PTJ 103 News: Shoot the Messenger

Facebook’s move to shove users onto its separate Messenger app is reportedly coming soon — if it’s not here already by the time you read this. Millions of people are already using it, and Facebook says the Messenger app is a faster and more efficient for sharing text and multimedia messages. The company has plans to monetize Messenger with a payment system as well. The Messenger app’s Terms of Service is causing some concern with the privacy-minded, though, and some users are complaining about the forced march.

Splitting up app services seems to be a popular move. Foursquare recently divided its eponymous mobile software for checking into places and reviewing them into two apps They are Foursquare and the new Swarm app, available for Android and iOS. Swarm is now the app required for all the check-in-with-your-pals activity, while Foursquare has been transformed into a user-reviews database. The split has gotten media criticism and a fair amount of backlash from users who are checking out of Swarm, but the company did just release another update earlier this week. (Yelp, the service Foursquare seems to competing with most, updated its own mobile app this week and now allows users to add short video clips to their reviews.)

fakefoxAnd about apps… there are new reports of a security problem with the way apps are identified by Google’s Android operating system. The research team at Bluebox Security says the new “Fake ID” vulnerability that it has just discovered allows malicious applications to essentially copy the identity certificates and credentials of trusted apps and get into places where malware is normally not allowed. The research team said this security hole has been around since Android version 2.1 in January 2010 and devices that haven’t been updated with last April’s patch for Google bug 13678484 are vulnerable.  Bluebox waited 90 days to publicize its findings so Google had time to get out the April patch.

Apple has just purchased BookLamp, a book-recommendation service in what’s said to be a shot across Amazon’s e-book bow. Also in Apple’s shopping cart: Swell, the podcasting app described by some as “Pandora for talk radio.” The Re/code site reports that Apple is scooping up Swell for about $30 million and could put Apple’s own poorly reviewed Podcasts app out of its misery or boost iTunes Radio. (Apple has now  quietly confirmed the dealthe Swell website has been shut down now and the app has been removed from the App Store.)

This summer marks 15 years since the Napster peer-to-peer file-sharing service stormed onto the scene and made MP3-swapping all the rage. At its peak, Napster claimed 80 million users before its original incarnation was shut down by court order for copyright violations in 2001. After several years of being bought and sold, the remains of the company eventually merged with the Rhapsody streaming service and this week announced it had just hit the two-million subscriber mark. On the way back up at last!

Beats Electronics, another of Apple’s more recent acquisitions,  is getting sued by Bose Electronics. Bose, which makes a line of high-end and very popular noise-cancelling headphones says Beats infringed on five of its patents. Sounds like QuietComfort is getting ready to rumble…

Microsoft is also finding itself in a spot of legal bother this week, as the Chinese government is investigating the company for violations of its antitrust laws. Chinese officials have also investigated Qualcomm for alleged anti-trust violations in recent times.

Legal troubles overseas haven’t dampened Microsoft’s sense of fun when it comes to giving Apple a virtual wedgie on TV. The mighty Redmond giant is running a new television commercial for Windows Phone that shows off its Cortana virtual assistant being much more talented and helpful than Apple’s Siri software. The general theme of the ad is similar to last year’s Microsoft spots that touted its Surface tablets over Apple’s iPad.

raspberryMicrosoft is also cooking up its own recipe for Raspberry Pi. But while the bare-bones Pi computer (shown here) costs a mere $40, Microsoft’s own version of the naked circuit board computer is called Sharknado 3, er,  The Shark’s Cove and runs about $300. The Shark’s Cove is intended to be a serious dev board for programmers and less of a hobbyist gadget like the Pi. The Microsoft Shark board does come with a copy of Windows 8.1 and the oomph to actually run it.

