Reviews

A follow-up to my review of Google’s Backup and Sync

I reviewed Google’s Backup and Sync service back in December. There were several issues with the service that I outlined in there, such as the app backing up files that it was not supposed to back up, the service counting files toward the quota even though it was supposed to compress them and allow unlimited free storage, etc. I thought I’d do a follow-up because, as you may have guessed already, there are more issues I want to point out and also a few pieces of advice that might help you in your use of the app.

One issue that occurs over and over is that the app crashes. It gives an error message popup and says it needs to quit. Which is somewhat okay, but when you start it back up, it does a re-check of all the files it’s supposed to back up, and that is an energy-hungry process. You can see it at the top of the active apps in Activity Monitor (on the Mac), eating up all the processor cycles as it iterates through its list of files. And even when it does its regular backup in the background, it’s still climbing toward the top of the active apps. To be fair, Flickr’s own Uploadr is also an energy-hungry app. Neither of the apps allow you to make them use less energy (to work slower, etc.), so they churn away at your computer’s resources even though they’re supposed to work quietly in the background.

Another issue that still occurs is that the app backs up files that it’s not supposed to back up. I have it set to back up only photos and videos and yet it backs up a lot of files with strange extensions that end up counting toward my storage quota on Google Drive. Have a look at the screenshots taken from my settings for the app below.

I had it set on backing up RAW files too, but it wasn’t backing up anything but CR2 (Canon RAW files) and DNG (Adobe RAW files, or digital negatives). And it had problems backing those up as well, because when the size of a DNG file was over a certain limit (it’s somewhere around 50 MB I think), it backed it up but it didn’t compress it, so it counted toward the storage quota.

It wasn’t compressing ORF (Olympus Raw files) while backing them up, so they counted toward my quota. Since I shoot only with Olympus gear these days, that was no good to me. So what I did is I chose not to let it back up any RAW files and I set my camera to shoot in ORF + JPG format. I work with the ORF files in Lightroom and the unedited JPG files get backed up with the app.

Here’s a list of files whose extensions it might be helpful for you to add to its settings, so the app won’t put them on your Google Drive. Of course, as mentioned above, the app backs up all sorts of files it’s not set to back up. It’s like it ignores the settings and just does what it wants, so ymmv.

  • cmap
  • data
  • db
  • db-wal
  • graphdb
  • graphdb-shm
  • graphdb-wal
  • heic
  • heif
  • ithmb
  • lij
  • lisj
  • orf
  • plist
  • psd
  • skindex
  • tif
  • tmp
  • xmp
  • zip

You may have noticed HEIF and HEIC in the list above. Those are the new image and video standards used by Apple because they offer much higher quality and compression than JPG and H.264. And even though it’s not logical that Google wouldn’t know or want to compress them and back them up properly, they don’t. The app will simply copy them to Google Drive, uncompressed, and they’ll count toward your quota. So all of you who have iPhones and iPads and use the Backup and Sync app or the Google Photos app, you are currently backing up the photos taken with your devices on Google Drive, but they count toward your storage quota even if you don’t want them to. Keep in mind that this may be a temporary thing and Google may choose to rectify this issue in the coming months.

The storage options on Google Drive are another issue I want to talk about. I had to upgrade my storage to 1 TB because of all these issues. At one point, I had over 400GB of unexplained files taking up space in there and I had to upgrade to the 1 TB plan, which costs $10/month. Now I don’t know about you, but that pisses me off. It’s one thing if I choose to upgrade my storage plan because I want to do it, and it’s another thing altogether to be forcibly upsold because the Backup and Sync app might be used as a funnel to generate gullible leads for Google Drive’s storage plans. Notice I said “might be”; I have no proof of this. It could be that the app is just full of bugs and not well-maintained.

So I did two things: one was to downgrade my storage plan to the minimum of 100 GB at $2/month, and the second was to start looking through my Google Drive in order to see what files were taking up space. I found them but let me tell you, getting rid of them is like pulling teeth. It’s like Google doesn’t want you to get rid of them, so they keep on taking space there and you keep on paying. It’s not right. Let me show you: first you go to Google Drive, and at the bottom of the sidebar on the left, you’ll see how much space you’ve got. My storage quota is under control now, but this is my second day of working on this. Can you believe it? Google has made me waste almost two work days in order to correct a problem that it created.

