Whispersync for Audio

I was happy to learn Audible books could now be synced across devices. That is, the “read to” location can be synced. I’ve been waiting for this. Coinciding with that new feature is Whispersync for Audio. Since Amazon owns Audible they’ve enabled syncing the “read to” location between Kindle ebooks and Audible audiobooks.

This has to be enabled for the title in order to work. Amazon claims over 15,000 titles are enabled. While not specifically called out, I did expect there to be an incremental cost, if not a requirement to pay full retail for both.

So I went looking for a book to buy. I found one Audiobook I already owned was enabled and in that case it was full retail for the Kindle edition. The purchase is supposed to start on the Kindle book side, but it was easier to find the enabled books at Audible.com since they were being promoted. Then I searched for it on Amazon. There is an incremental cost for “professional narration”. It varies by title but is significantly less than the full audiobook price. I found a book that was only 3 cents more for both the audiobook and ebook than it would be for the audiobook alone. (“Swarm” by B.V. Larson)

After buying the Kindle edition I was given the option to add “professional narration” for $1.99. The audiobook was currently selling at a sale price of $5 and has a regular member price of $13.96. I clicked through to buy the audiobook. I was brought to the Audible shopping cart where the book was listed to be purchased with an available Audible credit. The cash price was $13.96, no mention of the $1.99 price. So I unchecked the “use credit” box and sure enought, the price to be paid became $1.99 and I completed the purchase.

Using the sync was a bit wonky, but sync often is. I used the Audible app on my iPhone and the Kindle app on my iPad. I started off reading the ebook then fired up the Audible app. (I made sure I had the recent update first) It started at the beginning. I went back to my library and hit the “Refresh” button and things synced up. I’ve had to manually refresh the library in all my testing. The Kindle ebook seems to sync OK but does prompt me to approve the sync each time. I wouldn’t call it seamless, but it wasn’t burdensome either.

I’m not sure how much I’ll use this feature. I mostly listen to Audiobooks these days, while driving. The sync may make me use the Kindle more but I’m not sure I’ll be buying both editions up front. Nice feature. I’ll probably never use it.

Anyone looking forward to syncing audiobooks and ebooks?

Kindle Fire

Kindle Fire image
photo credit: Amazon

The web is all abuzz about Amazon’s Tablet, the Kindle Fire. Naturally it’s being compared to the iPad. Well, I have to admit I already placed my order. I figure I have some time to cancel, although my gadget curiosity will probably have me getting it. Some of my thoughts…

It’s not an iPad killer and it’s clear it doesn’t try to be. It’s about half the specs so it seems clear to me that Amazon’s not going to market this by comparing it to the iPad. As for what will kill the iPad? If the iPad dies it will either be suicide or death by a thousand cuts. The Kindle Fire may be the first cut but I doubt it will be a deep cut. It may be less than an iPad but it’s significantly cheaper than the iPad and Amazon already has content for it. It’s not a “if we build it they will come” mentality. I doubt iPad sales will suffer, rather tabler sakes overall will grow.

It’s still an open issue if the Kindle Fire is for me, especially since I already have an iPad. While the Fire runs Android it seems to be targeted as a content consumption system, with that content coming from Amazon. I haven’t seen acknowledgment that content from 3rd parties, such as Netflix or Hulu, would be allowed on the Fire. Still, in my case that really doesn’t matter. I’ve gone through spurts of using Hulu and Netflix streaming but never really became attached to either one. I’ve recently gravitated to Amazon Video despite having both Netflix and Amazon available on my TV. I can’t say why I’m using Amazon more than Netflix, but I am. Some of it is simply because I have bought some videos from Amazon since the stuff I’ve actually wanted to watch hasn’t been on Netflix. Beyond what I’ve bought I’ve just stuck to browsing the Amazon prime videos when I’m looking to find video to fill time. If I add up what I spend with Amazon it’s around the $8/mth for Netflix streaming, so I just dropped Netflix streaming which puts me even more in the Amazon camp,

Other than when I travel I don’t watch video on my iPad very much (unless it’s web video or podcasts) and I’m not sure that would change much with the Fire, The smaller screen makes it less video friendly than the iPad (at least on the surface). The wireless only nature of it means video would have to be copied to it before any travel, just like my iPad. That’s disappointing since Amazon already has the videos stored in their cloud.

