Friday, May 22, 2009

Corel's WinDVD 9 Plus--is more really better?

"G.I.G.O." is a pearl of wisdom I've heard from engineers my entire three and a half decades in radio. In other words..."garbage in, garbage out".

In audiophile circles, this sentiment is expressed something like this: information that's not picked up at the source can't be reproduced at the speakers. If it's not picked up by the microphone (phono pickup, tape head, recording device), then it's lost...forever.

In motion pictures and television, this could be extrapolated to something like "if the camera doesn't capture it, you can't see it on the screen!" It seems obvious enough. But no more! A fascinating area of perceptual science has suddenly, over the last couple of years, yielded startling fruit. We CAN now see more detail than was captured on the original film (or tape, or disc), and even more startling, we CAN see moving images with greater MOTION resolution that was captured by the camera. Don't believe me? I DON'T BLAME YOU! But I challenge you to try a trial version of "WinDVD 9 Plus" from Corel on your favorite film-based, standard definition dvd, with "All2HD" enabled, and "Digital Natural Motion" set to "Best Quality". Suddenly detail that you didn't think was there "SNAPS" into sharp relief...the "magic" of truly excellent "upscaling" (converting the 720 x 480 lines of a DVD into up to 1920 x 1080, or "1080p" resolution") YES it works, and makes standard "def" material look damn close to that shot in "High Def".

But amazing as the increased apparent resolution is, it's the extra resolution of MOTION made possible by the "Digital Natural Motion" that will likely make your jaw drop, as it did mine. We're all used to the "look" of film...and it can be quite glamorous in it's beauty. But the film "look" also includes artifact-ridden motion "judder" caused by the low frame-rate of only 24 frames per second. Live TV, or programming originating on videotape has always had smoother-looking motion, because the frame-rate for video sources is 30 frames per second (actually 29.970, but 30 is close enough for our sake). So why not just run film cameras at 30 frames per second? Well, there's the installed base of projection equipment that runs only at 24 fps. But more than that, people are used to the look of film, and many think the motion artifacts give film extra "character".

So what does WinDVD's "Digital Natural Motion" do? It takes the 24 frames of film-based material, and creates EXTRA frames, up to the refresh-rate of your monitor. If your monitor is set at 60hz (as most are these days), that's an extra 36 frames-per-second. These extra frames are generated "on-the-fly". WinDVD looks at where objects are in one "real" film frame, and the next "real" frame, then creates extra frames at evenly-spaced distances between the two. In other words, you actually see increased motion resolution that WAS NOT captured by the camera. The startling thing is, IT LOOKS REAL! ALL motion on-screen looks SO MUCH SMOOTHER! Is it accurate? HELL NO! And as a purist, you'll have to wrestle with this, as I did. Somehow the "judder" of 24fps film contributes to our distance from what we see reminds the brain "this is not real, it's a movie". Remove this restruction, let motion flow (apparently) as freely as in real life, and "HOLY SHIT BATMAN", the results are, well, STARTLING!

Is there a price to be paid for tinkering with our movies in this way? As Sarah Palin might say, "YOU BETCHA!" Sometimes there are artifacts. Somteimes the smooth motion will "stutter" for a fraction of a second (this is rare). And the technology is REALLY "caught with it's pants down" on material that's SUPPOSED to be "jumpy"...such as sudden slow-motion scenes in films, where the frame rate drops to just a couple of frames per second. "Digital Natural Motion" can go quite insane trying to make what essentially is intended to look like a series of stills look "smooth". Usually these artifacts are obvious only in direct comparison, but they're certainly there. Big deal. It's not perfect!

Using these enhancements in WinDVD will result in your looking at films in an entirely new way. Cinematographers will likely be outrated, as will film purists. But I'll bet even they would find this technology addictive in the long-run. It brings the viewer closer to what was in front of the lens, though not necessarily closer to what was intended to be captured on film. I know in my heart that what I'm seeing on my screen doesn't look at all like what the director and cinematographer saw on theirs. And usually I just don't care.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

RadioTime Red Button

I am a radio addict. I've worked in radio for 35 years, but I've listened my whole life. There are certain programs I JUST CAN'T MISS! And for the last couple of years, I've never had to. Because I leave Radiotime's "Red Button" running in the background all the time.

