Archive for October, 2009

AppleTV as our audio server

Back in April I wrote a blog post about what solution would be ideal to feed our 65 GB of music library to our main speaker-set and amplifier. There was nothing that was doing exactly what we needed to do, so we were thinking of buying a second 400 CD-changer appliance, to fill it with our existing CDs and burned iTunes purchases.

The Sonos system was also discussed as a possible solution, but we were not happy with the fact it could not hold our library in the device itself, and needed constant streaming. We were not looking for a streaming system, but on a device that could hold all of our music in its internal drive, and get easily updated when we need it to.

Eventually, we added an intermediate step. We held back from the 400 CD-changer purchase, and bought a 120 GB iPod Classic with an Apple dock that featured a line-out. The problem with that solution is that we could not see what the heck was playing in the iPod’s 2.5″ screen while we were sitting on the couch, 2.5 meters away. Not to mention that for some reason the “back” key on the remote for the dock did not work with the Classic. Add to that the fact that the iPod line-out audio quality was below par (low volume compared to other input sources in our amplifier), and so sooner than later we were again in the market for a solution. Our Zune 120 GB and its dock had the similar usability/volume problems btw.

What made us root for the AppleTV was its “Remote” application for the iPhone/iPodTouch. There we are now, sitting on our couch, using the exact same UI as in the iPod Touch’s amazing music UI to control our AppleTV. We don’t even have to turn ON the HDTV to control it, it’s headless (that was one of our requirements)! We simply turning it ON once using its remote, then the iPod Touch’s “Remote” application takes over for the music control, and when we need to turn it OFF we just use the AppleTV remote again (long press on the play button puts the AppleTV on standby). Audio quality is punchy, CD-quality, much better than the iPod/Zune dock’s line-outs.

So far, so good! Only thing missing from the “Remote” app is the ability to rate songs (the UI is there but the rating mechanism is not implemented — maybe it comes in a future version)!

I don’t use the AppleTV for video playback, since the Sony PS3 is a much better solution for that (better support for formats and 1080/30p). But it’s perfect for our music, and maybe even for some streaming internet radio (new feature in the AppleTV 3.0 firmware).

Some have suggested that we could use a small laptop/PC with MPD in it, but there is a certain installation/configuration/annoyance associated with that. Turning ON the laptop/PC from standby would require to physically go close to the device, and then we would have to use MPD remote applications that simply don’t have the elegance of an Apple-designed app. Instead, the AppleTV just works, and we are able to _easily_ sync it with our iTunes installation too. That’s a major bonus since we use iTunes. Even more interestingly, the AppleTV is *cheaper* than a dedicated small laptop/PC running MPD.

So basically, for us at least, the “Remote” application is what made the whole difference for us, not necessarily the AppleTV itself. It’s one of these times that a side-project like that app is, brings value to other products!

UPDATE: I wrote an article, comparing the Apple TV music experience to MPD’s.

RED needs a kick in the butt

Disclaimer: The following is meant as an analysis of the situation based on my experience as a tech journalist for some 8 years, and on my own personal opinion. It’s not meant to disrespect RED, or its founders. In fact, as a true tech geek, I am a fan of the whole RED project!

UPDATE 2: And now I am BANNED from the REDUser forum, for discussing my points VERY CALMLY with others. I was name called, but I never name called back. I simply explained my points, civilized, as you can read there.

UPDATE 3: Re-instated at the forum. Thanks everyone who spoke up about it.

RED just published an update on their vaporware line. You can read about it here & here.

Basically, these are hyperbole vaporware products, made by hype machines rather than engineers. Oh, I don’t dispute the fact that maybe 1-2 of these products announced last year and today will see the market at some point, but I do dispute the fact that they will be able to create all that stuff they are promising, and at the prices that they are promising. Already, now it’s becoming obvious that getting a usable Scarlet model is a $10k affair, and not a $3.5k as they had you to believe last year.

All this made me remember of my mother who used to tell me about an old man in her mountain village (I believe he’s long dead now) who had this moto: “promising is gaining, giving is losing”.

Basically, RED is a dream. Not your dream. But Jim Jannard’s dream. The guy’s a billionaire, and so he put together the RED company on the side. It’s obviously his “hobby” (it certainly feels that way). If the company goes nowhere eventually, oh well, at least he had fun doing it. But I keep thinking that all the millions he had poured into this, he could have either:
1. Simply make small modifications on the original RED while continuing R&D on new technologies without promising the most crazy things to his customers. Instead, follow a more traditional path regarding R&D and production.
2. If he just wanted to pour money down a hole, he should have given the money to people who need it instead, e.g. via Unicef.

Not all is bad from the whole story though. RED *has* contributed in the move from film to digital in Hollywood. I give them credit for that, and I thank them for that. But unfortunately, 99% of the time, it’s never that “first” company with the vision that ends up taking over that market. Instead, it’s the second or the third company in that sector who will learn from RED’s mistakes and dominate.

