Compare the tunecat? TuneChecker launches

“Compare market” returns 183m results on Google. TV is flooded with adverts for services that compare prices on everything from insurance, to deliveries, to flights, to car deals. It was only a matter of time until someone realised there was another market missing online.

tunechecker-web-siteDeveloped by MoneySavingExpert yet rather tragically designed; ‘Tunechecker.com’ instantly reminds you of one of those ill-fated, semi-illegal, Russian mp3 sites that sold you tracks ten-a-penny back at the decade’s midpoint (that is until they got shut down despite all being “150% legal”). The site, despite its design, is however, clear and to-the-point; straight away you’re given a search bar “Search singles, albums, or artists,” just below the site’s tagline and quick explanation of the site: “Compare cheap MP3 single & album downloads.”

Searching iTunes, Amazon, Play, 7Digital, hmv, we7, Tesco, Orange and tunetribe, the website instantly comes across as quite comprehensive. A search for “Jay-Z” returns his back catalogue, and the lowest price each album is available at. Choosing the album shows you the price comparison — website by website — and from here, you’re easily directed to your music store of choice.

The service is swift, and basic; there is no elegance in this site’s design or purpose, it will do specifically what it says on the tin and nothing else; but that’s okay. From a quick few searches I’ve discovered that on your average album there’s up to 50% to be saved and unsurprisingly most of these high-ends come from iTunes.

In six months this service will become as second nature, to some, as Spotify is now. It’s simplicity is part of its charm; in the time it takes you to open a website and type a title, you’ve found the best offer for your money, and the money-conscious music buyers will now have no problem finding their most frugal choice.

By no means a work of art, or revolution; TuneChecker is still a service that we now all realize has been missing, and we welcome it with open arms.

Heritage Key: History for generation “Second Life”

Heritage Key lets online adventurers explore virtual reconstructions of some of the world’s most awe-inspiring historical sites. And what could me more awe-inspiring for your first outing than a trip around the tomb of Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamen?

The people at developers Rezzable have undertaken a painstaking job of reproducing by hand in 3D modelling, both the artefacts and sites using measurements and photos from the real thing.

But what sets this apart from so many other virtual tour-type applications (around museums for instance), is that you create your own customisable avatar, which can interact with others or explore the site as part of a grous (though we have yet to see an avatar holding up a brolly to lead the way through the ancient tombs, urging that you stay together!)

heritage-key-screenshotsYour avatar can walk around King Tut’s tomb, see wall paintings as they are today and as they were originally created, and listen to in-depth commentary on artefacts uncovered from the dig.

The virtual component has actually been built using the technology pioneered in Second Life, and does share some its less-attractive features, such as a control system that’s counterintuitive, and sees your avatar do some slightly odd things. Just don’t expect the same level of control as you’d get in a first-person PC game and you won’t be disappointed.

To take the experience one step further, the site also features a media-rich website showcasing new videos from leading experts and spectacular photography.

It’s worth a wander around the rest of the website, as there are fascinating snippets and factoids such as a list of the first 10 cities in the world, why women were the first metalworkers, and did you know only 0.13 per cent of Hadrian’s Wall has been excavated?

Whether you want to step back in time and touch thousands of artefacts, watch YouTube videos on your iPhone or post comments on the latest expert articles, you can discover history the way you want to.

The site has been developed by Rezzable, and it will be interesting to see how the whole thing will develop. Obviously it takes time, effort and money to take on the enormous task of photographing, measuring and modelling major historical sites, so how long it will be until the next virtual offering remains to be seen.

If you’d like to explore King Tut’s world for yourself, register (for free) at http://heritage-key.com

Veedesk brings you face-to-face with customer service

The massive growth in online shopping over the past decade has changed the way we think about retail forever and has become to many shoppers a cheaper alternative. It is not, however without it’s detractors. Retail is an art and there is real value in face-to-face interaction with trained staff. I like to think of myself as a fairly competent shopper but when faced with a baffling array of similarly named XLR leads, HDMI cables or power adaptors it can be hard to know which is best. For all its myriad conveniences, occasionally it would help to have a shop assistant on hand to clear up queries. I spent 15 minutes on Amazon this morning trying to buy a Blu-Ray player and was stumped by a number of questions. The player in question had You Tube – but could it play You Tube HD? It has *.mkv file playback – which sounds incredible, but can it playback files in 1080p resolution? And off what? An HFS formatted USB key? Or merely a FAT32 formatted one? I could go on.  Sometimes 5 minutes with a well trained shop assistant could save hours Googling.

veedesk-from-vee24Here’s where Andy Henshaw and his Vee24 platform come in. Billed as an “online customer service interface,” I envisaged popup windows with sales reps asking “How could I help you?” and as a result, approached the platform with a large degree of scepticism. After all pop-ups are annoying,  sales reps asking how they can help all the time can be annoying and a mixture of the two just might break the Internet/irrevocably damage the online shopping experience.