Radiotime's "Red Button" knows when my favorite shows are on, and captures them to my computer's hard drive. So I NEVER miss "A Prarie Home Companions", "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me", "Mountain Stage", "Whadya' know?", "The Tech Guy" with Leo Laporte, or other tech shows by people like Kim Komando and Dave Graveline.

I've tried other recording programs like "Replay AV" from Applian Technologies and "Total Recorder". Both are excellent at certain tasks, but both are far more complicated to set up than "Red Button". Which increases the likelihood that I'll miss my shows. And both are much bigger "resource hogs", so I wouldn't dare leave them running all the time...which also increases the likelihood that I WILL MISS MY SHOWS! Or I would. But with "Red Button" running, I NEVER miss a show. It's the best 29.95 I ever spent. If you're a dedicated program listener, you simply must try this software! There's even a free trial.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Overclock your EEEPC

I have just successfully "hacked" my Asus EEEPC 4G. Actually it's the latest of several "hacks"...I've managed to install XP Service Pack 3, despite the fact that it doesn't officially "fit" the 4GB internal memory. I did this by (another hack) moving Windows Temp files to the 8GB SDHC card that's permanently installed in the card slot.

Wishing to watch Netflix movies on my EEE, I also moved the temp files for Internet Explorer to my SDHC card (Netflix streaming movies require GIGABYTES of temp room for "buffering").

One of my complaints about the EEE has been that, as delivered, it really doesn't have enough power for flash-based video sites like Hulu...which makes "videos" look more like a slide show (it can, however, play most any video FILE...avi, wmv, mov). Which explains my latest "hack". I downloaded a utility called "EEECTL" from

NOTE: OVERCLOCKING IS POTENTIALLY DANGEROUS...especially if overdone and without the precautions discussed, and VOIDS YOUR WARRANTY! OVERCLOCKING CAN TURN YOUR COMPUTER INTO A PAPERWEIGHT! The faint of heart should stop reading NOW!

EEECTL is an executable program, which will need to be started every time you use it. A good thing, as you don't want to overclock your "little buddy" when reading e-mail, or "surfing"...that's just running the battery down quickly for no good reason. Once started, right-clicking the icon in the task bar allows you to adjust the clock speed to "stock" (601mhz), "medium" (828mhz), and "Full" (900mhz...the actual rated speed of the EEE's Celeron processor). Other adjustments are "FAN" (set to "100 percent" when overclocking!), and "Screen Brightness" (this can REALLY brighten the the cost of lots more battery drain!)

To verify that EEECTL was actually doing what it claimed, I downloaded CPU-Z from This is a great utility, allowing you to read clock speed, and MANY OTHER parameters of your system! First I measured the clock speed without EEECTL, and it measured exactly 601mhz. With EEECTL set to "FULL" the clock speed was 900mnz, as claimed! (Allow your system a few seconds for changes to take effect).

At the 900mhz speed, Flash video was "smooth as buttery on hot toast"! Everything else was snappier as well. But the bottom of my EEE ran noticably warmer, so I turned the fan up to 100 percent, and recommend you NEVER overclock without taking this precaution.

This "hack" gives such a performance advantage, that I can't imagine why any technically-minded EEE user wouldn't keep EEECTL handy on their system to use when you need that little extra "kick-in-the-pants" that only "more power" can provide!

Got any other useful "hacks" for your EEE? TELL ME PLEASE!

Monday, January 12, 2009

Fiio E5 portable headphone amplifier

A music lover who's also a gadget lover will eventually stumble onto the substantial niche market of headphone amplifiers. YES, the observant among us will note that your receiver, mp3 player, and even laptop already have headphone amps built in, so what's the point? The point is that the headphone amps in these devices are often either of dubious quality, or inadequate for driving high impedance headphones (more than 100 ohms), or difficult to drive ones (lower than 85db sensitivity). There's one other benefit. Relieved of the chore of driving headphones, the battery in your portable device will last longer.