What I am saying here is that RED is going to die. There’s no way Jannard and his zillions can sustain this crazy business model they have. Just like the Xerox Alto was the first graphical personal computer of its kind but never went anywhere, RED will be seen the same way in 10-20 years from now. We would see RED with this romantic eye, but there won’t be any RED left at that point.

Who’s going to steal their thunder? In my opinion, it’s Canon. To create such complex technology, and especially at competitive prices, it requires an already established company with vast experience of both the technology and the market. Canon has the ability to simply evolutionize (rather than revolutionize) their existing technologies and catch up with RED — and even become better than them. Evidently from their recent VdSRLs and the rumored large-sensor prosumer cameras coming next Spring, I personally see Canon taking over Hollywood with as of yet un-announced offerings sooner than later.

But RED? It is Jim’s dream, and we were all in it. But I just woke up. I just hope Jim does too. Jim, save your money. That’s all I can say to you. Because I am a fan!

Update 1: A lot of people have a problem with the word “hobby”. Let me be clear about this. I believe that Jim does have a genuine interest about what he’s doing! He’s not an amateur. When someone has a serious hobby doesn’t mean that it’s just something he/she does on weekends.

But what it also means, in my book, is that he/she could be starting the business based on the interest about the technology in itself, and from pure curiosity, and for the cool factor, and not to create an actual profitable business. To me, a lot of things RED feel like “if it becomes profitable, even better — if not, well, we had fun researching and playing engineers”. While this is all fine if you’re a billionaire, it doesn’t strike me very nice if I was to be a customer.

I simply — for the life of me — can not take seriously RED when they spread themselves too thin over so many products. I just don’t see these as actual final products, I see them as beta stuff that someone put together in an R&D lab. Proof that the RED One had so many firmware upgrades so far. A “product” with the traditional sense, in that price, should have been bullet proof from Day 1. And I just don’t see this happening with the new line of cameras — if they ever come out.

In other words: In my own opinion, RED doesn’t know how to release PRODUCTS. There’s a difference between breaking new technological ground, and actually putting that new technology in an actual product. A product that is meant to be a product, and not a lab unit.

Proving my point

Two months ago I wrote an article explaining how to achieve the “film look”. In the article I mentioned shallow depth of field as the last of the requirements. I know a lot of people are buying these 35mm adapters (and stupidly I did so too in the beginning) trying to fool their way through into filmmaking. This is no different than owning just a cheap VW beetle car, and painting it like the ultimate racing car. Who are you trying to fool here?

There are other aspects that should take priority when you are shooting a movie, and it seems that this team from Spain have their heads screwed on the right way. Here’s their trailer for a short movie they shot with a stock Canon HV30 camera, without any 35mm adapters. It looks fabulous. How they did it? Read the link above.


Canon HV30 with a Twoneil 35mm adapter, and some CGI, by Philipp Seefeldt.

Grading with Lightroom 3 beta-1

Lightroom 3.0-beta1 was released last night for free, so I downloaded it and had a look at it. A 64-bit version is available too in the .zip file. App will work until April 2010.

I never tried that app before, since JBQ seems to dislike it. However, upon trying it, I really, really liked it. It’s like iMovie for pictures. It doesn’t do everything that Photoshop does, but it does enough to bring life or a more artistic look to your pictures. I only wish it had masking and an HDR mode. Look below my before and after images.

Regarding Apple’s iFrame Spec

There is undoubtedly a lot of pain around trying to edit h.264: there’s a lot of slowness, and often crashiness across the board of video editors. The way most people are going around the problem is either by using proxy files, or Cineform or other respectable intermediate formats (e.g. ProRES, Avid DNxHD).

Apple thinks that it can outsmart us all.

They recently released their new spec for an iFrame based h.264 format that’s locked to 540p. The reason for doing that was just so iMovie can deal with these impossible-to-edit h.264 formats without re-encoding into AIC (another bullshit format they invented back in the day). So far, two Sanyo cameras support the iFrame format.

The problem with the i-Frame idea is that it’s locked to 540p. There you are, buying a $400 1080p digirecorder, and Apple suggests you record in 540p, which is 1/4th of the camera’s native 1080p resolution! In other words, you just threw away in the garbage $300 just so Apple can say that its iMovie is fast to edit. Well, here’s a finger to you Apple.

What Apple should have done was simply to implement a proxy system. Not like their demanding proxy ProRES system like they have on FCP, but a simpler one. One that employs mpeg2 at either 640×360 or 854×480 at ~2 mbps. Mpeg2 is a piece of cake to decode, especially at 2 mbps low-res, they would be very small files considering the size of the originals, and as importantly, it’s really fast to encode. Encoding a 1080p h.264 stream to VGA mpeg2 will be ready in a flash on a modern machine!

And of course, the proxy system should be transparent to the iMovie user. Although, the user should have the preference available to decide if he/she wants the proxies in the first place, and switch between the two modes easily (in case he/she wants to color grade at the end of the editing process). And by default, the exporting will always be done using the high res native versions of the files.

