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  • Bringing your discs into the digital age
  • [Tweet] [Facebook] [Google Plus] [LinkedIn]Tue, Sep 16 2014 5:42:51 PDT - [Permalink] - Category: tech - by: Patrick Lambert



    Let's face it, we're way past the days when swapping discs was the norm. Digitizing DVDs and Blu-Rays for home streaming is nothing new, but when I went to do it, I had to browse through a lot of different methods online and try a lot of ways. So I thought I would document what I found to work best for me.

    DVDs

    The first software you're going to need is Handbrake. This is an encoding app that will convert the large optical files into smaller MPEG4s able to be played locally. By default, Handbrake can't decode DVDs, so if you live in a country where it isn't illegal to make personal backups of your media (ie. not the US) then you can download this file (or this file if you installed the 64bits version) and save it in the Handbrake folder (usually C:\Program Files (x86)\Handbrake) as libdvdcss.dll.

    Once that's done, you can start the app, insert your DVD, then select the disk from the Source button. You'll see all the tracks appear in the drop down menu just below that. Now you have to select the longest track, which will be the movie. The others are menus, ads and special features. If the disc contains shows, then you will see several tracks with similar lengths, and you can do them all one by one. Enter a destination file in the Destination box, and click Start.

    Blu-Rays

    For those, you will need AnyDVD. This is a paid program, but they offer a 21 day trial. If you're simply digitizing your collection, then that will be more than enough time to do it. Simply start the app, insert your Blu-Ray disc, and right click on the app's icon in your system tray. Select Rip DVD Video and select the destination you want. This will make copies of the Blu-Ray files, which can be up to 50GBs. Then, start Handbrake and this time around instead of selecting the disc in Source, go to the files you just produced, and inside of the STREAM folder, again select the biggest file.

    Now there are some Blu-Rays that are multi-track discs. This means you won't find a single big file containing the movie, but instead a bunch of smaller files. For that you can use MakeMKV to select the index file in the folders you produced from AnyDVD, and it will show you which files are part of the main title. Just select those, then it will create a single MKV from it. Again, that file will be as big as the original, so you'll want to use Handbrake on this MKV to convert it to MPEG4. One thing of note, there is an option called Large file in Handbrake which I found I needed to check in order for my Blu-Ray files to be playable. I personally used the Apple TV 2 preset which produced a good result with a small enough file.

    After I digitized my collection, I'm now streaming it through my media server (I'm using a router with DLNA capabilities, but you can also use Windows Media Player, or an HTPC) to my Apple TV, controlling it with my iPad via AirPlay. I've tried a dozen DLNA apps to do this, and I ended up using Infuse 2 which is years ahead of the others. Every app I tried wouldn't support some format, or it would support it but not AirPlay it. Infuse supported everything. Also, every other app would only show file names. Infuse gathers the title, a description and thumbnail for every file and saves it as metadata, giving you a much better experience while browsing your media. Happy ripping!


  • Apple event thoughts
  • [Tweet] [Facebook] [Google Plus] [LinkedIn]Tue, Sep 9 2014 14:30:47 PDT - [Permalink] - Category: tech - by: Patrick Lambert



    Have Apple events become routine? That's a bit how I feel after listening to the stream and seeing all the shiny new products that the company wanted to announce. Once again, there were few surprises. The iPhone 6 was pretty much as we expected, even the names iPhone and iPhone Plus had been leaked. They are certainly very pretty, albeit expensive, with a very nice battery life increase, a payment system and a thinner profile. But if anything it seems like Apple glossed over its brand new phone quite quickly.

    Most of the event was dedicated to the Apple Watch. Again, most people knew they would be announcing a watch, although we didn't know the name for this one. They demonstrated the product, and I have to say it's probably the most advanced wearable out there. The screen is superb, something Apple is renowned for, and the interface is sure to be innovative. Still, I have no interest in it. I haven't worn a watch in decades, and won't start again. I suppose watch wearers may be interested, although just like the Android watches, this one seems so bulky it's unlikely to be all that comfortable.

