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Cool Hardware

Hardware: Fujitsu ScanSnap iX500 document scanner

In mid-2015, I decided I wanted to get rid of the mass of paper we’d been accumulating for years. Much of it could be recycled, but there was still a substantial stack of important yet rarely looked at paper that we needed to keep. If anything was ripe for a digitization project, it was this stack of paper. But there were thousands of pages to scan, and that’s not something you’re going to want to do on your $99 all-in-one printer/scanner/coffee maker.

After talking with some people and reading some reviews, I bought a Fujitsu ScanSnap iX500 document scanner. This was not an inexpensive purchase—it lists for nearly $500, though typically sells for just over $400.

Note that there are two versions of this scanner: The PA03656-B005, which is what I have, and the newer PA03656-B305. The newer one is actually less expensive ($415 vs $490 as I write this), and apparently the sole difference is the bundled third-party software. I haven’t seen the newer scanner’s bundle, though, so I can’t comment.

I’ve been using this scanner pretty much every day since October of 2015, and I can say it’s one of the best pieces of hardware I’ve ever purchased. (The software is also very good, but the UI is far from lovely.) So far, I’ve scanned over 8,500 pages with this scanner, and I haven’t had any issues with it at all. If you’re interested in document scanning, read on for my thoughts on why this Fujitsu is an excellent tool for the task…

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Revisiting ripping Blu-ray discs

A couple years back, I explained how I rip Blu-ray discs. A lot of time has passed, and I now use a slightly different procedure that results in much faster rips—with the caveat that the resulting file will be larger than the “slow” method, and is technically of slightly lower quality, though I can’t visually distinguish the two.

The new method uses Don Melton’s amazing video transcoding tools, a set of Unix programs that optimize video conversion in ways you cannot do (or easily do) in the Handbrake GUI. If you’re new to Unix, but would still like to try these tools, I wrote a detailed set of instructions that should help get you up and running.

Using these Unix programs, you can rip a disc with various parameters, including one to optimize for speed (with good image quality) and another that tries to minimize the file size.

Here’s a quick comparison of all three methods, as tested with the three-hour Hamlet Blu-ray. The ‘Handbrake GUI’ rip was done using, well, the Handbrake GUI as described in my original article. The second and third rows use Don’s tools set to quick and veryquick modes, and the final row uses Don’s tools set to optimize the file size.

Method Data Copied Convert (hrs:mins) File Size
Handbrake GUI 47.5GB 3:52 6.8GB
transcode – quick 40.1GB 2:20 9.2GB
transcode – small 40.1GB 3:12 6.5GB

Tested on a late 2014 27″ iMac with a 4GHz Core i7 and 24GB of RAM.

Using Don’s tools in “quick” mode, you save time two ways: 7GB (15%) less data is copied to the hard drive, and the conversion process is over 90 minutes (38%) faster. The downside is that the final file size is 2.4GB (35%) larger. And that’s what they call a tradeoff.

Using the “small” mode in Don’s tools, you still save the 7GB (15%) of data copy, and still save 40 minutes (17%) over the original method. In addition, the file size is smaller than the Handbrake GUI version.

To summarize, regardless of whether you care more about file size or ripping speed, Don’s tools provide an advantage over the Handbrake GUI: Either method is notably faster, and the small option generates smaller (or probably at worst, very similar) file sizes. (There’s also a “big” option, if you don’t mind somewhat larger files at a higher quality level.)

Keep reading to see some examples of the image quality of each method, and information on how to install and use Don’s video transcoding tools.

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Review: Canmore G-Porter GP-102+ data logger

I recently bought a new big-size camera, bucking the trend of simply using one’s iPhone for photographs. That’s not to say I don’t use my iPhone; it is my main picture taking device. But I wanted a camera that could capture native retina iMac images (at least 5120×2880), and the iPhone can’t do that.

