Music in the air

March 27th, 2012

“You know”, my dearly beloved said to me, “It must be possible to play music in the living room more easily!”. He knows I’m an obliging sort, and an engineer, and I fell for that one hook, like and sinker. He outlined the brief in the manner of the client who knows what he wants but doesn’t know how it can be achieved – “I don’t want to bend over my old iPod to choose tracks. I’d like to play music across the network from one of the computers. Oh, and I’d like to control the playlist from my phone.”

I promised that something could be done. But it would require time, and would almost certainly require money.

So, I surveyed the existing things I had to work with:

- a Fatman iTube iPod dock / amplifier and speakers
- a classic iPod from days gone by
- a MacBook with an iTunes library full of music
- a wireless network

It ought to be possible to make that work out – all I needed was a box of tricks that would connect to the Fatman’s line input and pull music over the network. I punched “network audio player” into Google and found myself adrift in a world of solutions that didn’t quite work…

Here are some that I considered:

- Logitech Squeezebox. I know that Lorna is a big fan of Squeezebox and has them all over her house. But the entry-level Squeezebox Radio is £150 and you have to be running their software on a machine that’s on all the time.

- Apple’s AirPort Express. A funny old gadget this, basically a wireless access point that also can output a line-level audio stream and be a print server. They cost £79. The audio output works using Apple’s (inevitably proprietary) AirPlay system, so that locks me (as an Android user) out from the system. Dearly beloved boyfriend has an iPhone, so he’d be all right with it. Still, possible but not ideal.

- Revo Mondo Wi-Fi. This is a little adaptor device that’s designed to plug into a hi-fi. It’s mostly intended as an internet radio, and has a basic two-line display. It’s about £90 from online retailers. The underlying technology comes from a firm called Receiva, and claims to support BBC on-demand radio content (i.e Listen Again / iPlayer radio) as well as live streams.

In the process of looking at all these bits of kit I kept coming across mentions of DLNA and UPnP. I did a bit more research and discovered that these standards offered me what I wanted – a flexible, cross-platform system. So, what are they? DLNA stands for the Digital Living Network Alliance, and it’s a standards body that provides standards for networked AV systems. UPnP is one of the underlying technical standards – it stands for “Universal Plug ‘n’ Play”. For the purposes of networked AV, there are three basic items in a DLNA system:

- a media server: this is a box full of media (music, video, photos) connected to the network
- a “control point”: this is a control device, that allows a user to choose media to play
- a “media renderer”: this is a device that can receive commands from a control point and content from a media server and play it.

Confusingly, a lot of products support different bits of the standard and don’t always tell you which ones! Anyway, here’s my approach:

- Media server: MacBook running Twonky 7.0. There is quite a lot of server software out there – they all have different quirks. Twonky is easy to get going with, but it’s somewhat irritatingly bound up with Twonky’s attempt to be a social media site. I’m planning to eventually switch to a DLNA-compliant NAS device with all our media on it.
- Control point: my Android phone (HTC Desire S) running BubbleUPnP. There is a free Twonky app for Android (and iOS), but I found it a bit clunky and it also doesn’t seem to be able to adjust the volume control on a remote renderer. Note that BubbleUPnP (and Twonky Mobile) can act as a server, control point and a renderer all on the same device.
- Renderer: I bought an Archos 35 Home Connect internet radio, which cost me £88 from Amazon. The Archos box is a strange concept – basically a tiny, cheap Android tablet given a pair of kitchen-radio speakers – but it seemed like just the thing for the job. It runs BubbleUPnP also, acting as a media renderer. Because it has a little touchscreen it’s possible to interact with it directly, but I’ve mostly been using my phone to control it remotely. Note that you need the full version – costs £3 – to make Bubble UPnP into a remote media renderer: once you’ve installed the licence app, go to Settings->Local Renderer->Allow remote control and then it’ll show up as a renderer on the network. After a false start yesterday (turns out Google Play gets confused if you buy the same app twice in quick succession for two different devices on the same account) the system is working nicely now. The Archos has a 3.5mm audio out, which I’ve hooked up to the Fatman amp in the living room.

