How-To: Convert Audible (*.aa) files to MP3 format.

Audible.com is a great service for downloadable audio books, but they use their own format for the audio files. This format is internally very similar to MP3s, but without Audible’s own software to play the files, they are nearly useless. Audible files are also notoriously annoying to convert to MP3 format, and information on converting the files is hard to come by, and often incorrect. Also, most of the tools that you see recommended for converting audible files don’t actually work, so it is easy to throw a lot of money away buying commercial conversion tools only to find out they can’t help you anyway.

So, I’ve decided to share my own recipe for audible file conversion here. I’ve converted hundreds of my own books using this process over the last several years, so I know it does work, but this is NOT an easy process. Also, it doesn’t always work out for some people due to other software or settings on their system.

Anyway… I’ve done my best to make these instructions as clear and concise as possible, but I make no guarantees that you’ll be able to get this to work.

If it doesn’t work for you, feel free to drop in some comments about your experience here, but don’t expect me to troubleshoot it for you. I offer these instructions “as-is”. Read on…

The disclaimer:

I do not advocate the stealing books, especially audio books. Unlike the RIAA and MPAA, book publishers only rip-off authors a little bit (by comparison anyway). Audio books also have a LOT of additional overhead, what with all those narrators and sound editing and stuff. And audio books have a smaller audience from which to recoup those costs. So I urge you to buy your audio books honestly please. The more people buy them, the more likely we’ll continue to see lower prices and larger selections in the future.

The advice I’m giving here is NOT intended to help you pirate audio books. It can be used for that purpose if you choose to use it that way; but that’s on your head, not mine.

What I’m going to explain is how to take an audible file and convert it to MP3 format for your own personal use.

There are many legitimate reasons you might want to convert your Audible files to MP3s. The most popular is so you can play the books on a portable device or PC audio player other than those supported by Audible’s own software. My own personal reason for converting is to ensure that my files will not become useless should Audible go out of business down the road (backup purposes); also, so they can’t revoke my ability to listen to the book through the DRM should their own business arrangements with the books’ publishers change in the future.

So on with the show!

Overview:

The idea here is that you will:

  • Download the Audio Book via an older version of Audible Manager
  • Open and Rip the audio book file in GoldWave
    • Read the file using the audible media player plug-in
    • Set cut/points and split the file into smaller chunks
    • Save the chunks as “wav” files
    • Convert the “wav” files to MP3s
  • Tag the MP3s
  • Enjoy the book

Here is what you’ll need:

Older Version of Audible Manager – v3.5:

So far, I have been unable to get the newer versions of the Audible manager to work with MP3 conversions, so you’ll need to get a copy of an old version of the Audible Manager (version 3.5).

If you already have a newer version installed you’ll need to deactivate and uninstall it before installing version 3.5. Don’t forget to deactivate! Audible limits how many activations you can have at a time and you don’t want to use them all up by accident.

You can tell if you have the newer version of Audible’s software because it has a nauseating green color scheme. The old version is NOT green, just plainish grey and white and very “old-skool” looking.

Audible does NOT make this specific version easy to get to from their regular site, so use this link to be sure you get the right file (the file is hosted on their site… it’s just hard to find).

If you plan to do this on Windows Vista or Windows 7, you will want to turn off UAC and make sure to run the installer as an administrator (right-click the installer file and choose “run as administrator”, see the link for more info).

You might prefer to use Virtual PC for Windows Vista or Windows XP Mode for Windows 7 and do your conversions within the virtual OS. This allows you to keep the newer Audible software installed on your main system. The older version of Audible Manager doesn’t work with the newer “enhanced format” files either.

After you install audible manager, you will need to upgrade it through the Audible update service. If you are on Windows 7 or Vista, keep UAC off and launch the Audible Manager as an administrator just like you did with the installer.

To upgrade, open Audible and go to the Help menu and choose “Check for update”. Once it connects to audible and gets the (big) list of upgradable components, scroll though and choose to upgrade only the “Audible Desktop Playback” and the “Burning Audio CD Support” component. It will need to reboot the system.

