iTunes 8 visualization

Up until now I have not been a very big fan of iTunes’ visualization engine, probably because I’ve been spoiled with MilkDrop in my Winamp days (which still owns the old iTunes display on so many levels).

But with the release of iTunes 8 and their new visualization, I have to admit that, when you chose the right music (in this case it’s Liberi Fatali from Final Fantasy 8), you can really get something out of this.

The still picture really doesn’t do it justice, so I have created this video (it may be a bit small, but you’ll see what I’m getting at)  to visualize my point. Unfortunately, near the end it gets worse and worse, but the beginning is something of the more impressive shows I have ever seen generated out of this particular piece of music.

This may even beat MilkDrop and I could actually see myself assembling a playlist of some sort and put this thing on full screen.

Nice eyecandy!

Apple TV – Second try

When Apple announced their AppleTV a couple of months (or was it years?) ago, I was very skeptical of the general idea behind the device. Think of it: What was the big success behind the iPod? That it could run proprietary AAC files people buy from the music store?

No. That thing didn’t even exist back then. The reason for the success was the total easy (and FAST – remember: Back in the days, we had 1.1 MB/s USB which every MP3 player used vs. 40MB/s Firewire of the iPod) handling and the fact that it was an MP3 player – playing the files everyone already had.

It was a device for playing the content that was available at the time.

The AppleTV in its first incarnation was a device capable of playing content that wasn’t exactly available. Sure it could play the two video podcasts that existed back then (maybe more, but you get the point). And you could buy TV shows and movies in subpar quality on your PC (Windows or Mac) and then transfer them to the device. But the content that was available back then was in a different format: XVID dominated the scene. x264 was a newcomer and MP4 (and mov) wasn’t exactly used.

So what you got was a device, but no content (and the compatible content you had was in subpar quality compared to the incompatible content that was available). And you needed a PC, so it wasn’t exactly a device I could hook to my parents PC for example.

All these things were fixed by Apple today:

  • There is a huge library of content available right here, right now (at least in the US): The new movie rental service. Granted. I think it’s not quite there yet price vs. usability-wise (I think $5 is a totally acceptable price for a movie with unlimited replayability), but at least we have the content.
  • It works without a PC. I can hook this thing up to my parents TV and they can immediately use it.
  • The quality is OK. Actually, it’s more than OK. There is HD content available (though maybe only 720p one, but frankly, on my expensive 1080p projector, I don’t see that much of a difference between 720p and 1080p)
  • It can still access the scarce content that was available before.

The fact that this provides very easy to use video-on-demand to a huge amount of people is what makes me think that this little device is even more of a disruptive technology than the iPod or the iPhone. Think of it: Countless of companies are trying to make people pay for content these days. It’s the telcos, it’s cable companies and it’s device manufacturers. But what do we get? Crappy, constantly crashing devices, which are way too complicated for a non-geek and way too limited in functionality for a geek.

Now we got something that’s perfect for the non-geek. It has the content. It has the ease-of-use. Plug it in, watch your movie. Done. This is what a whole industry tried to do and failed so miserably.

I for my part will still prefer the flexibility given by my custom Windows Media Center solution. I will still prefer the openness provided by illegal copies of movies. I totally refuse to pay multiple times for something just because someone says that I have to. But that’s me.

And even I may sooner or later prefer the comfort of select-now-watch-now to the current procedure (log into private tracker, download torrent, wait for download to finish, watch – torrents are not streamable, even if the bandwith would easily suffice in my case – the packets arrive out of order), so even for me, the AppleTV could be interesting.

This was yet another perfect move by Apple. Ignore the analysts out there who expected more out of this latest keynote. Ignore the bad reception of the keynote by the marked (I hear that Apple stock just dropped a little bit). Ignore all that and listen to yourself: This wonderful device will certainly revolutionize the way we consume video content.

I’m writing this as a constant sceptic – as a person always trying to see a flaw in a certain device. But I’m sure that this time around, they really got it. Nice work!

