Decrease your Roku resolution to save bandwidth

Decrease your Roku resolution to save bandwidth

From time to time when I’m watching baseball on my Roku, I’ll get a lot of buffering and, in extreme cases, a message stating that I may have insufficient bandwidth. If you have the same problem, the best fix for this to to decrease your Roku’s playback resolution. Or if you’re subject to a data cap, decreasing your resolution helps you stay under that too. Here’s how to change your Roku resolution.

The picture will suffer, but I’d rather watch a lower quality picture than none at all. You may also need to resize your Internet connection, but you can do this trick immediately, and for free.

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I hope this new recordable DVD format catches on

In October, LG and its startup partner Millenniata plan to release a new type of DVD, which they claim will last forever. The Navy doesn’t come right out and say it lasts forever, but it does say in its tests that these discs, called M-Discs, do last considerably longer than the traditional DVD-R and DVD+R discs on the market today.

I hope this catches on, but it’s possible it won’t. Why? Cost.

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DVD players as cheap home media centers

I thought the steady stream of Thomas the Tank Engine, Dora, Bob the Builder, Thomas, Thomas, Thomas, Elmo, Thomas, and Thomas had finally done in our DVD player after almost 8 years.

It turned out the VCR I was running the video through was actually the problem, but what I learned in shopping for a potential replacement suggests I may want to think about replacing it anyway.Modern DVD players will upscale your old DVDs to make them almost hi-def, and have HDMI ports for digital connection to HDTVs. But they do more than that.

Mid-range ($50 and up) players include a USB port, so you can plug a flash drive or hard drive into them, and they’ll play MP3 audio or DIVX video off them.

Due to the United States’ anti-fair-use laws, I won’t tell you how to do it, but what you’ll want to do is rip your DVDs to a USB hard drive, convert them to DIVX, then plug them into your DVD player. Ask Google how. Then you have a library of movies in a 5-inch box and don’t have to mess with discs. That’s a big plus when you have small kids like I do. Plug in the box, turn it on, and pick your movie or show from the on-screen menu.

For ages, I’ve been planning to build a media center PC for just this purpose.

But I think I’d really rather just buy a $50 DVD player and plug a USB hard drive into it. Even though our 32″ CRT TV can’t really take advantage of a modern player’s video capability, the convenience of not fiddling with discs (and no risk of scratching them) makes it worth the 50 bucks. And once LED-lit LCD TVs get affordable, the DVD player will be ready for it when I upgrade.

Update: Rather than buy a pricier DVD player, you might want to consider a $35 DVR, which can double as a media player.

The Pure Digital Flip Ultra F260W

I bought a Flip Ultra last night. It’s the most featureless video camera I’ve ever used, but I like it. Surprised?

For what it’s designed to do, it works very well.The specs are unimpressive: Fixed focus, 1x digital zoom, 640×480 resolution, no expandability, 1 hour of recording time.

But sometimes you want simplicity. And it’s very simple to use. Hit one button to turn it on and another button to record. Plug it into your computer and software loads asking what you want to do. Arrange your recorded clips in sequence and it’ll shoot video straight to DVD or YouTube or your computer, among other things. If you want more features, you can load the clips into another video editor for heavier cleanup.

This morning I wanted to capture my son playing with his new toys. No problem. I set the camera up on a tripod and got to be part of the fun. All too often when shooting video, you miss all the fun because you’re babysitting the camera.

It’s small and light. It fits in a shirt pocket. I took it to church with me and shot a few seconds of my son playing in the cryroom.

You can playback and delete individual clips right from the unit, and you can hook it up to a TV if you want to see what it looks like on something other than its postage stamp-sized screen.

While I’d like autofocus, optical zoom, and the ability to record on SD cards, that’s just not all possible at a $150 price point. Not now. Maybe in a couple of years. In the meantime, this thing gets you by.

I’ll be able to capture some memories easily, and when I want to demonstrate something works when I sell it on eBay–like when I finally get around to selling those three Atari 8-bit computers in the basement, or thin the train collection a bit–it’ll take me five minutes to make the video and get it on Youtube. Embedding it in the eBay listing will be the hardest part. That’s good. And by being able to demonstrate that those computers and trains work, I should get higher bids, and I may even make back the money I spent on the camera.