Then there’s Kindle books. I prefer reading novels and test-only books of the Kindle e-reader rather than the LCD of the iPad. I don’t see that changing with the Fire. I do use the iPad for manuals and other books that are either graphics rich or that I want to refer to while I work at my desk. The smaller Kindle Fire screen may make it less useful than the iPad for me.

I do subscribe to a couple magazines on my iPad and the Fire will probably be just as good for them, assuming they’re available.

After going through the above list it seems like the smart decision is to stick with the iPad. But assuming my curiosity gets the better of me and I get the Kindle Fire – would I sell off my iPad? Maybe, but it’s not a certainty.

My MacBook Air is closer to the definition of iPad killer for me. It’s small enough that it’s not much more cumbersome than the iPad when leaving the house.. The smaller iPad is still easier to grab and go or to use when there’s no desk or table available. (Although the Air is very usable on a comfortable couch.) Assuming the browser is capable, especially for my common sites, I could see being able to replace the iPad with the Kindle Fire although the smaller screen has me a bit concerned. I’m not saying the Fire is a iPad replacement, but for the way I use it, it just might be,

There’s still a lot of questions about the Kindle Fire, so it’s premature to say this, but I will anyway. If I was deciding between the iPad and Kindle Fire, and already had the Air I’d go for the Kindle Fire and save $300. If I didn’t have the Air I’d want some better mobile computing capability and would probably go for the iPad. I can also see having both, Like the HO Touchbook that caught fire when it dropped to $99 the Kindle Fire low price should help it out and a hacking community may grow around it. The Kindle Fire would be something I’d be more willing to hack or jailbreak than the iPad.

Amazon Kindle Take 2

Amazon Kindle Amazon announced the Kindle 2 and plans to begin shipping it on Feb. 24th. While there’s no doubt Amazon has run out of Kindles at various times and there’s been estimates of a half million sold, I’m not convinced the Kindle qualifies as “hugely popular”. When using it in public I’ve only been asked about it by one person. And she asked me if it was the one Oprah talked about. I’ve never seen another Kindle in the wild.

Of course, I own the first Kindle and have already pre-ordered the second so I’m a Kindle lover. It does seem to be pricey at $359, especially when considering it’s a device that will be used to buy more stuff. But there’s the always-on “Whispernet” data connection which allows web connections in addition to book delivry. Sites are certainly limited due to the screen and lake of flash and java, but it’s a connection. Thanks to it I’ve never had to connect to a computer.

I also like being able to buy books anywhere and have them delivered in a minute or so. Prices do vary widely when compared to the physical book prices. I supposes the price depends on the publisher more than it depends on Amazon. I also like having all the books in one place and on a device I can take anywhere. When traveling I can just grab the Kindle and not have to worry about what I might like to read sometime in the future.

I also like being able to wake up in the morning and having my morning newspaper waiting on the Kindle, along with any other subscriptions. While the NY Times isn’t one of those subscriptions I read recently that it would be cheaper to give all their subscribers a Kindle than it would be to print and deliver the paper each day. Puts a new perspective on the Kindle costs. (For the record – my subscriptions are the Financial Timesand Time Magazine)

So why am I paying to upgrade to the latest hardware:

1. Number one is the redesigned next page button. I’ve gotten pretty good at not hitting it by accident but there are still times I hit it. And these days its usually multiple times.

2. The improved screen is a big enticement. I’m not looking for a backlit display but the current screen requires me to use a reading light in most cases. I’m hoping the current screen is easier to read in more places. I might actually find a backlit screen more annoying, after all books aren’t backlit.

3. The extended battery life and additional memory are nice to haves if not worth the upgrade cost. The Kindle may become a viable file storage solution with a capacity of about 1.4GB.

