Random Thoughts – Randocity!

What is 35mm film resolution?

Posted in entertainment, film, movies, technologies by commorancy on December 26, 2018

filmstrip-fI’ve seen a number of questions on Quora asking about this topic, likely related to 4K TV resolution. Let’s explore.

Film vs Digital

What is the amount of pixels in a 35mm frame of film? There’s not an exact number of pixels in a single frame of 35mm film stock. You know, that old plasticky stuff you had to develop with chemicals? Yeah, that stuff. However, the number of pixels can be estimated based on the ISO used.

Based on an ISO of 100-200, it is estimated that just shy of 20,000,000 (20 million) pixels make up a single 35mm frame after conversion to digital pixels. When the ISO is increased to allow more light into the aperture, this increases film noise or grain. As grain increases, resolution decreases. At an ISO of 6400, for example, the effective resolution in pixels might drop to less than 10,000,000 (10 million) due to more film grain. It can be even lower than that depending on the type of scene, the brightness of the scene and the various other film factors… including how the film was developed.

If we’re talking about 70mm film stock, then we’re talking about double the effective resolution. This means that a single frame of 70mm film stock would contain (again at ISO 100-200) about 40,000,000 (40 million) digital pixels.

Digital Cinematography

Panavision Millenium DXL2With the advent of digital cinematography, filmmakers can choose from the older Panavision film cameras or they can choose between Panavision‘s or RED‘s digital cameras (and, of course, others). For a filmmaker choosing a digital camera over a film camera, you should understand the important differences in your final film product.

As of this article, RED and Panavision digital cinematography cameras produce a resolution up to 8k (7,680 × 4,320 = 33,177,600 total pixels). While 33 million pixels is greater than the 20 million pixels in 35mm film, it is still less resolution than can be had in 70mm film at 40 million pixels. Red DragonThis means that while digital photography might offer a smoother look than film, it doesn’t necessarily offer better ‘quality’ than film.

Though, using digital cameras to create content is somewhat cheaper because there’s no need to send the footage to a lab to be developed… only to find that the film was defective, scratched or in some way problematic. This means that digital photography is a bit more foolproof as you can immediately preview the filmed product and determine if it needs to be reshot in only a few minutes. With film, you don’t know what you have until it’s developed, which could be a day or two later.

With that said, film’s resolution is based on its inherent film structure. Film resolution can also be higher than that of digital cameras. Film also looks different due to the way the film operates with sprockets and “flipping” in both the camera and projector. Film playback simply has a different look and feel than digital playback.

RED expects to increase its camera resolution to 10k (or higher) in the future. I’m unsure what exact resolution that will entail, but the current UW10k resolution features 10,240 × 4,320 = 44,236,800 pixels. This number of pixels is similar to 70mm film stock in total resolution, but the aspect ratio is not that of a film screen, which typically uses 2.35:1 (Cinemascope widescreen) or 16:9 (TV widescreen) formats. I’d expect that whatever resolution / aspect that RED chooses will still provide a 2.35:1 format and other formats, though it might even support that oddball UW10k aspect with its 10,240 pixels wide view. These new even wider screens are becoming popular, particularly with computers and gaming.

Film Distribution

Even though films created on RED cameras may offer an up to 8k resolution, these films are always down-sampled for both theatrical performance and for home purchasing. For example, the highest resolution you can buy at home is the UltraHD 4K version which offers 3,840 x 2,160 = 8,294,400 pixels. Converting an 8k film into 4k, you lose around 24 million pixels of resolution information from the original film source. This is the same when converting film stock to digital formats.

Digital films projected in theaters typically use theatrical 4K copies, much the same as you can buy on UltraHD 4K discs, just tied to a different licensing system that only theaters use.

Future TV formats

TV resolutions have been going up and up. From 480p to 1080p to 4K and next to 8K. Once we get to 8K in the home, this is the resolution you’ll find natively with most digitally captured films. Though, some early digital films were filmed in 4K. Eventually, we will be able to see digital films in its native resolution. 8K TVs will finally allow home consumers to watch films in their filmed resolution, including both 35mm film and 70mm film stock both as well as many digital only films.

For this reason, I’m anxious to finally see 8K TVs drop in price to what 4K TVs are today (sub $1000). By that time, of course, 4K TVs will be sub $200.

8K Film Distribution

To distribute 8K films to home consumers, we’re likely going to need a new format. UltraHD Blu-ray is likely not big enough to handle the size of the files of 8K films. We’ll either need digital download distribution or we’ll need a brand new, much larger Blu-ray disc. Or, the movie will need to be shipped on two discs in two parts… I always hated switching discs in the middle of a movie. Of course, streaming from services like Netflix is always an option, but even 4K isn’t widely adopted on these streaming platforms as yet.

Seeing in 8K?

Some people claim you can’t see the difference between 1080p and 4K. This is actually an untrue statement. 1080p resolution, particularly on a 55″ or larger TV, is easy to spot the pixels from a distance… well, not exactly the pixels themselves, but the rows and columns of pixels (pixel grid) that make up the screen. With 4K resolution, the pixels are so much smaller, it’s almost impossible to see this grid unless you are within inches of the screen. This makes viewing films in 4K much more enjoyable.

With 8K films, the filmed actors and environments will be so stunningly detailed as to be astounding. We’ll finally get to see all of that detail that gets lost when films are down-converted to 4K from 8K. We’ll also get to see pretty much what came out of the camera rather than being re-encoded.

Can humans see 8K? Sure, just like you can see the difference between 1080p and 4K, you will be able to see a difference in quality and detail between 4K and 8K. It might be a subtle difference, but it will be there and people will be able to see it. Perhaps not everyone will notice it or care enough to notice, but it will be there.

Film vs Digital Differences

The difference between film and digital photography is in how the light is captured and stored. For film, the camera exposes the film to light which is then developed to show what was captured. With digital photography, CMOS (Complimentary Metal Oxide Semiconductor) or possibly CCDs (Charge Coupled Devices) are used to capture imagery. Most cameras today opt for CMOS sensors because they’re less expensive to buy and provide equivalent quality to the CCD sensors. For this reason, this is why RED has chosen CMOS as the sensor technology of choice for their cameras. Though, RED cameras are in no way inexpensive, starting at around $20k and going up from there.

Overall

In concluding this article, I will say that 4K is definitely sufficient for most movie watching needs today. However, Internet speeds will need to improve substantially to offer the best 8K viewing experience when streaming. Even Netflix and Amazon don’t currently provide even an amazing 4K experience as yet. In fact, Netflix’s 4K offerings are few and far between. When you do find a film in 4K, it takes forever for Netflix to begin streaming this 4K content to the TV. Netflix first starts out streaming at 480p (or less), then gradually increases the stream rate until the movie is finally running at 4K. It can take between 5-10 minutes before you actually get a 2160p picture. Even then, the resolution can drop back down in the middle and take minutes before it resumes 4K.

Today, 4K streaming is still more or less haphazard and doesn’t work that well. That’s partly due to Netflix and partly due to the Internet. The streaming rate at which 4K content requires to achieve a consistent quality picture can really only be had from Blu-ray players or by downloading the content to your computer in advance and playing it from your hard drive. Streaming services offering 4K content still have many hurdles to overcome to produce high quality consistent 4K viewing experiences.

For this reason, 8K streaming content is still many, many years away. Considering that 4K barely works today, 8K isn’t likely to work at all without much faster Internet speeds to the home.

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What killed the LaserDisc format?

Posted in collectibles, entertainment, movies, technologies by commorancy on March 1, 2018

Laserdisc-logoThere have been a number of tech documentarian YouTubers who’ve recently posted videos regarding LaserDisc and why it never became popular and what killed it. Some have theorized that VHS had nothing to do with the failure of the LaserDisc format. I contend that LaserDisc didn’t exactly fail, but also didn’t gain much traction.

LaserDisc did have a good run between 1978 and 2002. However, it also wasn’t a resounding success for a number of reasons. While the LaserDisc format sold better in Japan than in the US, it still didn’t get that much traction even in Japan. Though, yes, VHS recorders (among other competitive technologies at the time) did play a big part in LaserDisc’s lackluster consumer acceptance. Let’s explore.

History

While I won’t go into the entire history of the LaserDisc player, let me give a quick synopsis of its history. Let’s start by what it is. LaserDisc (originally named DiscoVision in 1978) began its life as a 12″ optical disc containing analog video and analog audio mca_discovision(smaller sizes would become available later) with discs labeled as MCA DiscoVision. In 1980, Pioneer bought the rights to the LaserDisc technology and dropped the DiscoVision branding in lieu of the LaserDisc and LaserVision brands. It also wouldn’t be until the mid-90s that digital audio and digital video combined would appear on this format. A LaserDisc movie is typically dual sided and would be flipped to watch the second half of a film. They can also be produced single sided. Like VHS had SP and LP speeds that offered less or more recording time, LaserDisc had something similar in terms of content length, but offered no consumer recording capability.

There were two formats of LaserDiscs:

The first format is CAV. CAV stands for constant angular velocity. In short, CAV was a format where the rotational speed remained the same from beginning to end. The benefit for CAV was that it offered solid freeze frames throughout the program. Unlike VHS where freeze frames might be distorted, jump or be noisy, CAV discs offered perfect freeze frames.

