Category Archives: Reviews

Apple QuickTime is the worst H.264 codec in the world

UPDATE 10/7/2008 – Unsurprisingly, the 1080P QuickTime movies work fine on a Mac Mini!  Apple simply won’t write good Windows software.

One of the most interesting developments in the digital camera space is the convergence of HD digital video on to traditionally still cameras.  We saw this first with consumer point-n-shoot digital cameras with 720P capability and now we’re seeing professional grade cameras like Canon’s EOS 5P Mark II implement 1080P video capability.  The downside of this is that nearly all of these camera makers are adopting Apple’s QuickTime MOV format and this is highlighting the gross inefficiencies of Apple’s video playback software.

(We won’t get started on the hundreds of critical vulnerabilities in Apple QuickTime that endanger your computer)

Apple’s codec is so poorly coded – at least the Windows version – that my Intel Core 2 Duo 2.4 GHz desktop system with NVIDIA 8800GT can’t play 1080P H.264 QuickTime movies (2 samples on bottom of this page) smoothly.  Adrian Kingsley-Hughes has even told me that he gets rough playback on his high-end Intel QX9650 Quad-core desktop with ATI 3870 crossfire dual GPU.  This situation is ludicrous because it’s possible to play Blu-Ray H.264 1080P videos on a low-end dual-core computer with a low-end $35 ATI Radeon HD 3450 graphics adapter.

This just doesn’t affect 1080P video clips, it affects 720P video clips that consumers are far more likely to deal with.  Those clips do not work well on dual-core computers with integrated Intel graphics adapters.  You can forget about using an Intel Atom NetBook with 945 integrated graphics to play back 720P clips from your point-n-shoot camera smoothly and you can forget about using typical desktop systems with common Intel integrated graphics.

Interestingly, the 3rd party QuickTime Alternative DOES indeed play these 720P clips smoothly on low-end systems and 1080P clips on dedicated discrete graphics systems, but the audio does not work.  I’ll try to email the QT Alternative developers to see if they can fix this.

Meanwhile, Adrian will run a test on his Mac Mini to see of the Mac version of Apple Quicktime is equally incompetent.  I would not be surprised if it turns out to work well because Apple likes to point out the inferiority of the Windows platform by personally ensuring it to be true.  Apple for example criticized Windows for being virus prone only to prove it by shipping a Windows virus with the iPod.  Apple criticized Windows for being bloated with Crapware only to prove it by shipping iTunes.  We’ll have to see what Adrian finds on his Mac Mini.

Initial impression of the Lenovo X200

I just got my Lenovo X200 12.1″ ultra-light laptop yesterday in the mail and here are the options I got.

  • 6-cell battery (9-cell option)
  • 7200 RPM 160 GB hard drive
  • 2 GB RAM
  • Intel P8600 45nm 2.4 GHz CPU
  • No Camera or Mic in the lid this particular version
  • Bluetooth and Fingerprint reader
  • Intel Wi-Fi 5100 802.11 AGN
  • Vista Business license with XP Pro preloaded

Buying mistakes you might want to avoid

I paid $1400 including shipping for the above specs and didn’t get the 9-cell because of the 2-week delay and I figured that I’ll eventually order a second battery anyways.  If I had to order again, I would have waited an extra week or two for the cheaper model for $1175 including shipping.  7200 RPM 250 GB hard drives are only about $100 and I would have ordered a 9-cell for about $180 to complement the 4-cell that comes with the cheapest model.

I might have been better off just ordering from and paying the California sales tax because then I would have at least gotten a Microphone and Webcam.  Sure I have much better external mics and cameras, but having integrated ones is still good to have because it’s convenient.

The good:

  • Make no mistake, this is a road warrior’s machine
  • Intel Centrino 2 platform
  • 2.4 GHz 45nm Penryn class processor slaughters the 65nm processors in the MacBook Air or other previous generation Centrino laptops with sub 2 GHz processors.  Despite the fact that this is a 25W TDP processor, its 45nm process makes it competitive with the 20W TDP 1.6 or 1.8 GHz 65nm processor in the MacBook Air in terms of power consumption.  The battery drain tests I’ve seen on the X200 are even beating laptops with Ultra Low Voltage 10W TDP 1.33 GHz CPUs!  2.4 GHz is not only a much higher clock speed, but you get SSE4 capability which doubles the performance of certain operations like video encoding.
  • Integrated AT&T 3G or Verizon 3G wireless Internet option with 3G antenna built in to the display lid
  • Integrated BlueTooth makes tethering to an Internet connected phone fairly convenient
  • Glare-free and very bright 1280×800 display
  • Bright enough to run at mid-level brightness even in brighter room
  • Great price for this class of machine.  Most 12.1″ notebooks in this class are much more expensive.
  • Full size keyboard just like the 14″ ThinkPad models
  • Great battery life even with 6-cell, outrageous battery life with 9-cell
  • Light weight

