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I Hear Voices - From The Planet Rock

People who know me sometimes suggest I'm a bit of a dinosaur. I guess I can be a mite thick-skinned, a little prickly at times, and I do stomp around noisily now and then. But I have been dieting (not that you can tell), and I don't generally breath fire (except when trying to get recalcitrant code to work). Mind you, Dave is usually reasonably complimentary by describing me just as "a technical Luddite" (thanks Dave). OK, so I tend to be a bit cautious about new technology and (especially) software, and I'm a great believer in the "not broke, don't fix" approach - as those people brave enough to have tackled previous diary entries will be aware.

I also live in a forgotten and desolate part of England that modern technology barely touches. Whilst we did abandon trading with potatoes last year, and it is possible to get a daily newspaper if you're prepared to drive and fetch it, few other national corporations seem to realize we exist. I suppose this would be useful if I was one of those US mountain hermits with a huge arsenal of weapons and a plan to derail the world's governments. However, it's somewhat less useful when I just want to be an ordinary Joe Public and partake of the offerings of the digital world out there. OK, so British Telecom were good enough to dangle a scrawny bit of copper wire through the trees from the exchange to my server cabinet, and let me have 1MB ADSL over it when it's not raining. And the brave men of our Post Office battle through the wilds to drop the odd envelope through the door around lunchtime most days.

However, despite the amazingly large amount of money I had to pay a man to climb on my roof and erect a ten foot pole and a huge wide-band high-gain eight-foot-long multi-element thing for the birds to sit on, the only digital TV I can get is the shopping channels. So my Media Center box still has an analogue TV card, and I can't wait for them to do a satellite card for the FreeSat service. I guess the one thing we do get plenty of here is sky (the kind with clouds), so we can confidently expect to get some Sky (the broadcasting company) from it. I don't even care if the dish has to be twenty feet in diameter - I can find somewhere to hide it. Mind you, it's not that we watch a lot of TV anyway, and Media Center records everything that we even remotely fancy watching, so we've been managing quite well with five channels instead of the possible 400. And, from what I hear, there's not much worth watching on the other 395. We've even got used to people asking us if we saw some weird program "the other night", discovering it was on Sky or FreeView, and so we didn't.

So everything chez nous was fine until the other week when a friend was here telling my wife about the fabulous selection of music on Planet Rock radio. "Really", said my wife, and then - turning to me with an accusing look - "Why can't we get that?" and "You can buy me a DAB (Digital Audio Broadcast) radio for Christmas so I can listen to it!" Now, regular readers will know that I wear the trousers in our house, and I make all the decisions and what I say goes. So I said "Yes, dear", and added one to my Christmas shopping list. At least it will make a change from bath foam and a calendar with cats on.

Of course, being a technophobe, I already knew that there was no way it would be that simple. I'd probably turn up at some electronics emporium, be faced with a confusing range of incompatible devices, have no idea what standards and protocol support I needed, and be fleeced by paying way over the going price. Somewhat like buying computers, I guess. And, being a pessimistic technophobe, I knew it wouldn't actually work when I got it home either. All we'd hear would be distant noises, loud crackling, and the odd scraps of yelling voices when a police car went past. Still, this hasn't stopped me before so, on a recent trip to the beautiful town of Leamington Spa (in Warwickshire, England) to do some on-site training for a customer, I took a jaunty stroll through the local shopping centre to see what was on offer in the DAB line. And, guess what, I found a Sony shop with a very helpful young man who showed me several really neat units with built-in CD players and stuff. And, he assured me, there was no problem with reception - the signal from the local transmitter was "really strong".

