How to Ustream with a Co-host on a Mac

August 13th, 2013

On the Engadget HD Podcast, we started streaming the show live some time ago. Over the years I’ve struggled to ensure the quality of the podcast was on par, while at the same time, stream the show live via Ustream. For the most part I’ve relied on the Mega Mix feature of Audio Hijack Pro to grab the audio from Skype. This is the method you’ll find on numerous tutorials online, but one with a huge limitation; you can’t easily control the crossfade (the ability to balance the volume of you and your co-host). This isn’t a problem for the podcast itself, because we do a double ender (Richard and I both record our own audio and Joe muxes it together in post, adjusting the levels then). But this has caused lots of problems for the Ustream listeners because one of us is significantly louder than the other. The other problem I had to solve is that my USB pre-amp (Lexicon Alpha) delivers mono audio, while Skype outputs in stereo — again, easily fixed in post for the podcast. So after the break I’ll explain how I configured Audio Hijack Pro in such a way to allow me to control the crossfade between Skype and my mic, monomize it and finally feed it to Ustream Producer. Read the rest of this entry »

How do you clean your screens? Here’s how I do it

April 14th, 2013

Between TVs, computers, tablets and phones, we spend a lot of our days looking at screens. And I can’t tolerate staring at a dirty screen. While glass touchscreen devices are the easiest to clean, usually getting away with a quick rub on your pants or shirt, laptops and TVs can be very tricky. Of course the best way is to not get it dirty in the first place, but between kids, sneezes and rude-screen-touchers, it happens. Here’s how I clean mine.

I start with two lint-free microfiber cleaning cloths; one damp one dry. First I wipe in circular motion with the damp cloth until I’m confident that I’ve removed all the grime and fingerprints. Then I quickly follow up  and dry it with the dry one. On large screens like a TV, it can be necessary to use both cloths at the same time, else parts of the screen might air dry before you get to it, which will leave water spots.

Although I’m happy with the results, I’m curious if I’m doing it the hard way. So how do you clean your screens?

Ultra HD: minmum viewing distance isn’t the same as optimal viewing distance

January 18th, 2013

There’s something I’ve been saying for years, but I now don’t believe it’s true. It isn’t just me, there are plenty of other experts who are still saying that if you don’t sit pretty close enough to a display, you can’t appreciate the higher resolution — this was  big debate in the 720p vs 1080p days. But now I believe that the distance between you and a 50-inch Ultra HD TV, before you would be just as well off with a 1080p, is so far that your living room probably isn’t big enough to ever worry about it — if you have a huge living room, you probably have room for an 84-inch TV anyways.

The first chink came way back around the time Blu-ray won the format war. Panasonic had a in-dash 720p 7-inch display at the BDA’s CES booth. It was right next to a typical standard definition display, and I still remember being surprised how much better the HD display looked, even on such a small screen from so far away. Then, Apple released the iPhone 4 with retina display and again, you didn’t have to be right on top of it to instantly notice the difference. But then CES 2013 brought a bunch of Ultra HD TVs and a number of side-by-side upconversion demos. In the Toshiba booth, I was trying to capture a picture with my 50mm prime and had to step way back to get the two 84-inch TVs into the shot and noticed how dramatic the difference between the two TVs was, even from over 10-feet away — and this wasn’t even native 4K content!

All of these firsthand impressions started stacking up and then we had a representative from Sharp on the Engadget HD podcast and he indicated that displays have a minimal viewing distance, but this isn’t necessarily the optimal viewing distance. And then it hit me, seeing the pixels is a bad thing. Duh. The rules for sitting too close to a TV are to avoid being able to distinguished the pixels, and thus ruining the experience. And while it is true that if you step back far enough, you won’t be able to tell the difference, that distance is far from the same as the minimal viewing distance. So before you post that I’m out of my mind, please go and grab two displays (one high resolution and one low) and keep stepping back and see how far you have to move back before they start to look the same. I think you’ll be amazed at how far back you can get.

Where are the TV apps for Windows 8 and the Xbox?

