Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy New Year 2009

I just want to wish everyone a happy, healthy, peaceful, and fulfilling new year.

This photo was taken in Seattle at the Space Needle on New Year's Eve 2005. We're actually spending a very quiet evening at home tonight. Tomorrow we're hosting our second annual New Year's Day Open House and Soup Fest.

And then next week I should be winging my way to India, in pursuit of a very interesting job opportunity. I hope to share more about this with you in the weeks to come.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Movie Review: Man on Wire

Maybe it's the writer in me. Or the fact that I watch a lot of movies. But for whatever reason, I felt compelled to write a movie review. At least the movie in question has some link to the other themes of this blog.

To simply say that Man on Wire tells the story of French high-wire walker Philippe Petit's stroll between the towers of the World Trade Center misses the point completely. Most New Yorkers know that on the morning of August 7, 1974, Petit not only walked a wire strung between the roofs of the two towers, he spent nearly an hour walking back and forth, even laying down on the wire at one point and saluting the police waiting to take him into custody. The film's title is a reference to the charges filed against Petit, (tresspassing, disturbing the peace, "man on wire"), which were later dismissed in exchange for him putting on slightly more sedate, free performance for the children of New York.

I even remember where I was that day (although it's not an event so etched in my memory that I remember what I was doing, or anything like that). But that was quite a summer. I was taking summer classes at Syracuse University School of Architecture. A few weeks later, Richard Nixon resigned.

Nor can you just say that Man on Wire is a documentary. Because in spite of the fact that we know what's going to happen, British filmmaker James Marsh delivers a pulse-pounding story that's more like a thriller than many supposed thrillers I've watched recently. It helps that the young Petit had the foresight to film much of the preparation for his feat. Of course, there was also news footage of those preparations, like the time he secretly rigged a wire and then walked between the towers of Notre Dame Catherdral in Paris. He later performed a similar feat between two towers of the Harbour Bridge in Sydney, Australia.

The film integrates Petit's "home movies" with stylized re-enactments and interviews with many of the participants as the director documents every step Petit and his team took to circumvent both the security at the nearly completed World Trade Center and the physics of smuggling nearly a ton of stainless steel cable and rigging into the towers and then figuring out how to string it between them.

Thirty-five years later, and with the twin towers gone, the feat, and this film, remain absolutely mind-blowing. When I brought the DVD out to watch the other night, my daughter initially wanted no part. But inertia prevented her from leaving the room and minutes into the film, she was hooked. We even ended up watching all the special features. I think you will as well.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

New HP Mobile Workstation

As many of you know, I am a long-time contributing editor to Desktop Engineering magazine and several other publications. One of my regular subjects is reviewing the latest computers.

I have long been a fan of HP. Their workstations—both desktop and portable—have always been absolutely superb. My own personal computer is an HP Compaq 8510w mobile workstation, which happens to be the fifth or sixth in a series of HP notebook computers I have used over the years. I am extremely happy with my HP portable workstation and recommend it to others whenever the subject comes up in conversations as I travel the country.

So you can imagine how much I was looking forward to reviewing the latest system in the HP mobile workstation line: the EliteBook 8530w. My first impression is a bit more "mixed" than usual. The system itself is quite elegant—much more modern and streamlined than even my relatively new 8510w—but some of the design decisions compromise things I've loved in the older models.

The new HP EliteBook 8530w features an elegant new design.

For example, I've long applauded HP for putting little icons around the keyboard that clearly identify the various ports around the edges of the notebook, making it extremely easy to find the right port without having to tip the system up on its side. This simple touch, present on all the HP mobile workstations I've owned or reviewed in the past, are not present on the 8530w.

Unfortunately, the new design eliminates the handy icons, seen here on the older HP Compaq 8710w mobile workstation, that clearly identified each port located on the edge of the computer.

According to an HP rep I spoke with, these were eliminated in the new EliteBook because instead of the gray finish on all of the previous models, the new EliteBook uses HP's new DuraCase design, which features a brushed aluminum skin bonded to a magnesium alloy chassis. The attractive two-tone appearance meant that to include the little icons would have required two separate silk screening steps and wouldn't be in keeping with the new design. So it seems that appearance has trumped functionality. Too bad.

