Reviews gets more expensive

Ever since I learned about WordPress, I thought it was the coolest blogging platform, and the more I found out about the network, the more I liked the options they offered their users. To this day, I regret not having started to publish directly on instead of doing it on my own with a self-install of WordPress, but each path has its pros and cons. Incidentally, I discussed them (the pros and cons) at length with WordPress staff recently, and may put together a guide to switching from to and vice-versa, at some point.

One of the things I really liked about was the 5GB space upgrade, which, among other things allowed me to upload videos that would be transcoded and played directly inside the blog. For $20/year, it was a great deal. I never got to use it on my own blogs, which were and still are self-hosted, but I recommended it to clients and friends. I liked it because the video player was and still is integrated into the blogging platform. This saves the user the hassle of uploading it to a different video sharing site, then putting the right embed code into the blog post.

Now, sadly, that option is gone. I received an email from WordPress today which announced the arrival of a formal video upgrade option, called VideoPress, at a cost of $60/year. Like other video upgrades on the market (such as Vimeo’s own Plus program), VideoPress allows the upload and streaming of SD and HD video. The price is also the same.


I can understand this change though. According to WordPress, allowing people to upload videos under the regular 5GB space upgrade was a testing ground which allowed them to figure out what they needed to charge long-term. After all, HD video eats up a lot of space and requires a lot of processing power to compress, not to mention the bandwidth needed to stream it. Here’s what Matt Mullenweg, WP’s founder, says in a response to a question about the price tag:

“We try to run every part of our business in a way that’s sustainable and supportable for the long-term. By charging a fair amount for a superior service we can continue to invest in expanding the feature to be a great option for high-end video, just like WordPress is a fantastic option for high-end blogging. (And you wouldn’t believe how expensive it is to host and stream video, which is part of the reason we’ve waited to launch this until now, we’ve been working at getting the costs down.” [source]

Now when you realize that both WordPress and Vimeo charge $60/year for HD video uploads, think about YouTube, and the astronomical expenses it has to eat up every year because it doesn’t charge its users anything to upload gobs and gobs of video.

I looked at the specs for the video sizes of the new WordPress Video Player, and there are three of them: 400px (SD), 640px (DVD) and 1280px (HD). That’s plenty for live streaming. I do wish there was an option that would let the video authors allow downloads of the original video files, like Vimeo does it.

The upper limit on a single video file is 1GB, although it’s not hard-capped like at Vimeo. WordPress will let you upload 1.5-2GB files, although they say results may vary and uploads may die out if your connection is slow.

One thing I’m not clear on is the space allowed for the uploaded videos. Is there a weekly cap, like Vimeo’s 5GB/week limit, or can we upload as many videos as we want? And if so, what’s the total space limit allotted to us when we purchase the upgrade? Is there a special cap, separate from the standard space of 3 GB per blog? Or does each video count against the total space allotted to the blog? Because if that’s the case, that would mean VideoPress is going to be more expensive than Vimeo Plus, since users will need to purchase space upgrades for their videos in addition to VideoPress.

For example, a user would shell out $60 for VideoPress, then soon find out they’ve filled up their 3GB quota, and need to purchase a space upgrade. It’s not hard to imagine one would need about 15GB or more per year with HD video, and that would mean an additional $50 on top of the initial $60, bringing the price tag to $110. This point definitely needs clarification, because it just wouldn’t be fun to get taxed twice for it.

I do like the nice gesture on WordPress’ part, where they gave existing users of the space upgrade and the video player a free VideoPress upgrade for a year. Had they not done that, the transition would have been too jarring for them, so kudos to WordPress for putting money aside and thinking about the user experience.

How To

The fastest way to back up with Time Machine

I wrote about backing up your Mac and PC in January of 2008, and I said Time Machine was a great way to back up your Mac. A year later, I still think so, though I have some reservations.

There are three ways to back up your Mac with Time Machine. There used to be only two, but thanks to Drobo Apps, we now have three. I’ll list them in descending order, sorted by backup speed. Here they are:

To External Hard Drive (USB, Firewire, eSATA)

This one’s easy, and it’s the fastest way. You get a dedicated external hard drive, you connect it to your Mac, and you let Time Machine do its thing. You can leave it connected all the time, or you can disconnect the hard drive and only back up when you want to. Time Machine won’t complain unless you haven’t backed up for a few days.

This is the backup strategy I’ve come to use, and believe me, it’s the one that gives me the least amount of headaches. I have a 500GB LaCie Mini hard drive that connects over USB. I plug it into my laptop, and within minutes, my backup is done.

Keep in mind that I’m a photographer, and I also shoot short videos every once in a while, so it’s pretty much a given that I’m backing up gigabytes of data every time. When the backup’s done, I eject the drive and put it away. This way I’m not bothered by hourly backups, which I don’t need.

To External Hard Drive via Time Tamer

Time Tamer

Go download Time Tamer, a very handy little app created by the folks that make the Drobo, and you can create an image file on your Drobo that is limited to twice the size of your Mac’s hard drive. This is useful because there is no other way to control the size of the Time Machine backup sets. There’s is no way to set a quota via its System Preferences panel, and so it’ll keep balooning until it fills the backup drive. Obviously, when you have a Drobo or another larger drive, that’s a problem.

I for one don’t want to fill up my Drobo with Time Machine backups — I have other more important uses for it. I did, however, want to limit the amount of external drives that sat on my desk, and thought I could eliminate one of them by using Time Tamer with my Firewire Drobo. Did that for a few months, but I can tell you it’s not optimal, at least not for me. It boils down to the amount of data one has to back up, really.

