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January 11, 2008

Live from CES: Photo Frames and More Photo Frames

Sure, I could write about the 11-inch Sony XEL-1 OLED TV that's 3 millimeters thin and looks so great people will actually happily pay $2,000 for it. You really have to see it to believe it. The LCD/plasma debate becomes meaningless in the face of such mind-blowing picture quality.

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Or I could write about all the ways HDTV is going to be slung around the home sans wires. I counted no less than 7 different technologies vying for attention, and surely missed some. With so much jostling it will be a good long while before one emerges as a true standard, if ever. In the meantime we'll struggle along with our HDMI cables, thank you very much.

But as a camera and photo nut, what really caught my eye was the veritable torrent of digital picture frames, which have moved way beyond simple photo display to become web-connected media wonders. The latest Ality Pixxa lets you send photos for display on the 8-inch frame via an IM program, so you can be chatting with grandma and put a new pic of the grandkids on her frame while you're at it. Want your New York Times fix? Just add it to your RSS feeds and view it on the Pixxa screen, along with sports, weather, traffic and stock quotes. You can even keep your daily schedule on it, and sync with Google Calendar. No need for a computer.

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Other interesting twists on the remote update theme came from Ceiva, which has a service that uploads pictures to the frame over a phone line, so grandma doesn't even need a computer, and from Kodak, which has a picture mail service that can update the photos on its Wi-Fi enabled photo frames. They are all great ways to share those photos languishing on your hard drive.

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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February 12, 2008

Adventures in CD Ripping, Part 1

Like many music fans, I've long been wrestling with the best way to rip and manage my large 2500+ CD library. Sure, I’ve gradually accumulated a bunch of music on my hard drive that I use for portable playback, but it's a tiny fraction of my collection. (That's not even mentioning the 900 LPs...a story for another time!). A few years back I tried to organize things with a couple 400-disc CD changers and PC-based jukebox software. But keeping track of which discs were in which slot and controlling the changers was a royal pain. And definitely not random access...Who wants to wait while CDs get switched out between every song??

So that experiment got abandoned and since then I've just been muddling along with most of my discs sitting on shelves collecting dust and cluttering up the living room. In my digital fantasy world, everything would be stored on a network media server, from which I could stream different music to every room in the house, all using a convenient remote control interface with instant search capabilities. I could do things like find all 12 versions of Hey Jude and play them back-to-back comparing differences. Or if I'm on a Van Morrison kick, play every album in chronological order. And all in pristine full CD quality over excellent speakers, no compression or tiny ear buds involved! While the second half of that fantasy may still be a little ways off (at least budget-wise), the first half is completely doable at a reasonable cost, thanks to free-falling hard disk prices.

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The logistics, however, are daunting. As a quick test, I ripped two representative CDs in my laptop drive. It took almost 15 minutes, including time to pop the discs in and out. Multiply 2500 by 7.5, and that's 312 hours of ripping...So I've been working on ways to streamline the process, and thought I'd share some tips with others embarking (or re-embarking) on the same quest. As I move forward, I'll share my experiences and tips on the organization and streaming aspects. Meanwhile, if any of you have advice on this topic, please comment! I'll round up the best suggestions in future posts.

1) Get a RAID drive to store your collection, and back it up again, if possible. I've already reached the 500-discs ripped mark twice, only to experience file system corruption and loss of weeks of work both times. This is a job you don’t want to repeat, believe me. Get a RAID 1 or 5 drive that protects you if one drive fails, and use Creator or Toast to back up the final collection when you finish. (In case a hurricane, flood, fire, earthquake or other disaster comes along and wipes out your entire drive...)