For what this camera is meant to do, it’s great. Serious videographers will need something more powerful. But the casual user will love this thing. It works reasonably well, and it’s so easy to use, a lot of people won’t even have to read the instructions to start using it.

Cinelerra 1.1.6: An open-source video editor for Linux

I noticed today that Cinelerra, possibly the best-known video editor for Linux, has hit version 1.1.6.
I’ve played around with Cinelerra a bit, and found it competent, but not intuitive. While it’ll do things that Adobe Premiere won’t do, or that Premiere makes exceedingly difficult, there are an awful lot of things that Premiere will do that Cinelerra won’t. Want to mix stills with your video clips? You’ll have to convert those stills to single-frame MPEGs first. (That means becoming good friends with ImageMagick.) Want to pan and zoom? Forget it.

Now, if you’re trying to make the next Blair Witch Project, Cinelerra is more than up to the task, feature-wise. The only question is stability, but that can even be a question with Premiere or with Final Cut Pro. And Cinelerra gets minor point releases a lot more frequently than the commercial big boys.

But if you’re wanting to make documentaries, or, more likely, edit your home movies, Cinelerra will probably frustrate you. Kino will be easier to learn and possibly more feature complete. If you’re willing to pay some money, you’d be better suited with one of MainConcept’s offerings. (MainActor is included in the purchase price of SuSE Linux 8.2.) Or, assuming you run Windows some of the time, you can mess around with the video editor included with Windows Me and XP.

An easy way to improve audio quality

A lot of people think audio doesn’t matter when they edit video. They’re wrong. If you notice the audio, something’s wrong.
An easy way to improve audio quality is to normalize it, which makes the volume more consistent. Windows users can do it with Normalizer, a GPL command-line utility (a GUI is available). Linux users can use Normalize.

Normalizing still won’t make bad audio sound good, but it will at least make bad audio sound better.

Go back in time at open-video.org

I found another source of public domain video: Open-video.org. Whereas the Prelinger Archives is a collection of industrial films, this site is a general effort to archive video of all types.
If, for example, you’re curious about Thomas Edison’s short films from the early 20th century, you can find them there.

At the moment, the site is probably of more interest to historians, die-hard film fanatics, and aspiring moviemakers than to people seeking free movies to watch instead of heading to Blockbuster. It’ll be a while before it’s practical to download It’s a Wonderful Life in its entirety, and modern viewers are spoiled by recent video technology. I’m sure that Edison’s films had plenty of ooh-ahh factor in 1905, but by modern standards, the camera was shaky, the lighting inadequate, and defects in the film media itself jump out like the pops on an old vinyl record.

Most of the films are public domain, and it’s easy to find the usage terms on the site for each film available there. I’ve already got some ideas for things I can do with some of the footage from the site.

How to make a video that ignites people’s passions on your issue

My video editing partner, Brad, asked me a really good question this morning: Will this video ignite a passion about this issue?
The topic of the video is irrelevant here. If you’re going to do advocacy in video, there are certain universal truths. And Brad made me think about some basic journalism principles I hadn’t consciously thought about in a long time. For some people, this is review. Others might be hearing this for the first time.

We were fortunate in that Brad interviewed people who are passionate about the issue. You can see it in their eyes and hear it in their voices. That’s step one. I don’t know if that’s stating the obvious or not, but it goes without saying that your job will be a lot easier if the people who are talking are passionate about the issue.

Which reminds me: Some people are really nervous in interviews. There are several things I tell people to calm them down and put them at ease.

1. Remember why you’re here
2. Remember why that’s important to you.

That helps them focus. The other thing I tell them is to not worry about what they look like or sound like. Making them look and sound good is my job. You can pull out stutters and pauses in the editing process. (If the picture jumps after you’ve done that, find an excuse to show something else during that segment, or put in a transition.) If you can’t make the person look good (fat chance–NTSC television is awfully forgiving), show the person’s surroundings while they’re talking, rather than showing them. That’s a good idea anyway, since a talking head isn’t very interesting.

Once you’ve filmed the person talking for a few minutes, the first stage of the editing process is identifying the best points they made. Identify those sound bites, then take them into the computer. Concentrate on things that get your attention even when you’re distracted–I usually don’t sit down and watch the tape I shot, I just press play and go do something else and I stop and make note of things that make me drop what I’m doing–and on things you didn’t know before.

