Thoughts

Mac Pro line overdue for a hardware refresh

Because of the recent hardware failure on my MacBook Pro, I started to think about getting a new computer.

Given my intensive computing needs, I naturally looked toward the Mac Pro, but I was disappointed to find that its specs are lagging behind the times. The differences between it and what other Apple computers offer are enough for me to hold off on making the purchase.

The areas where it needs to improve can (almost) be summarized by this screenshot:

Thunderbolt

The iMac already has Thunderbolt ports, but the Mac Pro (the top-of-the-line model) doesn’t. Why isn’t it there already?

If Thunderbolt is “the fastest, most versatile I/O in a desktop”, why is it MIA on the Mac Pro? Shouldn’t it be on Apple’s most powerful desktop? If it’s got 10 Gbps data channels, and it’s tens of times faster than FW800 or USB 2.0, why isn’t it on the Mac Pro?

It even made it onto the MBP… Will Thunderbolt make it onto the MacBook before it makes it onto the Mac Pro?

SATA 6GB/S

The Mac Pro’s internal architecture can support SATA 6Gb/s speeds. There are already SATA 6Gb/s hard drives on the market, at very affordable prices. Why doesn’t the Mac Pro, where storage bandwidth really matters, include SATA 6Gb/s technology? Why is it still stuck at SATA 3Gb/s?

USB 3.0

Where is USB 3.0 on the Mac Pro? It still only has USB 2.0 ports. I already have USB 3.0 peripherals, which I wouldn’t be able to use at their native speed if I got a Mac Pro.

Furthermore, where is USB 3.0 on any Mac? USB 3.0 is here to stay, it’s fast, and it’s on a lot of peripherals. It goes without saying that Apple needs to include it on the Mac Pro and on the rest of its computers.

What’s worrying is that Mac OS X Lion may not ship with support for USB 3.0, as this article suggests. No, no, no, Apple, please don’t do that…

30-inch Display

This is more of an annoyance, but it’s worth mentioning. Ever since it came out, I always dreamed of owning a 30-inch Cinema Display. Given some of the stuff I’m doing these days, I could really use it, too. But Apple no longer makes it. The only large display they make these days is the 27-inch Cinema Display, which is very nice, and it uses LED instead of LCD technology, but it’s not a 30-inch, is it?

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Thoughts

The value of a good backup

While working on the fifth episode of RTTE, I learned first hand the value of a good backup. The hard drive on my editing computer (my MacBook Pro) died suddenly and without warning. Thankfully, my data was backed up in two geographically different locations.

The day my hard drive died, I’d just gotten done with some file cleanups, and was getting ready to leave for a trip abroad. I shut down my computer, then realized I needed to check on a couple things, and booted it up again, only this time, it wouldn’t start. I kept getting a grey screen, meaning video was working, but it refused to boot into the OS. And I kept hearing the “click of death” as the hard drive churned. I tried booting off the Snow Leopard DVD, but that didn’t work either. I’d tested the hard drive’s SMART status just a couple of weeks before, and the utility had told me the drive had no problems whatsoever.

I had reason to worry for a couple of reasons:

  1. The laptop refused to boot up from the OS X DVD, potentially indicating other problems than a dead hard drive. I do push my laptop quite a bit as I edit photos and video, and I’d already replaced its motherboard once. I was worried I might have to spend more than I wanted to on repairs.
  2. All of the footage for the fifth episode of RTTE was on my laptop. Thankfully, it was also backed up in a couple of other places, but still, I hadn’t had reason to test those backups until now. What if I couldn’t recover it?

I had no time for further troubleshooting. I had to leave, and my laptop was useless to me. I left it home, and drove away, worried about what would happen when I returned.

A week later, I got home and tried to boot off the DVD again. No luck. I had to send it in, to make sure nothing else was wrong. In Romania, there’s only one Apple-authorized repair shop. They’re in Bucharest, and they’re called Noumax. I sent it to them for a diagnosis, and a couple of days later, I heard back from them: only the hard drive was defective, from what they could tell.

