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January 16, 2008

MacWorld Update

Much to write about today with MacWorld going on...


First, the iPhone update. Well, I'm a little disappointed that they didn't announce Flash support and Exchange support for Calendar & Contacts, but the features they did put in are pretty cool. Customizable home screen, locate current position in Maps, create Home icons for web pages, and send SMS to multiple people.

Amazingly, two new pieces of hardware - an ultrathin notebook called MacBook Air and a home backup server and wireless base station called Time Capsule. Time Capsule includes up to 1 terabyte of storage and uses the new, faster wireless standard 802.11n for typical speeds of 74 Mbps (about 3.5x faster than 802.11g). Combining the wireless with the hard drive is a bold move, but 802.11n will last for many years, so it's not as if you will be stuck with an outdated wireless device anytime soon. And guess what, AppleTV has 802.11n as well, and that's fast enough to comfortably stream really nice HD video around the house (802.11a/g can do it, but a low signal or other network activity can break performance), so Time Capsule + AppleTV = happiness for your HDTV screen.

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  • Movie rentals, both HD- and DVD-quality
  • TV show, music, and music video purchases
  • Photos from Flickr and .Mac web galleries
  • Direct access to over 125,000 podcasts

(BTW, if you are not already using Roxio Popcorn 3 to prep your videos for AppleTV, you should get it - gives you a lot more to watch on AppleTV if you have a large collection.)

Apple finally got the message and is starting movie rentals on iTunes (I doubt any credit will go to Microsoft for offering this on XBox marketplace for the past 18 months). It's a mad dash for the OnDemand world as Comcast, AT&T, Apple, Microsoft and others fight for your "click to buy/rent" dollar.

Apple never ceases to impress, and even with all the noise from CES last week, they put on a good show.

January 21, 2008

The Hunt for the Perfect CD Marker

If you're like me, you probably label most CDs by reaching for the nearest felt-tip pen or magic marker. For special ones you'll spend the time to create a nice color label, but most just get a quick few strokes of the pen.

When it comes to CD labeling, however, not all magic markers are created equal. Using the wrong marker can literally destroy your disc and make it unreadable. According to a librarians' organization, the only safe CD markers are water- or alcohol-based. If you can smell your marker, it is probably solvent-based, and can cause the thin lacquer coating protecting the top of the disc to dissolve. A ball point, even a rollerball, is also a nono, since it can literally scratch through the coating. DVDs are a little less vulnerable, since they have polycarbonate coatings on both sides of the disc, but we prefer to simply be on the safe side for all optical discs. If your backup photo disc is unreadable five years down the road, you're not going to remember what marker you used, only that you've lost your precious photos.

So where can you find CD-safe markers? Wanting to find the best way to label our discs, we went on an online search for the perfect CD pen. We were amazed to find a large selection of markers specially designed for CD and DVD labeling from Sharpie, Staedtler, Dixon, eFilm, TDK and more, none of which we'd ever seen in stores. So we ordered up samples and put them to the test. Two clear favorites emerged: the Sharpie CD/DVD Permanent Marker and the Staedtler Lumocolor CD/DVD Marker.

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Sanford Sharpie (left) and Staedtler Lumocolor (right) CD/DVD markers.

Both come in red, blue, green and black so you can indulge your color whims. The Sharpies are double-ended, with one ultra-fine tip and one fine tip that is also good for marking jewel cases. We really liked having a choice of thicknesses. They are also non-toxic, for use around small children. The Lumocolors have a fine tip for precise writing, plus the advantage of being dry-safe, which means you can leave them uncapped for days without drying up, and they are always ready to start writing. Both sets of markers dried quickly and were reasonably smudgeproof and waterproof.

For more great information on safe labeling and storage of CDs and DVDs, including how they react to light, moisture and x-rays, check out the Council on Library and Information Resources' guide to the "Care and Handing of CDs and DVDs."

January 22, 2008

Wireless SuperCameras

Quick, what gadget won Best of Show awards at BOTH the Consumer Electronics Show and Macworld Expo this month? If you guessed some form of music player or high-def video equipment, you'd be forgiven, but the answer is Eye-Fi, a tiny little SD card that fits in most digital cameras and gives them wireless superpowers as well as 2GB of memory.

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With Eye-Fi, you can send photos directly to your Mac or PC, and to photo sharing sites like Flickr, Facebook, Photobucket, Webshots, Snapfish, Windows Live, TypePad and many more. There's no USB cable to remember or carry around. (How many times have you forgotten yours or had to buy a new one because you left it somewhere?) All you need is your camera and a Wi-Fi network, at your home, work or friends' house. You don't even need your laptop for uploading to the Web. Wi-Fi encryption passwords are supported, although not logins at places like Starbucks, where a Web browser would be needed to get online. At Macworld Expo Eye-Fi also announced support for direct iPhoto import.