October 27th, 2012

Windows 8 and the new Xbox Dashboard are officially available and Microsoft is giving Windows Media Center to Windows 8 Pro customers for the next few months. But the more I think of it, the more I wonder if Microsoft could really be willing to let all the work it put into Media Center go to waste. I say this because I’m reminded of all the Windows 7 commercials that mentioned its ability to watch TV — was there even one that didn’t. Windows 8 and Xbox apps from Netflix, Hulu and others add obvious value to the new Windows ecosystem, but so does real TV. It seems to me — famous last words from a non-developer — that it would be trivial for Microsoft to develop and release Modern UI apps for TV. Recorded TV, Guide and Live TV tiles could be pulled over from the deprecated Media Center experience. Ported to feel right at home in the new Windows world.

These simple apps would put a new face on the years of work and that so many love. The apps would run on Windows PCs, the Xbox, Windows Phones and maybe even 3rd party devices like Roku. They would rely on the core of Media Center to schedule, record and playback premium HD obtained from your cable TV subscription via great CableCARD hardware. What they wouldn’t be is the answer for pure HTPC fans as the Modern UI is not a 10-foot interface, it’s a touchscreen interface, but that’s fine. I said it some time ago, and I still believe it, the HTPC is dead. But just because the age of connecting your PC to your TV is a dead-end, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t a place for tuners in Microsoft’s ecosystem.

What I don’t understand is, if Microsoft was going to do this, why not do it at launch? Assuming this is all a pipe dream, I wonder if it would be possible for 3rd parties to do it? Are there documented API’s for Media Center that would enable enough access to the tuners? Can 3rd party apps leverage the Windows 8 PlayReady components that unlock protected CableCARD content?

I realize some believe that Microsoft will not invest another nickel into anything that involves broadcast TV, but I just can’t believe they are that hubris. Sure, the future is on-demand IP delivered content, but the reality today is that the majority of content is still delivered via RF broadcast. And even when the day does come where more content is on-demand than linear, it still won’t make sense to ditch broadcast completely as there is no more efficient way to deliver events like the Super Bowl to 30 million people, at the same time, than to broadcast it — do you really believe that enabling multicast throughout the internet is more plausible than just continuing to use RF broadcasts?

The state of personal finance software on the Mac is terrible

June 16th, 2012

I switched to a Mac in early 2005 and although I don’t see myself ever willingly going back to Windows at home (I use it at work), the one area that makes me wish I was on a PC is personal finance software. I’ve been a Quicken user since 2000 and have enjoyed the benefits of easily tracking my spending, budgeting, online bill pay and cash flow forecasting for almost all of my adult life. I can still remember pondering the switch to Mac and thinking, “oh great, they have Quicken for Mac.” But that was the last time I thought of a product from Intuit in a positive light. Converting from Quicken for PC to Mac was one of the most difficult software migrations I’ve ever done — and I do them for a living. I spent countless hours on the phone with support trying to figure out why my registrars didn’t balance when I imported my qif files — no, Intuit doesn’t support a direct import, but rather you export everything and import it back in. In the end I made the transition and missed the superior PC version of Quicken, holding my breath as Intuit released paid upgrades to its Mac product, only to realize none of my beefs were addressed.

But hey, at least it worked and it had many of the same features I had in the PC world, that was until Lion came along. Faced with the choice to upgrade to Quicken Essentials or to not upgrade to Lion, I bit the bullet and hoped for the best. That hope was unfounded as I lost access to one of my favorite features, online bill pay. For the past 10 years I’ve entered a transaction into Quicken and had it paid by my bank automatically, but not anymore. Now I have to enter the transaction into my bank’s website and then enter it again into Quicken — if I wait for the transaction to clear, which will enter it automatically, I don’t have the ability to forecast my cash flow. That is bad enough, but the budget tool in Quicken Essentials does not work, I won’t go over the details here, but the issues are well documented in the Intuit community forums.

