Free VP8 vs. Ogg/Theora

Ogg Theora seems to be really good at handling super-saturated images of vegetation

The Free Software Foundation has suggested to Google that it might want to make VP8 “irrevocably royalty free” (whatever that means—will it cover future developments of VP8?). Of course at the same time they argue that Ogg/Theora is as-good-or-better than H264 and of course it’s both open source and royalty free.

I’m not sure if I buy the quality argument (for a start, the article linked is almost entirely about image quality and not, for example, about compression time/effort or playback time/effort; next, Ogg/Theora may be very good at handling supersaturated images of vegetation growing near a river, but how does it do on more realistically saturated fleshtones? Most lossy codecs sacrifice blue detail in particular, so this may be a boneheaded comparison), but certainly Ogg/Theora is at least in the ballpark, and it’s free, so what’s the advantage of having an “irrevocably royalty free” VP8 as an alternative?

There are two major reasons why the world hasn’t embraced Ogg/Theora.

First of all, there’s lack of hardware support. Silicon that will decode H264 (not that desktop PCs or even laptops actually make much use of this hardware) with virtually no effort (for which read battery power) is available free with a box of cereal. No such hardware exists for VP8 or Ogg/Theora.

Let’s look ahead five years or so. We’d presumably like for there to be silicon that decodes our favorite video format free in boxes of cereal. We already have that for H264, is having such a chip available for VP8 going to make Ogg/Theora hardware support more or less likely?

Second, there’s the question of whether Ogg/Theora is actually unencumbered. H264 is, in essence, a known quantity. It’s backed by a huge bunch of megacorporations who have pooled their patents; even if someone comes along who claims to have a vital patent covering some obscure nook of H264’s implementation the participants in the H264 patent pool have lots of money, lawyers, and patents to with which to defend themselves (and they’re juicier targets than we are).

Ogg/Theora hasn’t been sued because no-one is making significant (any?) money with it, which in turn means there’s no reason for someone who thinks they could sue over it (a) to do so, or (b) even to let it be known they think they could do so (which is condemnation enough of our patent system).

If this were 1990 and we were talking about image file formats, “GIF” would be unencumbered. The GIF lawsuit only happened when someone figured there’d be money in it, and that was only true when lots of people became invested in using GIFs.

Here, we assume, VP8 has a huge advantage over Ogg/Theora because, presumably, Google has money, lawyers, and a patent portfolio. But unless VP8 is open sourced, I really don’t see the point. We’ll just be trading one master for another in the long run, since either VP8 won’t continue to evolve and will need to be replaced in fairly short order or it will and then it’s up to Google to figure out whether the new version is covered under “irrevocably”.

Addendum: really nice article on the whole Flash / VP8 / Theora / H264 / HTML5 thing (courtesy of daringfireball as usual). And yup, Theora’s claims to superior quality are a Sad Joke.

Look on my works, ye mighty… Part 2

There’s a very thorough review of the new (and as yet unobtainable) Panasonic GH-1 just posted on dpreview.com. Edit: and Cameralabs has just posted their review as well (link is to the verdict — it’s worth noting that after carefully managing to give all the current generation of contenders — D5000, XTi, E620 — identical scores of 88%, the GH-1 scores 89%).

Here's an unretouched 100% crop from an ISO 3200 sample shot
Here's an unretouched 100% crop from an ISO 3200 sample shot. (If you're not into the minutiae of digital photography and for some reason you're still reading this blog entry, a digital photo taken at this sensitivity until the current generation of cameras looked like absolute garbage.)

You can find more (still) samples here.

Here’s the bad news:

  • It’s still listed at $1499 (which is not unreasonable given it comes bundled with a very good 14-140mm lens, but still)
  • Its electronic viewfinder is apparently a bit unpleasant to use in low light conditions (not sure how low — need to play with one)
  • Its continuous shooting rate is 3.3 fps (roughly the same as a Canon 500D/XTi, but not as good at the Nikon 5000D). Edit: Camerlabs notes that the EVF stops updating between shots during continuous shooting, which is actually a pretty crippling deficiency.
  • The built-in Flash is kind of lame (oh right, I don’t use flash)

Aside from that, the news is all good. Shockingly good. Notably:

  • Better detail (JPEG or RAW) than the Canon XTi/500D. (Brief pause while you adjust your lower jaw.)
  • Equal or even slightly better low light performance (JPEG or RAW) than the Nikon D5000. (Damn, it’s just not going to heal, is it?) Edit: Cameralabs low light tests (which are both more consistent and realistic than dpreviews) favor the Nikon D90 (which performs identically to the D5000) slightly over the GH-1.
  • Much better at avoiding “jello” effect than any other DSLR (apparently its circuitry is optimized for rapidly grabbing frames from the sensor)
  • 1080p at 24fps, 720p at 60fps (AVCHD) or 30fps (MJPEG). 720p footage described in the review as “broadcast quality” and favorably compared to footage from semipro camcorders.
  • Viewfinder size is roughly similar to Canon 1DS Mk III (i.e. full-frame pro DSLR)
  • Generally excellent UI, handling, menus, customization, physical dials
  • No “video mode” — dedicated video button is always available

So, we’re here. Panasonic appears to simply be better at doing image processing than Nikon or Canon (how else to explain equal or better image quality from a smaller sensor?), and they’ve produced a camera that is simply a better still camera than Nikon or Canon can (currently) make (bear in mind that the image quality on the D5000 and 500D/XTi is, in essence, as good as anything Canon or Nikon can offer, modulo sensor size) and is actually a credible video camera (versus a half-assed video camera with sub-par frame rate, jello effect, and manual focus while shooting). All in a camera that’s smaller than any DSLR on the market and has the most flexible lens mount there is*.