If you click right on the space used, in my case the 76.6 GB, it’ll take you to a page where it begins to list all of the files that are taking up space on your Google Drive, in descending order based on file size. Here’s where it might be confusing for some: the files that are compressed and don’t count toward your quote are listed with a file size of 0 bytes. This is not an error, those files aren’t really 0 bytes, but they’ve been compressed and as far as your quota is concerned, they’re okay. The files that do count toward your quota will be listed at the top. That’s how I found out that Google doesn’t compress PSD files or TIF files or large DNG files. I had images that were over 100 MB in size, some close to 1 GB in size, that it wasn’t compressing, so I had to delete those. If you want to bring down your storage requirements on Google Drive, you’ll have to do the same. Here’s a screenshot of the page I’m talking about, but keep in mind that I’ve already done the work, so I have no more uncompressed files taking up space. Whatever’s left, it’s in the Trash.

So this part is like pulling teeth. Even though I was using Google’s own browser, Google Chrome, and working on Google’s own service, Google Drive, it was excruciatingly slow to list the files I needed to delete. The page would only pull something like 50 files to display, and if you wanted to see more, you had to scroll down and wait for it to pull up more… and then the browser would almost freeze and give you a warning to let you know the page was eating up too many resources… ugh… what a nasty thing to do to your customers, Google!

Have a look at the resources Chrome was eating up during this whole thing:

This “fun activity” took up most of my two days. Not only did it work like this when I needed to identify the files that I needed to delete, but once they were in the Trash, that page also worked the same way. In the web browser, it would only pull up about 50 files or so for me to delete at once. Even though the “Empty Trash” option was supposed to clear the Trash of all of the files in it, it would only delete the 50 or so files that it pulled up. Sure, you can scroll down, wait for it to pull up 50 more files, scroll down again, etc. until Chrome gives you a warning that the page isn’t working properly anymore, then you can empty the trash, deleting a few hundred files, then go again and again and again. I tell you, I suspect that Google is doing this on purpose so you don’t clean up your Drive and are forced to upgrade your storage plan…

I looked this thing up, and some people had more luck emptying the trash by using the mobile app (for iOS or Android). I tried it on my iPhone and it hung, then crashed. I tried it on my iPad and it would hang, the little Googley kaleidoscope wheel going on and on for hours, and then it would either crash or keep on twirling. I left my iPad with the app open all night after issuing the Empty Trash command and when I came back to it in the morning, it was still twirling away and the files hadn’t been deleted.

So now it’s back to the browser interface for me until I clean up all the files. See the screenshot below with the twirly blue thing in the middle? That’s me waiting on Google to list those files in the Trash… By the way, I bought a 2 TB storage plan on Apple’s iCloud to back up my phones, tablets and computers, and I can share that plan with my family. It costs the same as Google’s 1 TB plan: $10/month.

Will I keep using the Backup and Sync app? Yes, at least for now. The promise of unlimited storage of all my compressed images is a tempting thing. I realize there’s a loss in resolution and quality but God forbid something happen to my files and my backups, at least I have them stored somewhere else and I can recover them; they might not be their former selves, but I’ll have something.

Just FYI, I back up locally and remotely. For local backups I use Mac Backup Guru and for the remote backups I use Backblaze, which I love and recommend. Their app is amazing: blazing fast, low energy footprint, works quietly in the background and has backed up terabytes of data in a matter of 1-2 weeks for me. And as for my hardware, I still use Drobos and I love and recommend them as well. I’ve been using them since 2007 and while I’ve had some issues, I still think they’re the best and most economical expandable redundant storage on the market. I use a Drobo 5D next to my iMac and two Drobo 5N units on the network.

I hope this was helpful to you!

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Reviews

A review of Google’s Backup and Sync

google-drive-to-backup-sync

Google launched this new service in the second half of 2017. I remember being prompted by the Google Drive app to install an upgrade, and after it completed, I noticed a new app called “Backup and Sync” had been installed, and the Google Drive app had become an alias.