The new iPods

<p>So we have new iPods.</p> <p>Richard sent me an email asking which model he should buy which made me begin thinking whether to upgrade myself. Especially the new touch screen model seemed compelling to me – at first.</p> <p>Still: I was unable to answer that email with a real recommendation (though honestly, I don’t think it was as much about getting a recommendation than about to letting me know that the models were released and to hear my comments about them) and still I don’t really know what to think.</p> <p>First off: This is a matter of taste, but I hate the new nano design: The screen still is too small to be useful for real video consumption, but it made the device very wide – too wide, I think, to be able to comfortably keep it in my trousers pockets while biking (I may be wrong though).</p> <p>Also, I don’t like the rounded corners very much and the new interface… really… why shrink the menu to half a screen and clutter the rest with some meaningless cover art which only the smallest minority of my files are tagged with.</p> <p>Coverflow feels tucked onto the great old interface and looses a lot of its coolness without the touch screen.</p> <p>They don’t provide any advantage in flash size compared to the older nano models and I think the scroll wheel is way too small compared to the large middle button.</p> <p>All in all, I would never ever upgrade my second generation nano to one of the third generation as they provide no advantage, look (much) worse (IMHO) and seem to have a usability problem (too small a scroll wheel)</p> <p>The iPod classic isn’t interesting for me: Old style hard drives are heavy and fragile and ever since I bought that 4GB nano a long while ago, I noticed that there is no real reason behind having all the music on the device.</p> <p>I’m using my nano way more often than I ever used my old iPod: The nano is lighter and I began listening to podcasts. Still: While I lost HD-based iPods around every year and a half due to faulty hard drives or hard drive connectors, my nano still works as well as it did on the first day.</p> <p>Additionally, the iPod classic shares the strange half-full-screen menu and it’s only available in black or white. Nope. Not interesting. At least for me.</p> <p>The iPod touch is interesting because it has a really interesting user interface. But even there I have my doubts: For one, it’s basically an iPhone without the phone. Will I buy an iPhone when (if) it becomes available in Switzerland? If yes, there’s no need to buy the iPod Touch. If no, there still remains that awful usability problem of touch-screen only devices:</p> <p>You can’t use them without taking them out of your pocket.</p> <p>On my nano, I can play and pause the music (or more often podcast) and I can adjust the volume and I can always see what’s on the screen.</p> <p>On the touch interface, I have to put the screen to standby mode, I can’t do anything without looking at the device and I think it may be a bit bulky all in all.</p> <p>The touch is the perfect bathtub surfing device. It’s the perfect device to surf the web right before or after going to sleep. But it’s not portable.</p> <p>Sure. I can take it with me, but it fails in all the aspects of portability. It’s bulky, it can’t be used without taking it out of your pocket and stopping whatever you are doing, it requires two hands to use (so no changing tracks on the bike any more) and it’s totally useless until you manually turn the display back on and unlock it (which also requires two hands to do).</p> <p>So: Which device should Richard buy? I still don’t know. What I know is that I will not be replacing my second generation Nano as long as it keeps working.</p> <p>The Nano looks awesome, works like a charm and is totally portable. Sure. It can’t play video, but next to none of my videos actually fits the requirement of the video functionality anyways and I don’t see myself recoding already compressed content. That just takes an awful lot of time, greatly degrades the quality and generally is not at all worth the effort.</p>

Altering the terminal title bar in Mac OS X

After one year of owning a MacBook Pro, I finally got around to fix my precmd() ZSH-hack to really make the current directory and stuff appear in the title bar of Terminal.app and iTerm.app.

This is the code to add to your .zshrc:

case $TERM in
    *xterm*|ansi)
		function settab { print -Pn "e]1;%n@%m: %~a" }
		function settitle { print -Pn "e]2;%n@%m: %~a" }
		function chpwd { settab;settitle }
		settab;settitle
        ;;
esac

settab sets the tab contents in iTerm and settitle does the same thing for the title bar both in Terminal.app and iTerm.

The sample also shows the variables ZSH replaces in the strings (the parameter -P to print lets ZSH do prompt expansion. See zshmisc(1) for a list of all variables): %n is the currently logged on user, %m the hostname up until the first dot and %~ is displaying the current directory or ~ if you are in $HOME. You can certainly add any other environment variable of your choice if you need more options, but this more or less does it for me.

Usually, the guides in the internet make you use precmd to set the title bar, but somehow, Terminal wasn’t pleased with that method and constantly kept overwriting the title with the default string.