The bad (or good depending on how you see things)

  • My only major disappointment is that the larger 6-cell battery extends down instead of to the back.  I hope the 9-cell extends back and down so that it doesn’t get any thicker than it already is.
  • Some people would fault it for the lack of a track pad and/or optical drive, but I personally don’t care for either item.  I prefer the track point anyways and DVDs and videos can be ripped to the hard drive or better yet, played off the SDHC card so you can let the hard drive rest.
  • Some people might find the dull harsh machine look of ThinkPads ugly and maybe it is, but the surface isn’t slippery and doesn’t put glare in your eyes.  It’s nowhere near as pretty as a Mac Air, but all the ports on the side are way more practical.
  • Would have been nice if an HDMI port was included.


The bottom line is that I can recommend this computer for highly mobile professionals who want a powerful yet light and affordable notebook.

I’ll be posting some more test results tomorrow on battery performance and tweaking.

Why the new Sony FW series laptop fails miserably

I started off as the proud new owner of a brand new Sony VGN-FW140E notebook with the latest processor and chipset, but happiness turned to severe disappointment as the flaws rolled in one after another.  The notebook looks deceptively sleek and cool when it’s actually quite bulky with a 16.4″ LCD display, but that’s not one of the many reasons it failed.

The first problem with this laptop is that the display is so glossy that I could literally shave myself it in.  Take it in to any semi bright room with a window or bright lights and it’s basically worthless because you can barely see a thing.  I have no idea why laptop manufacturers keep putting out glossy displays but this particular laptop was particularly horrendous.

The second problem with this laptop is the buggy drivers.  The HDMI audio drivers for example simply refused to install on a fresh install of Windows Vista Ultimate Edition 32-bit claiming that it only installs on Windows Vista (don’t know how much more Vista I can get).  Clearly Sony has not tested this driver.  The other problem was the panel button drivers which disabled Vista UAC and rebooted and then installed itself.  I re-enabled UAC after Vista warned me and then all hell seemed to break loose with these drivers.  Vista now complained about a missing battery (strange considering the fact that it has power to warn me) and dropped me in to hibernate mode.  You boot up again and same thing happens again and I had to do a system restore to put the computer back to the ways things were before I installed those drivers.

The third problem is this laptop’s hardware.  The battery simply stops charging after a few minutes whether it’s in suspend mode or whether it’s powered on.  When you first plug the power cord in, the battery indicator in the task tray charges but it stops in a few minutes.  Even after leaving the laptop plugged in all night long, it refused to charge the battery.  I think the only way to charge the thing is to completely shut down and I’m still not sure if that will work.

The verdict on this laptop is that it’s a miserable failure because it belongs in a lab somewhere as a beta product and not as a production product.  It’s going back to Fry’s where I bought the machine at a discounted $899.  It’s not that the laptop is a complete design failure, it simply needs a lot of work to hammer out the flaws.  The camera and microphone worked fairly well, the inclusion of an HDMI port was a welcome entry, and the discounted price was reasonable for a high-end laptop.  But until these issues are worked out and the LCD replaced with something that works in a bright room, it’s a nonstarter for me.

Moving forward, I just bit the bullet and ordered a real road warrior’s laptop the Lenovo X200 12″ ultra-mobile laptop for around $1120 (need to order 9-cell battery extra) which got a fairly impressive review (especially the 6+ hour DVD playback drain test and CPU performance).  I was very tempted to go with an Asus 1000H NetBook at only $450 but I really wanted a high performance ultramobile with the Intel 45nm P8600 2.4 GHz CPU.

Plantronics MX500i 3-in-1 headset has superb sound

Finally I’ve found the one headset I’ve been looking for that can serve as a PC headset and a handset/mobile phone headset.  I was pleasantly surprised by the Plantronics MX500i 3-in-1 VoIP Headset.  I figure at an MSRP retail price of $60, it had to be good but it was even better than I though.  You can actually get it for $38 including shipping.

The MX500i 3-in-1 is a product that has both a 2.5″ headphone plug that plugs in to most regular cordless telephones and a USB adapter that plugs in to any computer.  I’m happy to report that both operating modes worked superbly and the ear design works well and isn’t unwieldy.

I’ve had plenty of disappointments with USB or BlueTooth headsets which almost always seem to be limited to narrowband applications because they would only support 8 KHz digital sampling.  The Polycom Communicato C100S continues to be my favorite USB speaker phone solution ($100) can support 22 KHz digital sampling and it supports wideband applications such as Skype or Counterpath‘s software-based SIP phones which support G.722 wideband codec (see this article on an explanation of wideband codecs).

