Archive for January, 2011

HP/Palm Pre and webOS Review: Camera, Photos, and Maps/Navigation

Sunday, January 30th, 2011

This continues my review of the HP/Palm Pre and webOS.  Click below for the previous parts:

Part 1: Introduction and Hardware
Part 2: User Interface, Launcher, and Multitasking
Part 3: Synergy (Calendar and Contacts)
Part 4: Phone, Web, E-mail, and Messaging

Camera

Walt Disney World Castle - Taken with Palm Pre

The Pre is the first cell phone that I have had where I have found the camera to take good enough pictures to be useful.  The phone has a 3-megapixel camera and a built-in flash, specs that fall a bit short of most newer phones but which were pretty good in 2009 and definitely better than any phone I had before.  While the flash makes it more usable indoors and in other low-light conditions than other cell phone cameras that I’ve had in the past, the camera is still better suited to photos taken in good lighting, particularly daylight shots outdoors.

Hollywood Bowl - Taken with Palm PreThe camera isn’t a substitute for a real dedicated digital camera, but it does take pretty acceptable photos under good conditions.  It has come in very handy for occasional photos taken when I don’t happen to have another camera along or when I want to immediately share a photo via Facebook or Twitter.  I think I took more photos with the Pre in the first couple months that I had it than I ever took with my previous phones.  The photos in this section were all taken using the Pre camera.

Admittedly, smartphone cameras have improved dramatically in the year and a half since the Pre was first released and most comparable phones have ones that are much better.  The Pre 2 increases the specs to a 5 megapixel camera and supposedly has some more advanced imaging than the Pre camera.  Palm/HP definitely does need a higher end phone with even more improvements to the camera, as well as a front-facing one for video conferencing.  The camera also lacks the touch to focus feature now included on the iPhone and many Android phones.

The camera application is pretty simple to use.  I have it on the top row of the first page of the launcher, allowing it to be accessed pretty quickly.  The controls available are a shutter button on the center bottom of the screen, a thumbnail photo to the left of the shutter to switch to the photo display application, and toggle on the right to switch the flash between on, off, and auto (based on a light sensor) modes and to switch to video recording.

Carousel Horse - Taken with Palm Pre

I do find that triggering the shutter using an on-screen control is a bit awkward and has taken some getting used to.  I would prefer a physical button for that and have actually found that my first instinct has some times been to hit the center button (which launches card view) instead.  If you don’t mind opening the slider, the shutter can be activated with the spacebar as well.  In some cases, that can be an easier way to take a picture.

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HP/Palm Pre and webOS Review: Phone, Web, E-mail, and Messaging

Monday, January 24th, 2011

Soundtrack Collection: Dragonheart to Dutch

Wednesday, January 19th, 2011

Dragonheart

Dragonheart (Randy Edelman, 1996): Randy Edelman’s main theme to Dragonheart has been used in so many trailers for other movies that it is likely to be instantly familiar to most people even if they have no idea what it is from.

The theme is introduced during the opening cue, entitled  “World of the Heart (Main Title)”.  It is a primarily string-driven theme with a warmly noble quality to it.  The theme has a definite grandeur and sense of importance, which is obviously the reason why it has become so popular to re-purpose it.  In some parts of the score, starting with the album’s 2nd cue “To the Stars”, Edelman adds a wordless choir to the theme as well, giving it an even broader scope.  Much of the score continues in the same vein as the theme, usually strongly melodic with strings generally in the forefront.

The score does have occasional darker patches, such as the very prominent percussion and chant-like vocals found in the cues “Einon” and “Bowen’s Decoy”.  The former cue also introduces some distinctive ethnic elements to the score, with some old-European styling to some of the melodies. This includes some prominent use of acoustic guitar in this and a number of other cues.

Despite the highly melodic, fairly large-sound to the score, Edelman actually makes pretty extensive use of synthesizers during much of the score.  During some of the bigger orchestral segments, synthesizers are used to enhance the percussion and give the score a bit more active bass.  Some of the lighter, more comedic sections of the score place the synthesizers more up-front, as in the cue “The Last Dragon Slayer”.

The soundtrack to Dragonheart was released on CD at the time of the film’s release and is still readily available.  The album contains a relatively generous 45 minutes of score and is generally a solid representation of the score, although I suspect there would be plenty of material for an expanded release.

