Cool Tech Reviews

Just Cool Tech

April 29, 2007

Free genealogy program from Microsoft

Family.Show from Vertigo Software and Microsoft

No, Microsoft isn’t going into the genealogy software business. It’s just that they badly want developers to use the facilities of the new Windows Presentation Framework (WPF, codename “Avalon”) that shipped with Windows Vista to create spiffy new graphics programs. To that end they are providing a variety of demo programs and:

Today, in collaboration with Vertigo Software, I’m pleased to announce the launch of a brand new end-to-end reference sample for WPF. Available for download immediately, Family.Show is a genealogy explorer that allows you to create or import a family tree and explore, annotate or save it to XPS.

We’ve shipped the source code for a number of demos before, but the bar for a reference application is somewhat higher. The goal here is to show best practices for the construction of an application and to try and include as much reusable code as possible that others can use both to understand the framework and to “borrow” for a real application.

(XPS is the XML Paper Specification, a document format like Adobe PDF that Microsoft also introduced with Vista.) Still using Windows XP? Not to worry – you get much of the WPF functionality and all you need to run Family.Show just by installing the .NET Framework version 3.0 on XP – it’s available at the above link.

Family.Show is a good idea for a demonstration program since most genealogy programs are understandably heavy on their database attributes, but usually light on the graphics which can get quite complex.  The use of WPF allows Family.Show to provide a really nice graphical explorer interface for family trees and it will import (and export) standard GEDCOM files so you can load it up with the data from whatever genealogy program you are using now and give it a spin. If you want to start from scratch building your family tree, Family.Show is fully capable and easy to use as the demo video illustrates.

Bottom Line:

I would have to say that Family.Show seems remarkably full featured for a demo program, but I did have some problems with it losing relationships in my personal GEDCOM file. For that reason and questions of long term support, I don’t recommend that you shift all your family records over to it, but it is still a neat way to browse around.

Posted at 11:24 am. Filed under Companies, Development Tools, Genealogy, Microsoft, Software

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April 16, 2007

Sansa Connect raises the bar for MP3 player Wi-Fi

Sansa Connect

Ever since the Microsoft Zune MP3 player botched its Wi-Fi implementation by using it only for very restricted sharing with the scarce group of other Zune users, it has been inevitable that someone would get Wi-Fi right. Last week, SanDisk raised the bar considerably with the announcement of the Sansa Connect, even if it isn’t perfect.

Spec-wise the Sansa Connect is a 4GB flash-based MP3 player with a 2.2 inch TFT LCD screen, internal speaker, microSD card slot for additional capacity, and supports PlaysForSure music as well as photos. All that is fairly standard except for the speaker (and perhaps the lack of video support), but where the Sansa Connect really gets different is that it can connect to any open Wi-Fi network allowing the user to:

The Yahoo! theme is intentional – you won’t get real value from the Wi-Fi feature without using the Yahoo! Internet services mentioned above. While LAUNCHcast, Messenger, and Flickr are free, Yahoo! Music Unlimited is a $12/month subscription service and frankly the Sansa Connect isn’t worth the $249.99 list price without it.

Some review snippets:


Sandisk has another winner here; I have no doubt. I am thoroughly impressed with the features available on this little device. Once you hooked this player up to your wifi network, it is almost impossible to put it down. This is what the Zune should have been.


The Connect is tied to Yahoo! Music Unlimited for its subscription download model and streaming radio, and we’ve gotta say, a WiFi DAP really brings the model into its own.

We’re disappointed that the Connect isn’t a little more open than it is; we’d like to be able to stream whatever the heck we want for starters, but Yahoo! Music Unlimited and LAUNCHcast aren’t bad starts. Now the trick is to keep up the WiFi momentum for these things — Apple, Creative, iRiver, Archos, we’re looking straight at you!

PC Magazine:

If you can stomach the $12 monthly charge for Yahoo! Music Unlimited To Go, the Sansa Connect is a fantastic device.

Bottom line: If you have frequent proximity to Wi-Fi networks and don’t mind the subscription fee, the Sansa Connect is one nifty gadget. The Wi-Fi connection to the Yahoo! Music Unlimited library obviates the need for larger capacity in the device.

