Thoughts

How about a real Apple TV (an Apple tablet)?

Ligia and I were watching cartoons in bed this morning, on my laptop, and I realized Apple still hasn’t capitalized on the opportunity to create a real Apple TV. Here I was, after having ejected my external drives, disconnected the laptop from its peripherals, taken it off its stand and put it on our bed, when all of this could be handled very simply with a larger iPod — a combination iPod/Apple TV/Apple Cinema Display.

Try as I might, I just can’t watch movies or video content on my iPod. The screen is too small, even though I have an iPod touch. It has no speakers, so I have to use headphones. Clearly, Apple has the technological know-how to put together a really nice Apple TV that’s not yet another box tethered to a TV in the living room, but a display with integrated speakers and the circuitry that allows it to get on my network and access media from various drives, or to play the media I sync to it through iTunes, or to download media from the Internet. And yet, it’s content to charge people for small fry (iPods, hamstrung Apple TVs, etc.) when it comes to personal entertainment devices.

Just think, with a nice LED screen of about 13-17 inches, a touch screen, plenty of onboard storage, a good battery, WiFi, Bluetooth, and speakers, they could have an amazing device that I could take with me wherever I decide to sit in the house or in the yard. I could take it in bed and watch movies without draining my already tired laptop battery, I could take it outside on the patio at night to watch stuff there, etc.

Apple already has all of this technology. Why don’t they put it together?

They have the LED displays already, in their laptops and in their Cinema line.

led-cinema-display

They have the touch screen capabilities, from the iPod and iPhone.

ipod-touch

They have the media playback capabilities and other circuitry from the Apple TV.

Apple TV

They have the amazing batteries from the MacBook Pro line.

new-apple-batteries

The speakers are also from the MacBook Pro line, and they’re some of the best small speakers on the market, if not the best.

macbook-pro-speakers

People talk about an iTablet, but I’m not really sold on the idea. Yes, if you put all of these components together, you could have an iTablet, but what I want is a larger iPod, or rather a usable, untethered Apple TV with a nice, built-in display and decent battery life. It could look something like this (and no, this isn’t a rendering, it’s a screenshot from Apple’s own website).

itv

Take away the stand, and imagine a nice iPod-like bezel around it, so you can grab it in your hands and hold it. Perhaps it could have some sort of leg that folds out to let it stand on its own, too. This is what I’m looking for. An iPod I can actually watch, anywhere.

Images used courtesy of Apple.

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Thoughts

Gotta give them something to do

It’s easy to decry TV, movies and sports as nothing more than a time suck, as a constant push toward looser morals and a consumer culture, but they also provide a benefit that’s not often discussed — that of giving people something acceptable to do with their time. Among other things, they redirect energy that would be spent on real life behaviors into vicarious behaviors, and in some ways, that’s a good thing in today’s world.

You look back through recent history, and you’ll see that as societies became more civilized, people distanced themselves from nature and segmented their existence not only in terms of time but also in terms of space. When economies were based solely (or mostly) on agriculture and crafts, people had plenty to do all day long. Life and work followed a natural cycle, and they intermingled. (You see some of that these days with telecommuting.) People had homes, and they had land, and they worked on that land and around their homes all day long. They put in long hours during the spring, summer and autumn, and relaxed during winter, at home with their families. Nowadays, very few people still live on that cycle. Most people have office jobs and live in apartment buildings, particularly in the larger cities where the costs of owning a home are prohibitive. When they get home at night, what’s there to do? Little, really. When you have an apartment, what are you going to do? Stare at the walls? Vacuum the floors? Re-organize your sock drawers? I suppose that’s how the need for mass entertainment developed, first with sports, then movies, then TV. When you have (roughly) five hours of free time per day, you’ve got to spend it somehow, so why not become a sports fan, or why not watch movies or TV?

As one follows the progress of their favorite sports team or TV show, they live in that world, through those characters or stars, and experience the highs and lows of that microcosm. Some would say that’s a form of population control, of dumbing down the population, of occupying their time with nonsense so they don’t wake up and start something. In some ways, it is, but it’s also needed. What would people do with the energy and time they spend on sports and TV if those outlets didn’t exist? Some would spend it in positive ways — with their families, on books, arts, hobbies, games, newspapers, trips and the like — and yet others (and this is a number that can’t be quantified) would spend it in negative ways — and the variety of those ways is something that would boggle the mind. For that group of people, the fact that they spend their time in front of the TV or in the stands, cheering for their sports teams, is undoubtedly a good thing.