DO NOT install the “Windows Media Player Filter” component when you get the updates. I also suggest that you make sure that all this stuff works before you go bothering to install any of the other optional components either.

The base Audible Manager has built-in media player support through an older plug-in (it even works with Windows 7’s media player).

Once installed and upgraded, you will have to activate your audible desktop player.

It is optional if you want to activate the CD burner component or not, but you DO have to at least have to install the CD burner component, even if you don’t activate it. I don’t know why exactly, but if you don’t upgrade the burner then the media player plug-in tends not to work right.

On Vista or Windows 7, you can probably turn UAC back on at this point, but you should continue to run Audible as an administrator. You can also setup the shortcut or exe to always run as administrator administrator.

Audible can be a pain in the balls on Windows Vista and Windows 7. If you run into errors complaining about not being able to write to the registry or the media player plug-in doesn’t work right then you may have to setup the audible *.exe files to always run as administrator. These can be found here:

C:Program FilesAudibleBin or C:Program Files (x86)AudibleBin

The three files you’ll want to set run as administrator are: AudibleCD.exe, adhelper.exe, and Manager.exe.

You may also have to turn off UAC while you do the conversions as well, though I’ve been able to leave UAC enabled with Windows 7 at least.

On one of my systems, I had to change permissions in the registry through regedit. if you don’t know how to do this, I advise you reaserach this before trying it yourself. You can seriously break stuff in regedit, which is why I’m not linking to detailed instructions for this.

HKEY_CURRENT_USERSoftwareAudible

Right click this, choose permissions, and make sure your own user account, the system account, and administrators group have “full control” of this key.

Lame:

You don’t need this, but GoldWave’s built-in MP3 encoder doesn’t handle variable bit rate (VBR) encoding. If you want to use VBR then install LAME. GoldWave will be able to use LAME for the MP3 encoding instead of its own built-in encoder without any special setup on your part.

You can get LAME from the project site, but I find it easier to use this old installer package that includes the LAME encoder and RAZORLAME front-end GUI. It sets everything up in the right places so GoldWave can find it.

It is an older version of LAME, but I’ve never had any problems with it for book conversions.

GoldWave:

The big piece of the puzzle is to get a copy of the GoldWave audio editor.

GoldWave is an old, but awesome sound file editor. It has tons of really nice features, most of which you will not be using here. It is a daunting tool to use if you aren’t familiar with sound editing, but relax… I’ll walk you through it.

GoldWave is cheap (like $50), but you can download the trial and still be able to convert entire audio books. I do recommend you pay them for having made awesome software though, so don’t be a cheap bastard! Use the trial to make sure you can get all this to work, and then buy it!

On Windows Vista or Windows 7, you will always need to run GoldWave as an administrator. I highly recommend setting the shortcut or even the *.exe file itself up to always run as administrator.

MP3 Tag Editor 3 Tag Editor:

You will probably want an MP3 tag editor so you can tag your books once you’ve converted them. I use ID3TagIT, which is an old product that is no longer under development, but any tagger that you are comfortable with should be fine as long as it allows you to pull the tags from file names and edit tags on multiple files at a time.

Prepare for conversion:

The conversion will create some temp files, and these can be quite large. You’ll want to create a “staging” folder in advance where you will put those temp files.

You will also want to create a folder where your MP3s will be put when you are done converting them.

Make sure you have a good bit of free hard drive space. During conversion you might have 2 or 3 gig of temp files floating around.

How to convert the book to MP3s:

OK, now that you have everything installed and setup, it’s time to convert a book!

Get the Book:

Go to Audible’s site and download the book you want to convert. If the book is available in “enhanced format” don’t download that version. Instead change the book to one of the numbered formats. I prefer to convert the format “4” files. These are the highest quality (short of enhanced).

If the book has multiple parts, go ahead and download all the parts.

