The Deliverator – Wannabee

So open minded, my thoughts fell out…

Inexpensive/Disposable Video Cameras

Posted by Deliverator on March 16th, 2011

Five and a half years ago I started fooling around with “disposable” video cameras being sold through the CVS pharmacy chain. These video cameras were meant to be one time use equivalents of the cardboard box disposable still cameras still sold at many stores throughout the world. The idea was you would pay around $30 for the camera, go out and take some footage and then bring the camera back and they would give you a DVD with your video on it, but keep the camera. The pharmacy would then wipe your unit and sell it again to someone else. The CVS cameras were small, built robustly and powered by simple AA’s and inexpensive. Naturally, the hacker community went to work on the cameras and quickly figured out how to download the video without the pharmacy’s help, making them reusable. These were great cameras for use in places you wouldn’t want to risk a “real” camera. People attached them to model rockets, helicopters, planes, placed them next to hot things, explody things, etc. They were cheap enough that you wouldn’t think twice about risking the camera on the off chance of capturing some cool footage. Naturally, I bought half a dozen.

Over the years, I’ve attached them to robots, glued fisheye lenses on them, put them in zip-lock bags and used them underwater. I’ve captured some real fun footage because I was no longer risk adverse about risking the camera. In the process I’ve destroyed two cameras outright, permanently modified two for niche uses and one is good for only spare parts. Only two escaped my abuse entirely unscathed. Today, I threw them all away.

Why?

Quite simply, the magic economic equations surrounding gadgets + mass market demand + capitalism + time has rendered the old CVS cameras obsolete. For under $50 I can now buy a camera from Kodak that is quite a bit smaller, holds more video and at higher quality than the CVS cameras, and is mildly hardened for rugged and underwater use. If you shop around, you can get this camera for more like $40 at stores like Best Buy, but I just got mine at Amazon. There are similar form factor cameras from other makers, but most are significantly more expensive HD capable units that are designed more for people wanting a cheap, small, everyday camcorder or for technophobic people looking for a very easy to operate video camera. These units (Flip for example) tend to be more like $100.

Tomorrow, I am going to strap one onto a robot and watch things go crunch. If the camera survives, great! If it doesn’t, the camera’s Micro-SDHC card is small enough that I can find it intact in the twisted, shattered remains and I probably got some great footage for $50. Photography and videography is at its most interesting when people are willing to push boundaries and experiment. The technology has finally gotten cheap enough that “that would be really cool but I don’t want to break this expensive piece of equipment” is no longer part of the equation.

Some thoughts on the Kodak Mini Video Camera:

-Captures at 640×480 at 30 fps as an AVI file using an MJPEG video codec and 16 bit PCM audio at 11khz. At this setting you can fit about an hour’s video on the included 2 GB Micro-SDHC card. You can also do QVGA at 60hz and take stills as well. There doesn’t appear to be any image stabilization, but what can you (currently) expect from a camera that is under $50. Give it a few years though…

-The camera has a built in rechargeable battery. The unit has a pop out full sized type A USB connector that pops out of the side for charging. You will need to use a USB extension cable (not included) to plug it into a PC to charge. My unit did not show up as a USB mass storage device when I plugged it into a computer running the 64 bit version of Windows 7. Other users report it coming up as a drive letter and forcibly installing (without prompting) some piece of software called Arcsoft Mediaimpression SE which also seizes control of most video/photo file extensions. I was glad this was not the case with my unit.

-Because my unit doesn’t show up as a USB mass storage device, I had to pop the Micro-SDHC card out of the bottom of the unit. I had to use itty-bitty tweezers (thanks Tweezerman!) to grab onto the card as there is no ejection mechanism for the card. A 2 GB card was included with mine, but this camera is sometimes sold without a card.

-The camera is exceedingly easy to use, with just an on/off button, 4 way arrow buttons and center selector and a “settings menu” button. The simple control scheme should make this a good camera for micro-controller driven operation, if someone wants to strip it down to just the circuit board for use on a rocket, kite, balloon or something.

-The whole unit is smaller than a pack of cards.

-I am not sure if I would entirely trust the built in waterproofing on the camera. The only point of entry for water is through the base, which hinges open to reveal the USB connector and card slot and potentially around the membrane rubber buttons. The base does have some rubbery gasket material to seal against water, but it is pretty minimal. I would recommend coating the area with a thick grease/vaseline, etc. before submersion in water beyond a few feet.

