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!

Standard
How To

How to use a Drobo with the WD TV

The WD TV is my favorite media player (I think it’s better than the Apple TV), and since I also love the Drobo, I wanted to combine the two and have the ultimate media entertainment center: a Drobo packed full of videos, photos and music, connected to a WD TV, which is connected to a large-screen HDTV. I did just that for my parents in December. It was my Christmas gift to them.

Here’s what you need to keep in mind if you want to do the same thing. As you might guess, several complications arise when you attempt to get a device with huge storage capability connected to a media player. The complications have to do mainly with the file systems that the media player can read and use properly, and with the ability of the on-screen menus to navigate an abundance of content efficiently.

The WD TV can only work fully with NTFS, HFS and FAT32 file systems. By “fully”, I mean will build its own catalog of the media present on those devices, store it at the root level of those drives as a hidden directory, and will let you browse using its on-screen menus, by date or by file name. It will also read the HFS+ file system, which is native to the modern Macs, but it will not be able to write to it and build its own catalog; this means you’ll only be able to navigate the media on that device by folder.

The Drobo can be formatted as an NTFS or FAT32 volume when using a PC, or as an HFS+ or FAT32 volume when using a Mac, if you happen to use the Drobo Dashboard to do it. If you use the Disk Utility app on a Mac, and you also happen to have the 3G NTFS drivers installed, you can also format the Drobo as a 3G NTFS or as an HFS volume.

I ended up formatting my parents’ Drobo as an HFS+ volume. I’ll tell you why below. If you’re not interested in the minutiae, skip ahead to the next paragraph.

  • First, I tried formatting it as a 3G NTFS volume. For some reason, the formatting process either froze or took unusually long to complete, and the resulting volume wasn’t readable on the Mac or on the WD TV. I have a feeling that had to do with the fact that the volume was over 2TB in size, and 2TB is the upper limit for NTFS volumes, but I’m not sure.
  • I tried splitting the Drobo into two HFS+ volumes, one 2TB and the other 400GB (2.4 TB was the total available space on the Drobo), then formatting those volumes as 3G NTFS volumes, but that didn’t work either. The formatting process kept hanging up in Disk Utility.
  • I tried formatting the Drobo as a straight NTFS volume using a Parallels VM running Windows XP (I installed the Drobo Dashboard inside the VM), but that kept hanging up as well. Not sure why. Perhaps I should have used a physical Windows machine, but I didn’t have one available to me.
  • I then formatted the Drobo as a FAT32 volume. The upper limit on that was once again 2TB, and I had 2.4TB available. I thought I’d forget about the extra 400GB for a while and just focus on getting the 2TB volume working. Predictably enough, after copying some media over and testing it, it worked fine, but I noticed two things:
    • The WD TV took longer and longer to read the device and build its catalog once I connected the Drobo. The more movies I had on the Drobo, the longer it took the WD TV to catalog each of them. That meant waiting up to 20 minutes for the WD TV to get done with its work before I could use it. I didn’t like that.
    • I had several movies that were over 4GB in size, and since that’s the upper limit for a single file in the FAT32 system, I couldn’t get them copied over to the Drobo. I didn’t like that either.
  • I thought I’d try another route, so I formatted the Drobo as an HFS volume. While this was fully readable and writable on a Mac and also on the WD TV, unfortunately, the maximum file size on HFS is 2GB, and the maximum volume size is also 2TB, same as FAT32 and NTFS. Not much help there.
  • The only choice left to me was HFS+. In spite of the fact that the WD TV can only read it, not write to it, this was and still is, I think, the best choice for formatting a Drobo and for working with the WD TV, from the entire group (NTFS, FAT32, HFS and HFS+). The upper limit on an HFS+ volume is 16 EB (exbibytes), which is equal to 1024 pebibytes — basically, an incredible amount of space. One pebibyte is equal to 1024 terabytes, and the upper limit one can get with a Drobo at the moment is 5.5 terabytes, so it’s nowhere near the technical capability of the file system. Furthermore, the upper limit on a single file in HFS+ is 8 exbibytes, which, as shown above, is just plain huge. In plain English, this mean I could format the Drobo as a single HFS+ volume and not worry about any of my movie files exceeding 4GB or more in size.

Great! Now that I’ve put you to sleep, let’s move on. Next on the agenda came the transfer of all the data to the Drobo. You see, I’m also using my parents’ Drobo as an offsite storage device. You know what they say, give and ye shall receive, right? I made them happy by setting up their media center and also got to back up most of my data, media, and photographs. The transfer of the information took a while, as you might imagine. I didn’t time it, but I think it was somewhere between 24-36 hours to copy about 2TB of data from my Drobo to their Drobo. I’m happy to say that the copy operation did not crash, and completed successfully. That’s a testament to the stability of the Drobo as a storage device.

After the data transfer was complete, I was done. It was time to sit back on the sofa and enjoy my hard work. Even though the WD TV couldn’t aggregate the media on the Drobo and build its catalog, which would have let me browse the media by type (video, photo or music), date or title, I was able to browse the Drobo by folder. Since I’d already organized the media that way, I didn’t mind it at all. I had my videos broken down into separate folders for Cartoons (I love classic cartoons), Movies, Documentaries and TV Shows (I love Mister Ed), and I was able to watch most of my stuff.

As a side note, even though the WD TV manual says it’ll play WMV9 files, and my Mister Ed episodes were encoded (I believe) with WMV9 technology, I can’t play them on the WD TV. I’m sad about that, but at least I can watch them on my MacBook and iMac. Perhaps I’ll re-encode them into MP4 files at some point.