Audible, by default, puts the files for your book in

C:Program FilesAudibleProgramsDownloads or C:Program Files (x86)AudibleProgramsDownloads

You can change the default location for these files in the Audible Manager options if you prefer.

Once you have the book files downloaded, close audible manager. Check the taskbar to make sure it isn’t running in the background; if it is right-click and choose “exit”.

Open the Book:

Open GoldWave as an administrator.

Choose” “file –> open” from the menu

In the “open sound” dialog, change the “files of type” drop down list to “all files”.

By default GoldWave only shows files it “knows how to open”. Several years ago, Audible got upset with GoldWave’s ability to open audible files, and once the lawyers were done, GoldWave agreed to exclude “*.aa” files from the “supported files” list.

Don’t worry; if everything setup right with Audible Manager, GoldWave can still open the files.

In the “open sound” dialog, navigate to the location where audible is putting the files (see above), select the file for the book (or the file for the first part), then choose “open”.

If everything is working right, a small pop-up window called “section navigation” will appear. This window has Audible’s logo and a couple of buttons. Just leave this window open and NEVER click the buttons.

Another pop-up from GoldWave called “Processing Audio Decompression” will open too. This one has a progress bar and will close itself once GoldWave has finished reading the file (this can take a few minutes).

After GoldWave finishes decompressing the file, it will open the file in the main editor window.

Edit the Book:

GoldWave has all kinds of tools to allow you to edit and/or modify a sound file.

I will not be explaining how to edit the books in detail here, but if you want to edit the book’s contents go for it!

A lot of people like to cut out the audible lead-in and lead-out stuff from the file. This is very easy to do in GoldWave, but when you are done don’t forget to “select” the entire file (CTRL + A) before you move on to the next step.

Split the Book:

Audio books are BIG. You “can” convert the entire audile file to one really big MP3 file if you want to, but I don’t recommend just saving the book as one giant MP3.

If that’s all you want to do, you can just choose “file –> save as” from the menu, change the format to MPEG Audio (*.mp3) and setup any custom attributes you want to use. Then you are pretty much done.

Most MP3 players aren’t too good about fast-forwarding within a file, and odds are you won’t listen to the whole book in one go. It is best to split the book into smaller chunks to make it easier to resume playback mid-book later. Also, some books are so large that the entire thing might not fit on portable devices with limited storage space.

To split up the file, we’ll tell GoldWave to scan through the file, find “quiet” spots where the narrator pauses, and put in cue points into those spots at some interval we choose (like every 5 minuts or so). Those cue points will be used to let GoldWave break the file up into smaller parts, without cutting the narrator off in the middle of a word.

By default, the entire book will be “selected” in the editor (the background will be bright blue). Make sure the entire book is selected now (or use CTRL + A to select everything).

Keep in mind that when splitting the book, we’ll be dropping a lot of *.wav files in the staging folder. These files are big compared to the MP3s we will eventually produce so make sure you have spare free space on your hard drive.

To split the book:

Choose “tool –> cue points” from the menu then choose “auto cue” from the “Cue Points” dialog window.

In the “auto cue” pop-up window:

Make sure you have this set to Mark Silence (the default).

For most audio books set the “Below Threshold” slider to “-40.0”. This setting is “how quiet it has to be in order for it to be considered “silence”. Files with static or background noise may need a higher setting.

For most audio books set the “Minimum Length” slider to “1.00”. This determines how long the silence has to last in order for it to be used as a Cue Point.

The “Minimum separation between cues” setting tells it how frequently you want the markers placed. This will become the approximate length of each of the files after we split them. I personally prefer my MP3s to come out around 5 minutes each, but if you want to split it into longer or shorter MP3s set this appropriately. For a 5 minute length set this to “5:00 00”.

Don’t worry about “Cue Placement within Area”; the default 50% setting is fine.

Click the OK button and GoldWave will scan the file, put in the cue points, and return you to the Cue Points pop-up window

In the Cue Points pop-up:

You should now see the cue points that were created and their position within the file (measured in time).

