Connecting a laptop to a hotel TV

Connecting a laptop to a TV has never been really straightforward. What’s worse, if you want to connect to a hotel TV while traveling, you can’t depend on a particular input. My HP tm2 has HDMI and VGA outs, so if I’m lucky, I can use one of those. If not, I figure that good ol composite gives me the highest likelihood of success. Of course, analog component would be a better picture, but lugging around the proper converter and cables just seemed too much and I’d still need composite just in case!

I reported earlier that I was getting the Sabrent PC to TV Converter Box. I finally got it and have done some initial testing. (The Sabrent is available on Amazon for a mere $32.99.) It’s a tiny device and is USB powered–how perfect!

At first the picture was black and white and fuzzy. The dip switches were set for PAL by default (both up), so all I had to do was flip them to the down position and voila, it worked! It supports resolutions of 640×480, 800×600, 1024×768 and even 1280×1024; however, since these far exceed the capabilities of composite video, as long as your laptop works in one of the supported resolutions, you are good to go. As a test, I hooked this to the composite input of my 52″ HDTV and was pretty amazed at the quality. Hulu video was pretty darn clear.

I’m able to fit in the Sabrent box, a 6′ HDMI cable, a 5′ VGA, a composite cable, and the USB power cable all in the box the Sabrent came in. (Note that it comes with all of that plus an s-video, but not the HDMI.) I’m going on vacation in a few weeks and I’ll report back how it works. I know the hotel has flatscreens, but that doesn’t necessarily mean HDMI. Early HDTVs only had analog component.

Cheap iPhone 4 desktop dock for charging and syncing

Sure you can charge and sync your iPhone 4 with the plain ol cable, but I’ve always liked the formalness of a dock. I tracked this one down and although it isn’t designed specifically for the iPhone 4, it works pretty well, *even with the case on*. I got it on iOffer and it’s called the “Apple iPhone dock charger Sync Cradle for 4 4G 3G 3GS“. It’s listed for $6.50, but that excludes shipping. You don’t get the shipping cost until the seller contacts you subsequently. Shipping ended up being $8.00, but $14.50 still seemed pretty cheap overall.

The picture in the listing didn’t show the clear plastic backing and bright blue LED light. There is also a small cap that comes on the end of the USB cable. I superglued it to the top of the clear backing to support the back of the thinner iPhone 4. Amazingly, it’s basically the exact thickness that is needed!

The dock acts just like the iPhone cable, so I can charge and sync my iPhone 4 when it’s in the dock. I’m quite happy with the purchase!

Solving the laptop to HDTV problem

I’ve been going on a lot of business trips lately and I’m going on vacation in a few weeks. What inevitably comes up is the desire to watch Internet video on the hotel TV. In recent years most of the places I’ve been staying at have “newer” flat screens; however, the inputs vary. You can’t depend on HDMI. If you assume the possibility of a CRT, the lowest common denominator is good ol composite. Next would be S Video and then component.

On the laptop side, you’ve probably always got VGA, but my new HP tm2 has HDMI. I’ve done a lot of searching and there are definitely many converters available, but no magical all-in-one device. There are too many possible combinations.

Now, going from HDMI, a digital signal, to composite or even component, both analog, doesn’t make a lot of sense. So by process of elimination, it’s down to the very basic VGA to composite.

I found a very nice converter, the Sabrent PC to TV Converter Box, on Amazon for only $33 . I think I’ll also bring along HDMI and VGA cables just in case. They won’t take up much space. I should be good to go…well unless I find a hotel with only RF connection! HAHA!

Rhapsody iPhone app never updates playlists and other stuff

Having problems updating your playlists on the iPhone Rhapsody app? I was. The message “Updating playlists” would just sit there and never go away. It appears that the problem relates to Dynamic Playlists. These are special playlists that change over time, like “Top 20 Pop/Rock Tracks”. It appears that the iPhone Rhapsody app chokes on these. If you remove them using the desktop app, your playlists will update. You can identify them by the icon next to the playlist name. It’s a two arrows in the circle instead of the musical notes.

The other thing to avoid is any “imported” songs in a playlist. These are songs not from the Rhapsody subscription, but ones actually on your PC hard drive. These will say “Imported” in the Track Type column in the list of songs in a playlist on the desktop application. These will not freeze the update, but the playlists will not show up on the iPhone app.

Another problem which I haven’t found a fix for is just keeping my library in sync between the iPhone app, the website, and the desktop app. I wish Rhapsody had a formal “Update Playlists” button, but it doesn’t. It seems to try to update if you close the app down and restart–actually kill the iPhone task, assuming you are using iOS4. Generally, the syncing works fine, but from time to time they get out of sync. Songs will appear in one or the other and never correct itself. The only thing that seems to work is deleting the c:Program FilesRhapsodyradfile.rcf file. I just had to do that and had to start all over re-creating my library!