Before Eye-Fi, there were a few cameras with built-in Wi-Fi, but with very limited features. For example, the Nikon CoolPix 550c lets you send pics from the camera to your PC without wires, but only supports Flickr and a special Nikon site for uploads. The Eye-Fi's ability to work with a wide variety of sites and any camera model that takes SD cards is liberating.

Even so, the Eye-Fi's success should push more camera vendors down the wireless route. Wireless photo transfer and uploading is just too good a feature to leave entirely to third parties. At CES, Sony was showing a camera with an entirely new wireless technology, dubbed TransferJet, that works simply by touching two TransferJet-enabled devices together. It runs at a peak speeds of 560Mbps and sustained throughput of 375Mbps, far faster than Wi-Fi, and comparable to USB 2.0 at 480Mbps or FireWire at 400Mbps. Sony envisions it being used in cameras, camcorders, cell phones and other portable devices, with data being transferred to your computer, media player or even TV for direct playback. Imagine touching your cell phone to your computer to download photos and video, or your camcorder to your TV to view your latest recording on the big screen. We can't wait.

January 31, 2008

Megapixels Aren't Everything

As I wander around this week's PMA show, the digital camera mecca put on by the Photo Marketing Association, two trends emerge right away. First, camera vendors are finally busting out of their collective my-megapixels-are-more-than-yours rut and promoting features that actually improve the quality of your picture-taking, not just the size of your files. And second, people must love blue, fuschia and pink-hued cameras -- the aluminum rainbows many new models come in remind me of my grandmother's juice glasses.

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Separated at birth? Fuji FinePix cameras on the left, Target Retro Aluminum Tumblers on the right.

So what new features should you be looking for in this year's digital camera crop? Canon, Panasonic and others were showing off cool facial-recognition technology that ensures your subjects will always be in focus and properly exposed, no matter what the surroundings. And motion detection and image stabilization (IS), formerly the province of high-end pro cameras and lenses, have gone mainstream. These can help compensate for the motion blur caused by shaky hands and squirmy kids. To see the difference image stabilization can make, check out this sample image from Canon:

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Other common new features include bigger and brighter LCDs for framing and reviewing photos, fast sequential shooting (great for shooting sports and children), and quicker response times. The absolute best thing you can do for your candid photography is buy a camera that takes the picture when you press the button, not 1 or 2 seconds later...

For beach and snow vacations, I also like Olympus' Stylus SW line of shockproof, freezeproof and waterproof cameras. Olympus has them in the booth frozen in ice, swimming in aquariums, and bouncing down a pegboard into a puddle. Tuck one of these babies in your shorts pocket and they'll go anywhere. And yes, they come in plenty of colors too!

I'm headed back to the show now to find more goodies. Next time, we'll discuss why 8 to 10 megapixels is enough!

February 7, 2008

Building a Better Tripod

I have a confession. At last week's big PMA camera show in Las Vegas, it wasn't all the colorful new digicams that really grabbed me, it was the tripods! I like to take longish exposures indoors to avoid using flash (natural light is always better), and also shoot outdoors in places where I'm not exactly going to carry around a full-size tripod. So three gadgets in particular caught my eye: the Gorillapod, QuickPod and StickyPod. All three will probably end up in my bag of tricks since they serve different purposes, and are small and portable.

First up is the Joby Gorillapod. This genius tripod has legs made up of fully-articulating ball-and-socket joints, so you can bend and twist and wrap it to "firmly secure your camera to just about anything." Rubbery rings and feet prevent slippage.

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Wrap it around a table leg, pole or tree branch, steady it on a rock, or just set it on your desktop. The Gorillapod can handle it all. It even comes in three sizes and several colors, so you can make your fashion statement. The bigger sizes support heavier DSLR cameras and camcorders.

Next on my wish list is the Fromm Works Quick Pod. This hand-held monopod is specially designed for getting yourself into the picture (always a good thing), and has a small mirror that makes it easy frame your self-portrait. Two sizes are available, a smaller one for point-and-shoot cameras, and a bigger one for DSLRs. The smaller one also works with optional tripod legs, magnet and suction cup attachments, while the bigger one has a long enough telescoping arm that you can use it as a monopod resting on the ground. Both collapse down to fit in most any camera bag.

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Finally, the My Sticky Pod is an oldie but goodie. This little suction-cup tripod can be stuck to the outside of moving cars and motorcycles going up to 40mph! Or faster if you keep it out of the wind. It even works underwater -- stick it to the side of your boat with a waterproof camera. A special Dash Cam model mounts to both your dashboard and windshield. An optional 12-inch extension bar lets you position the camera at pretty much any angle. Models for all sizes of cameras and camcorders are available.

