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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Are You Trying to Break My Heart?

I remember when I first saw the concept drawings of what would be the Lasonic i931. Basically, it looked like someone took the million dollar idea I had right out of my head. Yeah, I thought of the whole "make an iPod dock that looks like an 80s gettoblaster" thing. That was all me. Deal with it.

Now, my idea was more like the Conion C-100F, which is kind of the quintessential 'box. Quick, picture a boom box. I'll bet you have a mental image of the Conion. Gaudy, a little chintzy, but loud and slightly better sound than you might expect.

I wasn't shocked Lasonic would be the ones to run with this. They'd produced a legit getto classic with the TRC-931 and apparently had reissued it (slightly updated) a few years ago. The TRC-931 had that iconic look and sound, so if someone was going to make an iPod boom box, this is a pretty good place to start.

Their iPod version, cleverly called the i931, was announced ages ago with a cheesy looking render that just screamed vaporware. Truth be told, I kinda put it out of my mind as I assumed this would never see market. So, imagine my shock when I'm in Fry's today and there it is, the Lasonic i931 in the flesh!

That shock quickly turned to disappointment when I actually started tinkering with the thing. First off, though it's been ages since I last saw a TRC-931, I'm pretty sure that while it tipped it's hand as a cheap piece of gear, it didn't feel like it would fall apart in your hands. The i931 does. While the original was quite a hulking slab of plastic, this new one feels like it was made from recycled soda bottles. I'm pretty sure the TRCs could take a bit of a beating while the i931 feels like a slight drop would crack it in half.

Plus it's kinda rounded. Gettoblasters are supposed to be boxy and squared off, not aerodynamic. What is up with that?

Next, the details are all wrong. While they put in a fake analog tuner scale, the actual radio tuning is digital. The original's five band EQ has been traded for five EQ presets. The buttons all feel cheap, and there's a ton of them. The simplicity of the original has given way to the confusing menus of the remake.

And speaking of, the display is pretty crummy, as I'm sure you've guessed. It looks like a knockoff Indiglo watch and I'm sure would be unreadable in direct sunlight. The USB and card readers are a nice touch, but between the display and the menus, I couldn't imagine trying to play music off a card or thumb drive.

So, what about the sound? Pretty crappy. Like a $30 iPod dock, but louder. To be fair, I had problems tuning in a radio station, which probably says more about the cavernous Fry's than the Lasonic, and I didn't have my iPod with me. My wife handed me her iPhone, which was a bit too tall to fit in the dock, but I was able to play a bit of LL Cool J. I couldn't manage to make this 'box sound anything but cheap.

And speaking of, it isn't exactly cheap. Fry's wants a cool $200 for the i931. I think list is $219, but I've seen anywhere between $159-$230. The lower end of that is closer to the end where I'd say if you're really really in love with the idea of an old school getto blaster iPod dock, you might consider it, but even then, I think you're going to feel like you overpaid.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Rhapsody in DRM-free mp3.

Last week was the debut of Real Networks' Rhapsody MP3 store. To celebrate, they offered a $10 credit to the first 100,000 people to sign up. Yours truly was among the people who ended up downloading an album (and then some) on Real.

I didn't even know Real was entering the DRM-free mp3 sales arena until I heard about the sign up offer. And, I'll admit, the $10 credit offer struck me as either ballsy or desperate, I still haven't quite decided, though I'm leaning towards the latter.

The question is, who is Rhapsody trying to reach? At this point, they are the fourth of the five biggest major label download music sellers to go the mp3 route. Their site, which, to be fair, is listed as a beta, isn't all that user friendly. Trying to search for a specific album title may or may not net you what you're looking for, though the artist search seems a bit more fleshed out. The keyword search is just about useless though.

One thing that shouldn't be in beta is their customer support, which needs some serious work. Unfortunately, I've already needed it and clicking through the customer support pages is a frustrating maze which leads you to help for every service Real offers except the mp3 store. I was able to get on the live chat through a page for their subscription service and my issue was resolved. However, it took about a half hour in the chat to get a simple matter cleared up which, if there had been a email address like everyone else has, I wouldn't have had to hang on and re-explain the issue to who or whatever I was talking to over and over.

And then there's the issue of what they are offering. Their selection leaves quite a bit to be desired. At times the albums available almost seemed like a random assortment of an artist's catalog. While they are offering all four major labels and a smattering of indies, Amazon's selection is much better.