Take a second to make sure these cue points are spaced out reasonably evenly and are generally as far apart as you wanted. Some books have authors that talk fast, or have a static background sound, or what not. If the cue points aren’t very evenly spaced, you may have to delete the cue points and repeat the auto-cue process using difference settings.

Don’t worry too much if the cue points are off a few seconds or even a minute or two here and there. This usually just means there are some “intense” areas of the narrative and you probably don’t want a file break right in the middle of one of those anyway.

Once you are satisfied with the cue placement, click the “split file” button to open the “split file” dialog.

In the Split File pop-up:

Set the “destination folder” to the “staging” location we setup earlier.

Set the “Method of naming split files” to “use base filename and number” (the default).

Set the “Base Filename” you want to use. Remember that books can often run into the hundreds of files if you are splitting them up in 5 minute chunks, so this value should look like “### – My Book Name”.

The “#” represents the track number, so this example uses three digits to represent track numbers allowing for up to 999 files (I’ve never had a book need more, and I have some REALLY big ones).

Set the “first number” to 1. When you are converting a book that has multiple audible files, you can change this for the second and subsequent parts so that the file names stay in order. Example: if you have 74 files in the first part, you’d start the second part at “75”.

Leave the File Format setting at the default “Use CD compatible wave format and alignment”.

Click OK and GoldWave will start splitting your file up. This can take from several minutes to hours depending on how fast your computer is and how big the file is.

Repeat for multi-part books:

If the book has multiple parts, after splitting the first part go ahead and repeat the “Open the Book”, “Edit the book”, and “Split the book” steps above for the second and subsequent parts.

Drop all of the split files into the same stage folder so you can convert them all in one go.

Convert the Book:

Once you have the files all split up and the *.wav files sitting in the staging folder, it’s time to actually convert them to MP3 files.

You can use any wave-to-mp3 converter for this, but GoldWave can do this part just fine. It can do an even better job if you’ve installed the optional LAME encoder.

First though, close any open file you have in GoldWave, or close GoldWave and restart it.

Choose “File –> Batch Processing” from the menu to open the Batch Processing dialog:

At the top of the pop-up window:

Click “add folder” and navigate to the staging folder where we dropped the wave files.

Set the “type filter” to *.* (the default)

Click OK to add this folder to the Batch Processing dialog.

In the “convert” tab at the bottom:

Check the “convert files to this format” checkbox

Set “Save as Type” to “MPEG Audio (*.mp3)”

Pick your MP3 Attributes:

In the “attributes drop down you can either pick one of the default settings, or click the attributes button to open the custom settings window.

I recommend the custom window if you have LAME installed.

For custom attributes:

Most audio books don’t require high quality encoding. They are just spoken word for the most part so you can be conservative with the settings to make the MP3s smaller.

You probably don’t want mono MP3s though, so in the custom attributes set “Channels” to “stereo”.

The default sampling rate of “44100” is probably fine too.

Audio books lend well to variable bit rate (VBR) which will make the files a good bit smaller. I recommend setting “VBR Quality” to somewhere between 0 and 4 (I use 1 most of the time). Then in the bitrate range set it to 64000 to 128000. 128k is “radio quality” which is fine for most audio books, but if you are an audio purist you may prefer higher settings.

In the Folder tab at the bottom of the Batch Processing pop-up

Choose “store all files in this folder” and supply the folder name where you want your MP3 files to be dropped when they are done converting.

I highly recommend having a folder with the author’s name, then a folder within that one with the book’s title. Drop your files there. This allows you to use the folder names in an MP3 Tag Editor to automatically populate the artist and album tags from the folder names.

Click the “begin” button.

This will take a long time to finish… possibly hours on slower systems or with large books.

Delete the staging files:

Once the conversion completes, DO NOT forget to go into your staging folder in windows explorer and delete the *.wav files. These files take a large amount of disk space, and you don’t want them hanging out next time you go to rip another book either.

Tag your MP3 files:

Most MP3 players read the tags in the file to display track number, artist, album, etc. Books aren’t music, but you can and should still tag them for your own convenience.

