Interesting & Peculiar Products
Kaleidescape Movie Server
Sometimes when I’m feeling affluent, it’s good to be reminded that the term has many meanings. Sound & Vision certainly isn’t aimed at plutocrats. Compared to high-end stereo magazines, it’s Everyman’s publication. Which makes John Sciacca’s highly favorable review of this device (in the February/March 2004 issue) all the more amazing.
“This device” is a “system that does for movies what hard-drive storage has already done for music.” Understand the problem that’s being solved: “Why should you be forced to enjoy your DVDs in the same old 20th-century manner?...And how do you manage that library of 100, 200, or 500 titles? How do remember what movies you have or decide what you want to watch?” 100 DVDs: That’s enough to require a four-foot shelf! No wonder people are desperate for a solution! What if they had 200 books or CDs? How would they ever find what they wanted? What to do, what to do?
The solution consists of a DVD reader, a movie player, and a server. The server holds up to 12 hard disks. All the pieces connect via “Fast” Ethernet (100Mbps, not 1Gbps). The movie player connects to your TV. You load all your DVDs onto the hard disk, pulling information from a web-based database in the process, then play them from the server. The database service makes this into “a video godsend,” according to the review, because it makes “the act of selecting a movie entertaining in itself.” You can sort by actor! You can sort by genre! You can sort by director or MPAA rating! Heck, you can browse by the cover—let’s see you choose one out of 200 boring old physical DVDs by looking at covers!
Oh, and when you pause on a cover, the device gives you other titles that are “like” that one. “This sounds simple—Amazon.com does it all the time—but I found it to be phenomenally cool, and I spent lots of time with it.” Sciacca even made a game out of predicting what Kaleidescape would pick. (I suppose you could do that with Netflix, which has a great “more like this” capability—but that would miss the coolest aspect of this server, coming soon.)
Here’s what’s really cool. You get all this functionality for a mere $27,000 with enough disk space for 160 DVDs (presumably four 300GB drives). Since you spent as much as $3,200 for those 160 DVDs, this seems like a real bargain: You’re paying a bit less than nine times as much so you don’t have to alphabetize boxes and can do neat sorting. If you want to store 440 DVDs, the maximum capacity of one server, that will be $33,000. If you have two TVs, figure another $4,000 for another movie player—and, after all, a good DVD drive would cost $100 or so!
By the way, the lab tests of the unit were “slightly disappointing,” given that it emulates a progressive-scan DVD drive. Well, you know, for a mere $26,500 more than a first-rate DVD player would cost, or $23,000 more than 160 DVDs and a first-rate player, what do you expect? Perfection?
I guess I’m not really affluent after all. We own more than 70 DVDs, but so far keeping track of them hasn’t been an issue. If it was, I think I could bring myself to key the necessary information into Access or Excel so I could do all those fancy sorts. At least to save $26,000, I could!
They’ve been around for a while—PCs running Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition, designed to be the core of your home entertainment system. Some work better than others, and for dorm rooms and apartments some all-in-one systems may make good sense. But, as Michael Antonoff’s review of the Dell Dimension 4600C Media Center in the February/March 2004 Sound & Vision reminds me, they all share one or two significant problems, at least to date. Video quality tends to be underwhelming, particularly if you try to connect them to a regular TV. That’s partly due to second-rate tuner circuitry as compared to good TVs, but it’s also partly because of differences in how monitors and TVs are designed.
This review also considers downloadable movie services, in this case CinemaNow. For $3.99, Antonoff bought the right to watch Chicago as often as he wanted—over one 24-hour period (beginning when he hit Play for the first time, not when the movie started downloading). If you’re too lazy to deal with video rental stores (or you detest Blockbuster/Hollywood and have no alternatives) and if Netflix doesn’t work for you, maybe this makes sense—except for the results. “The picture was VHS quality.” Say what?
It gets worse. “Though you can pause and play, you can’t fast scan in either direction. Instead, I could only hit Replay to go back in 7-second increments or Skip to move ahead 30 seconds at a time.” Chapter selections? Extra features? Commentary tracks? Not in this digital wonderland.
It’s another hard disk-based MP3 player—but it uses Toshiba’s very small hard disk, making it a little thinner and a little lighter than Apple’s 20GB iPod, with the same capacity. It doesn’t have Apple’s superior user interface, but Wired’s “Fetish” section thinks it’s hot stuff. Of course, for a true fetishist, money is no object: “Sure, you’ll have to pay a bit more for this Japanese import, but for PC users it’s worth every cent.” Full list for the 20GB iPod is $399; competitors such as Dell’s 20GB player run $299 or less. The Gigabeat is $599: “A bit more.”