2) Rip in Lossless quality. Again, this is a job you only want to do once. You can always convert part of it to MP3 or AAC for your portable player, but if you want to be able to put your CDs away in the basement for good, rip at full quality. Disk storage is now cheap enough that this is practical. My entire 2500+ collection should fit on a 1TB drive (at about .45GB per disc in Apple Lossless format). A 2TB RAID array can be had for under $700, or 28 cents per CD for fully backed-up accessible storage. Note that I'm using Apple Lossless since I use iTunes. Other popular lossless formats include FLAC and Monkey’s Audio. Easy Media Creator 10 has native FLAC ripping support, and can convert FLAC to almost any other audio format. There's an excellent discussion of lossless formats here.

3) Use a fast CD Recorder for ripping. I'm using iTunes to rip to Apple Lossless, as well as the automatic feature that starts ripping as soon as you pop in a disc, and ejects the disc when it's done. But the drive itself also needs to be fast, and most combo CD/DVD recorders are much slower at ripping that dedicated CD drives. So I bought a 64X CD reader off eBay for $40, and can now rip at an average speed of about 2.25 minutes per disc, including insertion/ejection times, a vast improvement.

4) Rip one artist at a time. After ripping, you'll want to correct the artist/track names and album titles retrieved from CDDB, so that all the artist names appear exactly the same, and album titles are consistent. It's easiest to do this one artist at a time. At this point, you should also correct the genre (rock, R&B, jazz etc.) to what you want it to be, again consistently for each artist. I also change album dates to the dates the music was actually recorded, rather than the date issued, and add a custom comment if the album is live (so I can search for all Live tracks by an artist, for example). You may have other priorities in your CD organization, but now is the time to make the data changes, before you put away the CDs. I also add album cover art at the same time, making sure it matches the actual cover. All this organizational work is much less cumbersome when you do it as you go, with CD jackets in hand, and not all at once at the end. I find both ripping and organizing to be great activities to do while I watch TV.

February 18, 2008

Checking Out Windows Live

Some of the best reasons to upgrade to Windows Vista are the free Windows Live tools, which include Spaces, Photo Gallery and Writer. While I've been using Vista for a while now, I hadn't tried these features out yet, so I decided to download Windows Live and see what all the fuss is about. In particular, I was looking for free and easy ways to share and store all the many photos and video files I produce with Roxio's PhotoSuite and VideoWave, such as on a personal blog or Web page.

When you go to Get.Live.com , you have a choice of which Windows Live components you want to install. I opted for Photo Gallery and Writer, since along with Spaces, they allow you to create media-rich photo sharing sites and blogs. Downloading any of the components gives you access to Spaces, which is a personal Web sharing area. (Several other Windows Live products are also available, such as Hotmail, Messenger and OneCare, which you may already be familiar with.)

After installing Photo Gallery and Writer, they appear in your Program menu, and you can open them at any time to create a new slide show or blog posting. I opened Writer to see what was involved in making a blog page. A blank page with a title area invited me to write something, and a handy side panel had tools for inserting photos, videos, hyperlinks and more. I typed a title and some text, inserted a picture with the tool, pressed the Publish button and voila! I had a blog page within my Spaces account without reading a single line of documentation (results below). You can also add tags and categories for your posts, and edit the visual theme of your page. Then send a link to your friends and watch the comments come in!

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Photo Gallery is just as simple to use. When you first open it, it will automatically gather and present all the files in your Pictures and Videos folders. You can view by folder, date taken, or tags. Tags are a great organizing tool. For a picture of your kids taken at Christmas, you could add tags saying "kids," "Christmas." "Holidays" and "Grandma," for example, making it easy to search across those tags in the future.

Now you can start sharing the photos in the Gallery. To email a pic or group of pics, just select it and choose the E-mail button from the toolbar. Similarly, you can publish photos to your Spaces account for Web sharing, order prints, and more. When you publish photos to Spaces, it will ask you if you want to create a new album, or add them to an existing album. I selected five pics to upload to a Travel album, which then appeared in my Spaces account as below:

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Once you've created a Spaces photo album, you can send a link, order prints, share it on Facebook, or use the pics in your blog. You can also create permissions for albums. I liked that I could limit access to my album to my Messenger contacts, Spaces friends or specific contacts I selected. Albums can also be completely public, of course.