The evaluation unit I received came with Windows Vista Business edition. I still prefer Windows XP for production CAD work, but I've had no serious issues with least not until now. My first problem involved user rights management. I found it nearly impossible to install and run some of my standard benchmark tests until I finally dove deep enough into the operating system to completely disable the User Account Management (UAM) functions and also create several new directories (explicitely making them writable) that should have otherwise been created by the benchmark's own installation routine. I never had to do this in the past. What else did Microsoft change in this release of Vista?

After finally overcoming the UAM limitations, imagine my surprise when I attempted to run my standard battery life test. That test consists of first setting the system for maximum power conservation, unplugging the power supply (so that the system is running on its internal battery) and then playing a DVD video and recording the time until the battery is completely exhausted.

Apparently, Microsoft doesn't believe that business users watch movies on long flights. Windows Vista Business doesn't include the necessary codec to play videos. While it appeared at first that users would need to either upgrade to a different (more expensive) version of Windows Vista or purchase, download, and install a third-party codec, HP actually includes a copy of WinDVD as well as lots of other useful software. This was not initially evident, however, because none of this software was pre-installed, just pre-loaded. HP calls this a "lean image." You need to run a software setup utility to install this additional software.

I'm still in the early stages of my evaluation of this system, so please do not consider this to be anything more than a first impression. I'm just starting to run my benchmarks. I'm actually going to test this system multiple times. HP graciously sent me a second hard disk containing Windows XP. So after running all my tests using Vista, I'll test again under XP.

Watch for my in-depth review in a future issue of Desktop Engineering magazine.

Monday, December 15, 2008

All of My AU Classes are Now Available Online

As promised, this year I recorded all six of the classes that I taught at Autodesk University. While most of those classes were also recorded as part of AU (and are available on the AU-online website). But not all of my classes were recorded by Autodesk, and only those who have attended Autodesk University have access to the AU-online website.

So, for the sake of completeness, and to ensure that everyone has access to all of my classes, I have posted all of this year's classes (as well as several from past years) on my website. Here you will find not only all of the class handouts and PowerPoint presentations (in PDF format) but also the complete webcasts of all of this year's classes. I've also posted datasets from several of the classes, and will gladly add more materials in response to requests.

So, what will you find? Here's a complete list of the classes that I've posted:

I hope you find these materials useful and take full advantage of them. And I welcome your feedback. I am always working to improve these materials.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Autodesk University 2008 - The Final Day

Friday morning was actually my most hectic morning of the entire week. I had to get up earlier than on the previous mornings, in part because I was teaching two classes this morning. In addition, since I'd be leaving the hotel today, I had to pack and check out of my room before teaching my classes, since I'd still be teaching at check-out time (11am) and the hotel would not arrange a late check out.

I also wanted to have breakfast before beginning my classes. Not normally a late riser, I had neglected to consider one potential downside of showing up early for breakfast. In order to cope with the crowds at AU, the food service folks have been filling the dining area working from the back of the room towards the front. That means, the earlier you show up for breakfast, the farther you have to walk to get that breakfast.

Here's what the room looked like a little after 7am on Friday morning. Without coffee, that back wall looks even farther way.

I'm happy to report that all of my classes went very well. I had been a bit concerned that the lack of paper evaluation forms this year would result in a large proportion of attendees not turning in class evaluations. But that appears to not be the case. Evaluations could be filled in using one of the more than 100 computers in the hall used for registration or via the web. Evidently, most attendees have been submitting their evaluations. Since the data is live, I've been able to check the attendee feedback soon after completing my classes.

BTW. I'll be posting videos of all six of my AU classes in the next few days. These will all be linked via my website at

In what has now become an annual tradition, a small group of AU regulars got together for a well deserved post AU lunch.

You may recognize some of these people. From left to right: Joseph Wurcher, Donnia Tabor-Hanson, Lynn Allen, Lynn's husband Craig, Matt Murphy, Susan Malitzke, J.C. Malitzke, Karen Miletsky, Yoshi Honda, Bill Fane, Robert Bell, and me.

