n3wblog tech commentary and observations from the future

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iTunes, save me from my metadata!

Hey everybody, there’s a new iTunes out! The venerable music app is now 11 versions old and this marks the biggest departure in its interface since it was introduced back in the fuzzy days of 2001. iTunes 1.0 originally started out as an application called SoundJam MP and for a fascinating tour down memory lane, check out this article at MacILife.com.

Quickly find items, artists and albums

omg what is going on with this gradient?

The Good

There is a new emphasis on easily playing music in iTunes 11. The “Up Next” feature is probably what most people have wanted for a very long time. No longer will you have the problem of stopped music while browsing around in your collection because you weren’t looking at the thing that was playing. Up Next keeps a running queue of music you can add to on the fly and its easily-accessible from most locations of the app via the little “Fly-out arrows” next to an album, artist or track.

And now The Bad

I started writing this last night while struggling to compare albums in my collection. I’ve been in the process of converting nearly 2000 albums to Apple’s Lossless Encoding format. I am not a typical user and I get that this puts me into a category of people you might want to avoid on the street.

The only way I can deal with a large collection of music like this is to have full access to it. When I want to know if I’ve ripped a given album as Lossless or not, I need to be able to see the columns that say “Kind” and “Bitrate”.

Column view with dates and format information

Another common thing I do is check to see when I encoded something. Or sort based on when a track was last played or added to my collection. In the new iTunes, this information is quite a bit harder to get to. Searching via the entry field in the top right now brings you to the album view. Selecting an artist or album in this view presents a fly-out arrow and allows you to go to the Artist or Show in Store, but gone is the option to show this entry in the library (up until iTunes 11, it was a writeable pref).

fly-out arrow, go to "Aphex Twin"

The new emphasis on this “Album View” means you have to manually scroll through all your music in the browser to find what you’re looking for. This is tedious.

Aphex Twin Album View in iTunes 11

The other unintended side-effect is that if you have a lot of items in your collection that are album fragments or bits of albums that for some reason aren’t identified as part of the same album, you’ll get multiple entries for the same thing.

Same Album Multiple Times

I have large swaths in my library that look like this in “Album” view. Other chunks will have large gaps of empty album covers. If I expand any of these partial albums, I see individual tracks from the same album that are separated from the others. To say that I am somewhat particular about my metadata is not a stretch. Just looking at the above picture, it occurs to me that the two album covers for The Campfire Headphase are slightly off color-wise. Does iTunes hash albums based on cover art? Quite likely! Strangely, I have tried to combine the cover art from that very album in the past and have not had any luck in forcing iTunes to consolidate the album. And these are from discs that I have ripped myself.

The only way I can play albums that are split apart like this is by viewing them in the old browser view which does the right thing and displays them all as part of the same artist and album. Yes, I can use the new Up Next feature (which is quite nice!) and manually arrange the tracks in the correct order but that doesn’t sound like a lot of fun when I just want to play a single album in order.

Help!

Ahh... Sidebar

Is there anything we can do? One thing which helps ease the pain somewhat (besides drink) is restoring the old sidebar. This gets rid of the dinky drop-down in the top left used for selecting Music, Podcasts and whatever else. To get it back, go to the View menu and select Show Sidebar.

View Menu, Show Sidebar

This may be small consolation, but it helps a bit.

Some features are just gone. The iTunes DJ for example. And what’s all this “cloud” shit all over my iTunes window?

If anyone can figure out how to make the Songs view with Browser the default when searching or otherwise, I will take them out for dinner and drinks at the venue of their choosing.

OpenFeint gaming service closing its doors on December 14 | Android Central

OpenFeint gaming service closing its doors on December 14 | Android Central.

Can’t say I’m hugely surprised. It felt like all this “service” really did for me was get in the way of playing games. After Game Center was available on iOS, it felt even more redundant.

The one game I remember enjoying that made use of this service was Tilt To Live on iOS. Great action/arcade game with some pretty amusing achievements.

Goodbye OpenFeint! You were unnecessary.

Goddamnit, iTunes

This morning I got onto my computer and was looking forward to watching an episode of The Walking Dead, recently downloaded for me in iTunes. Instead, I was greeted with this:

Nope. I don’t get to watch the show I paid for on my computer because my monitor isn’t HDCP-capable. C’mon, Apple, I gave you money so I could watch this “legally”. The least you could do is let me watch it on my very nice, non-Apple monitor. You killed DRM in music, and I’m really thankful you did that. It’s time to do the same for video.

