Archive for the ‘Hardware’ Category (feed)

MOG/RDIO/Pandora/Online-Radio in your living room, the cheap way

I’ve been trying to convince my husband, JBQ, to get us a Sonos player for a while (over a year now). I pushed the issue again last night, since now we are RDIO subscribers, and we would like to listen to our RDIO collection without having our TV “on” (we currently use our Roku XD|S for RDIO, connected to our main HDTV, and an analog cable from the Roku to our Yamaha receiver that powers our big speakers in our living room). But the $350 price tag of the Sonos (for their cheapest model) is still prohibiting for us.

It was during dinner that my husband had the idea: “why don’t you buy a second Roku, just for music, and connect a PC monitor to it that would be sitting next to our amplifier? I bet it’ll be cheaper than a Sonos“. And of course he was right again:

Sonos solution:
$350 – ZonePlayer 90

Cheaper solution:
$60 – Roku HD
$60 – 17″ 1280px LCD monitor
$5 – HDMI to VGA (or DVI)
$3 – Audio cable to connect to your amplifier/receiver
$2 – Android or iOS Roku remote app (optional)
= $130

There. My husband just saved us all $220 bucks. Enough for two Kindles, to read a book next to your loved one, while listening to music.

To me, the important thing here is that we won’t have to have our TV ON in order to listen to music. I hate having to do that, turning ON a huge 50″ TV just to put an album to play. The unobtrusive, smaller PC monitor can always stay ON, since the Roku has screensaver support. And if it dies after a while, it only costs $60 anyway. As for the Roku, it never turns off, so you can use its remote app on your mobile phone/iPod at any time.

In some ways, this setup is similar to the prototype Be, Inc. announced in 2001: HARP (“Home Audio Reference Platform”), based on their BeIA/BeOS operating systems. Here we are, 10 years later with a similar idea, but in a much smaller size than HARP:


Be’s HARP platform

Of course, the Sonos solution offers other advantages, like multi-room support, no need for an external PC monitor (free Android/iOS remote app, otherwise it will cost you an extra $350), and iTunes streaming support among others. However, if you just want music in a single room only, and you never buy any music (since you either use Pandora, or you now subscribe to unlimited services like we do), this solution is far cheaper and works well-enough. The RDIO app on Roku is crashy, but RDIO knows about it, and I believe an update is pending. MOG, Pandora, Tune-In Radio, ShoutCast, Soundcloud, and MP3Tunes all work great, and more applications are added on Roku as the time goes by. Definitely more than for the Sonos platform.

Personally, I think Sonos needs to either rethink their prices a bit, or move to a cheaper platform (maybe a next generation, cheaper Sonos, based on Android?).

Update: Some folks over at the Roku forum suggested the new AppleTV ($99) or an Airport Express ($95) instead — that is, for existing users of iOS devices that run the latest software version. This way, they can run/stream any of their music apps via their iOS device, and then redirect audio output via Airplay on the Airport Express or AppleTV, that are connected to an audio receiver. The signal is sent encrypted, in the Apple Lossless format, so there’s no loss of quality on the way to your living room’s big speakers.

Since I already have a 4th Gen iPod Touch that supports Airplay, I might wait for a new AppleTV model, or a major software update for the current one (with third party apps and all), and then go for that solution (although my receiver has no optical-in, so that would be another $35 to get a converter). However, for users who don’t own any of the devices needed, that would be $300 to $330 ($200 for an iPod Touch, $99 for AppleTV or Airport Express), so my original suggestion still stands.

I have a dream…

As much as the dSLRs have redefined indie filmmaking and democratized it even more, I feel that paying $800, plus the cost of lenses, is still prohibiting for many people. What I envision is a Canon S95-type P&S camera, specifically made for filmmaking students & film enthusiasts, and as a “test” camera for professionals, that costs no more than $300:

Video recording properties:
– 3072×1728 (3k, windowed): 12p fps, up to 30 secs of recording
– 2048×1152 (2k): 25p, 24p
– 1920×1080: 30p, 25p, 24p
– 1280×720: 48p[->24p], 50p[->25p], 60p[->30p] (option for unlimited real-time recording, or slow motion with up to 30 secs of recording)
– 960×540: 72p->24, 75p->25, 90->30p, 96->24p, 100p->25/50, 120p->60/30/24 (slow motion only, up to 30 secs of recording)