Bulk MP3 tag editors can usually pull in tags for multiple MP3s using the folder and file names.

One thing you might want to consider when tagging a book though… some players don’t use the track # from the MP3 tag to sort the file (yeah, I know… retarded!). Also, some players don’t display the track number. So I recommend that you make the “title” tag start with the track number.

That’s it… I hope you enjoy your audio books 🙂

Review: Dell Studio XPS 16

I’ve finally retired my Dell XPS M1730. The M1730 was, and remains, a very powerful machine but I’d only ended up with that beast because of bad timing. When I needed to buy last time there just weren’t any reasonable machines in the upper mid-range. The available systems were either just a little underpowered, or you had to go with the overpowered gaming rigs.

The short battery life of the gaming rig has been a challenge though, so I have grown very eager to leave it behind for something a little more reasonable.

I picked the Dell Studio XPS 16, also known as the Dell Studio M1640.

So now it’s review time again.

Here we go!

Here is my configuration:

  • Intel Core 2 T9800 (2.93GHz 6M cache)
  • 8GB DDR3 RAM
  • 256GB Solid State Drive
  • ATI Radeon Mobility HD 4670 (1GB Ram)
  • RGB-LED Display (1920 x 1080 – 16:9 aspect ratio)
  • Slot load DVD/CD burner
  • Intel Wireless N-Ultimate
  • 9-Cell Battery (std is the 6 cell)

The XPS Brand:

When Dell first came out with the XPS line, the purpose was to make ulra-cool gaming machines to compete with Alienware.

My last XPS screamed “I AM A BADASS!” as soon as you saw it! Even the packaging it was delivered with was somewhat over-the-top. It even came with a leather binder for the manual, and an inscribed micro-fiber sham to clean the screen with. When you opened the box, it gave the immediate impression that you just bought something special! The system itself was eye-catching. If you pull out an XPS M1730 in public, heads will turn and jaws will drop! It is so flashy that it may as well come with spinners!

But dell bought Alienware and has phased out the XPS gaming rigs in favor of the Alienware brand. The other XPS was an ultraportable that has since been replaced by the Adamo

All these changes left the XPS brand in a lurch. Recently Dell re-launched XPS as a sub-moniker for the Studio laptop line where it just denotes a high-end Studio instead of being a distinct brand in its own right.

The Studio XPS 16 comes in a plain black box without frills and extras now.

The new machine itself is very sleek and sophisticated, but gone are the flashy lights, complex color schemes, and gaudy logos. Anyone that looks close will still notice the high quality fit and finish, but it doesn’t draw the eye from across the room like older XPS models did. Fortunately I have no interest in drawing attention, but if you buy for the “look-at-me!” factor, then get an Alienware instead.

Exterior:

The Studio XPS 16 is very thin and light for a full-size large-screen laptop. It is as thin as the last generation’s ultra-portables were, but it still packs a lot of firepower into a small package.

The exterior surfaces are made from that glossy coated plastic that is all the rage these days. Mine is black of course, but you can get it in white or red if you want to spoil it.

The glossy finish looks fantastic, but it is a finger-print whore! You cannot touch it anywhere without leaving prints. Even the touchpad gets prints! You’ll find this complaint in every review about this system because it really is THAT damned annoying!

Like the rest of the studio line, this one uses round side-mounted hinges. Because of this, the display doesn’t “stand up” on top of the housing like it does on most laptops. Instead it falls off the back covering the rear of the system entirely when open. Because of this, you will need to tilt the screen a little further back, especially if you are tall. Sometimes this angle causes the glossy screen to catch some glare from overhead lights though.

Also, the new hinge design requires that all of the ports be on the sides of the system instead of in back. This cuts the number of ports down a bit, but it does has all the ports you’d expect; except for the odd decision to omit the DVI port. Instead of DVI you have HDMI, DisplayPort, and an old-fashioned VGA port (for projectors). Fortunately you can get HDMI to DVI adapters for a couple bucks easily enough.