PS, it’s now legal to transcode media and make backups of it in Canada for personal use. I think that’s pretty neat.

Personal Storage

cube

Every once in awhile, it occurs to me that I’m toting around several encyclopediae1 worth of data. At last count, I was somewhere around 350GB of data on my person and in my go bag. That was in 2008.

Four years later, the count has changed a little bit. My laptop alone has 732GB. Let’s assume I’m not carrying my big camera with me and I’m just, I dunno, “about town”. I probably have my phone and my Nexus 7 on me because they’re small. They have 32GB combined. My camera has 3 16GB cards for it. I probably have the aforelinked Cruzer and my Patriot thumb drives for another 12GB. All of this clocks in around 800 or so GB. Let’s just call it a Terabyte for the hell of it.

Then there are the sensors. I have 4 devices on me with accelerometers. I have at least 5 cameras, 3 microphones, moisture sensors, a barometer, god knows how many thermometers. I don’t know how many radio transceivers I have on me at any given moment, but I can tell you that they cover several radio bands and power ranges. When you start imagining all of those things being turned on and capturing data as you might when you record a GPS track or take some pictures, things start to get a little magical. Imagine what a “live recording” app would look like if it could simultaneously record everything all of those sensors has access to and plotting it with your position on earth. Now multiply that by all the data Everyone Else is recording and you start to see a very interesting world superimposed over the real one.

But, as they say, that’s just the tip. That phone I’m carrying in my pocket has an always-on internet connection. I have a link back to my house where I keep all my music and data. Suddenly, the amount of available storage space I have just went non-linear. I’m really only bound by the tiny sliver of bandwidth Rogers sees fit to provide me with. But even that limitation is only a temporary problem. There is plentiful open wifi all around us. We could, in theory, be recording everything at very high resolutions and not even worry about how much it takes to store it. Storage has vanished for us as a thing we have to worry about.

I’ve gotten rid of most of my physical books.

1. an encyclopedia used to be a shelf full of books.

Skyrim Shutdown Crash

I like Skyrim. It’s a great game. I wish I could play it on my PC.

Often, and I’m not sure what the cause is as it seems to vary depending upon location or “some other set of conditions”, my PC will shutdown and reboot. I’ve been running temperature monitors and everything is well within tolerances. One possible correlation is that it happens soon after I load into a new area.

The googles suggest various bits of voodoo but nothing official. There are also enough occurrences of this that it doesn’t appear to be specific to my machine.

I’m posting my configuration in case others have had similar problems:

Please leave a comment if you’ve had this problem yourself. Double-plus bonus points if you have a fix for it.

Update 2012/04/04: It isn’t my RAM:

memtest86+

Lumix GX1: 14mm Street Shooter

Earlier this month I waxed enthusiastic about my latest toy, the adorably-named Panasonic Lumix DMC-GX1. Since then, I’ve had a chance to read Peter Thomsons’ review of the 14mm F2.5 pancake lens in his London Street Photography blog. I highly recommend it and the linked reviews from that article, they’re all excellent.

I’ve been a fan of the 14mm pancake since I got mine with my GF2 last year. It is surprisingly good, amazingly compact and unobtrusive. I find this lens on the front of my camera about 50% of the time. I tend to use it as the default when storing my camera in its bag, mostly because it’s compact, and keeps a lens on the camera for shooting if I want to snap something quickly. The other half of the time, I revert to the 20mm F1.7. It’s hard to talk about a micro-four-thirds system without mentioning one of these two lenses they are so canonical to the system.

Reading the reviews of the 14mm made me realize something though: It is a fantastic little lens.

overlook

Maybe because of the low price or diminutive size or plain old utility of it, it never reached out and struck me as a real attention-grabber. It sort of quietly does its job, lets you shoot great pictures and all the while doesn’t draw attention to itself.