Once you’ve collected those pieces, do what I’m doing now: String those sound bites together into something coherent.

When you’re done, chances are you’ll have something that’s 3-4 times the length of what the finished product is going to be. Then you have to get merciless. Listen to the audio. Then remember Brad’s question, and consider every second of audio you’ve collected. If any particular second of audio doesn’t do something to ignite the passion–if it’s not necessary background information, or some killer point they made, or if they’ve already made that point somewhere else before–cut it.

The shorter it is, the more of it people will remember. And that’s what you’re setting out to do. A lot of advocacy pieces aren’t 30-minute documentaries. People have short attention spans. You can do an effective advocacy piece in two minutes. If you’re really good, you can probably do it in 30 seconds.

Ways to save money on your DVD player

If you’re the only person left in the United States without a DVD player, you might want some tips on how to buy them.
I know, I know, since this year was the year of the DVD player, this information would have been a lot more helpful a couple of months ago. I don’t always think of things as quickly as I should.

Believe it or not, your best bet for a DVD player is very likely the cheapest one on the shelf at your local store, the one that’s a brand you’ve never heard of and made in China.

The main reason most people want a cheap DVD player and don’t know it is old TVs. I’ve got a Magnavox console TV that looks like it should be sitting in a shag-carpeted living room with an Atari 2600 connected to it. DVD players have S-Video and composite outputs. The only words of that sentence my ancient TV understands are “have” and “and”.

There are two ways you can put composite inputs on an old TV like mine. You can connect an RF modulator to it–that’s an accessory you can buy at Radio Shack for $30 or most consumer electronics stores for $25 that plugs into your TV’s antenna jack and gives you composite and possibly S-Video inputs.

The second way to put composite inputs on an old TV is to connect a VCR to it. Chances are you already have a VCR. Every VCR I’ve ever seen has composite inputs, which are intended to allow you to chain two VCRs to a TV.

But most brand-name DVD players have copy protection circuitry that detects the presence of a VCR and degrades the picture to an unacceptable level. This is because Hollywood is convinced the only reason someone would connect a DVD player and a VCR in tandem is to make copies of DVDs. And since the lack of composite inputs on old TVs presents an opportunity to sell more stuff, and most big-name makers of DVD players also make stuff like TVs, they’re more than happy to comply.

The brands you’ve never heard of, however, really don’t give a rip. They care about making stuff cheap. And, well, extra circuitry means extra cost. So that’s one reason to leave it out. And China is notorious for thumbing its nose at Western copyright law anyway. (I find it really frightening that totalitarian China is more interested in my rights as a consumer than the supposed Republic of the United States, but that’s another topic.)

Connecting a VCR to a TV through its antenna doesn’t noticeably affect picture quality, because VHS’ picture quality is lower than that of broadcast TV. Connecting a DVD player through the antenna–whether through a VCR or an aftermarket RF modulator–does reduce picture quality. But the picture will still look better than VHS-quality.

Every time I’ve looked, I’ve been able to find no-name DVD players for $60-$65. Name-brand ones cost closer to $100. So a cheapie could potentially save you $70, if it saves you from having to buy an RF modulator.

But even if your TV has composite and/or S-Video inputs, you probably still want the ability to chain your DVD player through your VCR. Because chances are you still want to keep your VCR around for recording TV shows (don’t tell Hollywood) and watching all your old tapes that you don’t re-buy on DVD.

An awful lot of TVs that have those inputs have two sets of inputs, one on the front and one in the back. If you ever connect your camcorder to your TV, you want to save your front-mounted inputs for that, to save fumbling around. If you have a videogame console that you’re in the habit of disconnecting and reconnecting, you want your front inputs for that.

Having the ability to chain your new DVD player to your old VCR gives you more options in setting things up. Options are good.

If you just got a DVD player and you’re having problems with it, you might just want to exchange it for a no-name model.

Finally, if you’re into foreign films and want to import DVDs to get movies you can’t get in the United States yet (if ever), you’re much more likely to be able to disable region codes on a no-name cheapie than you are on a big name brand.

