News for January 2007

Windows Vista…

Product: Windows Vista
Version: n/a
Manufacturer: Microsoft…
Price: $250*

Performance & stability: 7/10
Features: 8/10
Expected return on investment: 3/10
Support: 9/10
Longevity: 8/10
Flexibility: 6/10

Pros: Looks stunning

Cons: A drain on the hardware and the bank account

Bottom line: Only worth considering if you’re buying a new PC.

*Price quoted is for Windows Vista Ultimate Edition downloaded from Microsoft in the U.S.

Windows Vista

Windows Vista was released yesterday, to much fanfare. However, Microsoft had made beta versions of their new operating systems available for people to try out for a while now.

There are undoubtedly many reviews of Vista online even as I write this, but I’m going to focus on this review from the perspective of post-production, in terms of using it as a platform to do day-to-day tasks and organize data.

Microsoft’s PR engine insists there are 100 reasons to upgrade… but I’m going to look at these areas specifically: working with files, media features, and networking.

One of the first things you’ll notice about Vista is that it looks absolutely stunning. Provided your hardware can manage it, the new “Aero” theme makes all application windows semi-transparent, with a bit of blurriness, making the whole thing look like it’s made of glass. Perhaps an apt metaphor, because the second thing you’ll notice about Vista is that it feels fragile. The third thing you’ll notice is the overwhelming number of popups, warnings and announcements as you try to do anything.

It seems that the heavily criticized security aspect of the operating system has been given an overhaul. But the end result is that you have many more confirmation boxes to click through to perform basic tasks. A case in point: there is a new feature called “User Account Control”. What this does is plant logos over everything that requires administrator privileges to perform. Any time you click a button with this logo, you’re asked to provide administrative credentials in order to proceed. Presumably, the point is that a standard (non-admin) user has to toddle off and find someone with the correct credentials in order to proceed, and therefore not be able to do anything significant without approval. But the truly bizarre result of this, is that for most people, who are already logged in with administrative privileges, they will be confronted by this warning many times a day for no apparent reason. The good news is that it is possible to turn this “feature” off, but this then causes “Windows Security Center” to nag you repeatedly to turn it back on, unless you disable the security center as well.

Browsing files is a bit of a mixed bag in the latest operating system. On one hand, it seems that browsing large numbers of files is processed slightly quicker than it was for Windows XP (but still not quite as fast as Linux). However there is a slightly odd behavior: Vista will display files to you as it reads them from the disk. This means that, rather than waiting for an entire folder to be read and then displayed in one go, it will show a few files, then add some more, then add some more. That would be ok, but it doesn’t do this in a logical order. The net result of this, is that you can’t be certain that the folder’s contents are completely listed, and that the position of items in a folder will move as more items are listed. This is annoying on two counts: first if you use the control+A shortcut to select all files that you want to do something to (because you will miss files that have not finished being listed), and second because if you drag-select files, they might suddenly deselect due to their position moving. Finally, the default behavior of Vista is to draw thumbnails of all images it finds, so browsing a sequence of tiff files for example takes far longer than it should.

On to networking. Again, some oddities in the security system can cause frustration here. I attempted to create a headless system (i.e. without a keyboard mouse and screen) running Vista, but had to reconnect a monitor and keyboard several times after I thought it had been sorted out. The problem was largely due to the new multi-layered firewall in Vista. First of all, Vista distinguishes between “private” and “public” networks. How it makes the distinction is unclear, but the net result is that a lot of basic network functions are disabled by default, including “network discovery” – the ability to see the computer on the network from another system. This can be resolved by changing the networking to a “private”zone, and then set options to allow various functionality, at least until you install another network adaptor, at which case everything reverts itself. Sigh. Even worse, when using the Hamachi… VPN software, which installs its own virtual network adaptor, Vista insists on reverting the zone back to “public” on every single reboot. The only workaround is just go with Vista’s insistence that you’re on a public network, and tweak the networking options for this category. On the plus side, the built-in remote desktop is much better than its XP counterpart, allowing you to log into an account that is already logged in without starting a new session.

