January 25, 2006

A beginners guide to Bittorrent

Bittorrent is the latest file-swapping program to hit the Internet and has in recent months hit the mainstream. According to iiNet’s CEO Michael Malone, Bittorrent traffic accounts for over half of the ISPs traffic.

Bittorrent's popularity stems from the fact that the protocol takes advantage of the distributed nature of the internet and leverages many peoples restricted uploading capacity to create very fast downloads for the end user. For individuals or businesses trying to share their information it can save a fortune in bandwidth costs by distributing the load across many users.

Bram Cohen invented the Bittorrent protocol in 2001 as a means of distributing large files without incurring heavy bandwidth expense for their publishers. Before Bittorrent, the more popular your file, the more you had to pay for bandwidth to share the file. With Bittorrent, the more people that share the file the less each person actually has to share, reducing the dependence on any one server to share the file. Bittorrent quickly became a critical tool for file sharer around the world. The Bittorrent program breaks the file up in to many small parcels of information – this parcels can be downloaded from many different computers and is then reassembled by the client program. Bittorrent files are not downloaded sequentially – you might download the last packet of information before you get the first.

Bittorrent also takes advantage of the fact that broadband Internet connections are generally asymmetrical – users can often download at a much faster rate then they can upload. A typical broadband plan is usually 512K download and only 128K upload – therefore you can download 4 times faster then you can upload. Bittorrent takes advantage of this by letting you download from multiple people simultaneously – if I download from 4 people who can upload at 128K then my effective download speed is 512K. With Bittorrent, the more people that share – or ‘seed’ a file, the faster your download is. Bittorrent users are encouraged to leave their files seeding even after the download is complete as the more people seeding the file (this group is known as the Swarm) the faster the download is for everyone.

To get started with Bittorrent head over to www.bittorrent.com and download the appropriate client for your computer (Mac, Windows and Linux are supported). Another popular download client is Azureus. Before you start downloading you may need to enable port forwarding on your router. Ensuring port 6881 is open will increase your download speed. Check out http://www.portforward.com/english/applications/port_forwarding/Torrent/Torrentindex.htm for more information on how to do this.

Once you’ve got your port open you are ready to start using bittorrent. A quick Google search on Bittorrent trackers will help you find the best places to search for files of interest. You can also use the search tool on www.bittorrent.com to find files to download. Some of my favourite sites are http://www.legaltorrents.com/ and http://www.isohunt.com

iPod sound systems

Apple’s iPod is the leading digital audio player on the market – not just because of its near perfect interface and operability with iTunes but also because of the huge support of third party manufacturers in creating new and innovative solutions for iPod owners. Arguably the biggest ‘solutions’ area for iPod owners is powered sound systems. You just know that a product is serious seller when Bose (a leading sound system manufacturer) creates and markets a unique sound system just for iPod.

So, being the iPod junkie that I am (I have owned eight iPod’s and counting) I set out to discover which sound system sounds and works best. In my view, sound quality is the most important criteria, followed by the way iPod interacts with the unit, how the remote works, if you run other devices off the unit, and most importantly, can my wife Lindy use it?

The first unit I tested was the Bose SoundDock ($499). Set-up was a breeze, however I ran into a slight complication when trying to find the right attachment for my iPod Photo. Bose include about eight different size adaptors in the box but they are not labelled. When I eventually found the correct size my iPod inserted perfectly.

Controlling the volume needs to be done via the two buttons on on the SoundDock; scrolling the wheel on the iPod has no effect because SoundDock gets its output from the iPod line-out rather then the headphone jack. Bose also supply a credit-card size remote that controls basic functions like volume, start/stop and track forward and back.

Sound quality was truly remarkable. Bose traditionally have very rich bass sounds and the SoundDock continues this tradition. Distortion was never a problem, even when cracking out Powderfinger. Mozart and Sibelius sounded equally as good. Plus, the unit charges your iPod while docked.

Downsides to the SoundDock are lack of an extra input for other devices, and no ability to add a USB cradle http://www.blogger.com/img/gl.link.giffor syncing to a computer. This device is best used as a standalone product away from the computer desk.

In direct competition to the SoundDock is Altec Lansing’s ($449). It is hard to call a winner in terms of sound quality between iM7 and SoundDock, to my ears each sounded equally good. iM7’s sound can be customised to suit your particular taste in music via its remote control that has standard functions as well as individual treble and bass control. This feature alone probably makes it a better choice then the SoundDock.