Screen Shot 2017-12-26 at 14.08.28.png

The new app sat there unused for some time, until I discovered its new capability, namely to back up and sync other folders on my computer, not just the Google Drive folder. This was and is good, new functionality for Google, because it ties in very nicely with its Photos service, which has already been offering the ability to back up all of the photos and videos taken with mobile devices to the cloud through the Google Photos mobile app. I’ve been using Google Photos for several years, going back to when it was called Picasa Web.

I set it to back up all of my photos and videos, allowing Google to compress them so I could back up the whole lot. (It’s the “High quality (free unlimited storage)” option selected in the screenshot posted below.)

Screen Shot 2017-12-26 at 15.01.14.png

I already back up all of my data with Backblaze, which I love and recommend, but it doesn’t hurt to have a second online backup of my media, even if it gets compressed. Having lost some 30,000 images and videos a few years back, I know full well the sting of losing precious memories and when it comes down to it, I’d rather have a compressed backup of my stuff than none at all.

Screen Shot 2017-12-26 at 14.15.12.png

The thing is, there are shortcomings and errors with this new service from Google, which I will detail below. The backup itself was fast. Even though I have several terabytes of personal media, they were uploaded within a week. So that’s not the issue. After all, Google has a ton of experience with uploads, given how much video is uploaded to YouTube every single day.

Screen Shot 2017-12-26 at 14.08.51.png

As you can see from the screenshot posted above, it was unable to upload quite a few files. The app offers the option of uploading RAW files in addition to the typical JPG, PNG and videos, but it couldn’t upload RAW files from Olympus (ORF), Adobe (DNG) and Canon (CR2). They were listed among the over 2700 files that couldn’t be backed up.

Screen Shot 2017-12-26 at 14.09.56.png

I ended up having to add the extensions of RAW, PSD, TIFF and other files to an “ignore” list located within the app preferences. This is the full list I’ve added there so far: DNG, TIFF, RAF, CRW, MOV, PSD, DB, GRAPHDB, PLIST, and LIJ. It seems there’s a file size limit on images and on videos, because most of my large images (stitched panoramas) and videos of several GB or more didn’t get uploaded. That’s a problem for an app that promises to back up all your media.

There were also quite a bit of crashes. The app crashed daily during the upload process and even now, it crashes every once in a while. I set up my computer to send crash reports to Apple and to the app developers, so I assume that Google got them and will at some point issue an upgrade that fixes those bugs.

I also kept running out of space on my Google account. Given that I’d set the app to compress my images so I’d get “free unlimited storage”, and I’d also set it to back up only my images and videos, this didn’t and doesn’t make sense. Add to this the fact that it’s trying to back up unsuccessfully all sorts of other non-image files (see the paragraph above where I had to add all sorts of extensions to the ignore list) and once again, this app seems like it’s not fully baked. I ended up having to upgrade my storage plan with Google to 1 TB, so it’s costing me $9.99/month to back up most (not all) of my images and videos, compressed, to a service that offers “free, unlimited storage”. The app says I’ve now used up 408 GB of my 1 TB plan. Before I started backing up my media, I was using about 64 GB or so, adding together Gmail and Google Drive. So about 340 GB are getting mysteriously used by some invisible files that I can’t see in Google Photos or Google Drive, but they’re obviously stored somewhere by the Backup and Sync app.

Remember, this is Google. They have a ton of experience with apps, with images and with videos, so why did they push this out when it still has all these issues?

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Thoughts

Body image, public perception and the media

Just wanted to publish here a post I wrote on Facebook this morning about body image and the recent controversy surrounding its representation in the media:

Something I don’t get: people are making such a big deal in recent times about being thin and how the fashion magazines are promoting it. They’re making it into a huge issue, as if the plump girls are being persecuted and they’re putting it as if this has been going on forever.

Truth is, this is only a recent thing. Until the 60s, it was a plump girl’s world. Yes, all the way from antiquity to the 1960s or so, people liked bigger women. The thin ones were the outcasts. Nobody wanted them because they were too skinny. They were told to put on weight. There were ads in magazines everywhere for fattening creams and lotions and vitamins and lard and all kinds of stuff to help girls put on weight fast and become “attractive”.