I was pressed for time. I had to edit and release the fifth episode of RTTE, and I also had to shoot some more footage for it. I didn’t have time to wait for the store to fix the laptop, so I asked them to get it back to me, while I ordered a replacement hard drive from an online store with fast, next-day delivery (eMag).

The hard drive and the laptop arrived the next day. I replaced the hard drive, using this guide, and also cleaned the motherboard and CPU fans of dust, then restored the whole system from the latest Time Machine backup. This meant that I got back everything that was on my laptop a few hours before it died.

I’d have preferred to do a clean OS install, then install the apps I needed one by one, then restore my files, especially since I hadn’t reformatted my laptop since I bought it a few years ago, but that would have been a 2-3 day job, and I just didn’t have the time. Thankfully, OS X is so stable that even a 3-year old install, during which I installed and removed many apps, still works fairly fast and doesn’t crash.

Some might say, what’s the big deal? The laptop was backed up, and you restored it… whoopee… Not so fast, grasshopper! The gravity of the situation doesn’t sink in until you realize it’s your work — YEARS of hard work — that you might have just lost because of a hardware failure. That’s when your hands begin to tremble and your throat gets dry, and a few white hairs appear instantly on your head. Even if the data’s backed up (or so you think) until your data’s restored and it’s all there, you just don’t know if you can get it back.

I’ve worked in IT for about 15 years. I’ve restored plenty of machines, desktops and servers alike. I’ve done plenty of backups. But my own computer has never gone down. I’ve never had a catastrophic hardware failure like this one until now. So even though I’ve been exposed to this kind of thing before, I just didn’t realize how painful it is until now. And I didn’t appreciate the value of a good backup until now.

So, here’s my advice to you, as if you didn’t hear it plenty of times in the past… BACK UP YOUR COMPUTER!

If you have a Mac, definitely use Time Machine. It just works. It’s beautifully simple. I’ve been backing up my laptop with Time Machine to the same reliable drive for years. It’s this little LaCie hard drive.

But the LaCie drive might fail at some point, which is why I also back up my data with CrashPlan. For this second backup, I also send my data to a geographically-different location. Since we live in Romania these days, I back up to my parents’ house in the US, where the backup gets stored on a Drobo. And the backup is also encrypted automatically by CrashPlan, which means it can’t be intercepted along the way.

It’s because of my obsessive-compulsive backup strategy that I was able to recover so quickly from the hardware failure. Thankfully, these days backups are made so easy by software like Time Machine and CrashPlan that anyone can keep their work safe. So please, back up your data, and do it often!

One more thing. You know the old saying, every cloud has a silver lining? It was true in my case. When I ordered the new drive for my laptop, I was able to upgrade from its existing 250GB SATA hard drive with an 8MB buffer and 5400 rpm to a spacious 750GB SATA hard drive with a 32MB buffer and 7200 rpm, which means my laptop now churns along a little faster, and has a lot more room for the 1080p footage of my shows. 🙂

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Thoughts

Java finally acknowledges upgrade issues

Not sure how many of you have been aware of this, but Java upgrades over the past several years have been problematic for Windows users. When a new version of Java came out, the installer would prompt you to upgrade, but would never prompt you to remove the old version, or do it for you. In my work, I’d see computers with as many as 10-12 different versions of Java on them. The user, unaware of the messiness built into the Java upgrade, would leave the old versions on their machine, and they’d keep piling up. You could see them in the Add/Remove Control Panel, but how many people know how to look there, and how many know that it’s okay to remove old versions of Java?

So I was heartened to see that Java is finally acknowledging the problem with old Java versions sitting on Windows machines, and is now prompting users to remove them after installing the new version. See the screenshot below.

Ideally, their upgrade engine ought to remove them for the user, but at least this is a step in the right direction. And to think that Java is being used everywhere these days (even where you don’t want it), and it took all this time for them to straighten out the upgrade issues. It’s a bit shameful if you ask me.

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Reviews

Hardware preview: Apple iPad 2

Apple iPad 2

The new iPad 2 will become available on March 11th (see a neat video from Apple introducing it). In my post about the original iPad, I said the following:

“In spite of the failures of their predecessors, I think Apple will pull this off. I think the iPad will be very successful.”

