new cool stuff from Griffin from Mac World

I noticed some neat stuff on the Griffin website today
The Lapel Mic looks like a nice cheap tool for Podcasters to improve their audio quality.

Here are a couple of tools that look like there were made to turn the Mac Mini into a real Media Center:
The Firewave firewire surround sound output for macs is just what you need to turn add surround out from the Mini. There aren’t any dimensions on their site, but it kind of looks like it would fit perfectly on top of the mini. Combine that with the AirClick wireless remote and you can now control your Mini from the couch.

The SmartDeck looks like a great solution for those of us who don’t want to spend tons upgrading our Car Stereos to get better integration with our iPods.

The Real Christmas for Mac Heads

Apple announced a slew of new stuff at MacWorld today

Since I’ve become a mac head once again, I look forward to MacWorld like the first day of Chanukah. When people ask me about buying an Apple product in the closing months of a year, I always tell them to wait until after January, because it is almost guaranteed that the landscape will change after Steve Job’s keynote. Today was no exception. Here is my take on the new Apple stuff and the stuff I was hoping was going to be announced that wasn’t.

For the first time, most of these announcements were leaked. In the past, Apple did an awesome job at holding back the leaks so as not to steal the thunder from Steve. Apple themselves tipped their hand and gave credibility to the leaks by suing the websites that had them. This was a big mistake since beyond giving the leaks credibility, it always pissed off a lot of very loyal mac users.

First off, the new stuff:
As many expected, Apple did release a new flash-based iPod, the iPod Shuffle. It doesn’t have a screen. In the interest of interface simplicity, it just plays its entire contents on shuffle or non-shuffle play. That is pure chuzpah on the part of Apple, and a feat of marketing genius in making its possible defect as its main feature! iPod proved that features didn’t always win the race, user interface alone could make a product super-successful. The Shuffle will put this to the test. Apple is entering a very crowded market and competing on brand and simplicity alone. The thing that I don’t understand is the size; on the website, it sits next to a pack of trident and looks pretty small, but around the necks of the models on their site, it looks feaking huge! Much bigger than many of the competing flash-based MP3 players with a lot more features. From a gambling perspective, the Shuffle was the biggest gamble Apple took today and it will be really interesting to see how it plays out.

As widely reported on various mac user sites, Apple introduced a sub $500 machine called the Mac Mini. It was widely thought that this machine might be Apple’s attempt to invade the den as a media center and it is kind of close, I can definitely see people using it that way. The one big omission was an IR port on the front of the device for a remote control. It is possible that bluetooth will make it not necessary, but only if someone introduces a bluetooth remote soon. Also, there isn’t anything on the page saying that the machine is quiet and the exhaust port on the back implies that it has got some fans in it. If it is loud it won’t be showing up in too many media cabinets just yet. Also, missing was a TV tuner, but a lot of 3rd party options are already available for that. The machine itself is pretty beefy for the price, but I would have liked to see more RAM standard. I don’t know anyone with only 256 MB of RAM in their machines anymore. It is possible that it was the only way to be the $500 mark. Also keeping it as a non Media Center right out of the box is the omission of multi-channel and optical audio out. I think that Apple really meant this as a cheap add-on machine for those who were afraid to abandon their PCs or as an extra machine for those with older Macs. I think a lot of people (myself included) will be looking at this as a possible media machine, but you’ll need to spend another few hundred bucks for a TV tuner and better audio to make that happen. I just priced out a top end system with the 1.42 GHz processor, a Gig of RAM, a superdrive and bluetooth and Airport extreme and it comes in at $1253. That is probably more than most people need, but it is still relatively cheap.

As also widely leaked, Apple announced a new productivity suite named “iWork“. This includes a new version of their presentation app, Keynote and a new word processor called “Pages.” While this isn’t the Office killer a lot of people expected, it definitely will be an answer to the many people who just need a word processor and not the entire office suite.

Now we’re out of the leaked stuff. There were a couple another announcements that definitely got me excited. I hadn’t really thought about that fact that iLife ’04 is now a year old, but it is a new year and Apple has created another major release of the iLife suite, iLife ’05. Since there are several new versions of products in the new iLife, I’ll mention each briefly. iPhoto 5 looks like it is aimed straight at Photoshop Elements with new organizing, sharing and editing options. iMovie HD‘s main new feature is (you guessed it), HD support. This is pretty cool for a low end app. Also it is supporting some of the new flash based MPEG-4 video cameras and it some magic movie feature that will make a movie for you. iDVD 5 adds some very cool new features, HD DVD support, Editable map view, moving drop zones (with editor!) and finally disc image archiving. As a frequent iDVD user, this makes me very happy, but I’d still really like multiple audio streams or 5.1 support and multiple angle support. I guess that is a lot to ask of a low-end DVD tool though. Garage Band 2 further blurs the line between itself and Logic Express by adding multi-track recording and music notation viewing and editing. They have raised the price to $79, but that is still a steal given the depth of the tools that they are selling.

