Dec 2005

iTunes Video Quality vs DivX

I finally found some free time this week to watch the modern Battlestar Galactica TV series, which I bought from the iTunes Music (neÈ video) Store. (As an aside, Battlestar Galactica is absolutely awexome — but that’s a whole ‘nother story).

I actually have DivX versions of the episodes that can be obtained from the usual places where people obtain DivX versions of TV episodes. I decided to buy the episodes from iTunes anyway, to see how they’d compare in quality to the DivX ones. I’m not particularly surprised to say that the quality of the iTunes videos are slightly worse than the DivX versions floating around: there are some people who are pretty damn crazy and spend weeks tweaking their DivX video encoding parameters to make them look really good. Thanks to the rabid fanbase on P2P distribution networks that demand very high video quality, you also generally find that most videos on P2P networks have been lovingly hand-tweaked and encoded quite well.

(Note: I’m using the term DivX to mean the whole plethora of MPEG-4 video codecs, such as the “real” DivX, xvid, 3ivx, etc. You can start endless debates about which codec is better than the rest for encoding particular types of motion video, and that’s not my goal here.)

However, even though the iTunes video versions aren’t quite as good quality as the DivX versions that you find floating around on the ‘net, it’s not quite that simple:

  • First, I was playing the videos on a 1GHz Powerbook G4, which may not quite be powerful enough to do decent post-processing on the H.264-encoded video. iTunes uses QuickTime for its video playback, and QuickTime is a pretty adaptable beast: if your CPU isn’t powerful enough to perform decent post-processing, it simply will make the frames look worse rather than dropping frames, even resorting to simple linear sampling to perform scaling if absolutely necessary. It’s entirely possible that the videos would look much better on a high-end computer such as a modern Athlon system or a Power Mac G5.
  • The iTunes videos were encoded at 320×240, which is much lower than typically encoded DivXs (the Galactica DivXs that I had were encoded at 640×352). This also means that the iTunes videos weren’t widescreen, for those of you lucky punks who have 16:9 screens.
  • I was playing the videos on a TV, which has a lower resolution than on a computer monitor. The raw resolution of the videos don’t make such a big difference because of this, which partially negates the last point. I should point out that the TV I was watching it on was pretty big (42”), so it’s still very easy to see encoding artefacts.
  • The iTunes videos were much more colour-accurate than the DivX versions: all the DivX encodes I’ve seen were far less saturated. (I’m sure that it’s possible to get DivX versions that are more colour-correct; I’m just going on the DivX videos that I have.) A/B’ing the iTunes video and the DivX on the TV, I’d actually say that the richer colour on the iTunes version more than compensated for the DivX’s increased resolution, and made the ‘feel’ of the video better overall. Except…
  • There were some very visible blockiness during the space combat sequences of Battlestar Galactica: outer space is quite black, and the H.264 encoder that Apple uses on its videos decided to seriously quantize the black bits and produce large blocks of visible non-colour-matching blackness. I suspect this would be less of a problem for non-sci-fi series, and this problem didn’t come up very often, but the encoding artefacts were bad enough that they did detract from the whole cinematic experience when they appeared.
  • The iTunes videos were much smaller; part 2 of the Battlestar Galactica mini-series was ~400MB for iTunes, vs ~700MB for DivX.

Overall, I was generally happy with the iTunes versions of the TV episodes except for the blockiness during the space combat scenes. It’d be interesting to play the episodes on a PC or Mac with some grunt (or a 5G video-capable iPod), and see if the blockiness disappears due to better post-processing. If it does, I’d be tremendously happy with them.

So, if it were pretty much any other TV series, I’d be pretty happy with buying them from the iTunes store, but Battlestar Galactica is looking like it’ll be my favourite hard(ish) sci-fi series ever, so I’ll probably hunt down the HD broadcasts or buy the DVDs at some point. I feel that the USD$2 per episode at the iTunes store is very well-priced, and that it’s cheap enough to sus out a couple of episodes before deciding that (a) you’re happy with the quality, or (b) you’ll chase down the DVDs because the quality isn’t good enough for you and you’re a big fan of the show.

Obviously, there are other reasons besides just technical ones in the iTunes store vs P2P debate, such as where you personally lie on the ethical compass about giving money back to the people who produce the series and the distribution houses, what your stance on iTunes’s DRMS policy is, and also the ease of buying stuff on iTunes vs the ease of searching on P2P networks. I think that the videos available on the iTunes store are a good first step in the right direction, though. Technically, though, I’m reasonably happy with the iTunes videos, and would certainly buy from the store again.


IBM Model M now in USB

For followers of the One True Keyboard, UniComp now have the IBM Model M (a.k.a. the Battleship, a.k.a. IBM 42H1292, a.k.a. 1391401) available in a USB model. Now, if only I could get some volume and eject keys, and the Command (⌘) and Option (⌥) sigils emblazoned on them…


Your Laptop LCD vs the Sun

If you’re like me and quite enjoy cafÈ-style computing, you’ve no doubt tried to use your laptop sometimes in some pretty harsh sunlight. LCD backlights just aren’t powerful enough to compete with our lovely life-giving star, so usually I have a lot of trouble reading stuff on the screen in bright sunlight.

