Vudu Disc-To-Digital Review

For those of you that just received this promo email…

vudu_promotion

I decided to give it a try with stack of old DVDs. The promo pricing is totally reasonable, but I doubt it’ll last. (50% off when you “convert” 10+ discs, then $2 off your total.) Your existing DVD/BD titles are $2 to convert, or $5 for upgrading a DVD to HDX. For the content I successfully converted, HDX quality is great. Some big caveats to considered before jumping in, though..

  • The Vudu To Go client necessary for the disc matching and verification process is buggy. On my Windows 8 Pro laptop — the only machine I have with a BD player — Vudu To Go would check for BD titles but outright refuse to check normal DVDs, displaying only a nasty error message. I had to use a secondary OSX machine (with a non-BD DVD player) to check DVD titles. I didn’t have any issues with my shopping cart when using two machines, but this was really inconvenient. I would think Vudu To Go on Windows 8 Pro would have the bugs worked out by now.
  • The disc-to-digital disc matching mechanism seemed to mis-match about 1 in 15 titles, such as my retail BD version of “Full Metal Jacket”.
  • Of my properly-recognized discs, Vudu only had rights to convert ~40% of the discs I tried. Understandable, but still a pretty low hit rate for users, especially for anyone like me that would really like to completely toss all discs in the trash, and don’t even have a DVD/BD player hooked up anymore.
  • For HDX quality, both machine and display *must* support HDCP. For example, “owning” Super 8 in HDX would only play in SD when web streaming due to my non-HDCP monitor.
  • Studios, of course, still place restrictions on your watching abilities, even though you’ve verified the disc. For example, I “own” 80’s comedy “Singles” in HDX, but “[t]his title is viewable on PC in SD only.” Lots of stupid crap like that.
  • Web streaming requires flash and uses a non-trivial amount of CPU. On my new brand new Dell Latitude 10 ST2 Win8 RT tablet, it’s totally unusable.
I hope Amazon launches an equivalent, because I’m already committed to an Amazon content library and really, really, really don’t want to keep another vendor. If you only have a few stacks of decent titles just taking up space, though, it’s worth considering!

Kindle 3G Upgrade: Mini Review, Recommendations

The "Home", "Menu" and "Back" buttons are now to the right of the keyboard.

I’ve previously expressed my love for the Kindle family of devices, and on a whim decided to upgrade from the Kindle 2 to the new Kindle 3G with 3G and wifi. For others contemplating the upgrade, here’s what you need to know:

Pros

  • The new button layout is way better. Next/Previous button are on both sides of the screen, and Home and Menu buttons have been moved to the keyboard area, along with a new direction pad (“d-pad”) design that is easier to use, albeit different.
  • Smaller device footprint. Kindle 3 feels more compact and portable than Kindle 2.
  • The screen update time is noticibly better, but only slightly so. It’s definitely noticable and a welcome improvement, but don’t expect LCD-level performance here. It’s still e-ink.
  • Wifi! Not that on the more expensive model, you have both wifi support as well as the free 3G access.

Cons

"Next" and "Previous" buttons are now on BOTH sides of the device. A welcome change!
  • $189 for a bunch of marginal upgrades is a tough sell.
  • Keyboard is still ghetto. It feels like typing on a 1990’s scientific calculator.
  • The Next/Previous buttons depress easier than before, but they’re also smaller and don’t have any nubs to identify the button by touch. This seems stupid.
  • Sharper screen. It’s a subtle improvement, but definitely feels crisper.

Recommendations

  • New users should go for it, and light readers should be perfectly fine with the Wifi-only $139 model.
  • Existing users with heavy usage patterns (at least an hour a day on average) should go for it. You’ll love the small speed improvements when highlighting and flipping pages.
  • Existing Kindle 2 owners with light usage patterns should skip this revision. Future models will certainly see further improvements and lower costs.

Amazon Kindle Customer Service Experience

Kindle 2 with M-Edge Leather Platform Jacket and optional e-Luminator 2 book light.

About a month ago I noticed the top of my Kindle 2’s e-ink display starting to go out. Starting from the top of the screen, row-by-row slowly ceased to display “ink” until I could no longer see the battery indicator area. I could surely have lived with this, but given that the device is less than a year old I gave the Kindle support number a call.