4. As I also like Audiobooks (which can be played on the Kindle) I think I might like the “Read To Me” feature. Although I’m not sure the read to me voice is something I’d want to listen to for extended periods of time. With audio books the narrator makes a big difference so I don’t really expect this to be an often-used feature for me. I do find it interesting that one backward focused group considers the feature illegal to use since it violates copyright law. (By extension, reading aloud to you kids is probably considered illegal by them.)

It’s been mentioned that the new Kindle is the same price as the old Kindle, a la Apple – maintaining a price point while increasing features. That’s not exactly true. They dropped the book cover for it and now charge $30 if you want one. (Also like Apple which would remove cases and cables as iPods evolved.) While I haven’t counted there seems to be a lot more covers already available for Kindle 2 than there ever were for Kindle 1. That’s one way to prime an accessories market.

So there you have it. I have no regrets about buying a second one (hopefully I’ll feel the same way once I get it). But, I have to admit it, an upgrade is a hard sell. Amazon’s “offer” was to put us Kindle 1 owners at the head of the queue provided we ordered by the 10th. The offer seemed rather insulting to me (“Be among the first to order and be among the first to receive it”) and I considered at least waiting to order as a hollow protest. Better for them to have offered nothing.

Even a first Kindle is a hard sell. But if you want an e-book reader I’d put it ahead of the others due to the internet connectivity (despite the browser and screen limits).

So, are there a lot of Kindle owners out there and I’ve just missed them?

Amazon MP3 Store

This post is obsolete and screenshots have been removed.

There was a lot of hype when Amazon began selling MP3 song downloads. Some even used the dreaded “iTunes Store Killer” phrase.

There’s certainly a lot to like about the Amazon MP3 store from a features point of view:

  • Un-DRM’d MP3 music downloads.
  • 256kbps encoding. (Actually it’s Variable Bit Rate encoding)
  • Lower cost – $8.99 for top 100 albums compared to iTunes typical $9.99. $0.89 per top 100 song compared to iTunes $1.29 for the un-DRM’d songs.

Since Amazon only sells un-DRM’d songs they have a smaller selection than iTunes. It’s a subjective opinion, but the iTunes store is easier to browse than the Amazon store.

At first I was unhappy to see Amazon wanted to use a helper program. But it’s only needed if you want to buy full albums. Upon further research it seemed unobtrusive and actually helpful by adding the downloaded songs to iTunes automatically (or Windows Media Player if you so desire). There are Windows and Mac versions. I installed the Mac version and it was just like installing any other Mac software. When your done your brought to a page where you can download a free song to test the installation.

I decided to buy OK Computer by Radiohead to give the store a try. It couldn’t be any easier. The album (and all song) purchases are made via one-click ordering. So for better or worse, you click the button and you own it, no chance for buyer’s remorse. The helper app automatically downloaded the songs and added them to iTunes.

All the usual tag information is populated. Unless you have your own standards the pre-filled information is probably all you need. The screenshots below show the free song after being automatically imported into iTunes.

 

You can also build a smart playlist to track your Amazon purchases similar to the built-in Purchase playlist. Amazon adds “Amazon.com Song ID:” to the comment field of each song. You can create a smart playlist to contain all these songs. Click the thumbnail to see the smart playlist settings.

There was some discussion about the watermarking of downloaded songs. Some record companies do watermark the files to tie them to Amazon, but Amazon says they don’t watermark the songs with any user info. Of course, future deals with record companies may change this.

Amazon’s MP3 store has a long way to go before it becomes a iTunes Store killer but it could become a solid number 2, ahead of Walmart and others. Amazon works on Mac and Windows, their software provides easy integration with iTunes or Windows Media Player and they don’t use DRM, all of which combines for a pleasant experience.

All they need is a bigger selection which all depends on what the record companies want more – competition for Apple or DRM. I’ll be visiting Amazon before buying any new music and even iTunes fans have to be pleased to see serious competition for iTunes.

Amazon Unbox on Tivo

Amazon Unbox became available via Tivo about a month ago. When Amazon Unbox was originally unveiled I barely noticed. It was another DRM encumbered video download service. There was a bunch of DRM related rules and I’d have to deal with yet another single-purpose video player and it’s DRM implementation.

