Wednesday, March 10, 2004
The Perfect Travel Headphones Choice?
In my case, it's mostly a case of being on the road travelling and wanting to watch DVDs on my laptop. In the case of others, it may be about listening to MP3s (or your open source format of choice such as Ogg Vorbis). In either case, you need headphones of some variety. Well, I did some research last year, made a purchase, and bought something that I'm finding just about ideal.
First of all my criteria. I wanted something that blocked outside sound pretty effectively. After all, I'd be using these in airports and on planes. Worse, I'd be watching movies so being able to clearly hear the words was important. This first requirement led me down the path of looking at noise cancelling headphones. But what I saw didn't excite. First of all we were talking about yet another gadget that needed batteries. What's more, the noise cancellation in these devices is find for background rumble and hum; it's much less effective for high-pitched noises--like the baby in the seat behind.
That led me to consider various closed-type surround-the-ear headphone designs. (Closed headphones isolate better than the more common open type--with typically some loss in sound quality all things being equal.) Fine for the office. But my regular open-style Sennheisers actually work pretty well for that already. In any case, a full-size pair of headphones just wasn't a realistic option to add to my already over-stuffed travel bag.
Enter the Etymotic ER6 earphones. At first glance, you might think they're one of those $5 earbug things that get included with cheap portable electronics because they feel they have to include something. They're not. They're very high quality "ear canal headphones." By default, they have soft silicon eartips--they also come with an expanding foam tip--and you insert them into your ear. The sound is great and the isolation is quite good (15-20 dB). To be sure, they cost quite a bit more too--about $100. This may seem like a lot of money for such a small pair of headphones, but it's a fair value if you place a premium on small size while not being willing to give up isolation or quality.
I bought mine over the Internet from Headroom in Montana. They also sell its more expensive ER4 brothers as well as various portable battery-powered amplifiers. The latter do boost volume a bit and let you ease up on cranking the output all the way up on your player. But overall, at least in my circumstances, it didn't seem really worth carrying the extra box.
Sunday, February 08, 2004
Further homebrew DVR explorations
I'll be posting some more detail in my ongoing homebrew Digital Video Recorder (DVR) explorations, but my overall take at the moment is that TiVO stands head and shoulders above anything you can put together on your own with the (admittedly notable) caveat that you can't easily (as in without serious hacking) extract the video files from the TiVO for editing/burning to DVD/etc. The PC hardware that you can buy these days for DVR purposes such as the Shuttle-based systems is really quite good. That's not the problem. The problem is the software. For Windows-based systems, I've tried the ATI software that came with my Radeon All-in-Wonder card, Showshifter, and Snapstream. I've been underwhelmed. Certainly none have anything like the ease of creating and editing season passes that the TiVO has; all are much more oriented toiward a "programming grid" display. The ATI software that comes with the Radeon is fine for watching but very awkward to use for recording and playback. Showshifter makes you go a highly manual process (which includes writing batch files!) to get the programming listings and, even after you do this, I didn't find the software very easy to use. Snapstream seemed to have the most promise. Unfortunately it was quite unstable on my system. I've read comments from others that it "likes" the Hauppague tuner cards like the PVR-250 more than the ATIs and indeed, that's what the company sells to use with its products. For slot reasons in my system, I prefer the AGP ATI card so that I have a free PCI slot to which I could add a high-end sound card at some point. But, perhaps I'll give the PVR-250 a shot anyway at some point.
Perhaps everyone else knows about this already, but this "open source" (open collaboration really) encyclopedia has really gotten quite good. I think I looked at it a while back and it didn't make much of an impression. But I had occasion to take another look-see recently. I didn't make a detailed survey but my impression is that there's considerable depth and breadth and the accuracy seems quite high (if not perfect). It also seems to be a great example of an open project where many people can effectively contribute. By comparison, at least individual open source software projects end up being the work of a relatively small core group.
Friday, January 16, 2004
Inside the Soul of the Web
Google records and occassionally compiles a compilation of the searches that it runs. I'm not sure what it tells us--nothing good probably--but here's the end-of-2003 version.
As I recall, one of the older search engines (McKinley as I recall) let you monitor the most recent searches as they came in. They were typically related to the same sort of salacious topics as take up much of Google's CPU cycles today. Apparently there are screens showing a similarly real-time display at Google headquarters today.