Fortunately Vee24 does none of these things and uses a number of intelligent design features to make the service unobtrusive and genuinely helpful. CEO Andy Henshaw took me through an extensive live demo of the product and answered a few of my key questions. The service is powered via “the VeeDesk” (pictured) and a human operator. New visitors to the website are noted and flagged if their behaviour shows signs of confusion  – the digital equivalent of holding two seemingly similar models of toaster in either hand and a quizzical gaze. A small panel slides across offering assistance and can be slid back with the click of a button. The platform also allows for Reactive assistance allowing you to press a Help/Assistance button.

Asking for help pulls up another window with a video of a sales rep and an Instant Messaging window, plus the option for sound using VoIP. I was impressed how this worked seamlessly, even in Google Chrome, without me having to download any special programs or codecs or waiting for dialogue boxes. Surfing from a fast broadband connection, Vee24 pumped high quality well lit video onto my desktop – although there is a dynamic resource allocation system in the background that varies video quality depending on your connection and system settings. The high quality video really helps and the attention to detail in this area really impressed me. Instead of a washed out office glow, each VeeDesk is fitted with a proper key and fill light set up and Autocue style secondary monitor that makes the on screen image seem eye to eye and is very useful for transmitting non-verbal cues.

On my trial run with Andy he showed me a co-browsing feature where the operative and I shared the cursor and were we able to browse an electronics site, look at a few models of TVs an even fill in a form. Andy pointed out that this functionality is not only useful for standard retail queries but also for more in-depth work such as filling out a mortgage application form or applying for a credit card.

When I question Andy about any possibly security implications he reassured me that no personal data was stored and the platform accessed web-browsing data in a similar fashion to Google Analytics – which is found on literally millions of websites. The platform has also cleared a number of security related hurdles required to launch in Germany – where they have very strict privacy laws.

At the end of our talk Andy ran me through some a retail statistics. 82% of online shoppers abandon carts, 42% value interaction and for every 100 browsers on a site on 2/3 actually make a purchase. Based on the demonstration I saw I expect this platform to be extremely popular with the larger online retailers and a welcome addition to the online shopping experience in the not too distant future.

Hands on with Sky Songs

With Spotify dominating the music streaming world in 2009, it surely couldn’t be long before something else was hot on its tail. Indeed, this has come in the form of the new Sky Songs subscription based music streaming and download website and I have to say, it is pretty damn cool!

Having launched in beta on both PC and Mac computers at the end of October, Sky Songs is definitely comparable to Spotify in the sense that is a music streaming model which provides the user with instant access to download or stream your favourite songs. The library comprises of over 4,000,000 tunes and I think one of the main advantages of this site is that it is simple, easy to navigate around and current.

sky-songs

As someone who is a bit of a celeb and music junkie, the best part of Sky Songs for me was the editorial. It has teamed up with the incredibly popular pop music blog Popjustice and the UK’s leading online celeb gossip site Holy Moly which means that not only can you listen to your favourite artists at the click of a button, but you can also read the latest news, information and goss on them. When you click on a band or artist you immediately gain access to a page which documents their biography, an image and then a song selection of their tracks on the right hand side. At the bottom section of the same page you also get snippets of latest news and articles relating to that band/artist which you can click on to view the full article. It’s fantastic to have one hub that fulfils your music and latest music news needs and I think this is what definitely separates Sky Songs from other sites such as Spotify (aside from your music being interrupted by advertisements).

The ways of listening to the music are firstly via streaming whereby your chosen songs can be played immediately through the Sky Songs web player. The second method is through downloading. Once you have found a song or album that you would like to download, you can choose to either use your monthly allocation of songs or use your registered credit or debit card. You can the download your chosen music via the Sky Songs Download Manager which will send your songs straight to your iTunes or Windows Media Player. Simple! There are two packages that you can choose with Sky Songs; £6.49 per month including 10 downloadable songs or £7.99 per month for 15 songs.