Loading any iPod into the iM7 is easy, just click on the foldout panel, drop in your iPod and adjust the holder in the back to the correct width (this way your iPod will be held securely). iM7 has 3 buttons on the unit, two for volume and one for power. It comes with a power adaptor for most countries and also has room for batteries should you wish to make it portable.

Additionally iM7 has a dock connector, auxiliary input, headphone jack and composite and s-video outputs. Video output lets you transmit video and photos from an iPod or iPod photo to any modern TV or Plasma.

Next up was the mm50 by Logitech ($229). Logitech traditionally makes really good computer peripherals (like mice and keyboards) so I was interested to test their iPod speakers. Unlike the Bose, this unit has been designed with portability in mind, and is considerably cheaper than the Bose. Unpacking and setup was easy, and the unit comes with its own travel case. Similar to the SoundDock, it comes with a own remote that controls basic iPod functions although the remote was not very responsive and often required multiple presses to enact a command.

The mm50 only comes with one docking attachment – you’ll need this when using the iPod Mini, otherwise regular iPods and the Nano with dock connectors just fit in. There are only four buttons on the top of the unit – two for volume, ‘3D’ sound and power. The mm50 comes with a rechargeable battery that charges while plugged in. This unit is great if you want a really portable sound system that can easily be moved around the house or taken on trips with you. Logitech quote ten hours playback on a single charge. In my tests I got nearly ten-and-half hours of playback before recharging.

Sound quality was good, particularly for a small portable device. Bass response was good but not as good as the Bose. At times it sounded a bit tinny which can be outweighted by the advantage of portability. Other features I liked were the dock input on the back that allows you to sync your iPod while it is in the dock and the auxiliary input that allows you to plug in other devices like portable CD players or MP3 units.

In a similar vein to the Logitech mm50 is the InMotion 5 (iM5) by Altec Lansing ($249). It’s footprint is actually smaller then the mm50 and in my opinion sound is better, partiocularily in the low (bass) range. Plus, like its big brother the IM7 it has lots of output options (Composite video and sub-woofer output) and come plug (via USB) directly into the computer. Unlike the mm50 the IM5 comes without a rechargeable battery however you can add your own D-sized batteries if required. If you do, Altrec Lansing claim 24 hours playback time. The iM5 also ships without a remote control, however in a unit this size I’m not sure that it’s a big disadvantage. What really stands out with the iM5 is that way the dock cradle slides out – you’d think it was designed by Apple it’s so slick.

If you prefer a sound system that also includes a radio you might like to consider the iPal by Tivoli Audio (http://www.tivoliaudio.com/home.php) ($349). This unit is a mono speaker that includes an auxiliary jack at the back where you can plug in an iPod or any other device. It has a built in radio tuner that delivers superb sound for its diminutive size. The iPod also sounds good plugged in however the lack of remote control and a dedicated dock/stand makes it a little clumsy to use soley for this purpose. Like the mm50, iPal comes with a rechargeable battery good for about 3 hours of listening. At $349 it is dear for a mono unit particularily in light of the mm50’s $249 price tag, which to my ears sounded just as good. If however you’d like a high-quality portable radio that you can plug an iPod into it might be for you.

At the other end of the iPod accessories universe you may prefer to listen to your music in private sans cables. In that case I suggest you check out the Wireless Headphones for iPod by Logitech ($249). The headphones connect to your iPod (with the remote connector) wirelessly with bluetooth technology. They don’t have a built-in mic like similar products on the market so they won’t pair with your bluetooth mobile phone.

In my testing sound quality was adequate but not exceptional due in part to the lack of resizing options on the headset – they just didn’t feel comfortable on. However, on a positive note there are iPod controls on headset itself that worked well meaning you can control your iPod (volume, play/pause, forward/backward) without taking it from your pocket or bag.

Apart from the size (the iM7 is slightly bigger and bulkier then the SoundDock) I think iM7 is the clear winner in terms of value for money, sound quality and features. If you’d like to spend a little less go for the iM5, and if you need a radio as well as portability the iPal is for you.