So, beside the fact that there are very real benefits to TV networks and advertisers as more people tune in to see TV shows and sports matches, or to movie studios as more people go to see their latest creation, or to sports teams when fans fill their stadiums, there are arguable benefits to be gained for society in general as more people tune out the outside world and turn on their TVs. The issue is clearly more complicated than that, and I’m oversimplifying things, but I wanted to point out this particular aspect. It’s but one view among many that can be taken when you talk about this subject. The more I think of this, the more I realize its complexity can’t possibly be explained in a single post, so don’t expect an overarching conclusion here — just an observation.

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Thoughts

Alice in Wonderland official trailer (2010)

Tim Burton’s version of “Alice in Wonderland” is out (the official version, that is). Guess what role Johnny Depp is playing?

alice-in-wonderland-trailer
Alice in Wonderland Official Movie Trailer in HD

Not to be nitpicky, but in the trailer, Alice’s hair is curly before falling through the hole, straight as she’s falling, and curly again when she finds herself on the floor at the bottom. And while she’s falling, her hair drapes downward, which doesn’t make sense. It should be blowing upward, right? Have a look at this frame from the trailer to see what I mean. Looks like they forgot to use some fans when they filmed those sequences, to simulate the force of the air blowing past her during the fall.

alice-falling

The role of the Mad Hatter has naturally been made more prominent since Johnny Depp plays it. It’ll be interesting to see how the story changes to accommodate that.

mad-hatter

Can’t wait to see this movie.

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Reviews

I like "The Saint"

It got panned by the critics. Val Kilmer’s acting was indulgent at times. It was somewhat cliché. What was up with those knee-high socks that Elizabeth Shue’s character wore throughout the movie? Those are some of the things that come to mind when I think of “The Saint” (1997). But it struck a chord with me, from the first time I saw it, and I like it even after all these years.

I think it evokes the feel of that time in Eastern Europe very well. I visited Romania in December 1998, for the first time since I’d left in 1991. The movie and the impressions from my trip match. It was cold, snowy, in many ways dreary, there was poverty all around, but still somehow enchanting, inspiring, in a way that made you feel you could do almost anything, as if the slate had been wiped clean and people were free to start things over.

moscow-scene-1

moscow-scene-2

moscow-scene-3

Simon Templar, the character played by Val Kilmer in the movie, has a long heritage that started in books in 1928. The character itself has been played in movies and on TV by several other actors, Roger Moore being one of the more notable ones. I remember watching Moore in the Saint series as a child growing up in Romania. The films were gripping and I loved seeing a modern-day Robin Hood escape from dangerous situations, just as I enjoyed seeing Kilmer’s character escape from similar situations in this latest installment.

Given the character’s long history, Kilmer had some big shoes to fill in this movie. For example, I thought there were too many close-ups of him. Perhaps the director was trying to establish character, and the close-ups were meant to give us an insight into what S.T. was thinking, but at times, I could see the actor hamming it up behind a thinner-than-usual mask. Still, I always thought Kilmer was charismatic and I don’t begrudge him the less than stellar acting here. Every actor goes through a ham stage in his or her career — most notably of all, the famous John Barrymore, who quite possibly illustrated the very phrase in some of his later film roles.

The film’s tech was amazing for its time. Simon Templar’s phone in the movie — that Nokia phone was something else. It blew me away. I think it could do everything modern phones could do — at slower speeds, naturally — except play movies. I learned it was a Nokia 9000 Communicator, thanks to the Saint.org website. And to think, all of that technology was available in 1997! Nokia was very happy about the phone’s appearance in the movie and even issued a press release about it that same year.

nokia-9000-communicator

nokia-9000-communicator-in-movie

All in all, “The Saint” is one of a handful of movies in my library that I’ve watched multiple times, and will probably watch again. I like it.

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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

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988)

I was elated after I watched “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen”. How can I put it so it’s best expressed? This movie encourages you to achieve your dreams. It tells you that life is an adventure, and that you must go out there and live it to the fullest, chasing after your dreams, unafraid, believing in the impossible, before it is too late. The tale itself is a metaphor that says all of that and more.

The Baron himself is an allegory for one’s soul. When you believe you can achieve what you set out to do, your soul rejoices. It becomes young and full of vigor. That was the Baron at his best, and that’s when he looked like this:

The happy Baron Munchausen

When he or others stopped believing in him, he withered out and started looking like he was just about ready to kick the bucket. That’s what your soul looks like when you don’t believe in yourself. It suffocates and dies a slow death with each day you postpone doing what you really want to do. If you have a hard time seeing this, just try to imagine you’re Baron Munchausen. Think of those times when you lost hope in yourself, and I think you’ll agree you looked pretty grim, too.

The sad Baron Munchausen

You see, the key is to persist, even when things look miserable and there’s no hope. Oftentimes, better circumstances are just around the corner. Or perhaps what you’re going through is a blessing in disguise, only you won’t know this until after the fact. Never listen to the naysayers, and never let anyone get you down. The foil (bad guy) in the movie was Horatio Jackson, a nasty, no-good, scheming fiend who inflicts pain and suffering on everyone around him. Don’t be that guy. Be the good guy. Be the Baron.

