Posted on February 15th, 2014 8 comments
About 10 years ago I helped to develop a product that converted videotapes to DVDs. It was called the HP DVD Movie Writer. It was sold for several years under the HP model numbers dc3000, dc4000, and dc5000. Those products are obsolete now, and the software drivers and application software haven’t been updated to work on the more modern operating systems like Windows 7 and 8. I still maintain the FAQ webpage for it and so I periodically get questions about what to use these days to convert analog video tapes to digital formats when customers find their Movie Writers are no longer supported. I’ll attempt to answer that question in this article. The HP DVD Movie Writer was introduced at a time when few computers had a DVD writer included, so it made sense to bundle a DVD writer with a video capture device along with the necessary software and offer it as a solution.
Converting videos from tape to DVD can be very laborious, and most people are primarily interested in preserving the video in a format that is likely to outlast video tape and be playable on devices that people are still using years from now. The VCR player has been relegated to the closet in many homes years ago and videotapes are gradually degrading, so it’s important to get them copied to a digital format if you want to preserve these videos for your children and grandchildren. You may also want to convert them so that you can upload them to a video sharing service like YouTube.
Most video capture products available today come with software that will help you edit the videos, and that can be fun and produce amazing results, but it requires some effort and a bit of learning to edit a video. The way most home videos are shot make them hard to watch because they have no story line along with little or no narration and so they tend to sit on a shelf forever after being watched once or twice. After watching a few home videos, it really gives one an appreciation for all that goes into making up a video that is entertaining to watch. But it’s still nice to know your old videos are still there ‘just in case’ one day you get ambitious and want to create a nice video for your family to have and share with their children. As time goes by, it will get harder to find a player you can connect up to a TV to play them. Capturing analog video tapes to digital files is essential if you ever want to watch the videos again at some point in the future.
Now that many computers include DVD writers, when people ask me what I recommend for converting video, I generally tell them to use a USB video capture device from a reputable company. Very inexpensive video capture devices are available now, some for less than $10 from no-name Chinese companies that you can buy on Amazon.com or Ebay. I’d stay away from them as they usually come with very poor documentation, no support, and minimal software included. I’d stick with a device from a well-known company that has been in the business for a while like Diamond Multimedia. The Diamond VC500 is one of their more popular products that has been around for a while and in general gets good reviews.
The VC500 costs around $35 and has software included with it that lets you capture and edit the video as well as produce the DVD. Capturing simply converts the video on your analog tapes into digital files, known as MPEG files, which typically end with the extension MPG. For preservation purposes, this is the most important step, that is, getting the videos into a digital format. Editing involves cutting up the mpg files and add things like title blocks, transitions between segments, dubbing in music or narration, and in general, making your videos more watchable. It’s what we take for granted when we watch a commercially produced video. A well-edited video is a joy to watch.
DVD authoring is what allows you to set up a navigation menu and chapters so that when you put the DVD in the player, you can more easily select which part of it you want to watch. You don’t have to split up the video on the DVD in chapters, of course, it just makes it more convenient to watch, especially if you have multiple events stored on the same DVD or if you want to be able to watch it in segments.
The software included with the Diamond VC500 is compatible with all modern version of Windows from XP to Windows 8. One of the programs the VC500 includes is Showbiz from Arcsoft, and that’s the same software HP shipped with the HP DVD Movie Writer. I found it easy to learn and use and it can do everything you will need from capturing and editing the video to authoring the DVD. Showbiz has been around for a long time and has all the features you’d need if you want to edit the video as well.
The items included with the VC500 include the software installation CD, the video capture device which attaches to a USB port, an AV cable that connects to your VCR or analog video source, and a Quick Start Guide. When you insert the installation CD into your computer, you will be prompted to install up to 3 programs. I first installed the driver, then the software called EZ-Grabber, and then Showbiz. There was also a program called Dyyno Broadcaster that was installed, but I don’t think that I will use it. It appears to be an on-line video sharing site like YouTube, but with a program to make it easier to share your videos with others on the Dyyno website. You need to set up a login on that site if you want to use it. In reality, I believe you could get by with just installing the driver and Showbiz, since Showbiz has the ability to capture video like EZ-Grabber as well as editing and DVD authoring. But EZ-Grabber may be easier to use if all you want to do is get the files in digital format for playback on a computer.