January 19, 2006

Choosing between Plasma’s and LCD’s

With LCD and Plasma screens falling in price both are becoming increasingly viable alternative to CRT (Cathode Ray Tube) technology. You only need walk in to your nearest electronics store to realise that flat screen TV's are here to stay. To the user at home flat screens offer several benefits to regular TV's. Firstly, they are much slimmer and therefore can be wall mounted, saving precious living room space. Secondly, flat screen TV's generally have a bigger viewable area then regular TV's and therefore are more pleasurable to watch. Most flat TV's are 'wide screen' meaning they can display pictures in 16:9 ratio, a more suitable aspect ratio for movies and digital TV.

When buying a flat screen TV the first big decision is about technology - Plasma and LCD. Plasma TV's are generally cheaper then LCD's on a price-per-square inch comparison - for example $2500 may buy you a 42" Plasma and only a 30" LCD. If you are looking for a screen for the bedroom consider a 22" LCD, as these are the best value in the LCD range, while a 42" Plasma represents the best value in Plasma - and is a more suitable size for your living room. Plasma's also have the edge when displaying blacks - LCD's tend to display black as a dark grey. A lack of 'black' definition can mean the picture has less depth and looks less realistic.

LCD screens have a much longer life then Plasma's - 50,000 hours compared to 20,000 hours and are more suitable for use in high altitude environments. LCD screens also don't suffer pixel-burn while some older Plasma’s can. Pixel burn results from static images being 'burnt' into the plasma image.

Another serious consideration is pixel refresh rate - Plasma TV's refresh rate is nearly as good as CRT TV's while LCD's are not as good - If you are considering an LCD make sure that the refresh rate is 16ms (milliseconds) or lower.

Most flat screen TV's can double as computer monitors, meaning you can plug in your computer or laptop in to them - however you'll need to make sure your computer can run a screen with the appropriate resolutions. Most Plasma’s have a resolution of 852 x 480 while LCD's typically have a higher resolution of 1280 x 720 (HD plasmas have a similar resolution). If you plan on using your flat screen for gaming consider either technology is good however you may want to consider the LCD as they don't suffer pixel burn.

In terms or brand names make sure you choose a reputable one, with good service and support. Most resellers also offer extended warranties and installation as an add-on. If your budget allows it these are both worth considering.

January 11, 2006

It’s all about eBay

eBay, founded in 1995 offers a global trading platform where anyone can trade practically anything. It’s scale and reach is remarkable, with a presence in 33 different global markets, a membership base of 168 million, and an average of $1829 worth of goods traded on the site every second.

In Australia, eBay commenced trade in October 1999 and according to Nielson/NetRatings Netview is Australia’s leading online marketplace with approximately 3.7 million unique visitors in August 2005 and according to Hitwise, was Australia’s second most popular website in September 2005.

One in every five adult Australians (you need to be over 18 to join) is a member of eBay, while 2500 Australians use eBay as their primary source of income. In 2004 $600 million was traded on eBay, an increase of 110% over the previous year. The most expensive item to sell on ebay.com.au was a celebrity race at the F1 in 2005 that sold for $100,000. The most expensive item ever sold on eBay is a private business jet for US $4.9 million.

The principles behind eBay are simple – and are best described as a ‘perfect market’ – where the person that bids the highest price for an item enters into a binding agreement with the seller. Unlike a traditional retail arrangement where the retailer dictates the selling price, eBay allows the buyers to dictate the price they are willing to pay for an item.

The reason for eBay’s global success is their implementation of a user feedback system that gives a potential buyer the confidence to buy from a seller, whom they can’t physically see or speak to. The way it works is simple. Every time you make a successful transaction through eBay you get one feedback point. For example, if I successfully sell an iPod, the buyer will leave me a positive feedback rating (after they receive the item by post), I will then leave the buyer a positive feedback score and we both have a rating of one. Now, the next time I go to sell something potential buyers can review my previous sales history to assess whether I am to be trusted. This feedback system works well, as anyone who doesn’t trade ‘well’ will receive negative feedback (ie. ‘Don’t buy from this seller as he takes the money and doesn’t send the item) and therefore will find it hard to make the next sale. It also means that traders with a large feedback rating (eBay calls these traders ‘Powersellers’) often get higher prices due to potential buyers having extra confidence to make the transaction.

The other remarkable thing about eBay is the amount of fantastic stuff you can find either by browsing through various categories or using the search tool. Whether you are interested in a rare Pez dispenser or a brand new iPod chances are you’ll find it on eBay and if it’s a new item you are after you’ll probably find it at a discount to retail as well.