But now it’s available on Tivo of which I’m a big fan so I decided to check it out. Signing up by April 30th produced a $15 credit so I could try it without any risk. The Tivo angle was intriguing because at least in theory, while still DRM’d video, it should just work without a hassle.

I linked my Tivo to my Amazon account which was a simple process and then headed to Amazon to find some video.

While subjective, I found browsing for videos a bit of a pain. If your looking for a specific title a search will find it and all is well. But browsing results in long, single column lists of videos which couldn’t be sorted by name. They could only be sorted by relevance (the default), best selling, newest arrival and price. While iTunes has it’s own problems (like burying niche movies and videos that may be interesting), I find it to be a more pleasing experience when I’m just browsing to see what’s out there. With Unbox I got tired of scrolling through pages and pages of web pages, especially when video names began to repeat. They’ve since added more pre-built categories to browse for which seems to help.

TV shows are $1.99 per episode and are an outright purchase, although I did see some labelled “rental” that were also priced at $1.99. This (at least the purchase part) is the same as the iTunes store. Amazon Unbox also offers full seasons for a discounted price. But unlike the iTunes season pass Amazon Unbox would only let me buy episodes which were already released. In the iTunes Store a season pass for an in-progress season pre-buys all episodes and delivers them when they’re released. For example, iTunes offers Stargate SG-1 Season 10 as a season pass for $35.99 and will deliver episodes as they’re released. Amazon Unbox only offers the 10 episodes that are already released for a “full season” price of $15.92. It appears you’d have to wait for the season to end before buying all episodes for a discounted price.

Movies are available as a rental for $3.99. The rental lasts 24 hours after you first hit “play” for the show or for 30 days after it’s downloaded to your Tivo. It vanishes once the time is up but it can be watched multiple times in the 24 hour period. Movies were also available for purchase. Prices where mostly $9.99 for older movies and $14.99 for more recent movies.

When I first went through the movies a month ago I was disappointed to see that the movies were in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio which I assumed was pan&scan despite the PC download being offered in widescreen. Now I see that the movies are labelled 1.33:1 (letterboxed) which is better than pan&scan (in my opinion).

I ordered a TV show (St. Elsewhere) and a movie (The Left-handed Gun) both of which are old shows. Amazon says the quality is slightly better than the “Best” recording option in Tivo. I would agree and was pleasantly surprised at how good the quality was for these old shows. The recordings were better than “best”, despite their age. I think they benefited from the fact the the recording process avoids any interference that’s sometimes present in my cable TV.

The videos can be played while their still downloading although I didn’t try this since starting to play it starts the rental clock. Since downloading takes awhile I’ve done it overnight or while I’m at work.

The movie was an hour and forty-two minutes and took 2.16GB of disk space. This compared to a shorter one hour show recorded at the “Best” setting which took 2.96GB of disk on my Tivo. So despite the better quality the files are smaller. The recording are copy protected so they can’t be burned to DVD or moved off the Tivo. A single video can be downloaded on two different Tivo’s or PCs but it is two seperate downloads.

It’s been a month and I still haven’t burned through my $15 credit so I can’t claim that Amazon Unbox has caught on with me. It is easy to use if you don’t mind browsing through a lot of web pages to find something that might interest you.

I have bought TV shows through iTunes and will probably continue to buy any I want from there. But that’s simply because I end up watching them on my Mac while I do other work. If I spent more time in front of the TV I’d order through Amazon when I wanted a show. The big benefit over iTunes that I see is the ability to order something over the internet from work during the day and have it be on my Tivo when I get home. Even so, it’s still cheaper for me to rent through Netflix so Unbox is going to remain an impulse thing. As for buying movies, if I’m going to buy a movie to keep, it’ll be on DVD, not through Unbox, iTunes or any other download service. Even when I “buy” a TV show it’s usually just for a one time viewing.

On a related note: David Pogue of the New York Times has an article about the various new features that have been quietly added to Tivo recently. Many of them were new to me so if you have a Tivo be sure to check it out. This link is to the News.com version of the story since they don’t require registration.

Click on the banner below if you want to try Unboxed on Tivo. Until April 30th you get a $15 credit towards Unbox rentals or purchased. You’ll need a Tivo with a broadband connection.