Dragonslayer

Dragonslayer (Alex North, 1981): This big-budget Disney/Paramount co-production (unusual at that time) wasn’t a big hit at the time of its release, but it has increased somewhat in stature over the years.  It isn’t considered a classic by any means, but it is now generally fairly well-regarded as one of the better entries in the sword & sorcery genre.

The score to Dragonslayer came fairly late in Alex North’s distinguished career and it was really his last score for this type of epic, action-oriented period piece, the type of film in which the composer often exceled.  He delivered a dark, minimally-thematic score that is often a bit difficult to listen to separate from the film, despite the score’s obvious artistry.  North’s score is an avant-garde, often biting effort that lacks the generally upbeat sense of fun that is usually associated with this genre.  It isn’t for everybody and has long been a controversial score among fans, but it is a complex and always interesting score.

While North never really establishes much in the way of strong, distinctive themes that carry through the score, he does introduce melodic material, although it is often surrounded by very active, often dissonant music.  For example, the cue “Maiden Sacrifice” introduces a distinctive, tender melody, but generally overwhelms it with intense strings, brass, and percussion.  This type of approach is repeated fairly often throughout the score.

It is fairly well known that North repurposed portions of his rejected score to 2001: A Space Odyssey for Dragonslayer and those familiar with the either or both of the recordings of that score will certainly recognize its echoes here.  In particular, the waltz that North wrote for the space station docking sequence is clearly reproduced in the cues “Burning Village” and “Dragon Sore-ing” as well as during the finale and over the end credits.   It becomes the most thematic part of this score, although I’m not sure I would think that had I not heard the 2001 score.  In each cue, North builds on his already existing music to build something distinct to this score.  The two scores really make for interesting companion pieces.

While the score did receive a fairly limited LP release as well as an earlier CD release (of dubious legitimacy), the first truly official CD release came from La La Land Records in 2010.  It is a limited edition of 3,000 copies, although still readily available at the time I’m writing this.

Dreamer

Dreamer (Bill Conti, 1979): This fairly obscure Bill Conti score opens with a “Main Title” cue featuring a pleasantly old-fashioned Americana swing-music style, which figures prominently in other parts of the score as well.  Towards the end of the cue, it transitions into more of the late-70s pop style that is more typical of Conti’s scores during that time period.

The score is kind of all over the place stylistically, with some cues featuring the old-fashioned style, others in the more pop style, such as the romantic pop cues “Double Image”, “Blurry” and “Alley Cat”.  The cue “Pool Room” even has a country instrumental style while “Waitress Walking” is pretty much pure disco and “Racking Pins” has a bit of a Mexican mariachi style.

The soundtrack also includes a catchy, 70s pop song entitled “Reach for the Top”.  The song was written by Conti and performed by Pablo Cruise.  It certainly isn’t as memorable as Conti’s famous “Gonna Fly Now” which was written for Rocky just a year earlier, but it still has the same triumphant, anthem style.

The score for Dreamer was released by Varese Sarabande paired with Conti’s The Scout on a 1,000 copy limited edition “CD Club” release, which is now sold out.  The music from Dreamer runs around 40 minutes.  Note that the above image is poster art from the film as there was no Dreamer cover art with the CD.

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HP Palm Pre and webOS Review: Synergy (Calendar and Contacts)

Saturday, January 15th, 2011

This continues my review of the HP/Palm Pre and webOS.  Click below for the previous parts:

Part 1: Introduction and Hardware
Part 2: User Interface, Launcher, and Multitasking

webOS Contacts - Setup AccountsProbably the most innovative feature of WebOS is its ability to consolidate contacts and calendar data from multiple web-based sources, a feature that Palm branded as “Synergy”.  Currently, the OS can consolidate calendars from Google, Facebook, Yahoo, and Microsoft Exchange and contacts from those same services plus LinkedIn.  Calendar entries and contacts entered directly into the phone can be directed to any of those services or to an online Palm Profile that is created during the initial set-up of the phone.