    Finally, Apple also spent some time on their health and fitness offerings, again things I only have a mild interest in. For me, and I suspect for many people, it's a really simple equation. I'm in the iOS ecosystem, and I've been wanting a larger screen, so the iPhone 6 is a sure thing. Will the iPhone 6 be a blockbuster? Of course it will. Will the Apple Watch be a good sell, with people pointing out shortcomings, which will then be fixed in further yearly updates, the same way the iPhone and iPad have evolved? Definitively. It seems like Apple has set a good routine for itself, from product release to yearly improvements, and this event was par for the course.


  • Why the iPhone 6 hype is so high
  • [Tweet] [Facebook] [Google Plus] [LinkedIn]Sat, Sep 6 2014 10:54:45 PDT - [Permalink] - Category: tech - by: Patrick Lambert



    I watched the recent Samsung event where they announced the Galaxy Note 4, and was amused to notice that Rachel Riley, their celebrity on stage, was actually an iPhone user. It's not like she made a secret of it, so clearly Samsung had to know of it. Why choose her for their phone event, then? The fact is that you would be hard pressed to find a celebrity using Android. It's still a common thought, valid or not, that those with money to spend use iOS, while the majority of others use Android because it's cheaper.

    I won't debate this highly controversial fact, or whether or not Apple products are worth their sometimes considerable price hike, but I think this thought goes to the heart of why each Apple event is so hyped. If this was the product of a few hardcore fans, we wouldn't have anywhere near the media coverage that we see right now for this week's event. There are many hardcore Android fans, yet few would argue that the coming Apple event is going to be seen and reported by far more people than what Samsung or other Android device makers do. Simply put, the reporters writing the news use an iPhone.

    Also, many pundits believe that this particular event is even more important than usual. After keeping the same screen size for years, now all rumors point to Apple bringing us bigger screens, which is one of the main reasons, in my opinion, to go for an Android device. Also, many believe we'll finally see an iWatch, although I'm not convinced. If we do see one, I don't think it will be sold this month. So it's a simple fact of life that Apple devices are overly hyped and covered, simply because news reporters, celebrities, anyone with clout in the media industry, overwhelmingly go for iOS. Whether it's for the ease of use, esthetics, or blind fanboyism, it's a fact of life. And this time around, we all expect big things from Cupertino.

    As for me, I have no interest in wearable, but that rumored iPhone 6 looks mighty appetizing...


  • Rejecting subscription models
  • [Tweet] [Facebook] [Google Plus] [LinkedIn]Wed, Sep 3 2014 10:27:22 PDT - [Permalink] - Category: tech - by: Patrick Lambert

    There are two ways software has historically been developed, and apps deployed. Traditional software are packages that get created, coded and distributed in the form of a disk or download you purchase and then install on your system. It may use web services, but the app mainly resides on your own computer and allows you to do tasks locally. Server software are apps that reside on a server, and which you access using a browser or a dedicated client.

    If you use an app that lives on a server, that requires constant support and updates, then it's understandable that you are expected to use a different payment model. An MMO game, for example, is a game which relies heavily on other players. The game software itself only contains graphical assets, everything else lives on the server, and the social parts allowed by this is what makes an MMO. Similarly, if you pay for a web server, or a cloud backup solution, the main functionality is the server resources and space offered, along with the constant monitoring and support. This is where subscription models come from, and I have no problem paying my $5 per month for the host of this site, or $15 per month for access to World of Warcraft.

    But it's not hard to know what app falls into what category. A word processor is a local app. It's software which allows you to write and format text and then do various functions with it. Paint applications, most games and many more apps are local. Developers may add network functionality, like the ability to share on Facebook, to access cloud storage, or match making, but core functionality remains local. Yet in the last years, companies have more and more pushed everyone to subscription models. I've written about this in the past, and I still think it's a terrible change.