Overall, I was really impressed with the simplicity of both photo sharing and blogging, the fact that I didn't need to read any instructions to get up and running, and the powerful features that remain to be explored. If you've been wanting to create a blog or Web slideshow, and want complete, yet flexible control over who sees them, Spaces, Writer and Photo Gallery are powerful tools. And best of all, they're free!

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.

ToastTiVo.jpg

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.

April 24, 2008

Ripping CDs Three at a Time

I finally managed to back up my entire CD collection onto my hard disk. Hundreds of CDs, thousands of tracks, have now been converted. When I first started this project, it seemed rather daunting, but it turned out to be less painful than I expected. Easy Media Creator 10 has a wonderful tool called Multi-CD Ripper that helped me to automate the process. Basically, it is a software utility that allowed me to rip CDs from multiple drives at the same time (I have three disc drives), while automatically tagging the files with title, author and artist information. Conveniently, files were named and placed in a folder structure per my preference based on the tag information.

The process is easy enough. I launch Easy Media Creator and select the Audio tab on the left, and then select Multi-ripper. I click the Settings button, check off the drives I want to rip from, and check the box to import from multiple drives simultaneously. Finally, I click the CDDB check box to ensure that my CDs are identified automatically by the online music identification service. The additional MusicID checkbox is for identifying tracks on compilation CDs that are not recognized by the online service – even if the CD is unrecognized, the individual tracks can still be identified.

Under Settings/File Format, I select my preferred format (MP3, though I could just as well have selected from a variety of other audio file formats). Under Filename/Folder Structure, I choose how I want to name my files and where to locate them on my hard disk. Personally, I just like the name of the song to be the title, but I could have added the artist, track number, genre and even the year to the title to the filename. Likewise, I chose genre/artist/album as the directory structure, but there are many other options.

Multi-ripper-screen.jpg

Now I am ready to rip. I insert an audio CD in each drive, and click the Start button. As each CD is finished, the disc ejects (I can also disable this in the Settings dialog in case I don’t want the drive tray to open), I pop in the next disc and close the drive door, and away we go. When I am done ripping, my tracks are all listed in the right pane of Multi-ripper. In case I want to change some of the tags that were provided by the online service, I can manually change title, author and other information by selecting one or more tracks in the right pane, and then selecting the Edit Audio Tags button just above the track list. I can even send my ripped files directly to a portable device like an iPod or MP3 player if I want by clicking on the "Output to" button.

So now the real problem begins – I ended up with approximately three weeks of continuous music on my hard drive, but when will I ever have time to listen to it all?

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.

homeinventory.jpg

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 23, 2008

Getting a Handle on Information Overload

As a high-tech journalist, I get literally dozens of press releases every day, and have to keep up with umpteen news sources, from The New York Times to Engadget. While getting news via the Web and email is relatively fast and efficient compared to dealing with the baskets full of snail mail I used to get (not to mention better for the forests of the world), the volume and pace of information arrival is ever increasing, taking bigger and bigger bites out of my workday. When you add in the constant pings from people who want to chat on Skype or MSN, it's easy to spend entire days immersed in the Web without doing any actual work (like writing this blog entry...).

So I'm constantly looking for better ways to manage the information flow, and decided to try out the new MediaTicker 3 from Roxio Labs. This completely free utility is basically a graphical photo and RSS news reader that docks itself to the side, top or bottom of your Windows desktop, and presents a scrolling display of headlines and photos.

MediaTickerDisplay.jpg


This display is great since it alerts you passively to hot new stories -- you don't have to stop what you are doing to check your feeds every hour to see what's new. You can just click on ticker items when you have a moment to read them, and ignore items that don't interest you. Clicking on a ticker item enlarges it (for photo and video feeds) or opens the appropriate Web page.