Working with media seems to be much better. Vista includes all of the functionality of Media Center (as an aside, it also includes all the functionality of Tablet PC if you install the new Wacom driver), as well as a long-awaited DVD authoring application. This is great for producing quick, nice looking DVDs from video clips. The version of Windows Media Player 11 now has the option to share the media library (which includes audio, image and video content) across the network, in a similar fashion to the DAAP protocol found in iTunes (but with slightly more thought put into it). In addition, if you have an XBOX 360 or other “Windows Media Center Extender”, you can stream directly to an external display, such as a projector or TV. All of this is great stuff, but falls down on one issue: it is all deliberately crippled. All of the new media sharing and DVD burning works fine for Microsoft’s own WMV formats, but woe betide anyone who tries to stream quicktime, Xvid, DivX, etc. movies.

Some of the other new features are Bitlocker- a built-in proprietary file encryption system (Keepass is essentially the same thing, but is free and open-source) and ReadyBoost, a method for using flash memory to accelerate I/O performance (but I can’t honestly report any quantifiable improvements when using it). There are several options to provide some form of backward compatibility with Windows XP-native applications, and these generally work OK. Starting Adobe After Effects 7 causes all the Aero features to be disabled, though this is only for the duration of running the application and automatically reverts back to normal when you exit it. Many applications I tried running, such as Autodesk Combustion 4.03 seem to work without any real problem, if a little quirkily, but Autodesk 3DS MAX 9, for example, won’t even install from the CD without repeatedly crashing.

Which brings us to the conclusion: it’s hard to see any real improvement in anything in the new OS. Perhaps in time, more applications will leverage some of the features and make a visible difference. But for now, for the price it just doesn’t seem like you’d be getting anything for your money. Sure it looks nice, but that flashy Windows key+Tab application switcher is not all that great after the novelty factor has gone. A brand new version of Vista Ultimate costs $250 from Amazon in the US. Trying to buy the same thing in the UK costs £370 (approximately $740 at current exchange rates) for unexplained reasons. Either price is high, the UK price ridiculously so. I haven’t factored the cost of an upgrade from Windows XP, purely because I don’t think there is any point upgrading from Windows XP. Due to the heavy hardware requirements of Vista, you will definitely notice a decrease in performance after upgrading (I have downgraded a couple of machines to verif this). Right now, Vista is best bought with a brand new PC, and even then, only to save you the hassle of having to install the numerous Windows XP updates and patches (standing at around 120 updates last time I tried…)

And as for the old Windows vs. Linux debate, though I’m not a huge fan of Linux myself, this release increases the differences between the two, for better and for worse.

Posted: January 31st, 2007
Categories: News
Comments: 2 comments

YouTube to offer Revenue to Filmmakers…

ABC… reports that YouTube… is set to provide a stream of revenue for the producers of original work submitted to the site. Details are sketchy, but basically adverts and bumpers will be injected into the submitted content. It’s due to be rolled out during the next few months, but we’ll have to wait and see if this becomes a genuine boon to independent filmmakers, an overdose of ads to regular YouTube viewers, or an exploitation tactic on the part of the company.

Posted: January 29th, 2007
Categories: News
Comments: No comments

A Google-eyed Glimpse of the Future?…

Google Operating System… has an interesting article… about Google’s possible long-term aims. The gist of it is that they are aiming to make applications (and by extension, computer operating systems) server-based. Right now, the majority of software running on your computer primarily leverage local resources, i.e. they run from and store data on attached disk drives. The ultimate aim, in so much as it’s possible to see right now, is to relocate much of this to one or more dedicated servers. The article then goes on to explain that Google already offers an implementation of this plan for its employees, via a system called “Platypus”.

The implicated advantages of the system are interesting: you need not worry about data backups (I should say “worry less”), but more importantly everything can potentially be accessible by everyone, everywhere.

Now, it will be a while before non-Google-employees get a taste of this technology, and probably much, much longer before it will start to have potential application within the film industry, but perhaps it serves a goal to strive to: imagine not having to worry about the physical location of reels of film or video tapes (assuming they are all scanned and digitized respectively), or indeed, any of the associated metadata, like edit versions, directors’ notes and the like. The production-studio-on-a-laptop paradigm just got a little closer.

Posted: January 29th, 2007
Categories: News
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