    Adobe Photoshop CS6 was the last version of any Adobe product offered for sale. Now, you cannot buy Photoshop, you have to pay each month to access their cloud service. Microsoft is also pushing this with Office 365, with many thinking Office 2013 will be the last purchasable version. EA Access is likely to become a requirement to access more and more content from the biggest game publisher out there, and now there are rumors the next version of Windows will be subscription based as well. If Microsoft thought that not enough people upgraded to Windows 8, asking for monthly payments is sure to make things worse.

    The upcoming landscape is one that makes companies salivate, but one I want no part in. We're heading to a world where you no longer decide on software based on the purchase cost to own it forever, but on how much you're going to have to pay every month from now to eternity, if you don't want to lose access to it. Between a $49 Adobe subscription, a $10 Office 365 subscription, a $5 EA subscription, where will it stop? We're at a crossroad, and only our wallets will decide where we go from here.

    I myself still use many older software, including E-on Vue 6, a graphics app I bought in 2006 for over $1,000 and that I still use weekly. I have never upgraded it because it simply works for me, and I have no desire to spend another grand for features I don't need. If you've been using computers for a while, I bet you also have older software and games on your shelf, things you may only seldom use, but that can still be useful. That's all going to be a thing of the past if subscription models become the norm. Try to think how much you would be paying each month if all of them required an active subscription. Either you keep paying, or you don't get access anymore.

    The solution? Force companies to go back to offline, full purchase options, or support developers who don't tie you into their cloud offerings. There's nothing wrong with the cloud, or paying for cloud services. But those should be separate options, not tied into apps that don't need it.


  • The Walking Dead game season 2
  • [Tweet] [Facebook] [Google Plus] [LinkedIn]Thu, Aug 28 2014 5:52:42 PDT - [Permalink] - Category: gaming - by: Patrick Lambert



    This week was the finale for season 2 of The Walking Dead game from Telltale. I reviewed season 1 and found it to be an excellent, refreshing type of game. After playing through season 2, I have to say that they maintain their style and fun factor.

    This season, we followed Clem in her adventures through zombie infested landscapes. Just like the TV series, as the story advances, the focus is less on the undead and more on conflicts with people. This is one of those rare games where choice matters, or at least appears to. The illusion that our decisions in the game affect the story is just as strong as before.

    Of course, for any veteran gamer, that illusion is obviously fairly thin. Anyone who replays a game like that realizes that there aren't a whole lot of diverging paths, and most decisions are only of short term influence, but the game disguises that better than most. Interestingly enough, the finale does have some very significant story branches. In fact, I would say TWD has more endings than the Mass Effect trilogy, which is both funny and sad at the same time. It makes me think that next season will focus on different characters, which wouldn't be surprising since that's what happened between season 1 and 2.

    If you like the show, or like role-playing games with actual choices, or just enjoy killing zombies, then you really should give this series a try.


  • Revisiting Microsoft OneNote
  • [Tweet] [Facebook] [Google Plus] [LinkedIn]Wed, Aug 27 2014 20:16:36 PDT - [Permalink] - Category: tech - by: Patrick Lambert



    If you've been following the OneNote Blog, and yes I know for most people that's extremely unlikely, you may have noticed things have clearly started to change since late last year. I'll give you a hint: In the past two weeks, OneNote has received two major Android updates, one major Windows store update, and improvements in online sharing. This free product, which used to be the tiniest part of Microsoft Office, is getting a faster cadence of upgrades than most other products from the company.

    I've been using OneNote on and off for quite a few years, and I have to say, the current version looks nothing like what it used to be a year ago. Whether it's the desktop, online, or mobile version, they have all been given a lot of care and attention, many features coming directly from user feedback. It's interesting how differently this one product is evolving compared to, let's say, Windows. Could Windows 9 follow the same model, and not be the fiasco that 8 was?

    That isn't to say OneNote is perfect. But let's start with the improvements. I've always liked a clean and simple interface for a note taking app, something which I feel Evernote lacks (even though I know many people love it). These updates continue in this line, and add what used to be glaringly lacking features, like the ability to create sections and do other tasks which were only available on the desktop, and can now be done on any client. They also made all the clients, from desktop to tablet and phone, have the same look and feel. It can export any note directly as PDF, and finally it can also accept pretty much any type of content including image, video and audio attachments.

