Music Anywhere on a Budget

It’s easy to spend thousands on a music system that will let you use your music anywhere (or video for that matter) but for most of us, budget comes into it and of course… dedicated, expensive systems tend to age quickly and become out of date – and what about on the road?

Here’s my simple, inexpensive but powerful system and a few tips along the way.

Firstly the system is PC-based. I’ve tried Microsoft’s Media Centre and it’s too limiting.. I’ve also tried various open-source solutions and many of those don’t work either and for while I was starting to give up – but then I got the iPhone and things started to fall into place.I though of putting everything on the iPhone but with fixed memory that didn’t seem like a good idea – and what if I lost the phone?

Firstly there is iTunes on the PC. With that on your PC its easy to keep all your music, pictures and videos in one place. It’s also then easy to copy stuff onto your iPhone – but what if you only have the 16Gig iPhone and you have lots of video and music. I’ve always thought that a better way would be to wirelessly send my media to wherever I need it.

So let’s look at the HOME side first. You want your music, videos, images etc. in one place. Put them in iTunes. If your PC is attached to your TV you’re all set – but what if it’s in a different room or the other end of the room. My solution was to spend sub-£100 and buy Apple TV 2, a little box that plugs into the PC and lets you share everything on your iTunes PC (or several PCs for that matter) to the TV. Works a treat. With Apple TV2 comes a little remote control but you can also use an iPhone armed with the REMOTE app to do the same thing.

So now you have Internet radio, videos, images and music all available at the tips of your fingers.

But, what about music on demand… do you REALLY want to pay the ridiculous prices that the App store charges for music? In my case no. There was a time when I’d pay anything for the next YES album – but that time has long gone.  I’d been looking at Spotify as that’s a great program for legally playing just about any music you want… but to do the job properly you need to pay around £9.85 a month. I was thinking about that when I switched my phone from Orange to THREE.  Why is that relevant? Well, as part of the all-you-can-eat deal with THREE, they GIVE you the licence for Spotify Premium – i.e. no extra monthly payments.

So now you’ve added music on demand… but wait, how do you get the music from Spotify or similar to Apple TV? It won’t do it on it’s own. Well a little utility that costs around £15 called AIRFOIL lets you take ANY audio source on your computer-  and send it straight to Apple TV. Problem solved.

Now lets look at the mobile side.  With Spotify on the phone, it’s easy to stream or download music – and the PHONE APP can beam directly to Apple TV2 (handy for parties, playlist on the phone, selecting on the phone – but playing from Apple TV2 through your stereo (in my case my stereo is old and does not have optical input. Apple TV2 has optical output and a quick trip to EBay got me the relevant converter – optical to normal wired connection.

With StreamToMe APP on the phone, I can access all video and audio etc. from my PC to the phone. With TuneIn APP I can get all the Internet radio stations, with TVCatchup I can watch live TV.

Add AirFoil Speakers App and I can even stream any audio from the PC to the phone.

Ok, this glosses over some detail but nothing you see above is hard to implement OR expensive.  So now I can get access to my media as well as TV and radio when on the road and when I’m at home I can control the whole lot with my phone and even let guests select their favourite music, whether I own it or not, at parties, to play straight into the stereo system or TV.

QR Codes

tmp6848

I thought I’d take a diversion from talking about iPhones and iPads here as nothing that exciting is happening at the moment and talk about QR codes, a really handy way to give people information on a mobile phone from a website or printed publication.

Firstly, what are QR codes?  A kind of Barcode? Checkout the QR code on the right here, it’s a link to my website. The idea is you point your mobile phone at the image and are taken straight to the website.

tmpD531To quote Wikipedia, that well-known source of all truth… “A QR code (abbreviation for Quick Response code) is a specific matrix barcode (or two-dimensional code) that is readable by dedicated QR barcode readers and camera telephones. The code consists of black modules arranged in a square pattern on a white background. The information encoded may be text, URL, or other data.”

Put simply, stick one of these on your fizzy pop can and kids who can’t type will easily access your website or whatever else you want them to look at. The limits of these codes seem to be around 256 characters – which gives you a lot to play with. Try the link to the Wikipedia site reference on the left.

So firstly, how do we READ QR codes?

tmp9D0FtmpBDD9ON the iPhone, “SCAN” is in my experience the fastest, easiest, no-frills QR code reader – it’s free and it works. On the iPhone 4 it’s just about instant. If you have one of these devices there is NO reason NOT to have this app! Just go to the App store on your phone and look for “scan” without the quotes.. their icon is shown above on the left. It’s free and no catches that I can see.  Indeed even the demo image on the App store (seen on the right here) takes you to a valid site instantly with more information on QR codes. The Android phones will have their own scanners and success will vary depending on the software and the camera on the Android phone.

How do we GENERATE QR codes?

That’s just as easy. To have a play I recommend you go to this website… http://qrcode.kaywa.com/ – it really doesn’t get any easier.

The more technical among you might be thinking – well that’s fine but I want to generate these on my own website….well… here’s the thing. Google have an API for this.

http://createqrcode.appspot.com/

Put in your information, hit “Create QR code” and Bob’s your uncle..  try this for example..

