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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.

Intel inside a Mac?

File this under rumors, even if it comes from the Wall Street Journal: Apple is supposedly considering using Intel processors.

Apple’s probably pulling a Dell.It’s technically feasible for Mac OS X to be recompiled and run on Intel; Nextstep ran on Intel processors after Next abandoned the Motorola 68K family. Mac OS X is based on Nextstep.

Of course the x86 is nowhere near binary-compatible with the PowerPC CPU family. But Apple has overcome that before; the PowerPC wasn’t compatible with the m68K either. Existing applications won’t run as fast under emulation, but it can be done.

Keeping people from running OS X on their whitebox PCs and even keeping people from running Windows on their Macs is doable too. Apple already knows how. Try installing Mac OS 9 on a brand-new Apple. You can’t. Would Apple allow Windows to run on their hardware but not the other way? Who knows. It would put them in an interesting marketing position.

But I suspect this is just Apple trying to gain negotiating power with IBM Microelectronics. Dell famously invites AMD over to talk and makes sure Intel knows AMD’s been paying a visit. What better way is there for Apple to get new features, better clock rates, and/or better prices from IBM than by flirting with Intel and making sure IBM knows about it?

I won’t rule out a switch, but I wouldn’t count on it either. Apple is selling 3 million computers a year, which sounds puny today, but that’s as many or more computers as they sold in their glory days. Plus Apple has sources of revenue that it didn’t have 15 years ago. If it could be profitable selling 3 million computers a year in 1990, it’s profitable today, especially considering all of the revenue it can bring in from software (both OS upgrades and applications), Ipods and music.

Taking decent photographs

I’m not a serious photographer and I don’t play one on TV. But I’m tired of looking at dark, fuzzy, tiny photographs that don’t tell anything, so here’s a way someone who knows nothing about photography–such as Yours Truly–can take a decent picture.For some examples of my photography, which I consider barely acceptable, here’s a windup train and an American Flyer electric.

The second photograph is worse than the first, for two reasons. I took the second photograph indoors, and used a rug as a backdrop. The texture of the rug detracts from the photo. As does the lack of light.

I took the first photograph outside. It wasn’t all that sunny of a day, and it was about 9 in the morning on a Saturday. I used a white towel as a backdrop. A neutral-colored sheet would have been even much better, but I had the towel handy. The photograph is small enough that the towel’s texture doesn’t detract as badly as it normally would.

So the first trick is to use a decent backdrop.

Light is trick #2. Get enough light on your subject to not need the flash. Light up the room, take a shot, and see what happens. If the camera flashes, get more light. Better yet, take the object outside. In the daytime, of course. Ideally, the majority of your light should be coming from behind you and the camera, rather than from behind the object. A little bit of light behind the object to eliminate shadows is a good thing, but too much will look harsh.

Focus is trick #3. I assume you know to push the button halfway to focus it. That’s the first step. The second step is to take five or six shots because one of them is likely to look better than the worst of them.

The rule of thirds is something they actually teach you in school. (I spent about a month studying photography in journalism school because they make everyone do that. The rule of thirds is about all I remember.) Professional photographers can disregard this rule the way professional writers sometimes disregard rules about sentence fragments. People like me need to follow it. Look at an existing photograph. Mentally draw two horizontal and two vertical lines, dividing the photograph into thirds. The intersection of each line is what the human eye is going to find interesting. So at the very least, position your object so that part of it is hitting as many of those points as possible.

Use a tripod. You’ll get sharper pictures because a tripod holds the camera steady. I didn’t use a tripod for either of these shots, so it’s not absolutely necessary, but it helps. For small objects, a three-inch pocket tripod from Kmart will do just fine. Mine cost about $5. For larger objects, a larger tripod is necessary. Generally speaking, even a cheap and nasty tripod is better than no tripod, so long as it isn’t so wobbly that it can’t hold the camera straight.

And finally: Crop. After you’ve taken the photograph and you get it into the computer, crop it. This lets you make the picture smaller without losing resolution. It also lets you get rid of unnecessary whitespace and/or objects. Did you catch the edge of your backdrop, revealing the concrete or table underneath? Crop it out. Did you forget the rule of thirds? Crop the picture to move the object into place. I cropped both of the pictures I used as examples because otherwise you’d have seen two pictures with lots of towel or carpet and itty-bitty trains. But I wanted pictures of trains, not man-made fibers.

If you follow these simple principles, you can set your camera to auto everything and get a decent shot. The idea is to make the job as easy on the camera as possible. If you halfway follow the rule of thirds, you get an even better shot.