 

Posted in Photography, Portable Computing/Gadgets | 1 Comment »

My take on Ipad 2

Posted by Deliverator on March 2nd, 2011

I own an original model Ipad and use it daily. Today, Apple announced Ipad 2. Here are my thoughts on it and whether it is enough for me to upgrade:

Pluses:

-Ipad 2 is thinner and a little lighter than the original, while retaining the same general width x height and screen size of the original. The slight reduction in weight will be nice for those who use it as an book reader, as arm fatigue was a definite factor with the original.

-Ipad 2 has dual cameras. I’ve never seen video conferencing as much of a killer app, but I know some people that were really dieing for this with the Ipad 1.

-Ipad 2 has a new, faster dual core processor with what is being described as “9x” faster graphics. I am all for increased performance, but it is up in the air whether many app makers will write applications that make use of the faster subsystems for risk of alienating the large Ipad 1 user base.

-Magnetic screen cover system is a big plus in my view, as it lets you protect the Ipad’s screen when putting it in a bag or (in my case) large pocket, while adding little to the dimensions of the unit. Most cases for the Ipad 1 greatly increased the unit’s apparent bulk.

-3G models available for Verizon and not just AT&T.

-Has some extra motion sensing capability (3 axis gyro) compared to Ipad 1, which should be nice for gaming.

-One of the big pluses in my view is the new HDMI video output adapter, which works for ALL applications. This is a big change from Ipad 1 where applications had to be specially coded AND approved for TV output use. Think Hulu+, games, etc.

-Pricing is being kept competitive or slightly lower than similar Android devices

Negatives:

-No built in SD slot for downloading photos. This should have been do-able even with the thinner bezel of Ipad 2. The lack of a SD slot was a consistent minus cited by many Ipad 1 users/reviewers. I hate that Apple tries to make their devices aesthetically clutter free at the expense of needing to buy and carry a lot of easily lost adapters & dongles.

-No USB port. Nuff said. Wasn’t a big issue with me, but I know a lot of people wanted it.

-The Ipad 2 apparently still has only 256 MB of ram. I’ve bumped up against this consistently in my everyday use of the Ipad 1, which has the same amount, especially when doing tabbed browsing.

-Still requires an external power brick for charging versus being able to charge via USB on most computers, even if it takes significantly longer.

-Still no syncing over WiFi.

Externalities:

-Apple is beginning to enforce much harsher terms on 3rd parties wishing to supply content to Ipad users. They are essentially requiring any content being provided to users to also be available for purchase through their own content stores at the same price, so that they can get a (sizeable) cut of the pie. This will apparently apply even when the purchase is made “off site” and not as an in-app purchase. This will effectively make it impossible / not cost effective for competitors like Kindle, Nook and Sony to offer eBooks to Ipad users and will likely broadly apply to other types of content as well. I find this move to be incredibly anti-competitive and is a HUGE minus for me. One of the things which has made Ipad such a compelling part of my daily life is its ability to consume media from a variety of sources, whether that is news, books, music, podcasts or video. By constraining my choices to what Apple itself offers, they have greatly limited the appeal of the whole platform to me. If it wasn’t for this single thing, I would probably buy an Ipad 2. As is, if these changes take effect, I may sell my existing Ipad 1 in favor of an Android alternative.

Posted in General, iOS, Rants and Raves, Tech Stuff | No Comments »

Some thoughts on Western Digital My Book Essential 3TB USB 3.0 External Hard Drive

Posted by Deliverator on February 25th, 2011

I recently found myself spending so much time juggling how I was storing my data in order to get it to fit on a combination of a 2 TB and a 1.5 TB external hard drive, that I thought it might be worthwhile to revisit getting a 3 TB external drive for backup. I decided against getting a 3 TB drive when they first came out, in part due to AnandTech’s unfavorable review of the only 3 TB drive on the market at the time, Seagate’s GoFlex Desk 3TB. The big turn offs for me were the poorly designed enclosure resulting in very high temperatures, high $/GB ratio and a host of compatibility issues. Since that time, both Western Digital and Hitachi have gotten in on the game as well with 3 TB offerings of their own. I opted for the My Book Essential 3TB, since it seemed to have the best designed enclosure of the bunch, offered the cheapest $/GB ratio of any of the 3 TB drives on the market at $165 via Newegg and gave me a chance to try out my USB 3.0 port on my Asus P6X58D motherboard.

Installation of this drive was decidedly NOT a breeze. I ended up having to update my motherboard’s bios, USB 3.0 controller sub-firmware and USB 3.0 drivers  just to get the drive to be recognized and then had to install and then update Western Digital’s included Smartware software in order to update the drive’s firmware in order to get it working properly. I wouldn’t recommend this to clients as a “just plug it in to gain 3 TB of storage” device, but once I got it working it has behaved like any other external hard disk drive and has stayed comfortably cool via strictly passive ventilation and worked reliably through multi Terabyte initial data copying and subsequent daily backups.