If you have a lot of videos, make sure to have plenty of hard drive space available since capturing video consumes about 3 to 4 GB per hour of video. You can capture in lower resolution to save space, of course, but for the best quality capture, I’d recommend MPEG2 720×480 quality since that is the native format of DVDs. There’s not much point in trying to capture analog sources at HD quality since they are not high resolution sources and so it won’t help make the image look any better. And I wouldn’t worry so much about editing the videos or making DVDs right away, just get them all captured to MPG files, rename them to something that will let you know what’s in the file possibly with the year they were shot such as “1992-hawaii-vacation.mpg” and that will help you to organize them into easy-to-find files for when you do want to create your DVD masterpieces. And I’d recommend you keep the original mpg files even after you’ve made DVDs, since that way you can always cut and splice segments of video together to create new DVDs should the need arise.
When you burn a DVD, make sure to use the write-once media, not the re-writable media, even though re-writable media sounds like it’s more flexible. The name for write-once media is DVD+R or DVD-R. Rewritable media is called DVD+RW or DVD-RW and it’s really better for storing computer data like a backup that you may need to overwrite in the future than it is for making playable DVDs. The rewritable DVDs are not as compatible with DVD players as are the write-once DVDs because their reflectivity is lower. Also, make sure to get a known brand of media like Verbatim, Maxell, or Sony because name brand media is supported by most DVD writers. Store and no-name media brands of media may be cheaper but do not always record or play back reliably.
I wrote up this entry because I got a lot of questions over the past few months about video preservation so I wanted to give people a link I could point them to so that I’d have an up-to-date recommendations for a product that I know works and provides an economical solution for analog-to-digital video conversion. Some people use a service for converting video tapes to DVD, but you’ll probably spend as much per tape you have converted as you will for the VC500. So if you get a capture device you may learn a valuable skill and have some fun in the process. Who knows, that next viral video may be on your shelf, just waiting for you to capture it and upload it to YouTube for audience to appreciate it.
Posted on February 4th, 2014 No comments
People replace their smartphones quite frequently these days partly because the technology has been improving quickly but mostly because the cost is heavily subsidized by mobile phone carriers. Every two years, you can get a phone for a fraction of its retail price just for agreeing to stay with your carrier for another 2 years. If you were planning on sticking with them anyway, failing to upgrade your phone is like ‘leaving money on the table’ so to speak. But it would come to a real shock to you if you actually had to shell out the money for a new iPhone whose retail price can approach $850. Why might you have to do that, you may ask? It could happen to you if you break the phone by dropping it and need to replace it mid-way through the contract period. That’s why it’s vitally important to protect your smartphone with a protective case.
Some protective cases can take away from the aesthetics of a phone and can also make it more difficult to slip into your pocket. I tend to overdo things and so when I got my ultra-sleek iPhone, I got an Otterbox Defender case for it because I wanted the maximum protection. However, this case felt like it doubled the phone’s volume. The big rubbery Defender case makes it look like it would survive a fall from a tall building but also made it a challenge to remove from my pocket. I was pretty happy with the case but felt like it was bigger that I liked and was showing signs of wear. So I began to think about getting something maybe a bit more convenient to use than my Defender but one that still offered good protection.
One of the things I liked about the Otterbox was that it was designed right in my home state of Colorado and it’s nice to support the home team, even if they manufacture cases in China. So when I became aware of a new Colorado company called CaseStudies making smartphone cases, and manufacturing them in Colorado I became intrigued with the idea of giving my iPhone a case upgrade.
Quite simply, the Case Studies smartphone case is a work of art. It’s machined out of solid 6061-T6 aircraft-grade aluminum and can be anodized in a number of attractive colors. You can even get it personalized with a custom laser-etched graphic. Unlike a lot of cases that detract from the appearance of a phone, this case accentuates the phone like a sleek, protective exoskeleton. It would be difficult to imagine a material stronger than metal to protect your phone from damage, and the Case Studies case also includes shock-absorbing rubber bumpers inside to help isolate the phone from shock should you drop it. There are also some small bumpers on the outside to give it some friction to prevent it from sliding around on smooth surfaces. In addition to protecting the phone, the curves and structure of the case give you something to grip which makes it less likely to slip out of your hand.