I’m glad to see that I was right. Not that I had anything to do with the success of the device. The credit goes entirely to Apple, and to the people who bought it and used it so well.

I got to watch the March 2 keynote today (a few days later). Much to my surprise, Steve Jobs was on stage to present it. I was very glad to see him able to stand up and hold a meeting, given all the tabloid rumors about him — though I have to say he was skinny as a board. Thank goodness he’s still around. I hope he gets better, and continues to be around for a few more decades.

Here’s a quick summary of the salient features of the iPad 2:

  • 33% thinner than the original iPad (0.34″), and lighter (1.33 lbs)
  • Comes in both black and white finishes
  • Dual-core A5 chip, up to 2x faster
  • Graphics are up to 9x faster
  • Same great 10-hour battery life
  • Same 1024×768 display
  • 2 cameras (front and back) for video or photos, in HD
  • Magnetic smart cover designed specifically for it
  • Instant on
  • AirPlay to your TV via Apple TV
  • Video mirroring (up to 1080p) via $39 cable
  • AirPrint

My only disappointment with the iPad 2 is that it doesn’t have a Retina Display. Word on the grapevine is that they’re still difficult to make in that size. Who knows… It would have been nice if this iPad had it. Still, I believe iPad 3 will have a Retina Display.

iPad 2 Measurements

iPad 2 A5 Chip

I am however very glad to see that the iPad 2 does have a video camera — and not just one, but two. In my review of the original iPad, I said this:

“It’s very likely the next gen iPad will have a video camera, and it will have iChat as well.”

Glad to see I was right on that count as well. It was, after all, a logical step.

Facetime on iPad 2

iPad 2 Smart Cover Line-up

Smart Cover for iPad 2

There are some new accessories for the iPad 2, which will be offered in addition to the ones designed for the original iPad.

  • The Smart Cover, naturally, which comes in 10 colors, 5 of them polyurethane and 5 leather, as seen above (see the Smart Cover in action in this video)
  • The Digital AV Adapter provides an HDMI-out port with video and audio routed to it, in addition to a 30-pin connector which lets you charge the iPad while playing content to an HDTV
  • The iPad 2 Dock is designed for the thinner iPad 2, and also works with Digital AV Adapter

iPad 2 Dock

Of course, given that the iPad has Bluetooth, you can stick it in a dock and use the Apple Wireless Keyboard to type on it.

Apple Wireless Keyboard

The Smart Cover is so nicely designed.

iPad 2 Smart Cover (1)

iPad 2 Smart Cover (2)

iPad 2 Smart Cover (3)

The Digital AV Adapter will make it so easy to display content from the iPad on an HDTV.

iPad 2 Digital AV Adapter

iPad 2 Video Mirroring

iPad 2 Airplay

The iPad 2 will come in 16GB, 32GB and 64GB models, as well as WiFi-only or WiFi+3G (GSM or CDMA) models. My guess is that iPad 3 will have a combined 4G GSM/CDMA chip, eliminating the need to offer separate 3G models. The pricing grid for the various models (there are 18 possible models, given that there are two color finishes and two 3G providers), goes as follows:

  • WiFi-only: $499/16GB, $599/32GB, $699/64GB (black or white finish)
  • WiFi + 3G: $629/16GB, $729/32GB, $829/64GB (black or white finish, AT&T/Verizon)

Images used courtesy of Apple Computer, Inc.

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Thoughts

What comes after High Definition?

Producing (set design, lighting, filming, directing, editing) my wife’s cooking show has gotten me thinking about what comes after HD, because there obviously is a large discrepancy in resolution between full 1080p HD and properly exposed 35mm film (up to 3500p) — as I already mentioned in my post on preserving classic movies.

Yes, high definition is a huge improvement over standard definition, which in turn was a large improvement over early television signals. But televisions and VCRs, in spite of their popularity, are a dismal failure in picture quality compared to what they replaced: film reels and projectors.