Other features:
– Full manual control (shutter, aperture, ISO), P, Tv, Av, auto modes
– 50 mbps VBR bitrate h.264, 4:2:0, with optimized h.264 encoder compared to the current Canon cams.
– 192 kbps VBR AAC or PCM, stereo. No mic input (size restrictions, let people buy external recorders, as they should anyway)
– Customizable colors (ability to get very low contrast, saturation, sharpness if desired, also skin tone/R/G/B), movie look profiles, including a port of Technicolor
– f/1.4-2.2 IS lens, 28mm-105mm (~4x zoom), physically large aperture. The Olympus XZ-1 is today the closest P&S camera with a similar lens (examples: 1, 2, 3).
– 2/3s 10MP CMOS sensor with vastly improved rolling shutter, high quality internal resizer
– 3.5″ 24bit touchscreen at 640×360 or higher resolution
– Option to turn off the touchscreen after recording started if an external monitor is connected (to save battery in-camera)
– mini-HDMI out, live, uncompressed RAW output up to 2k (“4:2:0 makes the most sense with a single-plate sensor, since that’s fundamentally what the sensor sees, and anything beyond that is interpolated“, my husband says)
– mini-USB connector & charger
– USB-to-USB cable to provide 3D support with genlock
– 37mm or 43mm filter thread
– standard tripod mount
– SDXC slot
– manual focus with ejectable mini-wheel that also supports a larger follow-focus wheel addon. Hidden when not ejected.
– autofocus in macro/std/wide modesl & focus lock
– smooth continuous autofocus, smooth exposure jumps when in auto
– Touch-focus, and touch-exposure in addition to a traditional exposure scale and possibly zebras
– miniature timelapse support as in current Canon cams
– some timelapse options
– gridlines and crops for various sizes including 2:35:1

Six Months with the Roku

In the six months after buying the Roku box (my full review), quite a few things happened: I canceled our Comcast subscription, bought an indoors antenna, we bought a GoogleTV (wish we hadn’t), Netflix added lots of new streaming content, bought a laptop with HDMI-out, while Roku added Hulu Plus and USB local playback support. So how things are going on? Great! Just great.

The Roku is now my primary way of getting entertainment: Netflix and Vimeo are my primary channels, with Hulu via my laptop (mostly for Stargate:Universe), while our aerial antenna is used no more than 3-4 times a week (The Event, V, Vampire Diaries, Fringe). The Roku has a few bugs (e.g. some horizontal lines for videos that are wider than 16:9, rebooting occasionally after becoming slow), but overall it offers the best experience. It’s richer in content than our AppleTV, and way simpler to use than the Frankenstein GoogleTV.

Research found that many people can’t cut the cord because they have kids/wives that require specific kid/reality programming, but Netflix now carries lots of that on its streaming service. For $10 per month you should be able to get a lot of such programming, which surely beats Comcast’s $90 per month I used to pay for the basic package of HD+DVR. Add an indoors antenna too, maybe get a laptop with HDMI-out for the free version of Hulu (if you can’t wait for the shows to show up on Netflix), and you’re in business!

Here’s my matrix, with 100 being the best:

TV OnD Movies Live TV Youtube, Vimeo Online apps (e.g. Pandora, podcasts) App SDK UI Local playback UPnP, DLNA, Airplay
Roku 75 75 20 90 90 75 75 60 10
AppleTV 60 50 20 40 20 10 90 60 70
GoogleTV 40 70 30 60 50 20 (web-only for now) 20 80 70
Boxee Box 40 50 20 60 50 60 40 90 90
WD TV 40 50 20 60 50 60 50 100 90
Sat/Cable 70 40 100 0 0 0 50 30 0
Antenna 0 10 80 0 0 0 N/A 0 0

Winner in my book is the Roku. Best $60 I ever spent (by far the cheapest of them all, except for the indoors antenna that cost me $36).

Video manual control on Canon’s new $300 P&S HD digicams?

At last, tonight I found online the manuals for the new Canon cameras (it seems that Canon-Singapore is faster than anyone other Canon site). I checked these PDF manuals for the cameras that have some manual control in still-picture mode, in this case the Elph 500 HS (Av/Tv modes), and the SX220/SX230 HS (full manual control).