This ability to manage personal data from multiple cloud-based sources is the killer application in WebOS and other platforms (especially Android) are already implementing similar features.  At this point, the lack of a similar feature is probably the most glaring omission in Apple’s iOS.  It is becoming increasingly uncommon for anyone to have all of their contacts and calendars in a single location and the ability to effectively organize and consolidate it all is becoming vital.  Since I’ve had the Pre, it has become my primary calendar and address book.  Even when I’m near a desktop or laptop computer, I know that I’m likely to find the most complete version of what I’m looking for on the phone.

webOS Calendar - Setup AccountsWhile it generally works reasonably well already, the feature is somewhat in the infant stage.  HP/Palm especially needs to expand it to pull data from a wider variety of sources.  They are still missing a few major services such as MSN and AOL.  Native support for more generic formats such as iCal would certainly be a big plus as well.  Adding synchronization of tasks and memos is also an obvious need that I’m pretty surprised that they have yet to address. WebOS 2.0 reportedly exposes more of Synergy in its public APIs, which should allow more services to implement their own synchronization.

I also strongly believe that HP/Palm should beef up their own Palm Profile service for those that might prefer not to use a 3rd party service for managing their personal information.  At the very least, they should implement the ability to view and manage data stored in the Palm Profile via the web.  Currently the data are only accessible on the phone itself.  There have also been reports of data loss from the Palm Profile when people have replaced or had to hard-reset their phones and this is something that is simply unacceptable with a cloud-based solution and must not continue.

One other shortcoming that is often cited is that there is no out-of-the-box solution for synchronizing with desktop applications for those that are still generally avoiding storing this kind of information in the cloud.  They do provide a tool for doing a one time transfer of data from Microsoft Outlook or the older Palm Desktop (used with the old Palm OS), but it does not establish an ongoing synchronization.  I don’t personally feel this is a bad decision, though.  There are already third-party solutions available to do this kind of synchronization (admittedly at an extra charge) and I think it probably is wiser for Palm to keep their own focus on the cloud-based approach, which I do think will be the preferred solution for most people.

CalendarPalm Pre - CalendarIn the calendar application, the default view is a combined one with the events from each source (Exchange, Google, Facebook, etc.) color coded.  In the settings, you can select the specific color to use for each source and can also have it remove specific calendars from the combined view.  From the main screen, it is also easy to switch to a filtered view that only shows events from any single source.

GwebOS Calendar - Monthly Viewoogle’s calendar supports multiple calendars on a single account and webOS treats each as a separate source with its own color-coding and option to display or not in the combined view.  Since Google offers the ability to subscribe to iCal or other types of calendar feeds, this provides a method to pull in events from many calendar systems that aren’t directly supported by Palm.  I use TripIt for travel planning and scheduling and was able to subscribe to its calendar feed via Google.

I have found that there are some quirks/bugs in the system, which I hope Palm will work out in time.  Sometimes updates made online to a calendar have taken several hours to show up on the Pre and, occasionally, never made it there at all.  This problem was particularly common when subscribing to an external calendar source in Google and I eventually ended up dropping the TripIt subscription in favor of manual imports.

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Soundtrack Collection: Dirty Dozen to Dragnet

Tuesday, January 11th, 2011

The Dirty Dozen

The Dirty Dozen (Frank De Vol, 1967): The 1967 hit The Dirty Dozen was an early example of the more edgy, revisionist approach to war movies that would eventually largely dominate the genre.  The film is an all-star action/adventure about a squad of hardened criminals that are sent on a suicide mission during World War II. 

Composer Frank De Vol, who is probably better known as a songwriter (including the famous “Brady Bunch” theme) provided a very upbeat, traditional war movie score that was intentionally designed to be somewhat in conflict with the film’s very violent, and even cruel, depictions of war.  Separated from the context of the film, the score loses its ironic component and, instead, simply plays as a fun, old-fashioned war movie action score.  I consider it to be a fascinating and impressive aspect of this score that it plays so differently in the film and on an album.

Central to the score is a fairly simple, 4-note motif that sounds like it could easily be matched to the four syllables of the movie’s title, although De Vol fortunately avoids that temptation.  Surrounding that motif is a score full of marches and largely dominated by brass and percussion.  The tone of the music remains generally light throughout much of the score and even occasionally takes amusing turns, such as the big band sound first heard during the cue “The Builders / Train Time”.  On occasion, De Vol also incorporates familiar melodies such as “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree” and “You’re In the Army Now” in a few cues.  The score also has some fairly traditional suspense cues as well, such as “The Wire Cutter / Posey’s Fight”.