Nowadays, we’ve gained some foothold back when it comes to consumer/prosumer video quality. We have ready access to video cameras that will record in HD (at various qualities, given the model and the price), and we have newer computers and televisions that will allow us to play back those videos at their native (720p or 1080p) resolutions. Even websites have begun in recent years to allow us to play back HD videos, and the quality of broadband internet connections has increased to the point where one doesn’t have to wait a half hour or more in order to download/buffer an HD video and play it properly on their computer. We can even play back HD videos from the internet directly on our televisions, thanks to standalone or built-in media players.

But if we’re to get back to the quality of 35mm film and best it, we must keep moving forward. Thankfully, some visionaries have already taken the first steps and have come up with a camera that can record at a similar-to-film resolution: the RED One, which can give us 2300p of extremely high definition digital video. It’s not quite 3000p or 3500p (which would be the equivalent of properly exposed film), but it gets us pretty close, and it’s certainly much better than 1080p.

The RED camera captures each frame of video as a 12-bit RAW image, which means we, as videographers, have much greater freedom than before when editing the video, just like photographers do when they switch from JPG to RAW files. All of a sudden, white balance, exposure, recovery, blacks, vibrance, saturation, and tone adjustments can be made with much more accuracy.

One area where I’d love to see more improvement — although I’m sure it’ll come with time — is RED’s ability to capture more color depth, say 14-bit or 16-bit. Bit depth is still an area where improvement can be made across the board when it comes to digital cameras.

But let’s leave tech specs alone, and think about how we can edit and enjoy the videos we could make with a RED camera. That’s where difficulties come in, because you see, we still can’t properly do that, certainly not with consumer, and not even with prosumer equipment. No, we’d be looking at professional equipment and serious prices. The market just hasn’t caught up.

There are no computers that can display that kind of resolution at full screen, and there are no televisions that can do it, either. TVs and computers are still caught up in the world of 720p and 1080p. And to make things even more complicated, now we’ve got to worry about 3D video, which is nice for some applications, but from my point of view, it’s a distraction, because it adds yet another barrier, another detour, on the road to achieving proper video resolution across the board. Manufacturers, TV stations and filmmakers are jumping on the 3D bandwagon, when they should be worried about resolution.

So, what costs would a filmmaker be looking at if he or she wanted to shoot at the highest possible digital resolution available today (a RED setup)? I crunched some numbers, and mind you, these are just approximations. The costs are likely to be 1.5-2x that much when you account for everything you might need. On a side note, the folks at RED and at Final Cut Pro have worked together quite a bit to ensure that we can edit RED video natively, directly in Final Cut Pro, on a Mac. See this video for an overview.

  • RED One camera: $25,000
  • 35mm RED lens: $4,250
  • 18-85mm RED lens: $9,975
  • RED LCD: $2,500
  • RED CF media and cards: $1,500
  • RED rig: about $2,500
  • add extra $$$ for power, accessories, tripods, other media, etc.
  • RED video card, for encoding and editing video: $4,750
  • Mac Pro editing station: about $7,000-$12,000, depending on your needs, and you may need more than one of these, depending on how big your production is
  • 30″ display: about $1,000-$3,000, depending on your needs, and you may need more than one of these as well, depending on the number of workstations and your display setup
  • Final Cut Studio software: $1,000
  • HDD-based storage for editing and archival: $2,000-$20,000, depending on your needs
  • LTO tape or additional HDD-based storage for backup: costs will vary quite a bit here
  • Specialized cinema hardware and display for showing movies at full resolution: I have no idea what this costs, but it’s likely to go into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and not every cinema has it

So at a minimum, we’d be talking about an investment of more than $60,000 in order to work with a RED setup today.

But let’s not get tied up in talking solely about RED cameras. Clearly the entire industry needs to take steps in order to ensure that videos at resolutions greater than 1080p HD can be played across all the usual devices. Unfortunately, they’re still tied up in SD and HD video. Most TV channels still transmit in SD or lower-than-SD video quality (lower than 480p). It’s true, most have always transmitted at broadcast quality (500p or better) but we’ve always had to contend with a lot of signal loss. And nowadays, we still have to pay extra for HD channels, even though they should be the norm, and we should be looking forward.