I almost forgot one other thing. I cleaned the objects in the photos. You might be reluctant to clean objects for sale on Ebay for the legitimate fear of damaging them, but at least brush the dust off with a soft brush, such as a makeup brush or soft paint brush. Chances are, anything you photograph looks better without loose dust covering it.

Following these tips won’t make you look like a pro, but your Wikipedia articles will look better and so will your Ebay listings. And on Ebay, a good, clear photograph means more bids and higher prices.

Your Fair Use rights are in danger (again)

In case you haven’t yet, you really need to read about The INDUCE Act. The potential is for any device that could be used to illegally copy copyrighted material to become illegal, and the manufacturers of said devices liable for their use.

This is wrong for so many reasons. Take the example of the crowbar.I can use a crowbar to break into my neighbor’s house. By this logic, a crowbar should be illegal. Never mind that a crowbar is a useful tool. I own two of them. I bought them so I could pry out the rocks that make up my patio so I can put down a weed control mat under them. I hope I’ll never have to use one to free someone from a car whose doors and windows won’t open, but I can. If I use a crowbar to free my neighbor from a car wreck, I’m pretty sure he’ll be glad I had that tool. Even if I could have used it to break into his house.

The main target is P2P networks. But the bill is too broad. Under some interpretations, an iPod would be illegal because you might load CDs that you borrowed from me into it. I suppose a camcorder would be illegal too, because someone might take it into a movie theater. Never mind that 99.999% of camcorder owners use them to shoot home movies. The risk of someone using a camcorder to make an illegal copy of a movie is too great to allow you to preserve family memories.

Is this really the direction we want to head? Do we want to be a dictatorship run by big media conglomerates?

Mr. Hatch, I suppose you believe that when someone uses a firearm to kill someone, the manufacturer of said device should be held liable? I suppose you believe that the risk of consumers using firearms to kill one another is great enough that firearms should be illegal? Am I following your logic correctly?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a pinko Commie who doesn’t want to pay for anything. I’m actually a Republican. But real Republicans believe in balance. I respect intellectual property. I’ve written and published a book. A few people even liked it. I really didn’t make enough money off it to make it worth my while–I could have made more working the late shift at a fast-food restaurant. The biggest things I have to show for it are a published book on my shelf with my name on it, and the thrill of having walked in to Borders and seeing it.

So I didn’t make as much money as I would have liked. That’s my problem. I don’t blame photocopiers and scanners for my book not selling 4 million copies. I can blame my publisher for not promoting it and not getting more copies of it into the niche marketplaces where it sold well, and I can blame myself for not promoting it and not sending out news releases saying I got published, and I can even blame myself for not targetting it properly.

If I write a book that people want to read, and my publisher and I do a good job of getting the word out about it, I’ll make money. If I can make more money fixing computers or mowing lawns than writing books, then the answer isn’t to try to manipulate the legal system. The answer is to either figure out how to make money producing intellectual property, or spend that time doing something else.

If my desire to protect my rights starts infringing on your ability to do things you need to do, then it’s gone too far. As my former journalism professor Don Ranly was fond of saying, my constitutional rights end at the tip of your nose.

Why do Orrin Hatch and his buddies cooperate in the creation of what’s essentially a welfare state for large corporations, at the expense of our liberties?

Would you please ask your Congresspeople these questions?

Free graphics software for Windows

Even people who use Windows exclusively have probably heard of The Gimp, which Linux and Unix users often proclaim as the “free alternative to Adobe Photoshop.” While Photoshop is in no danger of being displaced in the industry, Gimp is certainly more than adequate for most use.

But installing it in Windows has never been easy, unless you knew a well-kept secret: the URL for Installers for Gimp for Windows. (The Windows page at is pretty intimidating.)All you need to do is download both files, the GTK+ 2 toolkit and Gimp for Windows. Install GTK+ first, then install Gimp, and you’re golden. Although the current version 2.0 is still pre-release, it’s much nicer than the “stable” 1.2 release–it has more features and a better user interface, and frankly, I don’t find it any less stable.

You’ll almost definitely want to keep the link to Grokking The Gimp handy. It’s a professionally written book that’s freely distributable, or, if you prefer, you can buy a print copy. Gimp is easy enough to understand if you have a guide, but you need a guide. Given that book, even a drawing klutz like me was able to do some drawings that turned heads. (Paper buildings on a model railroad layout, in my case.)

The copy of GTK+ on the Installers for Gimp for Windows site is also the secret to getting the Win32 port of Sodipodi up and running. Sodipodi is a free vector drawing program, similar in function to Adobe Illustrator, Macromedia Freehand, or Corel Draw. While not as full featured as the current version of any of them, again, it’s good enough for most casual use. Don’t be put off by its low version number; its primary author is a perfectionist. It’s at least as stable as most of the commercial low-end graphics programs I’ve seen for Windows.