When you first open MediaTicker, you'll be directed to create an account on Roxio.com, where a master list of your feeds is kept, from Flickr to Wired News. You can choose from a list of popular feeds, or add your own by dropping in the URL. Even better, if you have MediaTicker installed on multiple machines, you can customize which feeds are displayed on each computer, using the same Roxio.com account. At home you could receive your photo and video feeds, plus ESPN and Gizmodo for example, while at work you get CNN and stock tickers. If you are at a remote computer without MediaTicker, you can also check your feeds directly on Roxio.com. You can even check them from a browser-enabled mobile phone!

MediaTickerSources.gif

But Media Ticker doesn't stop there. You can also just click to email any feed item to a friend, including photos and videos. Another great way to use it is to keep family and friends updated with your latest photos right on their desktop. Just have them install MediaTicker and add your Flickr or other online photo feed to their list. They'll get all your new photos as soon as you upload them, and can save them to their hard drive!

I've got MediaTicker running all the time now. I've still got information overload, but it's a bit more manageable, and a whole lot more fun to deal with.

June 2, 2008

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words...on eBay!

If you've bought or sold on eBay (and odds are you have, with well over 200 million users worldwide), you know the importance of good pictures to making a sale and getting the best price. If you're a buyer, you want to see lots of good photos of what you're getting, and the sellers who provide them have a big edge over those who don't.

While eBay has its own image hosting service, the pictures are limited in size and have to fit in a certain area. They are often frustratingly small.

But there's a better way to display your eBay photos, with Roxio PhotoShow. Using PhotoShow, you can create an instant slideshow of any number of photos you like, and then automatically generate a snippet of HTML code you can embed in your eBay ad. The first slide in your show will then be displayed in the ad, and readers can click to view the whole thing. Shows can be up to 466x375 pixels, and can include all kinds of special effects, even music and voice narration.

To try out the process, my multi-talented colleague Carrie Scott created an ad for a pair of jeans she wanted to sell, following these steps:
1. Create a PhotoShow (in either the desktop or Web-based versions)
2. Upload the show to PhotoShow.com:


PhotoShowShare.jpg


3. “Share” the show and choose “Publish” from the drop-down menu:


PhotoShowPublish.jpg


4. Copy the html code that you’re provided
5. Drop the html code into your eBay listing, within the “description” field
6. and Voila!


PhotoShoweBay.jpg


Some tips for creating great eBay slideshows:

> Create and save a "template" slideshow that you can use as the base for new ads. Tweak things like the frame, transitions and any background music.
> Keep things simple, and zoom in close on the subject of your photos. Use the PhotoShow editing tools to fix and crop photos as needed.

Also note that while this article focuses on using PhotoShow for eBay ads, the same process works for embedding slideshows in any Web page or blog entry. PhotoShow even has handy presets for publishing to MySpace, FaceBook, Blogger, TypePad, LiveJournal, and many other sites.

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.

AT-turntable.jpg

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:

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

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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 8, 2008

Making Digital Connections

When I first joined Sonic it was easy to stay connected to my peers. We were a small, centrally located team, with a very narrow business focus. Key discussions were made face to face, in meeting rooms, hallways, and even the break room.

Over a decade later, the company has changed a great deal -- moving beyond our focus in pro-level audio tools, to create products ranging from professional authoring systems to consumer software and services.

We also now have a far larger team with staff working on multiple continents. This makes it infinitely more difficult to stay connected. As with many organizations, Sonic uses technology to shorten the distance and encourage collaboration. Systems like instant messaging, video conferencing, intranets, and wikis have now replaced a good number of the face-to-face discussions that used to happen.

Of course, as Sonic is well aware, using technology to stay connected is not confined to the office. Technology is now playing a far greater role within our own personal network of friends and family. Often crunched for time and separated by miles, it has become increasingly difficult to stay up-to-date on the major events and happenings in the lives of the people we care about most. Emailing a short message and a few digital pictures may help reinforce the bonds and shorten the miles of separation, but it’s not all that compelling and certainly can’t convey a complete story.