Don't let bad people discourage you

What’s important is that you never give up on what you really want to achieve. If it’s something worthwhile, sooner or later the right door will open and you’ll walk through it, victorious. That’s when those around you will look at what you’ve done in awe, and they’ll get it.

The victorious Baron Munchausen

Another wonderful lesson from the movie is that it’s never too late to recapture your dreams. This is shown very well by the Baron’s troupe, who’ve gotten old and have completely forgotten about their special abilities. Their talents have turned into their defects. Yet the Baron inspires them to reach deep down and rekindle the flames that once burned bright in their hearts, and they come to life. Their old talents return.

Victory at any age

These are just a few of the lessons from the movie. It makes so many more statements, many of them political. There’s a very healthy amount of disdain in the movie for so-called political diplomacy and totalitarian governments of any kind, and I share the filmmaker’s feelings there as well. The larger statement made there is, I think, that people do better when they believe in themselves and connect their talents to achieve something for the greater good, without the government getting involved and mucking things up. I can get behind that.

In the end, the best lesson of all is that you and I and everyone should be the Baron. Go out there. Chase your dreams. Do your best to achieve great things. Don’t let norms and rules and nasty people get in the way. Keep your goal in front of your eyes and ignore everything else, but make sure to listen to the still small voice that is your conscience — portrayed in the movie by Sally, the little girl.

If you’ve already watched the movie, but didn’t see it my way, give it another try. Watch it again through the lens of imagination, and see what you see.

You can find out more about this movie at IMDB, rent it from Netflix, or buy it from Amazon.

Images used courtesy of the filmmakers.

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Reviews

Hardware review: Elgato Turbo.264

I’ve been using the Elgato Turbo.264 hardware encoder since February of 2008 (see item 5 here) and am happy with it. When I first saw it on the Elgato website, I thought it was a gimmick. After all, what could a little USB stick do that my iMac’s or my MacBook Pro’s CPU and GPU couldn’t do? I was in for a pleasant surprise.

Elgato Turbo.264

The Turbo.264 was launched on May 16, 2007. The original press release claimed that it would not only speed up encodings to the MP4 format using its own software, but that it would also speed up exports from iMovie, Quicktime Pro and other Mac software. I haven’t been able to figure out how to do the latter, but can definitely vouch for the former. I’ve converted virtually all of my DVDs to electronic format with the Turbo.264, and yes, it has sped up that process significantly.

Encoding speeds will vary depending on what your computer is doing at that time, and on the export quality (Apple TV, iPod, etc). You can easily select the type of output for your exports from a drop-down menu when you drag a movie onto the Turbo.264 app — yes, the UI is that easy to use. The encoding speeds I’m quoting below refer to exports for Apple TV, which are the highest quality in terms of resolution and bit rate.

I should mention that while the Turbo H.264 takes most of the processing load off your CPU, it doesn’t handle all of the computing tasks by itself. From my experience, encoding movies without the Turbo.264 meant the CPU usage stayed somewhere between 90-100%. Encoding movies with the Turbo.264 meant the CPU usage stayed somewhere between 25-35%, allowing me to use my machine for other tasks such as processing photos in Lightroom or working in Dreamweaver.

Elgato Turbo.264

From my own experience, I’ve seen the Turbo.264 take a mere 2-3 hours to encode a movie on my iMac G5 (2GHz PowerPC CPU, 2GB RAM) when it would have taken me somewhere between 24-48 hours to do it with Quicktime Pro. This usually meant encoding speeds were somewhere between 20-24 fps. On my MacBook Pro (2.5GHz Intel Core 2 Duo CPU, 4GB RAM), encoding speeds approach and sometimes excel 30 fps, which means movies are encoded at normal playing speeds.

Speeds will also vary given the type of storage you’re using for the original movies and exported movies. I’ve seen slightly faster encoding speeds on Firewire 400 drives vs. USB 2.0 drives, and I’ve gotten my fastest encoding speed to date, 35-36 fps, when I used a FW 800 drive. In other words, the movie to be encoded should be stored on the FW drive, and you should also be exporting to that same FW drive. If you’re storing and exporting movies to your local drive, encoding speeds will be slower, and you’ll be slowed down even more by Time Machine, because it’ll kick in every hour and try to copy the changed files to the backup drive.

When I encoded movies, I usually had no other apps open, or if I did, it was usually only Firefox or Safari or Mail or some other lightweight app. As a matter of fact, I’m encoding a movie from a portable USB 2.0 drive (see item 4 here) as I write this, and I’m getting 31 fps, which seems to be the usual encoding speed on my MBP.

