Saturday, September 09, 2006

 
PDA is In
I picked up my x51v from the USPS today - I'm so glad they're open on Saturday, or else I'm not sure how I'd ever get my packages. I quickly charged the x51v and powered it on to verify it worked and that it was the correct model. It is the 624 MHz Intel XScale processor version. So I think I got a great price, since I believe this version is selling for $500 new. Processor speeds can be varied to save battery, so I just left the clock rate on auto.

First thing I noticed watching lectures on this much larger, 640x480 screen is that the 240x320 resolution lectures do not scale up to fill the full screen in full screen mode. The smaller resolution is standard on most Pocket PCs. Also, it could be that something was screwy with the way that the 240x320 resolution lecture was encoded - they had some technical trouble and had to stitch the lecture together from two separate pieces.

Funny thing though is that the hi-res, 512 kbps encoded lectures play great on this unit. The videos are choppy, but the audio gets prioritized and it's very watchable. I will most likely be downloading and watching the hi-res versions due to the screen size issue. If WMP could stretch the smaller res videos, then I'd go with the lores ones. Battery is drained 50% by a hires lecture (1hr 20min).

Another plus about this PDA over the last smartphone I had was that this comes with a standard headphone jack. No expensive/annoying dongle to adapt a proprietary jack to the standard stereo jack.

WIFI with WAP-TKIP worked great, and licenses were acquired no problem.

As for the portable desk, I figured out just the thing I need. I'm going to get one of these:
http://www.copquest.com/37-3000.htm
And then I'll cut out a window in the bottom portion. I'll then cover the entire top with a clear acrylic, glued on somehow. The result will be a large flat writing surface that securely holds/hides the PDA. The video will still be visible through the window, though I can cover it to write on the notes if I want.

I'll need to have some type of holder for the pda so it doesn't slide around inside the box, but at the same time, the holder should not get in the way if I want to put papers inside the box. (Maybe elastic) Pens can be stored inside the box too, which would be convenient.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

 
RE: Lectures on Axim

To determine whether the Axim would indeed be able to play lectures, I posted on 3 PDA forum sites. One, presumably the biggest one for the Dell Axim, had a bunch of favorable responses. Here is the thread:
http://www.aximsite.com/boards/showthread.php?t=136944

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

 
PDA Update
Won the Axim on Ebay:
Dell Axim X51v
Dell retail price after instant 25% off coupon, and free shipping, was $405. So I got this thing for $75 under retail, shipped. Hopefully the cost savings outweight the "eBay risk."

 
This update has to be split between progress on cellphones, and progress on watching mobile lectures. It just didn't work out to put the two things together.

Cell Phone Update
I returned the XV6700 and got my money back. I also returned to my original cell phone. I'm talking normal, non-pda cell phones though - seems like no PDA cell phone is practical for me. The phone I have now is just as good as all of the phones offered right now by Verizon. Why switch? So as of now, I am no on any contract, which is nice. I have the option to switch to Cingular or Sprint. I mention those two companies because they have VERY nice cell phone hardware.

The best phones I saw at Best Buy were:
Cingular-branded
- Moto SLVR
Sprint-branded
- Sprint Power Vision(SM) Multimedia Phone A900 by Samsung
- Sanyo Katana for Sprint

Not sure which one I saw at Best Buy of the two Sprint ones, but they both look like good phones. One actually made handwriting sounds, and had an animated pen for when numbers are typed into the phone. Sort of cute. The SLVR was faster responding when it came to searching through a long contacts list. But the SLVR's keypad was either bad, or hard to get used to in a few minutes of in-store fiddling.

That said, a review of JD Power (http://www.jdpower.com/cc/rd/cc/telecom/ratings/wireless/index.asp) shows that Verizon is rated the highest, with T-Mobile in a second place for the Western market. Sprint is abysmal, and Cingular is so-so. Easiest thing to do, it seems, is to just hang on to my old Audiovox phone with Verizon and see if any neat phones come in.

Lecture Update
I haven't given up hope on watching lectures on the train. Looks like the best remaining option to watch WMV's is with a PDA, specifically the Dell Axim x51v. This comes with a heftier processor, and a higher res. screen than the xv6700 had. It's got Wifi and bluetooth. I'd probably hold on to it until December, then hawk it on eBay, unless it's super useful outside of mobile WMV watching. I'm keeping my eyes peeled on eBay - they're going for around $350 shipped, NIB. This is what I paid for the XV6700, but I believe this PDA will have higher resale value come December. Also, I'm not stuck with the thing for some arbitrary 2-yr contract term as I was with the PDA phone.

Dell is selling the x51v for $374.

I posted on 3 Axim-related forums to find someone experienced in watching long videos on the Axim (battery-wise, quality, etc), but no reply yet.

