Archive for the 'Technology' Category
Have I mentioned that Les Stroud, host of the Discovery Channel’s Survivorman, is my hero? If you’ve never seen the show, the premise is that Les spends seven days in the wilderness with only the clothes on his back, his cameras, a pocket knife, and a few very basic supplies. He has no film crew with him; he films and narrates the whole thing himself.
It’s a pretty amazing thing to survive for seven days in the extreme places he goes, but it’s even more extraordinary to do a wonderful job of filming the whole thing. He always manages to capture the beauty of his surroundings, as well as the difficulty presented by trying to survive them.
His program is about as real of a survival show as you can get. Sure, he has a safety team not too far behind him and a radio to contact them if things go wrong, but he (and the network) would have to be nuts not to. He gives the viewer real survival advice, not the typical eating gross things and secretly spending nights in a hotel like those other survival shows.
In fact, his show is so good that it has recently helped save some people’s lives. Here are a couple examples:
- Tips from TV show helped Manitoba snowmobiler survive for five days in wilderness
- Found: Couple Stranded In Snow For 12 Days
To a tip of the hat to you, Mr. Stroud, for a job well done! Here’s looking forward to Season 3 of Survivorman.No comments
Reader Mike e-mailed me asking for help deciding which HD camcorder to buy. Currently he’s trying to decide between the Canon HF10, HF100, HV30, or HG10, or the Sony SR11 or SR12. The truth is that any of these cameras will record stunning HD footage. The real differences lie in practical matters; which camera will fit best into Mike’s life? Here’s the questions he (or anybody else thinking about such a purchase) needs to ask:
1. Do you have an HDTV that supports the resolution of the camcorder? You’re likely to be disappointed if your HDTV can’t support the native resolution of your snazzy new camcorder. If you have a 720p or lower resolution TV, you may want to consider upgrading your TV or starting off with a lower-end HD camcorder like the $400 Sanyo Xacti HD700 or even the super-cheap $130 Aiptek A-HD.
2. Do you plan on storing/editing the footage on a computer? If not, you’ll probably want an HDV camcorder like the Canon HV30, as you’ll be creating an instant archive on tape that can be stored in a safe place and easily played back. AVCHD camcorders record to hard drives or memory cards, meaning that archiving footage requires either a computer or an external DVD burner specially made for the camera, like the Canon DW-100
3. If you plan on editing, is your computer up to snuff? On the Mac side, you’ll need an Intel machine with at least 1GB of RAM (2GB or more recommended) to edit AVCHD, and you’ll need to set aside about 40 GB of hard-drive space for each hour of footage you want to store in the editable Apple Intermediate Codec (AIC) format. You’ll also need iLife ’08 or Final Cut Express 4.0 to edit AVCHD. (HDV can be edited with the previous version of each on a PowerPC machine.) On the PC side, you should have an 2.0+ GHz processor with 2GB of RAM, a good graphics card, and plenty of hard-drive space. For editing AVCHD in Windows XP or Vista you’ll need Sony Vegas 8.0 or Ulead VideoStudio 11.
4. How will you play back edited footage on your HDTV? AVCHD camcorders are a one-way street. Once you edit the footage, you can’t put it back on the camcorder. You will need to play it back on a computer connected to your HDTV or on a media device that supports HD, such as the Sony Playstation 3, Microsoft Xbox 360, or Apple TV. Some Blu-Ray players can also play back properly exported movies. With HDV camcorders and the right software, you can export edited footage back to a tape and then play the tape back from the camcorder on your HDTV.
5. How important is portability? Are you the type of person who loathes the thought of carting around a camera bag everywhere you go? A small, flash-memory based camcorder may be your best bet. The “World’s Smallest Full HD Camcorder” champ is the Sony HDR-TG1, which promises to be a very good little camera when it is released in May. If it’s features you want in addition to small size, the Canon VIXIA HF10 or HF100 would be a great choice. Be warned though: These cameras sacrifice some features and usability for their small size. Neither has a viewfinder, which makes filming in bright light difficult, and only the Canon duo has prosumer features like an accessory shoe and microphone input.
