Monday, March 30, 2009

DataColor Spyder 3 Pro colorimeter

Having caught the digital photography bug, I decided that it became important for me to see the colors as intended on the screen. This especially helps with printing color photographs, and I happen to own 4 different color printers of various technologies - two inkjets, one dye sublimation, and one laser.

As astute readers of this blog may know, I just replaced one of my monitors with a new Gateway 24" FHD2401 . It features a very bright picture - much brighter than the screen it is currently placed next to - a cheap Chimei CMV-221D . As a result, the photograph looked extremely different between the two screens. Just dragging windows between the two was pretty bad - they also has a mismatched number of lines and different picture height, 1200 vs 1050 .

I did much online research, and also had the Pantone Huey Pro 3 on loan from a coworker, and was unhappy with it. So, I decided for a slightly more expensive product, the Data Color Spyder 3 Pro. This is a neat little USB sensor device that comes with calibration software.

I bought it last saturday night, March 28 at MicroCcenter. I had the software installed, and my 2 monitors calibrated in about a half hour. The picture looked matched much better. To be fair, there is still a large difference due to the Gateway's brightness , but the colors match fairly well - the tones don't change much when moving one window accross monitors.

I repeated the process with the second computer on my KVM switches, which was also hooked up to the same two monitors . Again, no problem.

I was about to post a glowing review of Spyder 3 Pro, but did not get the time to post on Sunday. That's when I discovered the problem today : the Spyder's monitoring agent process, Spyder3Utility.exe, had consumed over 1.6 GB of RAM, all by itself , after I had run my NSS software QA tests overnight in a loop for 24 hours ! The only job of that agent process is to remind the user to recalibrate - I set it to check daily, and remind once a month - or take ambient light samples, a feature that I disabled. Apparently, there is a huge memory leak. The agent seems to leak some data for each process that is started on the computer. My software QA tests easily ran over a million processes overnight - my PCs don't have quad-core processors for web browsing word processing. If the machine sits idle, there is basically no leak in the agent, but while the QA tests run - which are all text-based programs, by the way - the leak is over 1 MB per minute, which accounts for the 1.6 GB overnight figure .

The good news is that this agent can be stopped without too many negative consequences for me. Stopping it does not lose the monitoring calibration. But the agent may still be needed to set the calibration at startup time. I haven't tried to disable it completely at boot time.

I have reported the memory leak to DataColor.

The agent also doesn't play too well with the KVM switches - when displays disappear or reappear, it gets confused. Another day, another problem.

Free after rebate software : Norton Ghost 14.0

This is the next one in a series of articles on programs that are more trouble than they are worth, even if they are free !

Norton Ghost 14.0 is another program that I acquired last year from Fry's for a vile sum.

This is disk imaging software, which is one way you can do full system backups. I thought it was very attractive. And the box advertised support for Windows Vista.

And perhaps it does, on Vista 32 bits, but the software is useless on Vista 64 bits. Sure, it actually lets you backup your data and your OS. But there is no way to restore your OS if it's 64 bits ! The recovery CD only works for Vista 32 bits. And forget it if you have any dynamic disks - spanned or striped volumes, features available only in the higher editions of Vista, such as Enterprise and Ultimate. If you never tried to restore your backup, you might think you are covered. Not so. Fortunately, I tried it long before I needed it, and discovered what can only be called a design problem. Norton should state clearly that this software is only useful on Vista 32 bits. Write-only backups are not exactly useful. If you are using Vista 64 bit, or Vista Ultimate, or Vista Enterprise, or a combination of either, you will be out of luck. This is a really important disclosure that Symantec did not make prior to selling their product. Shame on them. This should be a much bigger issue than the one about computer makers selling underpowered computers with Vista logos. Norton's software only works if you run the lower-end editions of Vista, ie. 32 bits, Basic, or Home. It's not for anyone serious about backing up their data.
One year after my purchase, there is still no Ghost update to fix these design issues. I'm sure Norton would like to charge for that, too.

Free after rebate software : Corel Media One vs Hauppauge Win TV HVR-1800 video capture card

It pays to resist the temptation to acquire and install more software, especially software that is free after rebate, like my neighborhood Fry's Electronics likes to do to empty their shelves.

