Friday, 24 June 2011

Google Music Beta - You're Invited!

So I woke up the other morning to a very nice surprise.  I'd been invited to participate in the Google Music Beta program.  I've been excited about Google Music Beta since the rumours started, so naturally I leapt to the 'Get Started' button.
The whole process of signing up is painless.  All I had to do was agree to the Ts & Cs, download Googles Music Manager software, and I was away.

The Music Manager software was equally painless - after entering my account details, and notifying it as to my choice of music playing software (iTunes) it scanned my library, detected all my music and began the upload process.  Thrilled, I gave it a few days before I'd be listening to my entire library, everywhere I went with no care in the world.  And three days later, I'm still waiting to be thrilled.

As you can see, I have a fairly staggering amount of music in my library.  This is a significant cut from the ~19,000 songs I had once upon a time, but it is still not an insignificant amount of music.  So, I guess it's somewhat my fault, but after three days of near constant uploading 3,287 songs have been uploaded.  This amounts to about 20% of my collection. My upload rate is about 200kbytes/s peak, which means that over three days I have had the potential to upload 51gb of music.

Instead, it has managed a measly 3,287 songs, which I work out to be roughly 21.4gb.  Additionally, it can be no coincedence that my computer has slowed down massively ever since I started the upload process.  The real worry is that I'm moving away from this house soon, to a house that has a pathetic 50kb/s upload (last I checked) so if my music isn't uploaded before Sunday, then I could be waiting an extraordinarily long time. 

One idea that occurred to me whilst thinking about how they could make the upload process a bit more painless is prioritising.  It's fairly easy to tell what most iTunes users favourite music is, using the play count metric.  It think it would be a fairly easy algorithm for Google to incorporate so that it initially prioritises music by its popularity.  That way, I could already be listening to my Warpaint and Sister Crayon, not passing the time with music I don't even remember adding to my library. 

Of course, this is merely a growing pain.  I undoubtedly have an overly large library, and once this has finished I will forget the whole uploading saga in a few weeks, and the sync process should be painless when I'm only adding an album.  Also, aside from this upload debacle, there's a lot I like about the whole software.

First: Once I'd found an APK for the Music android software (the work of a minute), it turned out to work very nicely indeed.  The only issue was, I had to enable 'Auto-Sync' which is no big deal.  The ability to access my entire library will be a godsend when I'm at home.  I plug my phone into my hi-fi, and use that to listen to music, so to be able to access 90gb of music as opposed to the usual 8gb will be heavenly.

Second: It is wonderful to know that my music is now (will soon be) backed up.  Hard Disks are notoriously volatile and there's a lot of music that's taken some time to track down.  Knowing it's stored on Google's nice servers, probably backed up is great peace of mind for me.  And additionally, Google are giving me 91gb of space free!  I get the impression that they are looking at charging for this service down the road, but right now I am paying with nothing except feedback.
Just as a reference, Dropbox would charge me $20 a month for 100gb of space. 

Third: I am now be able to access my music from anywhere!  No need to pray that someone has uploaded that rare Foals B-side when I want to show a friend away from home.  Just load up the browser, go to Google and hit play.  Or when I'm on holiday, or doing some office work, I now have full access to my library. 

The web interface is very nice and clean, sound quality seems to be identical to iTunes and there is very little lag.  There's no gap between the songs, and you can navigate around the site while songs play.  The only criticism is that the customisation options are non-existant.  There's no ability to EQ, no ability to alter the crossfade, and no nice little luxuries like visualiser.  All this may be forthcoming, but right now it's missing, although it doesn't really ruin the experience too much. 

Overall, I'm extremely happy with the Google Music Beta experience.  It has a lot of the features that I was hoping for, seems to make no bones about the source of your music (a worry for the iTunes cloud) and currently sits at my favourite price.  Now, I just need to wait for my music to finish uploading!

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

F1 On The Move

On Sunday night I was faced with a distressing turn of events.  I had work (at Silverstone, of all places) until 6, and had to catch a train at 8.19, leaving me the perfect timeslot in which to watch the Canadian Grand Prix.  Along with Spa-Francorchamps, it’s the best track on the calendar and always a thriller.  

Circuit de Gilles Villeneuve, a man made island.

Arriving home I found that the race had been red-flagged due to the deluge, and there was no way it would be restarted soon.  On any other day, I would have just missed the train but unfortunately I had a potentially life defining meeting the next day, so that wasn’t an option.  And so, with a heavy heart I boarded my 8.19 train, and received a text at 8.40 telling me the race was due to restart at 8.50.  At this point, I considered my options for following the race on the go.  I was armed with my Android phone, and laptop.

My first idea was to tether my phone to my laptop, and just watch the BBC stream.  But on a moving train, the connection would have been terrible and the streams weigh in at around 750Kb/s, 5 megabytes a minute or nearly 900megabytes for the duration of my journey.  Data is pricey, so that was a no go.  I couldn’t watch it on my phone, as the ZTE Blade’s ARMv6 processor isn’t supported by Adobe Flash. 

At this point, I decided to settle for reading the BBC commentary for updates instead.  I’ve used it during work, and whilst it’s not great, it does the job when it’s not really getting my full attention.  But after a while, it proved inadequate.  For a blow by blow account, it was contained nowhere near enough detail to paint me any sort of picture as to what was going on.  With no mental picture of the action, and updates coming in once a lap, for selected drivers I needed something a bit more.