Western Digital doesn’t exactly go out of their way to advertise it, but this drive spins at something below 6000 RPM (hence the assorted eco-branding). Even with the fast USB 3.0 interface, this drive performs considerably below any 1.5 or 2 TB drive I’ve owned, even with those drives being in USB 2.0 enclosures. This drive is decidedly for bulk data storage purposes only.

One other thing Western Digital doesn’t advertise is that the drive used in the enclosure is the same WD30EZRS series drive which they sell for ~$35 MORE as a bare OEM drive sans enclosure. Popping the drive out of its enclosure is relatively straightforward, although you are likely to pop a couple plastic clips in the process, voiding your warranty. Still, if you are looking for a 3TB internal drive on the cheap and don’t mind potentially voiding your warranty coverage, this is about as cheap as you can get one.

I ended up picking up a second unit to use as an internal drive. I kept it in its enclosure long enough to update it to the most recent drive firmware and then popped it open. I am keeping the enclosure in case I ever need to apply another firmware update. It has functioned like any other non-boot drive in my system, save for that the performance characteristics are such that if you have more than a few apps contending for I/O attention from the drive, throughput drops enough that HD video streams start breaking up. This can be problematic if you are trying to watch a movie and a backup job starts in the background, for instance. To reiterate, this drive whether used externally or internally should be used for bulk data storage only.

Posted in General, Rants and Raves, Reviews, Storage, Tech Stuff | No Comments »

My take on Light Peak/Thunderbolt

Posted by Deliverator on February 25th, 2011

With this week’s refresh of Apple’s Macbook Pro line of computers, consumers are going to get their first sampling of Intel’s Light Peak technology under the moniker “Thunderbolt.” Apple is no stranger to introducing new external interfaces, having premiered and acted as the die-hard champion of Firewire and Displayport. Both of these technologies, though offering technical advantages over other interfaces at their time of introduction, haven’t really become very mainstream and have remained pricier than alternatives. With USB 3.0 having beaten Thunderbolt to market by almost a year, I know a lot of techies have taken a brief look at Thunderbolt and dismissed it as yet another connector to try and fit on a motherboard bezel. I’ve looked at Thunderbolt in some depth and the deeper I’ve dug, the more I am interested. If widely adopted, I think it may widely reshape the collection of peripherals and mess of wires that have come to represent a “Desktop” level computing environment.

The salient points:

-Thunderbolt offers significantly more bandwidth than USB 3.0 with dual fully bi-directional 10 Gbps. That is up to 20 Gbps in both directions. USB 3.0 after overhead offers around 3.2 Gbps This greatly influences the classes of peripherals that could be run over a link. Think externalizing GPU’s vs external hard drives.

-Thunderbolt provides significantly more power to external devices than USB 3.0. USB 3.0 gives you a little under 5 watts to play with, which, while an improvement over USB 2.0’s ~2.5 watt, is less than half of Thunderbolt’s 10 watts. 10 watts is enough to power most full size desktop 3.5″ hard drives in external enclosures. It is enough to drive a monitor reasonably bright 20″ LCD monitor. With a little bit of power conserving design, it may be possible to do away with the need for power adapters for most present, common, PC peripherals except laser printers.

-Thunderbolt lets your daisy chain up to 7 devices. All the devices chained together have to share the Thunderbolt port’s overall bandwidth and power allotments, but both are fairly ample. The daisy chaining ability, combined with more directly powered peripherals, means a lot fewer cable will be needed to connect all your peripherals to your CPU unit and a lot of those cable runs will be shorter. In brief, way less desktop mess / tangle of cables.

-Thunderbolt tunnels the PCI Express protocol as well as Display port. Since tons of interface chips are designed to plug into PCI Express buses already, this will make it relatively trivial for 3rd party device manufacturers to take existing designs for internal peripherals and create “external peripheral” versions of the same. This, combined with much friendly licensing to implement compatible implementations and support of the underlying technology via Intel could make Thunderbolt a rapid starter, whereas some of the “inside baseball” aspects of Firewire lead to its slow adoption and lack of mainstream support compared USB 2.0.

Am I going to jump in headfirst and order a Macbook Pro today? No, but if Apple doesn’t try to play this one too close to its chest (and smother the baby in the process), Thunderbolt has the potential to truly become the “universal” bus that USB has long claimed to be.

