Gadget speak

This week, E&T tries two recent music subscription services and advises on camera shake as well as answering your letters.

Separated at birth - Spotify vs Last.fm

Only a few years ago, if you wanted music streamed to your computer there was a limited choice. Of course, there are Internet radio stations, but what if you want more choice of what tracks you can listen to? While the music industry remains baffled as to how to make substantial money online, several deals are being done with new online services.

In the spotlight

The latest service to hit the scene is Spotify. It started in Sweden a year ago and at the beginning of this year began offering invitations to some UK users, before flinging its doors open to everyone in the UK a couple of months ago. On the surface, it is quite an attractive offer - all the music you want streamed to your desktop speedily and worry-free for absolutely nothing. The only catch is that, unless you pay a subscription, you have to listen to commercials after every few songs - although users are, thankfully, not overwhelmed with adverts.

Spotify uses a proprietary peer-to-peer architecture to stream its music, allowing instant play of specific tracks or albums with minimal buffering. The tracks can be browsed by album, artist or genre, or searched for directly.

It is not possible to save the streamed music and play it outside the Adobe Integrated Runtime environment application. However, it is often possible to purchase streamed music from one of the service's partner retailers. The free service is currently only available in some parts of Western Europe, but the subscription-based service is more widely available.

Last but not least

So, who is the main rival to Spotify? Napster, who have been offering a subscription service since 2002? No, it's a company called last.fm, a streaming, social music network that started in 2003 and, in 2007, was acquired by US broadcasting and media company CBS, who remain tight-lipped on whether they have managed to turn a profit. Nevertheless, last.fm's technology continues to appear on new mobile devices and its repertoire is on the increase.

Last.fm claims to have 25 million users worldwide and says it can offer over seven million tracks. This is important as, on a streaming service, users will want to discover new music, rather than just play stuff they already know or own.

Last.fm uses a music recommendation system called Audioscrobbler. This builds a detailed profile to suit a user's preferences by monitoring information about all the tracks he or she listens to on streamed radio stations, MP3 files or on his computer or portable player.

The information is subsequently analysed by last.fm's database and can then be displayed on a subscriber's profile page. Therefore, the service has a strong social networking element and can recommend and play artists similar to the user's favourites and also connect the user to subscribers with similar tastes.

Additionally, users can create customised radio stations and playlists from any of the songs in the service's music database on demand; or, in some cases, download them to their devices.

Which is best?

Spotify remains very bashful about releasing its figures. However, it claims that it has over 300,000 users in its native Sweden - and there appears to have been a rush of new users in the UK. The company has licensing deals with all the big record labels and a number of independents, and we gather that most artists are available.

But the online music market appears to be saturated, and the established players such as iTunes and Napster are finding it hard to boost their revenues.

In the final analysis, it might come down to the type of customer they attract. Both services will want to turn their users into paying subscribers and get them to buy downloads. Both business models depend on advertising, but the jury is out on whether the advertising pot will be deep enough.

Trade secrets

This week image stabilisation

Modern digital compact cameras are packed with amazing features which you would have had to pay thousands of pounds for just a few years ago. It would appear that taking great images is now possible with a camera costing little more than £100. But there is one big hurdle which cameras in this price range have yet to overcome - camera shake.

On professional and semi-professional digital SLRs (single lens reflex), the problem was first solved by Canon, who introduced professional photographers to IS (image stabliliser) technology several years ago. Nikon's technology, which is very similar, is called VR (vibration reduction).

Interestingly, Nikon and Canon built the anti-shake technology into their SLR lenses rather than the camera body. There is an advantage to this as, if you want a stabilised image in the viewfinder it is only possible if the lens has the technology built in.

But there may be another reason. An admission from a senior spokesperson at Canon USA to E&T suggests that it would cannibalise the lucrative lens market. "Our best selling consumer SLR is the Rebel XTi [EOS 450D in Europe]. If we put IS technology in the body, why would you want to purchase an IS lens? It's not rocket science."