6. How important are still photos? As shown in my article Can a camcorder beat a camera at its own game?, the Sony Sony HDR-SR11 and HDR-SR12 can take some darned good still photos. If you want one device that takes great video and good stills, these camcorders are for you! (The best still a Canon camcorder can produce is only 3.1 megapixels, compared to the interpolated 10.2 megapixels of the HDR-SR11 and HDR-SR12.)
AVCHD camcorders are new technology, and this is a double-edged sword. AVCHD is the way of the future and will eventually replace HDV, but you need a good computer and media hub to make AVCHD a practical choice. HDV is tried and true and is the best choice if you don’t mind the hassle of tapes and have older equipment to work with. Keeping all this in mind, here are my picks:
- Flash-Memory AVCHD Camcorder: Canon HF100 (Pros: Amazing video quality and prosumer features in a pint-sized package. Cons: No viewfinder, low-resolution still images. Conclusion: Best choice if portability is more important that features. Buy this and some cheap SDHC memory cards and forget the HF10.)
- Hard-Drive AVCHD Camcorder: Sony HDR-SR11 (Pros: Amazing video quality, great stills, built like a tank, viewfinder. Cons: Larger and heavier than the HF100. Conclusion: The best all around HD camcorder. Forget the more expensive HDR-SR12 unless you truly need all that extra HDD space.)
- HDV Camcorder: Canon HV30 (Pros: The benchmark in picture quality, viewfinder, manual controls. Cons: Smaller zoom, tapes, low-resolution stills, tapes.)
A couple weeks ago my MacBook Pro developed a brand-new feature: Automatic Poweroff! When I would be doing something fairly processor intensive on battery power with around 30-40% charge remaining, it would suddenly and completely shut off. Do not pass go, do not collect $200, go directly to lose all your work. This happened about three times, none of which resulted in me losing anything important. Still, it was very annoying, especially for a computer that is just 10 months old.
Opening System Profiler and taking a look at the battery showed that it had around 160 cycles on it with a Health Indication of “Fair”. The dashboard widget iStat Pro showed that the health was “50%”.
After some research I found out that MacBook Pro batteries manufactured between February 2006 and May 2006 were being flat-out recalled. My battery didn’t fall into this group, but it did fall into the MacBook and MacBook Pro Battery Update 1.2 category. Apple had issued a battery firmware update a while back to fix “issues”, and I had installed this update. Unfortunately certain craptastic batteries would still exhibit the following signs after the update:
Battery is not recognized causing an “X” to appear in the battery icon in the Finder menu bar. Battery will not charge when computer is plugged into AC power. Battery exhibits low charge capacity/runtime when using a fully charged battery with a battery cycle count (as shown in System Profiler) of less than 300. Battery pack is visibly deformed.
I definitely fell under problem #3. Instead of having to call into tech-support hell as I did with my Dell (“and now we press the power button…”), I just made an appointment at the closest Apple Store and took it right in. Despite the fact that the store was jam-packed with an odd combination of geeks and ultra-trendy SoCalites, I only had to wait about 10 minutes. The guy at the “Genius Bar” was nice without being overly friendly. He proceeded to run a whole bunch of programs at once to try to drain the battery quickly, and was able to reproduce the problem after another 15-20 minutes. Once that was done he printed up some paperwork, put in a brand new battery, and sent me on my way. Easy. No stupid questions, no waiting on hold, no pulling out hair trying to explain that I don’t need to defrag the hard-drive.
When I first had this problem my confidence in Apple’s quality took a big hit. Finding that the problem was acknowledged by Apple on their website was a good first step. The totally painless battery replacement experience was a great second step. Dealing with a real, intelligent human face-to-face sure beats the alternatives provided by other computer manufacturers. I’m still disappointed that this happened at all, but I’m glad it was easily resolved. Here’s hoping that the new battery works better than the old one.