After much looking and sweating over the costs, I chose a Nikon D5500, mainly because I already had a Nikon and didn’t really want to replace all my lenses. While this is an excellent camera, it was a bit of a budget compromise—it didn’t have all the features I really wanted. In particular, it lacks a built-in GPS to geocode all the pictures I take.

As a workaround, I decided to buy a GPS data logger, which is just a small GPS receiver that records GPS coordinates at some interval. Toss the logger in your pocket (make sure it’s on and receiving the GPS signals first!), then go take pictures as you normally do. When you return, you can use an app like HoudahGeo to sync the recorded GPS track with the timestamps on each photo. (I’ll have more to say about this whole sync process in a future post.) Presto, instant geocoded images!

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A unique lava lamp time-lapse

We occasionally take our kids to a local place, Big Al’s, which is one of those bowling/arcade places that give out tickets as rewards from the arcade games. Being good parents, we too sometimes play the games (you know, to spend time with the kids…yea, that’s it). Over the years, we amassed quite a bunch of tickets, but weren’t quite sure what to spend them on.

The last time we were there, I was smitten by a lava lamp, similar to this one, but ours has a black base and blue “lava.” I don’t know why (childhood flashback?), but I decided some of our points cache would go to this mesmerizing but otherwise useless device.

When I got it home, I was surprised at just how long it takes to warm up: It can take nearly an hour before any “lava” starts flowing, and about two hours before it really looks like a traditional lava lamp. During the first hour, though, the melting wax in the lamp makes some really cool abstract bits of art, as seen in the photo at right.

I thought this might make a neat time lapse, so I set out to record it with the iPhone. My first attempt failed, due to the iPhone’s auto-adjusting time-lapse feature. Because the lamp takes so long to get going, the gap between frames winds up being quite long. Long enough that when stuff does start happening, the iPhone’s time-lapse gaps are too wide to make for an interesting video.

I needed another solution, so I headed to the iOS App Store to see what was available…

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Presenting the Apple TV (4th Generation) Password Tester

Earlier, I sent out this hopefully-humorous tweet about the difficulty involved in clicking one’s passwords into the new Apple TV password input screen:

Presenting LIMNOPHILE, a 10-character yet easy-to-type Apple TV password.

The chart is just an Excel file, with absolutely no logic—I just colored the squares and counted to fill in the data. But then I got this reply…

So I thought “Why not?,” and created an actual spreadsheet that will “click check” any all-letter password you feed it. Here’s what it looks like in action:

Just replace RIDICULOUSLYLONGWORD with whatever you like, and see how it’ll “click out” on your Apple TV. Obviously, this tool is totally tongue-in-cheek!. Any password built with this tool will be weak as heck. It’s just for fun, so don’t take it seriously.

Feel free to share and modify, but I’d appreciate a credit back if you do so.

Download Apple TV Password Tester (44KB)

Please note that this is an Excel 2011 file, and it relies on conditional formatting, so it may not work in Numbers.

New technology at the auto service center

I took our truck in for service at the local Toyota dealer yesterday. When I drove in, I had to drive over one of these big black things:

I figured it was just a speed bump to get drivers to slow down as they entered the service bays. But when I inquired as to their purpose, the answer was more technologically interesting: It’s a tire tread depth scanner. As you drive over, lasers shine on each tire, measuring the remaining depth in each tire’s tread. Quoting the immortal Dr. Evil … “lasers!”

Of course, when I parked, the technician went around to each tire, sticking his finger in the tread to check the depth. I said, “What about the fancy machines?” ‘Oh, they’re not quite ready yet; still have to do it the old fashioned way for another few days.’ Oh well. Next time.

Cutting the (headphone) cord

Until very recently, I wasn’t a user of Bluetooth stereo heaphones. I don’t necessarily have a good answer as to “why not?,” other than I recall trying a pair early on, and not being impressed by sound quality and battery life. That was, of course, years ago, but I hold grudges for a long time, it seems.

Recently I thought I’d try cutting the cord again; there are any number of Bluetooth headphones available—including some very expensive models. Needless to say, these are not in my budget as a casual music listener. I was more interested in something in the $100 or less price range, and in an over-the-ear (versus on-the-ear or in-the-ear) model.