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In my personal view, every website should be designed in an easy to navigate manner whereby the user is constantly engaged with interesting content and images. Sky Songs has definitely achieved that. It is a fun, light hearted site that keeps you up to date on the current music scene as well as providing the user with a huge ever growing library of music which you can select via specific artist or browse by genre. The service also allows you to share your playlists with friends, as well as posting links to your favourite tunes and playlists via all the major social-networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

Sky is a renowned, respected and trusted brand and I definitely think for the wide selection of information at your fingertips the monthly subscription is fantastic value for money.

LiveStream brings streaming video to iPhone

Online video, as we are often told is the future of broadcast. With heavyweights such as YouTube introducing 1080p streaming next week and the growing ubiquity of broadband, new and exciting distribution technologies are popping up on a weekly basis. Producers of online content were giving yet another weapon in their growing arsenal last week as Livestream introduced the ability to stream content live to iPhones.

livestream-procaster-iphone

Livestream,(formerly Mogulus) allows users to broadcast live video from a virtual studio to an online audience. Much more than a simple feed, Livestream includes the ability to mix multiple live cameras, overlay graphics, and desktop streaming with 3d effects. Available in ad-supported free and paid flavours, Livestream has a web-based app as well as a desktop client – Procaster.

The iPhone streaming functionality offers a turn-key streaming service using H.264 HTTP live streaming, which is included in the native Quicktime. Livestream Procaster includes a free streaming encoder, which means that no third party application or license needs to be purchased in order to stream live to the iPhone using Livestream.

Set up was relatively straight forward. The desktop client was relatively small and available for the Mac and PC. Before you get started you need to sign up for a free Livestream account that gives you a www.livestream.com/YourNameHere URL for your viewers to head to. A few minutes later I was ready to go.

The Procaster software is incredibly straightforward, yet allows you to broadcast images from your webcam, screen or game you are running – with the ability to switch between them on the fly. You can even integrate a Twitter feed. I gave Livesteam a go and broadcast footage of the office coffee pot to the world, alternating between a DV cam connected via Firewire 400 and a Logitec Pro 9000 webcam.  iPhone streaming over a weak 3G signal was a little laggy, but when I switched to a 2Mbps Wi-Fi connection the quality improved dramatically. The image quality was surprisingly sharp from my Logitech Pro 9000 webcam and captured fast moving images at a reasonably smooth frame rate. The DV footage was clear but seemed to increase lag to an iPhone on a 3G signal.

One significant advantage this system has is that viewing the feed is as simple as navigating to the www.livestream.com/YourNameHere URL from the iPhone browser. “A key breakthrough is that the service doesn’t require any proprietary player or application to be installed on the iPhone. Producers are free to integrate the iPhone live stream with their own website, iPhone portal or iPhone application using the API provided,” explained Livestream CEO and co-founder Max Haot.

Whilst lacking the sophisticated feature set of more expensive packages such as BoinxTV (Mac OS X only) for a simple broadcasting set up, such as a conference, open mic night or low key gig for a band, Livestream offers a compelling proposition.

Analysis: Google enter the snake pit with Chrome

Google has finally unveiled the long awaited Google Chrome OS, provisionally titled Chromium. The minimalist operating system has been in the works since the Californian technology giant unveiled their new web browser, Chrome, in July.

Chrome OS utilises all of Google’s considerable experience in web technology, reinventing the concept of an operating system. The OS develops a number of forward thinking features: for starters, there is no desktop. All programs are web-based and run in Chrome, utilising the online applications suite that has been developed for the last few years (including Google Docs, Calendar and Gmail).

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As expected, the release is open source and entirely free. Google opened the release to developers on November 19th, and are looking for feedback from the open source community.

Chromium does, however, ask some difficult questions of Google’s long term plans. The main pitfall the project faces is Chrome OS’ reliance on the internet. The operating system is entirely web based, storing applications and user information in the cloud. Only some of the online features will be usable without a connection via Google Gears, but all user information will be easily recovered if you lose your laptop; the system stores all user data on Google server clusters, adding strength to claims that Google are dangerously engaging in data-farming.

Furthermore, Google have optimised the system for specific hardware, namely Solid State Drives as opposed to the more cost effective traditional variety. The system will run on the current crop of netbooks, particularly on either x86 or ARM processors.

