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Posts Tagged ‘technology’

  1. Perfect Attendance Double Win

    November 12, 2011 by Ryan

    Tonight I read an article about a problem with the original 1st Generation iPod Nano.

    Backup the story.

    Back in January 2006, my workplace tried an incentive to encourage employees to be at work, on time, and productive at the start of their shifts. Every employee who could do this each workday for the month would be entered into a drawing for a 2GB iPod Nano, the very newest, hippest $200+ product that Apple had to offer.

    I was one of the few who qualified. I remember only having one close call toward disqualification. I made it to work, on time and with a couple minutes to spare, but the power had gone out overnight, and my computer was off. To wait for it to fully boot would have taken too long and put me out of the competition, so that morning I logged into my phone and stated taking my first call while my computer was still starting up.

    To make a short story long, four employees made it into the drawing. I’m not exactly sure that the incentive produced the results that management was hoping for.

    On February 1, the drawing was to be held during my scheduled lunch. I questioned if I should go away from my desk during that time, knowing that I had a 1/4 chance at winning, but I decided that if I waited around for them to deliver a prize to me, I’d seem arrogant and somehow jinks my chances. So I went to the break room.

    While I was chowing down, one of the supervisors found me and suggested that I should immediately go back to my desk.

    I did so, and about a minute later came all of the supervisors in a grand procession, congratulating me and delivering my reward.

    I won the drawing!

    I still remember my wife and I trying to figure out the scroll wheel concept. We were frustrated for a while, but once we caught on, we thought it was an ingeniousness idea!

    Anyway, now nearly seven years later, that iPod sits long forgotten and rarely used.

    Tonight I read an article about a problem with the original 1st Generation iPod Nano. Apple has found that these original devices, manufactured in 2005 and 2006, have a battery flaw. The older the device gets, the more prone they are to overheating and causing injury.

    I looked up on the shelf, and picked up the old iPod.

    The date matched.

    The physical description matched.

    I answered the question and typed the serial number on the provided website.

    And the results… Apple will be sending me a box with shipping instructions, so that I can get a replacement.

    I don’t yet know what that means. A replacement battery in the same model? Or a replacement iPod with a newer generation unit?

    I hear Apple has some cash, and they could probably afford to send out a new unit to the few of us who still have our old machines, just as well as they could take the time to repair the old ones.

    Oh, what will it be?

    Will my perfect attendance win in 2006 become a double win in 2011?


  2. Spinning My Wheels

    April 15, 2011 by Ryan

    Remember cassette tapes?

    They were an invention that was made of two wheels (or spindles). Around one spindle was wrapped a metallic film. It fed through a plastic shell, and came around a track to connect to the other spindle.

    You’d put this clever cassette into a “cassette desk” and press play. The spindle that didn’t have the film wrapped around it would start to turn. This would cause the magnetic film to become taut, and would begin to pull the film. In turn, that would cause the other spindle to turn as the film rolled off of it, worked through the device, and back onto the first spindle. In the meantime, somewhere in the middle, a magic magnetic reader would watch the film as it passed, interpret the magnetic information, and would send music to connected speakers. It was remarkable, really.

    With these tapes, you could choose what order your song played by pressing a button labeled “Fast Forward.” The spindles would go faster. Some players would let you listen to the audio, which now sounded like a talking chipmunk.

    The whole idea of a talking chipmunk is kind of silly, if you think about it. Chipmunks can only talk in Disney cartoons.

    You’d forward to the next song, and listen to that. Or, if I didn’t like that one, I’d forward to the next, listening at high speed.

    If you wanted to hear the same song again, you’d press the “rewind” button. This would reverse the process, putting the one spindle in “neutral” and causing the other spindle to spin.

    Being technologically advanced, I used to own a duel-cassette deck. I’d use it to make my own “mix tapes”. In one deck, I’d put a blank, recordable cassette tape. In the other deck, I’d put a music tape in and fast forward to the beginning of the song that I liked. Then I’d simultaneously press “record” and “play” on the other deck’s controls. I think I had to press “Play” because it drove the motor to move the spindle, and of course “Record” because I wanted it to capture what it could “hear” in the other tape deck.

    Because the songs on the tapes were always in the same order, I developed a “memory” side effect. After I’d hear the tape in sequence several times, my brain would start to associate the order of the songs. If I heard the song in another situation (such as over the radio), when the song ended my brain would expect to hear the next song from the tape, and I would even start to “play” the tune in my mind.

