Posts Tagged ‘Review’

Spotify – First Impressions

Mar 5th, 2009
This review is based on early impressions of a beta product. It should not be taken as representive of the final product, and it is likely that my cursory examination have caused me to miss a few important features. Also, while very critical in places, it should be pointed out that I am VERY impressed with Spotify, and my criticisms are largely to reflec the way I hope it develops in future versions.

I’ve just started playing around with Spotify, a service which would seem to hit the ‘too good to be true’ warning, and would have done so if I hadn’t seen it covered in the mainstream press.
Spotify Screenshot
Spotify is a free audio player available from www.spotify.com. Unlike other audio players, such as winamp, iTunes1, Media Player or Songbird, Spotify will not limit you to playing just your own music; it will allow you to play any music. Well, any in its library, something which I’ll come to later. While this may sound like a dodgy file-share front end, it is in fact legitimate, fully legal and licensed. The service is ad supported, although so far they appear to be less regular, and less annoying than radio adverts. You can’t skip them, and they pause if you mute your system. However, if the ads annoy you, and you decide you want to go ad free, you can do so for £9.99 a month.

The interface is clean, fast and smooth, especially in contrast to the positively clunky Songbird. It’s styling are clearly inspired by Apple, although the window doesn’t look out of place on my Windows system. Its easy to search for and find tracks, however the interface feels a touch limited at times. For example, if I search for tracks by Queen it successfully finds 4862 tracks, these cover the band, other bands with the word Queen in them (eg. Queen Latifah) as well as albums and tracks containing the word Queen. At the top of the search it provides links, which look as though they should narrow your search, but instead link you to a page about the band/album. This detail is a nice addition, and you can add tracks from these pages, but it can make searching a touch cumbersome. Fortunately it is possible to write quite detailed search strings, and gain control that way. It is also the case that once you have sorted your search results, new results are no longer appended to the bottom. While this is understandable when it comes to maintaining the sort, it could cause problems if your track makes a later appearance.

The interface also has limitations when it comes to playlist management. It is possible to get a track playing in two ways, double clicking it, or queuing it to the playlist. The former begins it playing immediately, and adds the remainder (or a subsection thereof if there are lots of results) of the current search to your playlist in a greyed out fashion. These will be played automatically once the currently playing track has ended. However any tracks that you add manually following this will be highlighted in white, and added immediately after your last manually queued track, or whatever is playing currently. This behaviour is excellent, as it allows for a quick dive into a genre or band, or more careful queing up of songs. The interface also allows you to easily re-order playlists, including bringing the grey, automatically queued tracks to the front, or middle, of your manual playlist.2 However it is not possible to modify this automatically generated playlist, meaning that if I notice it has queued up a track I don’t like, I have to wait for it to play and skip, rather then removing it from the playlist. However this approach does allow one to be listening to, say, a random selection of Rock from 1960-1980, and then easily add a track of interest to begin playing immediately after whatever is currently playing, or at least after the last manually added track.

Spotify will live and breathe on the diversity of its library. Limited selections is a major issue with many digital music retailers, and Spotify suffers similarly. While I was able to find any Queen song I so desired for instance, the selection of Pink Floyd was limited to a few covers and tribute bands.3 Some bands sit in the middle of this continuum, with the odd few tracks being picked up due to collaborations, of compilation albums. I imagine this situation is one which will improve with time, but as it currently stands Spotify will not be replacing many people’s media libraries. However, it is far from a useless selection, and includes a mix of mainstream and Indie labels. A nice touch is that the library also includes a few interviews and other shows, which are sorted into suitable categories and thus will occasionally crop up in automatic playlists. I haven’t yet found out if it is possible to control whether this happens or not.

As well as the few limitations of the library size, it also has a few problems with annotation. For example, clicking the screenshot above and you’ll see that it classes Atomic Kitten as rock, which seems a bit of a stretch, even for categories which are often subjective.