    There are still some issues with this product however. One thing I'd like is if the iOS version had an option not to capitalize every sentence. I've also seen a weird bug where section titles didn't synchronize correctly with the web version until after I click on them, and the next time I reload it, they still show the old one. Finally, the online version seems to have no export or download function. The desktop OneNote client does, however it often complains about a full sync being needed, even after doing a full sync.

    Despite these bugs, I will be using OneNote as my main note taking application from now on. Making every version up to date and free, even the desktop one which doesn't even require Office, is a pretty effective way to get us on-board.


  • SWTOR: Galactic Strongholds review
  • [Tweet] [Facebook] [Google Plus] [LinkedIn]Mon, Aug 25 2014 6:10:58 PDT - [Permalink] - Category: gaming - by: Patrick Lambert



    This past week SWTOR released its latest major content patch to subscribers, Galactic Strongholds. Overall, I thought it was a pretty decent piece of content. I've been critical of SWTOR in the past but I feel this is a much better release so far. There are several features included:

    The biggest part are the strongholds themselves, the ability for players to have their own home on Nar Shaddaa, Tatooine, Dromund Kaas and Coruscant. Many people worried about the hook system for decorations, but I find it leaves plenty of freedom to get a unique look and feel. They also spread the various decorations out throughout the game, from flashpoints to quests, PvP and operations, so this content will likely have some legs.

    The second part are the guild ships. Again, a lot of people complained about the 50 million price tag, but I've already seen many guilds have their ships, so I don't think it's that big of a deal. I do worry however about the long term relevance of these things. They can be of use for guild meetings, but that's about it. I feel most people will instead select to focus on their own homes.

    Conquests are another part of this patch and this ties into the strongholds and guild ships. I think introducing unique mounts and other incentives to participate will keep this going for a while, but it's doubtful that a lot of people are going to put in the time to complete the full conquest missions each week.

    Finally, the Mannan flashpoint is the last part of this content patch. I found the planet itself quite nice, with great graphics very reminiscent of KOTOR. It's quite small but there are signs that Bioware may expand on it at some point. The flashpoint itself is fun and in line with the last ones we got, the Korriban and Tython invasions. Again, some of the rarer rewards require quite a number of runs through this flashpoint so it will likely stay relevant for some time.


  • It should be acceptable to use older versions of Windows
  • [Tweet] [Facebook] [Google Plus] [LinkedIn]Sun, Aug 24 2014 10:32:26 PDT - [Permalink] - Category: tech - by: Patrick Lambert



    Let's say you're a car collector. You drive a splendid '87 Buick GNX, one of the most praised vehicles of the 1980s by collectors to this day. You love the look, the feel when you drive it, and it simply works for you. Sure, newer cars have electronic gadgets that the Buick doesn't have, they come with added safety measures, but you know how to keep your car running, and you don't miss that modern comfort.

    What would be the general sense of those you come into contact with? What do people tend to say to collectors? Is the first topic of conversation about how hard it must be to keep the rust off? Or how much they are missing out by not having an on-board computer system? Typically not. So why is it that because software update cycles have been so fast in the past decade, that everything needs to keep progressing at the same pace, with no thought being given to the fact that perhaps, software too can reach a point of perfection, at least for some people.

    Windows XP is almost 14 years ago, yet more people still use it than Windows 8, despite the tech industry's massive effort to get people off of the aging OS. Now, Windows 7 is very likely to produce the same effect, and it's seen as a big problem. But why do people stick with these versions? We don't quite see the same thing happening with Windows Vista, ME, or other types of software like web browsers or email clients. The fact is people stick with Windows XP, and now 7, because they like it. Because it works for them, and changing would be a major process which isn't worth it for them.