Annual AU Party Rocks

Autodesk University isn't all work. Thursday night was the annual AU party.

Guests arriving at the beginning of the evening were treated to a fantastic display of trampoline stunts, including the women's silver medalist from the 2008 Bejing Olympic Games.

This was followed by a Japanese juggler/contortionist.

The headline entertainment was provided by the incredibly talented engineer-turned-comedian Don McMillan. This is Don's third appearance at AU, and he was once again in top form. I've always loved Don's stuff. You can see more on his website at

Perhaps the most unique addition to this year's event was the AU Design Slam, a digital design tournament in which three teams of professional designers competed to complete a design in just 20 minutes using an assortment of Autodesk software.

The Design Slam was organized by Cut & Paste. Visit their website for additional details.

Of course, the AU party wouldn't be complete without dancing. After the final round of the Design Slam, the crowd stayed and danced to music provided by a great DJ.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Greetings from Autodesk University

It's the first week of December, which means that I've made my annual trek to Las Vegas to attend the 16th annual Autodesk University. As usual, it's a pretty full week. I'm teaching six classes and taking at least that many. In addition, I'm trying to attend a wide selection of industry-specific events.

My AU experience starts with the speaker's reception on Monday night, outside on the roof-top terrace adjacent to one of the Venetian Hotel's many restaurants. Lynn Allen gave us all a quick pep talk and encouraged us to have a great AU.

Although attendance is down this year owing to the economy, you couldn't prove it based on the crowd waiting to get in for the opening keynote on Tuesday morning. It was once again wall-to-wall. What was even worse was trying to get into my first class at 8am Tuesday morning before the keynote. Seems like everyone had enough energy the first day to take one of the early morning classes.
Autodesk CEO helped kick things off on Tuesday morning at the opening keynote, although later in the day, at a press briefing, Carl had more cautious things to say about how our industry would fare in the short term.
It's shaping up to be another great AU. I'll try to report more both here and on my Revit-Up blog. Watch for AutoCAD-specific info here and more Revit-centric information on Revit-Up.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

On My Own Again

If I needed any confirmation as to the state of the economy, it was driven home on Friday, October 3. That morning, after returning from the season's first CAD Camp event in San Francisco, I was informed that I had been laid off from my job as an applications engineer with The PPI Group, an Autodesk dealership with offices in Portland and Seattle.

So after two years as an employed person, I am once again an independent CAD consultant. Maybe I'll find more time to post here more often.

I am actively seeking new clients. I know times are tough, but that makes it all the more important that users get the most out of the tools and technologies they are using. With more than 25 years of experience, I am uniquely qualified to help ensure that success.

On the Road Again

The CAD Camp season is once again upon us. In the past week I've already taught at CAD Camp events in San Francisco and in Reno, Nevada, where I also served as master of ceremonies for the day's event, since Matt Murphy was on the east coast presiding over other events.

In the weeks to come, we've got events scheduled in Chicago, Boise, Anaheim, Portland, Calgary, and Orlando, all before we make the annual pilgrimage to Las Vegas for Autodesk University.

At upcoming CAD Camps, I'll be teaching classes on the new features in AutoCAD 2009, collaborating with AutoCAD and Autodesk Design Review, working with data and tables in AutoCAD, getting up to speed with AutoCAD's annotation scaling feature, and using Autodesk Impression. I'll also be teaching some Revit classes.

I hope to see many of you at these events.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

My Apologies for Not Posting in So Long

I'm just taking a few minutes to apologize for having not posted anything new quite some time. While not meant as an excuse, I've been on the road for the past several months doing AUGI CAD Camp events all over the country. And when I haven't been on the road with AUGI, I've been teaching classes, meeting with clients, and speaking at various other events.

But summer is here now. I'm not traveling as much (there's only one CAD Camp event this month, just across the border in Vancouver, BC). And I've gotten up to speed with AutoCAD 2009.

So stay tuned for new postings in the days and weeks to come.

