Friday, 5 July 2013

Ecoute offers a simple, attractive alternative for Macs and iPhones to Apple's 800-pound-gorilla media player, while MediaMonkey lets you manage your iTunes tracks and other media files in Windows via an Explorer-like interface.





Recently the subject of people's least-favorite software came up. Instead of the usual suspects -- Microsoft Office, Adobe Reader, Norton Antivirus -- I was surprised by the unanimous response of a mixed group of Mac and Windows users: "iTunes stinks" (or words to that effect).
Apple's media software doesn't earn a spot on my personal list of adventures in bad coding (which is dominated by products from Microsoft and Adobe), but I rely on the program primarily because of ancillary products: the iPhone, iPad, iCloud, and iTunes Match.

As stated in CNET's iTunes 11 review from last October, the program's interface is much improved from previous releases, but it's still too complex and too much of a resource hog. Using iTunes simply to listen to some music is like renting a backhoe to plant some tomatoes in the backyard.
I was struck by the disparity on Download.com's iTunes page between the program's five-star rating by CNET Editors and its two-and-a-half-star rating by users.
I looked at two very different iTunes replacements: the free MediaMonkey for Windows (also available are $25 and $50 Gold versions) and PixiApps' Ecoute for Mac OS X and iOS. Ecoute's page on Download.com indicates that the program costs $8 after a 15-day free trial, but the PixiApps site's FAQ states that the Mac version is free due to "sandboxing issues for the Mac App Store." The iOS version of Ecoute costs $2.99.
(An alternative to iTunes for transferring media from a Windows PC to an iPhone, iPad, or iPod is the free CopyTrans Manager.)
All your media-file information at a glance
The first time you run MediaMonkey, the program prompts you to register (optional) and to make the program the default for playing various media file types (deselect some or all of the preselected types to retain your current default player). If you change your defaults, iTunes will prompt you to change them back to that program the next time it opens.
Next, MediaMonkey prompts you to select which locations on your computer you want it to scan to discover your media. The current user's Music folder is selected by default.
MediaMonkey setup wizard media-scan options


The option to scan for new media files at startup is selected by default; you can choose to scan for files continuously. Click the Options button to make other changes, such as enabling a password-protected Party Mode.

MediaMonkey Party Mode settings

MediaMonkey's main screen has the multiple panes of Windows Explorer and File Explorer: a folder tree in the left pane, and folder contents on the right. Categories in the left pane include Music, Classical, Video, Playlists, Net Radio (Shoutcast and Icecast directories), and Web (five popular music retailers).
The chunkiness of the main MediaMonkey window takes some time to get used to. Stacked above the iTunes-like list of songs are small panes that sort your library by genre, album, and artist. On the far right are two Now Playing panes. The playback controls at the bottom of the screen include a mini volume bar and buttons for shuffle, auto-DJ, equalizer controls, and playlists (although not your iTunes playlists).
MediaMonkey main window

MediaMonkey's scan of my system discovered 5,074 files using a total of about 25GB of storage. The iTunes library on the PC has 5,191 files and just over 26GB of total storage (note that both libraries include many duplicate titles -- not MediaMonkey's fault).
My favorite MediaMonkey feature is the small playback controller that pops open when you hover over the program's icon in the Windows task bar.
After switching between iTunes and MediaMonkey for a couple of days, I came to appreciate some things about both programs. (Note that my testing was limited to audio playback and file management. I didn't test MediaMonkey's CD burning or on-the-fly volume leveling, nor did I use the app to sync with an iPod or iPhone.)
The Gold version of MediaMonkey costs $25 for a version 4.x license and $50 for a lifetime license (which begs the question, whose lifetime?) Gold features include support for multiple music collections, automatic file organization, automatic playlists, and "professional-quality" CD ripping.
Ecoute outshines the iPhone's music player
Where MediaMonkey throws eight categories of information at you in one big window, Ecoute comfortably squeezes your iTunes library into an unobtrusive box listing only a handful of items at a time. (You can resize the window all the way to full screen, but you really don't need to.)
You navigate your library via a single drop-down menu in the top-right corner. The current track's progress is shown at the top of the window, and playback controls are in a row at the bottom.
Ecoute main window