I do know one thing for sure: I’m glad I sprung for the 3-year AppleCare plan when I bought this computer.No comments
The new AVCHD support in Apple’s Final Cut Express (FCE) 4.0 makes the program seem like a good choice for use with today’s AVCHD camcorders. All the newest AVCHD models (including the Sony HDR-SR11) record true 1920×1080 HD video. But despite Final Cut Express (FCE) 4.0 advertising support for AVCHD, there is an important limitation: FCE 4.0 only supports a maximum resolution of 1440×1080.
“Wait,” you say. “I thought HD was filmed in wide screen, with an aspect ratio of 16:9 (1.7777). 1440/1080 has an aspect ratio of 4:3 (1.3333)!” Yes, that is correct, but 1440×1080 video is still widescreen HD! It’s just anamorphic widescreen.
Anamorphic technology was developed to squeeze widescreen video into a traditional 4:3 frame without letter-boxing. When anamorphic widescreen video is recorded, the widescreen picture gets squished so it fits in the 4:3 frame. When the video gets played back, the player takes each pixel and stretches it laterally by 133%, resulting in rectangular pixels that fill up a 16:9 aspect ratio screen.
So yes, this is disappointing, but it’s also understandable. AVCHD is new technology and FCE 4.0 is built upon very solid anamorphic foundations. HDV (High-Definition Mini-DV, the predecessor to AVCHD) and older professional HD formats including XDCAM HD, DVCPRO HD and HDCAM are all anamorphic by nature. Rebuilding FCE with native support for 1920×1080 was probably too substantial an undertaking for the 4.0 release; let’s hope it’s coming in the next version! The good news here is that when 1920×1080 support is added you won’t have to transcode all of your video again; FCE 4.0 transcodes 1920×1080 AVCHD video at its native resolution.
You can always export a true 1920×1080 video from FCE 4.0 using Quicktime Conversion, but this video will have been interpolated from the FCE 1440×1080 rendered video. And interestingly enough iMovie ’08 doesn’t seem to have this limitation; there’s no rendering required when working with 1920×1080 video. I can’t confirm that the output from iMovie would be any better than what you get out of FCE.
The thing to take away from all of this is that anamorphic vs. non-anamorphic HD video editing isn’t going to make a huge difference in the quality of the final product. Some people still prefer HDV to AVCHD in terms of video quality, despite the fact that HDV is anamorphic. A bigger concern is encoding the output, as a poorly encoded movie will dramatically decrease the quality compared to the source footage. In fact, to share our edited HD movies we often chose relatively low bit rates to decrease file size, and this choice instantly negates any discussion of anamorphic vs. non-anamorphic due to the amount of quality lost to compression.
Thanks Michael for bringing this to my attention!29 comments
As you know by now, I recently got a Sony HDR-SR11 camcorder. This model proudly proclaims in big bold letters “10.2 MEGAPIXELS Still Image Recording”. Sounds amazing, doesn’t it? A camcorder with more megapixels than most digital cameras! So can a camcorder really beat a digital camera at its own game? Let’s find out.
The Megapixel Game
Digital camera manufacturers would have us believe that the more megapixels a camera has the better photos it will take. Even today’s dinky point and shoot digital cameras post megapixel numbers that would embarrass DSLRs from a few years ago. But I guarantee that the old DSLR will take a better photo than that new-fangled point-and-shoot camera. Optics, sensor size, and onboard processing are all a lot more important to overall image quality than megapixel count. Sure, more megapixels means bigger prints, but who among us ever makes sheets of wallpaper from our vacation photos?
Sony felt that they had to join in on this game with the HDR-SR11, and in order to insure an astounding megapixel number they actually cheat! You see, as I mentioned in my first impressions review, the camcorder has a 5.66 megapixel sensor. So how does a 5.66 MP sensor produce a 10.2 MP image? Simple, the same way you’d create a larger image in Photoshop: interpolation. The camera uses onboard processing to automatically stretch the image. Cheesy, no?