    I would be among the many to argue that while Windows XP had its flaws (bad security model, low memory limit with the 32bits version, ugly default skin), Windows 7 on the other hand is pretty close to perfect. Does it mean Microsoft can't innovate, or that Windows 8 and the upcoming Windows 9 won't have valuable new enhancements? Of course not, but what we have now is more than good enough. Just like some will flock to the latest car models, others feel that the car industry reached its peak in the 80s, 70s, or even before.

    The main argument for always going to the latest versions is of course security. There is something to be said about how dangerous it can be to run an unpatched system. But the so-called XP apocalypse didn't happen after the end of support back in April. Sometimes old, proven code just doesn't have that many bugs anymore. Do I advocate people who buy new systems go back and install XP? No, not really, but at this point it does feel for many that Microsoft is changing things for change's sake, like the whole Metro fiasco that, for many, made Windows 8 just as hated as Vista was.

    The next time you see someone running XP or 7, before jumping to conclusions and advocating the latest release, investigate as to why they are using an older version, and whether they know how to take care of it. Look at whether that person runs some type of security software, knows how to behave online to not get bitten by malware, and whether they run this software by choice or out of laziness. Not everyone needs the latest features from Windows 8, just like not everyone should be upgrading Office every year, or Adobe Photoshop. There does come a point where software becomes mature enough that you just don't need it to do any more for you.

    Software makers accomplished something car salesmen only dream of: make using an older product socially unacceptable. Everyone can differentiate between an old rusted car who belongs in a scrapyard, and a collection piece. Don't make all software older than a few years into rust buckets.


  • Cloud services as shared libraries
  • [Tweet] [Facebook] [Google Plus] [LinkedIn]Fri, Aug 22 2014 14:05:44 PDT - [Permalink] - Category: tech - by: Patrick Lambert



    Have you ever had to install Microsoft SharePoint, Lotus Notes, or any other large enterprise software as an IT administrator? I can tell you, the dependencies they rely on are staggering. From the server OS, to a web server, back-end SQL database, runtime environment, sometimes a JIT compiler, libraries, and all sorts of other addons that make this giant, complex system work. Even for smaller software packages, we're used to having installers do quite a bit of setup work in the background, from installing Visual C++ libraries, the latest version of DirectX, or the Java runtime environment. Linux isn't immune to this either. Fortunately, package managers have become quite good at resolving dependencies, where installing a single RPM package may trigger your system to download a dozen others.

    Of course, shared libraries were introduced as a way to have many applications share a single resource. You don't want 15 identical instances of a single library running on your system. But there are also problems that come with an over reliance on dependencies. It makes the installation and update progress longer, and introduces potential incompatibilities. Overall however, it's a recognized benefit that most software makers adopt.

    But what is the cloud equivalent to dependencies? Not long ago, there was very little out there. If you built a web app, for example, you might rely on Perl or PHP libraries, but those are items that you would install on your own server along with your app. JQuery was one of the first web libraries to actually encourage developers to link to their web site instead of installing it locally. Even in what we now consider as a proper cloud setup, a virtual machine running on AWS or Azure, we typically treat it the same as if we were sitting in front of the machine, installing all that software locally.

    The landscape may well be changing, however. Not long ago, Microsoft introduced the early preview of a RemoteApp running in the cloud. This follows in the same footsteps as Google's App Engine, another Platform as a Service (PaaS) offering, a place where many developers host their own custom apps. Now just this week, Microsoft unveiled two of their own remote apps called DocumentDB and Azure Search.

    I think this is a significant progression in the realm of PaaS, and with cloud services in general. A lot of people have built custom apps on App Engine and other cloud solutions, but these are typically used internally, or by their own clients. Ask most web developers these days what they do when they need a database back-end for their latest project, and most will tell you that they install their own instance of MySQL, MS SQL, or enable such an instance on their host's panel. If they need a certain library or service, they install it themselves. This is even more true for desktop app makers. In fact, the only local apps that heavily leverage cloud services made by someone other then themselves are typically iCloud on iOS, or Google Services on Android. But I can easily see this change in the future.