Monday, April 14, 2008

How Do Bloggers Find the Time?

So, I spent the weekend in Scottsdale at COFES without ever once getting online to post any of my impressions of the event. COFES 2009 was fantastic, and I made note of lots of things that I want to write about, but at this point, I still don't have time to do so. But stay tuned...

I'm now in Dallas attending Autodesk Tech Camp. I spent most of the day installing the software that I need to train on over the next few days. Right now I'm patiently waiting for Revit datasets to download from Autodesk...and waiting...and waiting. There's lots of content.

There's not much to report from here yet. Today was mostly about upper management telling us about the importance of digital prototyping, something that I've been writing and talking about now for several years.

The high point for me was a keynote address by Mario Andretti. Yes, that Mario Andretti.

Those of you who know me know that I am a big open wheel autoracing fan. And I readily admit that Mario has been a hero of mine for a long time. I knew that Mario was going to be talking at Tech Camp, and so before coming to Dallas, I located several photos that I had taken of Mario over the years and had two sets of 8x12 enlargements made—one to give to him and one for him to autograph for me. I was successful in that quest and will scan and post those photos in a future posting. (You can see examples of my professional race photos on my website at

I guess that's about it for now. I've still got more software to load before I sleep, and while I'd love to actually write something of substance tonight, I have to attend to the installs.

I just don't know how people who blog on a more regular basis do it.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

On the Road Again

Yeah, I know. It sounds like a Willie Nelson song. But after getting to stay mostly at home for the past several months, the travel season is upon me. I'm currently sitting in a hotel room in Portland, Oregon, about to walk over to The PPI Group where I'll be doing a webcast this morning and then teaching a 4-hour "hands-on" BIM for Principals class this afternoon to a dozen architects that have flown in from various cities around the U.S. They're part of an AIA "Rainmakers" group, and I'm very excited to get to address these firm leaders.

I don't get to hang out and smooze with them, however, because as soon as that class finishes today at 5pm, I head right back to Portland Airport to hop a flight to Phoenix. Today marks the start of the 9th annual Congress On the Future of Engineering Software. COFES is an annual event that is part think tank, part technology summit, and part business conference. Run by my former partners at Cyon Research Corp., it brings together more than 200 top executives from the engineering software industry and some of their more influential customers and places them in an environment where they can talk freely about their future development plans and customer needs.

I look forward to COFES every year, both for the chance to engage in fascinating conversation and also to catch up with old friends. I'll try to find time to report on the event here on CADman-Do.

I won't get to relax very long, however, because on Sunday afternoon it's on to Dallas to attend this year's Autodesk Tech Camp, where I'll get my "official" Autodesk training on all of the new software. So continue watching this space for my reports on that event as well.

Monday, March 17, 2008

BNSF Train Wreck in Marysville, WA

I heard the news as soon as I got up this morning to drive to work. A Burlington Northern Santa Fe freight train had collided with a tractor trailer truck near Marysville, WA.

After attending a meeting, I got back into my car to drive back to Bellingham. As I came through Marysville on I-5, I could see a news helicopter hovering a short distance off to the east. It was clear that the wreck was quite near the interstate. So I got off at the next exit and headed toward the hovering copter.

I didn't have to go very far. There in front of me was the train. Two locomotives were completely off the track, with one coming to rest just inches from the State Avenue roadway.

There was a small crowd of onlookers. We all had to stay back behind the police barriers that had been set up. But we still had quite a view. Above is the view from the 130th Avenue grade crossing, just north of the incident.

Here's the story. At approximately 5:40am local time on Monday, March 17, 2008, a northbound BNSF freight train collided with a tractor trailer carrying a load of frozen pizza. The train crashed through the trailer, the cab having already cleared the grade crossing near Pacific Grinding Wheel just north of Marysville, WA. The locomotives pushed the trailer until it caught on a billboard on the east side of the right-of-way, at which point the three locomotives and one box car derailed, tearing up the track.

The train, bound from Pasco, WA to Vancouver, BC was mostly empty and there were no hazardous materials on board. The crossing had a stop sign but there were no gates or flashing lights. The news reported that the driver said that he misjudged the distance and speed of the train. Luckily, no one was seriously injured.

