Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Lies, Damn Lies, and HDTV Spec Numbers

If you are considering the purchase of an LCD HDTV any time soon, it’s a good idea to be armed with some information before stepping foot into the store.  Of course that’s always true, but it’s especially true when buying LCD TVs, because for some reason manufacturers, web sites, retailers, and sales people try to get you to focus on the wrong numbers when trying to figure out what TV to buy.

Screen resolution is important (720p? 1080p?), but it isn’t the most important number when buying an LCD TV if you’re looking for a good picture.  The real numbers that give you a guideline on how accurate a model’s colors and brightness are much more important, but your salesperson isn’t going to know them.  The single most important number in assessing the quality of an LCD TV is the static contrast ratio, but you’re probably going to have a hard time finding it.

Last week a friend of mine texted me from the local electronics store asking me for advice on what to get.  I told her to ask the salesman what the static contrast ratio was.  Not only did he not know, he got defensive and told her that that number is meaningless and that the dynamic contrast ratio was much more meaningful.  He couldn’t have been any more wrong.

Allow me to define a few things.

Contrast ratio is a number which represents the disparity in brightness between the brightest white and darkest black that a TV can display.  If a measurement of the brightest white on a TV is 10,000 (units don’t matter) and it’s measurement of darkest black is 100, that TV has a 100:1 contrast ratio.

Dynamic contrast ratio is the ratio between the brightest white that a particular model can display and the darkest black it can display.

Static contrast ratio is the brightest / darkest ratio at a given time.

The exact method used by different TV manufacturers to determine dynamic contrast ratio is all over the map.  But basically they might turn up the brightness on the TV all of the way, take a measurement of the white level, turn the brightness down all of the way, then take a measurement of the blackest black.  Or worse yet, the TV will artificially turn up or down the brightness of the backlight behind the screen while taking the measurements. 

Static measurements are taken with both black and white are on screen at the same time.

The problem with the dynamic measurement is that when we watch TV, we don’t watch test patterns.  When was the last time you watched a show that was just a black or white picture?  There is some full brightness white and full darkness black on the screen nearly all of the time with real video (some part of the image will be white, and some other part will be black), so the static contrast ratio is much more meaningful.  It much better represents how a TV’s picture is going to look with real video, not test patterns.  The dynamic number is a cheat.

The manufacturers’ marketing departments want the dynamic contrast ratio number to be as high as possible, and the people taking measurements to create the specification numbers on the box will use whatever methods they want to come up with whatever numbers they want.  If you see a number like 10,000:1, that number is really bogus and meaningless.  No real image you could display on your TV would ever be able to achieve that number.  It’s a little like putting 500 MPH rated tires on a car with a speed governor of 30 MPH.  That 500 MPH just isn’t ever going to happen. 

Why does it matter? 

Well, for one, when blacks aren’t really black, the TV is effectively adding a little bit of white or gray to everything on screen.  Colors become much more muted.  The picture details in the darker parts of the image become difficult, if not impossible, to discern.  It just looks… blech.  

Televisions that have great static contrast ratios have color that pops yet looks realistic.  You can see details in the shadows of the picture.  Blacks actually look black instead of gray. 

You’ll have to dig through the web sites of various TV manufacturers to find static contrast ratios.  A television with a 2000:1 static contrast ratio is EXCELLENT, with numbers around 1000:1 being much more typical.  If you’re seeing numbers over 5000, they’re giving you the dynamic ratio, not the static.  Keep looking.  If the manufacturer lists two contrast ratios, the static number is always going to be the lower of the two.  Many web sites mix these numbers up frequently.

When going into a store to buy a TV, the first question you should ask the salesperson is, “what is the static contrast ratio on this TV?”  If they give you a blank stare or tell you it isn’t important, thank them for their time and walk away.  They aren’t going to be even a bit helpful in helping you make your buying decision.