While we may not have totally solved the issue, we believe that the launch of Roxio Online with its PhotoShow capabilities is a solid step in the right direction. Easy and quick to create, PhotoShows are able to convey far more than a few static photos and lines of text. Within minutes PhotoShow lets you turn your personal digital photos and videos into a highly entertaining digital “story” that is sure to delight your community of friends and family.

As we neared completion of the Roxio Online service, I created a PhotoShow for myself and then challenged my executive staff senior team to do the same (a great way to test the whole creative ease theory!). I asked the team to make a show that would reveal something about them that other staff might be surprised to discover (like a hobby or dream profession).

The results, which were really quite impressive, not only proved the theory that we’ve made digital storytelling easy for anyone to master, but also that PhotoShows can really help reinforce a sense of community – even within a group as large as Sonic.

Here are a couple of staff favorites from the challenge, as well as my own; I hope you enjoy them.


Created by Chris Loeper, VP of Worldwide Sales, Roxio:


Created by Pete Bouton, VP of Engineering, Sonic:


Created by Dave Habiger, President & CEO, Sonic:

August 9, 2008

Changing the world one video at a time...

If you've been keeping up with my articles, admittedly sporadically posted as of late, you know that despite falling well outside of the established "target audience" I am in fact a digital media enthusiast. Since my last post, I've uncovered a few more neat tips, tricks and apps.

Inspired yet again by a YouTube contest, this time sponsored by Timberland (outdoor gear not the producer/rapper spelled slightly differently in case you were confused), I was urged to create an entry in support of making the world a more sustainable, "green" place to live. It just so happens this is something I've been paying closer and closer attention to lately...in addition to volunteering for a very cool, very forward-thinking "green production" company in the Bay Area, I've also been inspired by our very own CEO here at Sonic who has thrown his hat into the green arena by building electric cars in his spare time! Go Dave!

Blah, blah, blah too much background information and I'm probably losing your attention fast, right? Well, here's where things get interesting. I wanted to create a video using what's known as "green screen" technology (or blue screen but since we're trying to be green here I'll go with that). This is a technique by which one can extract oneself from a setting by using a green backdrop during video capture and then swapping in a background of choice during post-production (mountains, the beach, a busy street, you get the idea). My thought was to illustrate the different ways in which our world is being steadily depleted of its natural resources by inserting myself into those scenarios.

My first attempt to create a green screen failed. I picked up some yellow-green wrapping paper at a local Paper Source and lined my bedroom wall with it. When I took the footage against this paper and reviewed it afterward I realized the color was totally off (too much yellow would make it difficult to extract the background and not the pigmentation from my skin) plus the paper was too shiny. Sigh.

Example of baaaad green screen:

badgreenscreen.bmp

Then, on a whim, I took this ratty old green blanket that I bought at the Buena Vista several years ago (after one too many Irish coffees) and draped it over my sofa. I planted myself in front of it, took the video footage again and to my amazement was able to use what is known as "keying" to extract myself from the background, ultimately rendering a silhouette that could be placed anywhere!

Example of good (albeit cheap) green screen:

bettergreenscreen.bmp

Here's what it looks like when I swap out the green blanket for a cool background:

EKsnapshotrev.bmp

Having never done something like this before I had to quickly teach myself to use Adobe After Affects, a pro product that is not cheap and not easy to use. I was determined however, and I dedicated an entire weekend to learning it well enough to get the video I needed. I had written a "green song" and composed a music bed for it (using an application similar to GarageBand but for the PC). Here's the catch: After Affects does not support audio and the audio app I used does not support video. Hmm. Can you see where I'm going with this? Enter Easy Media Creator stage right.