By the time I got there, the cleanup had been underway for several hours. But the lead locomotive was still covered with insulation from the trailer as well as boxes of frozen pizza.

By late Monday afternoon, BNSF was estimating that work would continue until well past midnight and didn't expect the rail line to be reopened until at least 3am on Tuesday morning.

I shot a bit of video with my Canon SD600 Digital Elph. (Important tip: Always carry a camera.)

I was also interviewed by a reporter from KIRO News, the local Seattle CBS affiliate. A small piece of that interview ran as part of this evening's 6pm newscast.

There are additional photos on my Flickr site.

Here are some additional links:

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

PSAUG and Seattle CAD Camp

I'm off to Seattle.

Tonight is the Puget Sound AutoCAD User Group meeting at Renton Technical College. Shaan Hurley was supposed to be there this evening to give members their first look at AutoCAD 2009. Unfortunately, he had to cancel at the last minute due to a family matter, but Alex Lepeska has stepped forward to take over that presentation.

Tomorrow I'll be attending the AUGI CAD Camp in Seattle, this time as an attendee and official AUGI photographer and videographer. I'll be conducting attendee interviews for next year's AUGI video as well as shooting photos for the CAD Camp website.

I look forward to seeing everyone in Seattle and hope to follow-up with any additional information I glean on the next release of AutoCAD and other Autodesk products.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Autodesk World Press Days 2008—Day 1

It’s that time of year again—time for Autodesk to announce the next release of all of its myriad software products. As it did last year, Autodesk is once again hosting its Autodesk World Press Days event, and I am here in San Francisco at the beautiful Mark Hopkins Hotel at the top of Nob Hill along with 150 other press and analysts from more than 50 countries.

From the looks of the first day’s schedule, it was pretty obvious that we weren’t going to actually see much of the new software. That would happen on day two.

Day one began with an opening presentation by Autodesk CEO Carl Bass, who began by noting that the role of engineering and design is becoming increasingly more important. Autodesk has had a 25-year history of success. The company currently has more than 9 million licensed users worldwide, and Mr. Bass was quick to point out that there are many times more than that when you begin to factor in the unlicensed copies of the company’s software. 98% of the Fortune 500 use Autodesk software, a number that rises to 100% when you narrow it down to just the Fortune 100.

Autodesk’s five year growth has exceeded 20%, with net revenue of more than $2 billion, and the company expects growth over the next five years to continue to exceed 15%.

Mr. Bass says that there are four important macro economic trends that are changing the world:

  • Digital Life: Everything has gone from analog to digital. We’re also multitasking in ways that we never could have imagined a few years ago.
  • Globalization: Digital connectivity has been a large contributor to globalization. Arbitraging of cheap labor has driven globalization in the short term, but this will slow down as the global standard of living improves. There is a much bigger opportunity for those who develop new business models. Commoditization is a much bigger issue. Local protections no longer assures design; there are plenty of people out there trying to copy and improve on what you’ve designed. So companies must focus instead on how to differentiate themselves by continuously doing things better.
  • Infrastructure Boom: Infrastructure improvements will total $40 trillion. Even in mature economies, half of the buildings we will have in 25 years haven’t been built yet. In developing countries, that number approaches 100%.
  • Climate Change: If we don’t change our behavior, energy usage over the next 25 years will double. We therefore have to find better ways of producing energy and at the same time become much smarter about consuming it.

These four trends together represent a tremendous challenge. But Autodesk’s software provides many of the means to meet these challenges, such as new building models that let designers experience their designs before they build them and better predict how those buildings will perform in the real world.

Carl Bass was followed by other Autodesk executives as well as a number of customers who described how their companies were using Autodesk software. For example, Peter Horbury, executive director of design for Form Motor Company, explained how Ford is now able to get new cars from design to showroom in 14 months while also recognizing a 25% cost reduction at the same time. He also showed how Ford uses the world’s largest milling machine to create full-scale models of prototype cars, enabling a 25% reduction in design time.