Their prices are pretty standard. .99 cents songs and $9.99 albums, which would be fine if it wasn't for the fact that a lot of their content can be purchased cheaper through Amazon. Oddly, there is an apparent mis-pricing of a bunch of box sets, mostly from the Rhino catalog. While it's possible that these prices could be correct (and I would certainly welcome that,) I find it a bit unlikely that a set retailing at Amazon for $97 is correct for $9.99 at Rhapsody.

So, other than a free $10 credit and fishing for cheap, but sure to be price corrected, box sets, what exactly does Rhapsody have to offer in this crowded market? As best I can tell, nothing. I can't really find a single reason to continue using this service. The site is clunky, the normal prices aren't anything special and the selection is smaller than Amazon.

While I'm all in favor of competition, there needs to be something different going on to make it happen. Competition is more than just a different name on your billing statement. It's surely not offering a lesser version of what the market leader is doing. But, unless they have some drastic changes in store, that's exactly what Rhapsody's mp3 store is, at the moment. Time will tell if Real can come up with something to make their store stand out, but personally, I'm doubtful they will.

Friday, July 04, 2008

DVD Review: Phase IV (1974)

I can't believe I haven't done a review of Phase IV prior to now. I was first exposed to this obscurity via the infamous "season zero" of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Upon tracking down the old VHS, Phase IV has become one of my favorite movies. Now, thanks to Legend Films (who have other DVDs with a Mike Nelson commentary, coincidentally) Phase IV is finally out on DVD.

Phase IV is a movie about ants. Not gigantic ants like a Bert I. Gordon or Corman flick. These are small, regular sized ants. But ants that become highly intelligent and attempt to take over.

So, we have two scientists out in the desert investigating strange occurrences caused by the ants. They've killed livestock, run people off their land and built a bunch of Stonehenge like monoliths. Michael Murphy plays James, the "good cop" scientist, trying to learn their language and figure out what they're after while Nigel Davenport as Dr. Hubbs becomes more and more engrossed in defeating the ants, regardless of the cost.

Hubbs takes delight in shaking the ant farm, so to speak, which always results in disaster and the ants evolving. Because of Hubbs' recklessness, they pick up Kendra (Lynne Frederick,) a wide eyed farm girl who is now orphaned and in shock. Meanwhile, James is trying to decipher the ants messages and get Kendra to safety before Hubbs gets them all killed.

This 1974 film was a directorial debut for Saul Bass, who was an Academy Award winner for his animated title sequences. Phase IV is a post-2001 sci-fi flick, unspooling at a leisurely pace, with heavy philosophical overtones and a trippy, ambiguous ending.

At it's heart, it is another man vs. creature movie. But, because it gets into issues of evolution, the possibilities of communicating with other species and the idea that we might not be the smartest animals on Earth, it becomes more. OK, it's not the greatest movie ever, but it handles a lot of interesting ideas in an intelligent way and, if you can appreciate slow, cerebral sci0fi, I think there's a lot here to enjoy.

The stunning thing about it is the miniature photography. I know it sounds silly to say, but the ants really are the best actors in the film. The way Bass manages to capture them on film and get them to do things that actually advance the plot (we see many of the evolutionary steps) is pretty remarkable. Plus, Bass throws in some style from time to time, so if nothing else, this movie is pretty interesting to watch.

Unfortunately, this DVD is about as bare bones as it gets. No extras, not even a trailer. Just the film itself. While I understand this is a pretty obscure film, I'd have loved even a simple "how they did it" featurette, as from a technical standpoint, there's some interesting stuff going on here.

The ants have more detail than the old VHS I had, this transfer is pretty flat and the print used has quite a bunch of specks and is pretty bland to look at. I'd love to see this film in a good HD transfer, to say nothing of a Blu-Ray release.

This is to say nothing of the fact that the original theatrical release was rumored to be longer with more of an ending. Apparently it was cut down a pinch for home video and this disc runs the same length as my old tape. (Though a little longer than the french TV rip my friend Kevin sent me. I think that had a couple of brief cuts for violence.)

Honestly, I wasn't expecting Phase IV to get a DVD release at all, so just having this is better than nothing. And considering I paid the same amount ($10) for an age old ex-rental VHS, I'm not too disappointed. Still, I feel this movie deserves better than what we got. Hopefully, some day we will, but until then, fans of intelligent sci-fi should feel pretty safe picking this up.