Panasonic FZ35 for semi serious video – reviewette

For a long time, I’ve been looking at the resolution of cheap digital cameras and wishing they’d get some video capability. And, much more slowly than I’d like, we’re getting there. While DLSRs are well into killer territory, I’m not quite ready for that kind of investment. Down the cheaper end, “stills” cameras are getting closer to really usable video, while “video” cameras are slowly taking better stills, but either involves some compromise. At the end of the day, stills cameras have vastly higher resolution sensors and it is there that I’d like things to end up.

From a practical point of view, I’ve long ago stopped taking my video camera anywhere, but the 640×480 video on my Fuji S5700 is not great, depsite the you-never-go-back convenience. I needed a new stills camera with decent video, and the more decent, the better.

The Lumix FZ-35 piqued my interest as, on paper, it ticks quite a few of the critical boxes:

The good

  • HD recording at 18Mb/s H.264. Not your first choice for keying, but for talking heads or superior home movies plenty good.
  • European and Au/NZ versions do 25fps video – this has been a MAJOR drawback of all the cheapies: 29.97/30 fps only (well, I have a Kodak that does 13). Not good for web delivery or broadcast to over 50% of the world’s population (or for cinematic release, however implausible that might be anyway).
  • manual everything – ISO, exposure, shutter speed and focus. Everything you need to shoot something without the damn camera hunting mid-shot
  • No godless Sony media formats. Good ole SDHC, class 6 prefferred
  • A pretty serious 27 – 486mm equiv lens with OIC, plus the usual auto-focus, face detection
  • Like most/all current Pannie’s, a “record” button that lets you record video in any mode, not just the one movie mode – no more missing stuff while you futz with the dial on top.
  • HDMI output.
  • Cheap – less than half the price of the Canon Vixia HF10 (an amazon now they’re $310 vs $750)

the bad

As specified, you can spot some drawbacks straight away – but I need to make the point that I was expecting drawbacks, this is a cheap camera, so this is not an exhaustive list

  • no external audio in
  • only 720P – “AVCHD Lite”, a Panasonic term which means “720P only video, using H.264 but in such a way it doesn’t play on any pre-existing system”. (VLC 1.x, iMovie 09, FCP7 – to name but 3 – can now play it
  • no higher frame rates
  • reasonably high compression but should be pretty good on undemanding footage.
  • other usual “it’s not a camcorder” stuff: no flip out/down viewfinder. No palm-strap, …

At the end of the day, the only bona fide task the camera will be doing is replacing a seriously ancient Canon 4:3 DV camcorder (so ancient it doesn’t like to load tapes), so it can be a little rough around the edges, it’s still going to be a huge improvement.

the … stuff I haven’t seen mentioned elsewhere

Most reviews have dealt with the FZ35 as” a stills camera with video, but who cares about the video?” So, specifically wanting the video, what can I add?

Where’s the 25fps?

First off, the frame rate disappointment. As a patriotic Australian, I grey imported the FZ-35 from eBay (at not far off half the recommended AUD price). Turns out Panasonic lock the frame rate to the region sold in, and charge more for the EU and AU models (the aust/NZ model is in fact suffixed GN).I had a squabble with the ebay vendor, but at the end of the day it’s Panasonic that I’m disappointed with – they’ve made this thing cost more everywhere in order to make specific models, what a waste of time..

Now, you can get to the service menu on other Lumix cameras. The service manual for the FZ50 says you can change region, but only if your camera was not Japanese to begin with. I’ll keep digging on this – 25fps is something I really don’t want to go without, and there can be no technical reason not have lower frame rates such as 24 either. I’ll get my hands on a service manual eventually…

Picture quality

It’s pretty good, but definitely below what 720P can do. Colours are great, but pics are both slightly soft and show quite a bit of “ringing” from some sharpening algorithm. Why this should be, with a 12MP sensor is puzzling – no doubt cheaper but, as with many of my small gripes with this camera, I can see no hard technical reason why it should be so.

