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Scott's Column
Backups,  File Formats, Laptop Choices and Mac Pricing

November 1, 2008
By Scott Lewis

Introductory paragraph goes here.

Current Topics:

Gaming

I finished Halo on the harder setting. I mentioned last month that I started playing it again with my new desktop. I started it over on the 3rd of 4 difficulty levels. The default is the 2nd level. It was a lot harder at some points. In fact, I had to start one level over because I did not do a good enough job conserving ammunition to complete a level.

I am bored. Money is tight, so I don't want to waste any money on a game right now. But here are the picks I am looking at:

* Halo 2
* Painkiller
* TimeShift
* The Orange Box

Since I enjoyed Halo 1 so much (yes, even with the annoying Monitor and the endless spores of the flood), I am pretty sure I am going to like Halo 2 right out of the box. It is still $30 at my local GameStop. At $20 it will be a no brainer. TimeShift has made it down to $20, so that is a possibility. I saw Painkiller at GameStop. It is a 3 game pack with the two sequels to the original game. Gamespot rated the first of the series at 8.5 out of 10. Pretty good. The Painkiller three game pack was $20 so it is a bargain.

The Orange Box is a multiple game pack as well. It contains Half Life 2 plus two other games. It also has previous versions of Half Life. Basically you get 5 games in one box. It is still priced at $40 at GameStop, so I am holding out for it to come down in price.

I just read that Starcraft 2 is going to be released as three games. Cool. I always liked playing as the "humans." I am glad it will be the first game to come out. I am pretty sure I will just buy it... though I will wait until it is affordable. $30 seems reasonable to me. I played Starcraft quite a bit, but it has been a very long time, so I loaded it up on my new Vista desktop. The graphics during the menus are terrible, with lots of weird artifacts. However, the playing graphics as normal. Normal means pretty low quality by today's standards.

I bought Warcraft III without thinking about it and regretted it. I did not like the hero thing. It was too hard for me to get into figuring out how to take my hero into battle to gain experience, yet not let him die in that battle. Also, I was never really fast enough at Warcraft/Starcraft with the keys and mouse. A good friend of mine would move so fast I could not imagine keeping up, and couldn't. He would regularly kick my butt in both Warcraft II and Starcraft when we would played online. But I love the games, even if I am not that good at them.

I loaded up Warcraft III and my youngest son and I are playing it a lot. I made it through the simple Orc Prologue, the Human Campaign and I am close to the end of the UnDead Campaign. I am assuming that there will be at least one more campaign for the Orcs, and maybe even the elves. I'll let you know next month.

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TV Show & Movie Backups

I am currently using my home file server and my laptop for movie storage. I have been ripping my DVD collection to my desktop computer, but my desktop has only 220 GB of storage spread across two hard drives. I also use my desktop to sync (almost) all my music with my Zune 80. At this moment in time I have about 35 GB of music on my Zune, so this is duplicated on my desktop. I also use my desktop to record TV with a tuner card. Again, lots more space. So I am forced to off load the movies to my server. My server is hurting for space as well. I keep EVERYTHING on the server and it has a 320 GB drive with only 250 GB for shared storage. Movies, music and pictures as well as some serious backups of the laptops around the house mean the server gets full.

I am offsetting the server with my laptop which has a 200 GB drive. I store some movies that won't fit on the server. Ideally I want to get a really big external hard drive. I am not picky, so I will save a few bucks and get one that is USB only. I don't need the extra performance of an eSATA drive. I want an external hard drive for two purposes.

  • Backup all the machines in the house
  •  Extend the storage capacity on the server

If each machine is being backed up to an external USB drive I will not worry about backing them up to the server itself. Well, maybe I will as a precaution. But backing up the other computers would no longer be done on the servers internal 320 GB drive. That will free up space for the usual stuff. Movies and TV shows will exclusively be stored on the external drive while it is attached to the server. This should allow the server's internal hard drive to handle all other files. Before movies and TV shows I did not have any space issues.

I want to get a 1 TB drive (1,000 GB). When they get cheap enough I will get one.

In the mean time I will probably offload the movies and TV shows that I want to save to DVD media for long term storage. For instance, I have every episode of Burn Notice (except one, problem recording) recorded through Media Center. Media Center's files are huge (about 1.5 GB per hour in "good" quality). I should hopefully fit 3 episodes to a DVD disc before deleting them from the server.