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March 12, 2008

Digital Photo Frames: Art or Science?

Being a tech geek, I guess you could say I'm a numbers person, and so this statistic really rattled my cage last week: in 2008, more than 20 million digital photo frames will be sold worldwide, or about one for every 15 people in the U.S. And that's up from a good-sized 12 million in 2007. (For those who just walked in the door, a digital photo frame is a small LCD panel with a memory card slot that displays your digital pictures.)

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Just who is buying all those photo frames? It's not me. I'm normally on the bleeding edge, but thus far, this is one tech trend I've managed to avoid (another being online multiplayer games like Second Life and World of Warcraft -- I like my tech to save me time, not eat it up...). It's not that I wasn't aware of them. I've been writing about them in computer publications for years, and even testing them out.

But somehow, as a photography nut, the idea of substituting a relatively low-quality LCD display for a brilliantly-colored glossy color print enlargement on my nightstand or side table just never appealed to me. I look at my photos as art, and rotating digital snapshots seem more like ephemeral newspaper headlines than eternal displays of beauty.

And that's when it finally sank in. That people don't buy these frames as art, but as means of communication. They buy them to give to relatives, and load them up with all the latest photos of their kids. Or use them to display photos of last month's vacation or holiday celebration. They have become substitutes for printed photo albums. (Although photo books are also becoming extremely popular, a topic we'll cover another time.)

As for myself, I'm finally considering buying a digital photo frame for two main reasons: to hold some of the vast numbers of old family photos I don't have room to display elsewhere, and to keep up with the latest pics of my far-flung quintet of nephews, all of whom are too cute for words.

I haven't yet picked out a winning frame, but I'll be looking for these features:

* Wi-Fi for receiving photos over a network and the Internet.
* The ability to automatically download new pics from a service like Flickr or Picasa.
* USB port for flash drives or computer connection.
* Remote control and memory card slot.
* At least 5x7, probably larger, depending on my budget.
* Resolution that matches typical digital camera aspect ratios, so that edges won't be cut off or letterboxing needed.
* Slideshow capability with music background.
* The ability to play back short videos, too.
* A clean frame design that blends in with most decor.
* A bright and colorful LCD with excellent picture quality from all angles, not just straight on.

What I don't need: built-in printer, RSS newsfeeder, weather and traffic reports, alarm clock, Internet radio, or Bluetooth for beaming over cell phone photos. All nice features that will appeal to some, but my laptop and clock radio already serve them better than any photo frame could, so I'd rather not pay for them. David Pogue reviewed a bunch recently in The New York Times; none fit all my criteria, but some come close. I'm betting I'll have a winner soon, and will report back on what I choose.

In the meantime, let us know about your experiences with digital photo frames. Have you taken the plunge? When and why? Which frame did you choose? Are you happy with it?

March 14, 2008

Disc Label Spin Art

If you're lucky enough to already have a direct-to-disc printer already (a few Canon, Epson and HP inkjets have a special CD/DVD tray), you can skip this article. On the other hand, if you burn a lot of discs and you're interested in fast, top-quality CD/DVD printing, the new Dymo DiscPainter is the coolest kid on the block.

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This unique printer works by printing while the disc spins, from the inside out, keeping the print head steady as the tray moves under it. The end result is fascinating to watch, much like making spin art paintings at the school fair. I saw it at the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this year, and had to try it out for two reasons: first, stick-on labels are just not good for use in many drives, especially cars and slot-loading Macs, where they can gum up the works; second, I'm creating more and more video and photo CDs as gifts for relatives, and Sharpies just don't cut it anymore.

The DiscPainter comes with a few blank CDs to get you started, as well as an ink cartridge good for about 100 discs. It works with both PCs and Macs, and can be used with the Label Creator software in Easy Media Creator 10, as well as the Disc Cover application included with Toast 9 Titanium. After a bit of experimentation I got things working perfectly on both platforms. Here are some tips for getting great results right off the bat:

Choose the Right Media: Be sure to buy special "inkjet-printable" CDs or DVDs for use with the DiscPainter or any other direct-to-disc printer. These have coatings designed to absorb the ink so that it does not smudge and the colors show up properly. They come in a variety of surfaces: matter white, glossy white, silver and colored. They also vary in how much of the inside "hub" of the disc is printable.

I tried several types, and my clear favorite was glossy white, which yielded the most vibrant colors and most professional-looking results. I also liked the hub-printable disc better since they provide more space for background images and text. Buy a few small samples and test before buying in quantity, however, since there was at least one brand that didn't take the ink properly. The Dymo discs and Verbatim inkjet printable CDs both worked well for me.