It also offered a fast scrubbing speed and slowed play. Later LD players even offered a jog shuttle on the remote to reverse or forward the playback a few frames at a time to as fast as you could spin the wheel. CAV also meant that each frame of video was one rotation of the disc. Keep in mind that NTSC video is interlaced and, therefore, half of the disc ring was one half of the frame and the other half of the disc ring was the other half of the frame. It took a full rotation to create a full NTSC frame.

The NTSC format CAV disc only offered up to 30 minutes per side and a little more for PAL. A 90 minute movie would consume 3 sides or two discs. This was the first format of disc introduced during the DiscoVision days. Early content was all CAV.

The second format is CLV. CLV stands for constant linear velocity. This format reduces the rotational speed as the disc reaches the outer edge. You can even hear the motor slow as the movie progresses playback if you’re close enough to the player. I should point out that LaserDiscs read from the center of the media to the outer edge.

LaserDisc players also read from the bottom side of the disc when put into the player. It’s just the opposite of a vinyl LP that reads from the outside in and from the top. This means that the label on the center of the disc refers to the opposite side of the media. The CLV format offers no freeze frame feature. Because the rotational speed drops as the laser moves across the disc, eventually multiple video frames would be contained in a single rotation. Any attempt to freeze frame the picture would show multiple frames of motion. Not very pretty. The freeze frame feature is disabled on CLV formatted discs.

The NTSC formatted CLV disc offers up to 60 minutes of video per side and a little more for PAL. A 90 minute movie comfortably fits on one disc. After CLV was discovered to hold more content than a CAV LaserDisc, this format is how the majority of movies were sold once the DiscoVision brand disappeared. Note that many movies used CLV on side one and CAV on side two when less than 30 minutes.

The intent for LaserDisc was to sell inexpensive films forLaserVision_logo home consumption. It all started with the Magnavox Magnavision VH-8000 DiscoVision player which went on sale December 15th, 1978. This player released on this day along with several day one release movies on LaserDisc. The format, at the time, was then called DiscoVision. Because 1978 was basically the height of the disco music era, it made sense why it ended up called DiscoVision. Obviously, this naming couldn’t last when the disco music era closed.

Early Player Reliability

The first players used a visible red laser consisting of a helium-neon laser. The light output looks similar to a red laser pointer. These LD players had pop up lids. This meant you could pop the lid open while the disc was playing, lift the disc and see the red laser in action. The problem with these first players was with the helium-neon laser unit. In short, they became incredibly hot making the unit unreliable. I personally owned one of these open lid style players from Philips and can assert from personal experience that these players were lemons. If they lasted 6 months worth of use, you could count yourself lucky. At the time, when your player was broken, you had to take your player to an authorized service center to get it repaired.

These repair centers were factory authorized, but not run by Philips. Repairs could take weeks requiring constant phone calls to the repair center to get status. The repair centers always seemed overwhelmed with repairs. It just wasn’t worth the hassle of taking the unit in to be repaired once every 6 months, paying for each repair after the warranty ran out. This would have been about 1982 or so. I quickly replaced this player for a new one. I’d already invested in too many LaserDiscs to lose all of the discs that I had.

In 1983-1984 or thereabouts, the optical audio Compact Disc was introduced. These players offered solid-state non-visible lasers to read the CD optical media. As a result of the technology used to read the CD, LaserDisc players heavily benefited from this technology advance. Pioneer, the leading LaserDisc player brand at the time, jumped immediately on board with replacing the red visible laser with very similar solid state lasers being used in CD players.

Once the new laser eye was introduced, reliability increased dramatically. Players became more compact, ran cooler and became more full featured. Instead of being able to play only LaserDiscs, they could now also play CDs of all sizes. This helped push LaserDisc players into the home at a time when LaserDisc needed that kick in the pants. Though, adoption was still very slow.

1984

The year 1984 would be the year of VHS. This is the year when video rental stores would become commonplace. During this time, I helped start up a video rental department for a brand new record store. It was a time when record stores were expanding into video rentals. I don’t know how many VHS tapes I inventoried for the new store. One thing was certain. We did not rent anything other than VHS tapes. No Betamax, no LaserDisc and no CED rentals. We didn’t even stock LaserDiscs or CEDs for sale in this store location. In fact, the chain of record stores where I worked would eventually become Blockbuster and would adopt the same logo color scheme as the record store chain used. But, that wouldn’t be for a few more years.

VHS was on the verge of and would soon become the defacto format for movie rentals. Why not LaserDisc? Not enough saturation in combination with LaserDisc having the same problem that pretty much all optical media has. It’s easily scratched. Because the LaserDisc surface is handled directly by hands (it has no caddy), this means that the wear and tear on a LaserDisc meant eventually replacing the disc by the rental store. This compared to VHS tape that, so long as the tape remained intact, it could be rented over and over even if there was the occasional drop out from being played too much.

LaserDisc fared far worse on this front. Because there was no easy way to remove the scratches from a disc, once a disc was scratched it meant replacement. Even if the disc was minimally scratched, it could still be unplayable in some players, particularly the red visible laser kind. These older models were not at all tolerant of scratches.

Media Costs

While VHS tape movies cost $40 or $50 or even upwards to $70, LaserDisc movies cost $25 to $30 on average. The cost savings to buy a movie on LaserDisc was fairly substantial. However, you had to get past the sticker shock of the $800-900 you’re required to invest into Pioneer to get a CLD-900 player. This at the time when VHS recorders were $600 or thereabouts. However, VHS recorder prices would continue to drop to about $250 by 1987 (just 3 years later).

LaserDisc player prices never dropped much and always hovered around the $600-$800 price when new. They were expensive. Pioneer was particularly proud of their LaserDisc players and always charged a premium. You could find used players for lower prices, though. Because Pioneer was (ahem) the pioneer in LD equipment at that time, buying into Magnavox or other LD equipment brands meant problems down the road. If you wanted a mostly trouble free LD experience, you bought Pioneer.

Competitors

I would be remiss at not mentioning the CED disc format that showed up on the scene heavily around 1984, even though it was introduced in 1981. CED stands for Capacitance Electronic Disc. It was a then alternative format video media disc conceived in the 1960s by RCA. Unfortunately, the CED project remain stalled for 17 years in development hell at RCA.

CED uses a stylus like an LP and the disc is made of vinyl also like an LP, except you can’t handle it with your hands. This media type is housed in a caddy. To play these discs, you had to purchase a CED player and buy CED media. To play the disc, you would insert the disc caddy into the slot on the front of the unit and then pull it back out. The machine grabbed the disk out of the caddy on insertion. As soon as the caddy is removed, the disc is begins to play. The door to the caddy slot locks when the disc was in motion. Once the mechanism stops moving, the door unlocks and you can insert the caddy, then remove the disc.

Because the CED is read by a stylus, it had its own fair share of problems, not the least of which was skipping and low video quality. LaserDisc was the consumer product leader in image quality all throughout the 80s and 90s until DVD arrived. However, that didn’t stop CED from taking a bite out of the LaserDisc videodisc market. The CED format only served to dilute the idea of the videodisc and confuse consumers on which format to buy. This was, in fact, the worst of all situations for LaserDisc at a time when VHS rentals were appearing at practically any store that could devote space to set up a rental section. Even grocery stores were jumping on board to get a piece of the VHS rental action.

VHS versus LaserDisc rentals

As a result of VHS rentals, which could be found practically everywhere by 1986, renting LaserDiscs (or even CEDs) was always a challenge. Not only was it difficult to find stores to rent a LaserDisc, when you did find them, the selection was less than stellar. In fact, because VHS rentals became so huge during this time, LaserDisc pressings couldn’t compete and started falling behind the VHS releases. VHS became the format released first, then LaserDiscs would appear a short time later. This meant that if you wanted to rent the latest movie, you pretty much had to own a VHS player. If you wanted to watch the movie in higher quality, you had to wait for the LaserDisc version. Even then, you’d have to buy it rather than renting. Renting of LaserDiscs was not only rare to find, but eventually disappeared altogether leaving purchasing a LaserDisc the only option, or you rented a VHS tape.

If you weren’t into rentals and wanted to own a film, then LaserDisc was the overall better way to go. Not only were the discs less expensive, the video and audio would remain the highest home consumer quality until S-VHS arrived. Unfortunately, S-VHS had its own problems with adoption even worse than LaserDisc and this format would fail to be adopted by the general home consumer market. LaserDisc continued to dominate the videophile market for its better picture and eventually digital sound until 1997 when the DVD arrived.

Time Was Not Kind

As time progressed into the late 80s, it would become more difficult to find not only LaserDisc players to buy, but also LaserDiscs. Stores that once carried the discs would begin to clearance them out and no longer carry them. Some electronics stores just outright closed and those outlets to buy players were lost. By the 90s, the only reasonable place to purchase LaserDiscs was via mail order.