What to Compare?
Despite the fact that Sony are big-time cheaters, let’s go ahead and compare the images from the HDR-SR11 to a digital camera. I don’t think a DSLR would be a fair comparison; the still-photo feature of the camcorder is more akin to a typical point-and-shooter in terms of features. Luckily, I happen to have a decent point-and-shooter handy. It’s the Olympus Stylus 770SW, which is a 7.1 megapixel ruggedized digital camera. It takes great pictures despite its small size and robust nature, and since the HDR-SR11 doesn’t really have 10.2 megapixels it seems like a fair comparison. I took a bunch of photos simultaneously with both cameras in full auto mode. To aid in comparison, I’ve resized the images from the 770SW so they are the same resolution as those from the HDR-SR11. You’ll see some difference in zoom due to the fact that the 770SW has a wider angle lens. Okay, enough tech talk, on to the photos…
Mel and I had been looking forward to heading out to the Wild Animal Park all week so we could try out the new video camera, so this morning when we saw big dark clouds coming we thought for sure our day would be ruined. But we pressed on, making it to the park in time to beat the majority of the crowds. We were pleasantly surprised to find that the clouds from the coast seemed to scatter and dissipate before they reached the park, so we wound up having a beautiful sunny day. We saw lots of animals, I took lots of video, and we ate a tasty (but pricey) lunch at the park.
This afternoon I spent a lot of time editing the video in Final Cut Express (FCE). iMovie ’08 (which I had previously been using to edit videos) is a great program that is easy to use and produces good results, but I was already starting to feel a little limited by it. Making the jump to FCE is huge; it is the same basic program as Final Cut Pro, which is used to edit multi-million dollar movies and TV shows, just missing the more advanced features. Think of it as the Adobe Photoshop of video editing. At first it comes across as a very complicated program, but after spending some time reading the user manual (an 1152 page PDF document) and watching the tutorials on Apple’s website I started to get the hang of it. I can see why people like this program; it allows for a huge amount of control and has some very nice features. It’ll be fun to work with it more in the future. I still have a lot to learn!
And so here it is, my first video from the Sony HDR-SR11 edited in Final Cut Express:No comments
Yesterday was a big day… As soon as 5:00 PM hit, I was out of the office and on the road to go pick up my new toy. It arrived at my house on Friday but nobody was home, so the meanies at UPS held it in their warehouse all weekend. Waiting was painful, but it was certainly worth it. This is one awesome piece of kit!
After spending a significant amount of time mulling over all the pros and cons of HD camcorders, I finally settled on the Sony HDR-SR11. It is an AVCHD camcorder that records to a built-in 60GB HDD. It features a 5.66 megapixel 1/3″ CMOS sensor, 12X optical zoom lens, 3.2″ touchscreen display, viewfinder, 5.1-channel mic, and plenty of other fun features like Nightshot and Slow Motion Recording.
The first thing I noticed when taking it out of the box was that it has a bit of heft, much more so than the Sony DCR-HC48. This is not a bad thing; it feels very solid and well-built. All of the ports are covered by very robust doors, and the on/off/mode switch, zoom toggle, record button, and other controls feel very substantial and well placed. I like the knurled metal knob at the front for doing manual adjustments of focus, exposure, AE shift, and white-balance shift. The touch screen is beautiful; it’s larger than most and has 921,000 pixels, over four times as many as typical camcorder displays. The touch-screen interface seems straightforward, but it can be difficult to find certain settings at first.
Video Quality and Playback
Video quality is stunning; I took it out in the yard and made some quick videos of flowers and trees, then plugged the camcorder’s USB port into the Playstation 3. I was able to play back the AVCHD files via the PS3 without a hitch, and Mel (my wife) and I were both blown away by the beautiful picture. Color representation seemed very good, as did contrast and sharpness. The zoom is also excellent; at 12x optical, it bests most HD camcorders. The amazing thing is that the digital zoom seems completely useable up to 25x. I noticed no picture degradation, likely because the camera is using the sensor’s extra pixels for the zoom. (Remember, HD video only requires 2.1 megapixels, and this camera has 5.66.)