There is no equivalent to Grokking The Gimp yet for Sodipodi. This Sodipodi Guide will get you started.

If you want to play around with graphic design and can’t afford to buy Photoshop and Illustrator (even the educational prices can be a bit high for some people), playing with Gimp and Sodipodi is a good way to learn the basics in order to see if you even want to learn more about drawing with a computer. Who knows, the current or some future version may even prove to be all you need–saving you from ever having to buy the commercial software.

The economics of color inkjets vs. color lasers

Deciding between a color inkjet versus a color laser is tough for me. So I decided to sit down and do the math, and the results were exactly the opposite of what I expected.
The least expensive color laser printer on the market is the Minolta-QMS Magicolor 2300W. It’s $650 with a $200 rebate. It should also be noted it’s a Windows-only printer, which I don’t like since I frequently run Linux, and I might like to run Gimp and Sodipodi on Linux and print to my color printer. So for Linux use (and faster printing on the Windows side), I’d have to step up to the Magicolor 2300DL, which is $100 extra. The Minoltas have excellent resolution for their class (1200×1200, as opposed to 600×600 in most competing printers) and the toner gives a waxy, photograph-like shine.

While it’s surprisingly easy to find a color inkjet for less than $40, the least-expensive color inkjet I would be willing to consider is the Epson Stylus C64, because it’s the least expensive inkjet I know of that has separate cartridges for all four colors. And, while slow, it offers excellent resolution (5760×1440 dpi). But the slightly higher-priced Epson Stylus C84 gets better reviews (and I’ve seen the C84). I’ll base the comparison on the C64, but since the two printers use the same cartridges and I’m projecting total costs over a long period of time, the price difference between the C64 and C84 is negligible.

The reviews of the Minolta that I’ve seen complain about the cost of the consumables. While the cartridges are expensive ($150 per pop), this criticism doesn’t take into account the cost per page. While the cost of inkjet cartridges is easier to swallow, inkjets are notorious for their high cost per page. So the right question to ask is which printer is cheaper over the long term?

A set of Minolta cartridges will cost $384. A set of cartridges will yield approximately 4,500 pages. Divide 384 by 4,500, and you come up with a cost of 8.53 cents per page, not counting the paper.

Epson cartridges cost $12.34 each, and you need four of them. They yield approximately 400 pages per cartridge. Multiply 12.34 by 4, then divide by 400, and you come up with a cost of 12.34 cents per page, not counting the paper.

The Minolta 2300DL costs $550, while the Epson C64 costs $57. So the price difference is $493. A page printed by the Minolta costs 3.81 cents less than a page printed by the Epson. So divide 493 by 0.0381, and you’ll have to print 12,389 pages for the Minolta to come up cheaper.

If you can live with Windows-only printing, the 2300W comes out ahead after 10,315 pages.

There’s an additional cost with the Minolta, however: The drum unit needs to be replaced every so often. The worst-case scenario, if you do a lot of single-page prints, is 10,000 pages. That’s $150, which means another 3,900 pages you’ll need to print in order to come out ahead.

I guarantee the Epson will break down faster than the Minolta, but seeing as the Epson costs $8 more than a set of its ink cartridges (and includes a set of cartridges), I’m willing to call that a wash, especially in light of the Minolta’s higher power consumption and heat generation while printing. How much the Minolta will increase your electric bill is an unknown, as is the number of times the Epson will need to be replaced. (But most people I know who have had a computer for five years and print a lot have gone through 2-3 inkjet printers.)

Seeing as I go through 3-4 reams of paper a year, tops, it would take the Minolta five years to pay for itself. And that brings up another problem. Have you ever tried to buy supplies for a five-year-old laser printer? In five years, I’m much more likely to have to pay full retail for the supplies ($125 for the cartridges, and $170 for the drum unit), if I can find them at all. Chalk up another 4,000 pages due to probable increased costs.

If you primarily print photos, the economics change slightly. These numbers are based on 5% coverage. Photos tend to cause printers to guzzle ink five times as quickly as they would printing things like web pages, so if your primary intent is to print photos, divide those page counts by four or five. That brings me closer to my range, but not quite close enough.

So I’ve reached a surprising conclusion for myself: For color printing, I’m better off with an Epson inkjet.

I do expect the cost of color lasers to continue to drop, but what that tells me is that when the Epson breaks or after a couple of years, I should re-evaluate. But until color lasers drop below the $350 mark or my printer usage increases dramatically, a color laser just doesn’t make sense for me.

