Review of Bleep – DRM-Free digital music sales

Warp Records have made their music back-catalogue available for purchase online via their Bleep service, but with the twist that the tracks are not electronically protected.  The bought tracks are downloaded as high quality, open MP3 files not using any form of Digital Rights Management (DRM).

We see this as an important development, as it takes a different approach to the purchaser of the music – it assumes that the majority of their customers are honest and will not pepper the file sharing networks with their paid for tracks. We will continue to monitor whether this approach has been good or bad for their sales, certainly short term they have benefited from positive press from the technically aware.

We have used the service extensively and below give an overview of the process.

_The standard – iTunes Music Store
As anyone who is attempting to sell music online is very well aware, Apple’s iTunes Music Store (iTMS) has set a high bar for other to reach, never mind exceed. iTMS addresses one of the major reasons for music copying, it brings music that people want to listen to and purchase easily within their grasp. It’s a friendly, well thought out and fast to use system, that charges an arguably reasonable amount of money, 99c, per track. The purchased tracks are downloaded in secure AAC format, can be held on up to three computers, burnt to audio CD and held on as many iPods as the track purchaser owns. iTMS licensing terms were a liberal world apart from compared to the highly restricted, effectively rental-based previous system.

_The Bleep interface
Bleep does a good job of keeping the screen uncluttered and uses three easy to follow columns that naturally progress form left to right to complete purchases. The left is for locating tracks at an album level, or for searching; the middle columns list the details tracks selected as well as enabling previewing and picking for purchase; the right hand column show the tracks ready for purchase, and following purchase, a list of tracks that can be or have been downloaded.

Selection of albums and tracks is as smooth a process as you would expect, either by clicking on the album cover icon or individual track name, if a text search has been carried out.

_Browsing & previewing tracks
Once the tracks have reached the middle column, simply clicking on Play can preview them. The previewing is quick to start, essential for a good user experience. Although it is not quite as fast as iTunes, which is like pressing track skip on a CD player, it is impressive considering it does not use a content delivery network like Akamai.

The loading of the preview track in displayed in a small, integrated Flash player, just below the album cover art, giving good feedback to the user making them aware that something is going on. Once sufficient has buffered, the first 30 seconds of the track starts playing, with a green highlight bar showing progress along the track. The preview track has been encoded at 90kbs and we found the quality more than sufficient.

There are a number of areas that Bleep wins over iTMS.

  • Preview is no limited to just 30 seconds of the track – the whole track can be previewed simply by clicking the play button again, every 30 second chunk.
  • Once buffered, the listener can click anywhere to the tracks timeline to listen from that point.

__Purchasing tracks
When tracks are selected for purchase, they are placed in the right hand column. A running total of the cost is displayed at the bottom of the column, as is useful additional information such as the size of download and an approximation of the time they will take to download.

Clicking on the tracks in the checkout basket the chance to still preview the tracks, you can still listen to it.

When ready to pay, the user simply clicks on the Checkout link, and they will be asked to login to their account or create an account if they have not used it before.

Warp has done a good and wise thing in making creating an account as straightforward as possible, you simply supplying your email address and a password.

The user has three way to pay; credit card, PayPal, and in the UK, mobile phone SMS text message for single tracks. After entering these relevant details, future purchases are as simple as clicking on a link.

The purchase via SMS is of particular interest as this has never been used for buying music downloads. After entering your mobile phone number in the setup screens and sending a confirmation message from you mobile to Warp, purchasing single tracks is a simple as confirming your desire to pay via SMS. An SMS is then received to the handset confirming the price charged and giving a reference number. The SMS payment option is a great idea for opening music sales to people too young to have a credit card, as they are bound to have a mobile phone.

_Receiving the booty
Once payment has been cleared, the right hand column lists the tracks now available for download. To save the trouble of downloading each track individually, there is an option to bundle them all into one Zipped file.

The user is also free to add tracks to a new shopping basket while tracking are sitting in their download list.

Warp has done a good job with this service, generally improving on Apple’s iTMS. When comparing them it should be remember that this service is browser based, not the simpler dedicated application approach that iTMS takes.