Media Servers and Standards
A project in these here parts of late has been experimenting with media servers of both the music and video and the pre-assembled and homebrew varieties. As I accumulate more experiences in this area I'll be creating a separate archive that concatenates the various posts. However, before delving into hardware and software specifics, I'd like to make an observation about one particular annoyance/limitation I've run into when trying out the multitude of different products out there. That's the lack of standards.
I'm not talking so much about the formats for individual files. Although that's a bit of a problem too. Among "lossy" formats, there's MP3 of course. But there's also Windows WMA and Open Source OGG VORBIS to name just the most common ones. Both technical and philosophical debates abound surrounding all the formats. Then there are the "lossless" formats that are theoretically better for original source ripping and encoding--but disk sizes are still not quite at the point that they're suitable for general use because they take up more space than even high bitrate encoding using lossy formats. But, as I say, the fact that not all music servers support all formats (especially outside of WMA and MP3) isn't the focus of this particular discussion.
Rather, my concern here surrounds playlists--collections of files either manually or automatically (based on criteria such as genre, rating, or bitrate) selected from a collection. It can be laborious indeed to create playlists from multi-thousand file media libraries. But it's quite necessary to do so--especially when using the limited LED or LCD interfaces of many of the newer "appliance-like" players such as Tivo's Home Media Option (HMO) or Turtle Beach's Auditron. Yet, it's often difficult to impossible to transfer playlists among devices because of the lack of common standards. There are a few examples of cross-device support such as Tivo HMO's ability to stream files from systems running J. River's excellent Media Jukebox as well as its own software. And there are a few efforts underway to try and promulgate common open standards such as this one. But in the main it's a real pain to add a new photo or image streaming appliance to your network because so much work typically is required to manually recreate playlists or photo shows.
Saturday, January 10, 2004
I've been on a bit of a slide scanning jag recently between getting photos from a recent trip to California up on my website, digitizing some old family slides, and getting ready to update the sea kayaking website that I maintain. For hardware, I have a Nikon Coolscan IV ED 35mm film scanner. Of course, Nikon supplies its own scanning software and there are any number of very sophisticated scanning software products out there. But, for my money, the best bet is VueScan from Hamrick Software. It differs from most of the other programs out there in that it's well designed for essentially batch processing a stack of slides that will later be image-processed using PhotoShop or the photo editing program of your choice. This isn't to say that VueScan doesn't have a considerable number of options. It does. In fact, you'll need to spend some time fiddling to figure out the settings that work best for you from multiple scanning passes to color balance to scan resolution. But these are settings that you'll often leave the same from picture to picture--or at least change only occasionally. However, VueScan doesn't have the sort of histogram and color curve manipulation features found in something like Nikon's own software. Which is just fine. I don't usually want to do a lot of image fiddling when I'm scanning a slide. I just want to get a decent scan onto the computer with the minimum of muss and fuss and do the fine-tuning with PhotoShop, which is far more sophisticated than any of the scanning programs.
There's a trial version available. It's well worth checking out, especially if you find yourself frequently scanning a stack of slides at one time.
Friday, January 09, 2004
I may perhaps be the last person to relaize the wonders of RSS (Really Simple Syndication). Essentially it's a means of obtaining a sort of headline feed from news sites and blogs. From a technical standpoint, it's a dialect of XML. From a user standpoint, it's the latest fussilade in the long-running push vs. pull battle. I won't go into all the details here, but the bottom line is that an RSS client can aggregate the headlines from all the blogs (like volokh.com) and news feeds (like CNET news) that you like to follow on a regular basis in a single location. It therefore lets you avoid having to either remember to individually check a bunch of sites or to signup to receive a bunch of individual newsletters. Many sites have their own RSS feeds; others are syndicated through third parties. For example, see syndic8.com.
As is often the case with the Internet, things with RSS are changing rapidly. From my experience, there's no ideal client out there. Browser-based plug-ins like Newsmonster are theoretically the best approach because the site contents are typically intended to be displayed within a browser anyway. So why not start off there? But in my experience the browser add-ons available to date just don't work--causing crashes and other sorts of failures. My favorite free Windows client is SharpReader. One nice aspect is that it lets you import and export lists of feeds. This is a workable alternative to server-based lists if you want to access the same set of feeds from several different PCs. Awasu is another not-bad alternative as is RSS Reader.