    Soon compact discs appeared in the mainstream. They didn’t wear out with use, and they had scientific laser beams to read digitally recorded information. I got me a new player that could play CDs and record them to tapes (so that I could still listen in my car).

    The feature that won many people over was the “Random” button. It would decide what song to play, and in what order to play it.

    Which worked well unless you were listening to an audio book, where going out of order was not such a good feature.

    CD players grew and soon let you load multiple CDs into one machine. Then the random feature could span multiple albums.

    Those got replaced by MP3s and MP3 players. Now, the digital information on the CDs could be turned into a computer file, and many CDs could be loaded onto one device. Since my car still has a cassette tape deck in it, I’ve purchased an adapter. It is something in shape of the cassette tape. it has a wire that leads to a CD or MP3 player’s headphone port. It still has two spindles, although they don’t do anything expect spin with the tape deck motor. Instead, the audio signal was fed directly into the tape deck’s magnetic reader.

    So even with my new and modern technology, even after all these years I’m still spinning my wheels.


  3. Action and Adventure: Trying to play a movie on the COBY MP600-4G

    September 27, 2010 by Ryan

    I’ve enjoyed the COBY MP600-4G MP3 player (that I received as a reward for collecting bottle caps from My Coke Rewards). It has been a very good little MP3 player for me, but the time had come to figure out how to transfer a movie onto it.

    The Project

    My specific goal was to convert Disney’s The Princess and the Frog from DVD to the COBY player. To quote Lewis from the movie, “Oh, I tried once. It didn’t end well.” Also, whether or not this is legal per copyright laws, I’ll save for a discussion on another day. For now, I’ll just say that I did purchase the DVD, I intend only to use the copy for my own personal use, and my conscience doesn’t bother me.

    The Equipment

    My computer is running Windows XP Service Pack 3, with 2 Gig RAM, and an Intel 2.66 Ghz Core 2 Duo processor. I’m also using the Sony DRU-500A DVD rewriteable drive. All “older” equipment, but still very functional.

    For playback of videos on the computer, I have installed K-Lite Mega Codec Pack (current version is 6.40). You may or may not need this, but I thought I’d mention it because I do have it installed and it is possible that the codecs it provides (software that decodes and plays back various audio and video formats) may have unknowingly helped the process behind-the-scenes. If you do not have this free program already, I highly recommend it anyway.

    My COBY player is the model COBY MP600-4G. My instructions and testing will probably be the same for the MP600-2G model (which is identical except for the amount of memory). Your mileage with other models may vary.

    Get Ripped-Off

    My first task was to “rip” the movie from the disc and into a file on the hard drive. Music CDs are very easy to rip, but DVDs can be a lot trickier due to copy protection mechanisms that the studios place on the discs.

    The Anatomy of a DVD: If you place a DVD into a computer drive and browse the contents, you will find that there are two folders (AUDIO_TS and VIDEO_TS). Typically, the AUDIO_TS is empty and unneeded (at least, I have never found a use for it). The VIDEO_TS then is the main folder to deal with. In this folder you will find files that end in .INO, .BUP, and (most importantly) .VOB. The files are encoded in a way that, if you attempt to simply copy the files from this folder onto your drive, the copied movie will usually not play correctly.

    In order to make a copy, you must use a decoder program. The decoder will essentially simulate the playback the movie, interpret the video and audio data, create a new version of the files. This idea is not really much different than actually playing a DVD. When you play a movie, your DVD drive reads the information, decodes it, and sends the picture and audio signal to the television. In this case, that picture and audio data are instead being saved in another file on the hard drive, along the way removing any special commands that the DVD disc has established.

    Another problem with commercial DVDs is that they may contain up to 9 GB (gigabytes) of data, while DVDs burned at home are typically 4.3 GB. Often, the structure of the DVD has the movie as the largest portion, then the individual scenes are duplicated again; plus menus, bonus features, previews, FBI warning, etc. that I don’t need. In the process of ripping the movie, I’m interested in only ripping the movie and stripping the rest out.

    My long-time program of choice for DVD ripping / copying has been DVD Shrink (version 3.4). Although it has not been updated for many years, it is still a very good program – so long as your DVD does not come with newer copy-protection methods. In the case of The Princess and the Frog, I received the error “Cyclic Redundancy Check” which brought a halt to the process. As far as I can tell, copy protection on this DVD is designed to create an intentional mathematical calculation overflow problem when you attempt to straight copy, or also when DVD Shrink tried to read the file structure.