To illustrate this, below is a detail of a paintbrush taken from a movie, compared to a plain ordinary still photo of the same, downscaled by Apple Preview to the same resolution (note that you have to click the pix to see them full size, below is a shrunk preview). The video one shows a huge dark line around the white hair, as well as quite a bit less resolution. (You can also see some of the compression artefacts you get with AVHCD Lite). I actually did this comparison last in the review and it’s pretty terrifying – I wouldn’t have thought the video was that far below the stills.

The sharpness can be adjusted ± 2 (units of what I don’t know) from the default, but at -2 I could see no less ringing (or, in fact, any difference at all. This setting may be applied “upstream” before downscaling) nearly all the video on this page was taken with the sharpness at -2. On less contrasty material, the results are closer to perfect.

Here’s a quick compilation of what I’ve been able to snap in the past month, accompanied by something I threw together in Garage Band. (see note below regarding FCP black crushing – I’m hoping this will be fixed in the future)

Film’s fast … almost too fast!

When shooting stills, you can choose an ISO setting from 80 up to 1600, with video it’s a much higher 400 to 6400 – which is also the ISO of the lower-resolution “Hi sens” mode. That may be a clue to the soft pictures: the downscaler for the hi-sens and the video modes may be being multi-purposed. While the high film speed might seem like a plus, it does have the downside that (as others have discovered) if you want to shoot in daylight at 1/50th or 1/60th for the ol’ film look (or at least the 180º shutter look), you’ll need a multi-ND filter (panasonic sell an 8ND, but it is a vanilla 46mm mount). You particularly want the ND if you want to shoot at f/4, which is reportedly the sweet spot for sharpness with this lens. People are also using NDs to prevent the sometimes extreme smear this (CCD-based) camera exhibits. You can set the ISO to auto,and it seems to go below 400, but the problem is it jumps in 100 ISO increments, which you don’t want in the middle of a shot.

As should also be evident from this: if you scale down to some kind of “web” resolution, like a nice round 640×360, you do have some pretty schweet web video.

Manual Everything?

Apart from the frame rate, the camera delivers in full: as well as focus, aperture and exposure, you can lock the ISO, white balance (which you can set manually beforehand). Full proper manual shooting. If you had a really solid tripod, you could pull focus and zoom (using double system of course to avoid all the clunks the microphones would pick up as you push teensy buttons). The manual focus features a little zoomed-in focus assist, just like a real camera!

Lens

There are any number of demo movies on the interweb: this is a frigging long lens! (or rather, there’s a long way between fully wide and fully tele). Google “FZ35 zoom test” – and check out all the closeups of the moon on flickr.

The OIC works very well, but you’re not going to be able to do free handheld at the long end. When I took the shot below, I was pretty impressed, taken handheld on a ferry, but back on a monitor, it’s a little bumpier that I thought (you can also see that I didn’t have the ISO on manual and that my very old polarizer was a bit dirty).

Pictures still look pretty sharp at the long end, too. And, you can get some shallow depth-of-field at the far end – though often you have to get a long way away to actually fit what you want in.

Compression

Could be my use of Class 4 cards, but the movies I’m shooting are running at about 13Mb/s – the blurb does say it’s VBR, so maybe 18 is the absolute max? Not sure. It would be nice for them to really be 18Mb/s.

Editability

iMovie 09 happily opens the card in the SD card reader – coverts to AIC of course. FCP 7 is similarly at home – mount a card and L&T sees it straight away. VLC 1.x will play the raw MTS files (but still with some shifts on what I assume are I-frames), and that ole workhorse HandBrake will happily convert these into various other formats (None readily editable, but it beats the hell out of QT X for delivery encoding.) And, the raw .MTS’es upload directly to YouTube as well

IOW no editing issues at all for me. I did notice that FCP was showing the imported footage using the full luminance range (i.e. blacker-than-black, whiter-than-white) – whether the camera’s wrong or whether FCP’s interpreting it wrongly I can’t say. (You may have noticed a little more black-crushing than was necessary on the clips above). I tried one of the same clips thru Handbrake and the gamma’s quite different (and better IMHO) so we’ll blame FCP’s implementation of AVCHD Lite for now.

Audio Quality

I ran across this clip while looking for other stuff, so it can do a pretty OK job under the right conditions. For anything serious, you’re talking double system.