He was followed by Laird Landis, senior technologist at General Motors. GM now uses Building Information Modeling to create, visualize, and analyze the company’s facilities worldwide and has determined that it can save 3% to 5% of total construction cost through the use of BIM technology. All future GM projects will be done entirely in 3D, starting with a 1.5 million square foot facility in Lansing Delta Township. Eventually, GM expect to be able to construct new plants 25% faster while saving 10% to 15% of total construction cost.

The most compelling presentation of the morning came from Brady Nadell, senior engineer at Parsons Brinkerhoff, and Bart Ney, public information office at Caltrans, who showed how they used Autodesk software to create a communications plan to keep the public updated to possible traffic disruptions during construction of the new Bay Bridge linking San Francisco with Oakland. Caltrans plans to keep the existing bridge open throughout construction, and the various images and animations produced clearly explain how this will be done.

They were followed by George Joblove, senior vice president and chief technology officer at Sony Pictures Imageworks, who showed a Sony demo reel and explained how increasingly important visual effects have become to the company’s motion pictures. But more inspiring was Sheena Duggal, a visual effects supervisor, director, and compositor at Sony Pictures Imageworks, who showed her short film showcasing the Chicago Spire, an new residential development designed by architect Santiago Calatrava that is sure to become an iconic addition to the Chicago skyline.

Jeff Kowalski, Autodesk’s chief technology officer, highlighted Autodesk’s focus:

  • Experience it before it’s real
  • Study design alternatives
  • Develop design innovation
  • Help customers gain a competitive advantage

Other themes:

  • Visualization: Capture the appearance of what the product will look like in the real world
  • Simulation: See how the product will behave in the real world
  • Analyze: Capture measureable performance in the real world

In a session on how gaming is driving development, it was noted that more than 25% of gamers are over 50 years old. Gaming software sales in the US grew 28% last year. When you include hardware that figure jumps to 40%. Nintendo has the same market cap as Disney. Keys to successful gaming sound a lot like Autodesk's focus: performance, immersion (it seems real), and interaction (making it easy to use). Director James Cameron is working on a project aimed at being able to direct digital characters. Architects are becoming digital directors themselves. As graphics technology goes mainstream, more people are using 3D technology to communicate their ideas and animate those ideas so that they can be experienced over time.

This all led up to the announcement today by Autodek of the launch of Autodesk 3ds Max Design 2009, a new version of 3ds Max aimed specifically at architectural visualization.

Phil Bernstein, Autodfesk vice president of industry strategy and relations for the company's AEC Solutions division then took the stage to talk more specifically about Autodesk's vision in the AEC industry. Some of his comments:

Buildings have a very fundamental impact on the environment. Sustainable design is a philosophy to understand how a building's design affects its environment. In order to understand how a building behaves requires that you first create a digital model of it

Buildings have to be visualized and executed in a global context now. Autodesk's AEC customers now need to understand how they practice in a worldwide sense, either to design projects in other areas of the world or to understand how consumption in other areas of the world affect the availability of materials where they are building.

As the developing economies grow, we're going to have to develop a lot of infrastructure. There is going to be a tremedous increase in AEC activities. Processes we use will have to change dramatically.

Bernstein joked, "We are the only industry that builds full-size prototypes (the actual building) and then skip the final step." Technology is changing the way we practice. We're moving from traditional design and bid to collaborative project teams. BIM is the catalyst that is making many of these things possible. We can now create digitally correct prototypes that make it possible to analyze the building and then use the model to deliver the appropriate information to the cliet.

Bernstein was followed by Rick Thoman, corporate BIM integrated practice coordinator for SmithGroup, the sixth largest architecture and engineering firm in the US. He noted that we have operated far too long in a world of design, bid, build, litigate. We draw too much in order to protect ourselves from litigation. Now, all documentation is done using computers. It's no longer an option to not use BIM. The model is now a bridge between the design team and the construction team.

