AVCHD Backup Strategy

Back in December I purchased a new video camera–the High Definition Canon Vixia HF100. Naturally, I did a lot of research before purchasing it as I wasn’t very familiar with the AVCHD format–a high definition H.264 codec that is very efficient and is able to store a lot of video data using a minimal amount of memory. The codec does this by only recording changes in the images rather than full frames. I don’t know the intricate details of the technology, however, it is quite impressive how good the quality is for such an inexpensive camera. You can see the quality this camera can produce by going to Vimeo.com and searching for the tag HF100. So if the video is so great at such a decent price, what’s the catch?

Simply put, the catch is that there are no applications available currently that can edit the AVCHD format natively on the Mac. The Canon camera, and other AVCHD cameras like it, create files that use the .mts file extension. Again, I’m not familiar with all of the technical details, however, I do know the only way to work with the files on the Macintosh is to convert them to some other format. iMovie 08/09 both handle the AVCHD format by importing the .mts files and converting them to the Apple Intermediate Codec (AIC).

iMovie provides several different options for importing the video data, however, if you decide to go with the “Full HD” option when importing, which I recommend if you want to have high quality output, your files will be GINORMOUS! Mine run in the neighborhood of about 1GB per minute of video. That’s huge!

Back in the days of tape, yes probably most people are still using tape, you could simply fill a tape with video and then put a date on it and add it to your physical media archive on a shelf somewhere. This works well as the shelf life for tape, while not infinite, is really quite good. This is exactly how I’ve done archiving in the past (and when I still use my old DV camera for various tasks). The question for me has become, how can I archive such massive amounts of data as efficiently and with some level of confidence that the data won’t get lost. Here are the the various issues I considered in coming up with my backup strategy:

  • Hard Drive: This is a viable option for sure as disks keep getting cheaper, however, I have heard enough stories of failed hard drives that this one makes me a bit nervous. I can see using it as a secondary backup strategy, but I don’t trust hard drives enough. RAID seems like a reasonable solution, but that requires more money as you need redundancy which requires multiple disks.
  • Burning AIC Format to DVD: This strategy would just be too much work. Remember that you can only hold 4.7GB on a single layer DVD-R/DVD+R. This means that you would be able to store less that 5 minutes of video on a single disk. While I worked hard to force myself to record short clips and keep things maintainable at the clip level, manually splitting all of the clips up in order to only get 5 minutes of video per disc seems just unmanageable.
  • Burning AVCHD Format to DVD: The shelf life of optical media is also questionable, however, this is the strategy I am pursuing at the moment. Ideally solid state drives will get much bigger and cheaper at which point I will move everything over. For now, however, burning to DVD is the strategy I’m going to use

So I’ve decided that burning the original files to DVD is the best way to go for now as the shelf life of optical media is reasonable enough that my data should keep in the near term. And I’ve chosen to archive the video in its compressed AVCHD format. Here, however, is where the strategy gets interesting. I want to have a way to get the clips off of the DVD without too much hassle while using iMovie. Your strategy may differ if you use some other editing software. Here is what I mean.

iMovie automatically detects the existence of AVCHD movie clips when you either plug in your camera or mount the SD card with a card reader and loads the import utility. What I have done is taken the data from the SD card; copied it to my hard drive; and then made a disk image (.dmg) file out of it. When this disk image is mounted while iMovie is open, it will automatically detect that the image contains the AVCHD video files and load the import utility just as if it were physical media being mounted. Pretty cool eh? So, yes there is a bit of work on the front end, however, when you burn these disk images to a DVD, you can just mount them directly when you put the DVD in at some point in the future when you are ready to import and start working with the clips. So here are the steps you need to get this done.

  1. Plug in your camera or mount the SD card with a card reader. Then run iMovie
  2. When iMovie runs, it will automatically detect your camera or SD card and will load the import utility. Click the “Archive All…” button at the bottom of the window. Choose your Desktop as the save location (you’ll see why shortly) and give the file a name and iMovie will back up the data to your hard drive.
    Archive All...
    Archive All...
  3. The backup process will take a little while depending upon how much data you are saving. Once it has finished, you need to open Terminal.app, which is located in /Applications/Utilities.
  4. Now we need to create the disk image and will do so using a command line utility called hdiutil. You need to change directories to your Desktop. To do so, at the command prompt in Terminal type cd Desktop and press Enter. You are now in the Desktop folder where we saved the archive.
  5. To save the archive folder as a disk image, type the following command followed by the enter key: hdiutil create -srcdir ArchiveFolder AVCHDImage.dmg. This command will take a little while depending upon how much data your are archiving. You will know the process has finished when the command prompt returns. You should expect it to take a while if you are saving several gigabytes worth of data so be patient as the progress that hdiutil shows isn’t very informative. It is, however, working.