And so last month I decided to get serious about budgeting and while a spreadsheet does a pretty decent job at a high level, tracking my day-to-day spending against the budget on a spreadsheet is anything but workable. At first I tried HomeBudget for the iPhone and while it was ok, I found it tedious to enter each transaction manually since it doesn’t link to my bank account. Then there was the Mint upgrade this month, which added budget features, so I figured now was a time to try it again. Mint is actually pretty good at keeping tracking of spending with a great iPhone app and website. I can quickly open it on the go and categorize my spending and see how I’m doing vs my goals in that category. I haven’t tried it a whole month yet, but I’m hopeful it’ll fit this specific need. The problem is, it only fits this one need, and not all my needs as it doesn’t do cash flow forecasting, at all, or bill pay. I can’t even work on a budget until the month begins — typically I like to get it worked out at least a few days in advanced.

So here I am over two years after Quicken Essentials was released realizing that Intuit is never going to fix it, never going to add online bill pay and never going to add an iPhone app that syncs automatically. So instead I’m using four applications to do what I used to do with a single app (bank site for bill pay, Quicken Essentials for cash flow forecasting and reconciliation, Mint to track day-to-day spending, and Google Docs for my monthly budget).

There is no “Blu-ray industry”

March 25th, 2012

So I ran across this article on AmandTech by Ganesh T S that was one of the best I’ve seen in regards to a technical explanation of the DRM used on Blu-ray — especially around the new Cinavia audio watermark. But it’s also a perfect example of a highly technical geek writing an article without understanding the business driving the technology. He speaks of the “Blu-ray industry” which just doesn’t exist. Blu-ray is part of the Home Media business, which also includes Vudu, Netflix and every other video on demand service. The players in the Home Media industry couldn’t care less about any one particular part of their business, instead worrying about the bottom line. There goal is to get consumers to spend more money this year then they did last year on enjoying content at home, and at the same time drive costs down in order to generate more profit. It’s no different from most’s personal goals, which is to get a raise every year. How long would you stay at a job that decreased your salary year after year?

The total revenue number in Home Media has been going down year over year as long as I’ve been watching it (according to the Digital Entertainment Group), and Blu-ray was just one of many attempts to stop the bleeding (down 2% in 2011 compared to 2010). The reality is  the total spending on digital in 2011 was about a third of that spent on buying discs. The bottom line is that Hollywood doesn’t care if you prefer Blu-ray or anything else, just so long as you spend more money (which means it prefers you buy a movie for $20 vs. rent one for $1) watching movies at home.

How to watch 1080p MKVs on the new Apple TV

March 18th, 2012

I’m going to assume that if you have a file with an mkv extension, you know what for. The container is the Swiss Army Knife of containers, but most of the ones I run across have very high quality video and DTS audio. According to Apple, the new Apple TV will only play 1080p encoded with H.264 High Profile 4.0, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. I was able to easily play a few High Profile 5.1 sample clips without converting them. You do have to change the container from mkv to m4v, but thanks to MKVTools (nagware until you pay $5), it takes about as long as a file copy. The other great thing about MKVTools is that it will convert the 5.1 DTS audio track to AC3 at the same time — required since the ATV doesn’t support DTS.

It really couldn’t be easier. Download MKVTools (I used 2.4.7), open your mkv file, select the streams you want (typically one video and one audio) go to the MP4 tab, choose AC3 and set the device to Apple TV and then hit convert. I’ve only tried samples so far, but they all came out perfect. Drag and drop them to iTunes and then go to Computers on the Apple TV and then to your movies.

Multi-Room Viewing vs a Multi-Room DVR

March 15th, 2012

Don’t be confused by the title, a Multi-Room DVR is not the same as Multi-Room viewing. The ability to view a recording in any room of the house is just one of many features of a Multi-Room DVR. If you can’t schedule recordings, check on your Todo list and manage seasons passes in more than one room, you can not honestly call your system a Multi-Room DVR — multiple DVRs are not a Multi-room DVR either. Of course the meaning of words never stopped marketing people from using them, but don’t be fooled, the Dish Network Hopper and Joey are the very first provider Multi-Room DVR ever available widespread. And it’s a big deal.