Click the eyeball icon in the bottom-left corner to switch to the current track's cover art and rating. When the shuffle setting is off, the icon in the bottom-right corner of the window pops up an alphabetical list of your library. When shuffle's on, the upcoming tracks appear in the pop-up window.
PixiApps' Ecoute music app for iOS
Lists in Ecoute's iOS music app display cover art when it's available. The iPhone's built-in music player is much more text-centric.
iPhone music app interface
With the exception of the small thumbnails in Albums view, the iPhone's built-in music player is a text-only affair.
Unlike MediaMonkey, Ecoute displays your iTunes playlists. Select a playlist on the left side of the window to view its contents on the right side. When I tested Ecoute I sometimes had to switch between views to have the vertical scroll bar appear in the two windows.
Similar to MediaMonkey's taskbar playback controls, Ecoute shrinks to a thumbnail on the desktop with tiny buttons for stop/play, forward, and reverse.
Ecoute really shines on the iPhone. (As noted above, the iOS version of Ecoute costs $2.99.) Both Ecoute and the iPhone's built-in music player give you the same basic view options: Artists, Albums, Songs, Playlists. The iPhone player lets you swap out one of these options for Compilations, Composers, or Genres. Ecoute's iPhone app has a Podcasts button and a Search box that slides in and out of view.
The big difference between the two apps is the appearance of their lists. With the exception of small thumbnails in the Album view, the iPhone's lists are text-only, but Ecoute shows each entry's cover art when it's available.
Other differences between the two apps are more subtle. For example, when you select an album in Ecoute, the cuts appear in a pop-up window. On the iPhone the track list slides over the album list. Both apps give you the option to shuffle the album tracks.
When you're listening to audio in Ecoute, double-tapping the iPhone button shows the playback controls on the lock screen just as when using the device's built-in music app. Ecoute works with Siri as well: when the app is active, say "play" and the name of the song to start playback in Ecoute.
Open the device's Settings and choose Ecoute to activate shake to shuffle and to choose a shuffle behavior. Other options let you change the player view to show the player when a track is selected or when the app detects inactivity. You can deactivate left or right swipes to move to the next or previous track, and switch the program to left-handed mode.
In the bottom-left corner of the Ecoute window is a button that lets you send Last.fm a list of the tracks you've listened to in the past two hours. You can also post a message about the track now playing to your Twitter feed or Facebook status.
I'm much more likely to use Ecoute on my iPhone than on my Mac because I like having easy access to the iTunes Store, playlist creation, and CD burning, among other features. Some people rarely use more than the play and stop buttons on their iPhone's music player. For them Ecoute's interface improvements may not be worth $3. But anyone who spends time rummaging around their iPhone music library will find the Ecoute app a genuine bargain.

Windows 8.1 desktop

The Windows 8 Start screen is a good starting point for Windows 8 devices with touch screens, but on PCs with standard screens, you might prefer to boot directly to the desktop. Previously, you could bypass the Windows 8 Start screen with Start8, but Windows 8.1 now lets you do it natively. Here's how:
Step 1: Right-click on the Windows 8.1 taskbar, then choose Properties.
Step 2: Click on the Navigation tab, then under the Start screen section, check the box next to "Go to the desktop instead of Start when I sign in."

Windows 8.1 navigation settings

The next time you boot Windows 8.1, you'll go straight to the desktop without ever seeing the Start screen.