To that effect, computer displays need to get bigger and better, computer hardware needs to get faster, computer storage needs to expand, media players need to increase their processing power, televisions need to get better and bigger, and broadband internet needs to get faster, ideally around the gigabit range (see this talk from Vinton Cerf on that subject), so that full resolution, 4000K video can move across the internet easily.

For now, if I were to start working on RED, I’d still have to output to 720p or 1080p and keep my full resolution originals archived for another day, somewhere in the future, when consumer-grade electronics have evolved to the point where they can play my videos and films natively.

I for one look forward to the day when YouTube starts to stream 3500p videos, and when we can all play them conveniently and at full resolution on our computers and televisions!

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Thoughts

YouTube’s copyright claim process still needs some work

A while back, I edited and uploaded what I thought was a fairly innocuous video to YouTube, called A walk on Dania Beach. You can see it below. It shows a few clips of the beach that I took during two walks with my wife. It’s nothing special, really. The quality of the video isn’t even that good, because the camera I used at the time compressed the video too much.

Because there was a lot of wind noise from the in-camera microphone, I muted the sound on some portions of the video, and used the stock surf sound that ships with iMovie (as part of iLife).

You may or may not know (depending on whether you use a Mac) that the sounds that ship with iLife are free to use as you like in your videos, podcasts, presentations, etc. You paid for them when you purchased the software. While their creators retain copyright, in essence, by purchasing iLife, you have gained a license to use them as you see fit in your work.

And so I do use them, all the time. Many of the videos I uploaded to my YouTube channel contain either a sound or a clip from the iLife library, in order to enhance the video’s presentation. So far, so good.

Imagine my surprise when YouTube promptly informed me that this particular video contained copyrighted audio, and that I was welcome to file a copyright claim if I wanted to dispute their findings. They identified two entertainment companies, Go Digital and WMG, as the potential copyright holders. I did file a dispute, where I stated that I didn’t use their content. It took a few weeks, but their replies were finally posted.

GoDigital confirmed its claim to the sound recording, and WMG agreed with my dispute. It’s interesting to see that WMG, the far larger company, agreed with me, while GoDigital, a company I’ve never heard of, maintained their claim… to what? That’s really the question I’d like to ask them, but I can’t, because this is as far as I can go with YouTube’s claim dispute process.

If you’d like to learn how YouTube identifies potentially copyrighted material (video or audio) in the videos its users upload to the site every day, Margaret Stewart, YouTube’s head of user experience, gave a talk at TED about that very subject in June of this year.

Now that you’ve presumably watched that video and you understand how YouTube scans and identifies potential copyrighted assets, I’d still like to find out exactly what GoDigital sees in my not-so-special video that it thinks it owns. The sound of the waves I recorded with my camera? The sound of the waves from the iLife library? The seagulls I recorded? The sound of the wind, also recorded by me? What is it they think they own?

If someone at YouTube’s user experience team reads this, please, either enlighten me, or introduce an extra step in the copyright dispute process that allows the user to ask what particular piece of content was identified as copyrighted, or allows the company to specify it directly when they review the dispute and decide it’s still theirs. Then, for those special cases like mine, where I don’t see how the content is theirs, allow me to request a third-party review, by a human at YouTube, someone who could have a look at the video and see what’s going on.

Thanks.

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How To

Always check a SATA drive’s jumper settings

I made a quick video that shows you why it’s always important to check a SATA drive’s jumper settings. Many of us assume that since we’re dealing with SATA, not PATA/IDE drives, the jumper settings are no longer important. After all, the Master/Slave relationship no longer applies to the SATA model. Not so. The jumper settings on SATA drives control other important drive settings, such as their speed of operation.

Have a look at this Seagate 500GB SATA drive, the one in my video. I assumed (wrong) that it was operating at 3.0 Gb/sec all along. It wasn’t. For over 2 years, I had three of these drives in one of my Drobo units, and I thought I was getting 3.0 Gb/sec from them, when in fact I was only getting 1.5 Gb/sec. That’s because they shipped with a jumper set to limit their speed of operation at 1.5 Gb/sec from the factory, and I didn’t check it before sticking them in my Drobo and forgetting about them.