And this is how it looks in both iTerm (above) and Terminal (below):

MediaFork 0.8-beta1

A few months ago, I was looking for a nice usable solution to rip DVDs. I was trying out a lot of different things, but the only application that had acceptable usability and speed was HandBrake

Unfortunately, the main developer of that tool has run out of time to continue to develop HandBrake which made the project stall for some time.

Capable fans of the tool have now created a form, aptly named MediaFork and they have just released Version 0.8-beta1 with some fixes.

But that’s not all. Aside from the new release, they also created a blog, set up a trac environement.

Generally, I’d say the project moved back to be totally alive and kicking.

The new release provides a linux command line utility. Maybe I should go ahead and try it out on a machine even more powerful than my Mac Pro (which is running linux without X) – let’s see how many FPS I’m going to get.

Anyways: Congratulations to the MediaFork developers for their great release! You’re doing for video what iTunes did for audio: You make ripping DVDs doable.

Bootcamp, Vista, EFI-Update

Near the end of october I wanted to install Vista on my Mac Pro, using Bootcamp of course. The reason is that I need a Windows machine at home to watch speedruns on it, so it seemed like a nice thing to try.

Back then, I was unable to even get setup going: Whenever you selected a partition that’s not the first partition on the drive (where OS X must be). The installer complained that the BIOS reported the selected partition to be non-bootable and that was it.

Yesterday, Apple has released another EFI update which was said to improve compatibility with Bootcamp and to fix some suspend/resume problems (I never had those)

Naturally, I went ahead and tried again.

The good news: Setup doesn’t complain any more. Vista can be installed to the second (or rather third) partition without complaining.

The bad news: The bootcamp driver installer doesn’t work. It always cancels out with some MSI-error, claims to roll back all changes (which it doesn’t – sound keeps working even after that «rollback» has occurred). This means: No driver support for NVIDIA card of my MacPro.

Even after trying to fetch a vista compliant driver from NVIDIA, I had no luck: The installer claimed the installation to be successful, but resolution stayed at 640x480x16 after a reboot. Device manager complained about the driver not finding certain resources to claim the device and that I was supposed to turn off other devices… whatever.

So in the MacPro case, I guess it’s waiting for updated Bootcamp drivers by Apple. I hear though that the other machines – those with an ATI driver are quite well supported.

All you have to do is to launch the bootcamp driver installer with the /a /v parameters to just extract the drivers and then you use the device manager and point it to that directory to manually install the drivers.

DVD ripping, second edition

HandBrake is a tool with the worst website possible: The screenshot that’s presented on the index page leaves behind a completely wrong image of the application.

When you just look at the screenshot, you will get the impression that the tool is fairly limited and totally optimized for creating movies for handheld devices.

That’s not true though. The screenshot is the screenshot of a light edition of the tool. The real thing is actually quite capable and only lacks the capability to store subtitles in the container format.

And it doesn’t know about Matroska.

And it refuses to store x264 encoded video in the OGM container.

Another tool I found after my first very bad experience with ripping DVDs last time is OGMrip. The tool is a frontend for mencoder (of mplayer fame) and has all the features you’d ever want from a ripping tool, while still being easy to use.

It even provides a command line interface, allowing to process your movies from the console.

It has one inherent flaw though: It’s single threaded.

HandBrake on the other hand, can split the encoding work (yes. the actual encoding) over multiple threads and thus can profit a lot of SMP machines.

Here’s what I found in matters of encoding speed. I encoded the same video (from a DVD ISO image) with the same settings (x264, 1079kbit/s, 112kbit mp3 audio, 640×480 resolution at 30fps) on different machines:

  • 1.4Ghz, G4 Mac mini, running Gentoo Linux with OGMrip: 3fps
  • Thinkpad T43, running Ubuntu Edgy Eft, 1.6Ghz Centrino, OGMRip: 8fps
  • MacBook Pro, 2Ghz Core Duo, HandBrake: 22fps (both cores at 100%)
  • Mac Pro, Dual Dual Core 2.66Ghz, HandBrake: 110fps(!!), 80% total cpu usage (hdd io seems to limit the process)

This means that encoding the whole 47 minutes A-Team episode takes:

  • OGMRip on Mac mini G4: 7.8 hours
  • OGMRip on Thinkpad: 2.35 hours per episode
  • HandBrake on MacBook Pro: 1.6 hours per episode
  • HandBrake on MacPro: 0.2 hours (12 minutes) per episode

Needless to say what method I’m using. Screw subtitles and Matroska – I want to finish ripping my collection this century!