So here’s what I think: all this bulls**t be damned, if you want to be plump, be plump, if you want to be thin, be thin, but do yourself a favor and stop blaming others for your body type. If you’re plump and you’d rather be thin, stop complaining about fashion magazines and learn to love yourself. If you’re thin and would rather be fat, well then, you’re in luck because there are a ton of processed foods out there to help you achieve your goal.

And if you like yourself just the way you are, congratulations! You’re one of the lucky few who get what it’s like to enjoy life. Go on enjoying it, we typically only get 70-80 years of it and we shouldn’t waste it complaining! 🙂

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Events

Interviewed by Jen Consalvo

I was recently interviewed by Jen Consalvo about my photography. She’s conducting a series of interviews with selected photographers. The series, along with photos from each one, will be included in an upcoming book she’s writing, entitled “Love Your Photos“.

If you’ve been wondering why I write so much about Romania these days, you’ll find the answer in Jen’s interview.

Quoting from her intro:

“as i mentioned in my last post, i’m thrilled to kick off my interview series with photographer raoul pop. i think i first saw raoul’s work when he photographed a tech cocktail event in dc, and was quickly enamored with his style. raoul can turn a seemingly mundane scene into something completely eye-catching, romantic or exciting, which is why i’ve looked to his work for my own inspiration. his photos speak for themselves, but raoul was gracious enough to answer my questions with amazing energy and detail and provide some beautiful examples of his work. i hope you enjoy this interview and raoul’s gorgeous photos as much as i do.”

If you don’t know Jen, she works at AOL along with Frank Gruber, is involved with TECH cocktail, and runs her own projects from Shiny Heart Ventures — websites such as ThankfulFor, BodySoulConnect and Shiny Maine Lobster. She blogs at JenConsalvo.com.

Jen, thank you very much for the wonderful interview, and I’m very glad you find inspiration in my photographs! I wish you all the best in your endeavors!

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Thoughts

Better media width compatibility in WordPress

One thing that works against you when you want to try out new WordPress themes (and this applies for either self-hosted WP installs or for WP.com blogs) is the width of your media, like the images you upload for your blog posts. Many themes are narrower than the width you may have chosen for your images over time, and this means images will either overflow beyond the margin of the main column, crowding out the sidebar and generally making your site ugly, or be cut off, which looks a little better but still ruins the user experience.

For example, most of my posts have images posted at 640 px, 600 px or 550 px wide, and that eliminates a lot of themes for me, even though they may be very nice, because their post column is too narrow to display the images.

I have a solution to this problem.

You know how you can set the size of your photos and videos on the Media Settings page?

And did you know there’s also a media width “guideline” within each theme’s CSS settings page (at WP.com)?

That width is the maximum allowed for videos and images. My current theme, “Journalist” by Lucian Marin, allows media embeds at widths up to 720 px, which is a LOT wider than most other themes, which are still stuck at 500 px or even less, at 420 px.

All of these differences would be okay, provided the WordPress platform were to read the maximum column width of a theme and adjust the maximum image width on the fly.

In other words, instead of hard-coding the image width when they’re uploaded to a blog post, it could simply say “thumbnail”, “medium” or “large”, much like it does for the image align attributes (“left”, “center”, “none”), then figure out what the “large” size really means by looking at the theme’s width limit value.

This way, no matter what theme we may choose, images and videos will still display properly and we’d be happier. After all, they’re already doing this for video auto-embeds. As you’ll see if you look at the screenshot I’ve posted above, they say “if the width value is left blank, embeds will default to the max width of your theme.” What’s to stop them from doing the same with images?

I would also encourage Automattic, should they consider building this into a future version of WordPress, to make sure it’s backward compatible, so that no user should have to go back through all of his or her old posts and make sure all the images are set to the right width if they decide to switch themes. Perhaps they can do this with a wizard that goes through all the images and sets them to the correct width, or the new image embed code can auto-magically fix the image width for old posts.