Unlike other Studio laptops, this one doesn’t put the power button on the side of the hinge, but it does use the space for the battery status lights. This looks kinda cool, but I’d rather have the battery indicator where I can see it while I’m working.

Screen:

Dell has always had phenomenal screens on the high-end laptops, and I’ve been very fond of their 17″ displays for years. I’ve been using the 17″ screens with a 16:10 ratio at 1920 x 1280 for about 8 years now (longer than they’ve even been available in external displays).

The smaller 16″ screen of the Studio XPS gives you the option to switch to the 16:9 widescreen aspect ratio at a slightly reduced resolution of 1920 x 1080. This is the native resolution for 1080p HD TV, which is convenient if you watch movies on your laptop. I personally preferred the 16:10 ratio myself, but since the TV market picked 16:9 we may as well all just settle on the one standard and be done with the argument already.

What I wasn’t prepared for though was just how much smaller a 16″ screen would be compared to older 17″ screens. Not only do you lose the diagonal inch, but the change in aspect ratio also reduces the screen’s height considerably.

The screen is fantastic, but I really would love to see Dell offer it in 17″ or 18″ versions at 16:9. The drop in size is tolerable, but it really does cut close to the bone for those of us that need every scrap of screen real-estate that we can get.

The optional RGB-LED display on this model has gotten rave reviews, and I will tell you that those reviews are NOT overstated in any way!

This is the sexiest laptop display I’ve ever seen! Well worth the price of the upgrade (about $350 extra).

It is amazingly bright and vivid –So bright that I keep mine at about 1/4th of the max setting. If you turn it all the way up you will get tan, I promise!

The image clarity is fantastic too, and the colors are exceptionally vivid and distinct compared to traditional LCD displays. Keep in mind that I’ve been using high-end displays for years, and my eyesight sucks to boot; so for me to notice a significant jump is unusual.

My favorite part though is the uniformity of the illumination. The backlight on even the best traditional LCD always has a slight variance in brightness from one edge to another.

All this clarity and crispness is awesome for graphics and movies, but it does have a drawback too… White and black are also vivid colors, so back text on a white background ends up being TOO clear and crisp! This effectively undoes the deliberate blurring (ClearType) that most OSes use for more readable font rendering.

Most people won’t notice this effect, but for programmers working in text editors all day this can be a really big deal!

You can compensate for too crisp text by using an off-white background, dimming the brightness, and/or modifying the cleartype settings. If your editor supports it, you can invert it to use a black background with light text — my preferred solution.

Video Card & Gaming:

I’m not a die-hard FPS guy, but I do game a bit. I can live with slightly reduced detail levels, but I do like my games run smoothly at, or near, the native resolution of the display. I also don’t like to be prohibited from playing certain games due to limited video hardware.

My enthusiasm for high-end screens and video hardware is not gaming related: My eye-sight is REALLY bad, and I was still losing a lot of vision even into my late 20’s from staring at crappy monitors all day.

So for the last 10 years I’ve insisted on only the best displays and video cards, more as a matter of personal protection than for gaming.

Also, as a programmer, the tools I use really do benefit from large screens and high resolutions.

I figure that if I’m going to spend 10+ hours a day using a computer, the least I can do is invest in the best display I can get my hands on.

My last several laptops have used NVidia mobile GeForce GPUs, which handle most games well. But I’ve grown increasingly annoyed by NVidia’s lack of concern for mobile customers. They tend to abandon driver support as soon as the next generation GPUs hit the market (which is about 5 minutes after you buy your laptop). After that, you have to scrounge for hacked up desktop drivers online and hope they are stable enough to use.

I’ve also noticed a decline in the overall quality of NVidia’s mobile GPUs recently too. In my opinion NVidia is just so focused on the “next big desktop GPU” that they neglect the fine tuning and engineering in the mobile versions.

So this time I decided to give ATI another shot. At least they seem to actually CARE about the mobile market, and they’ve been doing much better on the high-end than they have in the past.

