Archive for July, 2007

Driving at Silicon Valley

JBQ got his Camaro Z28 back from service this week and so we drove around Silicon Valley yesterday. My short video below has a view over San Jose, Cupertino, Mountain View, Sunnyvale – the heart of Silicon Valley. A view from afar of Apple’s Infinite Loop offices is offered too.

You might notice some small black objects flying in the video (visibility depends on YouTube’s encoding – update: YouTube’s re-encoding was REALLY bad, so I uploaded the original 1.5MB PSP-compatible video here). At first, I thought that either my HV20’s sensor is starting to die, or that I… captured semi-cloaked UFOs. Thankfully, JBQ was here to put things in place: these are flies or mosquitoes that fly about 2-3 meters away from the camera so they look like blurred super-fast objects. :D

A review of Battlestar Galactica, Part II

Continuing my review points from the other day, I finished watching the series from beginning to end. I think I “get” Battlestar Galactica more now than I did before. It is indeed a drama set in space, rather than pure action sci-fi. I do like it.

However, I find it ironic that my favorite episode from Season-1 is the “The Hand of God“. In that episode there was the kind of action that I really want to see in a series that calls itself “space sci-fi”, that is, Star Wars-style battles. There was actually a plot regarding the battle operation, there was a cool asteroid and Cylon bases on it. It was a battle that had a goal. In all the other episodes, the Cylons are the only ones attacking, the battles are just lame, too short, and without any true focus as the only objective is “shoot as many as you can” and “jump away as fast as you can”. It’s sensible for Adama to avoid conflict with a more powerful enemy, but the usual “cylons attack, starbuck kicks their asses, then we all jump away” thing is boring.

It seems that the BSG writers tried to bring over audience that don’t specifically like sci-fi, but at the same time they managed to alienate some classic sci-fi viewers. If only we could get more of the kind of action like in that episode, I think I would enjoy the series much-much more. I like well-directed action with a purpose. I don’t care if Starbuck has the hots for Lee. Anders is hotter anyway (plus the actor is a local, grew up a few miles away from my home).

Advice on camcorder purchase

As you might have noticed, my main hobby is videographing lately. Having researched the market, I think I can offer some useful advice regarding where the camcorder market is going and hopefully save you a few bucks.

The idea is this: if you already have an old camcorder, hold on to it. If you just want “a” camcorder, get the lowest-end DV Canon one, which is usually selling at around $230. If you want to buy an HD camcorder wait 2-3 more years. The reason I am suggesting this is because the HD camcorder landscape is going to rapidly change in the next few years and so it’s wise to wait for this change to happen and then buy. We are currently living in a transitional stage.

The “tape”-based DV/HDV camcorders are going the way of the dodo. That much is a fact, no matter what the fanboys will tell you. The new standard is AVCHD and all major companies are going for it (including Canon which is keeping mum so far about it). It is a more convenient format for the user, as only SD or CF cards are needed instead of big, boring, last-century tapes. Additionally, because AVCHD uses USB 2.0, it will be the final strike against Firewire (main reason why Macs always come with firewire is video support).

AVCHD does not yet produce the same quality video as MPEG-2 does for HDV camcorders, but eventually h.264 encoders will be perfected. However, it’s more difficult for NLEs to have support for h.264 editing rather than MPEG-2 with large GOPs. So far, only few NLEs have mastered AVCHD, while most either crash sooner or later with it, or they only support h.264 flavors from specific brands. Maturity will come there too, just not yet though as h.264 is a bitch to decode properly, let alone edit it. You will also need a very beefy PC and 4 GB RAM to work with full progressive HD — specifications that are top of the line today but will be common ground in a few years. Finally, the future AVCHD camcorders will record in full HD 1920×1080 progressive format, while the current HDV standard is limited to 1440×1080-anamorphic and interlaced. In fact, they already started doing so, check this Panasonic model that was announced today.

So, to get an HD camcorder, make sure it’s in the format that will rule in the future and also make sure that you will get it in a time that the market is ready for it. Currently, the market does not even support fully HDV, let alone AVCHD. But the right time will come, just be patient and hold off any purchases regarding HD. Of course, this kind of advice is for people who buy 1 camcorder every 7-10 years. If you are a prosumer who changes gear every 2-3 years, this advice won’t matter much.

A detailed comparison between AVCHD and HDV can be found here.