There were simply no local electronics stores in my area that carried movie discs any longer. Perhaps you could find them in NYC, but not in Houston. Because they were 12″ in size, this meant a lot of real estate was needed to store and display LaserDiscs. Other than record stores, few stores would want to continue to invest store real estate into this lackluster format, especially when VHS is booming. In a lot of ways, LaserDisc packaging looked like LP records, only with movie posters on the front. This packaging was not likely helpful to the LaserDisc. Because they were packaged almost identically to an LP, including being shrink wrapped (and using white inner sleeves), these discs could easily be confused with LP records when walking by a display of them.

Marketing was a major problem for LaserVision. While there was a kind of consortium of hardware producers that included Pioneer, Philips and Magnavox, there was no real marketing strategy to sell the LaserDisc format to the consumer. Because of this, LaserDisc fell into the niche market of videophiles. Basically, it was a small word of mouth community. This was a time before the Internet. Videophiles were some of the first folks to have a small home theater and they demanded the best video and audio experience, and were willing to shell out cash for it. Unfortunately, this market was quite a small segment. Few people were willing to jump through all of the necessary hoops just to buy an LD player, then mail order a bunch of discs. Yet, the videophiles kept buying just enough to keep this market alive.

Laser Rot

In addition to the hassles of bad marketing, the discs ended up with a bad reputation for a severe manufacturing defect. Even some commercially pressed CDs ended up succumbing to this same fate. The problem is known as laser rot. Laser rot is when the various layers that make up a LaserDisc were sealed improperly or used non-archival adhesives during manufacture. These layers later oxidize causing pitting on the sandwiched metal surface. This oxidation pitting causes the original content pits to be lost over time ending up with snow both in audio and in video. The audio usually goes first, then the video.

Laser rot even appeared early on the earliest pressed DiscoVision media, we just wouldn’t find out until much later. This indicated that the faulty manufacturing process began when the format was born. Laser rot caused a lot of fans of the format a lot of grief when the format least needed such a pothole. This problem should have been addressed rapidly once found, but there were many discs that continued to be improperly manufactured even into the 90s after the problem was found. The defective manufacturing process was something the LaserVision consortium failed to address, which tarnished (ahem) the reputation of the LaserVision brand.

For the videophiles who had invested heavily in this format, nothing was worse than playing a disc that you know worked fine a few months ago only to find it now unplayable. It was not only disheartening, but it gave fans of the format pause to consider any future purchases.

Losing Steam

Not only were the average consumers turned off by the high prices of the players, consumers also didn’t see the benefit of owning a LaserDisc player because of its lack of recording capabilities and its lack of readily available rentals. Some videophiles and LaserDisc format advocates lost interest when they attempted to play a 3 year old disc only to find that it was unplayable. At this point, only true die-hards stayed with LaserDisc format even among the mounting disc problems and lack of marketing push.

The manufacturers never stepped up to offer replacement discs for laser rot, which they should have. The LaserVision consortium did nothing to entice new consumers into the format nor did they attempt to fix the manufacturing defect leading to laser rot. The only thing the manufacturers did is continue to churn out upgraded LaserDisc player models usually adding things that didn’t help LaserDisc format directly. Instead, they would add compatibility for media like CDV or 3″ CD formats or CD text. Features that did nothing to help LaserDisc, but were only added to help entice audiophiles into adding a LaserDisc player into their component audio system. This ploy didn’t work. Why? Because audiophiles were more interested in music selection over compatibility with video formats. What sold were the carousel CD players that would eventually hold up to 400 CDs. Though, the 5 CD changers were also wildly popular at the time.

Instead of investing the time and effort into making LaserDisc a better format, the manufacturers spent time adding unnecessary features to their players (and charging more money for them). Granted, the one feature that was added that was desperately needed was digital audio soundtracks. These would be the precursor to DVD. However, while they did add digital audio to LaserDisc by the early 90s, the video was firmly still analog. However, even digital audio on the LaserDisc didn’t kick sales up in any substantial way. This was primarily because 5.1 and 7.1 sound systems were still a ways off from becoming mainstream.

The 90s and 00s

While LaserDisc did continue through most of the 90s as the format that still produced the best NTSC picture quality and digital sound for some films, that wouldn’t last once the all digital DVD arrived in 1997. Once the DVD format arrived, LaserDisc’s days were numbered as a useful movie format. Though LaserDisc did survive into the early noughties, the last movie released in the US is ironically named End of Days with Arnold Schwarzenegger, released in 2002. It truly was the end of days for LaserDisc. Though, apparently LaserDiscs continued to be pressed in Japan and possibly for industrial use for some time after this date.

Failure to Market

The primary reason LaserDisc didn’t get the entrenched market share that it expected was primarily poor marketing. As the product never had a clearly defined reason to exist or at least one that consumers could understand, it was never readily adopted. Then VHS came along giving even less reason to adopt the format.

Most consumers had no need for the quality provided by a LaserDisc. In fact, it was plainly obvious that VHS quality was entirely sufficient to watch a movie. I’d say that this ideal still holds true today. Even though there are 4K TVs and UltraHD 4K films being sold on disc, DVDs are still the most common format for purchase and rental. A format first released in 1997. Even Redbox hasn’t yet adopted rentals of UltraHD 4K Blu-ray discs. Though Redbox does rent 1080p Blu-ray discs, they still warn you that you’re renting a Blu-ray. It’s clear, the 480p DVD is going to die a very slow death. It also says that consumers really don’t care about a high quality picture. Instead, they just want to watch the film. Considering that DVD quality is only slightly better than a LaserDisc at a time when UltraHD 4K is available, that shows that most consumers don’t care about picture quality.

This is the key piece of information that the LaserVision consortium failed to understand in the early 80s. The video quality coming out of a LaserDisc was its only real selling point. That didn’t matter to most consumers. Having to run all over town to find the discs, deal with laser rot, having to flip the discs in the middle of the film and lack of video titles available (compared to VHS), these were not worth the hassle by most consumers. It’s far simpler to run out and buy a VHS tape recorder and rent movies from one of many different rental stores, some open very late. Keep in mind that VHS rentals were far less expensive than buying a LaserDisc.

In many cases, parents found an alternative babysitter in the VHS player. With LaserDisc and rough handling by kids, parents would end up purchasing replacement discs a whole lot more frequently than a VHS tape. Scratched discs happen simply by setting them down on a coffee table. With VHS, they’re pretty rugged. Even a kid handling a VHS tape isn’t likely to damage either the tape or the unit. Though, shoving food into the VHS slot wasn’t unheard of by the children of some parents. Parents could buy (or rent) a kids flick and the kids would be entertained for hours.

VHS tape recorder

Here is what a lot of people claim to be the reason for the death of the LaserDisc. Though, LaserDisc never really died… at least, not until 2002. The one reason most commonly cited was that the LaserDisc couldn’t record. No, you could not record onto a LaserDisc. It had no recordable media version available nor was there a recorder available. However, this perception was due to failure of marketing. LaserDisc wasn’t intended to be a recorder. It was intended to provide movies at reasonable prices. However, it failed to take into consideration the rental market… a market that wasn’t in existence in 1978, but soon appeared once VHS took off. It was a market that LaserDisc manufacturers couldn’t foresee and had no Plan-B ready to combat this turn of events.

However, there was no reason why you couldn’t own both a VHS recorder and a LaserDisc player. Some people did. Though together, these two units were fairly costly. Since most households only needed (and could only afford) one video type player, the VHS tape recorder won out. It not only had the huge rental infrastructure for movies, it was also capable of time shifting over the air programming. This multi-function capability of the VHS recorder lead many people to the stores to buy one. So, yes, not being able to record did hurt the LaserDisc image, but it wasn’t the reason for its death.

Stores and Availability

Around 1984-1986, VHS tape recorders were widely available from a vast array of retailers including discount stores like Target, Kmart and Sears. You could also find VHS recorders at Radio Shack and Federated and in the electronics section of Service Merchandise, JC Penney, Montgomery Wards, Foley’s and many other specialty and department stores.

You could also buy VHS units from mail order houses like J&R Music World who wrote in 1985, “We occasionally advertise a barebones model at $169… But prices have fallen significantly–15 percent in the past six months alone–and now a wide selection sells for $200 to $400.”. That’s a far cry from the $600-900 that a LaserDisc player may cost. Not only were VHS recorders and players available practically at every major department store, stores typically carried several models from which to choose. This meant you had a wide selection of VHS recorders at differing price points. While in the very early 80s VHS recorders were around $1000, the prices for VHS recorders had substantially dropped by 1985 helping fuel not only market saturation for VHS, but also the rental market.

Unlike VHS, LaserDisc never received much market traction because the LD players failed on two primary fronts:

1. They were way too pricey. The prices needed to drastically drop just like VHS machines. Instead of hovering at around the $600 mark, they needed to drop to the $150-$200 range. They never did.

2. They were difficult to find in stores. While VHS machines were available practically everywhere, even drug stores, LaserDisc players could only be found in specialty electronics stores. They could be found in the likes of Federated, Pacific Stereo and other local higher end component based electronics stores. Typically, you’d find them at stores that carried turntables, speakers and audio amplifier / receivers. While Sears may have carried Magnavox LD players for a short time, they quickly got out of that business and moved towards VHS recorders.