On an additional closing note, I’d like to add that even after 3 hours of encoding video, the MacPro stayed very, very quiet. The only thing I could hear was the hard drive – the fans either didn’t run or were quieter than the harddrive (which is quiet too)

Intel Mac Mini, Linux, Ethernet

If you have one of these new Intel Macs, you will sooner or later find yourself in the situation of having to run Linux on one of them. (Ok. Granted: The situation may be coming sooner for some than for others).

Last weekend, I was in that situation: I had to install Linux on an Intel Mac Mini.

The whole thing is quite easy to do and if you don’t need Mac OS X, you can just go ahead and install Linux like you would on any other x86 machine (provided the hardware is sufficiently new to have the BIOS emulation layer already installed – otherwise you have to install the Firmware Update first – you’ll notice by the mac not booting from the CD despite holding c during the initial boot sequence).

You can partition the disk to your liking – the Mac bootloader will notice that there’s something fishy with the parition layout (the question-mark-on-a-folder icon will blink one or two times) before passing control to the BIOS emulation which will be able to boot Linux from the partitions you created during installation.

Don’t use grub as bootloader though.

I don’t know if it’s something grub does to the BIOS or if it’s something about the partition table, but grub can’t launch stage 1.5 and thus is unable to boot your installation.

lilo works fine though (use plain lilo when using the BIOS emulation for the boot process, not elilo)

When you are done with the installation process, something bad will happen sooner or later though: Ethernet will stop working.

This is what syslog has to say about it:

NETDEV WATCHDOG: eth0: transmit timed out
sky2 eth0: tx timeout
sky2 eth0: transmit ring 60 .. 37 report=60 done=60
sky2 hardware hung? flushing

When I pulled the cable and plugged it in again, the kernel even oops’ed.

The macs have a Marvel Yukon ethernet chipset. This is what lspci has to tell us: 01:00.0 Ethernet controller: Marvell Technology Group Ltd. 88E8053 PCI-E Gigabit Ethernet Controller (rev 22). The driver to use in the kernel config is “SysKonnect Yukon2 support (EXPERIMENTAL)” (CONFIG_SKY2)

I guess the EXPERIMENTAL tag is warranted for once.

The good news is, that this problem is fixable. The bad news is: It’s tricky to do.

Basically, you have to update the driver with the version that is in the repository of what’s going to be kernel 2.6.19

Getting a current version of sky.c and sky.h is not that difficult. Unfortunately though, the new driver won’t compile with the current 2.6.18 kernel (and upgrading to a pre-rc is out of the question – even more so considering the ton of stuff going into 2.6.19).

So first, we have to patch in this changeset to make the current release of sky compile.

Put the patch to /usr/src/linux and patch with patch -p1

Then fetch the current revision of sky2.c and sky2.h and overwrite the existing files. I used the web interface to git for that as I have no idea how the command line tools work.

Recompile the thing and reboot.

For me, this fixed the problem with the sky2 driver: The machine in question is now running for a whole week without any networking lockups – despite heavy network load at times.

While happy to see this fixed, my statement about not buying too new hardware (posting number 6 here on gnegg.ch – ages ago) if you intend to use Linux on it seems to continue to apply.

OS X 10.4.8 – Update gone wrong

Today, Software Update popped up and offered me to upgrade the OS to 10.4.8.

Usually I’m turning down such offers as I don’t want to reboot my system in mid-day, but it felt like a good time to do it none the less. This is why I accepted.

After the installation, the update asked me to reboot which I accepted.

What came afterwards was as scary as it was ironic: The system rebooted into Windows XP.

But not worries: The 10.4.8 update isn’t a windows installation in disguise: The Windows installation that greeted me was the one I have on a second partition – mostly to play WoW (which I don’t any more).

A quick reboot showed me even more trouble: Whenever my MacBook tried to boot from the MacOS partition, it showed the folder-with-question-mark icon for a few seconds and then the EFI BIOS emulation kicked in and booted from the MBR, which is why I was seeing Windows on my screen.