HDMI Out (conjecture)

I can’t directly comment on the HDMI as I don’t have the mini-to-fullsize HDMI adapter needed to actually plug this in to a TV. But I did note that the composite SD video is not active when shooting – so there’s a pretty good chance you can’t capture over HDMI while live shooting to get uncompressed HD.

Conclusion

I’ve listed a pile of negatives, but I’m pretty happy with the camera – it cost 1/5th the video camera it’s replacing and it slaughters it. If I could get into the service menu, and set it to 25fps, that would be really good. And if something like CHDK came out for Panasonic, and we could get that dreadful sharpening turned off on the video, and any frame rate we liked, and all the other benefits, that would be super great. Based on the FZ50 manual, I also think a skilled hardware hacker could get external audio in.

The camera’s just about a quantum leap at the cheap end of the market. There are several more to go.

Advertisements

Flash 101 – Absolutely everything you need to know, to be up there with the best

There are books, there are courses, there are crazy people claiming “experience” will help you.

Unnecessary.

Just follow these 10 simple steps and you will be producing content indistinguishable from the world’s best.

Like all work to a deadline, Flash is a compromise: you need to decide what is important, and what isn’t. Then, devote your work time accoringly:

  1. An opening “splash” animation is the cornerstone of any Flash success – but attention-to-detail is vital: it should be long, it should take longer still to load, it must not actually contribute anything, and it must not be skippable.
  2. A good “Loading” progress indicator is also critical. You should put almost as much work into that as the splash anim. If these are good enough, people will often just buy everything your client makes without waiting to see the site. Whatever time you left over can go into any actual site development which may be needed.
  3. Music improves any site. While using a long track can add extra download time, often a short, looping track, at a low sample rate will stick in a users’ mind much longer (in some cases permanently). Novice Flash developers may give the user an option to turn this music off – but this only gives them the chance to unimprove your site. Do not do it.
  4. Every UI element should have an annoying sound effect. I can’t believe people still forget these! Make them long and loud and numerous.
  5. Tooltips, OTOH, only clutter and detract and really add nothing. If they were any good, the geniuses who make Flash would have implemented them natively. Always do the annoying FX first and so-called “functional” things like tooltips only if you have time left.
  6. Even more important is to have mouseovers and sound effects on parts of your page that don’t even do anything. Obviously, the more the better. Perhaps even don’t finish some of the more boring deeper pages to add critical stuff like this at the front.
  7. The scroll wheel. This is a gimmick, either don’t implement it or do as poorly as you are capable.
  8. It is critical that your whole site be implemented in the one flash file, so that counterproductive things like bookmarking, searching and being able to go “back” to the thing you were just looking at can be effectively blocked.
  9. Once your masterpiece is completed, the editable “.fla” file is no longer necessary. Definitely don’t give it to the client, but it’s well worth actually losing it yourself so that when the time comes to update the site, you can build a whole new one with everything you’ve learned here and elsewhere.
  10. Style is obviously better than substance, but how much more complete to have neither!

There, that’s it. Keep these in mind and you practically cannot fail. Perhaps there will still be an occasion where you are not sure which way to jump, all we advise you to do is think of the golden rule:

All that glitters is gold. Pure gold, baby!

My take on the “unsupported network volumes” Time Machine hack

UPDATE2: Snow Lep really broke TM backups for me – I think the extra complication I had over everyone else is that my server was a ways back on 10.3.9. I’m finally today (Oct 16) writing to a backup again – thanks to switching to SMB (but sharing anything other than your home folder is a further trick). So I think we need a bit of a rewrite here! In the meantime, this would be the best, shortest article I’ve found on doing this with snolep: macosxhints.com – 10.6: Set up Time Machine on networked AFP volume.

UPDATE: Yep, Snow Leopard has broken my backups, which worked perfectly for 6 months. Initial reports are you just need start from scratch. I’ll get back to you on that. The short version is these unsupported backups are a little prone to corruption, but as we say “soooo much better than no backup”.

There are a few posts about on the interweb regarding using the “TMShowUnsupportedNetworkVolumes” flag to use any old network share as your Time Machine destination (I found this one the most useful). I think a lot date from about 10.5.2., and several have little retractions at the end, some then state that later 10.5 revisions made it work better. The recent ones say “just turn it on and go”, which certainly wont work if your server is a 1999-built G4 running 10.3 like mine.