Editing on the Mac
Without loading any software or drivers, I simply plugged the camera’s USB port into my MacBook Pro, which is a 2.2 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo “Santa Rosa” model with 2GB of RAM and OS X 10.5.2. Since I took a few still photos, iPhoto launched automatically and offered to download the pictures to my library. That process went very smoothly, just like with any other digital camera.
Next I launched iMovie ’08, which immediately recognized the camcorder and showed a thumbnail of each clip on the camcorder’s HDD. iMovie also allowed me to play back previews of the clips and to deselect any unwanted clips prior to transfer. This sure beats tape-based camcorders! I recorded only 1 minute and 20 seconds of video, but it took around 5 minutes to transfer and transcode. So far this seems to be the only real downside to AVCHD. The video also ate up a whopping 1.36 GB of disk space… Ouch! Once the video was on my computer, editing was very snappy; moving clips around and adding transitions and effects seemed as fast as with SD footage from the DCR-HC48. The only time I noticed some slight hesitation was during transitions when previewing the movie full-screen.
I used Quicktime to export the movie at 720p for upload to Vimeo using the instructions found here. Exporting the 51 second movie took about 10 minutes and resulted in a 32.2 megabyte file. You can watch the video in SD Flash below, or click the link to go to Vimeo and watch in HD Flash or download the Quicktime file (bottom right corner of Vimeo page).
Overall I’m very pleased with the camcorder so far. I’m looking forward to spending more time with it this weekend. Because this camcorder touts “10MP still images”, I plan on doing a little write-up on the still photo performance soon. Hopefully someone out there is interested in all this gobbledegook, but at least I’m having fun being a geek and playing with my toys!
UPDATE 3/31/08 The still image testing of the HDR-SR11 is now available here.52 comments
As you may have noticed, I’ve made a few videos with my Sony DCR-HC48 camcorder. This model is a middle of the road Standard-Definition (SD) unit that records to Mini-DV tapes. I chose this model because the High-Definition (HD) versions are pricey, and at the time I wasn’t sure if I wanted to make a huge investment in videography. After spending some time with it, I can safely say that the little Sony is a perfectly good camcorder, but I’ve been completely spoiled by watching HD movies and TV. Although the videos look decent at the resolution shown on this site (500 x 281), they look blurry and pixelated on an HDTV or full-screen on a computer monitor. Video can convey a lot more information than a still photo, but (to me) a good photo from a nice digital camera still has a lot more visual impact than an SD video clip.
So photography wins? No way! I really enjoy videography; it adds new dimensions to all the things I like about photography. Add that to the fact that latest HD camcorders produce stunning footage at resolutions higher than a typical computer monitor (1920 x 1080), and videography in HD starts to become pretty darned compelling.
But making the leap to filming in HD raises a lot of big questions. So what’s involved? Here’s what I’ve found out.6 comments
Found on Vimeo, this video shows one of the most amazing R/C plane setups I’ve ever seen. It kind of makes me wonder why the guy doesn’t just get a pilot’s license, but his solution is probably cheaper and surely safer…
Update: Sorry, iPhone/iPad… Flash video only!4 comments
Looking for a great conversation starter? Try “Prius”. It’s not easy to make a box with four wheels, four doors, and four seats so polarizing. It seems that everybody has an opinion about the Prius, but few people talk about what it’s like to actually drive the thing. I mean, isn’t it still a car? It seems to be made of metal, plastic, and glass like every other car on the road. But what if the truth is much more insidious? What if driving one of these things makes you into a smug jerk? What if it makes you part of the Hollywood elite? What if it subliminally brainwashes you into voting Democratic? What if the radio only tunes in to NPR? Curiosity got the best of me; I had to find out.1 comment