So, to my huge surprise, the manuals insinuate (but they are not super-clear), that you can press the new dedicated “video record” button, even if you’re not currently in an actual video mode. The only other Canon P&S cams that had a dedicated video button in this fashion were the SX30 IS, and the SX210 IS, but I can’t find any info online of people commenting about what happens to video when in Manual/Tv/Av mode. The PDFs I read tonight show video for the AUTO and P modes, but they also mention that it’s usable on other modes too. In fact, on screenshots of the 500 HS’ Tv and Av modes on the manual, the video record button shows to be enabled!

This hopefully means that we can set the camera to Tv mode, set it to 1/50th or 1/60th shutter speed (depending if you’re shooting 1080/24p or 720/30p), set ISO to 80 or 100, and then force the aperture open by using an ND filter. Zoom-in too, and you will achieve a very pleasant background blur. Then bring up exposure compensation and tweak it, focus too, and then lock them both. Then record, and notice the very cinematic motion blur!

In the SX220/SX230 HS case it goes even further, since it has full manual control, where the camera allows you to manually focus and/or lock focus, and independently change shutter speed, aperture, and ISO values. If all this is as expected, then these are the cheapest Canon cameras with full video manual control, and with quality and additional features that vastly surpass the only other cameras that have manual control in a similar price range: the Sanyo Xacti.

There’s a stinker in the 500 HS case though, where the manual is not very clear, and that’s about the focus lock. The manual claims that this works in video mode, and that it can be set separately from exposure lock, but I can’t see how this is possible, since the manual also states that if you press again the screen, the AFL goes away (and you need to press the screen again, since the video record button on the 500 HS is a touch-button and not a hard button as in the case of the SX220/SX230 HS). Hopefully it is possible to lock focus & exposure independently, and then record video on the 500 HS, otherwise I will be seriously pissed off, since that’s a feature that existed in older models. Update: Avoid the 500 HS, it doesn’t lock exposure in video mode!

The other scenario that I fear is that while you can be in manual mode and be all-setup to record with these custom values, when you press the video record button the camera goes back to AUTO. Or, nothing happens. Anyway, I won’t know about any such… loopholes unless I get a camera to test with. I will be buying the 500 HS (very fast and wide lens, large screen), and I will write about my findings. Fingers crossed! These cameras are expected to be released in April, they’re currently on pre-order.

BTW, the other major movie modes, like the iFrame format and the super-slow motion mode, don’t have exposure/focus lock, they are pretty much “auto”, and therefore useless for anything serious.

Update: Bad news. An SX30 IS owner tried his video record button in M mode, and the exposure changed automatically. So it seems that we can’t get manual control for video via the stills mode.

Canon S95 vs Panasonic LX5 for video

The previous versions of the Panasonic LX series featured 24p video, but terrible manual controls and video formats. With the LX5, we see a much more useful video support (full manual control), but now with… wacky frame rates.

The Canon S95 on the other hand, at the same price category of $400, has no full manual control. It has just the essentials (exposure compensation/lock) to get you going, and “clean” 24p support.

I don’t own any of the two cameras, but seeing some comparison clips (e.g. this one), both directly out of the camera and re-encoded, and reading the specs, I have a few thoughts about the two cameras.

Advantages of the LX5 over the S95:
– Manual control for video. This is a big deal.
– Much better image stabilization in video mode than Canon’s “dynamic” IS.
– Visibly better in low light.
– Optical zoom and continuous autofocus available when recording video.
– Wind Cut for audio.
– AVCHD-Lite a bit easier to edit than MOV files on most editors, even if internally they both use h.264. [I don’t consider its MJPEG option serious.]

Disadvantages of the LX5 over the S95:
– WAY more CCD purple artifacts on the LX5. You have to constantly be careful where you point the camera, and use ND filters and sun-glare protectors.
– Lower bitrate at 17 mbps, compared to S95’s 21 mbps VBR. From directly-out-of-the-camera samples, I found that the S95 has more detail.
– Completely retarded frame rate: 30p with double useless frames, to make it look like it’s 60p. Just enough to confuse some video editors.
– No cinematic 24p option.
– No sharpness setting.
– 192 kbps AC3, compared to S95’s uncompressed audio.