What about reliability? Yes, a $60 no-name model is probably more likely to break than a $100 brand-name one. How much more likely? It’s hard to say. Is it worth the risk? Absolutely. In all likelihood, by the time your cheapie breaks, you’ll be able to buy a replacement cheapie for 40 bucks. Or, since many cheapies use a plain old IDE DVD-ROM drive like your PC, and that drive is the only mechanical part in a DVD player, you stand an awfully good chance of being able to fix the thing yourself. It’s pretty easy to find an IDE DVD drive for $50 or less right now. Within 18 months, I expect them to be selling for $20. If not sooner.

Finally, a tip: If your TV has S-Video inputs, use them. Using S-Video instead of the more conventional composite gives you a sharper picture and better color accuracy. With VHS, this doesn’t make a lot of difference because the format is really low-quality to begin with, and tapes wear out and reduce it even more. There are a lot of things that can go wrong before the signal even starts to travel down that set of cables.

Since DVD has much higher resolution and doesn’t wear out, you’ll notice the difference.

A tip for amateur moviemakers: Record everything!

Today was our first snow of the year. It started at 6 this morning and was supposed to be flurries with accumulation of a fraction of an inch. It’s still snowing right now and I suspect there’s a good two inches on the ground. But the long commute isn’t bothering me. Scraping snow isn’t bothering me.
I got called in to work early and didn’t have a chance to record any of the snowfall. That’s what’s bothering me.

You see, I’ve got this idea festering in my head. It’s a story that’ll make a great three-minute video, and it involves snowfall. A few snippets filmed today would have worked just fine.

I’m home now and I’ve got time to set up the camera, but the daylight is long gone. My opportunity passed me by. But it reminded me of a principle: Record everything. EVERYTHING. You never know when you’ll need it.

So the next time there’s a beautiful sunny day without a cloud in the sky, get out the camera and record a couple of minutes of it. Capture the birds singing and the full trees swaying in the wind. When autumn comes and the trees are changing their colors, film a couple of minutes of it. Record a couple of minutes of a thunderstorm. And record a snowfall.

If you’re going on a trip, take the camera. Record something distinctive about the place you’re going. Record anything you come across that’s safe and legal and halfway interesting. Define “interesting” as something your next-door neighbor doesn’t see every day.

Example: While driving around in downtown Kansas City last week, while stopped at a stoplight, there was an obvious drug deal going on in a gas station parking lot to the right. That’s something my next-door neighbor doesn’t see every day. Legally I was entitled to record it too–I was observing from public property. Now was it safe for me to be recording it? Good question.

Another example: We were walking around in Crown Center, an indoor shopping mall known for exotic stuff. Lots of interesting things to see there. Also something my neighbor doesn’t see every day. Perfectly safe. But illegal to record–Crown Center is private property. There were news cameras set up outside. They could record what was going on outside the building, from the public street.

Sometimes you can’t take a video camera where you’re going. So take a still camera. Digital is better for video purposes, of course, but take what you have. A ’70s-style Polaroid is better than nothing. A still shot (or series of still shots) of that drug deal going on might have been safer to shoot than a minute of video, and just as dramatic, if not more. And a still shot of something that doesn’t move is just as good as video of something that moves. You can pan and zoom on a still shot to make it move, or take a series of still shots from different angles.

One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that Gatermann’s just as likely to have a camera with him as he is shoes. And he gets a lot of really good stuff in the most unlikely of places. One of the pictures of me at the top of this page was taken in a restaurant, and the other was taken onboard Metrolink, which is St. Louis’ mass-transit train.

Also remember that mixing media works. It doesn’t really matter too much if some of your material is digital video, some of it’s analog video, some of it’s single stills, and some of it’s a series of stills. Nor does it matter if some of it is color and some of it black and white. Contrast can have a dramatic effect too. If all your stuff’s the same, figure out how to make it work. If all of it’s different, figure out how to make that work. Just remember that differences will naturally call attention to themselves, so figure out how to take advantage of that when it’s a good thing and to downplay it when it’s not.

Record things even if you don’t have an immediate use in mind for them. Sometimes creativity is having an idea in mind and then going and getting the parts for what you want to make. And sometimes creativity is looking at the parts you have and figuring out what you can make out of it. But usually it’s a little bit of both.

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