Unless you've been living in a cave with no access to the Internet, you likely know Google Reader is now dead. If this comes as a surprise to you, you still have time to export your Reader data through Google's Takeout service. Be sure to do this before July 15th, when Google will remove Reader from its Takeout offerings.
One of the many Google Reader replacement services that has popped up since Google announced Reader's execution date is Feedbin.
Feedbin is a subscription service, costing $3 a month or $30 a year, with an API for developers to integrate into apps, and a functional Web site to browse through your newsfeed.
Currently Reeder (free) for iPhone has Feedbin support, with plans to add it to the iPad and Mac version in a future update. Press for Android ($2.99) also has Feedbin support. You can see a full list of apps with Feedbin support at Feedbin.me.
As Feedbin and its competitors try to gain traction with new Reader refugees, the app selection might not appeal to everyone, leaving those people to rely on the Web site. One major drawback to using the site is the lack of an unread count. Thankfully, a developer and Feedbin user decided to make FeedbinNotifier an OS X menu bar application, open-source it, and give it away for free.
Dropbox is one of the more popular cloud-based syncing and storage tools, and offers Mac users a convenient way to transfer files from one system to another, or share files with colleagues. Dropbox can sometimes give you errors, saying that it cannot transfer something because it does not have permission to access some of the files being copied.
If this happens, then it could be because of an improper permissions setup with the Dropbox configuration files in your account, or with the files currently being copied.
If a permissions error such as this occurs, then the first thing that might come to mind is to use Disk Utility's Permissions Fix routine. But this only affects access permissions on system files and installed applications, and will not touch files in your user account.
Dropbox permissions fix
Holding the Option key in the Account section of the preferences will show the "Fix Permissions" option, instead of the standard option to unlink the current computer.)
Instead, for Dropbox-specific errors, you can use a feature in the program that will tackle file permissions associated with the program's configuration and data files being handled by it. To do this, open the Dropbox preferences by going to its menu extra, then clicking the gear icon, and finally choosing Preferences. Then go to the "Account" section of the preferences, and you should see a button labeled "Unlink This Computer..." If you hold the Option key, then you will see this label change to "Fix Permissions," and clicking the button will result in Dropbox running its permissions repair routine.
This procedure should address most permissions-related issues with Dropbox, but if not then you can try running a home folder permissions fix, which should ensure that all files in your home directory are fully accessible by your account. To do this, reboot the system into Recovery mode by holding the Command-R keys at startup. Then choose "Terminal" from the Utilities menu, and run the command "resetpassword" (all one word, and lowercase).
When the password reset tool opens, select your hard disk, and then your username from the drop-down menu. Then click the button to reset home folder permissions and ACLs, and after a few seconds the process should be complete. Now reboot the system normally, and log back into your account. Then try using Dropbox again.
While the procedure here is described with respect to Dropbox, access issues with other cloud-based storage services like Google Drive, Amazon Cloud Drive, Microsoft SkyDrive, and SugarSync can also benefit from running a home directory permissions fix
When using the Finder in OS X, sometimes you may want to have multiple views of the same folder open at once. Usually it's quick to create a new Finder window and navigate to the folder; however, this may be inconvenient if the folder is buried deep in the filesystem, such as may be the case when troubleshooting a problem or two with the system, retrieving a backed-up file, or organizing an extensive tree of work files.
If you need a faster approach, there are several, some of which use the Finder and its capabilities, and others that involve secondary programs

File path in the Finder info windowFirstly, in Finder, you can quickly create a duplicate folder view by pressing Command-up arrow to reveal the folder highlighted in its parent directory, and then pressing Control-Command-O to open the folder in a new window. You can then switch to the prior window and double-click or press Command-O to open the folder directly.
This is convenient for a single duplicate instance, but if you would like more than one duplicate, select an item in the folder and get information on it. Then expand the General section of the information window and note the "Where" listing that shows the full path to it. Select the entire path, starting with the first forward-slash and including all lines to the last folder. Then press Command-C to copy it.
With the path copied, press Command-N to create a new Finder window, and Shift-Command-G to bring up the "Go to Folder" field. Paste the copied path into this field, and press Enter to have the window go to that location. Repeat, creating a new window and pasting the path for any additional windows you would like.
Finder new favorite folder
You can create a sidebar favorite of a current folder by dragging it directly, or a reference to it from the title bar or Finder Path bar, and dropping this at a location in the sidebar. You can drag it out of the sidebar when no longer in use.
An alternative approach is to make use of the Finder's sidebar and toolbar, by dragging the current folder to these locations to make a link (you can drag the folder from the window title to the sidebar, for example). Then create a new Finder window by pressing Command-N, and click the new Favorite link to set the location. When finished, you can drag the link out of the Favorites.
Similar to the Finder's favorites menu, you can use the Dock by dragging the folder to it (in the user files section between the Trash and the separator bar), and then holding the Command key while clicking the folder. This will create a new Finder window at that folder for each click.
A final alternative is to use Spotlight, provided the folder is in your home directory, on an indexed external drive, or in another area meant for access by your user account. To do this simply search for the folder name and it should show up as a search result. Then select it and press Command-Return to open a new folder revealing the item. You can then repeat this to open additional folders revealing the item.
Slowly but surely, Next Issue is getting better.
The service slings unlimited digital magazines to your tablet (or Windows 8-powered PC) for a flat monthly rate, and its catalog is closing in on 100 titles (quite a jump from the 40 or so it offered when it first launched about a year ago).Next Issue now offers nearly 100 magazine selections via a Netflix-style subscription model.
Haven't tried it yet? Now's your chance to double the usual test-drive deal: StackSocial is offering a two-month Next Issue Premium subscription for free. Normally that would run you $30.
Let me get one big caveat out of the way right now: This offer is for new customers only.
Next Issue is available in app form for Android, iPad, and Windows 8. (Alas, it's still not available for Kindle Fire or Nook HD.) I've tried it on all three platforms, though most of my real-world usage happens on my iPad 3. Android users will be glad to know there's now parity with the iOS version, meaning you should be able to get the full catalog of available magazines. As for Windows 8, I must admit I didn't love Next Issue on a Surface tablet, owing to fuzzy-looking text, awkward navigation, and other issues.
But on an iPad, Next Issue is pretty solid, and truly wonderful for magazine junkies. The service recently added such high-profile titles as Backpacker, Consumer Reports, Food & Wine, Popular Science (nepotism alert: I'm an occasional contributor), Rolling Stone, and Travel + Leisure. That's on top of some of my existing favorites, which include Entertainment Weekly, Men's Fitness, and Time.
If you want to test-drive Next Issue without signing up for the trial, there's now an option to link to your Facebook account, which lets you sample various magazines for free. And the iOS version now lets you pinch and zoom in all magazines, not just certain titles.
Still missing, sadly, is Retina support. A company rep said this is intentional because "standard resolution...is the format used by the majority of our magazine titles." Uh, sure. Take one look at Zinio (which does support Retina) and it's hard to go back to Next Issue's comparatively fuzzy text. And the app still lacks any kind of bookmarking, sharing, or printing features (though you could always take a screenshot and print that).
So, yeah, Next Issue would do better to focus on improving its apps than just adding more titles. That said, for $10 or $15 per month, there's simply no better deal when it comes to magazine subscriptions. And now you can try it yourself for two months, no strings attached.
Most of the time I focus on practical proHere's a rare opportunity to score a deal on the way-cool Sphero robot ball.ducts, but can't we have a little fun once in a while? Yes, yes we can; today's deal is all about fun.