 

http://chart.apis.google.com/chart?cht=qr&chs=300×300&chl=http%3A//www.fsb.org.uk&chld=H|0

What is REALLY good about this is that you can use this as the basis of generating images on your website or elsewhere in custom ways.

http://chart.apis.google.com/chart?cht=qr&chs=300×300&chl=http%3A//www.fsb.org.uk&chld=H|0

The colouring above should help you see what is fixed and what you need to change for your requirements. The %3A is necessary to use in place of colons in addresses, the rest should be obvious – size of the graphic and the address you want to link to…

tmpBE72A project called the ZXing project allows you to create a QR code easily with your contact information which, when scanned (for example by the excellent SCAN App) will create a new telephone contact for you. Check that out here.

The QR code on the right is an example – scan it and you should see a new contact open up with my details including phone, address and notes. The same site has other options such as calendar events but at least on my iPhone, they do not actually create calendar events as yet. As soon as they do I can see a whole host of applications arising.

If you want to give people-on-the-move easy access to your website or other information – there it is…QR codes. Cheap, cheerful, easy and as far as I can tell, reliable.

Radio on the move–the right way

Interested in more radio stations when you’re on the move – well you’re at the right place!

tmpC31FInternet radio is not a new phenomena, “Shoutcast Radio” by Nullsoft (Winamp)  has been available since 1999 and has continued to grow ever since. PC users have been able to listen to their choice of worldwide radio stations since then – which is fine but not a lot of use on the move.

Recently several things have happened recently (I refer here to the UK, American viewers have had satellite radio options for some time now while we’ve been stuck with the umpteen regional repeats of the BBC and a handful of alternatives on FM) which has made mobile Internet radio practical.

Firstly, mobile phones have become smarter to the point where Android and iPhone devices for example can handle fairly sophisticated programs in the background as well as transmitting audio via Bluetooth to car speakers.

tmp5D21Secondly, the mobile network has improved. THREE company claim to have just about the best 3G network – now, I know Orange customers will say that Orange and O2 collectively have a massive network – but take it from me, in rural areas, for example the A69 in Northumberland, you’ll find much of that is the older kind of connection which simply is not fast enough to “stream” music.

Thirdly more car radios than ever now either have an “auxiliary” socket for audio or handle Bluetooth connections for audio (sadly, still not enough).

Ok so what do I mean by “stream”?  Well, downloading tunes before you play them is not really practical for mobile radio and so Internet radio is “streamed” which means your device at any time only downloads enough to be able to play the tune. As the music plays, the next few seconds are downloaded ready for use etc etc… continuously. This allows for continuous play after a short delay. That delay determines to some extent how well the service tackles signal drop-outs – ie what happens if there is no signal for a couple of seconds or so due to a combination of poor signal and obstructions.

tmpA44ALet’s take my setup as an example… I have a Mercedes with an auxiliary socket for audio. The car handles Bluetooth but only for phone calls so I bought a Belkin Bluetooth audio receiver which requires power, connects to the Bluetooth on your phone as a kind of headphone device- and transmits the audio from the phone through a 3.5mm stereo jack to your home stereo or car radio. It works a treat and the quality is high. In my case I have a 240v supply in the car but the unit operates on low voltage so anyone with a bent towards a soldering iron should be able to adapt the unit to run off the car. Some folk have questioned the quality of such devices, I’ve had no problems at all.

tmpF567That takes care of the hardware and for software I use “TuneIn Radio”which costs a couple of pounds at most on Android and iPhone devices. Hundreds if not thousands of radio stations available at the touch of a button are now available to anyone who puts the effort forward to make it work.

tmpA7D5Be aware that using Internet radio eats up your mobile data so a few hours in the car listening to Internet radio could put pay to a few hundred megabytes easily – make sure your service provider does not impose limits on how much data you can use. Orange for example despite claiming “unlimited data use for iPhones, in fact have rescinded on that and have a “fair use” policy, which translated into English means they underestimated the amount of data people would use.  Three specifically state “all you can eat” in many of their contracts and there is no fair use policy. So make sure you’re with the right provider.

So what about drop-outs – with radio the signal quality degrades and you end up changing channels all the time when on the move (unless you only ever listen to BBC in which case you’re missing out) but with Internet radio this simply does not happen. If you have a bad or no signal for more than a few seconds, the music simply stops and may pick up when you get back to a half-decent signal – but to put this in perspective, a trip down the M6 will see areas in the mountains of NO radio signal at all while Internet radio continues un-hindered.  In my experience, using THREE as a source of Internet (either on the phone or using a MIFI dongle to supply WIFI to the phone) it is pretty much swings and roundabouts which is best in terms of availability – but of course with the latter you don’t have to change channels as you do, with, say BBC local radio.  My local Northeast radio for example is available on TuneIn Radio and I can pick this up anywhere in the world, not just while I’m in the Northeast.

I hope if nothing else this article gets you to investigate Internet radio – a wonderful alternative to rather limited FM radio.

Images are copyright their respective owners.