We spoken to Warp at some length and are impressed with their understanding of the users needs. They also have some very interesting plans for the service, which we will report on when they are becoming available.

Bleep online music service

Review – Gateway FMC-901X

Extreme Tech have reviewed Gateway Computers latest media PC that runs Windows Media edition, the FMC-901X, and they like it.

The Gateway FMC-901X is a far cry from the original Gateway Destination (anyone remember those?) It’s sleek looks and high degree of usability makes it an appealing choice. TV image quality is excellent, and so is TV recording. Burning your favorite shows to DVD with a few button clicks is incredibly easy.

BBC Fightbox Review – The Creation of a New Genre?

By Heidi Jacoby-Ackland

After all the hype, the BBC’s virtually-virtual gameshow Fightbox [Preview] finally premiered Monday night on BBC3.  Four contestants brought their self-created virtual warriors to the arena to do battle in elimination and combat competitions against the shows computer-generated opponents – all in a studio with a “Real Life” audience.  Without a doubt, the first night’s episode was a tentative start to the series.  The contestants seemed nervous, perhaps awed by playing a computer game in front of a live audience, and the presenters weren’t especially gregarious either.  But it was just the first of 20 episodes and Fightbox hints at good things to come.  It had flashes of how’d-they-do-that wizardry and, most important of all, it grasped the possibility of cross-platform interactive programme making with both computer-generated pincers. 

First, the good points.  The set is fantastic.  Unlike Time Commanders’ set, this one works exceptionally well, managing to look both futuristic and ancient at the same time.  For instance, the contestants are seated in cage-like pods that rise above the arena floor giving them a birds-eye view of the virtual action.  Yet references to Gladiator (the TV sport/gameshow from the early 1990’s) as well as its classical Roman inspiration are clearly evident too.  Next, the camera-work.  Top marks for wow-factor here on two counts.  First, Fightbox is (or claims to be) the first programme in which free-held cameras are used to combine both real and virtual images simultaneously.  To my eye, there didn’t seem to be any hiccups or glitches and I certainly couldn’t see the “seams.”  Second, there were some really fantastic camera angles that helped bring the best from the virtual graphics.  For example, there were a couple of over-the-shoulder shots (right) of the contestants which showed them in their pod displaying their computer monitor action in the foreground, in the middle-ground the virtual arena action and finally the real arena and audience action in the background.  In another, there was a low shot from the arena floor looking up through one of the virtual challenges, the helix.  Both these shots, amongst others, helped to create depth of vision, contributing a sense of scale and density to the action.  At no point did the huge arena appear to be empty even though, in the “Real World” it was.  (In reality, the studio audience watched the gaming on a massive screen.)  I ought to mention the graphics too.  Although gamers’ expectations are always increasing, visually the graphics in Fightbox are fairly good.  There was a consistency between the studio lighting and the graphics which was so good that virtual shadows were created which matched the real ones.  Now that’s attention to detail!

With the good comes the bad.  There were Cheerleaders. Cheerleaders?  I can, almost, see the reference point since the MC repeatedly called Fightbox “a new sport”.  However, as any occasional viewer of American Football will testify, the Fightbox ladies’ efforts were half-hearted by comparison.  And what’s with The Weakest Link-style ridiculing of the losing contestants that the cheerleaders and the presenters indulged in?  That is unnecessary – The Weakest Link is so over. 

Although it was the beginning of a new show, I’m not sure about the choice of presenters.  Trevor Nelson is great as the host of music-related programmes but he doesn’t seem to be all that interested in gaming, as his comments in this weeks’ Radio Times attest.  As for Lisa Snowdon, I’m afraid I find it very difficult indeed to forget the LA Pool Party colonic irrigation episode.  But maybe that’s just me.  There was one moment when Lisa attempted to react to one of the Sentients, which was truly awful – she was wooden and the timing was out-of-synch. 