I haven’t played a lot of games yet, but so far it has run everything I’ve thrown at it as well as my M1730 does. Left 4 Dead 2 just came out, and it runs at high quality settings at the native 1920 x 1080 resolution, though I did turn down the anti-aliasing to 2x instead of the default 4x.

Time will tell for sure, but so far I’m pretty happy with the ATI card.

Keyboard:

This laptop does away with the numeric keypad seen on most full-size laptops. This was necessary because the frame is a little too small, plus they put the speakers on either side of the keyboard instead of the front to allow the laptop to be thinner.

I don’t mind the loss of the keypad one bit. Having my hands offset from the center of the screen is more annoying than any convenience that a keypad might add.

The keyboard is white backlit, and it has a very pleasant feel to it, though the action is a little mushier than on past Dell models. The tactile feedback is still sufficiently good though.

One thing I’m not sure about are the slightly oversized keys. This is taking some getting used to. The keys aren’t crazy big, but for a touch-typist the subtle difference is noticeable at the outer edges.

My biggest gripe is the return of the dreaded “Apps” key (sometimes called the “context menu key”). I HATE this key on desktop keyboards and I wish the inventor a long and painful death. This key has been blessedly absent from most laptops until now. But the worst is that Dell put the apps key right next to the arrow keys… specifically to the immediate left of the left arrow key. This placement is an outright sadistic move on Dell’s part!

Nothing sucks more than “CTRL+SHIFT+Apps” when you were just trying to “back-select” text in your text editor!

Fortunately SharpKeys makes a utility that allows you to perma-kill the apps key via a registry tweak.

Overall I like the new keyboard better than the one on my old M1730, but I REALLY wished they’d just pick a standard keyboard layout and stick with it on all their systems. I hate having to relearn how to type every time I change laptops. Actually, I’d much prefer that they just go back to the old keyboard layouts they used 5 years ago… that was the perfect layout, which is why dell had used that same design for 10 straight years before they started mucking about with new keyboards.

Solid State Drive:

This is by far my favorite part of my new Studio XPS, though it isn’t a feature unique to this specific system by any means.

On laptops, hard drives have long been THE performance killer. It takes a lot of power to spin a metal disk around at several thousand RPM, and laptops don’t have a lot of power to spare. While traditional drives have gotten faster over the years, the power limitations have kept the laptop versions performing far below that of their desktop cousins.

With solid-state drives becoming a viable option, it is moronic not to jump onboard with your next laptop purchase. The reduced power requirements alone are worth the price tag! But the best part about SSDs in laptops is that power and spin rates aren’t an issue anymore. SSDs on a laptop operate at the same speed that they do in desktops!

Dell doesn’t offer the “best” SSDs on the market. Mine is a Siemens, which is decidedly a mid-grade SSD. But Dell’s price on these is crazy good (only about $300 for the 256GB SSD). Even with the lower-end SSDs the performance will still far exceed even the best traditional spindle based drives.

Since this is THE bottle neck, switching to SSD will improve every aspect of your system’s performance. Everything is smoother and snappier. Boot times are amazing with Windows 7 (about 10 seconds if you don’t load a bunch of startup junk!). Programs smoothly spring up when you launch them, and local drive searches are outright zippy!

I can’t overstate just how much faster the whole system is with an SSD under the hood!

If you can afford the price of the high-end Intel solid state drives, then I’d advise you just buy the dell with the cheapest spinel drive they make and replace it with the Intel SSD yourself. But even if you are on a budget, I still strongly advise getting the Dell SSD.

This laptop comes with an eSATA (external SATA) port, so you can compensate for the smaller sizes of internal SSDs by just buying an external spindle drive to store your music and movie collections. The eSATA connection allows those external drives to operate at full speed unlike traditional USB based externals (and eSATA doesn’t add but a few dollars to the price of the external drive either).

Battery:

The default battery is a rather small 6 cell lithium ion. The reason for this is that the chassis is thin and small, so the 6 cell is just what fits. You can upgrade to a 9 cell battery, but to make extra room for the additional cells the battery is taller. The 9 cell battery acts like a stand and has its own rubber feet. This jacks-up the back of the system a good bit.