It has been a while since Final Cut Express 2 came out and I’ve been expecting an update. Well, here is Final Cut Express HD, which adds HD support to Final Cut Express. While that is pretty cool, even cooler is that they are now bundling LiveType and Soundtrack with it which used to only be available with Final Cut Pro. The inclusion of these tools makes upgrading a no-brainer.

Now, here is the stuff I was hoping for, but didn’t hear…
A G5 Powerbook! An Apple/Motorola Cell phone! DVD Studio Express!

Overall, I’m pretty excited. I’ll definitely be upgrading my copies of iLife and Final Cut Express and I’ll be working through plans in my head to turn the Mac Mini into a real media machine for my den, even if I can’t really afford it right now.

So thanks Steve and the Apple Gang and Merry MacWorld to everyone!

How to make your podcast sound better

A couple of links for podcasters to look at to help make their podcasts sound better

Part of the lure of podcasts for many people is the immediacy and intimacy that they have. It sounds like you are in someone’s head. However, there is a reason also why most people still listen to the radio, it just sounds better. Dare I say it sounds more “professional”. There are a couple of podcasts that podcasters should check out to make their podcasts sound better.

One was Adam Curry’s Daily Source Code from December 27th, 2004. In this podcast (and the pictures on the site), Adam talks about his setup. Especially which audio plug-ins that he uses. I’ve mentioned something like this in an earlier blog post. Now, he is a professional broadcaster, so he know how to work a microphone, but even he uses a compressor (his mda dynamics plug-in). You probably don’t need a signal path nearly as complicated, but it is worth doing something to make it sound better.

Another podcast was from the NPR show “On The Media.” In their December 31, 2004 show there was a segment by John Solomon about how NPR edits its broadcasts. This is definitely good listening for a podcaster. We really don’t need to hear your coughs, people.

This may make me reconsider buying another PC desktop

I thought I’d bought my last PC desktop, but Shuttle just announced a new killer Small Form Factor Machine

Got this from Engadget, Shuttle has announced a new machine which looks like it has some pretty awesome performance in a very small package.

shuttle case

It can support Pentium 4 chips, it has a GHz front-side bus, it has 8 channel audio built in, supports RAID 0/1. It’s made for digital media creation, but in a package small enough that you can bring it to the studio with you if you are camping out there for a week.

I don’t know if I’ll really get it, I’m hoping for a G5 laptop announcement at Macworld, but it definitely makes me think about PCs again.

Is Microsoft trying to rewrite history?

Bill Gates’ CES Keynote webcast has been following a very interesting path…
I didn’t go to CES, but I wanted to see Bill Gates’ keynote. Microsoft was nice enough to host a webcast on their site. Before the event, they even had it set up to put a reminder in your outlook calendar. The time came, I went to the page and nothing. I refreshed over and over waiting for the link to appear and finally gave up 15 minutes after he started. I figured that they would post it later anyway. Looks like I missed some good fun with blue screens of death. Yesterday, I went back to the site hoping to watch it then and was promised that it would be appearing later in the day. Around 7:30 pm, it was promised to be posted shortly, but still nothing. Well today they are now promising to post “highlights.” I wonder which segments will have been edited out :)? It is definitely a lame move by Microsoft. Everyone knows that there were problems, why not cop to it and show how well Bill re-acted under pressure? I guess we’ll never know and I now I’m going to have to track down someone else’s pirate video or something.

Philips GoGear Camcorder Review

I got this device which I mentioned previously on this blog for Chanukah, here is my review

My wife got the many, many hints I dropped about the Philips GoGear Key019 Camcorder and got my one for Chanukah. She rules. Here is my review.

the camcorderThis is a pretty cool device as long as you know exactly why you are getting it. This is not a digital camera replacement, nor is it a video camera replacement. If you have a video or camera equipped cell phone, you may not need it. This is a perfect tweener device. Extremely small and portable it is made to be carried around and take those shapshots or quickie videos (WITH SOUND!) that you always mean to take but never have your camera or video camera around for. It makes it perfect for me (see earlier post). It’s small, it feels well made and solid. It is simple to use.

CAMERA MODE

Here are some sample snapshots I took under various conditions. These are all sampled down to fit decently. The camera claims to take 2 mega-pixel images, I think that it is probably more like 1 mega-pixel interpolated, but I’m not sure. I took some shots on a cloudy day and on a sunny day.