After much ado getting my keying and backgrounds all lined up in After Affects I was able to output a video file that I could then easily import into Videowave (built into Creator). From there I added my original song to the project, created start and end screens and tightened up the transitions a bit so the track and the video were better aligned.

Let me just interrupt my own technical blather for a moment to say that I generally don't have the patience to do my own laundry, however, faced with this triumverate of digital media challenges I didn't even notice day turning into night then turning into day again. I was a mad scientist in my very own video lab. Waaahaaaahaaaa! (Evil laugh. Did I need to tell you that?)

I was one of only a few who entered this EarthKeeper contest (definitely the only music video). I think most might have been scared off by the prospect of trying to save the world. But on my whiteboard at work there is a two-columned matrix entitled "Carrie v The World." My colleague put that up there as a joke because I am always out to fight the good fight. Interestingly, with this latest venture, I think I'll have to add a column that reads "Carrie Saves The World!"

Check out my efforts below and let me know what you think. I can give you even more information about every painstaking point in the production process but ONLY if you ask.

Helpful hints:
1. Use that nifty tool "Paint" that hides under "Start menu, All Programs, Accessories" to modify, enhance or edit images for your production. It's easy to use and super helpful.
2. Don't forget about Lynda.com - an excellent resource for learning the latest tools and techniques in digital media, design, and development - all at your own pace.
3. Check out a super cool app called CamStudio. It's free and it will capture a video file of anything - other video files, an interesting web page, a cool banner ad you want to show someone else, etc. I used it for another project but I'll save that for my next article!
4. Most importantly, don't forget to have fun!

August 29, 2008

Creating Winning Panoramas

In last month's Roxio email newsletter,* Creator user Rod Sellers answered our call for stories about how you are using Roxio products in your digital life, and won an iPod Nano for his efforts! Here’s what he had to say:

“I’ve used Creator to make slideshows of trips to China, Russia and Europe, complete with local music. But what I enjoy most is being able to create panoramic shots of interesting sites with PhotoSuite’s stitching feature. In June, we took a family trip to Germany for my father-in-law’s 80th birthday. My wife and I took over 1,700 pictures, and our two sons took a couple hundred more!”

Many of these were panoramas. Rod says he and his wife staged several scenes so that the family appears multiple times: once in each picture that forms part of the panorama, as in the below scene from Trier.

TrierGardena.jpg

You can see his group at the left, middle and right of the picture. Imagine the fun your kids could have with this idea, putting themselves in various locations in a panorama of Disneyland's Main Street, for example, or hanging out every window of your house at the same time.

Below are a couple more of Rod's panoramas from the trip, all stitched together using PhotoSuite:

MarketSquarePanoa.jpg

RhineRiverPano2a.jpg

Want to make your own travel or landscape photos more exciting? Or simply provide more compelling pictures of your house for sale? Here's how to create perfect panoramas:

• Use a tripod to keep the horizontal planes level, and to make it easy to turn the camera on one spot. Or find a handy rock or table to rest it on. For pro results, a special panorama head can eliminate parallax.
• Start taking pictures at one side of the scene, and gradually turn the camera so that each picture overlaps about 30 to 50 percent with the previous one. The more overlap, the better.
• Make sure you are not positioned too close to any large object that would fill the frame as you turn toward it. Also keep the main subject off-center, so it doesn’t focus your eye on the middle.
• You can stop whenever you want, anywhere up to 360 degrees, although circular panoramas work best with special viewing software.
Panoguide.com has more great tips, and examples of great panoramas.

Want to win your own iPod? Tell us how your family uses Roxio software. Just email your story to userstory@roxio.com by midnight, Sept. 15, 2008. Include a picture or video clip from your production as an attachment or Web link. Click here for official rules and entry guidelines. No purchase necessary to win.

* In case you're not yet receiving the newsletter, which contains all sorts of handy tips and articles on getting more out of your Roxio software, just sign in to your account, then click the link at the bottom of the page to edit your email subscription preferences.