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Events

Ligia on Radio Ring 90.2 FM

ligia-pop-si-adrian-matei-si-mircea-hodarnau

My wife was a guest on Radio Ring (90.2 FM, Medias, Romania) yesterday evening (12/2), on a show called “Lentila de Contact“, run by the station’s Program Director, Mircea Hodarnau. Ligia talked about her art, her education and her life. This was in preparation for tonight’s exhibition at Casa Schüller, which was attended by over 100 people. She’s showing 36 original large-format quilling creations, and 70 greeting card-format pieces. It all went better than we planned it, and we loved meeting all of the people that came to see her hard work. I’ll have video clips and photos from the gallery processed and posted at some point tomorrow, but I wanted to point you to the recording of the show tonight.

I’d like to thank Adrian Matei and Mircea Hodarnau for offering my wife this wonderful opportunity, for treating her so graciously during the radio program, and for providing us with a publicity photo and a full recording of the show, both of which you can see and hear here.

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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.

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Reviews

Join MP4 files with Front End Digital Media Workshop

Want an easy way to join MP4 clips together? Front End Media Workshop, a nifty piece of Mac software published by the now defunct K-werkx, can definitely help you out. While the folks that put it together aren’t online any longer, the app is still available for download from CNET.

FE_DMW makes it really easy to join video clips

FE_DMW makes it really easy to join video clips

The app (it shows up as FE_DigitalMediaWorkshop in the Apps folder by the way) is meant to do a bunch of other things, but I found it most useful to join together several MP4 clips from my video collection.

For example, I’d purchased a DVD of “The Curious Adventures of Mr. Wonderbird“, a re-titled version of the 1952 original, La Bergère et Le Ramoneur. The film is little known, and features the dramatic escape of a pair of lovers from the claws of a despotic ruler. A curious bird helps them escape and orchestrates the toppling of the ruler’s oppressive regime, which mirrored, at the time, what was going on behind the iron curtain of Eastern Europe. Peter Ustinov voices the bird and also narrates the story.

At any rate, I’d copied the DVD to my computer only to later realize that I’d done it by chapters instead of copying the entire movie as a single file. Front End Digital Media Workshop allowed me to drag the five or six clips for each chapter onto its main window, drag and drop to arrange them in order, then, within minutes, join them together as a single file. The output was saved to the desktop in a folder (one for each join operation), where I could review, rename and archive it.

Sure, if you have Quicktime Pro, you can join video files there, or you can also import them into iMovie, but a small, single purpose app that does it faster and without a lot of fuss scores higher in my book. I may even use it later to snip clips from the beginning and end of some of my other video files, since I see that it has that feature built in as well.

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Reviews

WD TV is better than Apple TV

WD has put a new device on the market, and it’s called the WD TV HD Media Player. It’s a small box that can connect to a TV via HDMI or Composite output cables, and can take most USB external hard drives as input (it should even read USB flash drives as long as they’re formatted in FAT32). Once a device is connected, the WD TV will read the media from that drive (movies, photos, music) and let you browse through them and play them on your TV. What sets this device apart for me is that it has gone beyond other similar devices like the LaCinema Premier, or Apple TV. I’ll explain below.

The LaCie product, for example, doesn’t play as many formats as WD TV, and can only support NTFS and FAT32 file systems.

You’re limited in the amount of content you can play with LaCinema Premier, since the drive is integrated within the device itself, and because not as many video formats are supported (see the specs on the LaCie website). That means you have to lug the whole thing from your home office to your living room, re-connect it at each place, and copy files onto it when you want to refresh its inventory. The remote also leaves something to be desired (too many buttons).