Since the Archos is an Android device, you can make it run any app you like. You’ll need to install ArcTools from AppsLib to get the full Android Market / Google Play functionality though. I like to listen to BBC radio programmes via iPlayer, which works on the Archos. My only gripe is that iPlayer’s layout doesn’t work very well with the Archos’s landscape-only screen, and so you end up scrolling a lot to find the programme you want. Since the Archos has its own internal battery and speakers, I can bring it into the kitchen (disconnecting it from the amp) and carry on listening whilst I cook.
Its other feature is a little VGA webcam above the screen, so it could be used for Skype Video or even as a security camera!

The Archos unit is a “value-engineered” product, so don’t expect Apple-like levels of user experience. The resistive touchscreen is okay – I’ve used worse (TomTom, I’m looking at you) but not as good as you might be used to. That said, I think the Archos does the job I wanted pretty well. Let’s see how the “highly valued client” gets on with it!


The relocation game

March 8th, 2012

After four-and-a-half years in Cambridge, I’ve moved to Oxford. Plus ca change, plus ca c’est la meme chose, perhaps – Oxford is like Cambridge but more so (no doubt some might say that one is a pale imitation of the other…) – the university is even older, even more full of bizaare jargon and traditions (Christ Church College keeps “old Oxford” solar time rather than the newfangled Greenwich time that was imposed on them by the coming of the railways), and the city is bigger, with broader streets.

I’m working for Sharp Laboratories of Europe, a big box of boffins an R&D department out on the Science Park. (Is it me, or should the term Science Park refer to a lively outdoor space where children can play with particle accelerators? Sorry…)

Part of the package of benefits offered by the firm is relocation – a wodge of money designed to offset the cost of moving. HMRC very kindly allow you to take the first £8000 of relocation expenses tax-free, as long as you claim them before the end of the tax year after the one in which you take the job. This is slightly daft, because it means that if you join a company on April 7th (one day into the tax year) you have two years to claim your relocation allowance, whereas if you start your new job on April 5th, you have only one year. Anyway, my contract started at the end of February 2012, so I have until April 2013 to claim the money.

Knowing this, we cracked on with trying to buy a house in Oxford. As it happens, we found somewhere we like very quickly, and had an offer accepted. We were also very fortunate that the house in Cambridge sold very quickly. But it did surprise me how much everything costs – the stamp duty on the new house in Oxford exceeds the £8k relocation allowance all on its own! Even just taking the legal fees, removal costs and agent’s fees there’s barely going to be much change.

A few notes of warning: in the present financial climate, mortgage lenders are becoming ever more finicky about their terms and conditions. This makes relocation quite tricky. Some things to watch out for: most lenders will not lend to you during any “probationary period” in your contract – which may be as much as six months. If you haven’t had a steady job with the same employer for the past few years, they may ask to see copies of your previous contracts of employment. This can result in a hectic paperchase, further complicated by the fact that all of these documents have to be presented as originals, which means posting them. Don’t do as I did and accidentally send off a bunch of papers with insufficient postage (contracts are printed on thick paper, and are thus quite heavy…) only to have them impounded by the Royal Mail – it can take up to two weeks for them to be released from custody!

We’re currently waiting for the decision from the mortgage lender, the survey and then the final round of negotiating.


Technical book club

March 8th, 2012

I have a new job (in Oxford – more details in a later post) and as part of it I’m going to be doing a lot more board-level electronics than I have been before. I ought to brush up my skills and keep current, and so as a step towards that I’m going to start reading more technical books.

I have several problems with electronics books:

  • they are expensive – £50 is a typical price
  • they are rarely stocked in real bookshops, so online purchase is nearly always necessary
  • a lot of them are rubbish – either they’re very maths-based with very little application, or they’re badly written, or out of date.

So, I have a plan. I will buy one new technical book a month (which I can afford), based on reviews and online previews. I read it during the month, write a brief review on this blog (and on the bookseller’s website) and if it’s no good, send it back for a refund or resale. March’s book will be Analog Circuits by Robert Pease.