The F1 Live Timing app was at this point booted, to see what I could get out of it.  I often use it to follow qualifying, but since it doesn’t suffer from the lag of the FOM stream, I normally have to leave it during the race.  But with few other options, I gave it a go.

 Live Timing is pure data coming straight from the track.  You occasionally get glimpses of it on the stream, with the ticker along the bottom changing between gap, lap times and other bits of data.  But using the app, you can get instant access to enormous amounts of data. 
At will, you can access; lap times, sector times, gap from the leader, gap from the next man, number of pit stops, as well as data on the track itself such as temperature, wind direction, humidity and weather.  It also had a complete lap chart for each driver so you can see how they’ve done.   It even has a commentary section, which describes what’s happening on the track, and frankly does a better job than the BBC.

The point at which I joined Live Timing was when Schumi was running in second, and looked to be catching Vettel nicely.  He’d just passed Kobayashi, and Button was lingering nowhere.  Soon the PIT sign started appearing for the drivers, and presumed they must all be pitting for dry tyres.   With Jenson lying in about 11th at this point, he started to light up the timing screens.  

One of the most useful features is that the software automatically draws attention to people going fastest, by showing their sectors and/or times as purple.  So when you hear Brundle referring to a “purple” time, he is saying what he’s seeing.  It was at this point that a lot of purple dots started appearing for Button, indicating that he was starting to motor.  By checking the gap at the start of a lap, and their relative sector times, it was possible to work out when an overtake took place during a lap.  My delight was hard to hide, and watching Button carve through the field bought out all sorts of over excitement.  He made it up to second and watching the times sector by sector, it was plain to see that he was in with a chance of catching Vettel.  Here’s a little snapshot into how the last lap played out for me, and how I worked out Button and overtaken.

At the start of lap 70, Button had managed to make it into the DRS zone, with a gap to Vettel of 0.8s.  Sector 1 showed Button about 0.2s faster, so still evidently behind. Sector 2 showed Button doing a ~ 24s, while Vettel showed ~28s.  With a difference of 4s, it was either a glitch on the timings or a glitch by Vettel.  Luckily, a text came in at this point.  “Button 1”.  This led to the sight of me pumping the air around Basingstoke station, an act which seemed to draw a few confused gazes. 

Ultimately, I’d say that the live timing serves as a great muse for painting a mental image of what was happening in the race.  The main problem was that I was only focussing on certain drivers (Button, Kobayashi and Schumi in particular) meaning I missed out on other things that were interesting with hindsight – the Toro Rossos sneaking into the top ten, and some other non driver related things.  Having Brundle and Coulthard to point these things out live is definitely worthwhile. 
Fortunately, my HD version is just finishing downloading, so I shall soon be able to settle down and watch that. 

A fine commentary pairing

I’m also still in shock that Button managed to win, after so many incidents.  Whilst Buttons race pace was undoubtedly fantastic (and very much what I like seeing) Red Bull and Vettel made a mistake each that allowed him to win.  Vettel was obviously controlling the gap, and the pit wall should have noticed that a Mclaren was charging through the field, and given Vettel more of a gap.  The fact that he managed to find about 2s a lap extra after Jenson got into second tells you all you need to know about that. 
The second of course was Vettel running wide at turn 6, a most uncharacteristic error.  He’s had pressure for the lead in the last three GP’s, and has only finally made a mistake.  It’s also interesting to note that Jenson is emerging as Vettels new title adversary.  With a potential Monaco victory snatched by a red flag, and now victory in Canada, he’s moved into second place and looks to have had the measure of Vettel at two wildly different circuits. 
The future also looks interesting.  Mclaren are showing that they are pursuing aggressive strategies, which seem to be generally paying off and of greater interest is the EBD (Exhaust Blown Diffuser) row brewing.  It looks likely that it will be banned for Silverstone, and from this armchair, it seems that Red Bull will lose the most performance, especially their qualifying margin.

DRS wide open

BBC have been doing wonderful qualifying comparisons recently, and one that I would be interested to see is a Red Bull (preferably Vettel) against either a Mclaren or Ferrari (whichever is closest that weekend).  They should show the whole lap using a rear wing view camera, in order to see how much earlier the Red Bull can hit the DRS coming out of the corners.  I’m guessing that it would be significantly earlier, and the reason for that would be that their EBD keeps them well planted through the corners, so they can afford to start turning drag into speed much earlier than the others.  A lot of people seem to think that DRS is the key to their qualifying advantage, in combination with the EBD.  Without it, they will go a whole lot slower.  Of course, the other teams will lose some performance as well, but I would guess that Red Bulls will be a greater percentage of lap time than Mclaren, Ferrari and Mercedes.   With Mclaren and Ferrari being in pretty much the same ball park, and Mercedes just about there, the EBD ban could mean that we have four teams on pretty much the same performance level.

Of course, it could be that the EBD is only a minimal part of Red Bulls package, blown wildly out of proportion and Mclaren et al will only fall further behind.  Time will tell, but it looks promising.  

 Oh, also, I've been following it for a while but I got to see the finished Silverstone Wing this weekend.  And it looks awesome.