My first lengthy exposure to digital photography

Well, I took the plunge. I’ve entered the world of digital photography.
Panasonic lowered the retail price of its Lumix DMC-LC20 digital camera to $249. That, along with a promotion that threw in some memory cards, made me bite.

It’s a 2.1-megapixel unit (2 megapixel usable, according to the sticker on the front of the camera–kudos for truth in advertising) and its main selling point is its Leica lens. Leica, for those who aren’t hard-core into photography, is a German camera maker known for its high-quality and very expensive lenses.

I’ve been playing with it a little, and here’s what I’ve found (besides my need to practice some more).

You’ll probably have to take precautions for the included single set of charged AA NiMH 1600mAh batteries to have enough juice to take more than 16 meg worth of pictures. That’s not a lot. They aren’t the bottom-line batteries available (an awful lot of people seem to be selling 1400mAh batteries), but you can get 1800mAh or even 2000mAh batteries. The 1800s are a proven, mature technology. Buy at least two pair of 1800s, charge them up and take them with you. This thing munches ’em fast.

The included 8-meg SM card doesn’t hold a lot of images. Of course, people go ga-ga over the Sony Mavica cameras that use floppies, and a floppy is less than 1.5 megs. Be glad that Panasonic is throwing in a couple of bigger cards.

USB transfers from the camera’s SM cards are quick and easy, which really makes me wonder what the big deal is about Mavicas.

Image quality is very good. I’ll share some images once I’m not posting over dialup.

Professional photographers aren’t too keen on consumer-grade digital cameras, because a 1600×1200-resolution image is only enough to print a 4×5 print with acceptable quality (and it’ll look better smaller). But the only way to get good at taking pictures is to take a lot of them. An inexperienced photographer is going to take a lot of bad images. With digital, you don’t have to pay to process and print all the bad images. And digital gives you instant feedback. You’ll find youself compensating immediately for the effects of lighting.

The downsides of printing your own photographs are the cost of the prints (no less than the individual cost of a print off film, by the time you figure the cost of the ink cartridges and the special paper), and the longevity, or lack thereof. Inkjets aren’t known for producing long-lasting images. Inexpensive color laser printers will eventually give great strides in the right direction towards solving both problems, but right now “inexpensive” means $1,000. It’ll be a year or two before they hit the magical $499 mark.

But if you figure $1 per print, it won’t take long for a digital camera’s savings to pay for itself and for that printer.

It’s very easy to increase the Lumix’s exposure time for taking night shots, and I got some good ones. But I was missing my tripod. My hands aren’t steady enough to take sharp images without one once you lengthen the exposure time.

I’m not feeling any tinges of buyer’s remorse over this thing. Especially not after a night on the town with it. (Kansas City on the night after Thanksgiving offers lots of interesting subjects.)

Picking out a camcorder

I had someone ask me for some advice in picking out a camcorder yesterday. I know I’ve talked a little bit about that before, but this field is always changing, so it doesn’t hurt to revisit it.
I’m going to link to a bunch of stuff on Amazon here. Amazon’s not the only place to buy this stuff, of course, but their selection is good, and I have an affiliation with them. If someone clicks on one of these links and ends up buying something, I get a kickback. But my primary motivation is informational.

Second things second: I know they’re cheap, but think twice about analog camcorders. A Quasar VHS-C camcorder will run you $200. You get a nice 20X optical zoom and a few digital effects, and it’s nice to be able to play your tapes in your VCR, but those are the only benefits you get. The image resolution is a lot lower than with a digital camcorder, and it’s a lot less convenient to dump video from an analog camcorder into a computer for editing. Since any computer you buy new today will have at least some editing capability (current versions of Mac OS and Windows include at least rudimentary video editors, so all you’d need to add to a PC is a $25 Firewire card if it doesn’t have built-in Firewire), you’ll probably want to be able to take advantage of it. If you don’t have Windows XP or ME, you can pick up a $65 Pinnacle Studio DV, which will give you the Firewire ports, rudimentary editing software, and most importantly, slick capture and titling software. The capture software is especially nice; it’ll detect scene changes for you and catalog them. Even if you do have editing software, you might want this. It saves me a lot of time.

Digital8 cameras are getting hard to find. Their chief selling point, besides price, was the ability to use analog Hi8 tapes, which was nice if you were upgrading. If you have some Hi8 tapes and want to continue to use them and want an easy way to move them to a computer for editing, look for a Digital8 camera. But there’s a good possibility you’ll have to buy online. And the resolution isn’t as high as MiniDV–Digital8’s selling points in the past were price and backward compatibility. The price advantage is evaporating, leaving just backward compatibility as a selling point. MiniDV is the future.