I purchase a lot from Amazon and have used pretty much every service they offer, including long-time Prime delivery service membership and I’m fairly certain that my Amazon book purchases would put me in their 99th percentile of perfered consumers–so perhaps the call handler knew to treat me better than the average Joe–but regardless, the process was a true 5-star experience. Abbreviated transscript of the call:

Me: The screen on my Kindle 2 is going out.

Rep: I’m very sorry to hear that. <additional scripted apologies designed to make me feel better> How about we overnight you a replacement?

Me: Srsly?

Rep: Sure. It’ll be delivered tomorrow morning.

Me: Sweet!

And that was it. The replacement arrived the next morning as stated. It took me less than 5 minutes total to deal with the issue. For a unit of anything under warrantee this is the level of service I would hope for. Bravo, Amazon!

Thanks, KindleTools Users!

Kindle 2 with M-Edge Leather Platform Jacket and optional e-Luminator 2 book light.

I just wanted to shout out a quick “thanks” to the thousands of Kindle fans that have used the Kindle Tools website to find the PIDs for their Kindle devices. I’m aware that the site doesn’t fully support all models and variations of Kindle hardware devices and software applications, but I am supporting the site and hope to do so one day. The public-facing portion of the site is super easy to use and I never expected it to generate the traffic that it does, especially considering it’s a “one-time use” kind of tool. It’s very encourage to periodically receive a package in the mail gifted by a grateful Kindle Tools user off my wishlist. I generally don’t reply but do get these tokens of apprecation and your support is VERY much appreciated.

Let’s all continue to support the Kindle community and Amazon.com, while simultaneously insisting on open standards, free data interchange, and the non-proprietary future of our data in the ebook domain. The last thing we want is non-interoperable ebooks, so make your voice heard!

The Worsening Fragmentation of the eBook Market

On my way to the office this morning my bag seemed especially heavy, the natural effect of stuffing an attaché with a MacBook Pro, iPad, iPhone and Kindle. I felt silly feeling it necessary to keep all these electronic gismos simultaneously latched onto my shoulder within seconds reach of my left hand, each ready to perform some specific task that required firing on its individual display and taking a few milliamp hours off its individual lithium ion battery pack.

Each of these devices is especially good at performing certain types of tasks, to the point that it also feels silly to not use the tool best suited to the job.  To a computer scientist all four of these are technically Turing machines–more commonly known as “computers”–but each has its own practical strength and weaknesses. And while carrying a single device solely by itself one becomes incredibly mobile, taking all four is not. I’m like a sleep-deprived mother of quadruplets sluggishly pushing a custom designed stroller through the grocery store. The monstrousity of brushed metal widgets, cables and wall warts I’m toting reminds me of that fictional car designed by Homer Simpson.

But such are the pro and cons of appliance computing. Not all of these hardware devices are technically needed on this particular Wednesday, but the combination of specialized functions provided by the union allows me a more productive day. I could have left at least one at home, provided that I had a reasonable amount of interoperability between them to shuffle data.

Stop. Oh god. I saw this coming the second Amazon announced they would use their own locked-down format (.azw/.mobi) for eBooks purchased through their store. (Aside: If you’re interested in Kindle encryption you may eventually find yourself at my KindleTools site for finding PIDs.) My biggest of fear with regards to the emerging ebook market is now in full swing. Not only are there subtle, often incompatible (and proprietary) differences in ebook data between reading application software, but most of the time I can’t even legally attempt it. It’s like Microsoft Office vs. Word Perfect vs Lotus Notes vs The People of Earth all over again.

Each content retailer is trying to be the de facto digital ebook data locker for the entire market, and the folks at the top of the food chain–most notably Amazon–have no business interest in supporting standardized (or at least conventionalized) data interchange with less popular consumer applications and devices. But why would they? If they can provide the content and the software and the hardware with a majority of the market, why not do everything possible to lock consumers into the monopoly? Here’s a painstakingly detailed scientific visualization of the current eBook market:

Amazon's view of the eBook market.

