets a fallen knight named Robert Loxley -- yeah, "Locksley" was too much for Mr. Scott -- and takes his name. You would think this would be an issue, that people who knew Robert Loxley would know that Robin Longstride isn't him -- but not only do all but Loxley's wife (Marian) and father not notice, but his father insists he continues to pose as his son, and gives him carte blanche at Marian. Marion, sorry. Marion plays along begrudgingly at first, but then starts to fall in love with him. Because he's played by Russel Crowe, and Loxley was played by some nobody. (I don't know who played him.)

That's just the first half of this 150-minute monstrosity, but that's about when I stopped watching. I usually don't quit movies, but this was bad.

OK, by contrast, my favorite Robin Hood movie...

* Looks great. Who'd have guessed that in real life, medieval England looks beautiful?

* The whole King Richard stuff is backstory. All of it. Because it doesn't f**king matter! King Richard shows up at the end, played by God... I mean Sean Connery... and it's awesome. He's not a pompous ass who gets shot for being a dick.

* Maid Marian's an actual lady. She can take care of herself, more or less, but she's not an expert archer.

* The story is simple. You can follow what's going on. It gets out of the way of the awesomeness. It doesn't feel like a long movie. You get to know the characters very soon after they're introduced (except, perhaps, for Wolf -- the boy chased by the Sheriff's men early on). Oh, and in addition to Sean Connery, it's got Morgan Freeman in it -- as a badass with a scimitar! Also as previously mentioned, Alan Rickman as the Sheriff. That's Professor Snape to you younger kids, and the bad guy in Die Hard to you older folks. Well, that'd be my generation, but damn, I forgot his name.

I give it a solid 2/10 for some decent archery and the potential to be a cool medieval film, and for actors that probably tried real hard to make the best of a crappy movie. Maybe I'll force myself to finish it at some point, but I'm not looking forward to it.

Why haven't I wrote?

Why haven't I wrote? That's a very good question, one which is likely to be pondered for some time. That is, assuming I ever become a famous author and every little nuance of my life is pored over by ravid fangirls. Or fanboys, but I prefer fangirls, if you catch my drift.

Was it because I attempted and failed NaNoWriMo (the, write-50,000-words-in-the-30-days-of-November challenge)? Nope... circumstances, actually, failed me. I would have finished, if A) I didn't have to babysit newbies at work, and B) my motherboard didn't fry at home. So, no way to write.

The truth is much simpler. To quote an often-wiser man than I, my brother... "fuck it". I just felt no desire to post. I had plenty to say, just chose to express it in other ways.

There's really nothing else to be said, which is why I've taken the rare action of disallowing comments. That will not be the norm.