Blender 2.8 is coming

Unbiased rendering? Check. Realtime rendering? Check. Unified shader model? Check. Class-leading user interface. Check. Free, open source, small? Check. Blender 2.8 offers everything you want in a 3d package and nothing you don’t (dongles, copy protection, ridiculous prices, massive hardware requirements).

There aren’t many pieces of open source software that have been under continuous active development that haven’t gone through a single “major version change” in twenty years. When I started using Blender 2.8 in the early 2000s, it was version 2.3-something. In the last year it’s been progressing from 2.79 to 2.8 (I think technically the current “release” version is 2.79b, b as in the third 2.79 release not beta).

What brought me to blender was a programming contract for an updated application which, in my opinion, needed an icon. I modeled a forklift for the icon in Silo 3D (which introduced me to “box-modeling”) but needed a renderer, and none of my very expensive 3d software (I owned licenses for 3ds max, ElectricImage, and Strata StudioPro among other thins) on my then current hardware. Blender’s renderer even supported motion blur (kind of).

The blender I started using had a capable renderer that was comparatively slow and hard to configure, deep but incomprehensible functionality, and a user interface that was so bad I ended up ranting about it on the blender forums and got so much hatred in response that I gave up being part of the community. I’ve also blogged pretty extensively about my issues with blender’s user interface over the years. Below is a sampling…

Blender now features not one, not two, but three renderers. (And it supports the addition of more renderers via a plugin architecture.) The original renderer (a ray-tracing engine now referred to as Workbench) is still there, somewhat refined, but it is now accompanied by a real-time game-engine style shader based renderer (Eevee) and a GPU-accelerated unbiased (physically-based) renderer (Cycles). All three are fully integrated into the editor view, meaning you can see the effects of lighting and procedural material changes interactively.

The PBR revolution has slowly brought us to a reasonably uniform conceptualization of what a 3d “shader” should look like. Blender manages to encapsulate all of this into one, extremely versatile shader (although it may not be the most efficient option, especially for realtime applications).

Eevee and Cycles also share the same shader architecture (Workbench does not) meaning that you can use the exact same shaders for both realtime purposes (such as games) and “hero renders”.

Blender 2.8 takes blender from — as of say Blender 2.4 — having one of the worst user interfaces of any general-purpose 3D suite, to having arguably the best.

The most obvious changes in Blender 2.8 are in the user-interface. The simplification, reorganization, and decluttering that has been underway for the last five or so years has culminated in a user interface that is bordering on elegant — e.g. providing a collection of reasonable simple views that are task-focused but yet not modal — while still having the ability to instantly find any tool by searching (now command-F for find instead of space by default; I kind of miss space). Left-click to select is now the default and is a first class citizen in the user interface (complaining about Blender’s right-click to select, left click to move the “cursor” and screw yourself is this literally got me chased off Blender’s forums in 2005).

Blender still uses custom file-requesters that are simply worse in every possible way than the ones the host OS provides. Similarly, but less annoyingly, Blender uses a custom-in-window-menubar that means it’s simply wasting a lot of screen real estate when not used in full screen mode.

OK so the “globe” means “world” and the other “globe” means “shader”…

Blender relies a lot on icons to reduce the space required for the — still — enormous numbers of tabs and options, and it’s pretty hard to figure out what is supposed to mean what (e.g. the “globe with a couple of dots” icon refers to scene settings while the nearly identical “globe” icon refers to materials — um, what?). The instant search tool is great but doesn’t have any support for obvious synonyms, so you need to know that it’s a “sphere” and not a “ball” and a “cube” and not a “box” but while you “snap” the cursor you “align” objects and cameras.

Finally, Blender can still be cluttered and confusing. Some parts of the UI are visually unstable (i.e. things disappear or appear based on settings picked elsewhere, and it may not be obvious why). Some of the tools have funky workflows (e.g. several common tools only spawn a helpful floating dialog AFTER you’ve done something with the mouse that you probably didn’t want to do) and a lot of keyboard shortcuts seem to be designed for Linux users (ctrl used where command would make more sense).

The blender 2.8 documentation is pretty good but also incomplete. E.g. I couldn’t find any documentation of particle systems in the new 2.8 documentation. There’s plenty of websites with documentation or tutorials on blender’s particle systems but which variant of the user interface they’ll pertain to is pretty much luck-of-the-draw (and blender’s UI is in constant evolution).