Finally, to be perfectly honest, there are some problems with the Fightbox game itself.  First, the contests are exceptionally simple.  On the one hand, simplicity is necessary since it would be tedious in the extreme if the whole episode were spent explaining the object of the tests to the audience.  However, I anticipated contests with a bit more action and was, a bit, disappointed by what was delivered.  I sure hope there’s more on offer on the PC/console game.  Also, the Sentients’ movements seemed more technically developed than contestants’ warriors.  Although the contestants had time to practice with their warriors before the TV episodes were filmed, their warriors didn’t seem nearly as agile as the Sentients.  I’m not suggesting that the game is one-sided, because it isn’t.  It simply looks like the Sentients can execute more moves with greater accuracy.  Also, when a Sentient and a contestant warrior went virtual toe-to-virtual toe, the fight action seemed a bit slow – as though there was a lag-time between the contestant’s command and the warrior’s action.  Either that or the editing wasn’t as fast-paced as viewers have come to expect from action sequences.  But all these problems are minor and thoroughly fixable in future versions.

Fightbox also highlights a few conundrums that content-makers may face.  My main questions are about the concept of image ownership.  If Madonna can be sued for drawing inspiration from photographs that she freely admits to admire and a past athlete can file a similar suit against a telephone listings company, when does homage become theft?  In respect of Fightbox, this question is particularly relevant in two separate instances.  First, two of the Sentients bear striking resemblances to pre-existing characters:  Kodiak is a lot like Wolf from Gladiator (he even did the signature haunchy growl pose) while Nail seems to be a combination of the monsters from the films Alien and Predator (the MC described her as a predator).  Second, what about the contestant-generated characters?  One of the contestants from last night’s episode frankly described her warrior as inspired by Tank Girl.  And there was a frankly acknowledged resemblance.  Undoubtedly there are other competitors whose warriors were similarly inspired by pre-existing content.  In the high-stakes world of international rights are the creators of Fightbox treading the boundary between inspiration and imitation?  How, if at all, will this affect the sales and distribution of Fightbox to other territories?


Has Fightbox given a glimpse into a new way of thinking about entertainment programmes?  I think so.  Despite its faults, Fightbox is a good concept.  Although costly and time-consuming to develop, it is clear that every aspect and angle of Fightbox was considered in the creation of the end-products – vital if a consistent feeling of quality is to achieved and maintained across the platforms. From the development of overall visual aesthetic to the interplay between the online game and the television programme, Fightbox provides a clear example of the benefits of “through-development.”  Rather than being a web-based game with a TV bolt-on (such as the peculiarly addictive Celebdac) or a TV programme with an after-the-fact web presence (such as just about every other TV programme) Fightbox is the first programme I know of in which the platforms are truly inter-dependent.  Its makers, Bomb Productions and Ricochet Digital, have every reason to be proud.  Fightbox is very likely to become a reference point for future entertainment developers.  I’ll be tuning in again tonight.

Buy the FightBox game at Amazon UK on PC, PS2 or GBA

BBC FightBox

Bomb Productions

Ricochet Digital

Review of six 19″ LCD screen

Review of six 19″ LCD screens, the majority of them are under 1,000 Euros. The test are particularly tough including high-res game play. The screen all use two type of screens, the MVA (Fujitsu) or PVA (the Samsung version of MVA), with both of them being 25ms response times (the average time required for a liquid crystal cell to go from active to inactive and back to active again).

They’re all (Acer L1931, Iiyama AS4821DT BK, Nec LCD1980SX, Nec LCD1920NX, Samsung SyncMaster 192B, Sony SDM-S93) judged as pretty much the same standard.

Review link

Review of the Linksys WMA11B Wireless-B Media Adapter

Tom Hardware reviews the Linksys WMA11B Wireless-B Media Adapter.

In the same vain as other Digital Media Adaptors based on the Intel reference design, this VHS cassette-sized unit connects to a TV set, Using the supplied remote control it allows the browsing and playback of photo’s, music and video, that are held on your networked Windows PC, to be enjoyed through your TV screen. Interestingly, the serving machine has to be running Windows XP but can be connected either via cabling or using 802.11b, WiFi connection.

It’s essentially the same functionalisty as Sony’s Roomlink, but has the advatage that you don’t need to buy a Sony Vaio PC to serve the content from. To date, Sony won’t sell the serving software seperatley.

It’s works with the mainstreem formats of media, but there’s no mention of the Ogg Vobis, which is growing in popularity with computer audiofiles.

Their view of the product is that it’s a good first stab. Street price should be around $149.