    Note: ArchiveFolder is the name of the folder you saved when you had iMovie create the file on your Desktop. This command will not work if you specified spaces in your folder name. If you do use spaces, you will need to escape them. This means that if you created a folder called ‘Archive Folder’ for example, your command would need to be: hdiutil create -srcdir Archive\ Folder AVCHDImage.dmg. Notice the backslash before the space. Add this backslash before any spaces in your archive folder’s name.

  6. Once hdiutil has finished creating the disk image, you can now burn it to a DVD. Insert a blank DVD and open a new burn folder on the desktop or somewhere handy. Then drag the disk image to the burn folder and click burn.
  7. Once your burn is finished, insert the DVD back into your drive (if it was ejected) and let it mount on the desktop. Open the disk and double click the .dmg file. This will mount the image. You can click Skip during the verification process if you want to have it simply mount without verification. I usually skip it myself as I’m impatient.
  8. Open iMovie again. iMovie should detect the disk image and automatically load the import utility. If it doesn’t then you may have done something wrong. Shoot me specific questions in the comments if you need help here.

There is one caveat I should mention to using this technique. I suggest you keep your data size on your SD card to 4GB or so. In fact I use a 4GB card for precisely this reason–it fits well with my backup-to-DVD strategy since a single layer DVD only holds 4.7GB. If you have a hard drive based camera, you’ll have to keep an eye on the size of the data in order to ensure that your data will fit on a single DVD, but this shouldn’t be too difficult. I have a 16GB SD card for those cases where I need to capture longer shots like when capturing a long presentation, but most of what I do allows me to keep smaller files and therefore reasonable backup sizes.

So that’s it. It’s not a perfect strategy as the shelf life for DVDs is a little disconcerting, however, I have every confidence that solid state memory as it becomes more and more ubiquitous will be the best backup/archival methodology once the drives get bigger and the costs continue to go down. In the mean time, this strategy seems to be the best one for backing AVCHD video. If you have other strategies that have worked for you, share them in the comments. I would love to hear your ideas.

Good luck.

Guitar Hero On The Commodore 64?

Shredz64Wow, some people have some serious hacking skills. That, and a lot of time. This guy built his own interface that allows him to connect the Guitar Hero controller for the Playstation up to his Commodore 64 on which he plays a Guitar Hero clone he calls Shredz64.

That’s very geeky… and cool!

Get more information at Toni Westbrook’s website and here is more about his Shredz64.

4GB Memory Upgrade for $92.50

I’ve been waiting to upgrade the memory in my MacBook Pro, but hadn’t–until this week. Other World Computing has this deal going on right now where you can get the 4GB upgrade for $92.50. If you send in your old memory chips after the upgrade, you can take up to an additional $20 off. After it’s all said and done, this will cost me $72.50 for a 4GB upgrade. That’s a pretty good deal.

Analysis of the $800 Hakintosh

Life Hacker posted an article called Build a Hackintosh Mac for Under $800 on Tuesday this week. It’s quite a work of art, in my opinion–not Jonathan Ive kind of art mind you, but a form of art for sure.

When Apple first released the developer version of Tiger when they announced moving to Intel hardware, I didn’t own a Mac, or more accurately I hadn’t bought a new one since college and then the last OS I had was OS 7.5 on a a Motorola 68040 processor. I always loved the Mac, even in the pre-OSX days, and I had been been wanting to get back to the platform ever since college, but alas I could never justify the cost since all my work has been done on Windows (until a few months ago when I finally got a MBP).

When I discovered that the developer version of Tiger was available on bit torrent back then, I downloaded it–bought a separate internal hard drive that I could swap out with my Windows XP drive in my Dell. I made my own hakintosh out of a Dell Inspiron 5150. I was amazed at how easy it was and it worked “out of the…. torrent?”.

But here’s the trouble (and all of these points are mentioned in the comments of the Hakintosh article) and this summarizes what I found in my own experience:

  • I’ll get this one out of the way first. It’s illegal. The “patched” version is not legal. That’s why you have to go search bit torrent for it. If it were legal, people would just host it for you on their websites
  • Any time you want to update to the latest software or hardware, you have to hack the updates to get them to work if you could get them to work at all.
  • Certain hardware when plugged into the firewire or USB 2 ports would cause a kernel panic and crash the system. Maybe this is working on the Life Hacker Hakintosh, but this pretty much kept me from ever importing video or photos or connecting to audio hardware for GarageBand recording. In other words it completely eliminated any of the usefulness of the iLife suite
  • If you build a system and then add a legitimate Leopard license ($129) and 20″ LCD screen ($180 +/- $30), you’re now up to $1160 (not counting Adam’s rebates on the Life Hacker Hakintosh).

At that point you’re close to the cost of the least expensive iMac. Given, you don’t get anywhere near the same specs as far as performance, but what will end up happening if you go this route is what happened to me–I got tired of fidgeting with trying to get updates to work and the computer was all but useless to me on the creative front since all my peripherals would crash the system. No home movies, no photo management, no music composition–no point to it.