Let me make this clear: I am no stranger to paying for books. I read a LOT, and especially over the past year it hasn’t been unheard of for me to spend well over hundred dollars per month on eBook content alone, which I do for many reasons. Here’s the 8th-grade equation demostrating how I can scientifically demonstrate the value of this technology in my life:

Knowledge Gained (in the fictional unit of “knols“, K) x Ease of Future Reference (in the subjective economic unit of utils) / Content Cost (in dollars, $) x Total Consumption Time (in hours, 3600 x s)

This new unit of electronic book value that I’ll refer to as a Vebu–short for “value of ebookS unit”–reduces to this:

Vebu == knol utils per 3600 dollar seconds == uK/3600$s

In other words, we need to maximize the availability of meaningful information (knol utils) at a minimum of money and time (dollars hours) to achieve maximum value for our electronic virtual book libary, Vebu. A simple, unsophisticated yet meaningful quantity.

But here’s how this effed up market effects Vebu:

  • I have no less than 7 different, largely incompatible pieces of eBook reader software on iPad alone, as of today. Kindle, iBooks, Borders, B&N, Stanza, Free Books and Wattpad. (Effect: lower u, lowering Vebu.)
  • Borders, Barnes & Noble and the other brick-and-mortar vendors are freaking out, scaring they’ll become the next Blockbuster of the Netflix era. Each has their own application that works primarily with their own store, but not much else, forcing you to use their reader. Not all software is availble on all platforms, though, sometimes making lookups a major pain, and different retails of course carry different publishers, so it’s easy to unwittingly get sucked into all of them. (Effect: lower u and higher s, significantly lowering Vebu.)
  • None of the distributor reader apps are keen on “sharing” your content with friends/colleagues, forcing others to re-purchase content you should have been able to at least “lend” to them in the freakin’ first place. (Effect: higher $, lowering Vebu.)
  • O’Reilly, PragProg and other publishers don’t think the major distributors should be necessary, and some are leading the charge buy allowing you to directly purchase digital editions in a variety of formats. This is fine–I have no major qualms about this–but since most readers applications are trying to push you to the store of the vendor that wrote the apps, importing data can be a headache. (Effect: higher s, lowering Vebu.)
  • Amazon, already having a huge content delivery infrastructure, offers propriety features such as cross-device synchronization of bookmarks and highlights that isn’t as good in others. The Kindle hardware will also read to you in the car, but they only sync with Amazon services; Apple’s iBooks/iTunes is better with PDFs but doesn’t have text-to-speach; Stanza aggregates many different content sources but isn’t as great with commercial stuff… everything has distinct pros and cons. They’re all different and I have to use all of them because they can’t/won’t talk to each other and I can never remember which damn content locker to which I committed my stuff. (Effect: lower u, higher s, significantly lowering Vebu.)
  • The problem grows exponentially greater as more retailers, publishers, application developers, and independent authors enter the market, intentionally building walls that consumers have no interest in observing.

Here’s what needs to happen.

If you’re Amazon, Borders, B&N, or really any retailer that is gung-ho about becoming the provider of individual data lockers, that’s fine, but you need to give us the key. It’s understandable that you’re reluctant to open up your formats in a way that could be consumed in ways you can’t control, but consider this: if you never figure out how to allow publisher content to cross application and retailer boundaries, you are effictively capping Vebu to artifically low levels. If you instead focus on optimizing all the variables instead of restraining them, you’ll have a platform unmatched even by Amazon. I, for one, would switch to it in a heartbeat.

Book Review of DIY U: : Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education


Question: If I complete my general physics and mathematics studies using freely available MIT OpenCourseWare content on my own time, computer science study on campus at ASU Polytechnic, and general education requirements at UoP, all for a degree program at Berkeley, what’s wrong with that? After all, as long as I can demonstrate the competancies outlined in its program of study, isn’t this effectively more-or-less the equivalent of the Berkeley-delivered version costing possibly 10x more in total? Good for me… right? And if so, who cares?

Answer: Hundreds of years of authoritative people vetted in an aggrandizing aristocracy of exclusionary education. That’s who.

Universities best interests are not necessarily aligned with those of students, and as DIY U explores, the differences can be disheartening to the point of infuriating. Given a long-established tradition of prestigue through extreme selectivity and absurd financial requirements, it is understandable that many universities are struggling to find their way in the Information age.

I enjoy looking at political issues though numbers, statistics, historical analysis, and really any sort of empirical evidence lending insight to the world around us. With regards to education, it is obvious that we have yet to fully realize how Internet-enabled technologies fundamentally change how we should perceive learning, and due to the explosive growth of exploratory online systems it is critical we define realistic paths to evolve traditional, costly, centralized, campus-oriented, course-based university programs to the increasingly decentralized, affordable, online, multi-national, outcome-based demands being pushed by current generations of students. DIY U investigates this gap using historical evidence, anecdote, current statistics, and critical analysis: exactly the type of writing I look for in subject matter of high debate.