I was concerned that the metal case might affect signal quality, but I found the signal to have the same number of bars with our without the case and the sound quality is not affected. I’ve sometimes encountered issues with cases interfering with connectors but this case has enough clearance around its sockets that it wasn’t an issue for the cables that came with the phone. I did encounter an interference with an over-sized after-market charging cable from Amazon but its connector housing was about 2 mm thicker than the one on the Apple charging cable, so I’d say that was a problem with the cable, not the case.
CaseStudies offers several types of cases for the current Samsung Galaxy and iPhone smartphones. These cases aren’t cheap, but that’s always true whenever you want to have something that stands out from the crowd. When you pull out a phone nestled in one of these cases, it looks like something you’d see in a James Bond movie, or perhaps the Batcave. So if you decide to buy one, don’t be surprised if attracts some attention.
Posted on October 10th, 2013 1 comment
I recently encountered a problem with my 1999 Dodge Durango’s transmission that was repaired by replacing some sensors. Whenever I discover the solution to a problem I’m having and figure that there are a number of others who may be having the same issue, I like to post the discovery on my blog.
I purchased my Durango new and it has been the most reliable and useful vehicle I’ve ever owned. I love it. So when the transmission started acting funny after about 130,000 miles, I began to think my luck had finally run out. I was impressed lately when I took it to a Grease Monkey and learned that one of their other customers owns 2 Dodge Durangos of the same vintage as mine and each was approaching 300,000 miles with no major issues.
The transmission problems were especially worrisome because I’ve recently acquired a light weight camper (a 16′ Scamp) and have begun taking it on camping trips. I expect to be using it a lot in the future and that will include towing it up some pretty steep grades in the Rocky Mountains here in Colorado. So I need a vehicle I can rely on to handle the task.
The issue I was having was most noticeable when I was starting out from a dead stop. The vehicle seemed to surge back and forth shifting up and down, with the RPM climbing and falling. It would do this for as long as I held the accelerator in the same place. It was almost like a positive feedback loop. But if I stepped down harder on the gas, the problem seemed to go away, instead of getting worse, which wouldn’t generally happen if something inside the transmission was at fault. When your transmission is sick and you ask more from it, it usually demonstrates the problem with even more enthusiasm. But that wasn’t happening in my case. It seemed like it couldn’t decide whether it needed to upshift or downshift at a particular speed which was in the 10-15 mph range.
I started searching for Dodge Durango transmission problems on Google and came across a YouTube video that showed a similar issue, except this guy was having his problem at 70 mph where the vehicle kept dropping into and out of overdrive. He said in his research he had read about transmission problems that could be related to both the throttle position sensor and the transmission speed sensor which are both relatively inexpensive and easy to change yourself. His video goes into detail on how to change the throttle position sensor and it looked quite easy.
I also found a website that talked about how to test the TPS using a volt meter. However, I found that the voltages were impossible to measure because the plug that connected to the TPS is all sealed up. So I reasoned, based on the description of the test, that the throttle position sensor was a simple potentiometer and the way to find a problem with it was to rotate it while watching the resistance level. By removing the plug, I was able to get alligator clips on the potentiometer’s left and center conductors and I carefully rotated the potentiometer from idle to maximum throttle by rotating the linkage on the throttle body. Ideally, it should read from about 800 ohms to 5 K-ohms and increase consistently while rotated in one direction.
Instead of smoothly increasing in resistance, I noticed a point around 1200 ohms where the resistance would increase, but then go DOWN about 200-300 ohms for a while, and then come back up even though I continued rotating in one direction. This defect would cause the voltage to do something similar, so I reasoned that the TPS was a likely candidate to be changed first.
These sensors are easy to find in local auto stores like O’Reilly, Autozone, NAPA, etc.. where they keep them in stock. My web search on the Autozone site assured me that the TPS333 (the model my 1999 Durango 5.9L used) was in stock at my local Autozone store. I picked it up for $34 including tax. It came with extra mounting screws, an O-ring, and a gasket. Although my existing sensor had no gasket, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to install it. It was very simple to remove the old one and replace it with the new one using a Torx T-25 driver. The only ‘tricks’ were that I needed to press in on a latching mechanism to remove the plug and that you have to rotate the part slightly as you install it to get the shafts to mate.
