Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Web Page Usability

This guy has some great points about usability testing. Tesying is not something that crosses my mind on a daily basis, but he makes the point that
1. don't use your friends
2. anything that takes longer to load than 1 second is too long
3. you only need 5 users to test.

Monday, September 14, 2009

My Vampire Weekend

For this topic, I went to MP3.com and navigated over to the Free Mp3 page. I clicked on Vampire Weekend's infectiously groovy "Cape Cod Kawassa Kwassa" and listened to the streamed "Play Now" option and then downloaded the Mp3 Version onto my computer's hard drive and listened to each file, one after another using headphones.

Before I compared the files,
I needed a quick lesson about streaming audio and down loadable audio. Apparently there are there are two ways to deliver audio over the Internet . In downloads, the compressed file is stored on the user's computer and played using an installed software player like Windows Media Player, or iTunes. Mp3s are a very popular format, but AIFF, WAV and ACC can also be delivered through a web or FTP site. With streaming audio, the sounds are not stored, only played. This process is similar to analog radio signals, only sent through the series of tubes that is the Internet rather than the airwaves. The streamed audio is can be "On Demand" meaning that the file starts playing when the user clicks the "Play Now" button, OR listeners can "tune in" into live audio streams such as disk jockeys playing music, or speeches as they happen. These signals are picked up by applications embedded in the user'sInternet browser, or can be tuned in using Windows Media Browser or iTunes.
All this is interesting, but the core question is: How do they compare?

Mp3s: This format is much maligned by audiophiles as the end of listenable audio itself. It has been my experience that this is true to a certain extent. The terrible beauty of the MP3 is its small size, which makes it able to squeeze into ipods and through skinny Internet tubes. Compression ratio is the root cause at work. Audio sound waves are squished and flattened and chopped and channeled into a small size with only the most prominent frequencies surviving the process.

Streams: If audio lovers hate MP3s because of the loss of all but the most obvious parts of the waveform, you can imagine what they say about streamed audio. Not only are the sounds compressed like mad, but they are also subject to the vicissitudes of real time playback. The signal is chopped up into little "packets" and sent through the originator's server and through the listener'sInternet connection. When the tubes are full, packets get rerouted or forced to wait until bandwidth opens up. These Internet traffic snarls cause the dreaded buffering that interrupts playback.

The MP3 was passable audio quality. Sound quality was enhanced by the headphones and I was able to adjust my iTunes equalizer to goose up the lows by selecting the "Small Speakers" option.

The streamed option was limited by my sluggish connection and the lower quality/low bit-rate inherent in streamed audio formats. The highs exhibited the tinny, digital decay that is a hallmark of overly compressed sound-waves. The lows were dull and lacked the rounded sustain of natural sound waves.
So, in conclusion I would say that both formats are going to disappoint a few audio purists, but as an easy, portable Internet integrated listening option, both can't be beat.