Expecting a 3D program with 20 years of development history and a ludicrously wide-and-deep set of functionality to be learnable by clicking around is pretty unreasonable. That said, blender 2.8 comes close, generally having excellent tooltips everywhere. “Find” will quickly find you the tool you want — most of the time — and tell you its keyboard shortcut — if any — but won’t tell you where to find it in the UI. I am pretty unreasonable, but even compared to Cheetah 3D, Silo, or 3ds max (the most usable 3D programs I have previously used) I now think Blender more than holds its own in terms of learnability and ease-of-use relative to functionality.

Performance-wise, Cycles produces pretty snappy previews despite, at least for the moment, not being able to utilize the Nvidia GPU on my MBP. If you use Cycles in previews expect your laptop to run pretty damn hot. (I can’t remember which if any versions of Blender did, and I haven’t tried it out on either the 2013 Mac Pro/D500 or the 2012 Mac Pro/1070 we have lying around the house because that would involve sitting at a desk…)

Cranked up, Eevee is able to render well-beyond the requirements for broadcast animated TV shows. This frame was rendered on my laptop at 1080p in about 15s. Literally no effort has been made to make the scene efficient (there’s a big box of volumetric fog containing the whole scene with a spotlight illuminating a bunch of high polygon models with subsurface scattering and screenspace reflections.

Perhaps the most delightful feature of blender 2.8 though is Eevee, the new OpenGL-based renderer, which spans the gamut from nearly-fast-enough-for-games to definitely-good-enough-for-Netflix TV show rendering, all in either real time or near realtime. Not only does it use the same shader model as Cycles (the PBR renderer) but, to my eye, for most purposes it produces nicer results and it does so much, much faster than Cycles does.

Blender 2.8, now in late beta, is a masterpiece. If you have any interest in 3d software, even or especially if you’ve tried blender in the past and hated it, you owe it to yourself to give it another chance. Blender has somehow gone from having a user interface that only someone with Stockholm Syndrome could love to an arguably class-leading user interface. The fact that it’s an open source project, largely built by volunteers, and competing in a field of competitors with, generally, poor or at best quirky user interfaces, makes this something of a software miracle.

As the Wwworm Turns

Microsoft’s recent announcement that it is, in effect, abandoning the unloved and unlamented Edge browser stack in favor of Chromium is, well, both hilarious and dripping in irony.

Consider at first blush the history of the web in the barest terms:

