Design Council,, launches full beta version

Having worked on this for nearly a year now it was a delight to be able to launch the website at the recent Design Council conference in Birmingham, ‘From the inside looking out’.

The site is an innovative online metric – a questionnaire for children to help them rate various aspects of their school environment and for teachers and school managers to be able to use the results to inform their decision making processes. It is beyond anything else a tool to help open the dialogue between children and their schools about a range of issues.

It may not be quite perfect, yet. It is, after all a beta version…

At one time you could have checked it here or here

but it is currently off line pending review and possible re-build.

There is still stuff to do, and ways to improve it, but we are excited about the early feedback from schools…

Check out Jonathan’s blog on this item too – Jonathan worked on a lot of the coding!

Let me know what you think…

MPEG2 encoders, software MPEG2 encoders, real time hardware MPEG2 encoders

It’s never easy, is it.

So many people have asked me recently about what is the best way of encoding footage for DVD that I thought I’d write the minor wisdoms of it here. There are lots of MPEG2 encoders available for computers, and some recent hardware products look like they could be good for some purposes. However, if you are on any kind of budget and need to encode to MPEG2 at a decent quality then you really have only a few options.

On an Apple computer you can use ‘Compressor’, which is decent enough but to my eye produces a washed out look most of the time – a little like a milky film over the top of the original pin-sharp video. Compressor excels in that it is free, can handle most challenges and gives you access to several useful filters and effects. It is based on the QuickTime MPEG component and as such differs little from the quicktime quality (apart from where you can specify more exact settings, etc). Compressor is bundled with Final Cut pro and DVD Studio Pro.

A better software encoder for the mac, for me, is BitVice. This superb encoder is really easy to use and produces remarkable results time after time. It is not free, but worth every penny, IMO. I have this on my Powerbook and use it when out and about or when I need a quick encode here and there. It has some excellent features – great digital noise reduction and the ability to specify Half D1 sizes too. Furthermore, it is well supported, widely used and seldom receives a word of complaint.

A third Mac based encoder would be MegaPEG.X Pro. This is also an incredibly versatile encoder, with shed loads of features, but to my mind is a little too complex to operate – even with the pre-sets. There are so many options to you it is easy to set it up incorrectly. I do like the output from MegaPEG, but getting there is tricky! It is comparable in cost to BitVice.

As for hardware on a Mac – if you are on a fairly tight sort of budget then you can look no further than a Wired Inc Mediapress Pro card. This useful piece of kit will take your video from the camera and encode in real time, giving you a lovely result. It doesn’t work on a firewire input, mind you – you need to either use component inputs or something like S-Video. It will, however, transcode a quicktime file at the same sort of quality as the live input, but it won’t do it in real time. The encodes I have got have been crystal clear, but somewhat dark if I leave things at the default settings. Not so dark as to cause a problem, but dark, nonetheless. I like to use the Mediapress card when I am in work, where we have one sitting inside a DP G4. The software for the Mediapress card is getting better – still not as intuitive as it could be, but clear enough – encoding takes a lot of RAM no matter how you do it, and the Mediapress card benefits from being in a fully loaded machine with a decent spec. The software can fail with some spectacular results if you try to use it in an underpowered machine – but support from Wired Inc is excellent.

ON a PC I only have a couple of options within the budget I work with (not very much money – certainly not in the thousands of pounds range). There are plenty of ‘TV” capture cards available as a hardware alternative, and these will encode to MPEG2, of course – just not at the quality I want. Therefore I go for software products on my PC (which is largely redundant and just sits around doing not very much at the moment) since it has plenty of processing power and RAM and is networked to my Macs. I am happy to shuffle files to it from the network, have it do the major grunt work and send them back when done.

I regularly use Canopus Procoder as it is probably the best software encoder in the range. I have tried TMPGEnc and am soon to look at Cinemacraft too, but TMPG produced nothing better than BitVice – and in some cases I found it worse. It does have some nifty features, mind you. Features are all well and good, but the output and flexibility of the software are paramount to me. As such, Procoder can take any format and convert it to any other – it can also handle standards conversions (NTSC to PAL and back) with ease and does a really decent job of that too. De-interlacing, gamma correction and all manner of other filters and effects can be applied, and then Procoder just gets on and does the job. It produces quality equivalent to Mediapress on the mac, better than BitVice most of the time and, although on a different platform with vastly different processors, etc, produces it a lot faster than BitVice too. I have yet to find a file Procoder can’t work with… or a task it can’t do – but I am not a very demanding user, overall.