Companies like Headroom ( ), Antique Sound Lab ( ), and Musical Fidelity ( ), Grado Labs ( ) and others have created and nurtured a cottage industry manufacturing headphone amplifiers for some time now. Headroom can be credited with more or less creating the PORTABLE headphone amplifier market. I have their first portable amp, the Airhead, and it's a great little product. Koss also makes an inexpensive model with a built-in equalizer, the EQ 50 (^ac^EQ50 ). While not without faults, one wouldn't expect it to be for the (about) twenty bucks it sells for. It sounds good, and can add "oomph" to, for instance, my portable cd player which has a headphone output that's quite anemic.

Then there's Fiio, a Chinese company that specializes in portable audio devices with tons of value for the money. Their first headphone amp, the E3 didn't have a volume control! The one under review here DOES ( ) have a volume control. It also has a defeatable bass boost (NON-defeatable in the either love all that bass, or you don't!), very nice feeling controls...three of them: power, bass boost on and off, as well as the volume control, which is "stepped" via an up/down rocker, NOT adjusted with a rotary potentiomete. The headphone output completes the top panel. On the bottom, there's a line input (connect to the line or headphone output on your device), and a miniature USB connector for recharging the built-in Lithium-Ion battery. On the side there's a permanently attached "belt clip". And other than the company logo, that's it.

The package contains the amplifier, two input cables (long and short), the USB cable (for battery charging), and the instructions. That's it. So let's get to does this thing sound? Well, it does what an amplifier SHOULD do. At low volumes, and with efficient headphones, very little. If your 'phones need some extra bottom, then the bass-boost adds it, without lots of mid-bass "boom". But if you have difficult-to-drive 'phones, like my Sennheiser HD-580s, then things get interesting. These 300 ohm phones are among the most difficult to drive on the market. Most portable devices can't get them above a whisper. The Fiio E5 CAN drive them to a decent level (!), and the bass bosst gives some much-needed "slam" in the bottom two octaves (not THAT much...these ain't "rock 'n roll" cans!) A real improvement for portable listening. Bravo! Still, this wouldn't be MY choice for portable listening...I'd like a little bit more "slam" on the bottom, and the ability to go just prehaps another three to five db louder. Still this makes these phones quite usable with portable devices...which surprised me!

Next up was my much easier to drive Bose on-ear headphones. While these are so sensitive that my Sansa View can drive them to uncomfortable levels on it's own, I was interested to see if the Fiio did anything useful. It did! The highs seemed a tad "smoother" (if the Bose 'phones have a fult, it's perhaps a tad bit too much "sizzle" in the upper mids, which the Fiio smoothed out). Cool! The difference was subtle, but there. The bass boost added more low-end "slam" as well, but since this isn't an area where the Bose 'phones need help, I quickly switched it back off. The ultimate volume available was quite a bit higher with the Fiio than straight out of my Sansa...which I tested by VERY QUICKLY advancing the volume WAY TOO HIGH! Still, with the Bose at least, this is of little importance to anyone not desiring premature hearing loss!

Finally out came the V-Moda "Bass Freq" earbuds. These were the most sensitive of the bunch, and hence needed extra amplification the least. The Fiio didn't really add anything useful...these phones are already a little "over-cooked" in the bass, they definitely didn't benefit from the bass boost! Again I noted a slight "softening" or "smoothing" of the upper mids and highs, but since the V-Modas are a bit recessed in this range anyway, I sure wouldn't buy the amp just for this (if these are your "buds" of choice). My conclusion: if you use very sensitive earbuds (and most fall into that category), you really can do without a headphone amp!

Conclusion: the E5 DOES what it claims! It has the surprising ability to drive even difficult 'phones to useful levels, it DOES add extra available volume (though often not needed0, and it DOES smooth-over the rough edges if your 'phones are a tad too aggressive "on top". Think "tube sweetness". That's right...this thing reminds me of a tube amp. And I mean that in a gOOD WAY!

And did I mention this thing is TINY (see pictures at the Fiio web site). It almost gets lost in a shirt pocket!

Recommendation: JUST BUY IT! I've saved the best for last...this baby is less than 30 (US) dollars INCLUDING SHIPPING! It adds no noise, distortion, or other "nasties" to the audio, and can be quite useful in the situations cited above. Again, JUST BUY THE THING! You won't regret it!