So, does it work or not? How hard is it, what do you do? I just had a stab, it appears to work and I think I have streamlined the process somewhat over any of the posts I’ve read.

In super-short, you only have to do two things:

  1. Turn on the showing of any network volumes as possible TM disks (because you can’t back up to them if they’re not listed)
  2. Create a special “sparse bundle” disk file for the backups to go on (because TM’s automatic one will fail on non-10.5 AFP shares)

Before going any further, some sober words:

  • It says pretty clearly “unsupported”. Do not, under any circumstances bet the farm on this working as your backup. It is a little troubling that you cannot create a sparsebundle on a “normal” AFP share – what else might fail?
  • I don’t know if anyone doing this has actually restored a file “in anger” – i.e. actually had to seriously test this under real circumstances
  • So, why even try this? I had no backup at all prior to Leopard, and only one a fortnight or so with wired Time Machine, so really I’m ahead if even a small number of the files I created or changed in the last fortnight can be saved.

Here’s what I did (I have condensed fairly heavily, you need to know how to use a Mac, but this is still the simplest method I’ve seen):

  1. Turn on unsupported volumes by typing this in terminal (on one single line):
  2. defaults write com.apple.systempreferences TMShowUnsupportedNetworkVolumes 1

  3. You’ll now see all mounted network disks in the Time Machine choose disk list. Pick one, then initiate a backup
  4. This will fail, that’s OK, we did this for a reason. (And if it doesn’t fail .. I guess you can stop now)
  5. Open up Console, you should see backupd logging the failure to create a backup image: copy out the name of the sparse bundle it tried to create – this saves you having to find out your machine’s name and MAC address to name the sparse image!
  6. Create a sparse bundle with that name – on a local disk. I just used Disk Utility, but you can do it in terminal if you want. You do need to make it a big size, but don’t fret about space: an empty 200G sparse bundle was 100MB, I didn’t need a whole 200G free to do this
  7. Copy that image file to your unsupported share
  8. Star Time Machine – it now works!

After one week…

It’s all working rather well! My initial 150G backup survived several wake/sleeps, several more deliberate “stop backing up”, and most incredibly, two kernel panics on the server hosting the share, and now the hourly incremental takes just a few minutes. I now have both household backups going to the shared disk. I even restored one whole tiny file, and it worked

What remains to be seen is whether the system will cope gracefully when the disk fills up – this was the issue with the 10.5.2 hacks – once full, the system did not “thin” the backup data properly – it seemed to delete it but not actually free the space; and then it would try to throw away some more in a rapidly spiralling deletion-of-death.

What also remains to be seen, of course, is a large-scale restoration after some sort of disaster. This is the $64K question not just for hacked Time Machine, but for TM itself.

And later again ..

Tonight I finally reached the 200G limit on my sparse bundle (nothin beats VMs to waste a pile of space in a short time!). And my MBP did not grow the disk image, so it looks like you can use this method to store the backups from several systems on one drive (as speculated below).

Other thoughts:

Those who have tried to use one disk for more than one Time Machine user will know that it doesn’t really work: TM is built to fill up all the available disk it can, then start getting rid of old stuff, so the disk fills up very quickly with the most profligate user’s stuff, and then you can’t add any more (users) to it. The workaround I and others have used is to partition the backup disk. This works but you then have to share out n TM disks, set them as time machine disks, and individually connect everyone. And you still have to buy another drive and do it again once you have n + 1 users.

It would seem that by creating the sparse image to a size of your own choosing, you could manage this much better. However, the system may grow the sparse bundle later on if it thinks it can. It is certainly telling me the amount of free space on the (whole) disk as being the amount it has left to use.

And lastly, it’s pretty cool (and well out of character) for Apple to allow this. I’m personally very glad and let’s just hope they don’t taketh it away. (Like, for example, the video out on iPods)

I had to change theme

A) because both my children’s Primary School blogs are using K2

B) I think serifs are making a big comeback in web style, and I always want to be safely pootling along behind the bleeding edge.