At the end of the story, for video, it all comes down to if you don’t mind the CCD artifacts and the doubled frame rate. Sony Vegas should be able to handle its frame rate properly, if you force your project properties at 30p for example, and hopefully it won’t mess up any slow-motion either. Not much you can do about the artifacts though. Regarding artistic videos, e.g. for slightly slow-motioned (30p to 24p) music or non-vocal videos, the LX5 is the better choice when you shoot with full control of the lighting and exposure.

The S95 on the other hand keeps the reigns for its clean 24p frame rate, for those who shoot run-and-gun short movies and family videos, or non-slowed music videos. Also its higher picture quality with limited CCD artifacts is a plus.

Verdict? The LX5 has the advantage, IF used with enough care.

Which 24p camera to buy?

Disclaimer: Nobody is sponsoring this article in any way. I suggest Canons just because they offer the most control and features in terms of video than any other manufacturer.

These are my suggestions about artistic videos (experimental video art, music videos, short films). Not about random family/travel/sports videos.

– Price scale 1, $110: Canon A1200. 720/24p, 21 mbps, AA battery-powered. Get this if you can’t afford another camera. Video sample.

– Price scale 2, $200: Canon ELPH 100 HS. 1080/24p, 720/30p, 38 mbps, small cam. Get this if you’re after a tiny camera. Update 3: Avoid the 100 HS or 300 HS, they apparently don’t have lock exposure in video mode! Get the SX220 or SX230 instead for $300.

– Price scale 3, $300: Canon ELPH 500 HS. 1080/24p, 720/30p, 38 mbps, large display, fast lens. While its sensor is not as big as the S95’s, overall it’s a better camera for video. Update 4: Avoid the 500 HS, it apparently doesn’t lock exposure in video mode! Get the S100 instead for $400.

– Price scale 4, $800: Canon T3i dSLR. 1080/24p/30p, 720/60p, 48 mbps, swivel display, audio levels. If you can, get this one. But don’t forget the cost of lenses too.

I did not include any camcorder between scale 3 and 4 because none of them at that price range shoots in true 24p, but in PF24, which is a hassle to deal with. If you don’t mind spending hours removing pulldown, then there are plenty of camcorders to choose from, but personally I wouldn’t mess with PF24 again even if my life was dependent on it.

Update: Here’s a video off of the ELPH 300 HS (beware, it’s without any exposure compensation/locking, or “flat” colors taken into account, so most of it is over-exposed). If you pay close attention, you will see the rolling shutter on these new CMOS Canon sensors. Still, if you’re careful how you shoot, you can get great results out of these small cams.

Update 2: This and this are the best Canon S95 videos I’ve seen so far. Too bad that more people don’t use their small HD digicams in the same way — vast majority of digicam videos out there are just handheld crap.

New toys and a new attitude

Updated below

A GorillaPod and a Tiffen 37mm 0.9 ND filter arrived today in the mail. They were both on a big sale on Amazon, so I thought I buy them for my small digicams — which are the main kinds of cameras I use nowdays. The 5D MkII is mostly used by my husband these days. Instead, I’m in a kind of a crusade to prove that good video can also be shot with small, cheap digicams, if the right skills are in place. I don’t believe that all video enthusiasts should buy expensive dSLRs and camcorders, for some of them, an HD digicam is more than enough, if used correctly.

Canon SD780 IS with the Zeikos filter addon, the ND 0.9 filter, and a GorillaPod
Canon SD780 IS with the Zeikos filter addon, Tiffen ND 0.9 filter, and GorillaPod

I might get the new Canon A1200, the one that shoots in 24p and costs just $110. I believe it’s possible to shoot close to 180 degree shutter, even without full manual control. If you set the camera to P mode, and half-press the shutter button, you will get the information about the shutter speed. Adjust the lights/scene or ND filter(s) until you get 1/50th or 1/48th shutter speed. Switch to video mode, lock exposure, start shooting. As long as the video mode uses the same exposure algorithm as the P mode, we’re in business.

BTW, the other day I found the manual for the A1200 (PDF), and it has all the video features I expected it to have (manual white balance, manual color control, exposure compensation+lock, focus lock), plus one that I didn’t: a miniature mode, like the one found on the S95.