It’s also a focal length I really love. At a full-frame equivalent of 28mm, it is a medium wide-angle lens. You can get quite a lot of scenery in a single shot.

pigeons

I was in London last week and when I was lucky enough to do some walking about, I kept this little lens on the front of my camera. It really shines in a street setting, giving you enough room to take in some of the scenery around your subject if you want to. If you want to fill a frame with something, you have to get in close which can be fun (or a little daunting).

procession

If you have a micro four-thirds camera and you don’t have one of these little gems (I believe we’re calling them “the pocket rocket” now), you owe it to your camera to pick one up. They really are amazing.

Your Content

listening to Hitting the Surface by Monolake from the album Ghosts.

It’s the future. You have a device in your pocket that is exponentially more powerful and has hundreds, maybe thousands of times more storage than the largest computers of 30 years ago. Maybe you have a bag with a tablet computer in it which is roughly comparable in terms of storage and processing power to the phone in your pocket. Only bigger. They are massively-capable devices by any measurement we care to throw at them.

You’re listening to music from your phone on your headphones.

This is where our story gets a little strange. Where did that music come from? More and more, people are streaming music from an online service without actually storing anything on their local device. Services like rdio, 8tracks, spotify seem to be growing in popularity. Most people think the notion of buying music on a CD is quaint or even absurd. If you happen to be someplace and want to watch a video on your tablet, chances are you’ve downloaded it or streamed it from somewhere. Almost nobody would consider buying a movie on a DVD and transferring it to their iPad.

iPad Workplace 2.0
iPad Workplace 2.0 by mbiebusch

Yes, iPad. If you have a tablet, there is a high probability it’s one of those things that Apple sells. Android on tablets has not taken off with the exception of the Kindle Fire. And Apple just released a new one this week.

While they’re marvelous devices, getting content onto them is something of a challenge. They only support a very narrow band of video formats for playback. If you’ve downloaded a video from somewhere, unless you carefully checked the format beforehand, it probably won’t play directly on your iPad. If you’re a determined sort of individual, you might have Handbrake or Miro Converter on your computer and can transcode that video before transferring it to your iPad.

The key ingredient here is “computer”. There are no tools native to the iPad that let you do this sort of conversion. Worse, there are very few players capable of playing back these alien formats on the iPad. The short-lived VLC promised to do for the iPad what it does for general purpose computers but it was not meant to be. Now it’s dead. There is an Xvid/DivX player but it is predictably awful.

This is no accident. Apple really wants you to get all your content from the iTunes Store. They’ve made it difficult to write software to do this sort of thing on the iPad and even more difficult to actually get it into the app store where people can download it. They’ve limited the codecs they support. And they don’t provide tools to convert video to it on your computer. Services like Netflix exist and will happily stream video to you if you’re a member, but you’re borrowing that media. When it’s off their servers, you don’t get to watch it again.

How many years until this same thing has happened to computers? Not soon enough for the media companies.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-GX1

Awhile back I posted about the Lumix GF2 and promised I’d write a post about some hacks I was hoping to find. Well, short of the little popup-flash bounce trick, those hacks never really materialized for me.

The GF2 served me well. It’s a great little travel camera, but the lack of dedicated hardware controls made it feel a little toy-like, despite the excellent implementation of its touch screen controls. The GF2 also lacked an external shutter release, a feature I use constantly for macro shots or when on a tripod. Long exposures take as long to process as your shutter release time – a 30 second exposure takes 30 seconds to finish recording – that’s pure waiting time when you can’t take another shot. It makes the GF2 useless for some types of time-lapse photography.

Which brings us to the GX1. Announced late in 2011, the GX1 promised to be the true successor to the now cult-status GF1, the origin of the micro-four-thirds species. With the updated 16MP sensor replacing the now aged 12MP LiveMOS sensor and a processor that’s been tweaked and upgraded from the top-end G3, the GX1 is probably the fastest m4/3 camera in Panasonic’s lineup.

GX1

The camera starts up and is ready to fire in just over a second (depending on lens). DPReview clocked power to exposure time at around 1.4s in their excellent review. Subsequent shots are a mere 0.2s including auto-focus. Long exposure shots are recorded with very little delay regardless of exposure time. Touch screen controls feel responsive and snappy for the most part, the exceptions being a few animated UI elements that feel a tad sluggish (the touch tabs interface, for instance). Fortunately, for most of these touchscreen features, there are now dedicated hardware controls to access functions directly.