So how does Spotify compare to something like Last.fm? Well firstly Spotify give you far much more control over what you are playing, and is far less dependent on having a browser. It makes it theoretically possible to use Spotify to entirely replace your music library, a task for which last.fm is neither designed nor suited. Both feature mechanisms of being introduced to new music, although only Last.fm’s system dynamically responds to your tastes. Spotify doesn’t even allow you to rate tracks, and I feel it could gain significantly by replicating Last.fm’s Love/Hate ratings, allowing you to completely forbid tracks, or make them easy to find in future. While it is possible to add favourite tracks to a playlist, a favourites system would allow users to easily find ‘my favourite 1970s Rock tracks’ for example. The other major area is the social side of things, one in which spotify is surprisingly lacking. While it is possible to share music and even colaberate on playlists, this is all achieved outside the Spotify player, and even the website. This isn’t perhaps a failiure, but does seem a surprising oversight in this age of social media. However it is possible to scrobble Spotify tracks to Last.fm, so ther use of one certainly doesn’t preclude the other. Overall though the two systems currently perform different functions, last.fm being a site for discovering new music and sharing what you are interested in, while Spotify is attempting to replace the local media library.

One final feature I feel could benifit Spotify is support for local media libraries. While its eventual goal may be to entirely replace local media collections, or at least digital ones, it is not there quite yet. This feature would encourage people to abandon their current local media players more regularly in favour of Spotify, and would also help ease bandwidth for tracks which are already stored locally.

In summary, Spotify may very well be the future of digital music, but that future isn’t quite here yet. However, Spotify is still in beta, and makes a very impressive present.

  1. Which annoyingly I keep Malaproping on and calling iPlayer. []
  2. I realise this talk of automatic and manual playlists is confusing. What I’ve dubbed the automatic playlist is a list of songs cued up through selecting a radio station or by double clicking a track in a search result. This playlist is greyed out and located at the end of any manually queued up tracks; it will only begin playing if it gets to the end of the manually queued playlist, and will automatically extend itself using the same search parameters if it nears the end. []
  3. This does’t actually appear to be a label problem as EMI, Sony, Warner, and Universal are all signed up, among others. []

Slumdog Millionaire

Jan 25th, 2009

Earlier today I went to see ‘Slumdog Millionaire‘ at the local Vue. Firstly meta-commentary: £6.20 for a student ticket! I’m sure the cinema never used to be quite that expensive. Secondly, I do wish people would avoid talking though the film. I’m charitably assuming that one of the women behind me must have been blind, because her friend seemed to narrate was was on the screen every couple of minutes. Then again, the “Oh, this must be where he meets the lassie,” comment, among others, suggests I may being too generous. (Especially as by that stage we had already seen the ‘lassie’ in question several times!)

I first heard about ‘Slumdog Millionaire‘ a couple of months ago, certainly before the nationwide US release, and probably around the time it had first been seen in one of the film festivals. I thought it sounded interesting, but then only end up getting round to see it after its critical plaudits, and success at the box office. Sigh.

However, although I enjoyed the film, I felt it fell short of what it could have been. Even allowing for the requirement for flashbacks, the film often felt slightly disjointed. At times I found myself left in confusion as to how Jamal knew something (and I don’t mean the answers to the questions), and although it was possible to deduce the reasons from later in the scene, it often meant the beginning of the scene was slightly confusing. (Although possibly thats just me being slow)

Similarly, I felt there was a lack of narrative cohesion between most of the questions, and the associated flashback. While there is no particular reason why the answer to the question needs to tie in with the story more intimately, I feel it may have been more satisfactory that the use the ideas which in some places felt slightly shoe-horned in. Ironically, had the story been more contrived in places, it would have felt less so.

Oh dear, I make it sound like the film was terrible, when it was anything but. (Not to mention I must sound hypocritical when I say it felt disjointed in places.) I enjoyed the film overall, and felt it was a pretty good example of the way in which the British film industry operates best. The film certainly wouldn’t have come out of Hollywood, and I seriously doubt it could even come out of the American independent films scene. I’m not familiar enough with the Indian film industry to know wether a similar film could have been developed there. Obviously the author of Q&A was Indian, and the film made use of a number of Indian actors (as well as British, Asian actors), however my knowedge of Indian film extends as far as Bollywood, and I don’t what the rest of their film industry is like.