How To eBay

The first thing you’ll need to do to use eBay is register. Simply enter your Personal Information, choose a user ID and password, and then verify this by checking your designated email address. If you choose to register with a free email address (like Hotmail, Yahoo or Gmail) you will be required to verify your registration by entering Credit Card details – don’t worry, eBay won’t charge you anything, they just need it to confirm your identity. Once registered you’ll be able to buy and sell with eBay.

Now that you are registered it time to learn about the eBay system. The two main ways of finding things through eBay are by browsing or searching. To browse, simply click on a category of interest on the left hand side of the screen, or click on ‘Lots more’ to see a complete listing. Once you click on the main category you can then choose from a sub-category. eBay now displays a listing of all items in that category that are available to buy, sorted by auction time remaining. To search eBay simply use the ‘search’ box in the top right corner of the screen.

Buying on eBay
eBay sales generally take place in an auction format – that means a seller lists their products for sale and buyers have anywhere from one day to ten days to bid on an item. When you click on to an item eBay tells you the current bid and how much longer the auction has to run. If you’d like to bid on an item simply click the ‘Place Bid’ button. The Place a Bid screen is simple – just enter the maximum amount you are prepared to pay for an item (and remember, shipping is extra so try to get an idea of shipping costs before bidding) and eBay will bid up to that maximum amount. Lets say you are happy to pay $100 for an item, the maximum bid you would enter is $100. If somebody else bids $90 then you will be the winning bidder at $91. eBay only bids up to the maximum amount necessary for you to win the auction, and often doesn’t go as high as required. If you do bid on something and then get outbid, eBay will automatically send you an email notifying you that you should increase your bid.

If you see a product you are interested in you can also track the items progress via the ‘watching’ system. Once you find the item you are interested in watching just click ‘Watch this item’. When you next log in to ‘My eBay’ (at the top of the screen, next to the Sell button) information about this item will appear in your list. The ‘watching’ system also notifies you when the auction is close to ending, as a reminder that you may want to bid.

Selling on eBay
Selling on eBay is more involved then buying. The first thing you’ll need to do is take digital photos of your item so that you can add them to your listing. Make sure these are clear and taken in good light otherwise viewing may be difficult for potential buyers. Next, Click on ‘Sell’ at the top of the eBay screen. From here follow the step-by-step guide to adding information. You’ll need to select the appropriate category to list your item under, come up with a catchy Auction Title, decide on a listing price and postage price, come up with a description of your item and then decide on the length of your item.

Once your item is listed be sure to check your email regualrily. In my experience you’ll generally receive between 5 and 10 email questions per auction. These need to be answered in good time so the potential buyers have a chance to place their bids.

Once your item sells you’ll need to invoice the winning bidder (and calculate appropriate postage charges) and wait for payment to clear. Once payment clears take your item down to Australia post, wrap it up and post it to the winning buyer. Once the winning buyer receives your item they should leave you feedback, and then you should reciprocate by leaving them feedback.

To optimize the amount you get for your item make sure you take high quality photos of the item and make the description as detailed as possible – so that potential buyers can be confident bidding. Also, make sure when potential buyers make contact you respond quickly. With a lot of competition on eBay buyers will find another similar item and bid on that if your description and photos are no good.

If you’d like to take selling on eBay to the next level you can download a program called Turbo Lister that makes listing your things easier.

Security on eBay
On eBay the main security mechanism is Feedback Rating. All eBay users accumulate feedback ratings, you’ll get one point for a good feedback and lose one point for negative feedback. It’s up to you to get to know your seller – check out previous sales history, ask questions and try to get a sense of the quality of merchandise they sell. After you are satisfied place your bid. If you’ve done all of your investigations and the transaction does turn sour eBay and PayPal (eBay’s online payment system) has a buyer protection program that covers each transaction up to $1500.

If the transaction is valued at over $1500 eBay recommend the use of a reputable escrow service where the escrow service holds a buyer’s money in trust until the buyer has had the opportunity to receive, inspect and approve the goods. Another option is to use Australia Posts COD (cash on delivery) option where the seller receives the money after the item has been collected.

Paying for an item on eBay is easy and most sellers offer a variety of different payment options. The easiest and best integrated with eBay is PayPal – an online payment system where you can simply and safely use your credit card to pay for purchases. To use PayPal you’ll need to register (a straightforward process) for an account. Payments made with PayPal are instant meaning the seller can dispatch the item as soon as he receives notification.