Hoping the Plantronics MX500i would at least match the Polycom’s capability, I was pleasantly surprised that it even supports up to 48 KHz digital sampling.  In fact it was louder and clearer than the Polycom Communicator speakerphone and I would dare say that it sounds about as clean as a studio microphone though it’s probably a little more constrained in dynamic range to filter out noise.  Here is an uncompressed WAV sample I recorded for you to check the quality.

If I had to give it one criticism, I would say that the USB adapter and headset along with all the cabling combined is a little harder to tidy up and travel with than the Polycom Communicator which tucks everything in to a neat little package.  Then again, the Communicator costs more than double the money and its sound quality while the best for a USB speakerphone can’t compare to this high quality headset.

So in conclusion, I would say this is an affordable solution that sounds even better than the Polycom Communicator though the Communicator is still useful for hands-free and ear-free operation.  If you’re looking for something in the $40 range or you’re looking for the best call quality, the Plantronics MX500i is for you.

Review of the Mitel 5340 IP Phone

Mitel 5340 IP telephoneI recently had the opportunity to take a look at one of Mitel’s latest devices, the 5340 IP telephone with an integrated Sun Ray 2 client. The device is part of their push towards unified telecommunications with the Mitel Unified IP client for Sun Ray. What is interesting to me about this phone is the linkages between the phone and the Sun Ray system, and the way that they have leveraged each device.

Setting up the unit was easy. In line with “typical business usage,” I did not look at the instructions at all, I simply started to plug up cables. My only stumbling block was trying to figure out why they seemed to give me an “Ethernet pass-through brick” that connected to power and at the same time why the phone would not come on. After a minute, I realized that the “Ethernet pass-through brick” was a PoE module; plugging that in got the device up and immediately usable. From there, it was 100% intuitive. Desktop support specialists can roll these devices out as fast as any phone. When the Sun Ray session started, it automatically detected my monitor resolution. Mitel let me know that the Sun Ray session needs to be restarted to adjust to a different monitor resolution if a differently sized monitor is connected, but other than that, moving to a different workstation if needed is a breeze.

The phone itself is a handsome unit in line with similar units that I have used. There were a few features which really stood out. The first item was the handset itself; the unit came with a cordless handset which included buttons for hang up, volume, and mute. The fact that it was a cordless handset was a pleasant surprise. My testing showed that it had a pretty reasonable range and solid voice quality; I could exit the building and walk over hundred feet down the road before I noticed any breakup. One thing that would be nice, is if the handset allowed the plugging in of a headset with a 2.5 mm jack; on the other hand, serious “phone warriors” probably already have a cordless headset that they are hooked on, so the cordless handset here is just gravy. The cordless handset can be programmed to connect to a central “switchboard” to perform dialing by voice, even though it does not have a keypad on it. 

The phone was quite usable, especially in comparison to other office phones that I have used. There are only a few buttons on it other than the keypad, and the marking on them make sense. When the “mute” button is used, it is quite clear that the phone has been muted (a bright orange light comes on). Transferring calls and performing conference calls is intuitive; anyone who has fumbled for ten minutes and dropped the conference call five times knows the pain that many of the phones have in using those two features! Accessing voicemail, establishing call forwarding, and so on was also extremely easy. Best of all, the on-phone help was simple to use, accurate, well worded (in plain, short text), and had depictions of the needed buttons that made it easy to follow along. Over all, I like the phone.

The Sun Ray is a thin-client terminal made by Sun. It has the ability to connect to UNIX, Linux, and Windows servers through various terminal systems, including X and Windows Terminal Services. The Sun Ray has a slot for an access card; plugging the card into the unit tell it which server to connect to, and automatically logs you into your phone as well. With the “Hot Desk” system, you do not need to log out of the system at all, you just pull the card and walk away. When you put the card into another phone, your session starts up quite quickly (under 5 seconds in my testing) and everything is exactly as you left it. Even better, your phone settings follow you. I was given two access cards, one for a user with a Windows account, and one for a Linux user. The only trouble I had with the cards was the time I put it in backwards, the Sun Ray 2 unit did not seem to notice that a card was put in incorrectly.

The Sun Ray 2 itself worked great. I tested this device from my home office. I spend a lot of time using Real VNC and Remote Desktop from my home office, and the Sun Ray 2 blew them away. Period. Mitel set me up with a Windows account and a Linux account (X term to a Cent OS server). The Windows machine ran at my full monitor resolution (1650 x 1050) at 16 bit color, and felt as responsive as a directly connected computer. What makes this even more amazing is that my connection is a cable modem connection, and their offices are located in Canada while my office is in South Carolina. That distance usually introduces enough latency so that you can “feel” it, but I did not notice it at all. Outside of that, the experience of using the Sun Ray 2 is strictly up to how the server on the other end is set up, so your mileage will vary.