Panasonic has a digital 4-in-1 device that does video, still, voice, and MP3 duties. I don’t recommend it. The image quality is substandard, its fixed focus will make it even worse, and you can’t mount it on a tripod. Its list price is $450 and I saw it at Amazon for $340, but it’s a toy. Given a choice between it and a $250 analog camcorder, I’d go analog every time.

MiniDV is pretty clearly the way to go. It’s the emerging standard, as it’s become inexpensive, the tapes are compact and reliable, and the resolution and picture quality is fantastic.

You can spend as much as you want. An entry-level MiniDV camera, such as the JVC GRDVL120U, will run you about $400. For $400, you get 16X optical zoom, S-Video output for TV playback and a Firewire connection to dump your video to computer for editing, image stabilization, the choice between manual and autofocus, and the ability to take still shots and dump them to tape.

Pay no attention whatsoever to digital zoom. Using digital zoom to get much more than double your maximum optical zoom is completely worthless. There’s enough fudge factor in NTSC television that you can get away with using a little bit of digital zoom, but with this camera, once you’ve zoomed in to 32X, you’ve cut your effective resolution from that of DVD to that of VHS tape. Zoom in much more than that, and your image will look very pixelated. This particular JVC advertises 700X digital zoom, but you definitely don’t want to use it.

You can spend three times as much on a Sony DCRPC120BT. For your money you’ll get a better lens, so your image quality will be a little bit better. Whether that makes a difference will depend mostly on the television you’re displaying on. You’ll get much higher-resolution still shots, and the ability to store your stills on a memory stick. That’s a very nice feature–no need to advance and rewind your tape to find shots, and no need to interrupt your video sequences with stills. You actually get less optical zoom. You get less digital zoom too, but that’s not important. You’ll also get a microphone jack, which is very important. The microphone built into the camera will pick up some motor noise and won’t necessarily pick up what’s happening across the room. It’s very nice to have the ability to wire up a microphone to get away from the camera motor and possibly get closer to the sound source, to keep the sound from being muffled. You probably won’t buy an external mic right away. But chances are it’s something you’ll eventually want.

Personally, when I’m on a project, I’d much rather have the inexpensive JVC (or something less expensive that offers a microphone input) because the $800 more I would spend to get the Sony would let me buy a digital still camera with much better capabilities than the Sony offers. And when I’m shooting a video, having two cameras is an advantage–I can set them both up on tripods and shoot, or hand one camera off to someone else and tell them to get me some shots. Having two cameras can get me a whole lot better picture of what’s going on. But not everybody’s shooting documentaries like me. For travel, the Sony is a whole lot more convenient and more than worth the extra money. And if you’re recording your child’s birthday party, you probably just want one camera in order to avoid turning your living room into a TV studio.

So you need to figure out what you plan to do with it.

As far as accessories go, you absolutely want a tripod. Again, you can spend as much as you want. Amazon offers a Vivitar kit for about $40 that includes a bag and a tripod. With image stabilization, you can run around shooting birthday parties and vacation scenes and have a reasonably good-looking image that won’t give you the shakes. But if you’re recording Christmas morning, then set the camcorder up across the room, then go over and open presents with your family. I know, I hate being on camera, and you might too. But I wish I had some home video footage of my Dad. I remember his laugh and I remember how he loved to joke around, but I can’t show that to anyone.

If you just want to set the camcorder up at a fixed angle and run across the room, a cheap tripod will do the job nicely. If you’re going to be standing behind the camera and panning the scene, buck up for a fluid-head tripod. You’ll be able to move the camera much more smoothly. My Bogen tripod wasn’t cheap, but I wouldn’t be without it now that I have it. I think some people with arthritis have steadier hands than I do, but even I can do good-looking pans and zooms with that tripod.

Sometimes people ask me about brands. I learned on JVC equipment, so I’m partial to it. But it’s hard to go wrong with any of what I call the Big Four: JVC, Panasonic,
Sony, or Canon. Professionals use all four brands with excellent results. Sure, every professional has a preference. But the differences among the Big Four will be pretty slight. I’m less comfortable with offerings from companies like Sharp and Samsung. They haven’t been in the business as long, and they’re consumer electronics companies. The other companies sell to professionals. Some of that expertise will inevitably filter down into their consumer products as well. And the difference in price and features between a Sharp or a Samsung and a JVC, Panasonic, Canon or Sony isn’t very much, so a top-tier offering is a better bet for the money.