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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 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.

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.

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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 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.

Toast9AVCHD.jpg

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?

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.

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!

About Tech Enthusiast

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

Soccer mom is the previous category.

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