I mentioned something at the start of the article about the on-screen menus and their ability to navigate the content efficiently. The WD TV lists the media in thumbnail mode by default, which means you’ll have a little icon next to each media file. When you have a ton of files to look through, that’s not very efficient. Fortunately, you can go into the WD TV settings and change it to List mode. This will list each piece of content on a single line, and will let you see more titles per screen. To scroll up and down the file lists faster, simply hold down the up or down arrows on the WD TV remote, and it’ll accelerate, speeding through the titles.

I’ll concede that the on-screen menus for the WD TV aren’t as slick as those you see on the Apple TV — and by that I mean how easy and quick it is to navigate to a particular title, not the glitz and glamour of a fancier UI skin — so there’s some work to be done there, but the WD TV is much more practical than the Apple TV when it comes to playing your media. You simply plug in a USB drive loaded to the gills with movies and photos, and it’ll play them right away, which is something that the Apple TV just doesn’t do out of the box.

That’s it, folks! Let me summarize things to make it easy for you:

  1. Format your Drobo in HFS+ if you have a Mac, or NTFS if you have a PC. Keep in mind there’s a 2TB per volume limit under NTFS, and that WD TV will only recognize one volume at a time (at least currently). Stay away from FAT32 and HFS because of the file-size limitations (4GB for FAT32 and 2GB for HFS).
  2. Transfer your media to the Drobo.
  3. Enjoy!

Buy a WD TV or a Drobo.

Standard
Reviews

A look at the Samsung T260HD HDTV widescreen monitor

I tried, unsuccessfully, to use an HDTV as my main computer display in the past. Although the specs of that Sony HDTV were superb, its brightness and contrast levels were made for a TV, not a computer display, and it gave me headaches when I stood close to it, as I would when I’d work at my computer. Things have a way of working out though. One of the commenters on my HDTV post, Adam Juntunen, pointed me to something that might just work for my needs.

Samsung has come up with a product that is made to work as both a display and an HDTV. It’s the first such product that I’ve heard of: the T260HD, a 26″ widescreen computer display and HDTV. The T260HD is part of a line-up of four monitors which includes the T200HD (20″), T220HD (22″) and the T240HD (24″).

What sets the T260HD apart for me is the fact that it was made to fulfill both functions from the factory. Although I haven’t used it (yet), my hope is that the Samsung engineers accounted for the difference in display characteristics that is needed when one uses it as a computer display vs. a TV. What is heartening for me is that it’s listed among the computer displays, not the HDTVs, on the Samsung website, which means it’s really more of a computer display than an HDTV, which is just what I need.

The design makes this display stand out. The enclosure is made of glossy black plastic, and it looks as if there’s a clear panel of glass set over the front of the display, which should make it easy to clean. A hint of maroon color marks the bottom of the enclosure, right below the logo, giving it a distinctive look. I do hope though that the glossy black plastic doesn’t scuff easily. Other Samsung TVs do scuff over time, which means that as you dust them, small hair-width scratches appear on the plastic, marring its glow.

Promotional: Don’t spend too much on flat screen TVs; there are flat panel TV deals you can take advantage of. LCD TV deals are available for consumers to buy at discounted prices.

The specs listed on the Samsung website are thin on the details, and I can’t make out whether its color depth is 8-bit, 10-bit or 12-bit. My guess, given its price, is that it’s 8-bit or 10-bit — probably the former, not the latter. Color depth in a display is a very important specification, because if you work with photos, like I do, and your DSLR captures 12-bit or 14-bit color images, you won’t be able to edit them competently on a display whose color depth capabilities are much lower. A 6-bit display, for example, like many laptops have, would be fairly useless to you, because it just won’t reproduce the color tones faithfully.

Let’s have a look at some of the salient features of this display:

  • Full HDTV monitor: that’s good, and also to be expected since it’s a computer display as well, and its resolution is 1900 x 1200 pixels.
  • Dolby Digital Surround sound: it has invisible speakers built in, and they’re rated at 3 W each; I’ve heard these types of speakers on other Samsung products, and they’re pretty good — certainly a lot better than most monitor speakers.
  • Dual HDMI, DVI and VGA inputs: that’s impressive for a 26″ display. I see that Samsung didn’t skimp and even included a SCART connector for the European countries. I love that.
  • Low power consumption: one spec says it uses 0.3W in Standby mode, yet another says it uses < 2W in that same mode. At any rate, it only uses 70 W max, and that’s great for a 26″ display.
  • 10,000:1 dynamic contrast ratio: I think this spec is trumped up, as I see it on a lot of other, cheaper displays and TVs. I have no idea what it means. Supposedly, the increased contrast between light and dark helps you see things better. I’ll be the judge of that when I try it in person. I see that the Apple Cinema Displays are listed at a 700:1 contrast ratio, which I think is a much more reasonable figure.
  • 5 ms response time: this is a little sluggish given that most displays in that size are at 3 ms. Still, it’s better than the Apple Cinema Displays, which are still listed at 14 ms. I think 5 ms is sufficient for most movies and video games, but then I’m not into the violent, fast-paced video games.
  • 300 cd/m² brightness: this isn’t as bright as other displays in the same sizes, which are at 400-700 cd/m², but you know what, I’d rather not have headaches caused by too much brightness, so this should be fine for me.

What I’ve seen so far of this monitor has certainly whet my appetite, and I’d love to try it out for myself. If and when I do, I’ll let you know how it works out.

The Samsung T260HD is available from Amazon and B&H Photo.

Photos used courtesy of Samsung.

Standard