Today only, and while supplies last, Amazon has the Sphero app-controlled robot ball for $84.99 shipped. That's the lowest price I've ever seen for this way-cool gadget, which normally sells for $129.99.
Note: If Amazon does sell out, don't be surprised to suddenly see a higher price. What usually happens is that the product page flips over to a third-party seller, even though it's still under the Amazon banner.
Still, 85 bucks for a ball? I agree that's a little steep, but I defy you to show me another orb as entertaining as this one. The Sphero is a Bluetooth-connected gizmo controlled by your smartphone or tablet. Using tilt sensors (or onscreen controls), you can "drive" the ball around, which is cool enough by itself.
But Sphero can also play all kinds of games, including some new augmented-reality games that debuted earlier this year at CES. For example, try steering Sphero away virtual zombies that appear on your screen. That one's called The Rolling Dead, perhaps the most awesome game title ever.
The ball is darn near indestructible. It glows in all sorts of cool colors. It charges wirelessly. It's waterproof. In short, it's one seriously sweet little toy, at least based on what I saw at CES and the 4.1-star average rating from Amazon customers.
I am so, so tempted to grab one of these for my kids (uh, yeah, kids), who are already running out of summer activities. That said, I do wonder about its long-term replay value. Once the novelty wears off, is it still fun? (If you happen to have a Sphero, hit the comments and share your thoughts.)
Bonus deal: When it comes to powering your remotes, game controllers, spin-head toothbrushes, and the like, nothing beats rechargeable batteries. Today only, and while supplies last, Pennywise.biz has a 12-pack of Duracell AAA NiMH rechargeable batteries for $14.99, plus a penny for shipping. That's after applying coupon code dealnews1 at checkout. To put that in some perspective, Best Buy charges $19.99 for a 4-pack of the same batteries.
Bonus deal No. 2: Game time! Today only, Green Man Gaming is offering the LEGO Complete Pack (PC) for $28.97. The bundle includes Lego Batman, Lego Batman 2, Lego Harry Potter Years 1-4, Lego Harry Potter Years 5-7, and Lego Lord of the Rings. This last title usually sells for $29.99 all by itself, making this the single best Lego game bundle I've ever seen. Remember: Let the kids have a turn once in a while. Update: Sadly, the deal was short-lived and has no expired.
Bonus deal No. 3: Tablet Tuesday! I have no doubt that Google is soon to introduce some new Nexuses (Nexi?), but if you're happy with the current models, this is the deal for you: TigerDirect has the refurbished Google Nexus 7 (32GB) for $179.99, plus around $4 for shipping. It sells new for $249. The Android 4.2-powered Nexus 7 is widely regarded as the best "pure" Android tablet currently available.
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