It sounds good so far, the but phrase “thin client computing” always seems to raise string emotions. My experience has been that in some environments, for some workers, thin clients of this nature make perfect sense. I spent much of my time working in a call center, for example; in that call center, I really wished we had thin clients and not desktop PCs. Handling a shift change in a call center either involves a 15 Ð 30 minute period of having reduced staffing levels as some users close their day out and others get ready, using the same PCs, or it requires having twice as many PCs as the largest shift has employees and paying people overtime to come in early to set up. Either way, it is a lot of money. A great many workers do not do anything particularly resource intensive, yet the IT department has put an 80 watt space heater on their desk (which in turn needs the air conditioning to be working hard), just to use Word, Outlook, and Internet Explorer. The Sun Ray 2 unit uses under 10 watts of power, which can provide a significant cost savings on the client side, and server rooms are much easier to make energy efficient than desktop environments. And of course, a thin client scenario centralizes and consolidates storage/backups, allows the It department to “lock down” the system, eliminates concerns of removable storage, and so on. Thin clients are not for everyone, but they can be the right solution in some scenarios.

Unfortunately, I was not able to evaluate the server-side half of this equation, or the setting up of the access cards. But I can say that I am impressed with the performance of the device on my end. If you are in an environment with existing thin client users, or are looking to transition users to thin clients, the Mitel Unified IP client for Sun Ray packages are definitely worth your time to look at.


Book Review: ISA Server 2006 Unleased

For the last few months, I have been working with ISA Server 2006 in our corporate network. Before I got started, I purchased a copy of ISA Server 2006 Unleashed by Michael Noel, published by SAMS Publishing. I was hoping that this book would be a valuable asset in working with ISA Server, particularly since Tom Shinder has not updated his ISA Server 2004 book. This book missed the mark, and badly.

For me, I have a persistent problem with IT industry books. I have this ability, as many people have, to read the directions on the screen. Furthermore, I understand enough of the principles of whatever I am doing to not need a basic primer on every minor detail. Put simply, if I don’t understand what I see on the screen, I can look it up. So my needs from a book are to tell me things that I are not on the screen.

This particular book, like many other IT books, is rarely more than a screen-by-screen walk through of ISA Server. And that is disappointing to me. I don’t need a book telling me, “on this screen, enter the directory that you wish the application to be installed to.” Thanks, but I figured that out when it said, “where do you want the application to be installed?” What I need is a book that contains answers to my questions. Instead of saying, “these are your three choices” I need to know the pros and cons of the choices. When something goes wrong, or not as expected, I need to be able to turn to the book and get an authoritative answer instead of having to spend hours on search engines. And this book simply does not meet my needs.

If you are looking for an introduction to ISA Server 2006, or want to explore its feature set without having to install it, this is a good resource for you. But if you are actually working with ISA Server 2006, and need something more in-depth, you’ll want to pass. A much better title for this book would have been ISA Server 2006 Walkthrough.


Isn’t this Phun?

A few months ago, I discovered a neat little toy/edu-game/app called “Phun“. I have to say, it really lives up to it’s name! The gentleman who put this together is named Emil Ernerfeldt as a Master’s Thesis. I’ll tell you, give this guy his MA today, he’s earned it. The shop that picks him up post-graduation will get someone who not only knows how to code, but someone who knows how to put a piece of software together that is enjoyable to use, has an intuitive interface, is practical, and at the same time, provides a sandbox for educational exploration.


Cool open source HDR (High Dynamic Range) Imaging software

Qtpfsgui has got to be one of the coolest applications I’ve seen in a while.  It’s a free open source HDR (High Dynamic Range) imaging application that anyone can download and use for free.  It’s similar in feature to Photomatix (very nice image samples here) which is a commercial HDR imaging application.

I played with Qtpfsqui by using my RAW images to fake the input sources by manipulating the F-Stop on the RAW images.  Normally you need 3 photos with low, normal, and high exposure but I generated that from my RAW image taken back in 2006 by outputting -1.5, 0, and 1.5 F-Stops.  It’s obviously not as nice as having 3 actual photos but it’s not easy to take a still from the same person 3 times without the object moving and most of the time you only have one RAW image.  Obviously it’s also not possible to go back in time and retake the image.

So the bottom line is that you can bring out the shadows and the highlights of images at the same time and the results can look pretty stunning.