Solution Spheres

Using Apple technologies (and possibly others) to create a seamless digital lifestyle for home and business.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Complaints department...

Let me state for the record that I'm a pretty optimistic guy. I'm obviously also a pretty technically proficient individual. When I started my college days I was in computer/electrical engineering. I left in part because at the time my math skills weren't what they should have been, and because I felt the industry wasn't where it could have been.

Well, things haven't changed that much. The day we get a computer or piece of hardware that actually works properly without a lot of fiddling will be a wonderful new era. Almost every machine I've had has some tiny imperfection or flaw. My iPod resets the clicker (and the battery has started to go funky-- imagine that). My iBook has had a wide array of issues, from a failing HD to wonky Airport. All of which were fixed under warranty. Although I should point out that each repair has raised further problems. Right now 3 keys have all but been wiped clear, the paint has rubbed off. The machine is 14 months old. Apple has yet to give me a new keyboard (and their repair people in Memphis left out a screw on the keyboard so it doesn't attach fully now).

But overall my computing experience has been pretty good. I will say that I spend a LOT less time maintaining my Macs than I do the one PC in the house. And I use the Macs about 90% of the time!

But, today I discovered a MAJOR flaw in the El Gato EyeTV software/hardware...

While rendering something in another program, I went to open EyeTV. For some reason, I couldn't open the LiveTV window. This is necessary to record shows, or watch shows. It is the window that plays the video! Well, the menu item was grayed out, meaning it's just totally unavailable. I looked at everything, checked the cabling, and followed the troubleshooting steps on El Gato's site. Ultimately, there was only one choice: reboot the machine. El Gato is aware of this issue, but has yet to fix it. At least they have it in their knowledgebase, as Apple's KB is rather pathetic.

Now here's my quandary. I'm leaving for work today at noon. The show I wish to tape is at 9pm. My render won't be done until around 6pm. So what to do? I'd already had a couple of good hours of render time on the machine, and I hated to have to reboot. In OSX, you rarely have to reboot. Hear that El Gato? You should NOT have to reboot!

But I did. Hours of "work" vanished just so I could timeshift TV. And I wonder why my wife hates computers sometimes. The worst that would happen with a VCR is the power could go out...

So anyway, there's my rant. I'm thinking of another book now-- "The Way Things Never Frickin' Work"
Because sometimes it just goes that way!

Sunday, March 20, 2005


1. Video on your iPod
While you still can't view video directly on the iPod screen (sorry, but "The Matrix" looks foolish in 2-inch widescreen) I have played video from the iPod on a Mac. Here's how:
- taped an episode of one of my TV shows using the El Gato EyeTV Wonder USB 2.0
- exported the video "for the web" as a QuickTime movie
- copied that file to my iPod
- plugged in the iPod to another Mac
- opened the file from the iPod in QuickTime

Obviously this process could be partly automated. While I could do it in AppleScript right now, using El Gato's thorough documentation, I'm going to wait for Automator.
Also, Apple doesn't recommend you use the iPod for things like video, because the hard drives are not really designed for such heavy usage... Driving video tends to make the drive constantly work. The iPod uses RAM cache to allow the HD to rest for periods.

2. Video on your wall
Want to watch all that cool video content you illegally downloaded, er, *legally* purchased on your shiny new walls? First you'll want to buy a projector, right? Yeah, I can't afford one either. So build one!
Once you've got the hardware figured out, you'll want to be able to play any sort of video full screen. DVD's automatically show up full screen on the mac. But if you've got other stuff, you'll need something extra. For example, I've been recording old VHS tapes using the EyeTV and Mac mini. I'd like to transfer those to my iBook, so I can watch them on the big video projector at work.

Personally I like QuickTime Pro, because not only does it enable fullscreen movie viewing, but it allows you to export out a variety of formats... I'll dish more on QT pro later. The downside is that it's $30.

To accomplish the same thing, check out Cellulo. It's free, plays fullscreen, allows scaling, and does a whole lot more.

3. Video in your Palm
There's a process of conversion involved, but Kinoma makes a nifty product that allows you to move your movies into any Palm OS device (running OS 5).

What's really cool about this? Imagine recording a how-to, family video, or again, something off the TV using the EyeTV. Now you can have that in your pocket, but unlike the iPod solution, you can actually watch the thing on the go!

Saturday, March 12, 2005

EyeTV Wonder USB 2.0 first impressions...

I'll do a detailed review (with tips, tricks, and how-to's aplenty) later this week, but here are some thoughts on the new EyeTV Wonder USB 2.0. The Wonder, for those of you who don't know, is El Gato's bargain-basement TV tuner device for Macs. Most of their products are Firewire-based, expensive, but overall quite nice. My intention with the Wonder was threefold:
1) Copy some VHS and 8mm tapes to DVD
2) Record TV shows ala Tivo while away, and easily watch them on my iBook later. Recording would take place on the Mac mini. For setup I used the iBook first though...
3) Longer-term this would become a part of the master bedroom home theater system. (Which I detail as a case study in my upcoming book)
El Gato EyeTV 150

First off, I pre-ordered the unit directly from El Gato. When will manufacturers learn? If you're going to offer a product for sale on your site, get the basics of e-commerce down! I never received a tracking number. So by the time I'd emailed El Gato, they responded (the next day) with "it's already there." A quick call home confirmed, yes, it had arrived. So, whatever.