Edit: Whoops, almost forgot my plan to rip-off Rock, Paper, Shotgun and link to a piece of music at the end of my weekly blog posts.

Good Old Games

Sep 9th, 2008

Good old games is a games download service that allows gamers to buy older titles, especially those which may be a bit difficult to find without trawling the depths of eBay. Like all the best download services, its titles are free of DRM, which means that they aren’t suddenly going to break on you should the company go bust, or if you decide to reformat your computer. Quite nicely, they also promise everything will be XP and Vista compatible, something that can be a bit troublesome for older titles.

A few months ago I though this sounded quite snazzy, so signed myself up for the beta. Today I got access, so thought I’d give things a whirl. As a favour to their beta users, GOG are doing a buy one get one free offer on the first order, Sign-up was quick and easy, and didn’t seem to require too much in the way of information. Unfortunately it did decide to send my password and security question to my E-mail, a questionable security practise. I’ll E-mail them on this one.

I had a bit of trouble with establishing a secure connection, but that seemed to be due to OpenDNS. It seems to cause problems on secure sites if some of the page content is hosted at an invalid domain.

Payment allows visa or Mastercard only, which means those without a credit card are possibly out of luck. I’d try my debit card, but I’d prefer the added security of a credit card on an unfamiliar website. So can’t say if delta is also accepted. However they claim that they are adding more cards shortly, so I assume this limitation won’t last long.

On purchase of Sacrifice at the bargain price of $5.99 (About £3) the game was added to my account page for downloading when I saw fit. The account page also provides links to forums, articles and additional downloads.It also gives me the opportunity to rate the game and review it. The articles address technical issues with the game, such as the requirement to run the installer as administrator on Windows Vista.

The downloads for the game include the manual, reference card, desktops and avatars. The game itself downloads as a single exe, and the 562.6MB file is downloading hovered around 140kB/s-160kB/s, it looks like it will take about an hour.

While thats happening I’ll talk about the rest of the service. Much like Steam, GOG provides forums for all the games available on its service, as well as a General Discussion forum which currently contains mainly feedback and feature requests.

The website provides a nice console, listing games you own, providing download links as well as links to relevant support articles and forums. According to GOG purchased games will be available for download forever, which should sound like a no-brainier, but some download services fail to provide this. The website also encourages you to make backups to CD, something I’ll do as I don’t fancy re-downloading half a gig regularly.

Unlike something like Steam, the service doesn’t require any background tasks. This will please many people and hopefully means that games installs will be virtually identical to the CD versions, only without a CD requirement.

Interestingly the license covers any number of PCs/laptops in the same household. In practise of course many people will do this anyway, but its nice that they allow it implicitly.

Now onto the the most important aspect, the catalogue. GOG promises to add new releases each Tuesday, which should ensure a constant flow of games. Currently it just hosts titles from Codemasters’ and Interplay’s back catalogues. This includes among them classics such as Fallout 1 and 2, Sacrifice, Giants: Citizen Kabuto and MDK, all at $5.99. There are also a few $9.99 titles thrown into the mix. Currently they only have 34 titles listed, and a few of those are flagged as ‘coming soon.’ Notably key Interplay titles like Baldur’s gate aren’t present, I suppose Atari’s continued interest in the D&D license, or Bioware’s cavorting with EA, may be holding this one back. However the forums are full of requests so we’ll see what happens.

The developers currently seem to be fairly active on the forums, but this is may be just due to the beta period.

With the download done, we are on to installation. As suggested, I’ll install as administrator.

Hmm, bit of a slow start here, but its a huge file and the problem could be with Vista’s paranoid security. Still, we are in to a customised installer. Seems to be very easy to use, if you don’t want to charge the default installation directory it is installed and launched in three clicks.