Because the manufacturers of LD players failed to get the players into the discount stores and they failed to price the players down to compete with those the $200-$400 VHS units, LaserDisc could gain little mass consumer traction. On top of this, the confusion over CED and LaserDisc (and even VHS) left those who were interested in disc based video in a quandary. Which to choose? CED or LaserDisc? Because CED discs and players were slightly less expensive (and inferior quality) than LaserDisc, many who might have bought LaserDisc bought into CED. This reduced LaserDisc saturation even further.

It wasn’t the videophiles who were buying into CED either. It was consumers who wanted disc media, but who also didn’t want to pay LaserDisc prices. Though, the mass consumer market went almost lock-stock-and-barrel to VHS because of what VHS offered (lower price, better selection of movies, rentals everywhere and recording capabilities).

Why Did LaserDisc Fail?

LaserDisc’s failure to gain traction was a combination of market factors including lack of marketing, poor quality media, high hardware prices, unreliable players, CED confusion, and the VHS rental market, but this was just the beginning of its downfall. At the tail end, even though LaserDisc did attempt a high definition analog format through Japan’s Hi-Vision spec using MUSE encoding, even that couldn’t withstand the birth of the DVD.

If the LaserVision consortium had had more vision to continue to innovate in the LaserDisc video space rather than trying to make a LaserDisc player an audio component, the format would have ultimately sold better. How much better? No one really knows. If the consortium had embraced MPEG and made a move towards an all digital format in the 90s, this change might have solidified LaserDisc as a comeback format which could have supported 1080p HDTV. Though there was a digital LaserDisc format called CDV and also Japan’s Hi-Vision HD format, these never gained any traction because the LaserVision consortium failed to embrace them. Hi-Vision was never properly introduced into the US or Europe and remained primarily a Japanese innovation sold primarily in Japan.

Instead, the introduction of DVD is pretty much solidified the death of what was left of LaserDisc as a useful movie storage, rental and playback medium. Though, the LaserDisc media releases would continue to limp along until 2002 with the last LaserDisc player models released sometime in 2009.

What would kill the LaserDisc format? LaserDisc would ultimately die because of 1080p 16:9 flat screen HDTVs, which the LaserDisc format didn’t properly support (other than composite low res or the short lived Hi-Vision format which was problematic). Ultimately, no one wants to watch 480i 4:3 ratio pan-and-scan analog movies via composite inputs on a brand new 16:9 1080p widescreen TV. Yes, some anamorphic widescreen films came to exist on LaserDisc, but that still utilized a 480i resolution which further degraded the picture by widening the image. Of course, you can still find LaserDisc players and discs for purchase if you really want them.

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Console Review: Nintendo Switch

Posted in nintendo, technologies, video gaming by commorancy on August 17, 2017

Back in April, I wrote an article entitled Why I’ve Not Yet Bought A Nintendo Switch. It’s now August and I’ve decided to take the plunge and buy a Switch based on a comment I heard about The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I hadn’t yet played this game (in part because I was disappointed with the last Zelda installment). However, someone told me that it is effectively Skyrim. That comment piqued my interest. The Elder Scrolls series is one of my two most favorite video game series, the other being Fallout 4. I’ve always liked Zelda, but didn’t want to play it on the Wii U. So, I decided it was time to give the Switch a try (assuming I could find one in stock). After turning the unit on, it became quickly obvious just how limited this tablet really is. However, I am looking forward to playing the Skyrim port on a portable. Let’s explore.

Best Buy

As luck would have it, when I arrived at Best Buy to pick up my pre-ordered copy of Agents of Mayhem for the PS4 (haven’t started playing it yet for reasons that will become obvious), I asked a floor person if they had any Nintendo Switch consoles in stock. To my surprise, they did. I picked one up on the spot, and with it a copy of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I also picked up a few Amiibo that I didn’t have and a Switch Pro Controller in hopes of avoiding the Joy-Con problem. I have heard the Joy-Cons can lose connectivity when operating wireless, dropping their connections mid-gaming. I had experienced this exact problem with the PS3 controller after its release and I definitely do not wish to revisit that problem on the Switch. Even the Best Buy floor representative confirmed the wireless disconnection problem with his own personal Switch.

Note, I also decided to picked up the Switch at this time because it’s still well before the holiday season when finding things in stock gets crazy impossible. I’m planning on playing Skyrim and wanted to have a Switch before Skyrim releases during the holidays (no release date as of this article). I would also like to see Bethesda port Fallout 4 over, but that’s probably a pipe dream. Let’s get right into the meat of this review.

Tablet Weight and Size

Starting with size, the one thing that I immediately noticed upon opening the box is how small this tablet actually is. My NVIDIA Shield, my iPad and my Galaxy Tab S are all actually much bigger than the Switch. Even the iPad mini is bigger than the Switch. Let’s just say that its much smaller than I had expected. In a portable, I guess that’s okay. Of course, after attaching the Joy-Cons, the tablet becomes much longer. As for setting it up, the tablet setup was easy and fast, unlike the Wii U which seemed overly complicated. The slowest part was setting up a Nintendo account (see below).

The weight of the tablet is average, not too light and not too heavy. After you attach the Joy-Cons, the weight becomes more substantial. I’ll probably leave the Joy-Cons attached most of the time because the Switch Pro Controller works spectacularly well even though it costs ~$70. Anyway, the screen is smaller than I expected, but it is still readable. However, the screen controls inside Breath of the Wild are far too small. In fact, this tabsole suffers from the same exact problem as did the PS Vita. The screen resolution is so high and the icons are drawn so small that it can be difficult to touch or read some of the text on the tablet screen. When played on a TV, this isn’t a problem. Though, the tablet screen is bigger than the PS Vita and the play area is quite nice, the tiny icon problem remains. Nintendo can fix this issue in later games, but for Breath of the Wild, it suffers a bit from the tiny icons when playing on the tablet screen.

Graphics and Game Performance

After playing Breath of the Wild for just 15 minutes, it is quite obvious. This tabsole is workhorse fully capable of producing solid frame rates on both the tablet display and through the dock on a large screen TV. In fact, the ability to switch back and forth between the tablet display and the TV display is so seamless, it just works without thought. Simply slide the tablet into the dock and it’s on the TV. Hooking the dock up to the TV was a cinch.

What accessories does the Switch support?

  • microSDXC and microSDHC cards
  • 32 GB built in tablet memory
  • card slot for games (they’re card based)
  • Amiibo support (both on the controller and on the tablet)

Interestingly, there are tablety features missing such as:

  • No cameras (rear or front)
  • No microphone
  • No stylus (interesting because the 3DS was all about the stylus)

However, the Joy-Cons have a unique slide attach system. This means that in the future such devices as microphones and cameras may become available as slide-on accessories. It is unknown if the slide-on accessories can be stacked. Hopefully, Nintendo did design the slide-on accessories to be stackable. Even if they aren’t stackable, you can still use the Joy-Cons wirelessly when other accessories are connected.

Joy-Cons

I would be remiss if I didn’t discuss these controllers. These controllers (light gray – right, blue/red – top) slide onto the left and right side of the tablet (or the left and right side of the adapter). They’re nice enough and have a good joystick feel, but overall they’re only just okay. The buttons are too small for my liking. When you take the Joy-Cons off and attempt to use them separately or attached to the Joy-Con controller adapter (pictured right), they still don’t improve much. The real improvement is in using the Switch Pro Controller (pictured below). Interestingly, in addition to the Joy-Con adapter, there are two slide-ons included for each Joy-Con that attaches a wrist strap. I guess because of the Wii and people breaking things by throwing them at the TV, Nintendo has learned its lesson. Needless to say, these two wrist strap attachments do provide the Joy-Cons with a more polished, finished look and feel when attached. Interestingly, Nintendo did not include simple rounded end closures for the sides of the tablet itself to make the tablet also look finished when the Joy-Cons are detached. The unfinished tablet side ends just hang out to collect dust and dirt.

Switch as a Tablet

In this day and age with the likes of the Samsung Galaxy Tab and Apple’s ever larger and larger iPad versions, coupled with the iOS or Android, these modern tablets are both functional as productivity and browsing devices, but they can also be used for high intensity gaming… with controllers even. Clearly, only Apple tablets support iOS. However, many many tablets support Android. In fact, Android is likely to become the operating system of choice on tablets, far and above iOS or Windows in deployments. Why? Because it’s open source, it’s designed to work with tablets, it performs well and it’s well supported. It also means that there’s a crap ton of applications already available on this platform.

Unfortunately, here is where the Nintendo Switch completely falls down. Nintendo has opted to use its own proprietary operating system to drive the Switch. This has the obvious downside of not running any existing apps or games. This means that as a Switch owner, you are entirely at the mercy of Nintendo to provide every app you could ever want. And herein likes the biggest problem.

While the games run like a champ, the Switch cannot become a useful tablet itself because it does not benefit from inheriting existing games or apps from Android. This is entirely the problem with the Switch in a nutshell. When you power the Switch on, you’ll quickly notice that there are a very very limited number of games in the Nintendo eShop. In fact, there are so few, it’s probably not worth considering the Switch as anything other than a Nintendo gaming system.