Other payment options are Direct Deposit (where the seller provides you with their bank details), just remember to leave a reference like the eBay transaction number so the seller knows who the payment is from or COD.

January 10, 2006

The Age of Web Applications

Ever since the world wide web hit critical mass, technology commentators have been speculating about the day when thin-client computers would be all we need - the theory was that all the applications we use (word processors, email etc.) would run on a server, and your computer would merely log on to use them.

In this scenario companies like Microsoft might run into trouble as customers no longer need to spend hundreds of dollars on Word processing software, as it is made available on-line for a small fee. The other benefit of 'thin-client' computing is that the user no longer needs to take responsibility for saving and backing up their work. All saving is done automatically, and backups responsibility lies with the server rather then the end user. Additionally, new versions of the software (or interface) can be deployed quickly and efficiently without end-user intervention.

The problem in the past has been that HTML the language of the Internet has been limited and very basic, and bandwidth (the speed of your internet connection) has been too slow. However, in the past few years a new web language has emerged called DHTML (Dynamic HTML) which allows web pages to be dramatically more interactive and complex, and broadband is now common place.

The first major category of web-based applications to arise was email - Sites like Hotmail and Yahoo Mail have been around for years now, but Gmail, web mail from Google makes the use of an offline email client a thing of the past. The web-based DHTML and javascript interface is fast and easy to use and means that you can check your email (Gmail has a limit of over 2.5Gb) from nearly computer on the earth. It also means that if your computer hard drive crashes all of your email is safely backed up.

The next major category of web-based applications gaining in popularity is word processors - and one that I have started using recently is called Writely. Writely is an on-line version of Microsoft Word, except at the moment it is free. Writely backs up your data often so if you forget to save it does it automatically, it also lets you import existing Word or RTF documents, and lets you export any document you produce as Word, PDF, OpenDoc, ZIP or HTML file. Writely lets you insert hyperlinks, images and tables just as easily as you can in Microsoft Word. In my opinion most MS Word users probably only use about 20% of the features available - and Writely has included all of these features in it's offering. Writely also offers another feature that Microsoft Word makes difficult - collaboration between multiple users.

Collaboration is always difficult in an offline world as versioning of documents becomes very import. Who made which edit when? With Writely all you do is select your collaborators, they log in to your document and start making changes. If you all edit the document at the same time simply click refresh and you'll see the latest version. This is a handy feature and I imagine it will be of huge assistance to people that regularly need to collaborate on their documents like professionals and tertiary students.

Over time web applications will become more and more common place, and the requirement to travel around with your data will disappear - Instead all of your data will be securely stored online and accessible from any computer anywhere in the world.

January 2, 2006

Are your favourites del.icio.us?

Internet favourites are shortcuts to web pages that you want to return to easily and quickly. All browsers (Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari and Opera) have favourite or book-marking functionality built-in but a new website called del.icio.us has just taken the concept of favourites to a new level – by letting other people access your bookmarks.

The idea behind del.icio.us is simple; the more people that bookmark a particular webpage, the more likely that page is to be interesting or useful. Del.icio.us is also useful as it lets you access your favourites from any computer anywhere around the world. Del.icio.us is a kind of ‘shared’ memory and is one of a new breed of websites that enables collaboration amongst members.

Getting started with Del.icio.us is easy. From the homepage under ‘Sign Up Now” enter your preferred username, password and email account. Once registered Del.icio.us lets you start adding favourites – you can either add them manually by selecting ‘post’ at the top of the screen and entering the URL (uniform resource locator) or you can setup your own ‘local’ favourite that when selecting automatically adds the URL to your del.icio.us library. Simply go to http://del.icio.us/help/buttons and drag the ‘my del.icio.us’ and ‘post to del.icio.us’ to your favourites bar to add them.

The other great thing you can do with del.icio.us is ‘tag’ your bookmarks into different categories – like computers, entertainment etc. Even if membership isn’t for you check out http://del.icio.us/popular/ to view popular bookmarks on the site. In fact, using del.icio.us to research a subject can save a lot of time. Lets say you are interested in cooking – just select it from http://del.icio.us/popular/ and you can see a list of the lots of popular cooking sites – if you were using Google to do the same thing you’d have to find them all yourself.

Currently del.icio.us has a strong technology focus but this will slowly change due to Yahoo’s recent purchase of del.icio.us. Yahoo will launch the del.icio.us concept to the mainstream web and in doing so will help make it one of the next ‘big’ things.