The solution? Try inverting your screen colours, so that black comes out white, and white comes out black. You’ll be amazed just how much more readable white-on-black is in bright lighting than black-on-white, and also how little you’ll have to set your screen brightness to properly read stuff:

I don’t know if there’s a way to invert colours on UNIX systems (XFree86/X11): if somebody’s keen enough to find out and drop me an email, I’ll add the information in here. (Of course, all you hardcore UNIX geeks who run white-on-black terminals will now get black-on-white terminals instead. Ahh well, just screen invert back when you’re in a terminal I suppose!)

As an added benefit, some laptop LCDs also seem to get longer battery life when they do this. Kudos to this Mac OS X hint for the heads-up on this!



Perfume’s a fascinating book written by Patrick S¸skind; it’s set in the 18th century, and is about the story of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, a person born with an unearthly sense of smell. It’s fascinating for S¸skind’s portrayal of what’s possible when you have this incredibly keen sense that gives you so many opportunities about life that you’ve never even imagined of, from being able to smell lost pocket change from across to the room to passing through crowds undetected. I also enjoyed S¸skind’s tangents and diatribes about the secondary characters partially because the pages he spends on them adds a lot to the atmosphere, but also because plenty of it is just downright amusing.

Unusually, though, I didn’t find it find it a particularly compelling read: it wasn’t a book that made me want to keep reading to find out what happens next. I’m not saying that makes it a bad book — I think it’s an excellent read — merely that I didn’t find I had the urge to read it, which a characteristic that I usually associate with uninteresting books. However, I’m glad I did persist in reading it: the ending is clearly the peak of the book, and finally unveils the full awe of the protagonist’s superhuman scent abilities that S¸skind has been building up since the very beginning.

Recommended reading, though if you’re like me, you may need some willpower to persist to the good bits (i.e. the ending).


Star Wars, Salvatore, Vector Prime, and Knights of the Old Republic

I played the computer role-playing games Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic I and II a while ago, and KoTOR II was up there with the immortal Planescape: Torment and Fallout 2 as the best RPG I’ve ever played. They presented the Star Wars universe in a whole new light that the movies don’t even hint at; I was actually annoyed that Star Wars III was such a Steaming Pile of Sith because KoTOR I and II’s production values were just orders of magnitudes better — to the point where I felt the movies actually did some severe injustice to the Star Wars universe that it founded. If you don’t know me that well, you’ll have to take it as a given that I really don’t get annoyed with movies very often; it’s just sad to see that such a rich world full of rich characters has such a bad reputation because the movies don’t give it any depth.

(I am completely aware that this all makes me sound like a raving militant geek, by the way.)

So, as an attempt to explore more Star Wars stuff, I picked up Vector Prime, the first of the books in the series about the New Jedi Order, written by R. A. Salvatore. I really wanted to like this book, especially considering Salvatore wrote it and I respect him greatly as a fantasy author. (I’d like to remind people who think Drizzt and the Forgotten Realms are totally clichÈ, that the whole dark elf genre didn’t exist until Salvatore brought it to the greater public and RPG awareness. Even if you don’t like his characters or the setting he writes in, he still writes the most vivid combat scenes out of any author I’ve ever read.) To my minor disappointment, I thought Vector Prime was pretty average. Maybe it’s because I was unjustifiably comparing its storyline to the one I experienced when I played KoTOR II, or maybe it’s because I’ve been reading “higher” literature lately such as the Unbearable Lightness of Being, but Vector Prime just seemed to be a bit… rushed, I think. Too much happening, with not enough substance on the new characters you meet (as opposed to the portrayal of Luke, Leia, Han and Chewbacca, which were done perfectly).

You know that when you read a really good book, or (much more rarely) played an incredible computer game, you were glad you did because it added something to your life, and that you learnt something from it? Vector Prime’s plot didn’t evoke those kind of feelings. I put it in the category of good, enjoyable sci-fi, but you’re not missing out on much if you don’t read it.

So, Vector Prime’s an adequate introduction to the Star Wars universe, but for now, the Knights of the Old Republic games represent everything that’s awesome about Star Wars. KoTOR II, in particular, is to be highly commended for exploring some pretty interesting philosophical issues while working within the confines of a licensed world where the artists and storytellers were restricted in what they were allowed to do. I find it a bit of a shame that the computer games bring out the best in the genre, because books are just so much more accessible to the general public than computer games, so a lot of people just won’t experience what an excellent plot setting the Star Wars universe can be. I’d love to see a good novel adaptation of the KoTOR plot lines, but somehow I don’t think that’ll ever happen.

Long story short: Vector Prime was pretty average, while KoTOR I and II rocked. KoTOR I is much more accessible than II since BioWare are incredibly talented at writing mainstream CRPGs, whereas KoTOR II throws you in the deep end: it’s much darker and gritty, but ultimately more rewarding thanks to ex-Black Isle folks being responsible for its development. If you’re into RPGs at all, do yourself a favour and play them.


IHT on Nguyen Tuong Van

I normally don’t post about current affairs, but there’s an excellent article on the International Herald Tribune about Nguyen Tuong Van’s execution, and its effects on the minds of the Australian public, and Australia-Singapore relations:

Singapore’s dawn execution Friday of Nguyen Tuong Van, a convicted Australian drug smuggler, may ultimately raise fewer questions about Singapore’s rigorous penal code than it does about Australia’s readiness to integrate with rapidly developing Asian neighbors that do not share its views on human rights and other basic issues.

Now, back to your regularly scheduled tech blogging…