Of particular interest to me are the many statistics on past, current, and projected future costs of higher education. Not that this should be shocking, but the gist is that the current model just isn’t going to work if we really want to positively improve the general education level of the American population. (And I think the whole world would nod in violent support of this goal.) Simply using federal subsidies to (attempt to) expand an already antiquated model of education would be outright foolish.

I also particularly enjoyed the sections on different paradigms actively being used to varying degrees of success, specifically outcome and competency assessment-based learning. I’ve attended four higher-ed schools to date, and find the requirements of having to take specific course line numbers at a specific college for a specific degree program within a single university in the 21st century to be unacceptably, and quite literally, “old school”. As someone who’s said “I could have tested out of that class” numerous times, the concept makes sense to me.

If you find these topics interesting, by all means pick up copy of DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education. I purchased my Kindle version for about $10 on Amazon.

Get Your Kindle’s PID In 10 Seconds

Rather than struggling with a bunch of old command-line scripts to calculate the Personal ID (PID) of your shiny new Amazon Kindle, I’ve released a super-freakin’-easy webapp to do it for you in a matter of seconds. No joke.

Simply visit http://kindletools.prestonlee.com, follow the instructions, and be sure to gift me a short novel to say “thanks”. 🙂

Update: See Jer’s post on the bigger process of converting Kindle books.

Amazon Kindle 2 Review

Kindle 2 with M-Edge Leather Platform Jacket and optional e-Luminator 2 book light.

The Kindle 2 is my first commitment to electronic books and e-ink screen. I silently waited until several generations of eBook readers were on the market–including the Barnes & Noble Nook–before making the decision to commit to Amazon’s Kindle 2.

Physical Interface

The 6″ e-ink display that looks just like the paper of a novel you’d buy at the grocery store. Unlike computer LCD displays, the Kindle’s screen is reflective, making it easier you to read outside in natural sunlight, just like a real book.

The built-in keyboard is extremely useful, though a tad clunky feeling. It is built with physical buttons (as opposed to “soft” or “virtual” buttons used on devices like the iPhone), and takes some getting used to, especially when searching a book and navigating a variety of different screens and dialogs. Despite a bit of awkwardness that is difficult to verbalize, it’s invaluable to have these controls, especially for searching and note taking.

Internet
One of the coolest features is the built-in 3G cellular radio that is tightly integrated with the Kindle Store and works similarly to the “One-Click Checkout” feature offered by Amazon. You can usually download a sample chapter before purchasing, and of course “upgrading” from samples to full copies is very straightforward and easy.

For individual subscription charges you may also subscribe to a gamut of periodicals and blogs. While it may seem strange to offer paid subscriptions to content you can often view for free online, the Kindle versions of the content are repackaged to support the navigational structure and user interface of the physical devices, provided a more fluid experience when bouncing between your regular reading material.

Using the built-in keyboard and 4-way joystick-like device, you can even use a built-in web browser to surf the internet in a bind. Surprisingly, there are no monthly services charges for this ability, though the device clearly is not designed for web surfing. Even with free 3G service you’ll usually use your phone, laptop etc. instead.

Formats

All purchases (including subscriptions) are automatically delivered wireless to your Kindle. I’ve generally found Amazon’s “delivered in less than 60 seconds” claim to be true: even when cruising through a barren Nevada desert.

You have the ability to read your own .PDF, .TXT, .MOBI, .DOC and other documents, and are provided a free service to convert your documents to the Kindle’s native .AZW format. Note, however, that .PDF files, while displayed, cannot be re-layed out to fit the size and orientation of the screen. Constantly having to zoom in and out is annoying, so you’ll often want to convert to .AZW before transferring content to your Kindle.

Synchronization

At time of this writing, Kindle content can be managed and accecssed in four ways, the…

  • Kindle itself.
  • Kindle website.
  • Free iPhone application.
  • Free PC application.

Content purchased using the Kindle Store–via any of these interface–can freely sync amongst them, assuming they are all tied to the same Amazon account. After a piece of content is purchased, it is automatically backed up on Amazon’s servers, allowing you to delete it from the device today and easily restore it (even to a different device) sometime in the future.