Monday, September 04, 2006

 
Mobile Lecture Update
I went biking Saturday. Couldn't bring along the XV6700 Brick - that was inconvenient. So, I decided I just don't like the XV6700 as a phone. It's too cumbersome, and it's tough to dial with it. I need a number pad with real buttons that click under my thumb, and maybe a scrolly wheel. I tested out the Q today at the VZW store; see, I get one exchange in a 15 day period. I'm about 5 days into that period, so I have about 10 more to figure out if I'm really returning this XV, and if so, what I'm getting to replace it.

I looked at the 700w treo. If I could afford the EVDO to acquire the license, the Treo might work. But it only has Bluetooth, no WIFI. And there is no way to copy a license from a computer over to the miniSD or anything.

As for the Moto Q, it easily acquired the license, and read my SD card; problem is, Q was too slow to keep up with the WMV. The Audio was just barely chopy, but enough to drive anyone nuts. Video was jerky, but that would be something I could live with. Q seems like a nice phone - too bad it cant handle the lecture audio. As for the video player WMP, when there is no stylus, the only way to fast fwd is with buttons. To queue up the Q to the start of lecture (again, this is a complaint: why the 10 minute bumper at the front of each lecture?) took about 5 minutes for the phone to FFWD. Ain't gonna work.

Solution: ???
So now I'm not really sure what to do. I'm looking at two seperate devices now - PDA for the train, and then the cell phone for normal, drab cell phone stuff. In other words, for me, I don't think the cell phone world has quite collided with the mobile video watching world. Weight/bulk is too much. The price for web service is too much, but if DEN would just get rid of the DRM that wouldn't be an issue. Anyway, looks like it's not doable on a phone.

Maybe a two-device solution is fine because I'm only DENing for the next 9 months. Then I'm back to civillian life! So I want to end up with a phone I like for the long run.

I'll check out some PDAs at Best Buy and/or Fry's tomorrow. Dell Axiom seems like the nicest feature set for the cash, but I'll see what they've got at the store.

As for boring cell phones, I can get Chocolate for $50AR. My friend has Chocolate, but it's got drawbacks too. But the Dell Axiom/Chocolate combo will be the same price point, and result in the same or better combined feature set.

Friday, September 01, 2006

 
The Idea
I needed to enroll in 2 classes this fall in order to graduate from USC with my MSEE in May 2007. Prior to now, I took only 1 class at a time for the last 6 semesters, and these were huge stressors on my life. So the double school workload prompted me to consider my time management, and get a new angle on how I’d tackle the challenge.

My classes are all “online,” meaning they are video recorded, and available for streaming and downloading through USC’s Distance Education Network (DEN). Lecture notes are scanned into PDF, and homework is submitted via email or fax.

I recently moved, and take the train to work in El Segundo, CA. The total commute is 1 hr give or take 5 minutes door to door. While on the train, time is mostly idle reading a magazine or listening to the ubiquitous iPod. It’s a 30-40 minute train ride. My idea was to take advantage of that train ride time, and watch lectures on the train.

Normal Daily Schedule
5:45a Wake up
6:45a Park, and walk to train station
7:10a Train departs station
7:45a Train arrives near work
8:00a Sit at desk, lunch at desk typically
4:30~5:00p Leave work
5:15p Train departs station
5:50p Train arrives station
6:05p, Arrive home, dinner
In the evening, I either watch lecture, or do homework

Class Schedule
M,Tu,W,Th: 1hr 20min lecture
Fri: 50 min discussion
Total video watching per week: 370 min
Total train ride per week: 350 min

The Hardware
My friend CN has a XV6700 phone with Verizon, and while it is bulky, he had shown me some of the amazing things it could do. Many features require subscription to Verizon’s EVDO data network. This is a cellular broadband access service, which costs >$20/mo. It would take quite a leap for me to justify that expense, and I still cannot, as I will cover later. The key is: this thing plays videos.

The phone is 2.3 in x 0.9 in x 5.2 in, and 181g in mass. In comparison, my previous CDM8900 Audiovox was 93 g. Other Personal Video Players (PVPs) weigh 250g and up. I’ve been and am still skeptical of the all-in-one does-everything mobile device. But the form factor and function of this XV6700 squeaks past my standard for a device I’d want to carry with me at all times. Another argument against the cell phone that does everything: “I just need to make calls.” This doesn’t apply to me because I don’t make that many phone calls. That true, perhaps I need a PVP that happens have a cell phone in it. The XV6700 has that feel. As for lugging the thing around, it will barely fit in a pocket. When in a pocket, it is clearly noticeable. I think the happy medium is a horizontal belt clip pouch, and I will be getting one of these soon to try it out. This is the type of pouch that mounts the phone landscape vs. portrait. Hardware cost: $299 with 2yr contract.