I rotated the linkage by hand to make sure it moved correctly and then I took it out for a test drive. At first, I thought that this had completely fixed the issue. However, it came back after a while so then I tried replacing the transmission speed sensor, a part that costs around $20 and requires a bit more effort to replace. It’s on the driver’s side of the transmission housing and I found it necessary to remove the plate that protects the transmission in order to get a wrench in closer to it. After I replaced that item, I noticed no difference.
I continued to drive the vehicle for a few more weeks and noticed that a new problem had emerged. Sometimes while accelerating, the transmission wouldn’t want to shift into a higher gear. It was frustrating while attempting to achieve highway speeds only to see the tachometer approach the red line. Usually, I could get it to shift by dropping it into 2nd gear with the shift lever, then back into drive and it would usually shift properly after that. This was an intermittent problem too, one that I feared would be hard to diagnose and fix.
The only other candidates that I could think of based on my research were the governor solenoid and governor pressure sensor. Unfortunately, these parts are inside the transmission and are a bit more expensive (about $80 for the sensor and $120 for the governor solenoid). Of course, that meant dropping the pan which is a messy job. I knew that the transmission was due for an oil change, and that I hadn’t ever had a proper oil change where they could access and change the filter (most shops today rely on a ‘transmission flush’, which means they suck out the old fluid and don’t actually change the filter). So I figured that I could combine a transmission fluid and filter change at the same time the governor solenoid and its sensor could be changed so I could more easily rationalize paying nearly $200 in labor to a shop instead of doing it myself.
I took the vehicle to the local AAMCO shop and explained what was happening and they agreed to test drive it with a scanner so they could monitor transmission oil pressure. What they found was that the pressure never got above 30 psi and this was causing erratic shifting, indicating that there was something wrong with the governor solenoid or its pressure sensor. These parts are nearly always changed at the same time since if one is bad, the other is probably also worn and you need to drop the pan to get to either one so it just makes sense to do them both at the same time.
I am happy to report that after spending another $450, the transmission is back to normal, shifting precisely when it should and hopefully ready for another 135,000 miles before needing any repairs. In the 15 years that I’ve owned this vehicle this is the only repair I’ve other than routine maintenance and since the vehicle was paid for long ago, I don’t feel too bad because people who replace vehicles every few years can end up spending that much monthly on a loan or lease payment.
In reading through several forums, I read a horror story where a Dodge dealership wanted to replace the entire transmission for a similar problem for around $4000 but the person declined and found fixed it by replacing the throttle position sensor. So I think it makes sense to try with the easy/inexpensive fixes first and then work up to the more difficult and expensive parts. At the least, you’ll have the peace of mind that all your sensors are good as new.
So if you have a Dodge Durango or Dodge truck based on the same chassis and you’re having transmission issues like I described, you may want to change these sensors to see if the fix works for you too. There’s too high a temptation for a dealership or transmission shop to want to ‘over repair’ and hence over charge for a simple issue like this.
Posted on July 17th, 2013 3 comments
Should I buy a Smart TV? That’s a question that I got recently from a reader of one of my articles about fixing a Sony Wega TV. I think that even though she had gotten her HD TV back up and running, the thought of replacing it when it wasn’t working was overwhelming since there are so many TV choices available these days. You can choose from Plasma, LCD, and LED display technology and features like SmartTV, 3D, etc. And now it seems every company is offering flat screen so-called “Smart” TVs. But there is no real standard definition of what a ‘Smart TV’ is. My understanding is that it’s a TV that has a networking connection that can stream content from computers in the home or from Internet services. Streaming content from home computers is not that new, and it is still problematic since the standards don’t seem to be working all that well together, but services that stream video over the Internet like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Instant Video and other sources are starting to catch on in a big way.
I have been experimenting with devices that connect to the TV that do some of the same things as Smart TVs for many years. These devices can all play content directly from services on the Internet or from PCs on the home network. Some even have USB ports where you can insert a thumb drive and play the music, pictures, or videos from the thumb drive. I have 5 devices under my TV that fit into this category: An Xbox 360, a Wii, a D-link DSM 520, a Sony Blu-Ray player, a Roku, and an Apple TV box.