    To get around this problem, my online searching lead to a program called DVDFab. I loaded it on with its 30-day trial, and found it was able to rip my DVD effortlessly. In fact, I found it much easier to use than DVD Shrink, and more versatile. I’m still trying to decide if it is worth $50 to me, but I do still have a few more days left to make that decision. Supposedly the “HD Decrypter” feature of the program can be used for free without expiration, but I have not yet figured out how to work that in conjunction with DVD Shrink.

    40 minutes later and DVDFab ripped the main movie to my hard drive (sans menus, bonus features, language tracks, subtitles, etc.). I now moved to my next challenge – converting it to the right format for the COBY player.

    Resolution: Can You Picture That?

    I glanced over the spec sheet (http://www.cobyusa.com/files/specsheets/MP600_SP.pdf) and learned two things that might come in handy: My Coby player has a display resolution of 128 x 128 pixels, and likes a video format called “MTV.”

    Resolved: let’s talk about resolution: Pixels are dots wide and tall on your screen. In the United States, a traditional “square” standard definition television is 720-pixels-wide by 480-pixels-tall. That is, from top-to-bottom there are 480 rows of dots, and from left-to-right are 720 dots that, when individually changed to different colors, make up the picture (HDTV is obviously bigger, but since I’m dealing with DVD and not BluRay I won’t go into that discussion today). The proportional relationship of the DVD movie (720×480) compared to the size of the portable player screen (128×128) sets up a complication. The best news here is that the size of the file for the portable movie will be considerably smaller than the DVD file size (in this case, my ripped DVD movie comprised five .vob files totaling 4.3 gig, which would be bigger than the total 4 gig memory of the portable player). On the width measurement, dropping 720 pixels down to 128 pixels is a reduction of 563%. The file size should also reduce about as much, because it can drop much of the picture information. The downside to this: because a TV is not square (slightly wider than it is taller), and the screen on the COBY player is truly square, the height will have to be reduced to less than the player is capable of displaying, or else the picture will look tall and out of proportion. In this case, to keep the ratio correct, the height will be 96 pixels and those famous letter-box black bars will appear on the top and bottom of the already small movie window.

    My next issue is that I’ve never heard of an MTV format (a cable television network, yes; a video file format, no). I installed the Coby Media Manager and looked at the User’s Guide documentation (June 2009 edition). I found it lacking any real useful information. About all I got out of it was that it supports “movies and other video files.”

    So, it was back to Google for help.

    http://mympx.org/forum led me to a download the converter software for COBY players. They had two versions available (1.12 and 2.9), so I tried the newer version (2.9) and installed it (actually, in this case, there was no install – just uncompressed the files and ran the executable program). For the video source, I browsed to my ripped files on the hard drive, and selected the first alphabetical .VOB file there. Unfortunately, I was greeted by an error message (Load Video Failed). That their program would not read .VOB files directly did not really surprise me – I’ve found that very few programs will read DVD Format .VOB files directly.

    Somewhere in all of my Interet searching, someone suggested that the MTV format was just an offshoot of an AVI format, and if I could convert my video into an AVI format, I could then sync it to the player using the Coby Media Manager. It was worth a shot, so I downloaded the latest version of Any Video Converter (AVC) Free. I clicked Add Video, and added all 5 of my VOB files from the ripped hard drive copy.

    For my first experiment, I chose the following settings in Any Video Converter:

    – In the Profile menu (top-right corner,) I chose “Customized MP4 Movie”

    – I selected all five .vob files and from the Edit menu, choose “Merge Output”

    – For the Framesize options (bottom-right), I chose 15 (as I’d seen numerous recommendations to do so in my browsing)- For the Video Framerate, I manually typed in 128×96

    – From the File menu, I selected the output folder where I’d like my final file to be saved.

    – Then I clicked Convert, crossed my fingers, and waited.

    The result of experiment number 1: It produced a nice 234 megabyte file. I played it on my computer, and it looked like a very tiny little movie – but played well and sounded good on the computer speakers.

    Next, I made my attempt to get this movie onto my player. Again, in all of my Internet research, people suggested that you cannot drag and drop movies into the “Movie” folder on the device (as you can with Music or Photo). So I opened the Coby Media Manager (version 2009b0703). I chose Video, and found my movie. I right-clicked the file, and chose Synchronize. It began counting down various percentages and progress meters until it appeared to be finished. That honestly made me a little nervous – I hoped that the Coby program would not need to convert anything. I’d already ran a conversion, and if that format was acceptable, there should have been no need to convert it again.