Assuming you do get your rebate - and so far I have gotten nearly all of mine, although not in the delays advertised, the costs of "free after rebate" software can be far higher than your time spent filling out, scanning, OCR'ing, and mailing out the rebate forms, the interest on your money during the 6 months period you can expect to be out your cash, or the amount of the sales tax which isn't refunded by the rebate.

Buying retail software was something I had rarely done - I used OS/2 as my home OS from 1992 to 2007, and I never found much of anything in stores. But in 2007, I switched over to the dark side - I started using Windows Vista x64 instead.

I have since bought many, many software programs for minimal cost due to "free after rebate" deals. Some of which I needed, and many others that I never actually used.

I needed a good photo editing program, and I thought Corel Photo Impact Pro 13 would be it. Very big mistake. This program has conflicts with many others, not the least of which is with the programs from the Hauppauge HVR-1800 WinTV capture card. Everytime I started WinTV, it would display the message "Please wait while Windows configures Corel Media One". One would click cancel, and the dialog would come again 3 times, until WinTV would actually come up. And then the picture was square instead of 4:3 format, not filling the whole windows, even if maximized.

Since the error message seemed to point out the source of the conflict, I decided to uninstall Media One. Unfortunately, that did not solve the problem with the shape of WinTV. After reinstalling WinTV also, the picture now came in the right shape at startup. But there was no longer any sound, or video motion. The software only displayed the initial from the VCR hooked up to the composite input, and nothing more.

It was time to boot to my "test" Vista partition, setup for the purpose of checking compatibility issues only. That partition never had either Corel or Hauppauge software installed. I installed the Hauppauge WinTV. It worked fine the first time, with sound.

The conclusion - there is still another software conflict somewhere remaining on my production Vista partition, which prevents me from using WinTV. But I don't know what it is.

Maybe after my next full system backup, I will delete a few of the 100+ programs that are installed and try to figure it out. I will be sure to update this page. Stay tuned - I won't be on my WinTV.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

New webcam : and the winner is, the Logitech Quickcam Pro 9000 webcam.

I found an acceptable replacement webcam on my second try. The first one was a Creative Live Cam Optia AF. It was unsuitable due to poor image quality and poor software. It went back to Fry's the next day. The final choice was a Logitech Quickcam Pro 9000, which does wonderfully, especially with Skype. There isn't much of an improvement when using it with apps like Yahoo Messenger, since it transmits in such a low quality, if it transmits at all.
I no longer have random crashes with Pinnacle Studio 12.1 when the cam is attached to the computer. However, Studio will crash with a corrupt stack when recording from the cam. But I think that's more of a bug in Studio than a problem with the webcam this time.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

DDC/CI - "EzTune" vs HDMI switch

Gateway bundled software with its 24" monitor that allows managing some of its features through the computer. It communicates with the display using the DDC/CI interface. Unfortunately, I found out the hard way this doesn't work when using my Monoprice HDX-501 switch. It's not a big loss. I hope that saves someone else some time.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

24" monitor saga, vs Monoprice HDMI switch HDX-401E

On March 7, I noticed a nice, 24" monitor at Microcenter in Santa Clara. It was a Sceptre brand and featured 1920x1200 resolution. It sold for $289, with a $40 rebate. That was relatively inexpensive, and I decided that it was time to replace one of the two monitors in my home office.

I was running a two monitor setup. One was a 7 year old Dell 2001FP, which was 20" and 1600x1200, which I was running with its analog VGA connection. The other monitor was a 22" Chimei CMV-221D with a resolution of 1680x1050, running using its DVI connection.

I have multiple source devices in my small home office : a Roland VS-2400CD digital audio workstation, which is a sort of embedded systems with PS/2 keyboard and mouse connections, and analog VGA video; as well as two PCs, both setup with dual monitors.

One of the switches I was using were an Iogear MiniView SE 4-port PS/2 - VGA KVM to switch the analog video and keyboard/mouse for the Dell monitor between the VS-2400CD and the 2 PCs. The other switch was a Monoprice HDMI switch, to switch the digital video of the second screen between the two PCs, with the Chimei monitor. All was running fine up to that point.