Now installation was a little sketchy. The box has one of those last-minute stickers indicating that OS 10.3.8 was the MINIMUM requirement. No problem. What freaked me out a little was a USB driver that had to be installed. Call me crazy (many do) but who do I trust more: the makers of a random TV tuner or Apple? Yeah, drivers from 3rd parties tweak me, so this was problematic. So far, so good though, I haven't had any kernel panics...

After that (and a reboot) you pretty much plug everything in and continue with setup. Once the tuner is plugged in, you choose your line-in, like cable or antenna. The cable tuning took quite a while (over 15 minutes), but worked well when done. Switching channels is quite fast, but nothing beats a real TV. Last step, optional, is to sign up with TitanTV. For the full review I'll go more into that, but the process is a little confusing. All the pieces aren't really fitting together for me.

One word: interface. All of these disparate elements need one central control. This is the difference between Apple and 3rd parties. iTunes is so popular because everything is just there, easy to use. El Gato's software won't be winning any GUI awards. Confusing icons, lots of little pieces lying around-- they could really stand to hire me to redesign their software!

But I digress. Powered on, with a coax cable plugged in, the USB 2.0 cable nestled in my iBook, I quickly began watching TV. "Lost" happened to be on, but suddenly my daughter got out of bed. No problem! I just hit the Record button, and it quite readily began taping the show. Unfortunately, there's only about 4 GB of room on my iBook. While plenty for the last 30 minutes of Lost that night, it isn't enough for all the projects I had planned.

Once Lost was over, I stopped recording. Unplugging the Wonder, I noticed it was REALLY HOT! Not like Paris Hilton would use the word, and not spicy hot, but like "don't leave loose papers nearby or it'll cause a fire" kinda hot. Ouch. So I unplugged the power too, just to be safe.

Now I took my iBook back to the couch and tried to watch the show. Hm, where is it? This is where the interface is not very intuitive. There's another control panel you have to open from a menu to show the shows you've taped. One note: I thought by setting the archival drive to an external firewire drive I'd be able to store my video externally. Nope! So far I don't see a way to do that. So your primary drive will need lots of room if you plan on recording a lot of video. Anyway, I did manage to figure it all out.

The "editing" software is of course an abomination. Trying to edit out commercials, from what I can tell so far, is almost pointless. But I'll work that out in the big "how to." Also, there's a little bit of a bait-and-switch going on with this thing...

Point #1 for buying the EyeTV Wonder was to burn some old tapes to DVD. Nowhere on the website does it tell you one minor fact: you must have a dual-G4 to record DVD quality video! In fact, for the BEST quality video (a 90-minute DVD), you will need a frickin' dual-G5!!! Ouch. Yeah, this point is mentioned: buried in a PDF, linked from the website. So you have to really dig to discover this. Guess when I found out? After my credit card had been charged.

Luckily, I'm not to bothered, as the VHS tapes are low-quality to begin with (recorded years ago at SLP). And what can you expect from such a cheap device? For $150, it's still cheaper than Tivo.

What happens with the EyeTV Wonder USB 2.0, and why it's cheaper than it's siblings, is that the MPEG conversion happens on the computer, not in the unit itself. Thus, El Gato recommends you have the latest, greatest, fastest, fanciest, super-duper machine you can get to record. Thank goodness they don't do this with all their devices. The EyeTV 500 is HD, and I guess you'd need a few XServes to record, not to mention XRAID to store...

So I'm going through the documentation now (I'm a mac user darnit, not used to that manual-reading nonsense), and I'll post up some goodies soon. In the meanwhile, think about this...

1. You can view *what* you have recorded (not the actual show) in a web browser. Like a menu...
2. You can control the app via the web too.
3. And yes, you CAN stream the video to other computers...

To see how, check out El Gato's tips page.

I'll try them all out, plus perhaps some automation, ASAP! First I gotta get another podcast in the can. If you get the chance, check out my Da Vinci Notebooks podcast until next time (link to the blog on the right).

Friday, March 11, 2005

All the pretty minis...

Two companies offer ways to add color to your Mac mini:

1. Colorware has offered paint jobs for pretty much any Apple product for a while, and starting March 14, they'll add the Mac mini as an option. Note that they actually PAINT your devices, similar to car paint. It's pretty cool, and from what I hear quite nice. Don't know about the longevity, but if it's like car paint I believe it'll last a while. Still, I get nervous with physical tweaks that could affect cooling in such a tightly engineered device like the mini...

2. SkinIt on the other hand provides a 4-piece vinyl sticker set for the mini. This means it is undoable (and don't we all like to undo things in software-- why not hardware?). Again, there could be cooling issues, but at least this way it's easy to remove.