In my opinion, this would be a very acceptable solution. Very little “waiting” for the user while encoding the proxies, very easy editing (much easier than the current iFrame format), flexibility, and exporting using the native files. Instead, what we get is one more of these Apple “innovations” that never actually solve the problem, but create new ones. While Apple has realized miracles in their iPod and iPhone divisions, the iMovie part of things always seemed like a disaster to me. It’s like they are putting their lower grade engineers to work on these projects.

Another way to battle the problem is to take their head out of their ass and implement full GPU acceleration (via Purevideo2 and similar technologies) for h.264 decoding. If a team of 3 freelance programmers are able to create CoreAVC, the fastest h.264 decoder in the world (5% CPU utilization on a 1080/30p video), then Apple (and Sony, and Adobe) should be able to do that too. Crippling people’s HD experience is never an option though.

Death to the iFrame.

Will VdSLRs Drive Prosumer Camcorders to Next Level?

Traditionally, shooting a movie or a music video that had to exhibit the magical “Hollywood look” meant that the filmmakers had to rent expensive, professional cameras. Buying such a camera is still today prohibiting because of the high price tag.

Interestingly, the prosumer market of $2,000-$10,000 camcorders never fulfilled the particular job adequately since they have very small sensors and not interchangeable lenses. When adding third party accessories to make them behave more like their professional siblings (e.g. 35mm adapters, lenses), the prices end up getting higher, and there’s usually a quality hit too.

Suddenly, when no one was really expecting the development, dSLRs started carrying video capabilities, with the Canon 5D and Panasonic GH1 becoming the first “serious” such cameras. For a package that costs less than $3000 we could now enjoy full manual control, shallow depth of fied, and a high-bitrate codec at full 1080p.

Shooting something more than basic video with these cameras results in very beautiful footage that easily attracts the attention of indie filmmakers and enthusiasts with their relatively low prices. For example, the enthusiasts who fell in love with the very popular Canon HV20/30/40 series (the first consumer HD cameras to shoot in 24p), and the indie pros who were battling with inadequate prosumer camcorders for years, now they have new toys that could produce pleasing images at a low cost.

This undoubtedly puts a lot of market pressure to both high-end consumer camcorders and most prosumer models. Personally, I already know a lot of filmmakers, and filmmaker-wannabes, who are getting ready to sell their current camcorder so they can get a Canon 7D, for example. This is something that will have to naturally push the engineering and camcorder product teams at Canon, Sony and Panasonic to offer decent products in the future, decent-enough to compete with the new wave of VdSLRs: bigger sensors, lenses, maybe even 4:4:4 RAW codecs.

Of course, traditionally-built camcorders will continue to sell for corporate and wedding usage, but it’s clear right now that when it comes to filmmakers and artists, they require something more advanced than yet another 1/3″ camcorder.

I do expect that the next big batch of new models by Canon will feature the cameras that filmmakers always wanted, and we probably have to thank — in part — the video dSLR market for it.

Hurrah for competition!

Adobe & Sony Debut New Consumer Video Editors

Sony released recently their Sony Vegas Movie Studio HD, one of the most affordable HD video editor out there, selling for a mere $40. The application is based on the Vegas Platinum/Pro engine and has most of the Vegas Platinum 9 features, except the following:

– No 24p exporting support
– No Sony AVC export tweaking (a wealth of pre-cooked templates available, WMV export still tweakable)
– No 5.1 audio support (down-mixes to stereo)
– No primary Color Corrector plugin (Curves, and all other Vegas plugins still available)

The Sony Vegas Platinum version has all the features above, making it the most powerful consumer video editor in the market, is selling at $80. However, for those who don’t need all these features, or don’t have the money for it, the Movie Studio HD is a perfect video editor to start with.

Adobe also announced recently their Adobe Premiere Elements 8 video editing software for Window. This major release offers a new Organizer to manage all media in one convenient location.

In addition, SmartFix automatically fixes shaky footage, color and lighting problems; Smart Trim identifies and helps users get rid of the least interesting, lowest quality footage; and SmartMix seamlessly balances audio elements to give videos good sound throughout. Also, with new motion-tracking capabilities, users can add graphics, text and effects that automatically follow a subject within a scene.

Previous versions were also tweakable to support 24p, so it’s possible that the same hack might still be compatible in the new version. Premiere Elements 8 will cost $100 when it releases in November.

Birds at the San Gregorio beach

JBQ and I went for a walk at the San Gregorio beach today, so I snapped some bird pictures with my Canon SX200 IS digicam. All pics are CC-BY 3.0.

A question to my readers

Please take the poll below and let me know if you would like me to continue re-posting my Twitter posts on this blog daily. You see, some of you already follow me on Twitter, and on Facebook (which my Twitter updates are also getting copied), so it might be too much of an annoying duplication for some of you. On the other hand, for the rest of the readers who don’t follow me on Twitter/Facebook, without these Twitter updates there isn’t much blogging going on (you might have noticed, I don’t blog small tidbits anymore, as Twitter has taken over that role). In any case, let me know.

Update: So, it’s settled. Thanks. 🙂