Switch as a Game Console

Unlike the Wii U that offered a dual display (the Gamepad touch screen in addition to TV screen), the Switch can only display on the TV or the tablet one screen at a time. When docked, the tablet display is covered and disabled. With the Wii U, you could use the Gamepad screen for maps or inventory or other useful drag and drop features. With the Switch, that’s not possible. That Nintendo has dropped the two screen idea entirely is a bit unusual. I did like being able to perform certain gaming tasks (i.e., rearranging the inventory) on the second screen. Yes, it was of limited use, but having the second screen for certain gaming tasks made a lot of sense.

Nintendo never learns

By now, you would have thought that Nintendo would have learned its lesson from failure of the Wii U. Yet, here we are… back in the same boat as the Wii U. This means that, yes, it’s a tablet but, no, you cannot use it for anything other than gaming. Nintendo, if you’re planning to design a device like this, you also need to understand the bigger picture. This is a tablet. As a tablet, in addition to gaming, it should be able to run standard apps that are found on both Android and iOS. Unfortunately, there is nothing available (not yet anyway). In fact, the Switch is currently missing the most basic of apps such as Netflix, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, a web browser or any other social networking app. While the OS may support sharing some content to some of these services, that’s as far as it goes. You cannot use the tablet as a general purpose device. Such a shame as this means that you will have to carry the Switch around with another tablet or device.

In fact, as a Nintendo device, it doesn’t yet even support Miiverse, not that that’s a big loss. It also doesn’t currently support StreetPass (and may never). That’s a bit odd for a portable gaming device produced by Nintendo. You would think that Nintendo could at least support its own social platforms out of the gate.

Nintendo Login

The bizarre choice to require a Nintendo website ID instead of the Nintendo Network ID to log into the eShop is completely unexpected. Like the Nintendo 3DS, I fully expected to type in my NNID login and password and be on my way. Nope, I had to run over and create a brand new login ID through the web site, then link it to my NNID, then use that new login and password to have the Switch login. Bizarre. Nintendo seems to make these arbitrary and haphazard changes with each new console iteration. I’m not yet even sure what benefit jumping through this hoop actually provides. Though, once you log into the Nintendo Web portal, you can link in your Facebook and Twitter accounts. So, perhaps it’s a way to link your social networks? *shrug*

The one thing that irks me is that you must type in your Nintendo Login password each time you want to enter the Nintendo eShop. Why it can’t remember your password for even a few minutes is frustrating. Better, give me the option of saving my password on the console so I don’t have to type it each time. If you want to add a security feature against accidental purchases, require a separate four (4) digit pin code which must be typed before each purchase. Typing in four (4) numbers is far easier than typing in a long password string. Figure it out Nintendo.

Nintendo Online

With the introduction of the Switch, Nintendo has created (or will create) an online service. This service, I’m guessing, is to be similar to Xbox Live or PlayStation Network. I’m assuming it will offer multiplayer gaming and other perks, but we’ll have to wait and see what it intends to provide. It doesn’t officially launch until 2018 and will sport a $19.99 a year price tag (though you can pay monthly). Whether or not that’s the final price tag remains to be seen. Considering that both PSN and Xbox Live are well more costly than that, I’d fully expect Nintendo to raise the price of this online service in short order. After all, it’s not inexpensive to build and maintain services in AWS or Google Cloud or even in your own data center.

Overall

The Switch is definitely great at gaming. However, because Nintendo has chosen for the Switch not to be a general purpose tablet or run an operating system with a boatload of existing software (i.e., Android), it will only ever be a single purpose gaming tablet. Personally, I think that’s a huge mistake on Nintendo’s part. Nintendo is gambling an awful lot on this limited tablet design. I personally believe this gamble will not pay off for Nintendo and may leave the Switch as dead as the Wii U. Thanks for thinking ahead there Nintendo. For playing Nintendo game franchises (Mario, Zelda, Pikmin, Pokemon, Splatoon, Metroid and so on), the Switch will do fine. Barring the upcoming Bethesda port of Skyrim to the Switch, I can’t foresee much in the way of non-Nintendo franchises or other blockbusters being developed or ported. In fact, Nintendo probably paid Bethesda a boatload to get Skyrim ported. However, I wouldn’t expect third party ports to continue much into the future. Nintendo will, once again, be forced to give up on that idea of wooing AAA titles to the Switch … which will ultimately limit the platform to Nintendo properties (the entire reason the Wii U failed).

The Switch will become just like the Wii U, the third most popular game console. It will sell to those parents who trust the family friendly nature of Nintendo’s games. However, for adult gaming or using this tablet as a replacement for the iPad, nope. It has a nice enough hardware design, but it just has too many shortcomings to be the end-all of tablets. Because it does not support general purpose tablet use, a parent cannot justify it as an educational tool or even a browsing tool, unlike an iPad or Samsung tablet at around the same price point. Sure, it supports Nintendo’s game franchises, but is that enough? No.

Personally, the Switch is just a little too weighty (and way too lacking of general tablet features) to carry it around all of the time. Instead, I’ll use it at home like a console when docked or use it as a portable around the house when I do laundry and such. If it had Android, could access to the Google Play store, had access to an existing library of tablet games, supported a browser and included other general purpose computing features, I could much more easily justify carrying it with me all of the time. Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen with this version of the Switch. Perhaps Nintendo can make this right with an OS update, but certain things cannot be solved in software (i.e., lack of a camera or microphone). The lack of a microphone will seriously hinder multiplayer usage.

The final takeaway is, don’t go buy a Switch expecting anything more from this tablet than playing Nintendo game franchises. For the price of the Switch as a tablet, it’s way under-designed.



Hardware Build
: 5 Stars
Hardware Features: 4 Stars (missing camera and microphone)
Software / OS: 1.5 Stars
Joy-Cons: 3 Stars
Pro Controller: 4 Stars
Overall: 3 Stars

Agree or disagree with this review? Please leave a comment below. I’d love to hear your thoughts about the Nintendo Switch.

 

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WiFi on Amtrak: Traveling Connected

Posted in streaming media, technologies, travel by commorancy on September 16, 2012

Recently, I took am Amtrak train to St. Louis (via Chicago) on the California Zephyr.  While the trip had some breathtaking views through the Rocky Mountains, remaining connected throughout that trip was very much a challenge.  Let’s explore.

Verizon MiFi

Verizon Jetpack MiFiAbout a week before I was to hop on the train, I thought it might be a good idea to buy a Verizon MiFi device for the trip.  After all, Amtrak says they have WiFi on the trains, but they also say that the connectivity speed is limited and streaming of any kind is restricted.  So, I decided to buy my own hotspot for the trip to stay connected without restrictions.  Verizon has a 4G LTE Jetpack, and that’s what I chose.  I bought the unit without a contract, so I paid full price for the unit with $50 a month service (4 GB cap).  Verizon, at that time, only offered 3 different MiFi devices.  A thicker square unit that has a blue LED-type display, two rectangular units, one with bright white text display (see image) and one with only a battery status display.  The square unit has less battery life and is quite a bit bigger.  The unit with only a status display is older and the unit I chose was I believe the newest of the three, the smallest and has the best battery life.  One other important reason I chose this device (pictured to the left), is that it will operate while charging (this is important if you  don’t want to wait an hour or two for it to charge).  The older rectangular Jetpack will not operate while charging.  I know this because we have one that gets passed around at work for on-call purposes and that limitation about that version sucked.  So, I specifically looked for a unit that could operate while charging.

Note: I would post pictures here of all three units, but these units will be outdated in 6 months and new units will be available.  So, you should check Verizon.com to see whatever is available today rather than trying to search for what I’ve purchased. 

Virgin MiFi

I also have an older Virgin 3G MiFi.  I had purchased this one from Best Buy about a year ago.  I originally purchased this because I didn’t want to invest in the data service on the iPad as it’s locked only to the iPad (cannot be tethered or become a hotspot without jailbreaking the unit).  So, I bought the Virgin MiFi back then to allow me to use it with my phone, iPad, iPod touch or notebook.  Much more flexible (and cheaper) than the AT&T or Verizon built-in 3G on the iPad.  So, I carried this one with me on the trip also.

Why two MiFi devices?

Well, I already had the Virgin mobile 3G MiFi, but since it uses Sprint’s 3G network I wasn’t sure how reliable the connectivity would be during the trip.  Because Verizon touts its ‘great coverage’, I bought into that spiel and purchased a Verizon unit as backup.  So, I thought that if one failed to have connectivity that the other one might.  The Verizon is also 4G and I thought I might get 4G speeds along some parts of the trip.  So, let’s explore how that worked out.

How did it work out?

Not too well.  The 4G on the Verizon MiFi was a complete waste.  When I did have connectivity on the Verizon MiFi, it was always 3G.  The only exception to this was major cities.  By major cities, I mean major cities (like Chicago) and 3G everywhere else (whenever there was connectivity.. we’ll come to this).  There was absolutely zero 4G connectivity anywhere along the California Zephyr route except in California when I started and in the outskirts of Chicago.  Everywhere else was 3G.