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Using with Label Creator on a PC: In the Print dialog box, choose the DiscPainter as your printer, and then set both Properties and Preferences. In Printer Properties, choose either "hub-printable" or "non-hub-printable," depending on whether your disc has a print area that goes all the way to the middle or not. Also select the desired print quality and ink density for your disc. Different densities are used for matte white, glossy white and silver or colored discs. With the matte Verbatim discs I used the lowest ink density, higher densities obscured detail.

Finally, since the DiscPainter is too new to be listed as a predefined "Paper Type," I selected the Epson PM-4000PX as a proxy, then adjusted the offsets slightly to center the image on the DiscPainter. To adjust offsets, click Preferences, then use Fine Tuning settings of -.8 for vertical, and -1.6 for horizontal.

Using with Disc Cover on a Mac: Printing in Toast 9's Disc Cover involves two steps. After pressing the Print button, select the Output (Direct to CD/DVD), Tray Type (Dymo DiscPainter), and Printer (Dymo DiscPainter) in the window that pops up. If you will be printing at Best quality, also choose 600 dpi output.

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Clicking Next brings you to the standard Mac print dialog, where you can set DiscPainter-specific Printer Features like hub diameter and ink density. For Best quality on matte Verbatim discs, I used Matte1. For the correct inside and outside print diameters, check your disc manufacturer's Web site or product label, or simply measure the disc in mms.

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I'm now dreaming up all the ways I'm going to use my DiscPainter, including a few holiday projects that I'd better get started on pronto!

March 20, 2008

The Myth of the 100-year CD

I've written previously about the damage the wrong pen or marker can do to your CDs and DVDs. But really, the biggest danger to the long-term health of your discs is the media itself -- some discs are just more reliable than others, made with better materials, equipment and quality control processes. A couple years ago, the UK Independent published an illuminating article on CD longevity, citing studies where media became unreadable after just two years in a dark cupboard -- even without exposure to sunlight or humidity, the usual culprits in CD degradation.

While some disc formats are better than others (RW discs tend to have lower rated lifespans, for example), the bottom line is that no CD or DVD lasts forever, and the professional archivists responsible for major CD and DVD collections use only top-quality media, make multiple copies, check them every few years, and recopy as needed.

So what are the best strategies for home users looking to preserve family photos or financial information? I asked Verbatim spokesperson Andy Marken for advice. He recommends looking for special "archival-grade" discs, and burning, handling and storing them with care. Archival discs are available from most of the major CD and DVD manufacturers, and may include special hardened outer coatings, more stable dye layers, and oxidation-resistant reflective metal layers. All of these things add to the cost of the disc, but are worth it when it comes to storing your most valuable data.

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Interestingly, when I asked Andy whether he'd recommend DVD-R or +R media, and single or dual-layer, he said that while there isn't much difference between R and +R, "Conventional wisdom recommends that you use single-layer as opposed to double-layer media just because you are multiplying the chances for issues." The Sony Studios library, for example, divides up its video files and spans them across multiple single-layer DVDs. (Both Easy Media Creator and Toast can perform disc spanning automatically.)

Andy also wrote a great article for Audioholics about the longevity issue that ends with some dos and don'ts for CD and DVD handling:

DO:
* Handle discs by the outer edge or the center hole
* Use a non solvent-based felt-tip permanent marker to mark the label side of the disc
* Keep dirt or other foreign matter from the disc
* Store discs upright (book style) in original jewel cases that are specified for CDs and DVDs
* Return discs to their jewel cases immediately after use
* Leave discs in their spindle or jewel case to minimize the effects of environmental changes
* Remove the shrink wrap only when you are ready to record data on the disc
* Store in a cool, dry, dark environment in which the air is clean -- relative humidity should be in the range of 20% - 50% and temperature in the range of 4°C - 20°C
* Remove dirt, foreign material, fingerprints, smudges, and liquids by wiping with a clean cotton fabric in a straight line from the center of the disc toward the outer edge
* Use deionized (best), distilled or soft tap water to clean your discs. For tough problems use diluted dish detergent or rubbing alcohol. Rinse and dry thoroughly with a lint-free cloth or photo lens tissue
* Check the disc surface before recording.

DON'T:
* Touch the surface of the disc
* Bend the disc
* Store discs horizontally for a long time (years)
* Open a recordable optical disc package if you are not ready to record
* Expose discs to extreme heat or high humidity or rapid changes in temperature or humidity
* Expose recordable discs to prolonged sunlight or other sources of UV light
* Write or mark in the data area of the disc (area where the laser "reads")
* Clean in a circular direction around the disc.