UPDATE: With and without an ND filter, and some stabilization. With the ND filter there is some actual motion blur, since the shutter speed is more natural.

GoogleTV: Nightmare on a Remote Street

I never had anything good to say about GoogleTV 1.0. The UI sucks, the content is lacking, and it’s throughout inconsistent. But I think that my biggest peeve of all is its various remote control incarnations. I mean, look at this mess: 1, 2, 3, 4. They’re over the top, with many more buttons that I would personally like shoved in 5 remotes, let alone 1.

My biggest problem in these remotes is the TWO d-pads. They let you move with the one or the other, but they also allow you to confirm with them, only that it won’t carry through your action, because the focusing of that d-pad was at different position in the screen than the other d-pad, resulting in clicking the WRONG thing. Sure, sure, Google TV is still a 1.0 product. But THIS specific UI problem should have been fixed with a firmware update within the first few weeks. All it requires is to synchronize the two d-pad positions on the screen, so they focus on the same widget when one or the other is moved. Maybe there are some edge cases where the current behavior is needed in Chrome/Flash, but for everything else, this creates a major usability issue — especially for users who are accustomed to gaming controls (where you move your character with the left thumb, but you confirm/fire with the right). This is the No1 reason why I don’t even turn ON our GoogleTV anymore: I keep pressing the wrong controls!

What I need instead is a simple, elegant design. I do hope that GoogleTV redesigns their whole UI, but along with it creates a new Bluetooth remote like in my mockup below:

Until then, I will continue using the Roku, although I would certainly move to my Apple TV (which we currently use only for music), if Apple was to allow content providers to create their own “channels”, like Roku does. Preferably with the same UI for every channel, for consistency. But so far, the Roku, despite its simpler and dumber software, delivers a better overall experience than Google’s or Apple’s TV devices.

Vimeo for example, has a real, full-featured application on the Roku, while the web-based versions of Vimeo CouchMode/Youtube Leanback on GoogleTV suck goats because of the unnatural usability created by the web browser that’s used to deliver them (instead of having a binary app to fit perfectly in the usability of your device’s overall UI and remote control) — while AppleTV does not even allow third party apps/channels. For example, when I hit the “Menu” button, I want to see the menu for Vimeo or Youtube, not Chrome’s menu. Jeez. I guess you can say that I absolutely hate web apps on my TV. Every web app I’ve seen so far on GoogleTV (MSNBC, HBO, Blip, etc etc), is terrible UI-wise, does not fit with the overall UI and remote control buttons, does not correspond to its own “menu”, they’re all inconsistent with each other, and some are very difficult to use (parts of the HBO web app are almost impossible to use without a *real* mouse).

Canon dSLRs: 3 things that need fixing

Sure, there are plenty of video features one could ask, like XLRs, bigger screens, RAW codec, full HDMI-out, 4k resolution, etc etc, but in my opinion, it’s these 3 features below that would make the biggest difference of all:

1. Rolling shutter
In my opinion, this is the No1 problem with these cams. There are many times that I see some scenes in TV shows (e.g. Hawaii 5-0), or even short movies, and I suddenly notice some rolling shutter. The first thing I do after that is get my laptop, and search online on what camera was used. Soon enough, I usually find that there was a dSLR involved. By the moment the viewer “recognizes” the camera used because of a certain look in the footage, then there’s a FAIL right there.

2. Continuous autofocus
The most difficult thing to do with these dSLRs is to focus properly while the camera or the subject is moving. It’s just too damn hard, and the camera doesn’t help much with third party focus assists.

3. Better image resizer
It is said that Canon dSLR footage is not true 1080p, but a somewhat smaller resolution which is then upscaled internally to 1080p. Add to this the moire problem too. Both problems exist because of the Digic 4 signal processor not being fast-enough to do resizing using a better algorithm (e.g. Lanczos, bilinear, or bicubic resampling). Here’s hope that the new Digic 5 processor, rumored to be announced in April, will fix that.