How much connectivity did I have?  In most of Nevada, there was absolutely nothing for long stretches.  No phone service, no 3G, nothing.  Just one big dead spot.  The Rocky Mountains were mostly dead also, but that’s expected due to the mountains. Once I had gotten through Nevada and the Rockies, though, there was spotty connectivity whenever the train would be close to a medium sized city.  Most of the service along the route was 1 or 2 bars when it was there.  That’s not to say I didn’t have service, though.  When there was service, it lasted for a while.  Long enough to get email, send responses, etc.  So, it was at least there enough to get some work done.

On the way back, I took a different train and route.  This trek went from Kansas City to LA.  This route has a whole lot more availability of service, but still no 4G.  So, while the connectivity was more available, it wasn’t any more stable as it was still 1-2 bars.  So, streaming was still not possible.

Note, though, I did swap between both devices for several reasons.  I always preferred using the Virgin MiFi whenever available as it has unlimited service with no data cap.  There’s a data cap on the Verizon service and I wanted to reserve usage of that to places where the Virgin device didn’t work (which was a lot more frequent than it should have been, but not unexpected).

So, the Verizon device did have connectivity somewhat more frequently than the Virgin (Sprint network) device.  Since both ran at 3G speeds, they both had similar speed of transfers at 1-2 bars, which is fast enough for email, text messaging and limited surfing, but not much more than that.

T-Mobile Phone Service

Note that my phone is T-Mobile and the service here didn’t fare any better than the MiFi devices.  However, whenever the Verizon device had service, so did T-Mobile.  So, I was pleasantly surprised by similar phone connectivity along the route to Verizon.  However, my phone has no data plan, so I couldn’t use this for any additional service.  So, this is the need for carrying the MiFi devices.

Streaming Media

Because the service was 1-2 bars most of the time and 3G, there is no way to reliably stream anything.  Even at the highest numbers of bars, 3G still has a hard time streaming YouTube or Netflix.  At 1 bar, there is just no way to stream.  I tried streaming Stillstream.com on the train and it just kept cutting in and out.  I would get about 2 minutes of stream and then it would cut off.  Just not a great way to listen to online radio.  So, streaming is definitely out.  Streaming radio should be quite a bit lighter than streaming video.  On the train, streaming video simply won’t work.  Expect to bring along offline media like downloaded movies or disks.

What about Amtrak WiFi?

Apparently, few trains have it.  I was in a sleeper and supposedly the sleeper cars were to have WiFi.  However, none of the trains had WiFi at all.   So, there was no way to use a train WiFi as backup as there was nothing.  I’m definitely glad I brought my own MiFi as otherwise I wouldn’t have had any connectivity.  Was getting the Verizon Jetpack worth it?  Not really considering the connectivity level of the Virgin device.  If I hadn’t had a device at all, then perhaps.  However, the 4G doesn’t work at all on the train, and 3G was not that great, either.  At least, not for streaming.  Although, I will say that the Verizon device did at least offer service more frequently than Virgin, but not more frequently that I’d run out and buy a Verizon device just to travel on Amtrak.  Since the Virgin device is cheaper (at least for the plan I have), then it was enough.  However, Virgin has changed up their plans again, so it may not be such a great deal for 3G connectivity.

Overall

I’m glad I had MiFi devices so I could at least check email, respond, text message and do limited surfing.  This was great for that purpose (when the service wasn’t completely dead).  However, expect to bring along books to read, movies to watch and other offline media.  Don’t expect to watch YouTube, Netflix or download stuff while traveling on Amtrak as it just won’t work for that.  Amtrak needs to improve this part of the travel experience as connectivity is important to a lot of people today.  Not having the Internet is really an oversight that needs to be corrected.

Additionally, carriers like Verizon need to plant more towers along Amtrak train routes to offer better connectivity (and 4G service) to Amtrak trains.  Amtrak and the carriers need to partner to offer service on the trains that is of higher quality all along the way instead of long stretches of dead spots.  On the flip side, though, if you’re on the train you may want to be cut off from the world without phone or internet service.  I can understand this as well, but for those who want to surf (especially at night when it’s extremely dark outside the train), you’ll have to find something else to do during dead spots.

Both Amtrak and the carriers need to improve this as traveling by train is actually relaxing and a fun way to see the country which you completely miss when flying. In fact, the California Zephyr offers scenery that you can see no other way than by train as there are no roads that lead through parts of the route they take. So, traveling by train is definitely a fun way to see the country.  Yes, much slower than by plane, but a whole lot more scenic.  Because of the length of travel it takes to get across country by train, having reliable Internet service is actually something Amtrak needs to address.  Amtrak just needs to bring itself up to today’s technology and get better connectivity on the trains.  This is not an impossible task, it just needs a bit of investment by both the carriers and by Amtrak.

Stupid Security Measures: autocomplete=off – How To Turn Off or Disable

Posted in banking, security, technologies by commorancy on April 16, 2012

While I’m all for some browser related security, this one feature is completely asinine because it’s so unpredictable, uncontrollable and stupidly implemented. This is the complete opposite anyone should expect from a quality user experience. Let’s explore.

What is auto-completion?

Most browsers today will automatically fill forms and password fields from locally saved browser login and password information (usually the field is yellow when automatically filled). This is called autofill or autocompletion. While I admit that storing passwords inside a browser is not the smartest of ideas, specifically if it happens to be connected to your bank account. With that said, it is my choice. Let me emphasize this again loudly. Saving passwords IS MY CHOICE! Sorry for yelling, but some people just don’t listen or get this… hello Chrome, Firefox and IE, you guys (especially Chrome) need to take notes here.

So what’s this autocomplete=off business?

As a result of autocompletion, the browser creators have decided to give web site creators the ability to disable this mechanism from within their own web pages. So, when they create forms, they can add the tag “autocomplete=off” to the form which prevents the browser from storing (or offering to store) passwords or other sensitive information. This is fine if the browser would give the user the choice still. It doesn’t.

I’m fine with browsers trying to prevent stupid behavior from users, but always provide an override. Never implement features like this, however, at the expense of a frustrating and inconsistent browser experience. This is exactly what autocomplete=off does. Why? The browser doesn’t give the user control over this web page mechanism nor does it even warn of it. If the site sets this flag on their form, the browser won’t offer to store anything dealing with this form. That’s fine IF I can disable this behavior in the browser. I can’t. As I so loudly said above, this is MY choice. Make this a preference. If I want to store logins and passwords for any site on the Internet, it’s my choice. This is not Chrome’s choice or Wells Fargo’s choice or any other site’s choice. If you offer to store and save passwords, you need to let me do it under all conditions or don’t offer to do it at all. Don’t selectively do it based on some random flag that’s set without any warning to the user.

Inconsistent Browser Experience

When autocomplete=off is set on a form, there is no warning to the user that this value is set. The browser just doesn’t save the password. You have no idea why, you don’t know what’s going on. You expect the browser to offer to save and it doesn’t. This just makes the browser look broken. And, frankly, it is. If the browser can’t warn that autocomplete=off is set by the site through changing the color of the bar, flashing, an icon or some other warning mechanism (like the lock when https is in use) the user experience has been compromised and the browser is broken. This affects not only Chrome, but IE, Safari and Firefox. Yes, and this is extremely bad browser behavior. It’s also taking a step back in time before web 2.0 when the browser experience became more positive than negative. We’re heading back into negative territory here.

Browser Developers Hear Me

Not warning the user that the experience is about to change substantially is not wanted behavior. For auto-completion, we already have mechanisms to shut it off entirely. We have mechanisms to exclude sites from saving credentials. Why do we need to change the browser experience just to satisfy Wells Fargo or some other site? I’m all for letting these sites set this flag, but just like overriding bad certificates at https sites, users should be able to override autocomplete=off. There is no need to break the browser experience because you want to allow sites stop saving of passwords. No, again, hear me, it’s MY CHOICE. It’s not your choice as a developer. It’s not Wells Fargo’s choice. It’s not PayPal’s choice. It’s MY CHOICE. If I want to save passwords into my browser, allow me t0 always override this setting.

Hacks Galore

Yes, there are browser hacks available as browser extensions (Chrome or Firefox) to disable autocomplete=off on forms on sites. While these hacks work, they require updating, can break on browser updates and can be generally problematic under some conditions. No, this is an issue that firmly needs to be addressed in the core browser, not through clever browser add-on hacks. Let the sites set autocomplete=off, that’s fine. But, warn me that it’s turned on and let me override it. I shouldn’t need a hack to fix a bug in the browser.

Always Warn of Browser Experience Changes

Why am I going down on this issue so hard? Because this is a completely crappy implementation of this feature. Why? Because it breaks the user’s browsing experience without any warning. If this the page is attempting to prevent me from saving credentials, then this information should be marked clearly in the browser somewhere. Perhaps by adding a special icon to the address bar indicating that credential saving is not allowed on this site. Then, when I click that small icon, I should be able to override this behavior immediately. Again, this is my choice to store or not store passwords to the browser. There should never be any defacto security mechanisms which cannot be overridden by a user control. Never!

If the user chooses to do something stupid, that’s the user’s choice. No, it’s not a bank’s, chrome’s or any other company’s responsibility to ensure the safety of user data. It’s entirely the user’s responsibility and those choices should be completely left up to the user to decide, for better or worse.

[Update] Safari is now warning when autocomplete=off is set on a page. Safari now tells you that the site you are visiting doesn’t allow saving of passwords. Bravo to at least Apple for getting this one right.