The release faces a double edged sword- many of the features are highly intuitive and brilliant engineered, but the technology Chromium relies on is not low-end. Development builds of Chromium have been blisteringly quick, booting up in under 7 seconds. In the same way that Chrome isolated each web tab as a process, Google has created a “security sandbox” for each application. The operating system will check and repair code upon reboot.

Chromium is pitched as an operating system for your second PC, namely a portable netbook. Its aim? To “kill the desktop”. With the first netbooks designed for the system arriving in late 2010, we have a long wait ahead to see if Google releases another Android (initial flop, eventual adoption) or takes the operating system into a new era. Either way, with Google involved, it’s bound to be an exciting wait. Roll on 2010.

BBC and commercial radio’s “RadioPlayer” coming soon

The BBC and Commercial Radio have unveiled plans for a unique online streaming system that will give users access to radio stations all over the country.

Tipped for release next year, the new software will be called the UK RadioPlayer and  will allow listeners to access every licensed radio station in the UK, including BBC-owned radio stations. Users will be able to stream on-demand and listen live to their chosen stations.

BBC RadioPlayer

The screen shots above were provided to Latest Gadgets by the BBC along with the following statement “These images are mock-ups, designed to illustrate the concept of a UK Radioplayer. They do not reflect the eventual feature-set or design of the Radioplayer, nor the brands within it.”

Not only will the player give listeners far more choice in the number of radio stations they listen to but they will also have the chance to search through channels for the specific subjects, music genres and even song titles. Although the interface will be the same for each station, radio stations featured on the player will be allowed to add their own content. This could potentially include features like weather updates, travel alerts, adverts, track listings and shopping links that will allow listeners to purchase the music they are hearing.

The player also comes with a pre-set feature that will allow listeners to save their favourite radio stations and access them at the click of a button.

The BBC’s move comes after the success of streaming software such as Spotify and Last.fm, which have given internet users access to millions of songs online, free of charge. Once the PC version of the UK RadioPlayer is launched, it is thought that plans might also be unveiled to adapt the service for Macs, phones and IPTV.

The project involves partnerships between the BBC and the Guardian Media Group, Radio Centre and Global Radio (the owner of popular radio stations like Classic FM, Capital FM and Heart 106.2). The developers are still in talks with the BBC Trust and the RadioCentre board but it is hoped the player will be released in early 2010.

Ashley Tabor, Global Group Founder and CEO, made the following comments about the new plans: ‘Radioplayer has been developed with the listener in mind and is a big step forward for the radio industry as a whole, providing further cohesion between commercial radio and the BBC as we drive to Digital.’

Amazon launch Kindle PC application, here soon?

After much publicity and hype, Amazon’s Kindle handset took the US by storm. Although the hardware was slower to take off here in the UK, the new PC software download might tempt those who aren’t convinced by the handset’s price tag.

That’s right, the software is free and it doesn’t sap your hard drive in the way that some downloadable programmes do. It’s also simple enough so that even the most technologically challenged among us should have very few problems getting to grips with it. With just a few clicks, it is installed and ready to go.

Kindle PC Application

Of course, even though the software is free, you still have to pay for the books. However, with titles starting at just $2.30 there are bargains to be found. While the selection of books available doesn’t even come close to that available on Amazon as hard copies, there are still nearly 300,000 titles to choose from. If you can’t decide between Pepys’ diary and Barbara Kingsolver’s new release then downloading a sample should make the choice easier. Samples are free and give you a good idea of the book’s content before you pay anything for the full version.

The downloads are incredibly quick and the text can be viewed on your Kindle screen almost immediately. The selection of different text sizes greatly improves the readability and it is possible to bookmark your page. The contents page is hyperlinked, so you can skip straight to a certain chapter with a mere click of the mouse.

The PC Kindle is great for people who like to read books on the go (or in the office when no one’s looking). However, the major drawback to this free software is that newspapers, magazines, blogs and personal documents cannot be downloaded and viewed. For these, you need the handset and it doesn’t look like that is going to change anytime soon.

Kindle for PC is still in beta and Amazon have already released their plans for upcoming improvements to the software. These include the ability to make notes and highlight certain passages, find certain words or phrases within the text and zoom in on and rotate images embedded within the books.

The software is certainly no match for its big brother handset. However, it does provide a cheaper alternative for those who want the basic functions of Kindle without the $259 price tag.