A review of Battlestar Galactica

I had watched most episodes on Sci-Fi Channel, but recently I started re-watching it from the beginning using the DVD version. Galactica is “ok”, but not outstanding. Many things just don’t make sense. What I like on “Lost” is the amount of realism it brings with its characters and situations, even if Lost is also a scifi/fantasy series. But Battlestar Galactica’s writers are just not as careful with continuity and simple logic. In detail:

* The technology is very uneven. They have technology to do “jumps” in space and create big ships, but other, more basic technology, is absent. Heck, they don’t even have iPods. It’s like the writers cut back on daily technology on purpose just so they make their situation more dramatic. But by doing so, they made it less realistic.

* First the Cylons are killing billions(?) of humans without mercy, and then they cut back on their killing for no good reason other than advancing the plot.

* Why are there no robots among people? “Good” robots that is. I mean, it was not that robots were completely banned after the Cylon Wars. Or at least, we were not told so.

* They still haven’t cured cancer, not even myopia. :P

* It does not make sense to be running away from Caprica for months and yet, when Starbuck had to go back she got there in an instant. If jumping so far was so fast, galactic exploration would have been a common practice and possibly Earth would have already been found.

* From the moment they got into “New Caprica”, they still wanted to find “Earth”. Why? What’s wrong with New Caprica and even some other habitable planets they visited before? As long as Cylons could not find them, there was no reason to continue the search for Earth specifically, but to find a habitable planet and plant their asses there.

* Cylon detection among humans should have been easy as a pie. And yet, it’s not, again for plot reasons.

* Cylons can download to a new body, but for some weird reason they have no connection to the hive mind? Even if it’s not possible to communicate peer-to-peer, it should be possible to communicate with the “server” if a spaceship is close. It is stupid to not be optimized to do that. More over, their political structure doesn’t make enough sense either.

* Shaky cameras suck balls. Get a tripod. It costs less than $500 for the kind of cameras they use.

* The worst of all: RELIGION. All the super-natural religious crap, are just that: crap. It feels like even their political decisions are based on religious grounds which is at least laughable — at least for humans with a level of technology.

Other than that, Battlestar Galactica is not a bad show. But I think it evolved to be cult show because there is nothing similar on TV. If only the writers were paying more attention to detail.

Explain this to me please

Why the heck LCD TV manufacturers are using 1366×768 (wide-XGA) instead of 1280×720 (720p)? The first resolution is the 16:9 version of 1024×768 and it might make SOME sense for computer monitors. But instead, the majority of LCD TVs meant for living rooms are using that resolution for their TVs instead of the real 720p one. The only explanation I have is that it might be cheaper to do so this way because creating a wide-XGA might be easier for existing factories than trying to create something totally different. Problem with this though is that the pixels are not square and so there is loss of quality when viewing HD on these TVs. And we are talking about 95% of the LCD 1080i TVs out there come with that resolution.

nVidia bummer

So I connected the 32″ HDTV on the PC. Apparently the graphics card can only do two monitors at the time, even if there are 3 connectors on the card. So I have to choose profiles all the time between my two DVI monitors or the primary DVI and the HDTV. When the HDTV is on, the second monitor goes OFF.

I don’t know if this is a limitation of nVidia’s hardware or the OEM who designed the card went cheap on this and didn’t include the extra hardware required to have all 3 monitors work at the same time (JBQ thinks is the latter). I know that under some circumstances ATi can do 3 monitors at a time (two PC and one TV connections), but for nVidia the best option I have heard is to get a GeForce 6200 PCI card and use it as a second graphics card. Good and somewhat inexpensive work around, but I am out of any PCI and PCI-e slots (one goes to my USB card and one to my Audigy HD sound card).

Kinda sucks to be hitting limitations like this one. I mean, come on, that was a $200 graphics card.

1080p PS3/XBox360 Adventures

The adventures of me trying to create a *proper* 1080p video to playback on PS3/XBox are continuing. Apparently the output of any lossless .avi codec from Vegas is washed out. It just doesn’t look good. Somehow when exporting in .avi changes the contrast to high & saturation to low.

Enter Avidemux2. I wouldn’t try it, but someone mentioned it on a forum so I gave its Windows version a try. So, I tried exporting my clip from Vegas using .avi uncompressed and Avidemux2 will render it with the wrong colors. You have to use a special filter to get the right colors… Lagarith, Cineform lossless codecs aren’t supported at all. Huffyuv with its default mode has wrong colors too, but as I said it’s fixable with an extra step. I was ready to delete the app, when I saw the “mplayer eq2″ filter that let’s you adjust the contrast and saturation and bring it back to normal levels. So, I decided to give it another try, as this plugin did fix the visual problem.