I have been ripping movies with DVDfab Platinum for syncing on my Zune and watching on laptops. I would like to do the same and try storing 3 movies per DVD disc for long term storage until I get the external drive. My oldest son wants to put a couple of movies on his iPod, but his space is limited. I normally rip movies in full resolution (720x400 in DVDfab). This is great for the Zune which has an 80 GB drive. The Zune also displays the full resolution when attached to a TV for what I like to call "near DVD" quality. However, it is overkill for watching a movie in an iPod, so I rip some movies twice, once at 720 and again at 320 for my son's iPod. That means even more disc space needed on the server.

I did the unthinkable. I downloaded Dexter season 1 & 2 through BitTorrent. I know there is some issues of legality here. I watched season one when it was on regular TV during the writer's strike. I watched season 2 on my Zune from the BitTorrent downloads. The format of the files was 320x240 MP4. This works great on the Zune, but is too low resolution for watching on TV.

I don't know how to get recorded TV shows off my Time Warner DVR so I can watch them on my Zune. I now subscribe to Showtime and this would be cool. My TV tuner card only picks up channels 1-99, and Showtime is 350. Besides, I have had trouble even recording HBO (on analog channel 14) with Media Center. It won't let me sync them to my Zune.

At present I have 147 movies taking up 191 GB of space between my server and laptop. If I put those MP4 files on DVD discs it would take 49 discs. I am NOT going to do that. I am going to backup some of the movies to DVD this way, but mostly I am holding out for the external hard drive.

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Movies in MP4 format

As I said I rip movies to my computer in MP4 format. This is natively supported by my Zune 80 and my son's iPod Nano. My only problem with this format is that it is not supported by Media Center, and to a lesser extent it is also not supported my Media Player. I wish Media Center would support this format, it would make getting a media extender a simple task. It would be great to record shows from Media Center and rip movies and store them all on my server that a Media Extender could see. As it is now this landscape of digital nirvana is a little out of my grasp. I am not worried yet. After February the cable company should be transitioning to using Cable Cards or some such thing. I will research that when the time comes.

As it is now I can sync my MP4 movies with my Zune and play them back through the Zune attached to my TV. Unfortunately, the Zune is a 4:3 device and it does not map well to a 16:9 widescreen TV. Oops! That is a setting the Zune needs... to tell it what format your TV Out is going to. Microsoft, are you listening?

I just read in PC Magazine's article on Windows 7 Will Be Vista's Better Self—And More (http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2333434,00.asp) this little tid-bit:

"In addition to non-DRM AAC support for songs ripped from iTunes, the operating system will play video encoded in DivX, Xvid, H.264, and proprietary video formats from pocket-size video cameras like the Flip Mino. Windows 7 will also do a better job of discovering DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) devices, allowing attendees to select music from any connected Windows 7 PC and play it through a connected device."

My MP4 files are encoded in H.264, so I am hopeful that I will be able to leverage Windows 7 with a Media Extender to do what I want with my digital library.

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Picking a Laptop

I want to get a Mac as my next laptop, but I could be convinced to stay with Windows if a machine was outstanding. I really like the idea of the MacBook Air. But will I really like it.

It's like this... I used to think I really liked aquariums. Then I got one and found them to be too much work to keep nice and too expensive to fill with cool looking fish of a decent size. I had an epiphany that I like the "idea" of an aquarium, but I don't actually like an aquarium.

It is the same with my pool table. I like having it, but rarely use it. It is upstairs (inconvenient) and there isn't anyone around regularly that can play at my level (which is not that high, just higher than my wife and kids). Since I hardly use it the kids use it like a table, which means I have to be in the mood to clean it before using it (also inconvenient). So maybe I like the idea of a pool table but don't actually like a pool table. I do know that it is boring to play by myself.

I waited a long time before getting a new MP3 player. I spent a long time checking out players before settling on the Zune 80. I do not regret it for one second. Had I gotten the iPod Touch I would always be trying to decide what music I should sync with it. As it is I sync everything with the Zune, and have plenty of room for dozens of TV shows and movies. Yes, the iPod Touch's screen would have been better for watching video content, but I listen to music more than anything else with the Zune, plus it sounds more than good enough and holds all my music. I definitely made the right choice.