So, now all we need to do is wait for the GH-1 to actually appear in stores and the price to drop. (Then there’s the Pentax K-7 just around the corner, which is quite small and weather sealed.)

Note: * micro four-thirds cameras can currently use any Panasonic, Olympus, or Leica four-thirds or micro four-thirds lens, and Olympus OM lenses; there’s no reason not to expect adapters for Nikon, Canon, and Pentax mounts in the near future thanks to the micro four-thirds design. Of course you will probably need to focus manually with everything except the micro four-thirds lenses.

Flipping over the Flip

The Flip Mino HD is the latest tiny video camera from Flip.

What the heck is it with Mac-oriented folks and the Flip video camera? OK, it’s simple. I grant you that. But, guess what, it’s Yet Another Freaking Thing to carry around and it’s not very good at what it does. While having just one button is pretty nice, there’s the whole 4s power on. Here’s a very simple alternative — the Panasonic Lumix TZ-5. You’ll need to learn to change its shooting mode to video (complicated I know) but its rather slow (by cameras-that-don’t-suck standards) 2.5s power-to-record time gives you 1.5s to find it before a Flip will be good to go.

The Lumix TZ5 is Panasonic's latest "Travel Zoom". It is the latest in a series of what have consistently been the highest rated "point-and-shoot" cameras on respected review sites.
  • Price: you can get a TZ5 for $220; the Flip Mini HD is $229. You’ll need to pay a few extra bucks for SD cards for your TZ5; the Flip has 4GB of internal memory and an internal LIon battery.
  • HD Video: both shoot 1280×720; the TZ5 shoots motion JPEG, so you can import straight into iMovie while you need to convert Flip’s “PureVideo”. On the other hand, MJPEG files are bigger and there’s a limit to the length of videos, but unless you’re trying to reshoot “Rope” you should be OK.
  • Quality: the TZ5 has a tiny 1/2.33″ CCD; the Flip Mino HD has a tinier 1/4.5″ CCD. To my eye the TZ5 video I’ve seen looks significantly better than the Flip Mino HD video I’ve seen even though the Flip Mino HD video is being shown at 50% scale.
  • Audio Quality: neither is brilliant, but the Flip’s microphone at least points forward.
  • Lens: the TZ5 has an f3.3-3.5 28-200mm (35mm equivalent) Leica-branded zoom lens. The Flip has a fixed focus F2.4 lens with 2x optical zoom.
  • Dimensions: the TZ5 is 103.3 x 59.3 x 36.5 mm and weighs 214g. (It’s made of metal.) The Flip is 100 x 50 x 16 mm and weighs 93g. (It’s made of plastic.)
  • Other notes: oh, the TZ5 can take very good still pictures, has a built-in Flash,

Summary: the Panasonic wins in every category except (arguably) price, audio quality (maybe), and (unarguably) size and weight (it’s twice as thick and weighs twice as much). Notably, it’s actually Mac compatible, it’s a very good still camera (basically the highest-rated “point and shoot” around) and, as a bonus, a more useful video camera than the Flip (which is useless for anything requiring a telephoto lens, such as a sporting match or a recital).

So, enough about the Flip already. If I’m going to carry Yet Another Freaking Thing (aside from my iPhone) it will be a TZ5 (actually, I have a TZ3, but the TZ5 is the current version).

Blu-ray “Circling the Drain”

Bill Gates once asserted that HD-DVD vs. Blu-ray would be the last format war. At the time my opinion (which I did not immortalize in this blog) was that it was already irrelevant. DVD was the last format. The reason I didn’t blog about this was everyone I spoke with on the topic agreed with me. My opinion was neither unusual nor controversial.

But apparently it’s news to ZDNet’s Robin Harris:

16 months ago I called the HD war for Blu-ray. My bad. Who dreamed they could both lose?

Well, pretty much anyone with a clue, evidently. There’s a reason Apple has assiduously ignored Blu-ray in both its hardware and software offerings — no-one cares.

DVDs and CDs before them were successful in large part because they were relatively cheap and robust compared with laser disks, video tapes, audio cassettes, and records. (If you’re old enough to have owned a significant number of LPs, you probably remember making tapes of your records to save wear and tear on the records, and replacing favorite tapes at fairly regular intervals as they stretched or got mangled by car tape decks.)