Encoding speeds were fastest when exporting for my iPod Touch (it’s the iPhone setting in the Turbo.264 app). It took as little as a half hour to encode a full movie for my iPod, which meant I could be done preparing movies for a long plane ride in about 2 hours.

Nothing’s perfect, and I do have a few complaints about the Turbo.264. While the encoding software is intuitive and easy to use, sometimes it’s too easy, and there’s no option that lets me separate chapters from titles. What happens then is for DVDs that aren’t built right — the main feature isn’t a separate title from the ads, previews and other features on the DVD — the Turbo.264 won’t know the difference and it will encode all of those things together with the main feature, which means I have to do extra work afterward cleaning up the file.

Elgato Turbo.264

For example, I’ll sometimes get those annoying and tacky copyright warnings at the start of my encoded movies. I couldn’t care less about them and I don’t want to see them. These are my movies and I’m not doing anything illegal. Or, I’ll get the second title on a DVD appended onto the end of the first title, and then I have to split the file, making me do extra work.

If you’re looking for a product that will let you speed up the encoding of HD videos (720p and 1080p), the Turbo.264 can’t help you there; it can only encode videos up to 800x600p in resolution. On the plus side, it will encode both NTSC and PAL videos, which is to be expected given that Elgato is a German company.

Sometimes, and only for some movies, the Turbo.264 won’t properly mux the audio with the video. The sound will be off by a fraction of a second (or more), which is really annoying. I discussed the muxing issue in more detail in the past. The thing to do is to always check the encoded files carefully. Sometimes you may need to re-encode some files, or use an alternative encoding app, such as Handbrake.

This leads me into a discussion of the Turbo.264 alternatives. There are two that I’ve used and liked: Handbrake, mentioned above, and ffmpegx. They are both faster than using Quicktime Pro, naturally, but both are slower than Turbo.264. Of the two, only Handbrake can encode with the H.264 codec, which is the preferred way to encode MP4 files these days, and it’s much slower than Turbo.264 at that. However, if you use the ffmpeg codec in Handbrake, it is significantly faster than Turbo.264, about 2-3 times faster when exporting for Apple TV, at a similar bit rate (cca 2500 kbps). Of course, then you can get into a discussion of the quality issues between the two codecs, and that’s beyond the scope of this review. The important thing is that the alternative is there if you want it.

Elgato Turbo.264

The question you’ve got to ask yourselves is this: is your time more precious than $100? If you find yourselves with a big library of movies that you want to encode for Apple TV or for WD TV, and you want to encode them using the H.264 codec, then the answer is yes — at least it was in my case. For a few days at least, Elgato is making that decision easier: if you’re in the US, they’re running a special MacWorld deal for this week only (until 1/10/09), and they’re selling the Turbo.264 for $69.95.

Reference: official specs for Turbo.264. Buy it from: Amazon, B&H Photo. Photos used courtesy of Elgato.

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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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Thoughts

Hooray for Netflix Watch Instantly abroad

Updated 8/11/11: The loophole detailed in this post has been closed off by Netflix, but there’s a simple way to bypass their new rules, provided you have a US credit card and mailing address. I’ve written a new how-to article that details how I’ve been watching Netflix from outside the US for the past year. ➡ Click here to read it

My wife and I are avid Netflix users, and we had a problem. We knew we’d be going abroad for an extended stay in Romania, and we didn’t know how we could get Netflix service there. Of course we realized DVD shipments wouldn’t work, but we thought the Watch Instantly feature would at least be available to us. I love streaming movies to our laptops, and was excited by the availability of Watch Instantly on our Macs when it became available in November of 2008.

The official word from Netflix is that Watch Instantly is not available outside of the US, due to licensing agreements.

Netflix Watch Instantly not available outside of the US

Fortunately, there’s a loophole. If you go to your queue, you can select movies from the queue and stream them to your computer by clicking on the Play button there. It’ll take a while to buffer them — I think it’s because a connection from Romania to Netflix isn’t as reliable for streaming movies as a connection from inside the US. The Netflix player insists on buffering the stream all the way to 100%, but in a few minutes or a little more time, depending on the speed of your connection, you could be watching a Netflix movie on your computer, as if you were back in the US.

Netflix Watch Instantly buffering outside the US

Netflix Watch Instantly playing outside the US

I hope Netflix doesn’t close this loophole. Their restriction doesn’t make sense to me in the first place. After all, non-US residents can’t get Netflix accounts. You have to have a US address and live in the US in order to get a Netflix account. And if you, a US citizen or resident, happen to be traveling abroad and you have an active Netflix account, you should be able to log on and watch movies. You’re paying for the service, so it’s your right.

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Reviews

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.

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