March 25, 2008

Earbuds, Schmearbuds

I'm betraying my age by saying that during my college days, the coolness of your stereo was judged by the wattage of your power amp and the size of your (stereo) speakers. But headphones were what we used for studying in the dorm at night, and there Koss reigned supreme with its PRO4AAs -- originally introduced in 1970, and amazingly still made and much in demand today.

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We also spent hours debating the merits of turntable cartridges, adjusting our tone arms for the best pickup, and carefully making mix tapes for the car using the then-revolutionary Dolby noise reduction system. We knew all about dynamic range and "clipping," and normalized our tapes manually by watching the signal meters and cueing and recueing each song to get the perfect gaps on tape. Making a cassette mix tape was easily a weekend job, and making the even higher-quality reel-to-reel tapes we used for parties was a group effort of the entire floor. We rearranged song lists ad nauseam, and delivered the requisite vinyl to the guy with the best system, who then spent a week making the tape under the watchful eyes of the rest of us constantly dropping by his room to listen and critique.

Our never-ending quest for sonic superiority seems light-years removed from today's "good-enough" culture of $20 earbuds and highly compressed music formats. Price and convenience seem to have dulled our sense of music appreciation. You rarely see a portable music player actually evaluated for its sonic fidelity, rather than its capacity and user interface.

But I'm here to tell you that your musical experience can and will be greatly enhanced by paying attention to reproduction quality. Really, there's nothing more mind-blowing that listening to great music through an equally great sound system. Fortunately, you don't have to compromise or spend a lot of money to enjoy both convenience and brilliant sonics. You can rip music from CDs in lossless quality in several formats: Apple lossless, FLAC and Monkey's Audio and Windows Media Audio lossless are some of the most common. The best one to choose depends on what is supported by your ripping tool and player of choice. (Easy Media Creator and Toast support most of these.) The basic point is that they preserve CD quality (hence the term "lossless") while reducing the space needed by about half. Thanks to freefalling hard disk prices, you can store a 3000-disc CD collection in lossless format on a single $250 terabyte hard drive.

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Once you've ripped in lossless format (and note that I'm not buying a digital download until they come in lossless -- the local used CD shop is cheaper anyway), all you need to do is listen through a top pair of headphones, like those from Koss, Sennheiser, Grado, Shure, Bose and others. (Head-Fi.org has recommendations.) You'll hear a big difference even on a portable player, but for true audiophile action, run the optical audio output from your computer to a good receiver, and thence to your headphones. The quality of the digital-to-analog conversion circuitry matters a lot, and it will be much better in the receiver.

Have some other tips for getting the best sound out of your music player? Or think your MP3s sound just fine the way they are? Tell us in the Comments!

April 10, 2008

Self-Help for TiVo Addicts

If you own a TiVo, you probably belong to the ranks of TiVo addicts (like me) who constantly struggle to watch their favorite shows before the hard drive fills up. That 80-hour box sounds like a lot until you start cluttering it up with movies and old episodes of “Ask This Old House” that show you how to build the deck you’ve been meaning to install for three years now...

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Ironically, since I bought the TiVo mainly because I travel a lot, I always end up madly cleaning it out just before going on a trip, to make sure that there is enough free space to record “Mystery” and “House” while I'm gone. It's become another item on my travel To Do list, along with packing and calling the petsitter. But there's not always time to zip through everything before I leave, and it's really painful to have to delete unwatched shows, or get rid of a favorite old movie.

So what's the solution for TiVo addiction and full hard drives? Assuming you have a networked Series 2, 3 or HD model, you can shell out big bucks for one of the new add-on hard disks that just came out, or you can buy a few blank DVDs, and use TiVoToGo and Roxio software to burn shows to disc or export them to your portable media player. Both Easy Media Creator 10 and Toast 9 have official TiVoToGo support.

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Now, instead of having to watch 10 shows before I leave on a trip, I can take them with me to view on my laptop, which is great for airplanes. And all those movies and shows I want to keep for posterity I can burn to DVD, instead of letting them use up hard drive space.

You can even use the editing tools in Toast and Creator to remove unwanted segments from your recordings. Usually I only want to keep one 10-minute portion of a "This Old House" episode, for example. With Creator or Toast, I can cherry-pick the good parts from lots of episodes and put them all on one DVD with a nice menu for navigation. My dream house may not be built yet, but I'll know exactly how to do it!

I just need to upgrade to an HD TiVo and I'll be in DVR heaven.

So what is your experience using TiVoToGo? Any tips? Let us know in the comments.