Atempo Time Navigator: When to deploy

Atempo’s Time Navigator is enterprise-class backup software. It combines not only being hard to understand, with being hard to use, in fact it is equally hard to work out for the skilled engineer and the lowly tape changer alike. Its many features include: mystery licensing issues, mystery subcomponent shutdowns, multi-machine mystery failures along with full-partial automation: requiring you to only write, debug and maintain scripts for half the backup process. It comes with full documentation which will have anyone (including speakers of other languages) up and befuddled in just a few months. And, it delivers this exact same experience across Windows, Mac and Linux, seamlessly.

I’ll be scrupulously honest and say that I haven’t always been Time Navigator’s number one fan, but there are still many circumstances where it is clearly the best choice. This handy, concise guide aims to help you identify when this is:

  1. The cold, unyielding barrel of a Pakistani-knockoff AK47 is pressed against your nostril. Gently but unmistakably bending your nose out of shape. An out of focus figure at the business end of the Kalashnikov shouts: “Use Time Navigator, or we light your head up”
  2. A loved one is suspended upside-down by the ankles over the side of a tall building. Their screams have given way to incoherency, and your whole family is sitting, bound and gagged on the rooftop. A voice shouts in your ear: “Use Time Navigator, or we let go!”
  3. You’re tied into an uncomfortable chair. Your severed index finger joins your thumb in being waved in front of your face. The figure holding your fingers shows you the pliers and says sympathetically: “There’s still 8 to go, why don’t you use Time Navigator while you can still learn to write again?”
  4. You are disconnected from the car battery long enough to regain your senses. A gloved figure pours some hydrochloric acid into a martini glass, offers it to you and says: “Of course you have a choice!”
  5. They aim the Death Star at your home planet.

Of course, the best backup software solution can only be decided by administrators with a full grasp of their particular needs. But clearly, Time Navigator will often be the standout. Hopefully this guide has made this difficult, serious decision a little clearer.

My gift to the world for XMas: Ajax LED resistor calculator

UPDATE: This has been busted for 3 years, since I left Aus to live int he UK and my ISP-hosted pages all got deleted. But, the wayback machine has come to the rescue).

To run an LED on a given voltage supply, you need to work out the required current limiting resistor, and all LEDs are slightly different, so you have to work it out every time. It can get boring. Any there are many places on the interweb to help you do this. But…

All the ones I could find were either server-calculated, or at best still wanted you to click “go” to work out the values. When I actually looked for AJAX ones, there are some, but they weren’t quite right either …

So, I made one which is runs entirely on the client, calculates values as-you-type and even works out the resistor colours you’d need.

Current in beta, it totally does not work on MSIE, but is fine on Safari and Firefox (3 in both cases)

https://web.archive.org/web/20100213000406/http://members.iinet.net.au/~unhinged/ledresistorcalc.html

The recurring scrambled screen in ARD

This has happened to me twice, and I’m not the only one.

While I think there are probably multiple causes, for me, this is the 100% cause and fix.

You have a machine which repeatedly presents in ARD (or your favourite VNC client) with the screen scrambled, in a pretty classic “it thinks this pictures a different size” angled lines look (below is just a simulation):

scrambledsim

You can restart ARD via SSH, and the problem goes away, only to return on your next reboot

Trawling the interweb reveals two schools of thought: you’ve either got something wrong with ARD, or loginwindow. We’re not at a flame war yet, but folks for whom a solution doesn’t work are getting anxious

Me, I think it’s both – sometimes deleting loginwindow.plist fixes it, sometimes it is more deep seated. So My fix is:

  • Do what you have to do to connect to the machine (restart ARD; delete loginwindow.plist and ARDAgent.plist and restart ARD; plug a screen into the thing)
  • Dump the two plists if you haven’t already
  • Change resolution on the monitor and back (if you’re ARD/VNC connected you may have to do the above frigmarole again). This writes new prefs files for anything interested in screen resolution.
  • Restart – not 100% necessary, but gurantees prefs files are written to disk for everything.

Bob’s your uncle.

(As I said, this is the second time I’ve had to fix this. And, naturally, now that I’ve written this, I found our solution to it the first time. Jakub was actually a little more succinct…)