"Ah", I said, "would that be a local transmitter here in the industrial and commercial heart of the Midlands, or a local transmitter in the back of beyond near where I live?" All of a sudden, the glazed look I've now become accustomed to appeared on his face, and he mumbled something about people that live in a field being lucky they had potatoes to trade with - never mind electricity. But he did agree to "check out the digital broadcasting Web site" for me. He entered his postal code and got a list of about 200 radio stations he could get. Then he entered my postcode and it came back with something like "In some circumstances you may be able to receive..." followed by a list of about seven BBC radio stations that even my 30 year old hi-fi system can pick up. I don't think I'll bother spending 200 pounds on a DAB/CD unit!

Getting home that weekend, I explained to my wife that, regrettably, and without a 200-foot high mast in the garden, we were wasting our time trying to get digital radio. "Never mind", she said, "I'll just have to manage with the old radio/CD we have. I suppose it doesn't matter that the remote control is broken, and it keeps drifting off station, and it makes a funny noise when playing CDs, and...". Now, any married men out there will instantly be able to diagnose the emerging-relationship-situation illustrated by these kinds of words as being one that requires urgent and accurate resolution. I needed to find an alternative, and in these cases the Internet is my friend. And, of course, the Internet is also the alternative - I've got "broadband" (or, in my case, "mediumband") ADSL, and the house is wireless and Ethernet equipped. A quick search of the Internet turned up the Soundbridge Internet Radio, which, it seems, I plug in and - to use a rather hackneyed expression - it just works! All it needs is a Visa card with a few hundred pounds left on the credit limit.

So I banged in an order, and they delivered it the next day - amazing service, and an amazing product as well, especially for people like me who are more used to the steam-powered radio of the Goon Show days. With two front speakers and a woofer built-in, the sound quality (and volume) is excellent when you consider that it's just a plastic thing somewhat smaller than a shoe box.

Of course, life is never that easy, and I did end up spending the best part of a day to get it to work. Just entering the SSID of my wireless network (which is hidden) using the remote control took long enough, but the worst part was having to switch my wireless hub from WPA encryption back to the old-fashioned WEP shared key mode - because that's all the Soundbridge supports in the current release (though they've promised an upgrade to WPA in the future). And, of course, I chose 128 bit keys the first time and then - faced with trying to enter the huge string of hex digits into the Soundbridge using the remote control - gave up and switched to 64 bit. WEP is insecure anyway, so I guess the lack of a few extra key bits won't be a problem. At least I can still enable MAC address-based access control (the Soundbridge configuration screen tells you what its MAC address is), but it would be nice to have the WPA upgrade please...

Note: Roku added support for WPA, and some useful improvements to the configuration interface, in the April version 2.7 software update - which it installs automatically.

Anyway, having got the wireless to connect, it happily downloaded a new software update, set the date and time, whirred and displayed some useless intros, then let me do the rest of the configuration. And, hey presto, Internet radio from the 100 or so stations it has pre-configured. I even managed to find Planet Rock and add that to the built-in Favourites list! So I'm back in the good books again, and a pending Christmas disaster has been averted. Mind you, at 300 pounds, it's not cheap - but it really does seem mighty impressive to a dinosaur like me. And, to make sure I stay in the good books with 'er indoors all through the year, it will even play the music stored on the server in the garage - which we normally access through Media Center!

Or, it will if I have a "UPnP Media Server". No, I have no idea what one of those is, but thankfully the Soundbridge Web site does and points to several compatible ones - including the free one that is part of Windows XP. However, my servers still run Windows 2000, and you can't install "Windows Media Connect" on that (yes, I did try). So I downloaded and installed the delightfully-named TwonkyVision Media Server, and registered it for about 20 pounds. It installed fine, and also "just worked". After a bit of configuring, it now serves up our entire music collection, and the Soundbridge lets my wife browse and play any track, artist, or album. TwonkyVision doesn't support searching, but with the minimal-function remote control on the Soundbridge, I reckon that's not an issue. Beside which, she'll listen to anything - even my punk rock albums - when she's in that "neutral" mode that wives find so easy to adopt.

Note: for my opinions of the Soundbridge Internet Radio in use, see next month's diary entry.

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