While browsing Amazon one day, I stumbled onto these headphones, with possibly the longest product name I’ve ever seen in Amazon: Sentey Bluetooth Headphones v4.0 with Microphone B-trek H10 Wireless Headphones Headset Foldable with Mic for Running Sport or Travel, 40mm Audiophile Drivers – Also Comes with 3.5mm Cable -Up to 15 Hours Battery – Comes with Free Transport / Protection Carrying Case Ls-4570.

Rolls right off the tongue, doesn’t it? I’ll just call them Sentey Bluetooth Headphones. Although they list for $100, every time I’ve looked, they’ve been listed for sale at $50. And with over 100 very positive reviews—and Amazon’s easy return policy—this felt like a safe bet. So I ordered a pair, and have had them for a few days now.

So were they worth $50? Absolutely; keep reading for my review.

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Use a mouse and keyboard…and a trackpad

When Apple released its new accessories, I thought it might be time to revisit my input setup. For a few years, I’ve been using the original Magic Trackpad and the Logitech Wireless Solar Keyboard.

While this setup has worked well for me, I missed the precision of a mouse (so much so that I kept a corded one nearby, and plugged it in when I needed to do such work). So I thought I’d check out Apple’s new gear, with the thought of either upgrading to the new Magic Trackpad, or perhaps moving to the new Magic Mouse as my pointing device, and maybe replacing the Logitech with the new Apple keyboard.

Unfortunately, the local Apple Store only had the mouse in stock, not the keyboard or trackpad. Unable to compare the pointing devices, I just bought the mouse. After setting it up, I loved the added precision it provided over the trackpad. But if I was going to be using a mouse regularly, I wanted to narrow the reach from keyboard to mouse, so I pulled out my old Apple wireless keyboard, which is about six inches narrower than the Logitech.

This setup seemed really good, except that I’d be giving up a lot of features by removing the trackpad: I use it with BetterTouchTool and our own Butler (as well as Keymo and Moom) to execute all sorts of gesture-related actions.

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Migrating away from FireWire hard drives

If there’s one downside to my new Retina iMac, it’s that it completely lacks FireWire ports. While my main data storage is a Thunderbolt RAID array, all my backups (Time Machine, offsite drive, boot drive clone, and extra paranoid backups) are done on FireWire drives.

My setup precludes using Apple’s Thunderbolt to FireWire adapter. (Because I use two external non-Thunderbolt displays, they end any sort of chaining capabilities. With some rewiring and an expensive Thunderbolt dock, I can sort of work around that problem—but those docks are pricey.)

The money-is-no-object solution is, obviously, to replace all the FireWire drives with Thunderbolt drives. Given I drained the computing budget to purchase the Retina iMac, that’s not going to happen any time soon. ($400 for a 4TB drive, and I’d need three of them plus a smaller drive for the boot clone.)

After some digging, I managed to convert from FireWire without buying new hard drives, and spent just over $100 in total. The solution? The more-than-fast-enough USB3 bus in the new iMac.

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A very quick look at the Retina iMac’s graphics performance

While I’m still busy setting up my Retina iMac—given I always do this by hand, it’s time consuming—I did take a few minutes to see how the graphics performance compares to that of my mid-2011 iMac.

To test the Macs, I use a visual benchmark called Unigine Valley. This benchmark puts the graphics card through a real workout, and is fun to watch while running. Before the results, here’s a quick comparison of my two iMacs:

2011 iMac 2014 iMac
CPU 3.4GHz Core i7 4.0GHz Core i7
RAM 16GB 24GB
Graphics AMD HD 6970M AMD R9 M295X
VRAM 2GB 4GB

And here’s how they did…

2011 iMac

2014 iMac

I’m no math whiz, but it looks like the new Retina iMac is over twice as fast in the graphics realm as my older machine. I knew it’d be faster, of course, but I wasn’t expecting that kind of speed up. Wow.

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