I used to work in this area at HP, having helped to introduce one of the company’s first digital entertainment products back in 2001, and that’s one of the reasons I have so many of these ‘smart’ devices. At the time, I recognized that they would eventually find their way into every living room, it’s just taking much longer than I expected. I am not a gamer, so I rarely use the Wii or Xbox for games, but I do use them for their media streaming capabilities. These game consoles have their firmware updated automatically on a regular basis and thus they were able to add this functionality after I had purchased them. When I first got them, many of the Internet streaming services didn’t exist but they have been added with new firmware updates. There are a number of Internet video streaming services, the most well-known being Netflix. But Netflix doesn’t carry all of their available content in streaming mode. Most of the really good movies on Netflix are on their DVD rental side, which costs extra. It approximately doubles the $8 monthly cost of the Internet-only fee. But I figure it is just a matter of time before they move all of their content to the Internet streaming side, possibly charging extra for movies you’d actually want to watch like Amazon Prime does with Amazon Instant Video.
A smart device can access Internet content from a number of content providers but be aware most of these have monthly subscription fees. Some of the smart devices can access content on your PC, such as your music and photos and videos stored there. But it requires some effort to get that set up and working properly. It’s not always as easy as it sounds due to incompatible streaming protocols, digital rights issues, and media formats.
But do you really need smart capability built directly into a TV? It depends on your situation, because you can get this capability in any of a number of $100 devices such as most BluRay players. This capability is also available in the $99 AppleTV box which can stream from local and internet sources. Roku boxes cost less than $99 but are limited to internet sources, no local content can be streamed. And if you have a gaming console like a Wii or Xbox 360, you’re already likely to have the capability, even if you didn’t know it. So I wouldn’t pay more than $100 extra for a TV that has ‘smart’ capability. Granted, it may make managing the remote controls easier if the menu for accessing Internet content is built into the TV but dealing with multiple remotes is pretty typical these days. We have so many remotes on our coffee table that it takes a lot of effort to keep them all straight.
There is often a strong desire for products in this category to be WiFi enabled. However, I’ve found that having these devices connected to a wired Ethernet cable to be essential unless your Router/WiFi access point is in the same room. Streaming video requires a lot of bandwidth and is not tolerant of any delays or interference. Having a few devices in close proximity accessing a WiFi connection can be problematic because they can interfere with each other. And the last thing you want while watching a video is to see some interruption telling you it’s downloading more of the show or that you need to start over. A wired Ethernet connection can help prevent that from happening. You will need to run a cable, but once that is done, it’s a simple matter to add an Ethernet switch that can serve up to 8 devices. In addition to the 5 boxes under my TV, I also have a Comcast HD DVR which also requires an Internet connection. That’s 6 Internet connections in a very small space, so wired Ethernet connection and switch is essential to prevent interference and maximize networking performance. I do like the convenience of WiFi, but it’s really only a necessity for mobile battery-powered devices. Anything that sits stationary and is plugged into an outlet should have an Ethernet cable if it needs permanent Internet connectivity.
Another good reason to use wired Ethernet is due to the encryption key needed for wireless networks. I just had to replace my router and had to reprogram every device with a new wireless password. That’s not easy to do on devices that have no keyboard and very limited display capabilities. So far, no one has figured out a foolproof way to input WiFi passwords without a keyboard and display.
I noticed that the ‘Smart TV’ capability is often used as a way to help segregate a brand’s high end TVs and charge more for them. I am more than a bit reluctant to depend on a TV manufacturer to keep the firmware up-to-date to add new services as they come along. Game console manufacturers and companies that are making TV-streaming devices like Roku and AppleTV know that they need to keep those devices up-to-date to be competitive, but I would think that TV manufacturers may ignore that duty, just using that Internet connection as a way to reel in customers who are afraid they might miss out on something if they don’t get the most expensive TV model. Once they have you, they have little incentive to keep the Smart TV functionality up-to-date. That’s another reason I’d be concerned with having that function built into the TV. If some cool new ‘must have’ service comes along and you’re at the mercy of waiting for the TV’s manufacturer to update the TV’s firmware, you may be out of luck.
So I’m holding out on paying extra for a SmartTV. The numerous devices that I already have work fine, even though some are missing services that the others have. I have the same feelings about paying extra for a 3D TV, but that’s best left to another article.