Wednesday, January 07, 2004
Website peeves of the week. Perhaps my brokerage house has a legitimate interest in ensuring that I'm using unique and difficult/impossible to guess usernames and passwords, but the same can scarcely be said of basic reservation or newsletter sites. Yet, you still run into the occasional website that rejects the "standard" username/password that I use for non-critical stuff, insisting upon more letters or random number permutations. Of course, I won't remember the oddball combination required--unless I write it down somewhere. Sure, keep me from using a username/password of "abc"/"abc", but insisting on 8+ character usernames and non-alpha passwords for casual site logons is a bit much.
The week's winner though is Amtrak. You'd think that they could afford a decent site design, but they've got significant problems. Want to change a reservation? Can't do it online -- you have to call it in person over the phone. Enter a discount number (such as AAA) which isn't available for a particular train (such as the Acela) and it will simply generate an error rather than continue with the reservation process while informing you that there's no AAA discount for this train. And, oh, when it bounces you back it wipes out all the credit card information that you entered so you have to start the whole process over again. You'd think at this point in the Internet's evolution, an Amtrak could come up with a decently designed e-Commerce site.
Tuesday, December 30, 2003
Some further digital photography thoughts as follow-ups to my earlier Canon G5 post now that I've had time to play around with it for a while. There's a lot that's good about this camera and the current generation of digital cameras in general. Now that I've had some time to play, I'd like to give some more perspective -- from the point of view of a long-time fairly serious 35mm photographer -- of how I view the state of digital today from my particular perspective.
First, let's talk about tradeoffs. If not one of those cameras that are advertised by promoting their fit into a rake-thin model's hip pocket , it's certainly more pocketable than an SLR or one of those near-SLR-sized big-optical-zoom-ratio like a Nikon Coolpix 5700. This tradeoff is about having a goodly set of features, a fairly speedy and high quality f/2.0-3.0 lens, and a reasonable (4x) but not spectacular optical zoom ratio.
It was a reasonable set of tradeoffs for me. I wanted a high quality camera that could shoot in low light that was reasonably compact. (If size weren't a consideration I'd have jumped right into a Canon digital SLR body given that I already have Canon EOS lenses.) But I was looking to step up from my 1 megapixel Olympus D450 that I bought essentially for snapshooting. The day may come when I purchase an more modern ultra-compact digital snapsot camera that wasn't this purchase.
I've learned how to use the camera -- which does require a bit or work; the manual is reasonable but we're talking about a fairly complicated instrument here. It provides control over shutter speed, f-stop, etc. that you don't find any longer outside of exotic rangefinders like Leicas any longer. And its pivoting LCD screen is extremely useful for all sorts of shots from non-traditional not-just-behind-the-camera perspectives. This includes low angle shots and even self-portraits (for which the included wireless remote comes in handy as well.) The pict quality is solid. Nothing to compalin about there.
Negatives? A few. The viewfinder is typical crap point-and-shoot. There are no brightlines to clearly delineate the subject and no information anout shutter speed/f-stop/etc. The lens is also visible through the viewfinder although that's actually not ususual for "real" traditional rangefinders and I find it more an "aesthetic" issue than something that really interferes with photography. Why not just use the LCD? Well, it's hard to see in bright light (like every other LCD) and using the viewfinder can make it easier to hold the camera steady and precise as well.
Digital also still has some inherent shooting time/delay issues compared to film. The delay isn't bad here -- especially if it's prefocused -- but it's still a bit more than my film camera. And, in RAW mode in which the camera records the image as captured by the sensor without compression or other manipulation (my preferred mode of shooting as memory cards are fairly cheap and it gives me the most post-shoot options), I can only get off about one-shot per second. Of course, with film, I rarely use motor drive because of the cost of film so this is more of a complaint about having trouble taking advantage of a potential digital advantage than it is a real limit of digital compared to film. In more modest-sized JPEG modes, however, the shooting speed is quite respectable -- several times per second. The fact that the G5 provides multiple modes -- including custom ones -- means that you can shift quite speedily from full quality to "snapshot" to quality+speed.