    One big reason developers are wary of leveraging third party cloud services is the fear that it may go away. Even Google isn't immune. But as large companies like Google and Microsoft makes this concept more prevalent, this fear will go away. I can easily see a typical app of the future being provided not on a 4GB install disk, but perhaps 200MB, with a dozen libraries, addons and sub-packages being instead replaced by cloud services. Data saved in one cloud's database, the UI being powered by libraries and assets from another cloud service, documentation and training videos out on a media server, and so on.

    Do I think this is a good outcome? I'm not sure. I remember when Electronic Arts released their latest SimCity title and how many people complained it was an online only experience. More and more, companies are making their apps to be ever more connected, even if they don't actually need to be. But if the apps actually can't run without the cloud, that's a scary prospect. Yet when you look at benefits like lower costs, always up to date software, and centralized control for the manufacturers, I doubt it will be a difficult step for them to take.


  • Making cross platform binaries
  • [Tweet] [Facebook] [Google Plus] [LinkedIn]Fri, Aug 15 2014 19:16:40 PDT - [Permalink] - Category: tech - by: Patrick Lambert

    I don't consider myself a software developer, even though I've been writing code for well over 15 years now. I started on Linux, using the pico editor and coding in C. I produced things like a text editor, an IRC bot, and so on. This old code will most likely not compile anymore but it's still available on this site. Still, it's always been a hobby, not something I wished to become a full time gig.

    Since then, I've done everything from web development work in PHP and JavaScript, making Batch scripts, to playing with Visual C# and lately, a lot of Perl coding. Like many geeks, I use various systems, from Windows XP all the way to 8.1, Windows Server and Linux, both in VMs and out on the cloud through SSH or RDP. So I began looking for a way to make cross platform coding easier, but still retain the ability to produce native binaries. I've always hated Java from my short-lived experiments with the language many years ago, so JIT techniques left a bad taste in my mouth. I wanted something that could produce no-dependency binary code that could run on any platform.

    This is when I came across Perl packers. I've tried two of them, one free and one commercial. The free one is PAR::Packer, and the commercial one is Perl Dev Kit by ActiveSate. After having some issues with PAR's binary package not liking the version of some of my modules, then refusing to compile, in the end I settled on Perl Dev Kit for its ease of use, the wonderful way it deals with modules, and because it simply works.

    This is what the interface looks like:


    First, a brief overview of what a Perl binary does. Basically, Perl is an interpreted language that has to be run through the Perl library, which in turn loads the modules that are needed. The Perl Dev Kit simply takes the script, the Perl library, and any module your script requires, and packages it all into one nifty executable. Through the interface, you can download this environment of libraries and modules for every target system, and use them to create binaries. This means that on one Windows machine, I can use a single script and output binary files for Windows, Linux, OS X and so on.

    The benefit is obvious. Perl is great because it already is one of the most widespread language out there. It has hundreds of modules making any type of coding a breeze for the developer, and its inclusion into many popular systems means any web site will likely be able to run your scripts as-is. So being able to take that same script and make binaries that anyone can run without even having to download Perl and the required modules is very nice. Also, you only have a single file to distribute, while most modern software come with tons of dependencies that get installed at the same time.

    All is not rosy however. To run, the binary has to unpack its Perl library and modules before beginning execution. So this does mean the start-up process is slower than native code made with Visual C# on Windows, or GCC on Linux, for example. Also, your file size will tend to be bigger since you link the modules that you need statically, instead of having a small binary with a lot of supporting files.

    Overall I'm pretty happy with the result. Speaking about Perl, I would like to say kudos to ActiveState for making PPM, the best module manager I've seen, which simply works, unlike CPAN which seems to fail on every platform I've tried it on (although some Linux distributions have started to include Perl modules in their own software repositories which is ironic). You can see some of the things I've made in the downloads section.

    On a final note, now I'm going to need a way to turn Perl code into native iOS and Android apps, to make this process truly complete. I've actually found a project to do this for Android but it seems in early beta. I can always hope..


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