Now, I’d gladly explain here what has gone wrong and how I fixed it, but as I was in a state of panic, so I have not exactly documented my fix and as I tried many steps at once without getting confirmation if the step has fixed the problem, I don’t even know what was wrong (which certainly doesn’t stop me from guessing).

Anyways.

I booted from the MacBook DVD and first selected disk utility in the tools menu and let it check the disk for errors (none found as I have expected) and then let it repair permissions (tons of errors found, but I doubt this was the problem).

Then I quit the disk utility and launched terminal.

Beside the fact that I had some trouble actually entering commands (how do I set the keyboard layout in that pre-install-terminal?), I quickly went to /System/Libary, deleted the Extensions cache (Extensions.kextcache), went to /System/Library/Exentsions and removed all Extensions installed by Parallels (which I suspected being responsible for the problem).

I think the list was vmmain.kext, helper.kext, Pvsnet.kext and hypervisor.kext. You have to remove them with rm -r as they are bundles (directories)

After that, I rebooted the system and the question-mark-on-a-folder disappeared and the updating process completed.

I can’t tell you how scared I was: My OS X installation is tweaked to oblivion and I’d really, really hate to lose all the stuff. Don’t mind the data – it’s configuration files and utilities and of course fink.

*shudder*

As I have not tried to reboot after completing each of the steps above, I’m unable to say what actually caused the problem. I doubt it was Parallels though as I’m currently running 10.4.8 and Parallels (which I had to reinstall of course). I also doubt it was the permissions issue as wrong permissions are unlikely to cause boot-failure.

So it probably was a corrupted Extension cache. Or the update process not able to cope with the Parallels extensions.

Me being in the dark makes me unable to place blame, so you won’t find any statement about how a more or less forced OS update should never cause a failure like this…

For all I know, this could have happened without the update anyways.

The good news on the other hand is that I’m slowly reaching a state where I am as good at fixing macs as I am good at fixing Windows and Linux. Just don’t tell this to my friends who have macs.

Computers under my command (4): yuna

Yuna was the lead girl in Final Fantasy X, the first episode of the series being released for the Playstation 2.

Now, I know I’m alone with this oppinion, but FFX was a big disappointment for me: Obvious character backgrounds, unimpressive story, stupid mini games, no world map, much too short. No. I didn’t like FFX.

But this doesn’t change the fact that I played through the game and that I was serisouly impressed of how well the thing looked. Yes. The graphics were good – unfortunately that’s everything positive I can say about the game.

And this is why I’m getting straight to the computer behind the name:

I called my MacBook Pro “yuna”.

My MacBook Pro is the one machine I use at work that impressed me the most yet: Fast, good looking, long battery life… and… running MacOS X.

Yuna did what was completely unthinkable for me not much more than 5 years ago: It converted me over to using MacOS X as my main OS. It’s not secondary OS. It’s no dual boot (especially since I stopped playing WoW). It’s no “MacOS is nice, but I’m still more productive in Windows”. It’s no “sometimes I miss Windows” and no “mmh… this would work better in Windows”.

No. It’s a full-blown remorseless conversion.

Granted: Some things DO work better in windows (patched emulators for use in Timeattack videos come to mind), but my point is: I don’t miss them.

The slickness and polish of the OSX interface and especially the font rendering (I admit, I putting way too much emphasis in fonts when chosing my platform, but fonts after all are the most important interface between you and the machine) and the unix backend make me wonder: How could I ever work without OS X?

It’s funny. For some time now I thought about converting.

But what really made me do it was the knowing that there’s a safety net: You know: I still have that windows partition on this intel mac. And I do have Parallels (which is much faster than Virtual PC) which I use for Delphi and lately Visual Studio.

Everyone that keeps telling that Apple switching to Intel will decrease their market share even more better shuts up. Now. Once you have that machine, once you see the slickness of the interface, once you notice how quickly you can be productive in the new environement, once that happens, you’ll see that there’s no need, no need at all, to keep using Windows.

So, a wonderful machine with a name of a (admittedly) good looking girl (with a crappy background story) from a crappy game. Too bad Marle or Terra wasn’t free any more.