Because the new Sceptre monitor had a higher resolution - 1920x1200, I decided that it should be run with its digital DVI connection. That meant the Chimei would now be run in analog VGA. That part was no problem - and the Chimei ran fine in VGA at 1680x1050 without any visible ghosting.

The problems started when I connected the Sceptre to the HDMI switch, with the help of the very same DVI-HDMI adapter I was previously using with the Chimei DVI connection. There was troubling video corruption in the upper left corner of the screen. This corruption was minor when using the computer that was connected 6ft to the HDMI switch - for a total of 12ft of cables. But that corruption became intolerable when switching to the other computer, which was 15ft away from the HDMI switch. Through many hours of trial and error, I determined, that I could make the video corruption go away if, and only if, the Sceptre was directly connected to a single computer, with a 6ft cable, and without a switch. I also tried to directly connect it to the farther computer - but the video corruption reappeared.

The next day, on March 8, I went back to Microcenter and told him about the problem. He gave me a new unit of the same Sceptre 24" model. I plugged it in. The problem was back, instantly. I packed it, and went back to the dealer within the hour. I then picked up an HP w2408h floor model, for $299. This appeared to be a very nice monitor, with rotation capability, and a built-in USB hub.

I brought it home, and it worked fine with the HDMI switch, to my relief, without any corruption problem. I noticed that the colors were way off compared to the other Chimei monitor, and was not able to manually make adjustments to match the two screens. I figured I would use a color calibrator eventually to solve this issue.

I thought that this was the end of my monitor problems. Unfortunately, that was not to be. Over the next week, the nice HP monitor developed issue going into sleep mode, wasting electricity and heating my room unnecessarily. At other times, it would go to sleep mode, and would be unable to wake up at all, except by pulling the power cord. This was annoying. I started googling and found that this was a common issue, that was sometimes resolved by installing HP software. I had never installed software monitor. I found that there was about 100 MB worth of HP software for the monitor indeed, which I installed on both computers. This software had capabilities like auto-pivot, and software control of brightness and contrast. But it only worked properly on the one computer that had the USB connection to the monitor. And it actually did not resolve the problem with the sleep mode. The problem kept popping up. In addition to the way-off colors of this monitor, this was too much of a problem to live with. I knew I had to do something to resolve it.

On March 21, I purchased a Gateway FHD2401 24" monitor from Fry's electronics. It had a very nice picture in the store, seemingly more accurate than many other monitors. When I brought it home, it seemed to match the Chimei monitor's colors better, too. Unfortunately, trouble started immediately when I started switching computers with the HDMI switch. The monitor went into a "hung" state as soon as I switched source. The picture went black. None of the buttons on the monitor worked anymore, including the power buttons. Also, even when not switching the source, the monitor would not go to sleep when it should, just like the HP. At that point, I became extremely angry. Many expletives were heard. I spent the next few hours trying to resolve the problem, to no avail. I verified that the monitor worked perfectly fine when directly connected to either computer, even with the long HDMI cable run. But being able to switch to a different computer source on this monitor was a requirement for me. At that point, I was starting to think that I should return both this Gateway FHD2401, and the HP w2408h, and just get my old Dell 2001FP back from my boyfriend. Around 2am, I had the idea to try one last thing.

In my home theater, I had another HDMI switch. It was also from the same brand, Monoprice. It looked almost identical. But it was a slightly different model, a 5 port version, called the HDX-501. I decided to exchange the HDMI switches between the home office downstairs, and the home theater upstairs. And that did it ! With the HDX-501, the Gateway FHD2401 worked just fine. There was no longer any problem when switching computer source. It went to sleep when the computer went to sleep. And it woke up when the computer was turned on. If only I had this idea earlier. I really didn't think that the HDX-401E was the problem, since it worked fine with the Chimei CMV-221D monitor, and I did not expect that the HP or Gateway monitors should have problems. Perhaps the reason is that the Chimei is not an HDCP monitor, and the HP and Gateway monitors are HDCP, although I did not attempt to play any content that requried HDCP at any point, and have no need for it.