Cloudy day pictures:

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Sunny Day pictures:

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Here was a picture I tried to take in a mirror of the camera this was a moderately lit room, but you can see that the camera doesn’t have a macro setting

pict0017.jpgHere is my wife by lamp light (60 watt)

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As you can see, you need some pretty bright light to take a decent photo. This isn’t too unexpected given that the lens is TINY. The camera works well in well lit situations: sunny days, well-lit rooms, etc… In lower light it gets pretty hard to take a sharp photo of any object. I don’t expect a flash in this form factor and I don’t expect these low light situations to work that great either so that isn’t a major negative in my book.

LITTLE ASIDE

I do have a few specific complaints. One is that the unit doesn’t come with a carrying case. Given that the lens is exposed this is a serious flaw. You don’t want to carry this in your pocket with your keys unless you’ve got something covering the lens. My second complaint is that while it has a microphone and can record audio, there is no audio-only record mode. Given that this is also an MP3 player, that doesn’t make any sense to me. If there is a second generation of this device I would expect that to be rectified.

Now that my complaints are out of the way, there are some things I really like about it. It is small, not as small I thought it would be, but very small, easily carried with you wherever you go. It has a lithium ion battery so that you don’t have to worry about fully discharging it. Additionally, it comes with an extra external battery pack that uses AA batteries, so that if you run out of battery but have some extra memory to use, you can pick up some AAs and keep going before you head back to your computer. The interface is simple and surprisingly featured given its diminutive form factor. There are two modes, recording and playing. When the remote is plugged into the jack, you are in playback mode. Here you can listen to your MP3s and view recorded pictures and videos in its tiny video screen. You can delete individual shots or videos to free up memory if you don’t like them. Without the remote you are in record mode. In record mode if you switch to the MP3 switch you turn the device off, but the other switches are for letting you take a photo or video. Another plus is that while the Camera doesn’t acknowledge OSX as an operating system, I plugged it into my mac and iPhoto recognized the device and grabbed the photos no problem. It’s on the side of my laptop charging as I type. The videos are encoded as Windows-only MPEG4 (Windows Media ASF format) which is a bit of bummer rather than using quicktime which would make the device completely OSX compatible.

MP3 MODE

this keyring line that philips make are mostly MP3 players so it isn’t too surprising that this version has an MP3 player too, but I think it isn’t really that useful given that there is only 128 MB to share between your video, photos and MP3s. I’ve already got two MP3 players so I’m not gonna use this for that. Sorry…

VIDEO MODE

The device writes out its files as MPEG-4 ASF windows files which means that if you want to do anything with your files except play them in Windows Media player, you’ll need to download some shareware converters.

Below is a short clip of two shots I recorded of the same bridge, one on a cloudy day and one on a sunny day. They are short because I decided to have them at the highest resolution I could which meant a big file which meant that I had to keep it short. These were converted from ASF to AVI with a shareware tool and then edited in Premiere Pro 1.5 and exported to a Quicktime MOV with the lowest compression I felt ok with. It won’t give you the exact idea of the quality, but it is pretty close. The titles were obviously added later.

The camcorder works pretty well and I’m actually happy with the video quality given the enormous compression going on. The audio quality isn’t so hot, but the microphone is a tiny dot on the front on the device and I’m sure that they sacrificed the audio quality to get the file sizes down.

CONCLUSIONS

At this price point and feature set this is a device that is not long for this world. From above, high quality digital cameras are getting cheaper and smaller and most of them take some kind of movies now too. From below, cell phones are increasingly incorporating cameras and video recording and they’ve had MP3 playback for a while. But, if you want a tiny device that you can always carry with you to document this weirdness of the world and you don’t want to wait for the technology curve to hit your ideal device this is a pretty awesome little thingy. There are some good user reviews on Amazon now.

Whatever happened to SGI

Wirednews has a nice article on the decline and once worship of SGI

I just saw this article on SGI on wirednews.com. SGI was my first job after college and so I’ll always have a bit of a soft spot for them. At the time working at SGI was like being a rock star. It was the early days of computer graphics really becoming a big deal in movies and SGI’s marketing was so good that most people thought that we had done Jurassic Park or Terminator 2.

