By Collin Allen

30 Minutes with Front Row

October 26, 2005

By now, Apple’s new media center application has been pulled off a shiny new iMac somewhere and uploaded for the rest of the world to fiddle with. News of its release has hit Digg, Engadget, TUAW, and others. After seeing Front Row on Apple’s site on the iMacs, I passed it off as a small little application that wouldn’t get much attention. I had to find out just how good it was, so I went and got myself a copy of it (purely for educational purposes, you see).

After the relatively painless installation, the first thing that catches your eye are the animations built into the program. Icons revolve and fly into view as Front Row opens and your desktop slips away. Though the entire interface seems to hinge upon gorgeous eye candy, it does so leaving you knowing just what section you’re in and what’s going on. Also not surprising from an Apple product, is just how uncluttered the menus are. I’d really like to see some of the ideas used in Front Row adopted in Xbox Media Center. TV-friendly oversized fonts, wispy and chime-like sound effects, and chunky interface elements all make for a great media center experience. I was truly surprised with just how slick it is, despite a number of annoying bugs – to be expected, considering it’s brand new. Overall, I’m quite impressed with what I thought would be just some cheesy little side application. How could I forget that this is Apple? Making cool stuff is what they do best.

A side note for the “Front Row hackers” out there: For some reason, taking screenshots with Command-Shift-3/4 is disabled while inside Front Row. A quick little Terminal command will let you at least time a screenshot to your needs. Enter sleep 50; screencapture ~/Desktop/front_row.png; on one line in the Terminal, and hit return. After 50 seconds, a screenshot will be saved to your Desktop as front_row.png, even if Front Row is running. Alternatively, you could SSH into your Mac from another computer (a PC, even), and call screencapture ~/Desktop/front_row.png manually to gain some timing precision.

Update: It appears that Front Row is just a shell for the other iApps. For instance, it communicates with iTunes via AppleScript and/or Apple Events. When browsing music, it creates a temporary playlist for itself to work from. I wonder why they didn’t do like other programs do, and just read out the XML Library files… To avoid re-inventing the “iWheel” and maintaining two nearly identical code bases, only with GUI differences? Questions, questions…

iPod Video Sizes

October 25, 2005

While I don’t yet have a new iPod with video capabilities, I did get to check one out at work today. Before seeing one in person, I thought the size of the screen made the device look slightly out of proportion, but when you actually hold it in your hand, it’s just right. And now I really want one.

I’m torn between the two capacity versions, 30 GB and 60 GB, so I decided to do some math to figure out what I can expect my videos to compress to. My main experiment was with an episode of “24.” When the original DVD title is dumped to disk (look at me, I’m breaking the law!), it occupies just over 1 GB. When scaled down the the iPod’s screen width, the new dimensions will be 320x180 – which, in a simple Photoshop mock-up, doesn’t look too shabby. The iPod’s aspect ratio is 3:4, and my “24” episode is 16:9. Since you will want the video to always be as wide as possible, use the width as the one measurement of the iPod’s screen, and let the vertical changes fall where they may. 320 pixels/16 width = x pixels/9 height gives the scaled height of 180 pixels. Knowing the width will always be the same 320 pixels (unless you have a video that’s taller than it’s width, which is odd), you can put the two together and get 320x180 as your 16:9 iPod video dimensions.

I used HandBrake to handle the video conversion to a constant 750 Kbps. While the hour and a half long conversion was running, I decided to figure out what my completed file size will be. HandBrake reports at the title I’m encoding is 42 minutes and 41 seconds. 42 minutes * 60 seconds/minute is 2,520 seconds, plus the extra 41. So, there are 2,561 seconds in this title, and it will be encoded at a bitrate of 750 Kilobits per second. The “bits” part is an important distinction to make, and it’s one that I try to do to at all times. Abbreviated, Kilobits is “Kbps”, not “KBps,” as “KB” with a capital B means KiloBytes – the common metric for file downloading and uploading. Since a single byte is 8 bits, 1 KiloByte is equal to 8 Kilobits. Thus, we can take the 750 Kilobits and divide it by 8 to get the (smaller) number of KiloBytes. Remember, your unit of measurement is getting larger, so the associated number must get smaller. 750 Kilobits per second divided by 8 bits gives 93.75 KiloBytes per second. This is the speed the iPod will be processing the video at, in more “friendly” units (personally, I can’t think in Kilobit sizes, whereas KiloBytes I can easily quantify). 93.75 KB per second * 2,561 seconds yields 240,093.75 KB. Divide that by 1024 (1024 KB in a MegaByte) to get the final video size of about 234.5 MB. Compressed to 320x180, the video will occupy 234.5 MB. Don’t forget to factor in the audio, which runs at 128 Kbps (resulting in about 40 MB). To store the entire compressed title, you’ll need about 275 MB. A whole season of “24” will use just over 6.5 GB on the iPod.

Or you could just use a converter of some sort. I don’t expect to store more than 15 or 20 GB of music, so I think the new 30 GB iPod will be just fine for me. I don’t think I’ll ever be in a situation where I’ll need an entire TV season on my iPod at once. More space is always better, but having done the math, I think I’ve made my choice – one my wallet will appreciate. And hopefully, this will be the most math-oriented any of my posts will ever get!

"Long Tail" Pirates

October 19, 2005

The Wall Street Journal has a great article on Jon Johansen, detailing the man behind software that, among other things, allows you to decrypt DVDs and un-protect purchased iTunes Music Store songs.

At the age of 15, Mr. Johansen wrote a computer program that allowed users to copy DVDs. Then he posted it on the Internet. A Norwegian private school awarded him a prize for making an outstanding contribution to society. The Norwegian government indicted him.

In the interview, Jon argues that “the biggest film pirates mass produce DVDs using the same equipment the industry uses, not his software program.” What about the long tail of pirates? Could the sheer volume of amateur DVD-R pirates actually outweigh the volume output by “professional” pirates that use pressing factories?

In any event, I’d like to thank Jon for his continued efforts in giving digital media rights back to the consumers, who continually get the short end of the stick from Hollywood.

Two-Wheeled Balancing Robot

October 17, 2005

Via digg, here are videos and tons of information on a skillfully engineered two-wheeled robot that can balance itself as well as drive around. An electronic gyroscope and accelerometers help orient the ‘bot and keep it upright while moving, and a separate sensor provides tilt data while it is at rest. Built by David Anderson, the balancing nBot is an impressive piece of work.

Now With Video

October 14, 2005

I hope everyone knows about the new iPods with video by now… I’ll leave the details for the hundreds of duplicate news items in your RSS reader. What can you actually do with an iPod capable of video, and how does the quality stand up?

The Unofficial Apple Weblog has a great overview of the quality you can expect from the $1.99 television episodes. The tradeoff between size and quality is about the same as you’ve come to know from the iTunes Music Store. Media is compressed enough to be iPod-portable, but not so much that the resulting file is unusable. Apple really manages to hit the sweet spot with both audio and video. For $1.99, I can easily see myself no longer rushing home from work to catch the newest “Lost” episode. While some more show selection is desperately needed, I think the video iPod (which is now the only “iPod” device in the list – you now choose from Shuffle, Nano, or iPod) will be a huge success.

Until more content is available from Apple, you may wish spend your time and processing cycles encoding DVDs for iPod use, using two of my favorite video applications, MacTheRipper and HandBrake. Or you could encode some new (HD) movie trailers to take with you, as well.