Note that documents you load onto the Kindle (via a USB connection to your Mac or PC, or wirelessly for a nominal charge) will not be backed up to Amazon’s systems, nor can they be automatically synced between interfaces. It would be fabulous to have Amazon back up my own Kindle content, though since it wasn’t purchased from Amazon it seems reasonable to not offer this service. (Note to Amazon: I would pay for this feature!)

Audio

Kindle 2 with M-Edge Leather Platform Jacket and optional e-Luminator 2 book light.

The text-to-voice software turns out to be surprisingly useful. Some words, as you would expect, are consistently mispronounced and a tad distracting, but not so much as to detract from its use. Using both the built-in headphone and built-in speakers, you’ll find yourself being read to in the car, walking around campus, the grocery store.. pretty much anyway you’d normally listen to music. Mispronounced words that are a tad annoying:

  • “idea”. It is being pronounced EYE-DEE-AYE.
  • “live” as in “alive“. It is always being pronounced as in “olive“.
  • Some abbreviations that look like Roman numerals. I’m sure this is a hard one to fix, but it’s nevertheless distracting to have the sentence, “I was at the IV [pronounced EYE-VEE] office yesterday.”, but hear “I was at the ONE-FIVE office yesterday.”

There is also an “experimental” MP3 player built in. It is in no way even comparable to the interface or features provided by iPods, but nevertheless a “nice to have” feature. I use it rarely since I already carry around an iPhone and use iTunes for media management.

Additional Software Features

Online access to bookmarks, highlights and notes of purchased books.

Things you won’t be able to live without once you get used to them:

  • Search. One of my biggest issues with traditional, printed texts is the lack of a trivial way to search them. On the Kindle, you just start typing and hit the enter key. What’s even better is that you can easily switch the search index from the current book to sites like Wikipedia.
  • Built-in dictionary. Just position the cursor before a term, and a small footnote will appear on the bottom of the screen. (Anecdote: I just found myself physically poking a word in 10-pound textbook, as if some dialog were to materialize in the air above. As I chuckled to myself I realized that I was now addicted to eBooks, and was unlikely to ever go back.)
  • Bookmarking. The concept of a “bookmark” is only slightly different than in the physical world. Since content in the electronic world is usually defined separately from it’s presentation, layout is based on personal preference (bigger vs. smaller text), screen size (Kindle 2 vs. the larger Kindle DX), font (Helvetica vs. Arial), orientation (portrait vs. landscape), and numerous other factors. This make the concept of a “page” obsolete, because chapter 3 of a new book may appear on page 47 for one person and 32 for another. Instead, we now have “locations”, which assign a sentence or paragraph a number that can be looked up regardless of how the content gets layout out.
  • Notes.  If you like to “write in the margins” of traditional books, you can do effectively the same thing on the Kindle. Just move the cursor to wherever you want your note, click the directional-pad button, type your note, and then click the button again. You’ll now see a handy interactive superscript symbol at the insertion point. These notes also get written to a plain text file that can be read when the Kindle is plugged in via USB, at “documents/My Clippings.txt”
  • Highlighting. I love taking a bright yellow highlighter to a good non-fiction book. You can not only do effectively the same thing on the Kindle, but this metadata also becomes saved in a new file that is synced back to Amazon’s servers, allowing you to easily browse your highlights, notes and bookmarks via the web, even without your Kindle handy.

Cons

Home screen of the Kindle 2. Displayed: several purchased books and a variety of "samples" from the Kindle Store.
  • Purchased are DRM’d, and cannot (yet) be shared. I waited until the release of the Nook to make a purchasing decision because of B&N’s claim that you would be able to “loan” purchased content to friends, but the feature is, in my opinion, way too restrictive to be a prime selling point.
  • Software feels clunky, especially for someone accustomed to lots of intuitive Apple-designed GUIs. 🙂
  • Screen is slow to update, though none of the other readers on the market seem to be noticeably better.
  • Does not come with a case.
  • Keyboard could be much better.

Conclusion

While not without its flaws–most notably slowness of the screen to update–I love the Kindle and keep it with me whenever possible. For me, the Kindle is more than just a gadget. It represents a fundamental change in the way I interact with written knowledge, and resets my expectation accordingly. I fully expect large-scale consumer transition to e-ink-style display to be rocky due to nasty web of vendors, publishers and authors all vying to dominate the market early, but for the avid readers out there, it’s worth it.