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The Year that Was Part II, Gadgets

2008 was a good year for my gadget bag. My favourite toy was without a doubt my Sony Bravia HDTV, which is a very nice piece of gear. Just before I bought it, my tightass Scottish heritage screamed at me for buying something so ridiculously expensive and luxurious, but based on the time I've spent in front of it, I think it's turned out to be quite a good deal. Normal television, DVDs and downloaded video all look great, and HD isn't a pipe dream - it actually seems to work. Blu-ray movies look very slick indeed, as do HD console games, although I am tempted to add just like PC games have for years. The real winner though, is HD sport. Damn it looks good. Even competition lawn bowls is compelling, at least for a few minutes.

I scored a free Playstation 3 with the TV, and it's pretty decent too. It's not perfect - its stable of exclusive games is still pretty anemic, its online service is notably weaker than Xbox Live and every once in a blue moon, random games thrash and lag until the system is rebooted. Generally though, the system is solid. Games look great, and play well. It plays DivX and H264 files without transcoding, so it became my main media player almost by accident. It's still arguably the best Blu-ray player around, although the discs themselves are still too expensive to buy here in Australia. I will accept them as presents, though. :-)

The easiest way to get media playing on the PS3 is to stream it from my PC using a media streaming application like Tversity. This nifty piece of software allows the PS3 to navigate and play items from a media library across the network. If the media is in a format that the PS3 understands, it streams it directly. If it isn't, it transcodes on the fly. This system works very well for most media I want to watch. The only problems I've encountered are the occasional exotic audio track that squeals out like a caffeinated hummingbird, and lag when fast forwarding HD or transcoded video on the PS3. Neither of these are show-stoppers, though.

One format that TVersity doesn't seem to deal with right now is Matroska, an open container format used a lot in HD video. The tricky thing is that most of the actual video streams inside the container play just fine on the PS3. That's where a nice utility called mkv2vob comes in, which allows quick re-wrapping of video data into the VOB container format used by DVD-Video. If the internal format isn't PS3 compatible, mkv2vob will convert it, although this can take hours in the case of HD media. About 90% of the files I've tried have gone straight across in only a few minutes, so the odds are good.

Moving on from media gadgets and software, the coolest utility I started using in 2008 was Launchy, a super-slick keystroke application launcher. With this, I hit alt-space + FIRE to launch Firefox. Alt-space + TALK is Google Talk. I have dozens more - no mouse, no menus, just a few letters and away we go.

The defragger that comes with Windows is rubbish, so it was also nice to find a good replacement in Perfectdisk 2008. As well as excellent file defragmentation (without requiring stupid crap like needing 25% free space on the drive to run), it also consolidates free space. This means that new files go straight into this lovely big empty meadow at the end of the drive, and stay in one piece instead of being shuffled into dozens of chunks. It also makes the drive map look neat and tidy, which I like.

The latest gadget I'll mention is something a little different - my Aeron chair. For most people, the idea of spending AU$1400 on a chair is completely insane. Having a bad back and spending upwards of eight hours a day in front of a computer screen changes things though, so I was willing to throw down for the sake of ergonomics. My verdict is overwhelmingly positive - the chair is not only comfortable and extremely adjustable, it forces me to sit in an ergonomic position. I liked it so much I even bought myself a second one for work just recently, and the difference between it and my old crappy generic office chair is enormous. Final word? If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up.