My home office was working with the new Gateway FHD2401 monitor and the HDX-501 switch. But I wasn't done yet. I had to test the home theater with the HDX-401E switch. The HDMI components in use were a Sanyo PLV-Z2000 projector, a Sony BDP-S300 Blu-ray player, a Dish network 722 HD DVR, and a home theater PC. Fortunately, it appeared that the HDX-401E did switching the job withoua a problem with this combination, although much more slowly than the HDX-501 - there was about a 3-5 second delay after a button press before the source was actually switched, vs about 1 second with the HDX-501 previously. I suppose I could live with that. Next came the realization that the infrared remote codes for the two switches were different. That meant my Sony RM-AV2500 universal remote could no longer switch HDMI source. I spent the next hour trying to find the tiny HDX-401E original remote, so that I could feed the proper IR codes into my RM-AV2500. I finally went to sleep at 4am.

On March 22, I returned the floor model HP w2408h monitor to Microcenter, with no issues.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Video editing programs vs Philips SPC700 webcam

For the last year and a half, I have been using a Philips webcam, model SPC 700 . It has a good picture quality compared to many webcams in its price range.

Recently, I started doing some video editing. I noticed that every single video editing application that I used was unstable and would crash inexplicably.

I have now discovered that the culprit was this webcam. The Microsoft developer studio led me to this highly suspicious stack :

> vphc700.dll!153163ce()
[Frames below may be incorrect and/or missing, no symbols loaded for vphc700.dll]

After unplugging the webcam, I am able to do video editing without any problem.

As it turns out, Philips has not updated the webcam software for Vista since april 2007, so there is no fix that can be downloaded.

I will no longer use this webcam. I may use it with another computer where I don't do video editing, sell it, or maybe even give it to one of my cats to chew - he loves chewing webcam cables.

Left-handed wireless trackball, anyone ?

I started having tendinitis in my right wrist in 1997. I was 19, and had been programming for about 7 years. The tendinitis was due to the use of a regular mouse.

Ever since, I have only been using trackballs. I also switched to pointing with my left side instead, even though I am left handed. I have been using various versions of Kensington's excellent Expert Mouse .

In spring 2008, I built a home theater PC. The couch is located about 14 ft from the projection screen, and 11 ft from the PC. One year later, I have been unable to locate a decent wireless trackball for use with it. Especially one that can be used with the left hand. Some brands only design their wireless trackball to work with the shape of the right hand, which upsets me to no end.

If you have became aware of a good wireless trackball product that can be used with the left hand , I would like to hear about it.

Why I have not an bought an iPod yet

Way back in 2007, Apple used to have a 160 GB iPod . At that time, my music collection, in Apple Lossless Encoder, made from all legally purchased CDs, was about 180 GB . I thought for sure that by waiting another year, they would come up with a unit sporting a bigger hard drive that could fit all my songs.

Instead, Apple's next lineup of iPods had a smaller unit with only a 120 GB hard drive, 40 GB smaller than before.

Now it's 2009, any the size of my music collection has grown to 15,592 files in 2648 folders, totalling 264,905,499,571 bytes. There doesn't appear to be any single music player on the market that can fit it.

Here is hoping that somebody will fill that gap.

Apple iTunes and HP LightScribe gripes

No, this isn't another iTunes RFE. Although, it would sure be nice if iTunes supported burning labels to LightScribe discs.

This is more of a bug report. And a very annoying one at that. On my system, running Vista x64, using iTunes simultaneously with any of the free Lightscribe labeling programs is a recipe for disaster. What happens eventually is that all LightScribe progress will stop. The label application cannot be stopped. The Lightscribe disc can not be taken out of the drive. The computer cannot even be put to sleep. The only "fix" is to ... Press the reset button to reboot your whole OS. Or if your computer doesn't have one, hold the power button for 5 seconds. The Lightscribe label can be reburned over - it will position correctly. At least the media is not wasted. But this is totally unacceptable.

The only "solution" that I have found ?

1) Close iTunes while burning LightScribe labels
That's rather annoying, given that if you print graphics, a label can take a cool half hour.

2) Burn Lightscribe labels from another computer
See 1) :-(

Did I mention I have two computers, each with 4 optical drives. One has 3 LightScribe burners, the other 2 . I should be able to burn 5 simultaneous LightScribe labels, in theory, while listening to iTunes, if it was not for the crappy LightScribe software, and the iTunes interaction.