The extra life of the 9 cell really is worth the upgrade price though.

After two years working on a gaming rig with only about 1 hour per battery, the life on the Studio XPS 16 is great! But this is a high end system, and so it has some power hungry hardware still. For that reason it isn’t going to get the kind of crazy battery life that you hear about with more conservative high-end systems, but it still does very well.

With wireless turned off I get about 5 hours on the 9 cell battery. With wireless-n under heavy use I get about 3.5 hours. But with the power-hogging Verizon broadband card I get just shy of 3 hours at best.

Personally I dislike having the back of my system jacked up by the 9 cell battery, but many people do prefer this –it is similar to the angle you get with a desktop keyboard. I personally find that the angle adds stress on my hands, so I’ve ordered some tall rubberized feet to put on the front of the system to match the height of the battery.

For most people though, the jacked up rear is probably not a problem, so I still recommend the 9 cell battery.

Odd Stuff:

Core i7 CPU:

At the time I bought this system, the Core i7 CPUs have just become available with this model laptop. The Core i7 sounds like a fantastic upgrade, but it is also a major change in architecture. Last time I jumped onto the brand-new architecture was when the first Core Duo CPUs came out. Those were much faster and nicer than the previous CPUs, but they also ended up being a little flaky. It wasn’t but a few months after that that Intel replaced Core Duo with the Core 2.

So this time I decided to go with the highest end of the previous generation rather than jump pre-maturely on the i7 bandwagon. Since i7 is out, the Core 2 line has gotten a major price cut too. This allowed me to get the extra-high-end Core 2 at a decent price tag. The Core i7 costs a fortune by comparison, but prices will drop for i7 pretty fast I expect.

If you are buying you should consider the quad-core i7. They will likely be worth the upgrade price over the Core 2, but don’t expect miracles here. Most software still can’t really unleash the true power of multi-core processors.

IR Receiver:

This laptop doesn’t come with the “travel media remote” like many previous XPS systems did, but it is still supposed to be compatible with them. The travel remote is neat because it fits into the Express card slot. No one ever has an actual express card (I have NEVER seen one in person), so storing it in the express slot it is a convenient use of otherwise wasted space.

On the rare occasions that I connect to my TV, the remote is handy and having it stored away in the express slot keeps me from losing track of it.

But when I tried to move my travel remote to the new Studio XPS 16, it wouldn’t work!

Eventually I discovered that there is a driver for the built-in IR Receiver, but for some odd reason Dell didn’t pre-load the driver at the factory. The device manager didn’t report a malfunctioning or unknown device either (which is the truly strange part), so it was not obvious what the problem was about.

Once I figured it out and installed the receiver’s driver the remote worked like a charm. No additional software is needed for the remote (another reason I really like it).

FastAccess Software:

One of the new toys shipping on many newer Dell systems is a software app called FastAccess. This is a face recognition login system. When you go to login, FastAccess will turn on the camera and take a look at you. If it recognizes your face, it automatically logs you in without typing your password. Otherwise you can just type the password as normal. The software “learns” how to better recognize you over time.

It is a neat feature, though not much of a time saver. The recognition is quite snappy, but typing a password doesn’t take much time or effort either. Still it is a really nifty feature in that “pure-nerd” way.

The software also has some advanced capabilities beyond just desktop logins, and it does actually work surprisingly well! After a couple of manual logins it was able to pick me out almost every time (as long as the lighting was good).

The big problem though is this thing’s insane usage of CPU resources. It sits there chewing up a massive 10% to 15% of my CPU resources… continuously! All the time!

Since it isn’t doing anything unless I’m actually logging in, I have no idea what it needs all that CPU power for. I tried turning off all the optional features, but it still sat there sucking down clock cycles like mad.

So I uninstalled it of course. Neat utility or not, nothing is worth sacraficing 10% of the available CPU!

Maybe future versions will fix this problem.