May 1, 2008

Taking Stock of Your Life

Don't worry, this article is not about justifying your existence! By "taking stock of your life," I quite literally mean making an inventory of your worldly goods, something I've been meaning to do for years for insurance purposes.

Living just two blocks from the Hayward Fault in Berkeley, and being subjected to ever-more strident headlines about how we are due for the next "big one" any moment now, insurance and earthquake preparedness are hot topics among my neighbors.

One has only to look at Hurricane Katrina, umpteen California brush fires (including the big Oakland Hills fire less than two miles from me), and various other floods, tornados and tsunamis to recognize the importance of a good home inventory and disaster plan. If a fire wiped out your home today, would you be able to remember everything in it and document ownership with receipts? Even if you have great insurance, it will be worthless without being able to prove your losses.

So how to get started? Creating an inventory for an entire house is a daunting task, especially if you have been living in it for many years. That's the main reason it's been on my To-Do list for nearly 10 years now. Searching the Web for inspiration, I found a great site created by the Insurance Information Institute that not only tells you exactly what to do, but provides the free software to do it, for both PCs and Macs.

Here's how it works: First, you set up the outline your home by naming all the rooms, including the basement, garage and attic. Then you go room by room adding items to the inventory. The software has spaces for importing pictures and receipts for each item, or you can store these separately.

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The Institute also recommends taking a video inventory. By simply going around each room opening drawers and cabinets and zooming in on each object, you can create an quick inventory without having to itemize a thing. While you'll still need to document purchase prices and values in the event of a loss, the video will at least remind you of what was there, and provide some proof that you owned it.

I plan to do the video inventory first, and then tackle the digital photos and software-based inventory room by room. VideoWave and PhotoSuite are perfect for editing the video and organizing the photos for this task, and once completed, I will store the inventory, video and photos on a DVD in my safe deposit box.

There, I feel better just having a plan! What's yours?

May 6, 2008

Taking the Blu-ray Recording Leap

With Toast 9's groundbreaking support for AVCHD and Blu-ray video disc burning, I decided it was finally time to hop on the Blu-ray bandwagon and spring for a recorder, even if Apple isn't yet building them into new equipment. Like a lot of video buffs, I have a spanking new HDTV and an AVCHD camcorder, and want to be able to show off new family movies in all their high-def glory...

So I started shopping around, and found several external Blu-ray recorder options (external drives will be required for all but Mac Pro owners, a complete list can be found on EmediaLive.com). But even the cheapest was $599, almost as much as my state-of-the-art camcorder. And media is expensive too, from $15 for a 25GB write-once disc, all the way up to $50 for a 50GB rewriteable. I started having second thoughts about how much I needed that Blu-ray recorder right this minute...maybe I should wait till prices come down more (which they will).

Imagine my delight, then, when I found out that with Toast 9 and the HD/BD Plug-in, you don't even need a Blu-ray recorder to burn high-definition AVCHD discs that will play right in your set-top Blu-ray player or PS3! Toast can burn HD video onto regular DVD media, with the DVD recorder you already have.

But just how much HD video can you fit on a DVD? After all, Blu-ray discs can hold up to 50GB, whereas dual-layer DVDs hold only 8.5GB. Fortunately, the AVCHD video compression format is pretty efficient, compared to the space-eating DV format used by standard-definition MiniDV tape camcorders. The highest quality AVCHD bit rates currently available in HD camcorders is about 17Mbps, or 8GB per hour. Most AVCHD camcorders record at lower bit rates. So you should be able to fit approximately an hour of home movies on a dual-layer DVD that will play in your Blu-ray player. That's plenty for your average home movie.

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Toast 9 makes importing video from your AVCHD camcorder "drag-and-drop" simple with its integrated Media Browser. You just drag and drop video from your camcorder to the Toast window and you’re done! You can also crop and trim your AVCHD clips, and arrange them in the order you'd like them viewed. You won't need to touch iMovie '08 unless you want transitions and special effects, so using Toast 9 greatly speeds up the time from camera to disc.

I'm off to try it all out right now, using the dual-layer DVD recorder already in my MacBook Pro. In the meantime, what are your experiences with AVCHD and Blu-ray?

June 18, 2008

Dancing with My USB Turntable


I've already written about my ongoing project to rip my 2,500+ CDs onto a network hard drive. But that's actually an easy task compared to that of digitizing the almost 300 vinyl record albums remaining (from my original collection of 1,000 or so) that I have not been able to find and repurchase on CD.

At this point, 25 years after the introduction of the audio CD, it's unlikely that any of those remaining albums are ever going to get released in digital form. So it's time to get them digitized and converted to CD format for posterity. However, my beloved 26-year-old Bang & Olufsen turntable has not been usable since my last move, when the tonearm got literally bent out of shape. And I'm reluctant to buy a new standard turntable when my new AV receiver doesn't even have a phono input. After all, I'm probably only going to be using it long enough to digitize all my records and then retire it.