In practice, the LightScribe software also has the problem that it really doesn't like to run simultaneously on multiple drives. It will be extremely slow doing that.
Apple, HP, are you listening ?

iTunes R.F.E. : simultaneous drive support

For those who aren't software engineers, and heavy TLA abusers , an RFE is a "request for enhancement".

Here my request of the day. I have several computers with 4 optical drives. With their SATA interface, they are plenty past enough to be all used simultaneously. Why would anyone want to do that ? Well, let's say for example that you just received a box set of 34 CDs that you want to import to itunes, as I did last week. The bottleneck is not the computer. My Core 2 Quad 6600 CPU can compress lossless music at a very high rate, probably in excess of 30x, ie., 30 hours of music per hour of CPU. And the Seagate 750 GB SATA hard drives are capable of at least 60 MB/s.

Instead, with iTunes, the bottleneck becomes the speed at which you can insert and remove into the drive. And the fact that you have to do so every 3 minutes again. And edit the track name each time before import, while nothing else is going.

So, Apple developers, learn to make the best use of threads already. We have had multiple core CPUs on desktops for a very long time. The UI change is simple - just allow the "Import CD" button to be clicked for each drive, rather than just for one at a time.

I would also suggest you do the same for "Burn disc", since I also backup all my CDs to CD-Rs after I import them, only with CD-Text information added.

Friday, March 20, 2009

The many unfullfilled promises of online music downloads

Once upon a time, there were CDs. Then, there was the Internet. Later came broadband access.

It seemed logical that the Internet would become the medium of choice for purchasing music. Downloads promised to be much less expensive than pressing CDs, producing cases, and physically shipping them. The Internet should lead to cutting intermediaries that stand between artists and their listeners and reducing unnecessary costs. One could instantly get access to the music of their choice, in a much more ecologic way, without taking a trip to a music store.

But rather than embrace the new medium, the record companies felt threatened. They lived desperately in the past. They stuck with consumer-unfriendly DRM schemes for far too long. Now, a select few Internet companies own the commercial online distribution channel, such as Apple with iTunes and Amazon.

These companies have redefined the medium for music. In many ways it's good. In others, not so much. Technically, the new medium is no longer what was originally recorded. Digital music downloads are typically done in MP3 format or similar, compressed with lossy algorithms. Most certainly, this reduces download times, but it also comes at a price - what you hear is no longer the original. This may not matter for those who listen to music on a cheap pair of speakers on their computer, or their portable music player. But for those listening on high-fidelity systems, particularly for classical music, it matters. And the fact is that to my knowledge today, nobody offers commercial digital downloads of lossless music. That is despite the fact that many connections are fast enough already for lossless music. Typically Apple lossless will compress about 2:1 - vs 6:1 for a 256 kbps MP3. We are only talking about a factor of 3. This is one of the reasons that I haven't purchased any online music, and that I still exclusively buy CDs. I have purchased hundreds of CDs, about 800, and would very gladly download instead, but a prerequisite is that the music has to be in lossless format.

My latest music purchase was a box set of 34 CDs of Scott Ross playing all of Scarlatti's sonatas for harpsichord . This set was not available for download anywhere, lossy or lossless. I ended up purchasing it for $145 shipped from Berkshire Record Outlet - about $100 less than the Amazon price. It took a full two weeks to be delivered to my door. It came with a nice 200 page booklet, and a box. I would have gladly have sacrificed it for an e-book. It took about 3 hours to feed all the music into iTunes, and the 35.5 hours of music compressed to 13.72 GB with the Apple lossless encoder. My "6 Mbits" DSL connection has a sustained download speed of about 625 KB/S, so this could have been a 6.5 hours download. I would have liked that a whole lot better than a 2 week wait. And I bet Amazon or Apple could provide this download for less than $145, and have a lot of money left over to pay the record company, and still make a profit.

So, why aren't we here already today in 2009 ?

Please, Apple and Amazon, give your customers an option to get lossless music. Even if this option costs more than 256 kbps MP3 downloads !

First post !

I can't believe that it has taken me this long to start a blog. I used to maintain a web site in 1995. Somehow, I stopped updating it. Let's hope this one lasts longer.