I need to use this same kind of logic with my next laptop. I certainly like the idea of an ultra lightweight laptop. But will I like it after living with the compromises after a few weeks, or even days. With the MacBook Air I am concerned with the lack of a user replaceable battery. I have replaced batteries before, and I plan to buy a new battery for my current laptop when I pass it on to my son (why should he have to deal with 10 minutes of battery life). I can easily live without the optical drive. I don't use the optical drive in my laptop that much, and since I have a desktop with an excellent drive this is not an issue.

I use my current laptop with a folding "lapdesk." This keeps much of the heat off of me, but my manhood still gets pretty toasty when I use the laptop on my actual lap. So I tend to sit cross legged with the laptop on the bed. The folding lapdesk is necessary to allow airflow around the bottom of the laptop which draws air in from the bottom. I don't like leaving it on the blankets directly for lack of air flow. I believe the Macbook Air has a solid bottom with no fan to draw air through. I would expect to use the MacBook Air without a "lapdesk" device.

Beside the battery life, I am concerned with getting significantly lower performance than a regular MacBook for $500 more. That is a significant amount of money. The MacBook weighs about 40% more than the MacBook Air. How cool would the Air be for just carrying all over the house and just using it. Granted, this kind of mobility demands decent battery life, which I have heard the Air lacks. Now that the Air has been updated with a 120 GB hard drive I expect space not be an issue. At 80 GB the Air would be a problem. I will definitely install Windows with Boot Camp and/or Parallels. If I have to partition an 80 GB hard drive space will get tight real fast.

I have a very hard time justifying spending $2,000 for a MacBook Pro, even the slightly updated ones. I just don't need that much power in a laptop. On the flip side, I am concerned that a 13" screen may not be enough for me. I was really hoping the new MacBooks would come with a higher resolution than the same old 1280 x 800, and maybe even go up to 14". The new nVidia graphics should have made a nice 14.1" 1440 x 900 resolution possible. Oh, well.

Speaking of the new MacBooks, I was a little disappointed that the $1,299 model got SLOWER. That's right the previous "white" MacBook at $1,299 had a 2.4 GHz processor, now we only get 2.0 GHz for the same money. Oops! I really like the solid aluminum case from the new "brick" manufacturing process. I have not touched one yet, but I assume it will have a solid bottom with no fan. This will allow me to use it in bed without a lapdesk.

With the MacBook dropping to 4.5 lbs and the LED powered glass screen I think I have picked my laptop. I may still consider a refurbished MacBook Air or MacBook Pro.

I created a quick spreadsheet to start comparing laptops. I have the old and new MacBooks and MacBook Airs in it. I created a page for 13.3", 14.1" and 15-16" laptops. I think I would really like a 14" laptop and Lenovo's T400 and SL400 have the 1440 x 900 resolution. Next month I will provide a link to the spreadsheet as I fill it out more with other laptops.

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Mac Prices

With the recent release of the new MacBook laptops I have seen a great deal of articles and blogs comparing the prices of Mac laptops to Windows based laptops. At first I was thinking that my own research on this topic from July 2007 would be easy enough to rely on. Not so.

In that report the MacBook I looked at had a 2.26 GHz CPU when all other comparable laptops where at or below 2.0 GHz. After that article Apple refreshed the MacBooks to the point of adding faster CPUs. As previously mentioned above the $1,299 "White" MacBook that just went out came with 2.4 GHz. Now $1,299 gets you back down to 2.0 GHz. I have seen a lot of laptops with over 2.0 GHz now. The 14" Lenovos I looked at came with 2.26 GHz CPUs for less than the MacBook. Granted, the speed of the CPU is not the only factor in performance. I believe the new MacBooks use a new design CPU that works better even at a lower speed.

All this means that I need to revisit my own article and those of other people. Next month I will try to be objective and report on the cost difference between the $1,299 MacBook and its close competition.

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Conclusion

That was a lot this month. I am going to try to cover the Mac price issue in more detail than I have ever seen. I am planning to cover both the cost of the hardware and the cost of the software. I will even take into account the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO).

Until then...

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