I’m sure you will hear a number of people–true hackers–who will decry the point here as they have successfully gotten everything to work “just fine”. I write this, not for them, but for people like my friend who pointed the article out to me. He is competent enough with computers where he could get this system put together and probably have some decent initial results, but to maintain the system and to be ensured all his peripherals will work, he would be heart broken when I would tell him that he needs to mess around with kernel extensions and plist files. Blank stares, and probably tears, would abound.

The Hakintosh is a really fun project for hacker types. I enjoy it myself, however, it’s simply not practical for the average or even above average user to get a working system. For those who think that that they can get a cheap Mac system this way, please beware–you may be up to the challenge at first, but it will burn you out in the end and you, like most Windows Vista users, will end up installing Windows XP on your system and making it into a file server.

The Cost of Doing Business

Dell LogoAs is true for most of us who use computers to make our living, I am often asked by friends and family for recommendations on what brand of computer to buy. Over the years my suggestions have changed, but the basis for those suggestions hasn’t. With the exception of Mac users, people don’t purchase computers for intrinsic value. It is always most bang for the buck and that is what I focus on.

In the course of the past four years or so my recommendation has been pretty consistent; Dell. Most of the time when I look around for deals, Dell is right in there with the rest to provide best bang for the buck and they provide world class customer service. That alone pushes it over the top in my mind.

But somewhere in the course of the last two years, in my own experience, something has changed. I purchased a laptop myself from Dell in October 2003. Knowing that laptops can be troublesome, I purchased the extended three-year warranty. That would soon prove to be my only saving grace.

Dell Inspiron 5150When I bought my laptop, I bought the best. I upgraded everthing. I got the 60GB 7200 RPM hard drive, DVD Rewritable drive, 1GB of memory, Firewire, and USB 2.0. It is was a smokin machine. I use it for my work and it has really helped my productivity when it comes to build times (especially compared to the 500Mhz PIII I had before it).

For the first year of owning it, I didn’t have any problems, but shortly after the one year anniversary, something happened. When I plugged in my laptop, the OS would not reflect the change in the battery monitor. I called Dell and they had me send it in. After transferring all of my work files to a backup computer, I sent it in and they turned it around pretty quickly. What I didn’t know was that this was the first in a downhill trend that has plagued me since.

Since that time Dell on two occassions has sent me parts that I could replace myself, but I have also had to send it in two times since and I am now on my third motherboard. Just last week, my sound card, which is integrated on the motherboard died and I am now in need of a third motherboard replacement which puts me on my fourth motherboard.

I recently did a search on eBay for my model of computer and found several of them for sale with bad motherboards, to be salvaged for parts. As best as I can tell the people selling those are the folks who bought the computer, but didn’t spring for the extended warranty. What a lesson to learn the hard way. If it had been me, I would be out $2500.00 after one year.
I understand that businesses have to reduce their costs to compete and that means that they have to cut corners, but the most egregious part of the whole ordeal to me is the fact that every time I call Dell, they add insult to injury by sending me to a call center in India.

I don’t want to sound ethnocentric here. I think India is a great country that focuses on technology and is becoming a real reckoning force in the field especially as it relates to computers and software development. The issue for me, though, is the fact that when I call in, my brain has to kick in to a high language processing gear in order to understand what the call center folks are saying. I know many of these folks have spent a lot of time learning to speak English clearly and are doing very well, but over the phone it is almost always necessary for me to have them repeat what they’ve said multiple times.

The end result of making these calls, leaves a lot to be desired. I often walk away feeling frustrated. Sometimes I go away feeling patronized. I’ve sometimes had to raise my voice to get my point across. In the end, I still have to go back through the same process of moving my work files to my backup computer. I then move my backup computer into my office (it’s a noisy desktop I just keep networked in a different room where no one is bothered by the sound) and set up the monitor and run a 50′ CAT5 cable to my network router. It’s a pain and takes time away from my work.

The bottom line is that it seems Dell, as well as others, have gone too far in the cuts they’ve made. I can’t imagine why you would offshore your call centers other than costs and that, frankly, demonstrates making the customer a secondary concern.

Dell was a great company when they were winning awards for their customer service. If they are still winning awards it is probably because everyone else is worse at it than they are. My question is when my family and friends ask me now to recommend which computer to buy, who should I tell them? It won’t be Dell. Lately I’ve been suggesting that people buy a Mac. I know they have their problems as well, but at least if you become a cult member you’ll feel better about it when things go wrong. Cults tend to do that to people.

I will make another call to Dell today to get my laptop fixed again. They are requiring me to send it in again for this third motherboard replacement. I know there is a point with Dell when they will provide you with a replacement, but frankly, I would settle for the same computer but one that is reliable. I’m afraid that’s not possible because there seems to be a defect with these motherboards, but I certainly hope that it gets resolved in some agreeable way (to me) by October 2006, when my three-year warranty runs out.