More notes on functionality. Wifi 802.11 support, Bluetooth, EVDO, USB, miniSD, touch-screen, 416 MHz Intel's PXA 270 XScale processor. I’m using a 2GB miniSD, $35 AR from Fry’s. 1GB may have sufficed, and 4GB is available. For more detail, there’s Google.

To read/write to the miniSD, a student might consider buying a <$10 card reader. See “Loading Lectures” under Implementation below.

Battery power is another potential concern. Video decoding and file copying is tough work. Luckily, it doesn’t yet seem to be an issue. After 20 hours, no phone calls, and one 40 minute viewing session, battery power meter estimates 80% power remaining. Plus the phone comes with an AC wall charger, and will also charge over USB. I can charge it at work using USB, or at home with the AC charger without much loss of convenience.

The Software
The key is, the phone runs Windows Mobile 5.0, and has Windows Media Player (WMP) 9, with DRM support. This means, if I can get DRM-protected DEN lectures downloaded and onto the phone, and if the phone can acquire a license over some network, I could watch lectures on the phone.

Lectures were originally 503 kbps, 1024x768 video encoded with a 20 kbps mono WMA 9.1 CBR audio track. This is brilliant quality, however the phone is not capable of handling it. One, the screen resolution is 240x320 (can rotate screen portrait, or landscape). Two, the data rate is too fast for the onboard bus processor to decode. Third, an unnecessarily large video stream will just drain batteries needlessly, as mentioned above.

Think of this as a systems engineer might. When I go mobile, video requirements get more stringent, and the margins decrease significantly. At my computer, I have a huge screen, and am on AC power. While mobile, my network connectivity goes down, my battery power goes down, my processing power goes down, and my screen resolution goes down. That means that the video shot in lecture must be zoomed/framed to a more strict requirement. Letters must be large enough to squeeze onto the smaller screen. See The Implementation below.

I kept looking for a way to meet these requirements. Sometimes rather than downloading and watching at home, I watch the streamed version of the lecture. Caveat to OSX DEN students out there: you can’t download and watch DEN lectures since WMP for OSX does not have DRM support. But you can stream. By chance, I checked the properties of this stream. The stream was a 256 kbps encoding, with 240x320 resolution. I thought that since this encoding of the lecture exists in order to stream, perhaps DEN could offer this version as a sort of lo-res download. I contacted BT, the DEN IT Director.

In parallel, my friend CN tried playing the 512 kbps stream to no avail. Video decoding could not keep up, and audio was choppy. I investigated means to transcode the streams to a mobile-friendly format, but there was no good way to do this without a screen dub (Tunebite.com) which would be too time-consuming. If this was going to work for my daily “production environment”, it had to be nimble, and non time-intrusive.

BT did get back to me, and to my surprise, he agreed that it was something DEN could do. Truly, this flexibility is a great virtue of the DEN, and a culture like this will propel USC into the emerging technology-enabled remote education market. Here is his letter:

//letter begin//
Andy,

We will accommodate this request, though it will start next week. I haven't
gotten the license to sync up properly from Windows Media Player to my PDA,
so you may be required to still get the initial license via your phone data
connection. After the license is acquired, it will play a few times before
you have to acquire a new license for that file. More information about can
be found here:

http://den.usc.edu/help/technicalrequirements.htm#dlvideo

thanks


B. T.
Director, Instructional Technology
Distance Education Network
University of Southern California
http://den.usc.edu
//end of letter//

So I was in business.

I want to briefly mention ActiveSync 4.2 (AS). The only way to move WMV files on/off the XV6700’s miniSD via USB is with AS. It is quite “dumb,” and I’m looking for a better alternative. Haven’t had much time to investigate this further.

The Network Service
The only network required for this discussion is to acquire a video license. According to BT, that can even be done using file copying, so perhaps no network is necessary at all. Long story short, I connected the XV6700 WIFI 802.11 to my WPA-TKIP encrypted home network and acquired the license. Web worked too (but who has time for that?!). I disable the WIFI at all other times to save battery power. EVDO network may be fun, but it is not necessary. I haven’t tried Bluetooth.

The Implementation
I’m now in my 14 day trial period with the phone. There are other PDA phones on the market, but after reading many many reviews, I decided to try this phone first. Other options include the Motorola Q. I plan on giving this phone a few days to get used to it, and then stopping through a Verizon Wireless store testing the Q. Q is $100 less, and slimmer, hosting the same software, but with a smaller screen, no Wifi, and no touch screen.