A lower-cost cable plan that brings broadband, basic channels and HBO for about $49-a-month is said to be in the works. The budget package had a trial run with Comcast last year. Game of Thrones for fewer bones, perhaps?

marscakeAnd finally, up on Mars. We’d like to congratulate NASA’s Opportunity Rover for setting an off-world driving record. The rolling robot has been cruising around the Red Planet since 2004 and in that decade, racked up just over 25 miles on its little odometer.  And a big “Happy Birthday” this week to NASA itself. The agency came into existence on July 29, 1958, after Congress and President Eisenhower made it so with the creatively named National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958. The mission? “To provide for research into problems of flight within and outside the earth’s atmosphere, and for other purposes.”  It’s not quite as poetic as, To explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before,” but hey, you have to start somewhere.

PTJ 103: Company’s Shopping and Records Dropping

This week we channel our inner AV club as El Kaiser reviews a USB headphone amp and digital to analog converter called the Dragonfly from Audioquest and J.D. takes a look at how to deal with DVD region codes. Yes, DVDs. You remember? Shiny disk that looked like CDs and every PC and laptop used to have a drive that could read them…

In the news Facebook officially splits off their popular Messenger feature; Foursquare looks to improve it’s new Swarm app; Yelp allows users to post videos along with their reviews; Google addresses another major Android security vulnerability; Apple goes shopping; Napster announces it has passed the 2 million user mark, Bose and Beats Electronics go toe to toe over noise cancellation; the Chinese government investigates Microsoft over anti-trust concerns; and the Mars Opportunity Rover breaks a record.

We Are Region

In this big old streaming world these days, DVD region codes seem like a quaint artifact of a bygone era. For those who don’t remember: The world is divided up into six distinct geographical regions and embedded technology on the disc and DVD player have to match up in order for the movie to play. So if you buy a French movie on Region 2 DVD during your Paris vacation, you can’t play it on your Region 1 DVD player back here in the States. Blu-Ray discs are divided into three regions of their own, although many are released as “region-free,” meaning they’ll play on any system.

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Not every movie out there is available as an online stream or download, though, and sometimes, you actually want to play things on disc for various reasons – you have no Internet access, your bandwidth is puny or maybe there are groovy extras on a long-out-of-print disc you really want to see. So what can you do if you run up against the region-code lockout?

Well, as with many roadblocks in life, there are ways around it. Be aware, bypassing a region-code restriction on a disc is something of a gray area. Hollywood, which sets up these things so movies come out in certain parts of the world at a certain time, does not want people messing around with this stuff. People who have legally purchased discs on vacation — only to find them useless when they return home — probably have another opinion.

Depending on whether you’re watching on a computer or a standalone DVD player, here are three options. (Blu-ray drives are much harder to crack and can take some heavy technical lifting, so for now, we’ll focus in DVD discs.)

1. Playing DVDs on the Computer

When you stick in a DVD from a different region into your computer’s drive, you’ve probably seen the box that pops up (like the ones below), asking you to change the drive’s region setting and letting you know you can only change it 5 times total before it locks for good. In many cases, you can use software to get around this, like AnyDVD, a somewhat pricy Windows program that promises to unlock restrictions on DVD and Blu-ray discs.

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But there’s another program that’s cheaper,  cross-platform and it works on a lot of DVD drives: VideoLAN’s VLC Media Player. The VLC FAQ does warn that RCP1 drives work quite well with the program, but newer RCP2 drives are problematic. If you don’t know what’s under the hood of your computer, the VLC site advises simply popping in the disc and seeing if it works on your system.

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As shown below, a Region 2 disc does work on a MacBookPro with external USB SuperDrive. The video was later streamed to a widescreen TV with Apple TV and AirPlay for more relaxed viewing and a proper toasting to Dame Helen Mirren‘s superior acting prowess.

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2. Playing DVDs on a Standard DVD Player

If you run up against region lock on your DVD player, you may be able to gently unlock it with a hack. Keep in mind that doing so voids any warranty you may have left on the machine and the manufacturer would rather you not go messing around in there.  End disclaimer.

In a nutshell, to do these hacks, you basically punch a specific sequence of buttons on your DVD remote to unlock it. To find out which are the magic buttons for your player, check out sites like Video Help’s DVD Hacks or DVD Exploder.

Just look up your model number and fiddle away. Again, don’t do this if you have warranty concerns or a really expensive player you don’t want to risk messing up. As you may read on the forums, some players are more finicky than others and some may have problems playing discs from certain research, so check the boards if you’re having problems.