 

Posted in General, Mac, Rants and Raves, Tech Stuff | No Comments »

Some thoughts on the forthcoming 520 bridge toll system

Posted by Deliverator on February 16th, 2011

While I am normally in favor of tolls and other systems of taxation that generate revenues to pay for infrastructure where it is to be used and by those who use it, our state has a poor history of continuing to collect tolls after the cost of construction has been paid, even in cases where the original legislation authorizing the construction and tolls had specific sunset clauses. Government has a tendency to be very reluctant to give up a revenue stream once it has been established, even when such taxation is no longer (or never was) justifiable under any reasonable, expressible philosophy of taxation. With the recent, massive budget shortfall, we have seen seen increasingly desperate attempts by the government to stick their fingers in other people’s pies, with often little or no justification for why they are entitled to a slice in the first place.

It should be noted that the legislation establishing the toll does not have a sunset provision requiring the toll to be removed after the bridge is paid for, or be scaled back to maintenance levels after payment of the bonds are completed. It merely requires that “Revenue from tolling the bridge will only be used as authorized by the Legislature for bond payments, operations and maintenance within the SR 520 corridor.” This means that the toll revenue may be used to pay for anything in the 520 corridor, potentially freeing up funds to pay for budget shortfalls elsewhere. It also appears that tolls can be used to fund mass transit and not simply highway purposes, something some toll payers may disagree with strongly. Is there even a requirement to pay off the 30 YEAR bonds as quick as toll revenues allow? The original I-90 floating bridge’s tolls paid off its cost of construction in 9 years, decades ahead of projections. The current 520 bridge’s tolls were ended in 16 years. I have to wonder after all the accounting jiggery-pokery takes place, how much and for how long 520’s toll revenues will have been used to pay for highly controversial projects like Seattle’s Waterfront Tunnel?

I am also extremely opposed to electronic RFID or plate registration as the sole means of paying a toll. RFID systems have severe privacy implications that often go un-addressed or unacknowledged by implementers or are addressed dismissively. From WSDOT’s faq :

Will my privacy be protected?
Yes. Good To Go! electronic tolling Passes use radio frequency identity chips, which do not hold any personal information. For Pay By Mail, only photos of the vehicle are taken, not the driver or occupants. All personal data, including name, address and payment information, is kept confidential and privacy is protected by law. Under no circumstances is individual customer information disclosed for use by marketing firms.

This scant acknowledgment of the issues surrounding RFID systems answer falls into the dismissive category. There is essentially no anonymous way of paying this toll. You either have to register your plate and establish an account, or get an RFID badge/sticker and establish an account. Government entities have an even poorer reputation for keeping databases private (uh, Wikileaks anyone?) than commercial enterprise, who often at least have some financial/reputation impact rationale for keeping client data private and I am very loath to supply my billing information to a government agency. While they make assurances that the data stored in their databases will remain private, tolling data has been used in numerous criminal and civil cases.

Unless you deliberately shield the RFID tag in other areas, there is nothing to prevent the tag from being read at other locations by the state or by other individuals and most people are frankly not going to bother. There are countless examples of how tags can be abused (up to and including cloning of someone else’s card) by private individuals. For instance, an acquaintance of mine, Eric Butler, recently showed how a commonly available cell phone could be used to remotely read someone’s ORCA transit card and display their recent whereabouts.

WA state is one of only a few that has a law against skimming someone’s RFID data without their knowledge, but if the rewards of doing so are large enough and it can be done anonymously, with little chance of being caught, then I am doubtful that this law will have a deterrent effect.

Turning 520 into a toll bridge will undoubtedly shift a lot of traffic onto the region’s other, already crowded arterials. The particular implementation details of this toll system just give me one more reason not to use 520 and not to go into Seattle for non-essential needs.

Update: It does appear you can set up a quasi-anonymous “Unregistered Pass Account” account without deliberately disclosing identifying information by showing up in person at one of the customer service centers and paying for a pass in cash. Given that they already have equipment in place to take pictures of license plates for plate based billing, they have the technical ability to correlate a plate with an unregistered pass, effectively de-anonymizing it. This is a marginally better situation, as the government/company hired to run the system wouldn’t have your direct billing details, but you would still be carrying around an RFID tag that is chirping for all to hear/clone/whatever. They also warn that if the pass isn’t read correctly, one would be sent an inflated/surcharge bill by mail. In such a situation, you couldn’t really protest without revealing your identity.