Michael J. Miller of PC Magazine thinks they’re neat—but Miller is a true gadget freak. In the same “Forward Thinking” column that discusses the $179 Fossil Wrist Net and $200 Suunto N3 “wrist top” watches, he also discusses multifunction “cell phones,” declaring along the way that “Now everyone is carrying a lightweight phone with better coverage, features, and pricing than ever.” You say you’re one of the 40% of Americans who don’t carry a cell phone at all? You’re nobody: everyone carries a multifeature phone. (I’m nobody, in case you’re interested…but you already knew that.)
Anyway, these watches work with the MSN Direct service ($9.95 a month or $59.95 a year) to “deliver several kinds of information, including national, business, international, or sports news headlines; stock prices of specific companies; and basic market indices.” You can also get calendar items sent from your desktop and receive MSN Messenger messages. They even tell the time (when they’re not providing a few characters of stuff)! Each watch has a unique ID, so you only receive the information you want—or, rather, the channels you program.
You do have to recharge the watch every two days, but isn’t it worth it to have headlines with you 24 hours a day? Miller looks forward to “getting the traffic report for a selected route.” Oh joy: Now, there’s something else for that Volvo driver who’s (mostly) in the next lane to be paying attention to instead of the road and other drivers. He’s checking his infowatch.
At least we have one more way to identify ubergeeks. These watches are seriously large, even though that yields a pretty small screen.
If Microsoft on your wrist isn’t wonderful enough, consider the Portable Media Center, “a new version of media software for pocket-size devices with 3.5-inch displays, 64MB RAM, and hard drives with capacities of 20GB, 40GB, and 60GB.” The February 17 PC Magazine commentary shows a Creative gadget, one of several soon to ship at $400 to $700.
The devices use Windows Media 9 Series and the WMA format. Microsoft claims that you can store “175 hours of video” on the 40GB device. That’s 125MB per hour, roughly one-twentieth the bitrate of professionally compressed MPEG-2 on a DVD. MPEG-2 already represents enormous lossy compression. The article claims that CinemaNow will provide “DVD-quality digital movies” for rental. Can you retain DVD quality with 5% of MPEG-2 bitrate? I don’t believe it—and every review I’ve ever seen of high-compression WMA or high-compression MPEG-4, reviewed by someone who cares more about visual quality than technology, says it’s not possible.
Of course, it may not matter: You can’t see DVD quality on a 3.5" display anyway. Take away the improbable quality claims and you may have a neato plaything, if you really feel the need to watch endless hours of video on a tiny little screen.
CorelDraw has always offered an interesting alternative to Adobe’s drawing and photo-editing program. That’s still true, with CorelDraw Graphics Suite 12—a true bargain at $400 ($179 upgrade, $99 educational version), given that Adobe’s rough equivalent is $1,200. CorelDraw 12 is an impressive illustration program with strong typographic tools (it can be used to layout publications up to 99 pages); Photo-Paint 12 has some of the best “natural media” tools for bitmapped work; and R.A.V.E. 3 offers good animation tools. The suite also includes a screen-capture utility, CorelTrace 12 to convert bitmapped images to vectors, the usual immense library of graphics and typefaces, and a few other tools. CorelDraw also supports Unicode and offers file compatibility for almost everything except the RAW digicam forma.
How good can a consumer-priced desktop flatbed scanner be? According to Daniel and Sally Wiener Grotta’s four-dot review of this $450 unit (PC Magazine 23:4, March 2, 2004), very good indeed. The scanner incorporates Digital ICE technology to reduce or eliminate dust, scratches, and tears in prints and transparency—and Epson’s new Easy Photo Fix to restore faded prints and reduce film grain. It scans in 48-bit color with 4800x9600 dpi resolution, includes a built-in transparency adapter that allows scanning of up to eight 35mm slides at once, and comes with a robust software bundle. About the only problem is that the fixed sensitivity for Digital ICE is a little low, so it doesn’t reduce scratches as much as some other models.
Which brings us to the next page of PC Magazine 23:4, where the Grottas review a $150 scanner that also supports Digital ICE. The Microtek ScanMaker 1300 is much slower (particularly with Digital ICE enabled), includes transparency support, and has a good software bundle—although it offers more mainstream resolution (4800x2400).
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