Posted at 7:59 am. Filed under Companies, MP3 Player, Portable Audio, SanDisk, Wi-Fi, Yahoo

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April 4, 2007

Do you really want a Windows PC at the heart of your home entertainment center?

We all know that Microsoft would like everyone to install a Windows PC at the heart of their home entertainment centers, but how well does it really work out in practice? Andrew Schmidt points us to a review on AnandTech:

Anandtech has an absolutely horrifying review of the trials and tribulations of setting up a Windows Vista home theater PC [HTPC] with the first HD capable TV tuner from ATI (AMD).

Even with the on-site assistance of Dell (DELL) and Time Warner Cable (TWC) (with promptness and technical expertise you or I could never hope to see) it took two days to get the Windows Vista PC, external HDTV cable tuner, and Time Warner Network integrated and up and running. The resulting experience was great, though most consumers would have never had the patience or technical fortitude to get it up and running. It makes one wonder why anyone would bother to do this at all.

Some good lines from the review:

Prior to Dell’s arrival we had a handful of telephone conversations and email exchanges to clear our intentions for this article. Dell is used to dealing with sending review samples of complete systems that it has built and tested time and time again. Dell was not used to sending a platform out that was buggy, not yet ready for prime time and dependent on a cable network that it had absolutely no control over. In short: Dell was nervous.

Dell asked us if it was alright if a handful of representatives accompanied the system to our office in North Carolina, just to make sure things went smoothly. We didn’t anticipate any problems but said that if it made them feel more comfortable, they were welcome to oversee the initial setup. From our perspective the setup couldn’t be simpler: 1) Setup the system, 2) Insert CableCARD, 3) Watch TV. It turned out that we were a bit optimistic.

The ordinary home user like you and me is more than nervous already. A key part of the trepidation has to do with using a PC as a digital cable box:

Vista changed everything; it was chock full of DRM and was secure enough to make just about everyone confident that high definition content could be stored on it without being easily compromised. While it’s far too early to determine if that holds true over the coming years of Vista’s existence, the important part is that it’s enough today. At CES 2006 ATI demonstrated what had the potential to become one of the biggest features of Vista, the first working Open Cable Unidirectional Receiver (OCUR) for a PC running the upcoming OS.

We were impressed by OCUR, as it had the potential to make media center valid and useful once more. The downside was that we had to wait; we saw the first demo of OCUR at CES in January 2006, and we were told that it wouldn’t be released until Vista was available to the public. At CES in January 2007 ATI, now owned by AMD, introduced the final product: the ATI TV Wonder Digital Cable Tuner (DCT).

Gosh! It seems really simple to me!

Dell came prepared; upon landing at RDU International Airport, we got a call asking if it was okay if a Time Warner technician was present during the install to help with any problems. The more the merrier we thought, so Dell made a phone call and a Time Warner technician was present. As a side note, the last line was exactly how it happened. Apparently the magic number Dell called dispatched a Time Warner technician to what is known internally as a “VIP Customer”. There were no vague time windows, no waiting, and no arguing; just a phone call and poof: instant technician. After discovering this magic ability that Dell possessed, we asked Dell to move in with us permanently. Regrettably Dell declined and its representatives did not confirm whether or not they had similar influence over the local phone or utility companies.

There’s a nice picture of the Time Warner truck with flashing lights pulling up. Despite that, let’s just say things did not go smoothly.

At the end of the entire ordeal, the senior TWC representative that was with us turned to us and asked us what this system could do. We explained, to which he responded with the most priceless of facial expressions. It was an expression that needed no explanation; his reaction asked the question “why on earth would you go through this when you can just rent an HD-DVR from us for $9 a month?”

There’s a lot more in the review, but I have to conclude that Windows Media Center Edition, now replaced by Vista Premium Edition is not really ready for prime time – at least as far as home entertainment is concerned. Yes, they finally got it working and yes, there are a few bugs, but the real problem is that it doesn’t pass the simplicity test. If the average consumer can’t just buy the the PC, take it home and plug it in, it isn’t going to garner any share. Ordinarily, I’d say “Keep working on it, guys!” but it’s clear that Microsoft’s OS development cycle lags the home entertainment development cycle and that has to change for a Windows PC to even have a chance in home entertainment.

Posted at 7:23 pm. Filed under ATI, Companies, Media Center PC, Microsoft, Operating Systems, Personal Video Recorders, Windows Vista

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