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As an alternative approach, you can also look up a DVD hack code for one to the newer models and then buy the machine, do the hack and watch your discs. Some DVD players can be purchased for as little as $20 or $30, so you can in effect, make your own region-free DVD player for a relative pile of peanuts.

3. Playing DVDs on a Region-Free DVD Player

If you just want something out of the box that’s meant to play DVDs from all over the world, you can find region-free DVD players for sale, cheap.  As shown below, Amazon sells a Philips region-free 1080p HDMI upconverting player that can handle PAL or NTSC and it’s less than $70. Sites like RegionFreeDVD.net or CodeFreeDVD.com have plenty of models to choose from too.

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In a perfect world, everything ever filmed would be legally available as an instant stream, we would all have broadband at South Korean speeds and these issues would be a fading memory. Until then, if we want to watch globally, we’ll just have to act locally.

PTJ 102: Making The Leap From Windows to OS X

This week on a super-sized edition of the best geek culture web radio show on the planet we answer a question from a longtime listener who is about to make the dramatic leap from a Windows PC to a shiny new Mac. J.D. and El Kaiser offer suggestions on how to make the transition painless.

In the news, Apple edges closer to official i-branded wearable tech; a forensic scientist and hacker claims there are a slew of attack points, system backdoors and surveillance mechanisms purposely built into iOS devices; The Electronic Frontier Foundation has developed its own browser plug-in that prevents third party online snoops;  Facebook tests new “buy now” and “save for later” features; The FCC closes out the first round of public comments on its proposed new rules for Net Neutrality;  Samsung gets into the luxury headphone game; and The Simpsons get the marathon treatment.

PTJ 102 News: It’s About iTime

Could Apple’s mythical smartwatch be edging closer to reality? The iWatch watchers were all titter earlier this week when the US Patent and Trademark Office granted Apple a patent for an electronic wristband. The original paperwork was actually filed back on January 31, 2011, and the patent just granted this past Tuesday, but it’s full of sketches and diagrams — and the working name “iTime.”

itime

Things are not all shiny with Apple, as Jonathan Zdziarski, a forensic scientist (who also happens to be a hacker and an author of five books on iOS-related topics) revealed what he says are attack points, system backdoors and surveillance mechanisms purposely built into iOS devices — and that these entry points could give user information to government agencies. Apple, for its part, denied that it has ever worked with government agencies to create drive-thru windows for personal data pickup, but said that diagnostic functions were built into iOS for enterprise IT departments, developers and Apple itself for purely troubleshooting purposes.

While it hasn’t had any major public privacy flaps of its own this week, Facebook is tinkering with new ways to buy and save — as detailed in a pair of recent posts on company blogs. First, The Social Network announced it was testing a Buy button on advertisements and product pages so users could purchase goods right there. Second, the company is rolling out a Save feature that lets users mark a post or link for reading later.

On to the next round. After overwhelming demand, system crashes, and a deadline extension, the Federal Communications Commission finally closed out the first round of public comments on its proposed new rules for Net Neutrality. The Consumerist blog has gathered up a selection of the highlights for your reading pleasure. (Oh, and Netflix, a company that would really like to see the Net stay neutral for its own corporate well-being, just announced it hit the 50-million global subscriber mark and the second season of Orange Is the New Black, helped bring in some new members who’d heard good things.)

One of those big telecom companies, Verizon Wireless, just launched a rewards program for its customers. In order to participate in the Smart Rewards program, you need to consent to let Verizon track you around the Web. In other Verizon news, the FiOS broadband department is rolling out faster upload speeds for customers. FiOS customers will soon have symmetrical upload and download speeds. Take that, cable!

Amazon launched its Kindle Unlimited plan last week. The service costs $10 a month and gives readers access to about 640,000 ebooks and audiobooks. Not everything Amazon sells in the Kindle format is available, though, so many people are already complaining about the limits of Kindle Unlimited.

Google is working on a new file type called WebP. Google’s developer