September 16, 2008

Joining the High-Def Club

While I was an early member of the high-def club -- I got my HD Sony tube TV almost five years ago -- I was a relative latecomer to HD camcorders, finally ponying up this summer for a Canon Vixia HF11 AVCHD recorder when the rewind button on my old tape-based MiniDV camera stopped working.

CanonHF11.jpg

While I'm extremely happy with my choice, the selection process was not easy. First, you have to decide between two competing HD video formats: AVCHD and HDV. Then, you need to determine the camera with the best image quality and other features for your budget.

Up till recently, HDV camcorders, which record using the MPEG-2 video compression scheme (also used by DVDs and some commercial Blu-ray discs), were considered the quality leaders. AVCHD camcorders, even though they use the more efficient MPEG-4 compression scheme, typically recorded at bit rates of 13-15Mbps, well below the maximum 24Mbps.

Even though AVCHD has the supreme advantage of recording to flash cards or hard drives, rather than MiniDV tape like HDV, videophiles stuck with HDV for the superior quality. Hence my dilemma. Should I go with the older and less-convenient (and less space-efficient) HDV standard to ensure the best image quality? Or should I go with AVCHD for its flash memory and correspondingly easy file transfers?

Serendipitously, almost the same week I needed to make my choice, Canon introduced three new camcorders that record at a full 1920x1080 and 24Mbps: the flash-based HF11, and the hard disk-based HG20 and HG21. No more compromise between image quality and convenience! My choice was suddenly made simple.

Equally important, just a couple weeks later, Creator 2009 shipped with full support for importing, editing and burning AVCHD video. (Toast 9 for Mac already had this capability, when partnered with the HD/BD Plug-In.)

Now, after five long years, my HD circle is finally complete: I can record HD on my new camcorder, edit and burn it with Creator or Toast, and then view it on my HDTV through my Sony PlayStation 3 with Blu-ray drive. I don't even need a Blu-ray recorder, thanks to the ability of both Creator 2009 and Toast 9 to burn HD video onto standard DVDs.

For more on the tradeoffs between HDV and AVCHD camcorders, check out my article on Future-Proof Video for PC World.

October 23, 2008

How Qflix Saved My Sister...

Okay, Qflix didn't actually save her life, but it definitely did save her sanity. What's worse than traveling halfway around the world with 4-year-old twins on back-to-back 10+ hour plane flights? Traveling with 4-year-old twin boys AND a baby...

She emailed me in a panic last week: What can I do to keep the boys entertained while I take care of the baby? Being the geek that I am, I immediately started thinking of all sorts of ways to copy their favorite DVDs to her laptop. But that involves illicit ripping software, and other techie skills she doesn't have the time or inclination to learn.

I could have told her to download them from iTunes, but why pay for a movie only to be locked into viewing it on a computer or portable player? Most of the time, the boys watch on TV, and they love being able to pick their favorites from the pile, put them the DVD player, and press the button. When it comes to kids' movies, plastic discs rule.

That's when I hit upon Qflix, the download-to-burn movie techology that has just shipped from Roxio and partners like Dell and CinemaNow. With Qflix drives and media, all she would have to do is connect the Qflix drive I sent her, open the accompanying Roxio Venue software to select a movie, then click the button to both download it and burn it to a Qflix DVD. She's an online-shopping addict (it's pretty much impossible to drag three little kids around the mall), so this would be right up her alley and technical comfort level.

1Venue.jpg

In one shot, she'd have a copy of the movie on her hard drive for the boys to watch on the plane or in the car, and a physical DVD for them to play on the TV at home. She downloaded Surf's Up (they love penguins so this was a safe choice) and The Spiderwick Chronicles, made sure the extra laptop battery was charged, and was all ready to go.