If you invested in a top-of-the-range digital SLR from Canon or Nikon, you would, in most cases, not get optical image stabilisation technology built into the body. For that, you would have to shell out for a lens (manufactured by the company, of course).

However, Sony, which entered the SLR market with its acquisition of Konica Minolta in 2006, does have optical image stabilisation built into its bodies. Even some professionals have been wowed by the quality of this model.

Canon and Nikon do, however, have optical image stabilisation built into some of their compact cameras - as does Panasonic in its top-end compacts and Leica brand.

Another issue to be wary of is any camera product which describes itself as featuring digital image stabilisation. Is this some complicated on-the-fly image interpolation software built into the camera? Unfortunately, it is far more basic than this. Cameras which describe themselves as having digital image stabilisation essentially ramp up the camera's ISO rating (the sensitivity to light) and increase the shutter speed which, in most cases, improves the user's ability to take action shots in less-than-perfect conditions.

The trade-off with this is increased graininess and artefacts on the image - especially evident on night-time shots. Many would argue that this is not image stabilisation at all.

So, there are a variety of options if you want optical image stabilisation. If you have the budget, you could opt for one of the top-end SLRs by Nikon or Canon (favoured by the professional), but you would also have to shell out for expensive lenses.

If your budget is more limited but you still want an SLR, you could opt for a Sony SLR, such as the A900 (below). The cost of the lenses would be far less as image stabilisation is built into the body.

But if you just want a simple point-and-shoot compact, expect to pay between £200 and £400. Canon's Powershot range does offer a better lens aperture, but it is built-in.

Technology clinic

London Calling

I am visiting London next month with a friend and we would like to visit somewhere with all the latest gadgets. Any suggestions?

Ruth Smart (by email)

Most capital cities have an area where consumer tech stores are located. In Tokyo, for example, it is the Akihabara district. In London, we have Tottenham Court Road.

But do shop around and haggle, and check prices online to ensure that you don't get ripped-off.

As you know, you'll expect to pay more in a shop than online. Sometimes, however, it's worth it if you get good advice - the electrical department of John Lewis, for example, has a very good reputation.

Slingboxes

I am at a loss to understand how the slingbox works. On my BT Asymmetric DSL Broadband I get a download speed of over 6Mbps, but the upload speed is less than 400kbps. Does the Slingbox use a revolutionary new coding system? Do you need a symmetric cable broadband connection, or are the pictures just rubbish?

Tom Corcoran MIET (by email)

Most consumers have an asymmetric broadband connection which basically means that there is a huge discrepancy between the download speed and the upload speed. Unfortunately, this is how ISPs market their services. Is this what customers want? Virgin Media, for example, can offer a download speed of up to 50Mbps, but the upstream is only 1.5Mbps.

The codec used on The Slingbox is VC-1, which is the same codec used by Microsoft in WMV 9 files. Assuming your upload speed of 400kbps is matched by the receiving device's download speed, your screen resolution is likely to be 240 × 176 at 30Hz, or 352 × 288 at 15Hz.

Clearly, this is not even close to reaching standard definition which most viewers are used to. But were you to place-shift room to room on the same wireless local area network, you would be able to achieve a better picture.

e-book rival

I found your article on E-book readers particularly interesting as I am considering buying one for my daughter. 

I have found another manufacturer, iLiad at www.iLiadreader.co.uk. They appear to be a UK manufacturer. They offer three different versions including Wi-Fi connectivity and an optional software package which enables one to make hand-written notes which can be downloaded as Word docs.

I wonder if you are aware of this device?

Dennis Croft (by email)

I can confirm that it is not a UK product but manufactured by a Netherlands-based company, Irex Technologies, a spinout from Philips. It does use the same E-ink technology licensed by Sony's E-book, Amazon's Kindle and Plastic Logic.

It appears to have an intriguing set of features. I understand that it will support the mobipocket ebook format and it will soon support Adobe's ebook standard. Thus you would be able to access the 70,000 titles available through The Gutenberg Project.

We will feature this product in our monthly gadget spread once the manufacturers are happy for us to test it.

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