The relatively small size of today's digital sensors also limits the wide-angle coverage of current camera. That's the other thing I'm not crazy about with the G5; it only gets down to a 35mm film equivalent of a 35mm lens. I'd prefer something wider and often find myself shooting at the widest angle. This is also an issue even with digital SLR bodies which has in turn led to the popularity of "ultra-wide" zooms to compensate. It's also one of the reasons that I've held off buying a digital SLR back -- I like wide-angles and I'd hate for my Canon 17-40mm turn into an esentially normal range lens. (I'm aware that Canon offers a wide-angle converter for the G5. Quality concerns aside, adding multiple lenses to a camera of this sort bulks it up to look more and more like an SLR or "all-in-one" Nikon 5700 style which starts to make it a fundamentally different form factor.)
A couple of more comprehensive reviews follow. Bottom line? I like it given my emphasis on features and capabilities rather than ultimate portability within the constraints of a pocketable camera. I'll get an EOS digital back someday and, probably, a very compact digital point and shoot another -- but this is a good serious-but-compact camera for now.
Sunday, December 28, 2003
The ultimate backup for digitial photos... Print them out!
We're in a bit of a contradictory situation when it comes to the digital photos that are increasingly replacing the film variety. On the one hand, digital's potential for redundant, off-site backup is great. A few gigabytes or less of storage in most cases could protect against "analog's" faded prints and slides, fire, water damage, et al. One could imagine multiple copies spread among data centers and family memebrs. Far more redundancy than film can provide for more than the odd print here and there.
Yet the reality is likely worse. One copy on a cheap hard disk that will inevitably fail. What's a backup reginem?
I'm a little surprised that no one's made a more aggressive sell of the "all the pictures of little Johnnie will be wiped out some day without XYZ product" variety. But perhaps that's just a reflection of the difficulty of selling "good for you" products like backup. Even those of us who have at least some basic backup strategies in place hesitate to spend more for what we know are complete and proven backup methodologies.
Still, I predict this is going to become a more publicized isue as more and more types of documents and memories get digitized in a way that they can be wiped out by a single head crash.
I spend a good part of my days writing research notes and working on other sorts of research projects. I also deal with the usual flow of other demands -- calls and IMs from reporters, inquiries from clients, briefings/interviews, administrivia... Something we observe is that if you add up the scheduled time of these typically short-term commitments and add it our "productive time" you don`t end up with a full day. Surely not all the other time was taken up by random web surfing and online shopping! (In fact, we figure that about four hours a day of writing time is the most that we can achieve in other than short-term, heads-down mode even though the other stuff may only take up an hour or two on a typical day.) In the vernacular, where did all that time go?!
Jakob Nielsen of the Nielsen Norman Group gives a good explanation in IM, Not IP (Information Pollution) for where this extra time disappears to.
IM is even worse than e-mail with respect to one of the most important human-factors criteria: It's interruptive of task flow because it demands realtime attention. Some things do need realtime attention, but even a one-minute interruption can easily cost a knowledge worker 10 to 15 minutes of lost productivity due to the time needed to reestablish mental context and reenter the flow state. That's why one of the best ways of increasing the productivity of programmers is to give them individual offices. And that's why no e-mail program should come with the biff feature turned on by default. (Biff is the annoying ability to ring a bell or flash the screen every time an e-mail message arrives. In fact, the world economy would gain several million dollars per year if this feature were completely eradicated.)
The issue also has some good other discussions about instant messaging.
Monday, November 10, 2003
Universal remote control. A chimera? Perhaps. But something needs to be done. I suppose that we could simply dismiss the call to remote from each new electronic gizmo by disposing of the control that arrives with each new electronic device--but that wouldn't be sporting now, would it? As a result we end up with perhaps a dozen remote controls in various flavors contaminating our coffee table. What to do?
I have perhaps a larger than average--but hardly riduculously inflated--home theatre system and my remote control pile had grown large indeed. I had gone through the usual dalliance with some low-priced "Universal Remotes" from RCA and the like--the sort of thing one finds in Walmart and Best Buy. Best case, they were able to control a few devices. They quickly added to the pile of remotes rather than replaced it. Even the Sony remote that came with my V444ES Receiver did little to improve the situation with its awkward flip-open panel.