Construction-wise, the GX1 is a solid little camera. The addition of the extra chunky rubber grip on the front feels good in the hand, though it does feel like there isn’t a lot of space for your thumb on the rubber grip surrounding the command dial. That said, I don’t think I’ve accidentally hit any of the controls with my thumb during shooting. It’s a fairly comfortable camera to hold with one hand if you need to. Shutter release feel is excellent with good feedback on half-presses.

Controls

GX1 back

The controls are comprehensive. Two hardware Fn buttons are assignable and an additional two are available in the touch tab interface. By default they’re set to Auto Exposure for Fn1, AF/AE Lock for Fn2, and Fn3 and 4 are set to adjust display paramaters (level guide and histogram respectively). These are pretty sane defaults and I like the positions of Fn1 and Fn2 for auto exposure and AF/AE lock well enough. Astoundingly, the button labeling on the four-position buttons are silver on silver guaranteeing they’re impossible to read in any light. Fortunately, you’ll get to know them pretty quickly. I chose the “silver” body for my GX1 and the other button labels are white on the somewhat dark silver body. Also not super-easy to read, but I still like the nearly titanium color of the aluminum body.

One slightly surprising change is the single control dial (referred to as Rear Dial in the manual) has been made slightly smaller on the GX1. This means you need more rotations to accomplish the same change as on previous models. A minor point but one that makes the control dial feel a little bit clunky. I’m also not a huge fan of the feel of this control. I’d prefer something more solid with better feel. As probably the single-most heavily used control after the shutter release, it’s a control I’d prefer had better tactility. This does however encourage use of the auto exposure button on Fn1 when shooting in any of the manual exposure modes. The rocking power switch next to the excellent mode dial on top has a somewhat cheap feel to it as well. I’m worried that I’ll break it off someday. The battery and memory card door on the bottom is the only other piece of plastic on the body that feels like it could break if I weren’t careful. I’d probably have to be a complete ass to manage that though as when it’s closed, it’s fairly tight.

My only other quibble with this camera is the inclusion of Panasonic’s iA button. iA stands for “Intelligent Auto” and is a feature for novice shooters who just want a point and shoot. Dedicating a full button on the top plate for this feature is pretty annoying on a camera aimed at enthusiast shooters. I’d far prefer it were programmable. Your only option is to set the iA button to “click and hold” to eliminate accidental presses. If you’re into iA mode, it lights up in a garish blue when activated letting the world know that you don’t know how to use your camera.

Video

Other fun features on the mode dial are various scene and creative modes that let you alter the colors and shooting characteristics if you’re into the whole instagram thing and shoot in JPEG. One nice feature of these modes is that they work when shooting video. This gives you an easy way to shoot in sepia or black and white without requiring time-consuming post-processing on your computer. More-importantly, the custom white balance modes also function in movie recording. If you want to shoot with a cyan or orange filter or green up your fluorescent lights like you’re in an episode of CSI, you can do it.

These are great little cameras for video and honestly one of the main reasons I became interested in micro 4/3. They take a bit of getting used to. Some lenses have different focusing characteristics and if you’re shooting in continuous auto-focus they tend to hunt a bit. This is where the touch screen auto-focus really comes in handy. Setting yourself in single shot auto-focus and using the touch screen to pick your focus point mid-shot (called “rack-focus”) or using face or target tracking autofocus modes let you shoot a scene with impressive results. Something I still need more practice with.

The GX1 has returned to offering a stereo condenser mic on the top, a feature missing from the GF3. I don’t believe it’s possible to attach a hot-shoe mounted stereo mic as is possible on the more video-focused GH2 though for my needs, the built-in mic is just fine.

Conclusion

So there you have it! The GX1 is a superb “little” walking around camera. With the 14mm pancake lens or the 14-42mm power-zoom, it’s quite pocketable. Having traveled with it a couple of times now, I have no qualms about carrying it in a small camera bag, you can pack a surprising amount of photo gear into a compact carrier. Would this replace my Nikon DSLR? Probably not (14 bit color in the Nikon, multiple exposure capabilities, a whole different range of high quality lenses, etc.). But for travel or street shooting, I think the GX1 and a couple of hot primes fits the bill nicely.

working late
A high ISO test shot, cleaned up in Light Room.

camera pr0n
Camera Pron with the 45mm Leica 2.8 Macro.

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