  • 1991 — http, html, etc. invented using NeXT computers
  • 1992 — Early browsers (Mosaic, NetScape, etc.) implement and extend the standard, notably NetScape adds Javascript and tries to make frames and layers a thing. Also, the <blink> tag.
  • 1995 — Microsoft “embraces and extends” standards with Internet Explorer and eventually achieves a 95% stranglehold on the browser market.
  • 1997 — As NetScape self-destructs and Apple’s own OpenDoc-based browser “Cyberdog” fails to gain any users (mostly due to being OpenDoc-based), Apple begs Microsoft for a slightly-less-crummy version of IE5 to remain even vaguely relevant/useful in an era where most web stuff is only developed for whatever version of IE (for Windows) the web developer is using.
  • 2002 — FireFox rises from the ashes of NetScape. (It is essentially a cross-platform browser based on Camino, a similar Mac-only browser that was put together by developers frustrated by the lack of a decent Mac browser.)
  • 2003 — Stuck with an increasingly buggy and incompatible IE port, Apple develops its own browser based on KHTML after rejecting Netscape’s Gecko engine. The new browser is called “Safari”, and Apple’s customized version of KHTML is open-sourced as Webkit.
  • As a scrappy underdog, Apple starts a bunch of small PR wars to show that its browser is more standards-compliant and runs javascript faster than its peers.
  • Owing to bugginess, neglect, and all-round arrogance, gradually Microsoft loses a significant portion of market share to FireFox (and, on the Mac, Safari — which is at least as IE-compatible as the aging version of IE that runs on Macs). Google quietly funds FireFox via ad-revenue-sharing since it is in Google’s interest to break Microsoft’s strangehold on the web.
  • 2007 — Safari having slowly become more relevant to consumers as the best browser on the Mac (at least competitive with Firefox functionally and much faster and more power efficient than any competitor) is suddenly the only browser on the iPhone. Suddenly, making your stuff run on Safari matters.
  • 2008 — Google starts experimenting with making its own web browser. It looks around for the best open source web engine, rejects Gecko, and picks Webkit!
  • Flooded with ad revenue from Google, divorced from any sense of user accountability FireFox slowly becomes bloated and arrogant, developing an email client and new languages and mobile platforms rather than fixing or adding features to the only product it produces that anyone cares about. As Firefox grows bloated and Webkit improves, Google Chrome benefits as, essentially, Safari for Windows. (Especially since Apple’s official Safari for Windows is burdened with a faux-macOS-“metal”, UI and users are tricked into installing it with QuickTime.) When Google decides to turn Android from a Sidekick clone into an iPhone clone, it uses its Safari clone as the standard browser. When Android becomes a success, suddenly Webkit compatibility matters a whole lot more.
  • 2013 — Google is frustrated by Apple’s focus on end-users (versus developers). E.g. is the increase in size and power consumption justified by some kind of end-user benefit? If “no” then Apple simply won’t implement it. Since Google is trying to become the new Microsoft (“developers, developers, developers”) it forks Webkit so it can stop caring about users and just add features developers think they want at an insane pace. It also decides to completely undermine the decades-old conventions of software numbering and make new major releases at an insane pace.
  • Developers LOOOOVE Chrome (for the same reason they loved IE). It lets them reach lots of devices, it has lots of nooks and crannies, it provides functionality that lets developers outsource wasteful tasks to clients, if they whine about some bleeding edge feature Google will add it, whether or not it makes sense for anyone. Also it randomly changes APIs and adds bugs fast enough that you can earn a living by memorizing trivia (like the good old days of AUTOEXEC.BAT) allowing a whole new generation of mediocrities to find gainful employment. Chrome also overtakes Firefox as having the best debug tools (in large part because Firefox engages in a two year masturbatory rewrite of all its debugging tools which succeeds mainly in confusing developers and driving them away).
  • 2018 — Microsoft, having seen itself slide from utter domination (IE6) to laughingstock (IE11/Edge), does the thing-that-has-been-obvious-for-five-years and decides to embrace and extend Google’s Webkit fork (aptly named “Blink”).

RAW Power 2.0

RAW Power 2.0 in action — the new version features nice tools for generating black-and-white images.

My favorite tool for quickly making adjustments to RAW photos just turned 2.0. It’s a free upgrade but the price for new users has increased to (I believe) $25. While the original program was great for quickly adjusting a single image, the new program allows you to browse directories full of images quickly and easily, to some extent replacing browsing apps like FastRAWViewer.

The major new features — and there are a lot of them — are batch processing, copying and pasting adjustments between images, multiple window and tab support, hot/cold pixel overlays (very nicely done), depth effect (the ability to manipulate depth data from dual camera iPhones), perspective correction and chromatic aberration support.

The browsing functionality is pretty minimal. It’s useful enough for selecting images for batch-processing, but it doesn’t offer filtering ability (beyond the ability to show only RAW images) or the ability quickly modify image metadata (e.g. rate images), so FastRAWViewer is still the app to beat for managing large directories full of images.

While the hot/cold pixel feature is lovely, the ability to show in-focus areas (another great FastRAWViewer feature) is also missing.

As before, RAW Power both functions as a standalone application and a plugin for Apple’s Photos app (providing enhanced adjustment functionality).

Highly recommended!

BBEdit 12

BBEdit 12 (dark theme) in action BBEdit 12 is out. You can nearly make it look better with a dark theme now (although the circular “close” buttons indicating an open file are ugly) although it seems like there’s a bug in the theme customization right now. The Ulysses folks might consider this: cost of BBEdit 12 upgrade: $30. Cost of Ulysses for existing owners: $30. BBEdit 11 was released in 2014. BBEdit 12 has more new features than Ulysses has features. BBEdit is targeted at a smaller audience than Ulysses, so it’s not like it makes up for its low pricing on volume. That said, Ulysses is definitely prettier than BBEdit.

Replacing Crashplan

I’ve been pretty happy with Crashplan for five years or so, although lately not so much. Obviously, one reason to be unhappy with Crashplan is that they’re no longer supporting the family plan I was using to back up all our Macs. Worse, their quality of service seems to have (understandably) slipped as my plan approaches its termination.