I wish there was some sort of back up option so you could restore your library to some point, but I suppose that will never happen. I think the whole DRM/licensing mess just makes this harder than it needs to me. Oh well. I have come to the conclusion that I cannot depend on Rhapsody for my main music source and must continue to rely on actual files on my iPhone. I’ll still use Rhapsody to discover new artists and songs, as well as access old catalog stuff. However, I’ll use it in a more dynamic fashion and not care if the library or playlists get lost. Not the perfect solution, but not the worst scenario either.

Another limitation of using a subscription service like Rhapsody is when something isn’t in their catalog. If you’ve got the CD or MP3s, you can import it into the desktop environment, but you are SOL on the mobile client.

Still, I love Rhapsody and recommend it highly. Being able to access nearly any song I want on the fly is wonderful. The new background playing ability on the iPhone is awesome.

Think the iPhone 4 has issues? Try using the Nokia N97.

I find it very entertaining the back and forth going on between Apple and Nokia over the whole antenna problem. Honestly, people are making too much of it. The only people that should complain is anyone that wouldn’t use a case. Of course, you’d have to be pretty stupid to not use a case on a phone with a front and back made of **G L A S S**, but I digress.

I owned the “flagship” Nokia N97 for 8 torturous months. What a piece of sh*t it is. Forget dropped calls, there were times when I couldn’t even answer a call! Navigating through the ancient UI was a test of anyone’s patience. Push a button and you have to wait to see if it really recognized the touch. Despite having 32GB of memory, it has this tiny partition where required system and programs files needed to stored, so you’d run out of memory anyways! And the 5MP camera with Carl Zeiss lens??? Oh, using the flash caused the light to bleed into the picture–like some iPhone 4 cases–but there was nothing you could do. Well, you could mitigate it a little by marking the area surrounding the lens and flash with a Sharpie! (How would that go over, if that was Apple’s fix?!) You couldn’t even read the letters on the keyboard if the backlight was on. I could go on and on about the N97, but I’ll spare you. If anything needed to be recalled it was the N97…geez!

Before the N97, I had the N95 which was revolutionary in its day. Anyways, I find the iPhone 4 to be by far the best phone I’ve ever used. The damn thing just works.

If loving the iPhone (and iPad) makes me an Apple fanboy, then so be it. Note that I still use Windows for serious work and will never move to a Mac. I just think that Apple got the small form factor OS right.

If you don’t like the iPhone 4, take it back and get a refund. Actually, I think Apple should give all complainers an N97 and their money back!

Rhapsody, Napster or MOG…Subscription Music is awesome!

I’ve always been a fan of subscription music and started years ago with Rhapsody using their service to fill my Creative Zen MP3 players. I switched to Napster a few years ago because I preferred their use of WMA files as opposed to Rhapsody’s real file format (Rhapsody now does WMA too :-). Napster (now owned by Best Buy) has recently abandoned the DRM’d device support (via Microsoft’s PlaysForSure) for new accounts. Now, you can stream all the music you want and are allowed to download a certain number of MP3s depending on the plan you sign up for.

For some reason, it’s hard to find their pricing on the site, but Napster has monthly ($7), 3-month ($15) and annual plans ($60). The monthly gives you credit for 5 songs, the 3-month gives 15 and the annual 60. Why go for the annual with no apparent price advantage? Well, the credits are only good during the plan period, so with the 3-month plan, after 3 months you lose any unused song credits and start over with 15. With the annual, you get a whole year to use the credit for 60 songs. Keep in mind that the songs are unDRM’d MP3s so you can keep them even if you stop using the service.

Rhapsody is $10 per month with no credits, but you can download songs, albeit DRM’d, to multiple devices, like the iPhone or a PC. MOG has no downloading features and costs $10/mo. Downloading is nice because you can play the songs without being connected to the Internet. (FYI, to download to an iPhone using Rhapsody you must create a playlist first.)

I recently tried the 4-day trial of MOG.com, but hate the way it’s implemented. Napster and Rhapsody both have the concept of a personal Library. You load your library up with all your favorite music. This is nice because you can quickly select from just the music you like. MOG makes you browse through everything to choose what to play. Sure, there are playlists and suggestions, but I can’t remember all the artists I like. This analogy should put it in perspective: With Rhapsody and Napster, it’s like searching through your CDs or MP3 collection to find something to listen to. You can always go the “store” and add things to your collection or just listen to stuff at the “store.” With MOG, you generally have to select from the entire “store’s” inventory.

Another thing that irritated me with MOG is that it has no ability to treat an album as a single unit, so to add an entire album to, say, a playlist, you have to add each individual song one at a time!

Rhapsody has a great iPhone app that will play music in the background. It’s nice because your Library and playlists are automatically synced between your devices. The MOG app doesn’t do background playing and Napster doesn’t even have an app.