So I spent a lot of time researching solutions before I found the Audio-Technica AT-LP2D-USB turntable, a very reasonably-priced USB turntable that you can plug directly into your PC or Mac. While there are a number of USB turntables out there, the Audio-Technica stood out for several reasons: it comes from a manufacturer with a long and illustrious history of producing quality turntables; it includes a very good dual-magnet replaceable diamond cartridge on a damped tonearm and a balanced aluminum belt-drive platter; it's fully automatic so you don't have to lift the tonearm; and it has a built-in Phono pre-amp, so you can plug it into any audio input in your AV system as well as into a USB port in your computer. It even comes with three types of cables so you won't need to run out and buy them.

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I received the Audio-Technica a couple weeks ago, and have since been playing with it using Creator 10 on my Vista PC and Toast 9 Mac with my MacBook Pro. I could not be happier with both the sound quality and ease of use. While the turntable comes with a couple software CDs, if you have Creator or Toast, you don't need to install a thing -- I like to keep a clean system and not having to install software is always a good thing. Quite literally, all you have to do is plug it in, put on your record, and press play to begin digitizing it with Creator or Toast.

In Creator 10, using the LP & Tape Assistant, the turntable shows up as the default "Microphone (USB Audio Codec)" input in the "Capture From" list:

lptape1.jpg

And in Toast 9, the turntable shows up similarly as USB Audio CODEC in the list of recording devices to choose from:

ToastCDSpinDoctor1.jpg

I've now digitized about 10 albums, taking it at a leisurely pace to listen (and in a couple cases, dance!) at the same time. After all, I've been unable to enjoy those 300 records for quite a long time now. Creator and Toast can automatically identify tracks digitized from LPs, so I don't even have to type in many song or artist names. I've also been experimenting with the handy noise reduction and sound enhancement filters in both programs, and highly recommend them to maximize your sound quality.

I've posted complete tutorials on digitizing your LPs for both Creator 10 and Toast 9 in the Hot Topics area of MyMoments. Take a look and tell me about your own experiences with digitizing your musical past.

August 26, 2008

Turbocharge Your iPhone Video Conversions

I thought I was being smart by waiting for nearly a month after the iPhone 3G came out to buy one. Surely by then I could just waltz in at any time of day, and leave 10 minutes later with my shiny new toy?

Alas, that was not to be, so I joined about 25 other ihopefuls in a line outside the Emeryville, CA Apple Store at 7am on a sunny Saturday in early August. At 10:15, the deed was done, and I had my prize.

Of course, the first thing I did was rush home to copy over some music, photos and videos, so I could be prepared to show off pictures and movies of my five darling nephews to everyone I meet.

I also wanted to set up Roxio Streamer to send shows copied from my TiVo to my iPhone in real time. (Streamer runs on your broadband-connected Mac at home, and can automatically convert your latest TiVo recordings for streaming to your laptop or iPhone while you are on the road. It also works with any video you convert to the H.264 format, including home movies. Read all about it here.)

And then I hit the proverbial brick wall. While I have a fast Intel Core 2 Duo machine, converting all this video stopped my Mac in its tracks--it was good for pretty much nothing else while it was encoding. And since I work on the computer all day, that means that any encoding had to be set up at night and left to run while I was sleeping.

So I went back to the Apple Store and picked up a gadget I had heard about before, the Elgato Turbo.264, and decided to give it a whirl. No waiting in line this time! The Turbo.264 is a USB device the size of a thumb drive that essentially offloads the video conversion to its on-board processor, and relieves your Mac of the task. It works right within Toast. As long as the Turbo is plugged in, Toast will take advantage of it when converting video to send to Streamer or to iTunes.

After a quick software install, I plugged in the Turbo, opened Toast 9 and started converting a 15-minute video of my sister and twin nephews at the hospital when they were born. Presto! Aside from the progress bar telling me the conversion was happening, there was no slowdown, no CPU-hogging of my computer, and I could work as normal while the video processed in the background. Even better, the temperature in my MacBook Pro stayed down in the comfy 125F range, rather than the motherboard-melting and finger-burning 175F it usually reaches when encoding video.

Toast even tells you when the Turbo.264 is being used, right in the progress bar:

Turbo.264.jpg

The Turbo.264 worked exactly as advertised, relieving my MacBook of the processing chore and letting me continue to do other things while it worked. The one thing it did not do, since I have a fast 2.2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo machine, is speed up the job. Encoding actually took a few extra minutes with the Turbo. Those with older or slower Macs (especially PowerPCs) will see serious speed increases, however.