I have also found that Firefox with the Greasemonkey plugin and this Greasemonkey script works best for completely disabling all pieces of autocomplete=off.  While the above plugins do at least allow saving passwords, the plugins don’t always allow autocomplete to work.  This means that if you want to see your credentials autopopulate into the fields on page load, you may have to use Greasemonkey instead. I have found that the Greasemonkey solution is the most complete at disabling autocomplete=off.  The reason this works is that Greasemonkey actually removes this autocomplete=off pieces from the page before Firefox renders it. The other plugins just tweak the browser to ignore the setting for password saving, but it still exists in the page source and, thus, the pieces that manage the autocomplete parts are left unhandled.  So, these pieces still don’t populate the fields.

iPad 3: First Thoughts

Posted in Apple, ipad, technologies by commorancy on March 17, 2012

So, while I originally wrote that I didn’t see the purpose in the iPad, I have since changed my tune. But, from really only one perspective: multimedia. It’s a great portable movie and entertainment device. I also use it for a replacement for pen and paper at work in meetings, for quick email reads. web surfing and I use it as an ‘in a pinch’ workstation for systems administration. These are my primary use cases. Clearly, though, watching movies and listening to music is where this device shines most. And now, taking movies and photos with the 5 megapixel camera… all I can say with the iPad 3 is, “Wow”. The screen resolution and camera are worth the price. Apple has finally created a device that, in my estimation, probably costs more to make than the price for which it sells.

If you have an iPad 1, this is definitely worth the upgrade. If you have an iPad 2, you pretty much have everything except the great camera and the Retina display. The Retina display is definitely worth the money. The lack of visible pixels definitely makes the whole iPad experience so much clearer and cleaner. This is what the iPad 1 should have been out of the gate. Had Apple pushed the envelope for the iPad 1, this device would have been so much more so much faster. Too bad it took Apple 3 tries to get it here, but we’re finally here.

WiFi only for me

I didn’t buy the 4G LTE edition. First, I don’t like the service plan costs and the limited data from the carriers. If the mobile carriers could actually be reasonable in pricing and charge rates similar to ISPs like Comcast (both price and speed), I might consider the mobile carriers. Second, the mobile carriers need to change their business models and they don’t want to do this. The whole 2 year contract commitment with capped ceilings and high overage rates is for the birds. The carriers finally need to do away with the contract model and go with a standard monthly commitment like Comcast or any other ISP on planet. Suffice it to say, I’m ranting about the carriers rather than talking about the iPad 3. See, now that’s the whole reason I bought the WiFi only edition. Everywhere I need to use it, I can use it on WiFi with no carrier hassles. I don’t have to deal with crappy carrier service, crappy rate costs, bad connectivity, stupid contracts, dead spots or any other silly carrier BS.

If I want to buy a MiFi device (which I have), I can use this to connect my iPad to the Internet, which is the best of all worlds. With a MiFi, I can use it with multiple devices, including my iPad 3, iPod Touch, my LG phone and my notebook and even my home computer when Comcast decides to have outages.

I also find the WiFi speeds are far superior to using LTE anyway, so that’s why I bought the WiFi edition. That, and it’s cheaper on the wallet, both in the iPad cost and that there’s no monthly recurring service fees.

Entertainment

The iPad 3 is definitely my entertainment device of choice (other than my 46″ flat panel display when at home). For portable entertainment, the iPad 3 is it. It is now simply the device of choice for watching movies, playing music or playing games. It is now officially the Sony gaming killer. It may not kill the Xbox, yet. But, Apple has the upper hand now. If they could woo over some big gaming companies like Ubisoft to put Assassin’s Creed on there and, at the same time, release an Apple bluetooth video game controller, this would easily become my gaming platform of choice. Perhaps even over the Xbox. Of course, Apple would need a gaming network including chat and whatnot. So, there’s some hurdles for Apple to overcome. But, the iPad 3 has the beginnings to kill the gaming market if they go after it.

For watching movies, 1080p images flow fluidly on the 2048×1536 pixel display and the images are literally stunning. There is no other portable device on the market that can do what the iPad 3 does for watching movies. The other tablets have a huge leap to make to get where the iPad 3 is for entertainment.

Now if we can get movie studios to start releasing their films in at least 2048 pixel widths on blu-ray (or even iTunes store) so we can actually take advantage of this new resolution.

Camera

Ok, so I’ll let this section speak for itself… Here’s an image I took with the iPad 3 earlier. Note, size below is 688×922. Click the image to see it full iPad 3 screen size. The fact that it produced depth of field with that tiny lens in this semi-macro shot is amazing.

I haven’t yet tried the video camera, but that’s on my list of things to try out. So far, this is a very impressive device and, for me, well worth the money. Now I need to determine what to do with my old iPad 1. It’s over a year old at this point. Amazing how technology gets obsolete so quickly. But, I got my money’s worth from the iPad 1 considering that it was mostly a gift.

If you’re on the fence about getting an iPad 3, don’t be. It’s definitely worth the money to get the resolution on the device. The camera is amazing and watching 1080p movies on it is stunning. Now if we can get Hollywood to catch up to this device and release movies in at least 2048 pixel widths, 1920×1080 seems old and outdated.

Gaming

I haven’t yet tried much gaming on the device, so this section will have to wait to be written. Suffice it to say that the iPad 3 tremendously enhances the look of all apps, though. So, games should look stunning on this display. The thing I will say, though, is that this device has tremendous potential to take over the gaming market with the right level of support.

iPhone apps

This is one thing I didn’t expect. When running iPhone apps on the iPad, the 2x scaling finally works properly. No longer does it scale up this low res tiny display and make it look all pixelated. IOS now actually scales up the fonts, buttons, text and all scalable aspects and retains the screen resolution. So, even though it’s still a small real-estate app, the 2x scaling remains high-res. So, apps from places like Redbox (who refuse to write iPad versions) finally look good when scaled up on the iPad 3. All I can say here is, impressive and long awaited.

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Verdict

The iPad 3 is definitely worth the money if nothing else than for the screen resolution. The camera is also quite amazing. The device is a tiny bit thicker and heavier than the iPad 2, so it may not fit all iPad 2 cases on the market. But, the smart cover works quite well. As well, the restore process from my iPad 1 was so smooth, automated and reasonably fast, I walked away and came back and it was done. Apple has definitely made this part of the process much much better than previous versions.

If you own an iPad 2 and are thinking of upgrading, you should stop by and play with one first. You might want to wait until the iPad 4 to get a bit more life out of your iPad 2 before discarding it. It is worth the upgrade, however, if you are an avid movie watcher.

If you own an iPad 1 or any other tablet, upgrading to this tablet is a no-brainer. The speed and power of the iPad 3 is apparent right from turning it on.

There is only one thing that Apple missed to really support this screen resolution properly. Apple should have produced a 128 (or 256) GB edition of the iPad 3. With this resolution comes much more space needed by 1080p movies. So, we really need at least a 128 GB version of the iPad 3. I’m guessing we’ll see this with the iPad 4 or possibly a refresh of the iPad 3 later this year (as it’s not really worth a full version release just to double the memory on the unit). However, if you do plan on using it for movies, you will do yourself a favor to buy the 64GB edition as you will need this space to store your movies and music. In fact, as I said, 64GB really isn’t enough for all of the movies I want to carry around with me, so for a heavy movie watcher, 64GB is definitely not enough.

Apple, if you’re reading, we want at least a 128GB model. I’d personally want a 256GB model and I’d be willing to pay the added cost for that amount of memory on the iPad.

Online ordering: Some companies just don’t get it

Posted in shopping, technologies by commorancy on December 12, 2010

In the past week, I’ve run into two different companies that obviously haven’t the first clue about running their online presence.  I’ll bet that this is just the tip of the iceberg, but there it is.

Online ordering with store pickup

Fry Electronics doesn’t get it. The point to online ordering with store pickup is to save time.  Unfortunately, using Fry’s store pickup by ordering online saves you no time.  In fact, it takes more time than just buying directly in the store and leaves more questions than answers.

I found an item on Frys.com web site that I wanted to buy and noticed they now offered store pickup.  I thought, “Great”.  So, I proceeded to place the order online.  Unfortunately, I didn’t have a profile with Frys.com, so I had to create one along with entering shipping and billing info, credit card number and various other information they required.  So, this usually takes about 5 minutes to complete.  Granted, it doesn’t take that long to enter this information, but you’ll soon see that this time was completely wasted.

So, I enter the information they require, choose my store for pickup and click ‘Place Order’ like you normally do on any e-commerce site.  So, the order is all placed, I have my receipt in hand and on the receipt it says to to remember to bring the card you used to the store.  I think, “No problem”.   I ordered after hours.  So, I knew that I would have to pick up the order the next day.

The next day I take my printed receipt with the order number to the store, like they request.  I walk into the store and ask where to pick up online orders.

First mistake

The door greeter tells me to get in line and pick up the online ordered item at any cashier in the front.  I thought, “Uh oh, this is not starting off well”.  No dedicated desk means the cashiers will be completely inexperienced in this process and, to my lack of surprise, they were inexperienced.  Anyway, I step up to the cashier and hand her the online receipt.  She proceeds to type something into the register, looks confused about something and then tells me to hold on while she goes and locates the order.