A more desirable setup would be the ability to set up a cash only account for plate based billing. In such a situation, one wouldn’t have to carry around a chirping RFID tag and wouldn’t be disclosing more information than the state already has through a vehicle’s registration. This doesn’t appear to be possible, currently, and they are charging a $.25 extra surcharge per toll for plate based billing. How much is your privacy worth to you? One has to wonder at the rationale for this disincentive. This may be an indication that their plate image capture system functions poorly in some situations, such as gridlock traffic, when an overhead mounted camera may not have a clear shot of the plate. I wonder whether this will cause scofflaws to deliberately tailgate large trucks and the like?

Posted in Rants and Raves, Tech Stuff | No Comments »

New HTPC, Windows 7 Headaches

Posted by Deliverator on January 18th, 2011

My last set of upgrades to my HTPC managed to eek out one more year of life, but it finally succumbed under an avalanche of high bit-rate video, new surround sound encoding schemes and other tasks which proved too much for the aging Shuttle boxes’ older dual core AMD CPU and bandwidth challenged DDR400 memory to handle. I ended up being able to scrounge most of the parts for the new HTPC from my spare parts bins, so the only purchases I needed to make were the CPU and ram. The new system has the following specs:

-Core i7 950 cpu

-4GB of Kinston DDR3 ram

-MSI X58 Platinum motherboard

-750 GB Seagate HDD

-Blu-ray reader / DVD burner

-600 W OCZ power supply with modular cables

-Lian Li desktop style aluminum case

-Nvidia GT 240 graphics card

-Windows 7

Putting together the system was pretty straight-forward. The Lian Li case I had on hand doesn’t have the best cable pathing and won’t accommodate longer video cards, but it had the virtue of being free. Thanks to the modular cable system on the power supply, I was able to keep the internal rats nest down to a bare minimum. The noise level is higher than on my old system due to an increased number of fans and and fairly loud head seeking of the Seagate HDD. I’ve been using SSDs pretty exclusively for my boot drives for the last few years, but needed more storage for this system than is cheaply affordable in an SSD and I was trying to keep the cost of this upgrade to a bare minimum. I might clone the HDD drive to an SSD at some future point if the head seeking becomes too annoying, but for now the projector fan largely drowns it out.

Software setup was a bit more of a challenge, as some of the audio/video software I use still doesn’t play nicely with Windows 7. I was able to get my HDTV DVR software, Beyond TV, working with my tuners, eventually, but it took some doing.

I switched from coaxial digital audio to optical Toslink, due to my newer motherboard not supporting coaxial out. This went fairly smoothly; I was dreading having to deal by touch with the maze of barely accessible wires coming out of the back of my surround receiver.

The biggest sticking point of the whole project was that my Optoma HD20 projector did not want to display anything but gobbledygook when hooked up to the Nvidia GT 240 video card. I had used this same card, cables and everything with the previous system without issue. Updating to the latest beta 126.635 drivers finally got an image up on the screen, but at 1080p60 resolution, the computer would momentarily lose sync with the projector every 5-15 minutes and the projector would seek for 3-4 seconds before relocking. VERY annoying when watching a film. Setting the refresh to 30 hz or a lower resolution gets rid of the problem, making this appear on the surface to be a video bandwidth/cable length issue, but this same video card, projector and cables behaved perfectly well under XP, so I have to conclude that Nvidia’s Windows 7 drivers are pretty much made of fail.

It would really piss me off to have to buy a new video card or a video amplifier/HDMI repeater in order to solve this problem. The HDMI cables aren’t that long (35′ if I remember correctly) and were of the higher quality type designed for full 1080p spec use at longer lengths. They are plastered in the ceiling, so replacing them isn’t really an appealing option!

Posted in General | No Comments »

Why I may be through with SIFF…

Posted by Deliverator on May 27th, 2010

I’ve done SIFF for six years straight, if I am doing my math right. After tonight’s experience, though, this year may be my last. One of the things that has really been bothering me in recent years, particularly after getting my own home theater is how mediocre the presentation of films has become at SIFF. Tonight was a really, really bad experience on all levels.

I still go to a lot of movies in commercial theaters, especially for the opening nights of blockbusters. I love the soundtrack of a audience’s reactions that you don’t get watching a movie at home. I love the big screen and thumping bass that would annoy the neightbors. Theaters offer a whole host of intangibles that a home theater just can’t match. So to, do film festivals. I love sitting in a cafe after a film and discussing it with other festival attendees, picking up trivia and recommendations.

I don’t like running all over town trying to get from theater to theater. I don’t like standing in the rain for an hour before a film just to get a seat. I don’t like having to watch the same pre-film SIFF promotion for 20 straight movies and here the non-sensical, incoherent remarks of the programmers prior to the films. Mostly, I don’t like the disrespect that SIFF gives its audience.