Becoming a filmmaker for ultra-cheap

Now that the world can have a 24p camera for one hundred bucks, it’s time to revisit my video hardware suggestions with this new blog post about how to put together the necessary equipment to shoot a short movie, or music video, for very cheap, without sacrificing quality in any substantial way. So, there are three main aspects to on-set filmmaking: video, audio, and lighting. Here’s how to properly shoot with a small P&S Canon camera. Here’s what to buy with your weekend money:

– Video equipment
1. A 24p video camera with at least exposure compensation, exposure locking, and some color control. That would be the brand new Canon A1200, for $110, capable of 720/24p. If you have the ability to pay more, get the S100 ($430), which offers 1080/24p and adequate shallow depth of field when zoomed in. First thing to do after you acquire any camera: set custom colors to minimum contrast/saturation/sharpness, so you can shoot “flat”. While shooting, always set and lock exposure (usually it’s best to set it to -1 outdoors). If your camera supports continuous autofocus (e.g. the S100), you will have to lock focus too before recording.

2. A tripod. I would suggest the Velbon VideoMate-607/F ($70), because it has a smooth-pan head. If you’re not planning to pan while recording, ever, you can get pretty much any tripod, as long as it has leveling indications.

3. A charger for rechargeable AA batteries for your camera. This Sony one, that comes with four batteries too, costs $16. You don’t need this item if you’re going for the S100 instead.

4. Four 8 GB SDHC cards, Class 6, like this one (4×13=$52). Whatever you buy, make sure they’re Class 6 or faster.

Optional, but highly recommended:
5. You don’t need this item if you’re going for the S100 instead. A filter tube, like the Zeikos Universal Lens Adapter ($20), which allows you to connect…

6. …ND filters. Digicams tend to shoot at very higher shutter speeds outdoors, so adding a filter can help out control the effect. Get an 0.9 ND filter, like this 37mm Tiffen one. As I write this, it sells on Amazon for $14. Please read here, on how to estimate your shutter speed at 1/48th by using [stacked] ND filters. Shooting at 1/48th or 1/50th shutter speed is important for movie’s “motion look”. Alternatively, you can buy a variable strength ND filter, which allows to use many different strengths, all-in-one filter. You don’t need this item if you’re going for the S100 instead (the S100 has a built-in ND filter in it).

7. An action stabilizer, like the Opteca X-Grip Pro ($35), so you can go mobile while shooting action. Alternatively, this one is a good option too.


Here’s a short movie shot with a P&S digicam

– Audio equipment
1. The AudioTechnica ATR-6550 microphone ($50) which has a tele-mode in addition to its normal mode. The tele-mode will be able to pick up single-directional audio from your actors from further away other microphones and your camera can.

2. The Olympus WS-600S audio recorder ($60), which is able to record from an external 3.5mm microphone, both in stereo and in mono modes, and has 192 kbps MP3 recording support. Which is fine-enough quality for your first steps.

3. Some over-the-head headphones to monitor captured audio, like the Sony MDR-V150 ($16).

4. Some PVC pipes, to strap your microphone onto with some tape, and use them as a boom stick ($20). Ask a friend to operate the audio recording while you’re shooting.

5. A clap, so you can sync your audio with video later in post processing. They can cost as low as $10, but you don’t need to buy any: use two stones, or two old tapes/cassette cases and bang them together.

– Lighting
1. This Smith Victor KT500U $99 continuous lighting kit. Never underestimate the importance of good lighting. When its light bulbs die (usually they’re good for many hours though), you can buy even stronger bulbs.


Another short movie, shot with the Canon SD1400 IS digicam


For 24p short movies, and 24p music videos:
Try to buy all of the above, but if you’re really short on money, lose the lighting kit, action stabilizer, and the filter tube/ND filters.
Basic setup: $400
Full setup: $560

For music videos, you can lose the audio recording equipment too.

For artistic videos and slow-down’ed music videos:
If you’re trying to shoot artistic videos, I’d suggest the Canon A2200 instead, which shoots in 30p. This way, you can slow-down to 24p (0.800x in Sony Vegas), which makes everything look ethereal. Discard your camera’s audio, add music instead. For artistic videos, you only need the video equipment, and without the action stabilizer. Lighting kit is optional (depending on the style and subject of your video).

For music videos with A2200’s 30p, you shoot as described here. The slow-down to 24p will make the video look very cinematic and film-like. As for the equipment needed, it’s the same as what I mentioned for 24p music videos above. The following excerpt video sample is one such music video I shot with a similar small camera for a local artist:

And here are some very useful tutorials on how to shoot proper video.