As it turns out, the throughput when writing to the image file just isn’t fast enough when you work with several hundred megabytes or more. Even though writing to the Drobo is usually a fairly fast operation, somehow writing inside the image file isn’t. From my own experience, it would sometimes take a whole hour to do an hourly backup, which meant that as soon as one backup finished, another would start.

To make things more annoying, the throughput to the Drobo itself, and my Mac’s general peppiness, were also affected negatively during backups. Everything churned at a slower pace. Getting at my photos or other files stored on the Drobo was a pain. If I happened to be playing a movie and a backup started, playback would stutter or stop for a few seconds. It just wasn’t a feasible way for me to work, so I stopped doing this and returned to doing my backups directly to a dedicated external hard drive.

To wireless or networked hard drive (such as Time Capsule)

This will usually be the slowest way to back up your Mac via Time Machine. Think about it: you’re going to be pushing your bits via WiFi, and even though your hardware may be “n” specs instead of “b” or “g”, you’re still not going to get above 50 Mbps at best. Realistically, you’re looking at speeds somewhere between 15-45 Mbps, which is less than Fast Ethernet (100 Mbps) and nowhere near Gigabit Ethernet (1000 Mbps).

For comparison purposes, I have observed transfer speeds which approached USB 2.0 speeds when using a direct, wired, Gigabit Ethernet connection between two Macs (MacBook Pro and iMac G5). If you have a wired Gigabit network at home, this might be the only way to actually get decent backup speeds with Time Machine without needing to use USB or Firewire hard drives. But if you’re using WiFi, your transfer speeds are going to be anywhere between 15-20 times slower than Gigabit speeds, which means you’ll be sitting there a long time waiting for your backups to finish, should your backup set be anything over 100-200 MB.

When Time Capsule came out, I was tempted to buy it, just like I bought the Apple TV, only to regret that later. I’m glad I didn’t end up spending my money on Time Capsule, because it just isn’t suitable for me, or for anyone with larger backup sets. It certainly looks good, but that’s about all it does and all it’ll do until WiFi speeds approach Gigabit speeds.

Takeaway message

When one of my friends shared an article from Louis Gray via Google Reader, where he complains about how slow it is to back up to Time Capsule, was I surprised? Given all I’ve written above, do you see why I wasn’t?

Do the smart thing: if you’re using Time Machine, get a little portable drive like I did and run your backups that way. They’ll be fast, and you’ll be the one deciding when to back up, not Time Machine. I don’t know when Apple will decide to give us more configuration options for Time Machine, but until they do, those who care about their time should back up directly to an external drive.


Netflix Watch Instantly comes to the Mac

On October 27 (last month), Netflix started testing a new way to stream movies for its Watch Instantly feature. They began using Microsoft’s Silverlight player, which is platform-independent and can still handle the DRM that movie studios love so much. This meant that Mac users were no longer left out of the picture, and could finally watch Netflix streaming movies on their machines.

On October 31, they finished their first round of testing and allowed all Netflix customers to opt into the new feature. They cautioned users that there might still be some bugs and lower-than-expected quality on some movies. I started using the new feature immediately, and after having watched a few movies, here are my impressions:

  • Streaming quality is indeed a bit lower than expected on some movies, and during some scenes. Not sure why, but it’s not prevalent, and will likely be addressed soon.
  • PowerPC Macs are left out of the picture, not due to Netflix, but Microsoft, who have not released a version of Silverlight for PowerPC Macs — I doubt they will, unfortunately. This means our iMac G5, which now works great (after repeated trips to the Apple Store for repairs), will never be able to stream Netflix movies. I think that’s pretty sad.
  • Silverlight doesn’t come with any preference pane for Macs where its various options can be adjusted. This means that unless certain of its built-in options are adjusted “from the factory”, so to speak, your Mac’s screen will go dim and your screensaver will come on while you’re watching a movie on full screen. Your Mac might even go to sleep. Every time the screensaver comes on, Silverlight exits full screen mode. This gets old pretty quickly, as you can imagine, and it’s not ideal by any measurement.
  • Movies cache and play much quicker than before.
  • Netflix will remember where I stopped watching a movie, and will bring me back to that exact point when I log on again and hit play on a title. I watched a portion of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen while logged onto Netflix from Safari, then went to bed; the next day, I logged on through Firefox, clicked on Play, and almost instantly, the movie started playing from the very spot where I’d stopped watching.
  • Did I mention we can watch streaming movies on our Macs, finally? This is incredibly cool!

I couldn’t be happier with Netflix. As a service, I think it’s one of the best business ideas that was ever put into practice. It fulfills a customer need at a reasonable price, and (at least for now), that price includes the ability to watch a LOT of streaming movies at no extra charge. I say “for now” because, let’s face it, there are costs associated with licensing and serving streaming movies (copyrights, hardware, bandwidth, overhead, etc.), and at some point, I think Netflix will have to adjust its prices to reflect this. I don’t think the price changes at that point will be big, but as more and more people start using the Watch Instantly feature, the extra usage will need to be taken into account.

I also believe that long-term, Netflix intends to emphasize its movie streaming service and slowly phase out its DVD mailers. It won’t happen until they can ensure a ubiquitous streaming experience for its customers, and that means flawless streaming for TVs and computers alike. They’ve already made incredible inroads with Roku, Xbox 360, and with Tivo, which can all stream Netflix movies directly to TVs. Now that you can watch streaming movies on both Macs and PCs, things are looking better and better, and Apple TV looks more hamstrung than ever.