The soundtrack also features two original songs that were written by De Vol for the film.  These include a German folk-style song entitled “Einsam” and performed by Sibylle Siegfried and the pop song “Bramble Bush” performed by Trini Lopez.  The latter is pretty firmly steeped in the popular style of the late 60s and is the one part of the film’s music that does tends to date it.

Film Score Monthly released a limited edition CD (still available) of the complete score in 2007.  This CD release more than doubles the running time of the original LP release, which had received a couple previous CD releases paired with other scores.  The limited edition CD also contains the first releases of the versions of the two songs as used in the film.  It does also include the album versions of the songs as bonus tracks, along with a few pieces of source music and score alternates.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (Miles Goodman, 1988): Miles Goodman was a prolific film composer during the 1980s and 1990s (until his untimely death in 1996 at age 46), although very few of his scores have been released to CD.  Goodman tended to specialize in comedies, many of which also contained a number of songs, which is likely the main reason for the relative lack of score soundtracks.  His frequent collaboration with director Frank Oz was a particularly fruitful one.

In 2010, La La Land Records put out a limited edition CD of Goodman’s score to Oz’s big comedy hit Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.  While the release was a limited edition of only 1200 copies, it is still readily available at the time that I’m writing this.  The film was a farce starring Steve Martin and Michael Caine as con-men competing to woo a mark played by Glenne Headly.  The setting is a small coastal town in France, which provides Goodman with the opportunity to provide a lively, European sounding score.

The score is consistently upbeat, with an often jazzy style to it.  Strings and horns dominate, particularly in the fast paced, swinging main theme, which debuts in the opening cue “Prologue/Dirty Rotten Theme” and then figures prominently throughout the score.  The rest of the score continues in a similar style, with the string composition particularly conveying a European classical feel to much of it.  The aptly named “Ruprecht Tango” is a particularly strong example of the European influences.

The soundtrack also includes Goodman’s instrumental arrangements of a few well-known standards: Jerome Kern’s “Pick Yourself Up”, Irving Berlin’s “Putting On the Ritz”, and Harry Warren’s “We’re In the Money”.  Stylistically, these arrangements fit in very well with the rest of the score.

Doctor Dolittle

Doctor Dolittle (Leslie Bricusse, 1967): The 1967 big-budget (for the time), musical version of Dr. Dolittle was, at the time of its release, a notorious box-office failure that was also pretty widely savaged by critics (although the film was surprisingly nominated for the Best Picture Oscar).  While it isn’t quite right to say that the film has become a classic, it has played reasonably well on TV and home video over the years and some of the songs have endured fairly well. 

The most famous and enduring of Leslie Bricusse’s songs is “Talk to the Animals”, which was performed by Rex Harrison as the title character.  That catchy song won the Academy Award for Best Song that year and is now something of a standard that is likely to be recognizable even to those that don’t really know the film.  This familiar song is fairly typical of the lyrical style found on all of Bricusse’s songs for the film and the overall score does have a very coherent sound with the songs all fitting together well.

Harrison, who was best known as Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, was the central performer and dominates the song score.  The songs are written to be well-suited to his distinctive style of speak-singing and he does bring a fair amount of charm to his songs.  Besides “Talk to the Animals”, he also is solo performer on “The Vegetarian”, “When I Look In Your Eyes”, “Like Animals” and “Something In Your Smile”.

The other prominent performers on the soundtrack are Anthony Newley as the doctor’s friend and Samantha Eggar as the love interest.  Newley was a very popular singer at the time and lends his expressive voice to  several solos, including “My Friend, the Doctor”, “After Today”, “Where Are the Words” and the title song.  He also duets with Eggar on “Beautiful Things”.  Eggar has the solo “At the Crossroads” and duets with Harrison on two songs: “Fabulous Places” and “I Think I Like You”.

The soundtrack was originally released on LP with the film and has been issued on CD a couple different times.  The content of all releases has been the same, with the full set of songs from the film, including “Where Are the Words” and “Something In Your Smile”, which only were used in the early road-show version of the film.  The only instrumental piece is the overture that opens the album.

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