Game works first time, and adds itself to the vista games manager, uhh, twice, once with a shiny icon, and another time with downloaded box art. The shiny icon has links to the manual etc, and the box-art icon appears to be the version Vista ads automatically. The game appears to be fully patched.

So overall the process was extraordinarily simple, and doesn’t have any unnecessary gubbins to get in the way. One downer is that they don’t provide an automatic update tool, but seeing as these games are pretty ancient I expect they are as patched as they are going to get.

Currently the selection is a touch limited, as are the payment options. However, it is still early days, and GOG already show intentions of addressing both these problems. I hope early sales will be sufficient to encourage other publishers to join the fray. The low prices means that I’ll certainly be using the service in future, to catch up on missed titles and to fill in gaps between modern releases. The benefit of not requiring the CD, of having everything patched up and easy to use, and having it all only a few clicks away, makes GOG an attractive alternative to scouring eBay and the pre-owned bins, and charity shops.

Good Old Games can be found at http://www.gog.com/ and is currently in beta phase.

The baah-ley don’t you know…

Feb 9th, 2006

Today I managed to rope myself into going to see a ballet, and despite it being ‘Edward Scissorhands’ I still half expected something pretentious, inaccessible and dull. Still, I thought, you’ve got to try these things once. Although I doubt anyone has been on their deathbed thinking, ‘Damnit, if only I’d seen a ballet,’ I’m sure there are plenty of people who have never seen one despite a vague plan to ‘do it some-time.’

Now I must admit to liking the theatre, even if I don’t actually go all that often. There’s something vaguely ‘magical’ that it has, that the cinema has either lost, perhaps just through familiarity, or half an hour of previews. I know there’s a perfect word to capture what I want to say, only its slipped my mind.

But onto the production itself. Well although I don’t have much to compare it with I was pleasantly surprised, not only was it accessible but I actually enjoyed it. It was completely lacking in any pretentiousness, and had a style which was almost ‘cartoon like’ in nature, using a caricature of the well established Hollywood version of Suburban America and the characters within. Not only that but these characters were shown not just through different clothing and roles, but also in the manner in which they danced and moved.

My fears that it would be difficult to understand were also unfounded. It was surprising how much could be conveyed without the need for words. In some ways the ‘cartoon’ style helped here as it allowed for exaggerated actions, without them looking unnecessarily cheesy or grandiose. Secondly the choreography was excellent, seamlessly combining the movements associated with progressing the plot with more set-piece dance moments, which were themselves woven into the presented world as much as possible.

Once again my preconceptions were dashed when I was surprised by the variety in the styles of dance. The stereotyped image of the ballet I held before hand was one mainly of pirouettes and leotards, and although I realised that this was probably inaccurate I had still imagined that the style of dance was fairly rigidly defined. However ‘Edward Scissorhands’ embraced a number of styles from what I would consider ‘Traditional ballet,’ through dance more closely resembling ‘rock and roll,’ to the more general choreographed movements around the set. Clearly my prior understanding of ballet was deeply limited, and instead it is the central role of choreography and (non-vocal?) music to a production that is important, rather than a set style of dance.

Technically the production was excellent. Scene changes were smooth and barely noticeable and yet managed to produce dramatic changes in mood and setting. Not only did the set fly in and out un-noticed, but it did so without any disruption to the action on stage, leading to a number of moments of genuine surprise when the back-lights went up to reveal a completely different set to the one which was present a moment before. The set design also managed to match the character of the rest of the production, and produced a contracts between the Gothic opening and suburban America.

Overall I was very impressed. Although my experience is limited, and thus I am unable to compare it with other productions, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and rate it highly on its own merits. Yet ‘Edward Scissorhands’ was presented to me representing more than just itself, and also managed to destroy my preconceptions of what ballet was. While I’m sure there are a few ballets which will lie closely along my preconceptions the concept itself is no longer a turn-off, and I’m fully prepared to go along to another ballet in future, especially if its as good as ‘Edward Scissorhands.’