However, I seem to have now found a relatively mid-proced remote (~$100) that, for the first time, truly lets me consign the remote pile to a box. The Home Theatre Master MX-500 combines basic programmed codes for a very wide range of devices with the ability to learn codes. It effectively replaces the remotes for all my gear including a relatively old Pioneer CD/Laserdisc player that gave older universal remotes particular conniptions.
$100 isn't cheap. But it's a good price step down from the multi-$100s of some of the fancier all-LCD panel remotes or even the MX-500s bigger brothers that have compuer interfaces and more extensive macro programming. (For detailed reviews and comparisons see these MX-500 and MX-700/MX-800 reviews.) And, from my perspective, the MX-500 does pretty much everything that I need--and in a remote that fits nicely in a hand while I'm watching TV.
The programming takes a bit of fiddling to get it in tune with your individual preferences, but once it's there I find little need to use the individual remotes that came with the various stereo and home theatre gear. That's a first for me.
And some of the limitations I've found are limitations in any remote including the one from the manufacturer. For example, I'd like to use my remote to set up the appropriate video mode on my TV (e.g. component video or S-Video) depending upon the selected input source. In fact, the MX-500 does let you program in a macro that runs when you select a program source. But my Panasonic TV cycles through its video modes as opposed to providing a way to directly select one. This prevents either the MX-500--or any other remote--from directly selecting a video mode through a macro.
Friday, November 07, 2003
To be sure, the previous post's comparisons with PC prices of years back is probably not entirely fair. Although it's difficult to say for sure without analyzing a lot of detailed mid-80's or mid-90's price lists (taking into account street vs. list prices), my memory is that getting to the $5K range in, say, 1990 didn't require getting as far out on the gear bell curve as it does today. On the other hand, I suspect that recollection is also colored by the reality that machines back then were NEVER fast enough whereas today even a fairly mainstream machine is plenty speedy unless you have decidedly non-mainstream needs such as high-end gaming or video editing. (And hence the typical user has little enough need for a $5K screamer.)
Thursday, November 06, 2003
Machrone's "Law" still works. Back in the 80's, Bill Machrone--then editor-in-chief of PC Magazine--coined a law that the PC you want always cost $5,000. The idea was that even as processor speed and disk size and what not spun up exponentially, the high-end system that you really wanted at any given moment still cost the same--about $5,000.
One is tempted to call these sorts of "Laws" observations instead. Certainly there are no underlying physical principles wheter mathematical, chemical, or physical. I do suspect that there are some economical principles though--technology that didn't fit within the Machrone's Law parameters just wasn't part of the consumer landscape. Maybe the video card that cost $5K all on its own was suitable for workstations but it wasn't a "PC" product. Consumers couldn't afford it and consumer-type software like games wouldn't take advantage of it as a result.
But, of course, PC prices have dropped so dramatically that 1980's era economic observations no longer hold of course, right? I'm not so sure.
Just for kicks, I went to Alienware's website. These guys make systems for the gamer marker. Premium to be sure but decidedly mainstream as well. After all, they're sold in Best Buy for god's sake. And guess what? Without any unnatural acts I was able to configure a $5K system. And it soesn't even have a second monitor--a luxury that I find desirable indeed on my own home system that would bring this configuration well over $5K (assuming a 17" LCD as nice dimensions for a secondary monitor).
The lesson? Economic principles and behaviors tend to change far more slowly than technology.
Alienware Full-Tower Case (420-Watt PS) - Cyborg Green
AMD Athlon 64 FX-51 Processor with HyperTransport Technology - $100 Instant Rebate
Ajigo High Performace Heatsink / Fan Unit for Athlon 64 Processors
ASUS SK8N - NVIDIA nForce3 Pro 150 Motherboard
1GB Registered ECC DDR SDRAM PC-3200 - 2 x 512MB Module
Alienware Extreme Edition GeForce FX 5950 Ultra 256MB 8x AGP w/DVI & S-Video
AlienIce Video Cooling System - Terra Green
500GB Western Digital Caviar SE Serial ATA RAID 0 Array
Plextor PX-708A 8x DVD±R/W Drive - Black
Creative Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS Platinum Pro - 7.1
Intel PRO/1000 MT Gigabit Desktop Adapter
Alienware 8-in-1 USB 2.0 Internal Card Reader
3.5" 1.44 MB Floppy Disk Drive - Black
Microsoft Windows XP Home Edition
NEC 22" MultiSync FE2111SB Flat CRT - Black
Klipsch ProMedia 2.1 200-Watt THX Speakers
Microsoft Internet Keyboard - Space Black
Microsoft IntelliMouse Explorer 3.0 - USB - Standard Color
For $4,669 (including a free T-shirt!)