I know and like Apple TV myself, having bought one and configured it for my parents, but frankly, I find it overpriced and under-featured. The more you use Apple TV, the more limitations you find:

  • It has an internal hard drive that syncs with content over a wireless network, which means you have to wait forever to get a movie onto it. The drive can also fill up quickly, depending on which size you pick. (Yes, you can also connect it via a Gigabit network, if you’ve pre-wired your living room and home office with Gigabit wires already — but most people have not.)
  • You can stream to it, but then you always have to keep iTunes open, and it’s a hassle to remember that, especially when you’ve just sat down on the living room couch and turned on the TV.
  • You also need to be able to troubleshoot WiFi issues in case you’re not getting enough bandwidth and Apple TV playback stutters.
  • You have to add every single video clip you want to play on Apple TV to the iTunes library, and I don’t care for that sort of thing. I just want to store my stuff in folders and browse it from a device (like WD TV).
  • Apple TV has a USB port on the back, but you can’t use it for anything but “diagnostics” unless you hack the device. This is stupid. I can’t use the port to connect Apple TV to my computer and copy content onto it, I can’t use it to connect an external hard drive to it and have it read the content from it (like WD TV), and it just sits there, unused, unless I pay for a hacking device like aTV Flash.
  • It overheats like crazy. It can burn your fingers if you’re not careful.

I love the design of Apple TV and its diminutive remote. I love the fact that I can swap remotes between it and my laptop if I want to. I think the on-screen menus are well done. I also like the fact that it can stream Flickr photos and YouTube videos, but these extra functions are just that: extra-neous. It simply cannot do its basic job well, and that is to play my media conveniently.

I’m not alone in being frustrated with it. Thomas Hawk has written repeatedly against Apple TV, and for the very same reasons I describe in this post. Steve Jobs recently said he’s not sure what to do with Apple TV. He’s treating it like an unwanted step child. It’s not listed in the Mac product lineup on Apple’s website. It sits off to the side in a section of its own, and you have to do a search for “Apple TV” in order to find it. Corrected 11/11/08: It’s listed in the iTunes and More line-up along with the iPods.

For one thing, Mr. Jobs, you can stop being so greedy in your approach to the device and let people use the USB port on the back. Or how about letting people stream Netflix videos with it, so they don’t have to buy a separate device? I’m a Mac user and have a Netflix account. Until Netflix release Roku and opened up its streaming program to Mac users, I was in the dark. You probably don’t want to do these things because it’ll cut into your video rentals and purchases, and you like that extra revenue stream, but the fact remains that sales of the device will always remain low if you insist on hamstringing it.

The WD TV Player, on the other hand, is made to suit most people. It has a USB port where you can connect most external hard drives. It will read NTFS, FAT32, and HFS file systems too. (I found that out from WD Support, because the info isn’t listed among the specs. They pointed me to KB article #2726.) There seems to be an issue with HFS+ file systems, but they’ll still work, only differently. I’ll have to look into that later.

Also not listed among the specs is an Optical Audio port, but when I look at the back of the device, it seems to me I can see one there.

To me, WD TV is the long-awaited answer to my media player needs. At around $99 (street price), this is one device that will make its way to my Christmas stocking pretty soon, because I’ve got a Drobo full of content I’d like to play my way, not to mention that I also have two WD Passport drives.

I may even get one for my parents, to replace their Apple TV. They’ve had to keep their Drobo connected to their iMac in the home office, with iTunes open, all this time, just so they could watch a movie or two from the Drobo. That’s not right. Once I get the WD TV, I can take their Drobo, put it in the living room, and hook it up right there, without worrying about WiFi, streaming, iTunes, and a whole bunch of nonsense. Apple dropped the ball with Apple TV, and WD picked it up and started running with it.

The WD TV supports the following file formats:

  • Music: MP3, WMA, OGG, WAV/PCM/LPCM, AAC, FLAC, Dolby Digital, AIF/AIFF, MKA
  • Photo: JPEG, GIF, TIF/TIFF, BMP, PNG
  • Video: MPEG1/2/4, WMV9, AVI (MPEG4, Xvid, AVC), H.264, MKV, MOV (MPEG4, H.264). It will play MPEG2/4, H.264, and WMV9 videos up to 1920x1080p 24fps, 1920x1080i 30fps, 1280x720p 60fps resolution. That’s awesome.
  • Playlist: PLS, M3U, WPL
  • Subtitle: SRT (UTF-8)

I plan to get one soon, and I’ll let you know in this post if it lives up to its specs and my expectations. If you’d like to get one too, Amazon lists them. See below.

You can buy the WD TV Player from:

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