Second mistake

Twenty minutes later, after wandering around and disappearing, she finally comes back with the item in hand.  I could have wandered the store, found the item, visited a cashier and exited Fry’s in the time it took her to locate the item.

Third mistake

With item in hand, she proceeds to tell me that I need to finish paying for the order at her station.  I’m thinking, “What?”  I had thought I already paid on the Frys.com web site as I was given fully completed receipt for the order with a valid order number.  So, I attempt to validate this information and ask, “I have to pay again?  I thought I already paid on the web site”.  She proceeds to explain that it’s not actually an order but a ‘reservation’ for an item.  I asked, then why do I have to give fully detailed information (billing, shipping, credit card, CVV, etc) for a reservation?  Of course, she’s a non-native English speaker and plays dumb like she didn’t understand what I said.  So, I try to verify this again and she says that I won’t be double-charged (which is, of course, my first thought considering I had to provide my CC card info full and complete).

So, not only did they waste my time online asking for information they didn’t need to create a ‘reservation’, the cashier wasted 20 minutes trying to locate the item in the store which wasn’t picked and stored properly from my order.  Worse, after walking out of the store, I still have no idea if my card is to be charged twice.

I head home and call Frys.com to clarify what the hell went on.  I explained that what they are doing is less than clear and the whole process is time wasteful.  Every other online order with store pickup system I’ve used at other stores charges for the order online and then only requires identification to pickup at the store.  They might or might not even print a receipt.  But, you definitely don’t pay for the item in the store like Fry’s requires.

Fry’s made major mistakes in this process.  Wasting my time by making me enter all of that information, not properly picking the the item requiring the cashier to wander the store in search of the item, and then  requiring the consumer to pay at the register for an item that already appears to have been paid.  The additional mistake that Fry’s made was not having a dedicated pickup desk to handle online pickups.   There is no reason to require the consumer to stand in line for a cashier.  Online ordering with store pickup is supposed to save time.  In fact, I probably doubled the amount of time that was needed to get the item.  I would have been better off just heading to the store, finding the item and heading up to the cashiers to pay.  What a waste.

Out of stock ordering

Virgin Mobile doesn’t get it. This issue isn’t limited to Virgin mobile, it just happens to be the most recent example of this problem.  So, I decide want to buy one of Virgin Mobile’s MiFi 2200 devices.  I visit the site and try to place the item in my cart. Instead, I see a red error message that says ‘Sorry, that item is currently unavailable’.  It doesn’t say anything about being out of stock.  Just that it is unavailable (whatever that means).  Ok, here’s the issue.  If the item is ‘Out of Stock’, that’s fine.  Just tell us this.  No cryptic messages.

First Mistake

Even if the item is out of stock, but you know you’ll have more back in stock tomorrow, then take the order against the future stock.  The mistake here is that Virgin has lost a sale.  I may not come back tomorrow and purchase.  I want to purchase today.  I made the decision to purchase today.  Tomorrow I may change my mind and go with something else.  In fact, I may go with something else simply from the stupid fact that Virgin mobile wouldn’t sell it even when it’s ‘Out of Stock’.

Second Mistake

I called the sales line and the ‘sales rep’ proceeded to transfer me to the ‘Broadband help desk’.  Where they transferred my call is not an order line.  It’s a help desk / customer service portal.  No where on the line does it say ‘Press 1 for sales’.  In fact, it doesn’t mention sales anywhere on the line.  So, I press on and get through to an operator.  The first time I call, the representative on the ‘help desk’ tells me that there is web site trouble and I should order tomorrow (see Virgin Mobile first mistake above).  I call back and the second person says the item is ‘Out of Stock’ and they should have them in ‘tomorrow’.

So, I’m at a loss.  If you’re in a company selling online, an item is out of stock but you know it will be back in stock tomorrow, why would you want to prevent taking orders against that future stock?  I mean, seriously, this is stupid. Just tell the consumer when they should be back in stock.  The consumer can make the decision to wait or not.  If you prevent ordering altogether, you’re losing sales.

You would think companies the size of Fry’s and Virgin Mobile would have their act together, but they don’t.  Companies wonder why their sales suck, yet they don’t look at these convoluted processes that don’t work and that throw roadblocks in front of the buyer.  So, instead of the buyer buying, we walk away and don’t buy.

Retailers, wake up.  Just because you think a process is working for you, you need to reevaluate just how it impacts the consumer.

3D Television: Eye candy or eye strain?

Posted in entertainment, technologies by commorancy on March 12, 2010

For whatever reason, movie producers have decided that 3D is where it’s at.  The entertainment industry has tried 3D technologies in film throughout the last 40 years and, to date, none have been all that successful.  The simple reason, side effects that include eye strain and headaches.  These are fairly hefty side effects to overcome.  Yet, here we are again with a barrage of new 3D films hitting the big screen.

In answer to all of those new films actually filmed in 3D, television makers have decided to try their hand at producing home 3D technologies.  The problem with any current 3D technology is that it’s based on a simplistic view of how 3D works.  That being, each eye sees a different image.  Yes, that’s true.  However, it’s hard to provide a quality 3D experience using a flat screen with each eye getting a different image.  There’s more to 3D then that.  So, while the each-eye-sees-a-different-image 3D technology does work, it does not seem realistic and, in a lot of other ways, it doesn’t really work.

IMAX

Over the years, IMAX has had its fair share of 3D features.  Part of the appeal of IMAX is its very large screen.  You would think that watching 3D on that very large screen would be an astounding experience.  The reality is far different.  Once you don the special polarized 3D glasses, that huge screen is seemingly cut down to the size of a small TV.  The 3D imagery takes care of that effect.  I’m not sure why that effect happens, but 3D definitely makes very large screen seem quite small.  So, even though the screen is huge, were you watching the imagery as flat the 3D kills the scale of the screen.  Effectively, the screen seems about half or a quarter the size that it is when watching the same feature as flat.

Worse, transitions that work when the film is flat no longer work in 3D.  For example, fades from one scene to another are actually very difficult to watch when in 3D.  The reason is that while this transition is very natural in a flat film, this is a very unnatural type of transition in 3D.  Part of the reason for this transition problem is that the 3D depth changes confuse the senses and worsen the strain.  Basically, you’re wanting to watch 3D to make the entire film seem more real, but some creative elements don’t function properly when watching in 3D. So, that fade I mentioned makes the film appear strange and hard to watch.  While that fade would work perfectly when flat, it just doesn’t work at all in 3D.  Film makers need to take into account these subtle, but important differences.

Just like filmmakers have had to make some concessions to the HD format (every blemish and crease on clothing is seen), the same must be said of 3D features.

Velvet Elvis

Unfortunately, 3D features haven’t really come much farther along than the early adopters, like Jaws 3D.  So, the film maker employs such unnecessary tactics as poking spears at the camera or having flying objects come towards the camera or hovering things close near the camera.  It’s all playing to the 3D and not to the story.  These such tactics are trite and cliched… much like a velvet Elvis painting.  Film producers need to understand not to employ these silly and trite tactics to ‘take advantage’ of 3D film making.  There is no need for any extra planning. Let the chips fall where they may and let the film’s 3D do the talking.  You don’t need to add flying spears or having things thrown towards the camera.  If you didn’t need to do this in 2D, you don’t need to do it in 3D.

Emerging technologies

Television manufacturers are now trying their hand at producing 3D TVs.  So far, the technologies are limited to polarized screens or wearing glasses.  While this does work to produce a 3D effect, it has the same drawbacks as the big screen: eye strain and headaches.  So, I can’t see these technologies becoming common place in the home until a new technology emerges that requires no glasses and produces no eye strain.  So, for now, these television makers are likely to end up sitting on many of these novelty devices.  Worse, for the same reason the IMAX screen seems half the size, this effect is also present on Televisions.  So, while you may have that 60″ TV in your living room, donning a pair of 3D glasses and watching a 3D feature will effectively turn that huge screen into about half (or less) of its current size.  So, you may feel like you’re watching that 3D feature on a 20″ screen.

Going forward, we need a brand new paradigm shifting 3D technology.  A new technology that does not rely on glasses or polarization.  A new technology that can actually create 3D images in space rather than forcing the eyes to see something that isn’t really there.  It would be preferable to actually create 3D imagery in space.  Something that appears real and tangible, but isn’t.  Holograms come to mind, but we haven’t been able to perfect that technology yet… especially not projected holograms.  Once we have a technology on par with Star Trek’s Holodeck, then we might begin to have emersive 3D experiences that feel and seem real.

Overall

For me, the present state of 3D is novelty and produces too many negative effects.  However, because it is new, it is something that will win some support, but overall I think that people will still prefer to watch flat TV and movies because it causes far less eyestrain. So, I fully expect that this resurgence of 3D will dwindle to nothing within the next 2 years.  In fact, in 5 years time, I’d be surprised to see if any TV makers are still producing the current 3D TVs and film makers will have dropped back to flat features keying off of lack of support. Effectively, I see this 3D resurgence as similar to the failed quadrophonic technologies of 70s.

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