After it's finished encoding, Toast sends your videos to iTunes for syncing to your iPhone or iPod. Here, my baby movies were placed in the TV shows folder:

Turbo.2642.jpg

Since I bought the Turbo, encoding has been painless and I don't have to worry about scheduling it during downtimes. That convenience also results in a lot more video getting converted that it would otherwise, which makes for one happy Auntie.

So next time you see me in the street, be sure to ask to see my iPhone, and all its contents!

November 14, 2008

Make a Holiday Party Invite with PhotoShow

Our family gives a holiday open house most years (except when we travel to Grandma's house!). In the past that has meant painstakingly addressing and mailing 50-75 printed invitations--an expensive and time-eating task!

Since we now have email addresses for pretty much everyone on our list, we thought we'd go the email route this year, which also makes RSVPs quick and easy. But we still wanted the invitation to be special and convey the spirit of the party--not just a plain message.

So we decided to make a fun PhotoShow using pictures from past parties, complete with captions and music. Roxio Online PhotoShows are free and easy to make, and you can email them directly to your recipients. We made and mailed this year's holiday party invite in less than 40 minutes! (And started getting RSVPs and compliments immediately!)

Here's how to do it:

First, choose a few pictures from past parties or other seasonal photos, then go to PhotoShow.com and log in (if you don't already have an account, creating one is easy). Next, click the "Make a PhotoShow" at the top of the screen. You'll be asked to upload your photos. When you're done, the fun begins!

The next screen is where you arrange your photos in the order you want them to appear, and choose a style, music, captions, titles, and more. We chose the Christmas style for our show, and Jingle Bells for the background music. Then we added captions to each photo. That was it! PhotoShow did the rest automatically. We could have customized it a lot further, but we were happy with the results.

XmasPhotoShow1.jpg

When you're finished tweaking your invitation, save the PhotoShow and click the Done button. You'll now be presented with various sharing options, such as posting to your blog or Web site, and burning a DVD. Here, you'll be choosing the email option.

XmasPhotoShow2.jpg

Now you simply enter the email addresses of your recipients, add a message if desired (we included driving directions and RSVP information in our message so that they could be printed out easily), and click the Send button!

Here's our finished PhotoShow. What will yours look like? Please invite us!

December 19, 2008

A Picture Saved is Worth a Thousand Thanks

Recovering Lost Photos with Toast 9 Titanium

Last month I decided it was time to revamp my iPhoto library, which contains all the new photos I've taken for the last few years, but not many earlier pics, which largely languished unseen on shelves and in boxes.

It was time to put everything in one place and organize it for easy access, which meant importing thousands of photos archived on various CDs and DVDs, as well as scanning all my analog prints and slides. Naturally, I decided to do the easy part first, copying over the CDs and DVDs I'd carefully archived for posterity.

All went smoothly till I came to a CD burned in 2001 that contained only 20 or so pictures, but very important ones, of an exhibition of my sister's artwork. Most of the paintings have since been sold, making rephotographing them impossible. The CD simply would not mount, in any of the two Macs and one PC I tried. I spritzed it with disc cleaner and wiped with a microfiber cloth, to no avail.

I was about to give up (and vowed to make two backups of every photo going forward) when a light bulb went off. I remembered that Toast 9 Titanium has a Disc Recovery feature that is able to grab whatever readable data remains on a damaged CD or DVD. So I fired it up, popped in the offending CD, and voila! ALL the photos were recovered!!

Here's how it works: Start a Disc Copy project in Toast, put in your disc (ignoring any error message about unreadability that may pop up), then check the "Use Disc Recovery" box at lower left. Finally, click the "Save as Disc Image" button at lower right to save the copy to your hard disk. Toast will start reading the data, and copy everything it can. This may take a LONG time (hours) if your disc is severely damaged, and if it has a lot of data, such as a dual-layer DVD, so be patient and just let it work in the background, or overnight.


Recovery1.jpg


In my case, since I only had 20 pictures on the CD, the process was quick. A disc image file called Becky Pics.toast was saved to my hard disk, which I could then mount in the Finder by choosing "Mount Disc Image" from the Toast Utilities menu. From the Finder, I then dragged the recovered photos into iPhoto. The salvaged files:


Recovery2.jpg


Resurrecting photos from the damaged CD is turning out to be the easy part of the job, however. Scanning and organizing thousands of analog photos is a significantly bigger task! But that's a story for another blog entry.

About Mac

This page contains an archive of all entries posted to MyMoments in the Mac category. They are listed from oldest to newest.

Digital GrandDad is the previous category.

PC is the next category.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.