Today, I showed up to watch Henry of Navarre at The Neptune. This is an epic scope and length film with lush presentation, big battle scenes, sweeping vistas, lots of detailed sets and costumes. In short, it is exactly the type of movie that I still like to see in a real theater. After driving into Seattle, paying for parking, buying overpriced hot dogs and drinks and sitting down, the programmer informed us that the distributor sent them a cut that wouldn’t work on the venue’s projection system, and that instead we would be watching a DVD version. They offered to provide a film voucher if in the first 20 minutes of the film you couldn’t stand the quality. What they ended up showing was a poorly cropped DVD screener with huge watermarks in both upper hand corners, muted colors and blocky compression artifacts and poorly translated subtitles. The video looked like something you might stream via Real Player circa 1995. Needless to say, I took the voucher. What pisses me off is they waited till everyone was seated and had already paid for food to even present this option. The offering of a voucher instead of a straight refund also pisses me off. I paid cash for my ticket, to say nothing of being out gas money, parking & concession costs. Offering a voucher doesn’t affect their bottom line at all.

I receive daily marketing emails from SIFF. This is exactly the kind of information that could be provided in advance via email, a twitter feed, etc. They do have the emails of a good percentage of people purchasing tickets and a simple database lookup would give them the emails of a lot of people who had purchased tickets. It would be nice if they had spent one iota of effort to save me some time and money.

For the last couple festivals, I’ve encountered inconsiderately handled issues such as this at two or more screenings. Last year, I was at a screening during which the audio kept breaking up every couple minutes for 10-20 seconds at time, during which you couldn’t hear the dialogue. I fought for and got a refund, as none was pro-actively offered. I later spoke to someone who went to a later screening of the same film and reported the same issue and lack of consideration.

I don’t know where they got the video, but I’ve already found superior copies of it available online. As everyone but those involved in the industry seem to have grasped, the real reason illegal downloads are flourishing isn’t the free vs cost issue, it is that piracy offers a superior experience than what can be had legally. I am earnestly considering just scrapping SIFF next year and spending more quality time with Netflix streaming, Hulu, the several independent film channels I have on my dish, etc. This little infographic from Making Light sums up the issue quite nicely:

Posted in Media, Movies | No Comments »

SIFF Schedule 2010

Posted by Deliverator on May 9th, 2010

Here is my schedule for SIFF 2010. If you would like to join me for a movie, let me know. I have spares available for some films.

Posted in Media, Movies | No Comments »

Maybe the MPAA will try harder next time it is going to release a $2 billion film?

Posted by Deliverator on April 9th, 2010

Hollywood fails yet again…

The futility of even the most byzantine copy protection schemes has been proven once again. For several days now, copies of the movie Avatar derived from a retail (region 2) DVD source have been circulating online. DVD copy protection has long been broken, but Blueray has been slightly (and only slightly) more resistant. Now, it appears that Slysoft, maker of the AnyDVD software blueray video player have updated their software to decode the latest Blueray encryption scheme, which appears to only be in use on a single title – Avatar. It is likely that the same source that leaked the retail DVD also has copies of the Blueray version of the film and it is likely that Blueray rips of Avatar will start appearing online as soon as this evening.

I’ve seen this pattern time and time again. Retail DVD/Blueray derived copies of movies will start showing up online sometimes as much as 2-4 weeks in advance of official store release dates. This is an aweful failure on the part of the entertainment industry. The copy protection schemes have proven a minimal deterent, so the next best thing they could do IMO is to ensure just-in-time delivery and manufacturing of physical media and to better track physical media through manufacturing and distribution channels. The entertainment industry really needs to take a page from Amazon, Dell, etc. and learn how to do just in time manufacturing and delivery and look to the example set by NGO’s and various relief organizations on end to end tracking systems that help prevent physical theft/graft issues by pinpointing dishonest individuals in the chain of responsibility.

To have a major title like Avatar show up more than two weeks in advance of store release is pure negligence.

Posted in Media, Movies | No Comments »

Belated thoughts on the Nokia N900

Posted by Deliverator on April 9th, 2010

I’ve been using a Nokia N900 as my cell for about 4 months now. I usually write about new gadgets in my collection much sooner than this, but with the N900 I wanted to take some more time for emotion to dampen down and to see how the platform matures before giving my take. Here are some thoughts:

Hardware

-The n900 is a big beautiful brick of a device. It feels very solid and well engineered cradled in your hands. I don’t worry much about accidental damage when I purchase a Nokia device, which is a big consideration for me, as I am a bit of a clutz.