However, then, the de-interlacing won’t work properly. Again, I would get ghosting when trying to de-interlace the Huffyuv YUY2 file just like I originally got with ffmpeg, although the problem does not happen when trying to de-interlace mpeg2 streams instead of .avi. The application comes with about 6 different de-interlacers, and all of them had the exact same problem. On ffmpeg the undocumented “trick” was to put the -deinterlace argument before the “input file” argument, but avidemux does not use ffmpeg as far as I know, and yet, it still has the same bug. Changing the order of the filters didn’t help either. Even after ignoring the de-interlacing problems and exporting and creating a 1080p x264 file, the resulted mp4-avc/faac file wouldn’t playback with Quicktime Pro, but only with VLC. Moreover, for some weird reason too, all x264-created files are very slow to decode, while Quicktime’s created h.264 files are not so.

So basically, I am still stuck about all this. There is not a single free or low-cost app out there that can receive as input an HDV interlaced file in a lossless codec and transform it to 1920×1080 by stretching it, de-interlacing properly, keeping the right visual look, and exporting a proper h.264 file. There is always something that just doesn’t work well in the process. I know that Premiere Pro can do all that properly btw, but I can’t justify $1000 just so I can export videos for the PS3/XBox. Having thought about the problem a bit more, I think that the only real solution to this mess is for Vegas to add h.264 support and do the job properly from beginning to end with enough flexibility. I should not even be trying to export lossless files to do the job with external utilities and hitting the one incompatibility or inflexibility after the other. Sony Vegas should add support for the Sony PS3. It’s that simple.

ABC’s HD streaming

These guys have bandwidth to burn… ABC has just made live (only 3 episodes so far) their new HD player. It is using the On2 Flash codec at 2mbps at the 1280×720/24p resolution and it doesn’t sweat on our Comcast connection. It looks fantastic and makes you feel that you already live in the future, but you will need a really fast machine to play it back properly. My PC, a 3 Ghz P4 HT, drops about 4-5 frames per second, so don’t even think about of using the HD version without at least a CoreDuo or above… Other than that, it looks great, it has more interesting content and better quality than Joost, too bad that it’s restricted to US IP addresses though.

720p over the net

Upcoming reviews

I received a new HDTV today, 32″, 1080i, HDMI. It won’t be used as a “home TV” though, but rather as a testing ground for my video editing station — in other words, for computer-related purposes only. I will be writing a review about it soon.

Additionally, Tiffen is sending over 6 filters for the HV20. I love playing with filters and provide “before” and “after” clips/images. I am still deciding if I want to actually buy 52mm telephoto/macro/wide-angle lenses or 43mm. The HV20 is 43mm, but all my filters are on the more popular 52mm size now, so I think it makes more sense to try to buy stuff at that size.

There are two mp3 players on the plate too, and an upcoming cellphone review for August. I am supposed to pick which phone model I want to review next, I just don’t know what I should pick. I have pretty much everything in my collection except an HTC, a Blackberry and a Treo, but because there are cost restrictions about these review devices that I pick, I can’t really have these devices (except if I pay extra). I don’t blame the retailers of course, it doesn’t make sense for them to send over too expensive devices. I will have to decide between some less-expensive Nokia and Sony Ericsson models and most Motorola, Samsung and LG models.

I hope they had more BenQ/Siemens phones though. I don’t have any of these in my collection. It’s funny too, because I have only one phone that uses my husband’s browser! And that browser version is 3 years old. BenQ/Siemens usually ships with more recent 7.x Openwave browser versions, but these phones are hard to come by here in the States.

HD quality

Now that I can export to HD, here is a quick quality test. It seems to me that quality at the same bitrate between WMV and h.264 is similar, although WMV features more of the original colors. I tried giving more kbps to h.264 but it didn’t got much better, while mpeg2 at 25mbps (that bitrate is the standard for .m2t HDV files) has really nice punchy colors and detail. Mpeg2 and wmv were exported by Vegas, while x.264 via ffmpeg on 2 passes:

ffmpeg.exe -deinterlace -y -i “lossless.avi” -threads 2 -an -pass 1 -f mp4 -title “My JBQ” -vcodec h264 -level 41 -refs 2 -loop 1 -deblockalpha 0 -deblockbeta 0 -parti4x4 1 -partp8x8 1 -partb8x8 1 -me full -subq 6 -brdo 1 -me_range 21 -s 1920×1080 -r 30000/1001 -b 9216k -bt 9216k -bufsize 20000k -maxrate 25000k -g 300 -coder 1 -acodec aac -ac 2 -ab 128k “1080p-30.mp4″