Monday, October 8, 2012

Adventures in Upgrades

On Apple Upgrades & Refreshes...

I've learned a few things about owning Apple products.  The first and foremost is that you will likely be sinking some cash into them, especially if you want to stay "current". I'm stating the obvious and it's no surprise to anyone, and is an often cited reason as to why one should stick with what the other guys offer. Yes, I am learning by experience. Jason Follas (and most of my Microsoft friends and colleagues) warned me ahead of time, and even made fun of me for going with an iPhone and told me I'd regret it! But I am still glad I took the plunge, so Nyah! But.. while I may be out of some cash, I am also a bit wiser, and certainly not a rampant fanboi. And the reality is that the "other guys" aren't much better off, and are starting to borrow the same tricks from Apple anyway.

Even so, when I contemplate any future Apple purchase, I think about a few things:

1) Is it really worth the extra $$ to stay with Apple (better design, features, etc)?

2) Is Apple still the best option for what I am doing (will a hammer get the job done)?

3) Am I going to get really irritated when a new Apple product comes out and feel like I have to abandon what I have to get the latest thing? Especially in light of compatibility with other devices in the eco-system (eg Apple TV)?

When it comes to the more mainstream consumer devices like iPads and iPhones, I now get a little bothered. When I purchased an "original" iPad, I was quickly told by Apple that I needed to get the latest and greatest one. That message is now being reinforced by the things that I can't do with it (such as share it on my Apple TV).  Apple has stopped rolling out IOS updates for it. My iPhone 4 doesn't get Siri (not that I'd use it anyway, but it's the thought that counts), and after a year of heavy use at work, it requires an external battery case because I can't replace the internal battery like I have with my Android personal phone. And don't even get me started on the new connector for the iPhone 5...  I'm quickly concluding that the sweet spot for hanging on to Apple gadget technology is maybe 1 year, or whenever the "next one" comes out.  This is particularly true on the gadget end of the spectrum (phones, tablets, etc).  I guess it wouldn't be a stretch to say I find the rapid refresh cycle a bit irritating.

However, my rant not withstanding, one should also consider the alternatives. Google gives no incentive for devices to be upgraded.  Need a new OS? Wait for your hardware provider (and possibly carrier) to make it available. That's assuming it will even be made available... most likely not.  Blackberry is no longer relevant. What is left? Microsoft- and I think the market is big enough for them to finally pay attention and get a good product out. Windows Phone 7/7.5 was a flop (less than 1% market share?), but I think Windows Phone 8 may stand a chance (the old saying goes- never buy the first version of a Microsoft product).

Let's get back to the upgrade topic.  Fortunately, the refresh fares a little better for laptops. I know several people that are using machines 3-4 years old and still quite happy with them. However, similar to the gadget end of the market, Apple TV integration is not available on any Macbooks older than the 2011 models. There really isn't any technical reason for this that I'm aware of. Apple takes every chance it can get to "encourage" one to upgrade.

Despite this planned obsolescence, I keep pumping cash into my Macbook Pro because I think it is worth paying a premium to have a good experience for video, photo, etc and a machine that is very solid. Yes, that is worth the price of two mediocre PC laptops. I've had absolutely no problems with my hardware to date, while my wife's old ASUS with Windows 7 has been relegated to my daughter's gaming rig because of malware, virii, and blue screens that lead me to to reformat twice (and, it won't upgrade to Windows 8- it locks up during the install, consistently).  My MBP has never experienced a lock up or "gray screen" (similar to blue screen on PC), especially while I'm in the middle of editing video footage.  In other words, the answers to my first 2 questions above continue to be "Yes" in the context of my laptop. The answer to the third question is a tad bit trickier.  When it comes to the MBP, I would still say that I am happy with what I've got even with the latest models- and a big reason for that is because Apple chose not to release a 17" model.  The retina screens on the latest MBP models are really slick, but I don't feel that it's worth trading the 17" screen for. It also comforts me knowing that if and when I do decide to go to the newest, I should be able to get some nice residual value for my current machine. A colleague has a 3 year old 13" machine and is considering selling it- appears to be going for ~$900 on the used market (I think he paid $1500 for it).

MBP Upgrade

I recently decided to go the SSD route. A big reason for the upgrade was because I happened to win a sizable gift card through Ben's Bargains, which is a deals web site that I frequent. The reasoning for the SSD was mainly due to my video hobby. Video files can get extremely large (and thus time consuming when transferring around), so upgrading to an SSD should have some great impact in terms of getting a faster read/write.  How much faster?  For me, my Seagate Momentus SSD hard drive was getting about 100 MB/s.  (On a side note, the Seagate was the first "upgrade" that I did, as the original drive included with the Apple was around 50 MB/s.  Disk is BY FAR the slowest part of the system, and anything you can do to increase it will not go unnoticed.) The new SSD that I purchased is the 512MB OCZ Vertex 4.  It has a 5 year warranty and claims to have one of the fastest IOPS rates of drives in the market today. It even came with a sticker that said "My ssd is faster than your hdd" so it must be great! :)  In all seriousness, it blew my socks off- I am now getting over 400 MB (yes, that's MB) / second.  That's a 4x increase. Final Cut now opens in less than 5 seconds, whereas before I could grab a cup of coffee, come back, and still see the plugins loading up. Word, Excel, Powerpoint etc all load instantly-- I can click each icon on the doc, and they load as fast as I click.