    Now came the test… I played it on the Coby device. The video was now upside-down and mirror imaged, and the sound was decent but had a bit of a “tinny echo” especially on the high registers – though it did play. This was far better than the results I’d seen a lot of online forum posters have, and it might be good enough for my daughter to watch on her next airplane ride. But being this close to success, I was determined to try again and see if I could find a better format.

    Experiment Number 2

    Back to Any Video Converter, I tried these settings:

    – In the Profile menu I chose “Customized AVI file”

    – From the Edit menu, I kept the “Merge Output” setting

    – For the Framesize options (bottom-right), I chose 15

    – For the Video Framerate, I manually typed in 128×96

    This file was smaller (193 MB) and again played back very nicely on the computer.

    As Colby Media Manager performed its sync, those bad-omen progress meters appeared again (transforming percent and copying percent) appeared, and I discovered that when it was done, the file on my player had a different file ending (.AMV) and a different file size (171 MB). Most importantly, again the video was upside down and mirrored, and the sound tinny and popping.

    Experiment Number 3

    Just for fun, using Windows Explorer I dragged-and-dropped (copied) the AVI file directly into the movie folder. I pressed play on the player and read “Format Error” centered nicely on my screen. End of Experiment 3; the online people were right.

    Experiment Number 4

    I took that AVI file, and opened the MTV Video Converter 1.12. I selected the settings, and clicked convert. It ran through its percentage meter, and produced a file that ended in .MTV. I opened the COBY Media Manager, but that program could not see (or did not recognize) an .MTV file. I attempted a direct copy of the file to the COBY device, but it also could not see any valid files.

    At this point, I’m running out of ideas and my confidence is beginning to tank.

    Experiment Number 5

    I took a step back and went to DVDFab again. In the DVD Ripper section, it has an option to convert directly from DVD to AVI. I selected the source as the already-ripped movie on the hard disc. Then I got lost in output settings.

    I started off with the “Generic.AVI.dvix.audiocopy” setting, and edited the options. I chose a framerate of 15 fps (frames per second) and a frame resolution of 128×72. Then I noticed the Video Effect Settings button and clicked inside. I created a customized size of 128×128, and was impressed with the instant preview showing me how this would look in letterbox format. Further, I clicked the Crop tab and saw that I could change the selection from letter-box to pan-and-scan, which would eliminate the black bars but would chop off the extreme left and right sides of the picture. I decided to go with this option and see what I could do.

    After this conversion, Coby Media Manager also wanted to transform it and then sync it. And the result… same audio issues, and this time the video switched the black bars to the left and right sides, elongating the picture tall.

    So far then, my first experiment was still the best one, and still left lacking.

    Experiment 6

    I went back to DVDFab, and switched up the settings this way: I chose avi.h264.mp3, again at 15 fps and a custom size of 128×128, but no cropping this time. This conversion took about 10 minutes, and created 3 files (.avi, .idx, and .sub) totaling 66 mb. I especially like the small file size, if this works. Playback on the computer looked great. I synced it with Coby Media Manager, which took about 2 minutes of “transforming” and another 2 minutes for copying. Playback on the COBY was again mirror imaged and decent but tinny sound.

    I Surrender

    I started to wonder if my diy project was worth the trouble?

    No matter if I do eventually find the right format, I know this: I will still end up with a very tiny picture on a 1 inch screen, and imperfect sound quality. I would certainly not try to watch a movie I’ve never seen before – this screen is just too small to enjoy it. I’d have to be in it for a listening experience rather than a visual one.

    At this point, I’ve invested several hours of time. 40 minutes to rip the movie. A couple hours worth of time trying to convert file formats here and there. And still not the results I’d hoped for.

    I’m very disappointed with the COBY company for not providing clear instructions. In fact, the only instructions they provided lead me to a file format that the player didn’t recognize. A good rule of business is that consumer products should not frustrate the consumer. In my situation, I didn’t actually pay any money for my device, and I don’t have any serious need to play video on it. This device still works great for Music and FM radio, but I can’t justify much more of my time trying to get the video work.

    If you have stumbled on this article hoping to do the same thing, I hope this helps to put you closer to your goal. If any of my research can help you, I’d be curious to hear it. And if anyone can figure out the magic formula to making the videos work, I’d especially be grateful to know the missing piece to the puzzle. My email address is:
    Email me with questions, thoughts, comments, or suggestions