Now, no subscription service will have every single artist, album or song you want, but I’d say they hit 99%. Now and then there’s that aggravating one song that is not streamable or downloadable. Of course, with Napster you’ve got the ability to your your credits which is pretty cool. The real benefit of these services in my opinion is the older stuff you wouldn’t normally have on your MP3 player. You know, you hear a snippet or some oddball song just comes to mind. More often than not, it’s right at my finger tips. You never know when you’ll get the itch to hear “Too Shy” by Kajagoogoo!

There are definitely significant differences between these three services. I’d recommend testing them out. All have free trials, although MOG is the only one that doesn’t require a credit card.

Anyways, right now I have both Napster and Rhapsody. I let my daughter use Napster and I use Rhapsody. It’s nice having separate accounts because we can have separate libraries.

UPDATE  2010-07-22:
I just discovered that the new Napster plans do not let you download DRM’d songs to your PC. For this you need the old Napster to Go plan which is $15 per month. They don’t seem to be pushing this plan very hard and it’s not even listed when you try to sign up. Now the benefit is that you can download DRM’d songs to a PlaysForSure mobile device–assuming you could find one. They used to have a $10 plan that only allowed you to download to a PC, but not a mobile device, but apparently that doesn’t exist anymore. Anyways, I may switch my daughter to Rhapsody to save $5 a month since I no longer use any PlaysForSure devices. This is crazy!

Quickly terminating an iOS4 multitasking iPhone app

I’ve always hated the way it takes several taps to close a web page on the iPhone browser. Apple takes a similar approach with handling multitasking apps in iOS4, but introduces a much bigger problem. The problem is to truly close (i.e., terminate) a background application, you have to switch to the Home screen, double-click to open up the task menu, long-press an icon and then select the app to terminate. That’s a lot of steps and a pain if you always want to truly close a particular app.

So far apps running in the background don’t seem to impact battery life too bad, but the big exception for me is the Tom Tom GPS app. This baby sucks juice like crazy. Anyways, with a little searching I came across this gem of a posting 30+ Super Secret iPhone Features and Shortcuts. Most of this stuff I already knew, but the sixth one down entitled “Hold Home for Five Seconds to Quit the Current App” was just what I was looking for.

Just hold the Sleep/Wake (aka Power) button until the power off screen appears. Then hold the Home button (the big button on the lower-front of the iPhone) until the app closes. Works perfectly!

You will notice that the icon will still appear in the tasks list, but as far as I can tell, it isn’t running and if you select it, the app boots like it is the first time and doesn’t return you to the state it was in last.

Add or Remove Programs: “Please wait while list is being populated” solution

Suddenly, every time I ran the Add or Remove Programs on my Windows XP machine, the window would just say “Please wait while list is being populated…” and just stay that way. Well, after reading countless sites I finally found the solution here. Who is the culprit??? F’ckin Java!!!

Basically, you just run RegEdit, go to HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE/SOFTWARE/Microsoft/Windows/Current Version/Uninstall. Search for Java entries and look at the DisplayIcon Value Data. It has a bad path with two backslashes, like C:Program FilesJavajre1.6.0_02\binjavaws.exe. Just delete one of the extra backslashes in all of the entries you find. Reboot and Add or Remove Programs should work fine after that.

I really didn’t need another reason to hate Java, but there it is…

UPDATE  2010-07-09:
An even better solution is to just uninstall Java altogether! Can’t think of why I need it. This also solves the constant update nag notification in the system tray too! Make sure you still run RegEdit and kill all traces of Java that the uninstall leave behind as well as the Program FilesJava folder. Ahhhhh….that’s better.

UPDATE 2010-08-07:
The problem came back again so maybe Java isn’t the sole culprit. I got a copy of PC Tool’s Registry Mechanic at Staples (for an amazing $14.99) and it didn’t fix the problem, although my PC seems to run smoother after using it. Then I tried running the Windows command “SFC /SCANNOW” and that seemed to fix things again. (Make sure you have your Windows install CD before running.) Hope this fix sticks cuz I’m sick of fixes!

UPDATE 2010-12-04:
I FIGURED IT OUT!!! Based on my research, the Add or Remove Programs app can get hung up due to a problematic external drive. I didn’t have one attached, but then it occurred to me that I did have a “virtual” one: an FTP site mapped to a drive via NetDrive. Sure enough, when I disconnect the mapped drive, the Uninstall list populated instantly! Not sure the best way to solve, but I’ll probably just turn NetDrive on and off as needed and not let it autoconnect upon booting. Whew! So happy to solve this mystery!

UPDATE II 2010-12-04:
I deleted a bunch of empty random folders on the FTP site–have no idea how then got there–and now NetDrive seems to coexist fine with Add or Remove Programs. Not sure if this will continue, but I am sure that this is the culprit when I encounter uninstalling issues. Guess I just have to see if the problem crops up again.