-The screen is bright, beautiful, and daylight viewable. The resolution on the Iphone and similar smartphones is a joke compared to the screen on the n900. I wish Nokia had stayed somewhere in the 4.1 inch range or even gone a little larger, rather than shrinking the screen to 3.5″, which is a bit squint inducing to my eyes these days. The screen surface is a bit softer than those of the previous Nokia tablets, enough that I felt the need to purchase a screen protector. The screen also gathers fingerprints to such an extent that I was whipping it off multiple times a day with a microfiber cloth.

-The resistive digitizer is ultra-precise and has never needed any sort of calibrations. I’ve never had a problem with a touchscreen on a Nokia device. I’ve never found multi-touch to be much more than a gimmick in terms of usability and don’t like the other trade-offs from using a capacitive touchscreen. I really prefer using a stylus, or the edge of a fingernail in most situations due to better precision and not adding fingerprints to the screen.

-I don’t like the positioning of the slide-to-unlock switch or stylus silo. The n900 is really designed to be a two handed, horizontal orientation device and the positioning of these two components is less than optimal. Having the stylus in the lower right also forces you to pickup the phone to draw the stylus when you have it propped on its stand on a desk.

-The headphone and charging ports are located on opposite ends of the device, which makes the N900 awkward to use in a lot of circumstances while charging.

-The charging port is a Micro-USB port, rather than the standard round Nokia connector found on pretty much every other Nokia phone and all previous Nokia Internet Tablets. This forces people to buy new accessories, which is a small but non negligible issue. The bigger problem is that Nokia chose to use a surface mount micro-usb connector with no mechanical stabilization other than a few solder pads and wishful thinking, rather than a proper through hole connector. A large number of users have managed to pull this connector right out when detaching the charging cable, or place enough strain on the connector to stress the solder joints, resulting in intermittent or total loss of charging ability. Nokia’s response to user with this issue has been less than forthright or consistent. This is a design and manufacturing error, period, and is not a result of improper treatment by users. Users who experience this issue either in or out of warranty should receive a priority replacement of their device and not be forced to wait 6-8 weeks. I am absolutely dreading that this will happen to my N900 at some point. I am being extremely careful when attaching and detaching my charger and have taken the additional step of filing down two overly large metal nubs on the tip of the Nokia supplied charger, which are designed to prevent the charger from slipping out accidentally, which exacerbates the issue by requiring much greater force to be used to detach the charging cable. Most other Micro-USB cables I have also have these two nubs, but they are much less prominent than on the Nokia official charger. Just to be safe, I filed the nubs on all my cables down to almost nothing.

-The kickstand integrated into the N900’s battery cover plate is a bad joke, especially when compared to the excellent, full device width, adjustable stands built into the N800 and N810. The N900’s stand only has one viewing angle, and it is one which is suboptimal in almost any use case for the device. It is located so far to the extreme left of the device that virtually any pressure on the screen causes he device to wobble or fall over. This is a major step back in design for Nokia. It would have been better to leave it out entirely, rather than leave it there for everyone to comment on in virtually every review I’ve seen. A laser cut stand designed by a member of the Internet Tablet Talk community has proven to be a hot seller.

-The bezel around the otherwise excellent 5mp camera is chrome and allows light to reflect into the camera, especially when using the flash. This causes many pictures to have a nasty haze to them. There is also a piece of blue plastic that is too close causing many pictures to have a bluish tinge. This issue can largely be fixed with a sharpie marker, but I am surprised it slipped through QA. A cell phone accessory manufacturer could make a lot of money selling replacement backs for the N900 which fixes this issue and includes a better stand.

-The battery life is pretty abysmal. I find myself hard pressed to get through a full day without throwing the N900 back on the charger for an hour. For the first time in my life, I’ve purchased a car charger for a phone. I also bought a portable external battery from iGO for those times when I just know I won’t be able to plug in during the day. The included battery should really have been about 50% higher capacity, even at the cost of additional size/thickness to the device. Mugin, a 3rd party battery manufacturer, appears to be making an extended capacity battery along with a replacement backplate, but the backplate appears to be extremely basic and doesn’t appear to have a stand.

-In general, I LOVE the guts of the N900. The processor is an extremely zippy OMAP which provides enough ooomph for substantive applications to actually feel fluid. 256 MB of ram and a large pagefile make for useful multitasking. I often times have 6+ applications running simultaneously on my N900. 32 GB of flash gives plenty of space for my media files, and there is also a Micro-SD card slot for expansion. The n900 has a 3d accelerator powerful enough to play Quake 3. There is both an FM radio receiver and transmitter. The GPS unit is much better than on any previous Nokia device Ive used and gets a lock quickly and maintains a lock in more challenging locations than the one in the N810 or N95. It isn’t as good or as accurate as the MTK chipset Bluetooth GPS I got to use with my N800 and N810, but it is good enough that I haven’t felt compelled to carry the Bluetooth GPS, either. The N900 also has TV-out, Wifi, Bluetooth, etc….