A driving concept: In multimedia, most information is passed over audio. Consider a home video – sure the picture is shaky and the colors are bad, but as long as the audio is clear from ambient effects like wind, a viewer can get the idea of what was going on. And the better the audio, the more information that can be conveyed. When viewing the half-rate, mobile capable lecture versions, there is no sacrifice to the audio. When the train doors open and the cars and trucks on the 105 FWY 15 meters away roar at 60 mph, the max audio level from the phone is still ok. But the margin of error on the audio levels is also decreased. If the DEN operator neglects to provide the lecturer with a properly mounted lapel clip-on mic, or neglects to track the levels as the lecture goes on, everything instantly falls apart. No information can be conveyed, regardless of video.

In lecture, the professors often talk aloud as they write notes, and then point to their writing as they convey their story. A student might be familiar with the typical, “see how this and this leads to this? The top of this one cancels with the lambda term in the bottom of that one, and then we exchange integral and summation.” I don’t need to always see every squared symbol, or differentiate a psi from a numeric “4”; I just need to follow their logic to learn. And when I do need to see the writing detail, this screen size has thus far been large enough to typically see what they are writing. Sufficient zoom is critical for this.

All else failing, a DEN student has the option to print up the lecture notes. The problem with this is when on the train, there isn’t much space, there’s no desk, and you’re constantly protecting the hardware from being stolen (see Safety below). On the beach, maybe notes and phone would be more easily juggled. I’ve also been brainstorming about a clever way to hold both notes and phone in a small, portable desk. I’m pretty close to something useful, and will post once I figure it out.

Loading Lectures: The original idea was to simply transfer lectures over USB to the phone’s miniSD. Using the phone as a card reader seems to be very buggy, but I’m still testing this out. I fumbled the WMV onto the miniSD using my Casio digital camera as the card reader. An adapter came with my miniSD to insert it into SD card slots, which is what the camera uses. This caused problems though. The camera or associated driver wasn’t able to format > 1GB. Just wanting to get it going (at 1am. More later on that), I jammed the file onto the card, acquired the licensed (again, more later), and got to bed. What I found was I couldn’t add any more files to the miniSD, nor delete the lecture from the miniSD. Something in the formatting had gone wrong. I tried another digital camera from ES, and being a newer model, it must have supported the 2 GB. I used the newer Casio digital cam to format the drive, and then used the camera as a card reader, and dragged/dropped the file onto the card.

Watching Lectures: Ah, finally; the test. WMV is loaded, license is acquired, battery is charged.

First Day
Once on the train, I pulled out my XV6700 and plugged the proprietary headset in (earbuds that come with the phone). Adapters exist to convert the proprietary jack to a standard headphone jack. I plan on trying this with some el-cheapo noise canceling can-style headphones. In the mean time, I’m using the included headset. Juggling my book bag into my lap, trying not to bump into the person next to me, I bring the phone out of standby mode. I navigate using the File Explorer to the WMV file located on the miniSD. Clicking, the file opens in a desktop-reminiscent WMP GUI. The video when first opened is about the size of a large postage stamp, surrounded by largely useless interface elements. Once seeking forward to the DEN-typical 10 minute mark, the lecturer (EE535, Professor Mitra’s Wednesday August 30th lecture) began.

Side note: why is there a 10 minute bumper on the front of each lecture? Cropping the video files in post to the actual start time plus a 30 second musical intro bumper would be much more professional looking.

I slide closed the keyboard to make the phone more wieldy. When the keyboard is open, the phone is a little tough to grasp. And a tight, discrete grasp is needed to assure the phone doesn’t get snatched. Then, clicking the full screen option, the video splashes landscape, filling the extents of the 2.8”, transflective TFT 65K color display.

I was able to focus on the lecture with no problem – train noise was high, but it did not hamper the experience by much. I can’t hold the phone out in front of me because my arms will get tired, and it’s also more vulnerable that way. I prefer to hold the phone covered by both hands as the unit is resting atop my backpack in my lap. This may lead to neck strain. These considerations can all be overcome by the aforementioned portable desk. I completed 31 minutes of the lecture on the way into work.

I decided to stay late at work, and leave at around 7:20p. Bad call. The MTA Green Line gets pretty seedy after 7p, so it’s best to be off the thing by 7ish. By 7, the commuter traffic is gone, and replaced by a tougher bunch. Plus the trains come less often, and there are less cars per train. It was just too packed to watch any lecture.

Second Day:
Riding in today, I caught 40 minutes of the EE567 lecture with Professor Gagliardi. I will likely watch the remainder of that lecture here at the office before I get back on the train today – taking notes at work is much easier than on the train. Perhaps I’ll download Friday discussion for the train ride.

Safety
With such expensive, portable equipment come safety concerns. The device could be dropped and damaged, or worse, stolen. I keep the XV6700 in its soft-sided pouch when not in use. Again, I hold the unit with two hands while on the train to mostly be discrete about having the unit, and then as a last line of defense, protect it from grabby thieves. I think these two safety concerns can be also mitigated with this portable desk I’ve mentioned above.

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