Exhibit 1: my wife bought a new laptop. When she tried to restore files from her old laptop, they were MIA.

So, here we are at a nasty juncture where our supposedly bulletproof fire-and-forget backup system is (a) not working terribly well and (b) shortly going to not work at all.

Possible Crashplan Replacements

The obvious replacement is Carbonite. The problem with Carbonite is that it’s going either (a) be a lot more expensive than Crashplan was (because of our family plan — which is the equivalent of, effectively, n $100/year plans where n is the number of computers you back up; the small business plan works out as being stupidly expensive if you have more than 250GB of data) or (b) require me to do a bunch of work (i.e. set up one computer as the family server, have all the other devices back up to it, and then back it up via Carbonite. So Carbonite will either cost $300 (say) per year or $100 per year but require me to be my own network engineer. Oh, and forget mobile backups.

If I want to do a whole bunch of work I might as well just use Amazon S3. For 2TB of data that’s a mere $46/month. Ouch. I could probably use their cheaper long term storage, but now I’m basically starting my own Crashplan / Dropbox implementation and that sounds kind of like hard work. Forget that.

So, on to the “consumer” options (I’ve tried to pick 2TB plans as this is the absolute minimum I can live with):

  • Dropbox — $99 p.a. 1TB (there is no 2TB plan)
  • Box — $540 p.a. for unlimited (3 computers)
  • Hubic — $60 p.a. 10TB
  • Amazon — $120 p.a. 2TB
  • Google — $240 p.a. 2TB
  • Microsoft — $99 p.a. 5 users, 1TB/user
  • Apple — $120 p.a. 2TB (no Android client)

(Edit: TablePress was a disaster.)

Note that all these services support web browser access, so you can get at your files from any device with a web browser, but I’m talking about file-system integration where you can just save your file in the usual place and it’s seamlessly backed up to the cloud. I should note that Dropbox and Hubic even provide Linux clients. Everyone supports Mac, Windows, and iOS.

At first glance, Hubic looks like the standout value-for-money option. (Hubic is essentially like Dropbox, except it’s run by a gigantic hosting company). The problem is that I’ve found Hubic to have a poor user experience, especially with regard to performance. (My own experience is quite limited — and I’m kind of shocked that my blog post on Dropbox vs. Box vs. Hubic ranks quite high on Google searches for “Hubic Review”.) This may be a result of server location, or simply under-provisioning (10TB is so close to “unlimited” that I imagine it attracts a lot of abusive users).

(Edit: I should mention that Hubic offers both Dropbox-like services and backup services. It also has what looks like a pretty robust API. Also there are advantages to storing your data in France. On the other hand — no 2FA.)

At second glance, Microsoft OneDrive seems like a great deal at 5TB for $100/year. The problem is that it’s 5x 1TB per user, which is effectively 1TB. Still, a great deal if you’re happy with 1TB and want Microsoft Office for your family.

The shock comes at third glance — Apple’s product is competitively priced (cheaper than Dropbox!). It doesn’t support Android (surprise!) but aside from that it’s a great deal, you can share it with your family (with each person having segregated storage), it requires no real configuration and — this is the kicker — it’s smart about mirroring stuff to your devices. Want a 1TB photo library in the cloud? Great. Want it on every one of your family computers? Not so much.

Conclusion

Hubic is the clear winner in terms of price per unit storage. Apple is the clear winner in terms of functionality and comes second in price. When I take into account the fact that I pay Apple $3/month for a lower tier of storage just for convenient mobile backups it’s an even better deal (hooray for Opportunity Cost). After some consideration I’m thinking of doing both. Hubic for volume backup and iCloud for convenience.

I’ll let you know how it works out.

Followup…

I nearly gave up on Hubic. After paying for the 10TB plan I received no response and my account didn’t change… Well, until the next day. Sacré bleu! I’m still a bit concerned that the app hasn’t been updated since 2015, but it seems to work.

Anyway, I’m going to start backing up to Hubic and we’ll see how things go.

 

Further research has shown that there are two more reasonably-priced alternatives to Carbonite, notably iDrive and Backblaze. Backblaze seems very compelling for a single computer ($5/month unlimited; $4 with a two year plan), and not bad for a small number of computers (it works out as roughly the same as Crashplan for 3 computers). iDrive is offering some interesting discounts (and lets you handle any number of computers with one account) but I find the website poor to the point of suspecting the competence of the company.