My dream gadget

Mini-summary of small multi-function video/photo cameras

I’m a documenter. Or rather, I’d like to be. I’m always seeing (or hearing) something and wishing I had my camera or mini-disc recorder with me. I’ve got a digital camera, a mini-DV camera, and a mini-disc recorder and microphone. So, I’m set, sort of. Except that they are too big to carry around. I want something I can slip into a pocket, the size of a cell phone or smaller. Luckily, technology has come to the rescue, although not completely. I’m waiting still for something with good quality, small size and not crazy expensive (because I know it will get outdated quickly). So still I wait. The outlook is getting better though. Here’s the current crop of portable devices I’m eyeing:

The Philips GoGear Digital Camcorder – This looks good, good enough that I actually visited a few stores this weekend to see if I could find one and see it up close. Unfortunately, the only place to actually buy one is on-line, which I’m not too happy about. I’d like to see it before I plunk down cash for it. I’m also a little suspicious because there aren’t any clips of captured video from it on the web. I know that it is QVGA MPEG-4 and I might be willing to accept that, but I’d like to see what the quality of the video actually is. Other cons are the fact that it is PC-only and my main machines are all macs. Also, it says that it records audio with the video, but I have no idea what the quality is. I’m willing to deal with no mic-in and having to record audio with video when I only want audio, but the audio better not suck. With this, I have no idea. Also, you can’t expand its memory through an SD slot. A big pro is that you can use AAs to extend its battery life (No more proprietary non-replacable batteries ever!)

The Fisher FVD-C1 – Feature-wise this looks pretty awesome. It addresses some of the things I don’t like about the Philips, it has an audio-only mode, for example. It uses Li-ion batteries, but you can buy extras and switch them if you run out. The cons: I can’t get any real specs off their website. They claim DVD quality video and CD quality audio, but then again so does everyone. I want sampling and data rates please. Also, I actually got to check one out at the Apple store and the form factor didn’t blow me away. Also, it is crazy expensive.

The Panasonic D-Snap Line – Panasonic has got a bunch of different cameras at different price points. There must be something wrong with their specs pages though, because their top of the line video camera, the AV-100 doesn’t seem to have a Microphone or a way of adding audio to its MPEG 2 video which seems moronic in a $1000 video camera, especially since their $400 models have them. I need to track these down in person and check out their boxes to make sure. Their AV-50 models make more sense, but tempted with MPEG2 in the AV-100, I don’t know if I want to settle for MPEG4 in a larger form-factor even if it does cost less than half.

Samsung just announced their Miniket, which might be the one for me if I could get some real specs or street price estimates on them. Right now they just have a tantalizing flash demo. I’m going to keep a watch on them for more info though.

Aiptek is the king of the inexpensive SD photo/video recorders. Unfortunately, I had one of their earlier models and had to replace it twice in two months because it kept falling apart. I gave up after the third time. I’m never buying from them again.

Mustek has the DV5500, which is too big and just doesn’t blow me away. After my Aiptek, I’m a little scared of anything in a plastic shell.

I was on a plane to LA with a well-known animator (name drop omitted) who swore by his Archos. It is true that with attachments, the Archos AV300 does almost everything I want, plus it is a decent media player too. The cons: it isn’t meant to do what I want to do, so with the attachments I’ll be spending a big chunk of change. With the attachments, I’m still only taking QVGA video. Also, it is big, bigger than I want.

Believe me, I’m watching this market, so when I see something new I’ll post it to the blog and if I can get more details, I’ll post ’em.

Here is my wish-list (in order):

  1. Fits in a pocket (a real pocket)
  2. Full NTSC video (720×480) at 30 fps with GOOD compression
  3. Real CD Quality audio (44 MHz, 16 bit STEREO)
  4. Mic input
  5. Replaceable storage media (anything but Memory stick)
  6. Replaceable Battery or Add on adapter that takes a STANDARD battery set (AA, AAA, etc)
  7. 2 Mega-pixel still camera
  8. Flash
  9. Viewer/screen (small is ok)
  10. Under $500

Sure, I’m probably not gonna get it for Chanukah this year, but I bet it might be available for next year.

Hey podcasters!

a few tips for the podcasters of the world

I’ve been checking out a bunch of podcasts and am enjoying many, there are a few things that are driving me insane however. I realize that podcasts are an excellent DIY technology enabling the rest of us to add our voices to the mix. Yet nothing annoys me more than having to ride the volume knob while listening. There a couple simple tricks that the amateurs can learn from the pros.

1) EDITING: Edit out your coughs, wheezes, long pauses, etc… There are a million freeware audio editors in the world, pick one and spend a couple minutes fixing this kind of stuff. It will make me, your audience, A LOT happier.

2) COMPRESSION: You talk quiet, you talk loud. I strain to hear and then I pull the headphones off my head in pain. Your freeware editor has compression, I’m sure. If not, there are excellent free VST, DirectX or Audio Unit plug-ins for you to use. Spend the 5 minutes it takes to learn about compression and then USE IT. It will help you get a consistent level for your content, it will help you avoid compression artifacts, it will make the compression more efficient and I won’t hate you for hurting my ears.

Posted: Wed – November 3, 2004 at 01:27 PM