So, which to use? The answer is fairly simple. If I have it available, I’ll use Canopus Procoder – it doesn’t tie up the Mac and so I can get on with other creative work whilst it chugs along. if I am working on my Powerbook, I’ll always use BitVice – there is nothing to better it for ease of use and quality so far. If I am in work and I need a real time encode then it has to be Mediapress.

There are alternatives out there – the Sonic SD range, for example. However – brilliant as these may be – I can’t afford one. Cinemacraft is the next option – I know it is used for a lot of high end encoding for DVD… again, I don’t have it and it is slightly out of the budget… but I could certainly see myself using it if I was suddenly given the budget I need! Both these options are PC based, of course.

Lastly, what of more humble encoders, such as the Fastcoder from LaCie? Well – this very promising little piece of hardware appears only to be available for NTSC at the moment. It is receiving good reviews and I’d like to have the opportunity to try it out. Also, don’t overlook things like the DVD recorders and the swathe of PVR kit such as the EyeTV. I don’t have one, but as soon as I can I’ll have a look at what they can do.

LH Cook, Plumber, fitting a shower, tradesmen stories

I recently had a new shower fitted in one of my bathrooms (odd house, we have three bathrooms altogether but just two bedrooms!). I was looking for a professional company and one which was recommended was LH Cook, based in Little Hadham, Herts.

Len Cook himself came to do the quote, but his workman for the job was Nick – a very nice bloke and a good plumber too.

During the course of the job we added in a small amount of extra work which made more sense as the job progressed than it did at the time of the quote. Len Cook was clear we would need to pay a bit more than the original quote, and I agreed this was reasonable. The additional work amounted to tiling the bathroom floor and removing an extra piece of timber…

Yes, you guessed it, the additional work was over charged!

Worse still, we contested the ridiculously high amount we were being asked to pay, which incidentally included two extra days work which just didn’t happen, but heard nothing from Len Cook at all. I rang his office twice and left the ball in his court, but no response was forthcoming.

That was in October ’04.

In February ’05 we received a letter stating that we would have our debt handed to recovery agents if we did not pay up. Imagine the arrogance of thinking that not responding to a genuine enquiry, and sending a final demand, was OK!!

I rang again, and once more failed to speak directly to Len Cook, but instead left a message with his secretary (wife??). He failed to return my call once more and so I approached the citizen’s advice bureau, a solicitor and the trading standards office.

It transpires that we have not much to stand on here… but we did make a payment which we thought was reasonable, based on the current prices for the additional materials and Len Cook’s own quote for labour per hour. We have since heard nothing (no surprise there) but expect to get another threatening letter soon. I seriously doubt we’ll get an apology, or a letter that says ‘silly me, how right you were all along’.

The thing is no-one likes to get ripped off. Unfortunately Len Cook seems to be a rip off merchant, despite having a fairly good reputation. The funny thing is that the joke between us and the plumber, Nick, was that Len Cook does his quotes by peering through the letterbox! Odd how true this seems to be, since he has not once looked at the finished work or made an assessment of the additional work carried out.

So, if you are looking to employ Len Cook, INSIST on a detailed item by item quote, as he will apparently hide all manner of additional costs in the lack of detail.

Alternatively, don’t use his services at all.

Dension ICE>link, fitting an iPod into your car, upgrading ICE>link firmware

OK – I upgraded!

I had a moment of sheer panic when my ICE>Link stopped working… I think it was because I plugged and unplugged it in too swiftly, causing the device to hang. I upgraded the iPod firmware (kindly supplied by Apple and it started working again after the iPod restarted, but in for a penny in for a pound – I went ahead with the v2.05 firmware for the ‘link’ too… so all back to normal – upgrade worked well.

Why don’t iPods have a power on/off switch? It would have saved a headache on this occasion!

I can report (happily) that the update went smoothly, that functionality seems fine, but that the head unti display is still not right when I use the iPod UI for the ICE>Link in my Audi A3 with Concert radio.