Well, guess what? Digital downloads are cheaper and more robust than DVDs or CDs, and don’t lock you into hardware standards that will be obsolete before a given technology reaches critical mass.

So Blu-ray is simply not penetrating the market, no-one cares if there are cheap players. People are buying PS3s in droves but not playing Blu-ray disks on them (recall that for a long time the PS2 was a very good deal for playing DVDs). Meanwhile, the end of television as we know it, which I’ve been predicting was five years away for about ten years, looks like it’s happening right now. Finally, it seems to me that our state of economic turmoil will favor technologies with good cost characteristics, and that’s very bad news for all physical formats.

Screencasting Software

I produce the occasional video tutorial, and the tool I’ve used for it up to now is the venerable SnapzPro X (from Ambrosia), which is more of a screen capture program with video capture added as a bit of an afterthought. There’s been a flood of cheap(ish) and even free programs aimed at the video-capture and screencasting market, and I decided to try some out.

One of the first pages you’ll find if you google “screencast mac os x” is here. This is a pretty good, if already dated, overview. The author concludes by saying he (?) has chosen IShowU, which is definitely a pretty neat app (if a pretty lame name for an app).

I’d say there are basically three contenders, none of which is perfect, and even if you took the best features of each of them and combined them into a single package, I wouldn’t be happy.

IShowU ($20) is the cheapest of the three, and it has one killer feature that the others simply can’t match — when you finish recording, you’re done. Assuming you’ve chosen the right preset, your session is compressed on-the-fly, so instead of having a 2GB uncompressed video file which will need to be slowly recompressed when you’re finished, you can just quit and post your session. If you have QuickTime Pro, you can probably make a bunch of simple edits (delete excess crap) and save. Done.

On the down-side IShowU is pretty unpolished. There are typos in its preset names, when you create a new preset it defaults to some random (horrible) setting rather than assuming you’d like to start with your current setting, and it’s all too easy to mess up your presets (there’s no explicit save). The “record cursor to sprite channel” option produces horrible results, and there’s no option to display keystrokes or mouse clicks visually.

Screenflick ($29) used to be called Screencast, until they found out that there was already a Windows app with the same name. Screenflick has a few slick features, such as showing left and right mouseclicks and keystrokes visually, but it has the same weakness as SnapzPro in that you end each session by recompressing everything.

Of the three applications, Screenflick is the slickest and most mature. It has a brilliant feature which lets you hide or replace your desktop during sessions which is a huge boon. But in the end it’s just a slicker version of SnapzPro, lacking the workflow support of Screenflow and the killer feature (no recompression) of IShowU.

Screenflow ($99) is produced by Vara software who produce very serious webcasting software which is all but a digital TV studio. This is an app aimed at professionals who will use it a lot, not just once in a blue moon. They obviously know their stuff and have thought out what most users probably want to do really well.

First of all, Screenflow captures a bunch of metadata (mouse position, window locations, keystrokes, etc.) independently of the actual video, and thus allows you to change what’s shown on screen after you’re done capturing (whereas Screencast burns it into the video).

Second, it allows you to edit the video before saving it out (but you do need to wait for it to recompress everything). The editing interface is very well done; anyone who knows their way around iMovie will be at home instantly.

Third it allows you to simultaneously record video of yourself during the screencast (using your iSight, for example) and then lets you composite the video channels however you like.

Screenflow is very easy to use and powerful, despite being a 1.0 product. It is still lacking in some attention to detail. E.g. you can’t set defaults or presets for your screen capture tracks, so you’ll find yourself setting the same options over and over. Worst of all, it does a poor job of differentiating left- and right- mouseclicks.

The Somewhat Depressing Conclusion

In the end, none of these apps do everything I want. None of them will record modifier keys that I hold down without pressing a non-modifier key. So if I’m explaining how to use some exotic application which behaves differently when you hold down the option or shift key (you know — like Finder) I need to constantly explain which key I’m holding down.

Of the three, Screenflow has the most promise, while IShowU allows you to get a screencast done really quickly. It’s not really possible for Screenflow to adopt IShowU’s approach, because it renders a lot of stuff post-hoc using metadata, so if you want the additional power and flexibility of Screenflow, you’ll need to deal with a recompression pass. Screenflick lets you achieve most of what you can do with Screenflow, but without the flexibility of changing your mind, and without the speed of IShowU.

There are two things which prevent me from posting video tutorials at the drop of a hat. One of them is the various annoying limitations of the capture programs (and if I could get Screenflow with better defaults/presets and proper keystroke recording, I’d be happy here) and the difficulty of uploading the videos to most forums. It’s nice to see that my first problem is almost solved; now for the second problem.

Post Script:
It looks like there’s a solution to my problem: Mouseposé. In combination with IShowU it’s probably the best all-round option, at least for my purposes. (Before I stumbled across it,, I wrote an application called KeyReveal to accurately display all keypresses. It’s a quick hack, so it’s not quite as elegant as those apps that use translucent windows. Hopefully it will be useful to someone…)