In addition to the SSD, I put an order in for 16 GB of RAM this past weekend. It wasn't so much because I needed it, it was more since my wife's MBP was choking on 4GB.  Instead of buying 8GB for her, I thought I should spend the additional $30 ($80 total...) to upgrade mine to 16GB, and move my 8GB to her machine. The only reason her machine started choking on the 4GB was because I decided to install Sophos on it.  October is cyber-security month and our IT department recommends anti-virus software even for the Mac's, and the only free one I could find worth it's salt was Sophos.She went from 1.5 GB free to less than 50MB free after installing- what a hog!  To date we've not had any issues with virii, but Mac's are becoming more of a target- I think 20% of PC's sold today are Mac's now. Better safe than sorry.

Notes on the Upgrade Cycles

In conclusion, I am a little wiser than I was a few years ago. I started my adventure blog about a year ago and I am still happy about making the switch, at least for multimedia use. In my mind, the upgrade cycle it's a lot like flying first class:

iPad, iPhone = domestic first class. Nice, but not going to do it every flight (upgrade).
Macbook Pro = international first / business class.  Very nice, very expensive, fortunately I don't have to fly International all that often.

I'll end this Mac Adventure on a final note that might make the late, great Steve Jobs a bit unhappy:  I'm willing to give Microsoft another try, at least for my personal phone. And even if Windows 8 is dead before it arrives, I'll at least be able to play my Zune Pass music on something other than my Zune HD :)

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Canon XF100 Plunge

A while back I posted an entry about some upcoming multi-media projects. I wanted to provide a follow up. I shot my last wedding on my JVC GZ-HD7 this past June.  After a few weeks of editing in post (using Final Cut Pro 7) I was pretty happy with the final product and handed it over to the bride, groom and their respsective family. There were some things that I wish could have been better- namely the lighting and audio levels of the actual wedding ceremony. The JVC camera does not have an audio level setting, and the low light has always been an issue.  As I previously mentioned, the camera also decided to blow out a couple of pixels- which is also a known JVC issue. After a little magic in FCP things got cleaned up as good as I could get them.  The important thing is that the bride and groom were happy- and that's what ultimately matters!

A lot of professionals will tell you that it's not the tools that get in your way- and that you can do a lot with them before you buy new equipment.  While that is certainly true (and disclaimer: I am not a professional, but I play one on TV) my experience dictates that gear can help make a decent photographer / videographer a much better one. For the past few years, I was convinced that I just needed to learn how to handle my camera better and that I'd get better results. There was a lot that I had to ramp up on, especially around manual settings, composition, lighting, etc.  But once you are armed with the basics and have a decent base of experience to pull from, a great tool will help you get much better results.  In my experience, both my Digital Rebel and JVC camera were limiting factors. I needed a higher ISO to get usable pictures for indoor photography (which the 7D greatly helped with- 3200 iso with no apparent noise on the 7D, vs. 800 iso on the Rebel with plenty of noise).  Once I did this, my pictures had the professional look I was trying to get indoors. Similarly, the JVC had the aforementioned problems and caused a lot of extra work.

So in early August, I finally decided to pull the trigger and order the Canon XF100.  This is the closest thing to a "professional" level video camera that I've ever owned. From a professional perspective it is considered lower end, but for someone like me who does this semi-pro/ part time it is a huge improvement and offers great functionality that you just can't get in a consumer grade camera. The first day that I got it home and played with it I was able to shoot video like I never had before.  The focus ring was very intuitive and I was able to easily change focus close up / background.  The JVC had this capability but it was difficult to use effectively. Conversely, the lcd screen on the Canon XF100 was good enough to see the focus and manipulate it.  You can view my first shots on my smugmug site.  Perhaps the best thing about this camera is the 4:2:2 color space / chroma sub sampling.  This is a huge pro feature-- and as far as I know, isn't available on consumer cameras. What this means is that the original uncompressed video signal is marginally reduced when it is stored- meaning there is little to no visual difference.  For a good technical explanation, check wikipedia.  Many consumer grade cameras (and even many semi-pro)  are using 4:2:0 which is 1/2 the horizontal resolution, 1/2 the vertical resolution of the original signal. It also tends to result in more artifacts.  4:4:4 is the "ultimate" subsampling, because it's the original signal.  I believe most of the 4:4:4 cameras start around $10,000 and are typically much more (such as the RED Scarlet X). Technical features aside- after using this camera for a few months I feel that it's been worth the investment and have been much happier with the end result.

In the spirit of Mac Adventures, I'd also like to talk about my experience with it on the Mac so far. It has been a good camera and works very well with Final Cut Pro 7.0.3. I've managed a few HD projects so far- including one that was about 25 minutes of footage (our pastor's 25th anniversary). Things went really well and, apart from a few odd things (such as an mp3 having some audio clipping in one spot that I just couldn't get rid of) I was happy.  I blame the issues on my upgrade to OS X Mountain Lion mid-way through the project.  On a related note, I learned that Canon doesn't officially support the XF Utility on Mountain Lion- which is the tool that imports the video from the CF card to your computer. They have been slow in rolling out an updated version, which is due in October. Fortunately, since I did an upgrade and already had the CF utility installed, things still work fine for me.  However, if I were to try and do a fresh install I'd be out of luck, since the software installer doesn't let you continue if you are running Mountain Lion.

I'm looking forward to getting a lot of mileage out of the XF 100. I've got a lot of soccer footage that I'm pulling together of my oldest daughter and her team- plan on surprising everyone at the end of the season with a video. This camera really pushes the limits on my MBP- so I've got some "future upgrades" planned, which I'll be blogging about very soon.