The DirecTV HR34 is the core of a Multi-Room DVR, but with the C30 RVU clients being MIA and the first gen Samsung RVU HDTVs being so limited, it is hardly ready for prime time — I tried it at CES and the TV’s RVU client made the first build of the TiVo Premiere software feel fast. This is all assuming you can get DirecTV to even enable the feature for you, which seems unlikely given the feedback at DBSTalk.com. Many cable companies, including Verizon, have Multi-Room viewing that they call a Multi-Room DVR, but charging people for a DVR in every room and making them walk between rooms to resolve conflicts can hardly be called a true Multi-Room DVR, in good faith.

I think this is a big deal, because I believe that everyone expects the exact same TV experience in every room of the house, and in the next few years all the providers will provide what Microsoft’s Media Center has been doing for over five years, but in a mainstream way. I can’t wait to try them all out for myself.

Why HD streaming isn’t ready for primetime

March 9th, 2012

I wanted to watch a movie tonight but instead I’m writing this post. You see I only have the one disc at a time Netflix plan and I sent The Town back this morning, which left me without a movie on a Friday night. Sometimes I hit up a Redbox, but the bridge down the street is closed (for three months!) and it has really messed up my routine. So I figured I’d try to get the most out of my three month Xbox Live Gold Membership before it expires, only to be reminded that HDX titles aren’t available on the Xbox. No problem, I’ll switch to my Sony Blu-ray player and watch it there. So I spend the time to enter my Vudu username and password using the remote — who ever thought that was a good idea — and pick out a movie only to be greeted with an “Insufficient Network Speed” error. That’s odd, so I try it a few more times. Same result.

You might be thinking, but Ben HDX requires a lot of throughput and don’t blame Vudu because your internet sucks. But you’d be wrong. Unlike some I have FiOS Internet, which is crazy fast, but every service has a bad day, right? So I fire up Speedtest.net to see what it might be and what do I find? 25Mbps download. You’d think that would be enough.

And this test was ran on my laptop connected via WiFi and my Blu-ray player is connected via a wired Gig connection, which I typically get Gig speeds on. So if someone with all the  pieces you’d think would be needed to enjoy high quality HD video via the Internet can’t, then who can? I suspect no one. I guess I’ll just have to watch a different Blu-ray Disc or something on my Media Center, but it won’t be because I didn’t try. We’ll see if Apple’s cloud is more reliable than Vudu’s next week.

Why the new iPad will be named the iPad HD

March 3rd, 2012

This might  come as a shock to you but Apple doesn’t like to put numbers after its device names. There is no MacBook 20, or an iPhone 2. In fact besides the iPhone 4 and the iPad 2, you’d have a hard time finding an Apple device with a number behind it that meant its generation — Microsoft is also like this, especially considering Windows 7 isn’t the 7th version of Windows.

Enough about why the new iPad won’t be called the iPad 3, why am I so sure why the new name will be the iPad HD? One reason “1080p.” Some might argue that the first two iPads had HD displays, and while this is actually debatable (the lack of solid definition for HD has already bothered me) when it comes to modern TV shows and movies, HD means at least 720 lines and 16×9 (at least). This means that the highest resolution you could watch 16×9 content on the older iPads is 1024×578 — not HD by almost any definition. A 2,048×1,536 display on the other hand? It can easily display 16×9 content in 1080p (with pixels to spare all around, wonder if there will be a dot by dot mode). Of course these means that along side the new iPad HD will be the new Apple TV HD and 1080p content in the iTunes Store, which as far as I’m concerned is about time (lets hope for Dolby Digital Plus too). Or in other words, an all around great day for an HD fan.

Of course this Retina Display iPad HD will also be good for many other things. Reading a book without being able to see the pixels, as well as any other reading, and video games should be a great improvement — when the developers get around to updating their apps. And as pointed out by TUAW, 264ppi is enough to be considered a Retina Display by Apple definition since the average viewing distance of an iPad is further than that of the 330 ppi iPhone.

Oh, and I’ve been saying this long before the leaked accessory names.