Software

-The N900 UI is quite fluid and easy to navigate. I like the concept of multiple virtual desktops on which you can organize your various widgets, application shortcuts, etc. I generally keep my most often accessed program shortcuts on one screen, keep all my phone and communications related widgets and shortcuts on another and keep a screen-full of iconized website bookmarks on a third.

-I LOVE the multitasking experience on the N900. I often times have a half dozen or more applications running on the N900 simultaneously and rarely experience anything like a slowdown. This undoubtedly is part of the reason for my dreadful battery life, but I ultimately have the choice of how I want to use my device.

-The Nokia Internet Tablets have always offered what I consider the best pocket-able Internet experience out there and the N900 is no exception. The browser is as close to a desktop level browsing experience as I have found in a device this size. Broadly speaking, all those rich Web 2.0 sites just work. The n900 is also one of the few phones with real Adobe Flash support. Go ahead, use Youtube. For all you social networking types, the multitasking abilities of the N900 let you stay constantly connected to Twitter, Facebook, IM, RSS feeds, etc. all the time without needing to manually switch back and forth between apps as with some of the single tasking or pseudo multi-tasking alternatives out there. The N900 is also the first cell phone to receive a officially sanctioned/produced mobile version of the Firefox browser, complete with plugin support (Weave Sync, Adblock Plus, etc.).

-The Maemo 5 OS powering the n900 offers very close to the full Linux desktop stack of libraries and frameworks, making it very easy for Linux developers to write and port existing apps to the platform. Additionally, because ARM is already a target platform for Debian (the flavor of Linux from which Maemo shares its roots), a lot of existing Debian tools and apps work essentially out of the box. There is a project called Easy-Debian to make installing a full Debian environment alongside Maemo even easier.

-I really like the combined approach of having a commercial app store (Ovi Store) alongside the traditional Linux application repository approach. Nokia has also developed a multiple repository approach by which users can choose from application sources based on how much testing they have gone through. There is no need to “jailbreak” an N900. You can install and run anything you like. On the flip side, as a developer, you can write anything you like and not have to worry about having your application being rejected by the boys in Cupertino for some unclear, unstated reason. Maemo is quite simply by FAR the most open phone platform for phones as of this post.

-The commercial application market for the N900 is still quite new, but community developed applications have filled most of my mobile app needs at this point. Here are a list of just a few of the apps I routinely use on my N900:

Firefox – Firefox on the N900 is still a bit slower browsing option than the default Microb browser, but on the other hand it supports tabbed browsing and a decent subset of the full desktop version of Firefox’s plugins. I love using the Weave plugin to sync my bookmarks, passwords, etc between my desktop and N900. I also highly enjoy not having to look at ads on a mobile device thanks to Adblock+…

VNC, SSH & Remote Desktop – I frequently use these to check in on servers I administer while out and about. This can be a real lifesaver when you need to fight a fire at an awkward moment.

Pidgin – I use this for my mobile IM needs, although there are now plugins for the built in conversations application that probably make this unnecessary.

Witter – This is an excellent twitter application that is actually better than most desktop twitter clients I have used.

Gpodder – Nice podcasting client

Xchat – Cause all the people / Turing AI’s worth talking to still hang out on IRC.

FM radio app – Lets you use the built in FM radio tuner.

Canola – This was probably the best overall media player for previous Maemo devices. It works on the N900 as well, but there are some significant bugs/gotchas that the authors have been slow to fix.

Maemo Mapper – This is an excellent mapping/gps application that can use a variety of map sources. Was one of the killer apps on the previous Maemo devices. The n900 version was a bit slow out the door, but seems to be in rapid development now.

FBReader – Excellent ebook reading software which supports a wide variety of file formats and is highly configurable

Wizard Mounter – Lets me mount windows file shares on the N900. I transfer most of my media wirelessly this way.

Battery-eye – Lets you see a detailed view of battery status / discharges rates and helps you figure out if a particular application is draining battery at a abnormal/unacceptable rate perhaps due to a bug.

DialCentral – DialCentral is a client for managing and making phonecalls through Google Voice.

Skype and Sip VOIP support – I can’t think of another phone that gives you as  many options for making low cost VOIP calls out of the box and in such a highly integrated way. Making a VOIP call is just as easy as any other phone call on the N900.

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