Monday, October 27, 2003
Which brings us to another technology angle in all this. My trusty old IBM Thinkpad 600E has a mere 13.3-inch screen and THAT is almost too large in coach on most airlines. I can type (sortof) and watch DVD's (best with my tray table stowed and the computer sort of 2/3rds opened propped at an angle on my lap. (Apropos of the previous post, it has never even occurred to me to ask the person in front to inconvenience themselves so that I can have more room than the airline saw fit to give me.) Yet, so many new thin and light laptops have seriously large screens today. Let's look at IBM's line. (Not to pick on IBM but they're a major producer of business laptops and I've found them to build serious, solid gear.) The R series, billed as the best blend of portability and essential features, has a 14-inch screen at the entry level and quickly jumps to 15-inch. Only the "extra-light, "extra-small", "extra-portable" X series has a petite 12.1-inch screen (in 1024x768 resolution). In other words, all except the stripped "ultra-portables" have hefty sized screens that to my way of thinking can't be used in the typical coach cabin. It surprises me a bit that there aren't more designs tilted toward a nice blend or portability and features--including the feature of being used in a coach-class airline seat. Does everyone who cares about using their laptops in flight (and doesn't want to accept the compomises of an ultraportableon the road) just have an unlimited number of upgrade certificates? (Fatter but smaller systems like the Fujitsu 5000D seem a better choice for airline use. I should be able to get my hands on one in a few weeks. Stay tuned.
The great battles going on under our noses that we never know about. The recent introduction of a device as the "Knee Defender" brings to light the previously uncataloged battle between the airline seat recliners and the airline seat anti-recliners. Me? I guess I'm a recliner because it boggles my mind that there's any question about whether airlines should ban a gadget that quite explicitly interferes with the functioning of airplane equipment (the seat). And I quite squarely fall into the camp that--other than when one has to place "seatbacks and tray tables in an upright and locked position" for takeoff and landing--if you weren't meant to recline your seat then the powers-that-be wouldn't have put these little buttons into your arm rest that cause the seat to do just that. I'll concede exceptional circumstances if there's someone with a broken leg in the seat behind or whatever, but not that general lack of legroom or desire to type away on a big-screen laptop in the row behind me trumps my desire to sleep on my (oh so little) reclining economy seat.
Friday, October 24, 2003
As the new owner of a Canon Powershot G5 digital camera, I've been giving some thought to the ongoing transition from film to digital. These thoughts are in the vein of what I guess I would call an "advanced amateur" or "prosumer" to use a phrase that's starting to be thrown around in some circles with respect to both photography and computers. I'm still learning my way around the camera and getting a feel for the subtleties of its handling, so more comments will doubtless follow later. But here's an initial reaction to the "gestalt" of it.
Today's prosumer digital cameras, in many respects, recreate the rangefinder camera category that had all but disappeared. In the case of film cameras today, there's really just a choice between SLR's and "point and shoots" with only a few very expensive, high-end exceptions (e.g. Leica) that provide an SLR-level of control in a more compact package. Some of the point and shoots are sleek and fancy indeed but they still don't provide the level of exposure and shutter speed control offered by even the most basic SLR (and demanded by serious photographers). The G5, on the other hand, provides full control over shutter speed and aperature -- something that's been hard to find in non-SLR form factors for a long time now. (You can also just shoot in full auto.) The G5 doesn't offer quite the full control of the rangefinders of yesteryear. Focus is only auto and lenses aren't interchangeable (although there are some fairly pricey adapters to widen or narrow the view). But, still, a camera like this one provides a nice intermediate choice between a full-fledged SLR and a point-and-shoot that's been sorely missing in the film world for years.