Only now, as I re-shuffled the drives between my Drobo units, did I realize I hadn’t been getting 3.0 Gb/sec from them, and corrected the situation right away.

I can understand why Seagate would want to ship the drives set to 1.5 Gb/sec. After all, some older computers might not be capable of 3.0 Gb/sec, and you’d run into compatibility issues. They assume IT geeks would know what to do, and they’re right, they would, if they’d only bother to look…

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Events

Green IT Week: June 1-7, 2010

ComputersOFF.org is hosting a virtual Green IT Week from June 1-7. This is an issue that’s of particular importance to me. Having been an IT director, I know how much power the combined laptops, desktops and servers of an organization can consume, and how much pollution is generated by the disposal of computer hardware (see this post, and this one as well).

I’ve written about this topic since 2004. Here are three of my articles that deal with saving energy in IT:

Green IT deals with two things:

  1. Electronic Waste: Minimizing the negative impact of information technology use on the environment, and
  2. Energy Efficiency: Using information technology to help solve environmental issues

They’ve put together a few facts that help to drive home their message, so I’m going to quote them below.

By turning off your computer each night or when not in use (i.e. lunch times, weekends, when in meetings at night) for a year you save as much energy as it takes:

  • to run a clock radio for 1,392 weeks
  • to make 9,280 bags of microwave popcorn
  • to wash 464 loads of washing
  • to use your blow dryer for 5,568 hours
  • to vacuum for 464 hours
  • to produce 3,480 plastic bags
  • to run your microwave 24 hours a day for a week
  • to boil your kettle for 24 hours a day for 268 days

By turning off your computer tonight when you leave work you will save as much energy as it takes:

  • to run a clock radio for over 3 weeks
  • to make over 20 bags of microwave popcorn
  • to wash over 1 load of washing
  • to blow dry your hair over 12 times
  • to vacuum for over 1 hour
  • to light a 100 watt light bulb for over 10 hours

For both companies and individuals, there are some really easy actions they can take to reduce their energy use, including:

  • Turning off computers, games consoles and TVs when they are not in use
  • Setting your computer to “sleep” after 15 minutes of inactivity (this reduces the power it uses because “sleep” mode is a lower-energy use mode for the computer to operate in)
  • Turning devices off at the power point (because even in standby mode your appliances are using electricity)
  • Buy green energy (to help push electricity suppliers to convert from coal based production – which creates greenhouse gases and requires mining – to sustainable technologies like wind power)
  • Buy and use a laptop instead of a desktop computer. Laptops only use 190kW (average) of electricity per year.

Want more of these neat factlets? They also have 100 Green IT Tips. They’ve put together a video as well, where various celebrities endorse the cause.

Make sure to check their website from June 1 to June 7 for more good info about Green IT.

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Thoughts

Storage drops below 7 cents per gigabyte

In January of 2009, I mentioned the price of storage had just dropped below 9 cents per gigabyte. I see now that 2 TB drives are selling below $150 (they’re $140), so it’s time to update my figures. At $139.99 for a 2 TB (2,000 GB) SATA hard drive, that comes out to less than 7 cents per GB. That’s a great deal, and it goes without saying that it’s the lowest price for data storage consumers have ever seen.

Updated 4/19/10: Micro Center is selling 2 TB Seagate SATA drives for $119.99. It’s an in-store special, with a one drive per household limit, but still, that makes it 6 cents per gigabyte. What can I say — expect the price to keep dropping…

On the downside, it seems hard drive manufacturers have hit a ceiling with 2 TB drives. I haven’t heard talk of 3 or 4 TB drives, or anything larger than that. Perhaps I haven’t been keeping up with storage news properly, so if you’ve heard some good news, do let me know!

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Thoughts

A 27 GB hard drive for $276?

While cleaning up old paperwork, I ran into a receipt from late 1999, for a WD 27.3 GB hard drive with an Ultra 66 Cable. The price for that thing was $275.94 with taxes. Nowadays, I can get a 2 TB hard drive (that’s 2,000 GB) for less than $150. How times have changed!

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