Thoman then handed things back to Bernstein, who announced Autodesk's plans to acquire Carmel Software and Green Building Studio. The Carmel acquisition has been closed and the company is about to close on GBS. As to whether the GBS tools will be folded into Revit Architecture 2009, Bernstein would not comment as to how the tools would be added to Autodesk's current products.

Detailed looks at new releases of Autodesk software will have to wait until individual break out sessions and some of the more product-oriented presentations scheduled for tomorrow.

You can also read additional coverage of Autodesk World Press Days 2008 more specifically targeted at Revit users on my other blog:

Saturday, January 12, 2008

AUGI CAD Camp Toronto

I just got back from the first AUGI CAD Camp of 2008. This one was held in Toronto, Canada, in an absolutely beautiful facility in Mississauga, Ontario called the Living Arts Center.

It was a great event and we had a very appreciative crowd of more than 200 attendees. The local dealer did a wonderful job of getting the word out about the event.

I took the opportunity to record another one of my presentations that had not yet been recorded. So I am happy to announce that you can now view a webcast of my AutoCAD 2008 data extraction and tables class, entitled "Keep it Inside AutoCAD – Data Extraction Direct to AutoCAD Tables." That webcast is now available on my website.

I also took lots of photos of the Toronto event and those photos, like those from other CAD Camps, are available on my Flickr site.


Saturday, January 5, 2008

Multi-Room Music Nirvana

When we hosted an open house on New Years Day, I wanted to have music playing in the main area of the main floor of our house, where there is currently no stereo. As a quick makeshift solution, I brought my inexpensive Altec Lansing speakers into the room, placing them in unobtrusive locations and hiding the subwoofer under a coffee table. I put my laptop on the hearth and streamed an iTunes playlist all day. It worked great.

That proof of concept prompted me to come up with a less makeshift solution. After several hours of research, I decided that while solutions like the Sonos and Squeezebox were nice, they also cost more than I was ready to spend for what would effectively be background music. But $99 for an Apple AirPort Express sounded just right.

So this afternoon I went to a local computer store and purchased an AirPort Express with AirTunes. I also bought a cheap set of powered speakers, but that's another story (which I'll get to at the end).

After plugging in the AirPort Express and letting it boot up, it's indicator light blinked amber, indicating that it was not connecting to my existing wireless network. Since I have an existing Linksys wireless router, the AirPort would not connect automatically. It took a few minutes to sort that out, but by going into the AirPort Utility and manually configuring the AirPort Express so that it was simply a client on the existing network, I soon had that problem sorted out.

I think it's a bit miraculous that after simply adding the AirPort Express, iTunes now has a new selection in the lower-right that lets me select where I want to stream my music.

The whole thing works so well, and the experience was so satisfying, that I'm ready to go out and purchase a few more of these things so that I can stream music to additional rooms. AirPort Express is perfect.

Now, the speakers, unfortunately, are another story. Years ago I picked up a set of Altec Lansing 221 speakers for my office. They consist of two small satellite speakers with a hefty subwoofer. While they're certainly not audiophile quality by any stretch of the imagination, they cost me $49.99 at Costco and have a nice clean sound through the entire frequency range, and a full but balanced bass. But these speakers apparently are no longer available.

I purchased a set of Edifier speakers from the same place that I purchased the AirPort Express. I had never heard of them before (it's a Canadian brand) but they were all that the store carried and since I could easily return them, what did I have to loose. They were, in a word, terrible—incredibly weak in the middle frequencies and almost no bass response in spite of the subwoofer. So I drove over to another store and picked up a set of Logitech X-240 speakers. The frequency response was much better, with nice clear treble and substantial bass that I could easily adjust thanks to a control knob on the subwoofer (something my Altec Lansing speakers lack). But when no music was playing, these speakers have a very noticeable hum. So they're going back tomorrow as well.

So while I've found nirvana in terms of streaming music to any room in the house, I am still searching for a decent set of inexpensive (under $100) powered speakers. Like I said, this is for background music when we entertain. When I want to really listen to music, I'll turn on the stereo. I'll probably add an AirPort Express to the stereo as well. Why not? But if anyone has a good recommendation for some inexpensive powered speakers, please pass it along, because I'm still searching.