I won't pretend the trip was without incident (notably the drink spill on the saintly lady sitting next to them on one leg), but they got through it. Even better, Liz now has a source of movies that she can tap any time without going to the video store or waiting days for them to come in the mail. She can pick a movie before dinner, start the download and burn process, and it will be done in time to watch with her husband after the kids are in bed.

Learn more about Qflix and how it works here.

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 22, 2008

Playing with Time: Making Time-Lapse Videos

While I fervently hope I am never trapped in an elevator or eaten by ants, the millions of people who've watched these YouTube movies are clear evidence of the impact and reach of time-lapse videos.

Watching things get built, grow, morph or change with the seasons can be mesmerizing. Ordinary happenings become entertaining just by speeding them up. Take a look at this Christmas tree decorating video. It's absolutely fascinating to watch and the kids are adorable, although in real time it would have been a complete yawner.

So how can you make your own time-lapse movies? Pretty much any video shot from one position for a period of time is fair game. You could shoot the kitchen scene at Thanksgiving, the view from your car window as you drive cross-country, or your kids building a sandcastle or snowman. (Tip: Use a tripod or other fixed mount to keep the camera steady, and make sure you have enough power to keep things going for as long as you need. Plugging into the wall is best.)

Once you have your footage, it's time to speed it up. Turning it into the next YouTube sensation is easy with Creator 2009 and VideoWave. First, open VideoWave and select "Add Photo/Video" to add your clips to the timeline. Then right-click on the first video clip and choose "Trim..." to bring up the Video Trimmer window.


timelapse1.jpg


Now change the speed to whatever multiple you like. For example, if your overall video is 4 hours long, and you want the end result to be 4 minutes long, put 60 in the speed box to speed it up 60 times. (Note that if you have a long movie, it may be imported in multiple clips. Change the speed for all of them to the same number.)


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After changing the speed for each video clip, you can preview the overall movie in the main video window at top right. Adjust the speed up or down if desired, or cut out portions that don't help tell the story. You may even want to speed up some parts more than others, although it's best to just stick with one number. When you're happy with the results, choose "Export As" from the Output menu, and save your movie to disk. You can choose from many formats, such as MPEG2 for recording to DVD, 3GPP for cell phones, and MPEG4 or AVC for iPod and portable player viewing.


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Finally, upload your new time-lapse production to the web to share with family and friends. If you want to be the next online video star, send it to YouTube. If you'd rather it stay private, try uploading it to Roxio Online instead, where you can securely share videos with people you invite using PhotoShow. Either way, the results will be time-altering!

January 15, 2009

The Best Photo Sites You Haven't Seen

Most digital photographers have probably checked out the excellent DPReview and Steve's Digicams sites when deciding what new camera to buy. Both offer exhaustive reviews and up-to-the-minute recommendations.

But there are plenty more great photo sites with tips, tricks and sage advice to help you get the most out of your digital camera. Here are some of my favorites:

100 Photography Tips in 100 Days: Everything you ever wanted to know about digital photography, and more. Camera retailer Adorama has done an amazing job of collecting tips and tricks on virtually every aspect of photography in this series, now in its third round (300 days total). The articles are authoritative and easy to follow.

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Look Good In Pictures: If you've got camera-shy friends or family members, this site from Nikon will show you how to draw them out and shoot them in the best possible light. Carson Kressley dispenses advice on everything from party and wedding pics to "Bravery in Bathing Suits." Your subjects will thank you.

The Big Picture: Ever wished you could blow up the tiny pictures that accompany most Web articles? If you want to see current news photos in all their full-size glory, this site from The Boston Globe will mesmerize you. It has everything from NASA shots to the latest from Iraq, in stunning high-definition detail. The Wall Street Journal has a similar blog here. Put them in your RSS feeds, and learn from the best photojournalists in the business.

DxOMark: If you're a digital SLR junkie or shoot in RAW format, this site is for you. You'll find in-depth image-quality rankings and sample photos from all the top cameras.

What are your favorite photo sites? Tell us in the comments.

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