A few other helpful tips:

  • 720p vs. 1080p : If the distance between your couch and the TV is more than 3 times the width of the TV you’ll never see the distance between 720p and 1080p.  The closer you sit, or the larger the TV, the more of a difference the higher resolution of 1080p makes.
  • Viewing angle: LCDs only have just one small “sweet spot” where the picture looks best, usually straight on horizontally and vertically.  The viewing angle numbers advertised for TVs are more or less totally bogus.  When in the store, take a step off to the side so you’re looking at the screen at a 45 degree angle.  The best TVs show little or no difference in brightness or color from an angle.  Look for areas of the picture where whites start to get darker, blacks start to get brighter, and where color intensity begins to fade or even shift toward another color altogether.  Walk back and forth between straight on and viewing at a 45 degree angle.  If you can see significant changes in the picture while moving back and forth, pick another model.  But even the best models have some color shift at just 15 degrees off of center.
  • Best size: A good rule of thumb here is to get a TV at least as wide as one third your viewing distance.  If you will be sitting 12 feet away, a TV with a screen four feet wide is idea.  Keep in mind that TV sizes are given diagonally, so multiple by 0.87 to get the picture width.  You can always make a TV look bigger by rearranging your room so it’s closer to your sofa.

    Measure the distance from where you’ll be sitting to where you want to put the TV.  Multiply by 12 to get the distance in inches, divide that by three, then multiply by 1.15.  There’s your ideal minimum size TV.
  • LCD vs. Plasma: Plasma TVs have the potential for a better picture than LCDs do, but it varies by manufacturer, model, TV settings, and elevation (yes, distance above sea level).  The higher your elevation the harder it is to make a plasma TV look good and keep it quiet.  But plasmas are becoming a better and better buy as the prices drop to compete with LCD.  Plus plasmas don’t have the viewing angle issue above, and have more control over contrast ratio.  Just watch for flashing and crawling dots on the screen.
  • Projector vs. Television: I have people asking me why I don’t use my projector to watch TV all of the time.  Two primary reasons: (1) the bulb in the projector costs hundreds of dollars to replace and is only good for a couple thousand hours, and (2) projectors look terrible if you can turn off every light source in the room.  For a projector to look good during the day all windows in the room would have to be totally blacked out.  Any light in the room whatsoever will wash out the picture.  Ideally the side walls and ceiling would be painted with a dark color in non-reflective finish as well.  Projectors are great for watching movies when you have total control over the lighting in a room and a high quality screen to project on, but they are terrible any other time.
  • The best TVs generally won’t do much on their own to make standard definition television look like high definition, but the more expensive models will definitely do a better job than the cheapest ones. 
  • If you aren’t going to be sitting close enough to see the details in 1080p vs. 720p, Blu-ray isn’t going to help you either.  It’s hard to see the difference in picture between a good upscaling DVD player and Blu-ray on a 720p model.
  • Invest in a good quality (more than $80) upscaling DVD player.  It makes all of the difference in the world when watching DVDs.  If your DVD player is more than 2 years old, or isn’t connected using an HDMI cable, retire that player to the bedroom and get a new one.  If you’re using your game console for DVDs (even the PS3 or Xbox 360), it’s time to give it up and get a real player.  You’ll thank me, I promise.
  • My favorite television brands are the ones that start with S, T, and P:  Sony, Samsung, Sharp, Toshiba, Pioneer, and sometimes Panasonic.  They’ll give you a better picture and last much longer than TVs from other brands.  The L brand can be okay too. 
  • A TV that lasts you 10 years (S, T, P) but costs 50% more than one that is going to last 2-3 is a much better buy, even if it means postponing your purchase to save up the difference.  Spend the extra initially and you’ll save in the long term and have a better experience the whole time.
  • TVs look much bigger once you get them home than they do in the store.  Much bigger.
  • Check reputable sites like www.cnet.com for unbiased reviews on different TV models before buying.  Take consumer reviews with a grain of salt; unhappy customers will always post their opinions, while happy customers rarely do.
  • Televisions with 120 Hz or 240 Hz panels are nice, but if you get one turn the motion enhancement feature off.  Not only is it disconcerting, but it’s having to remove detail from your picture for the feature to work.  It’s a gimmick that actually hinders your viewing experience.
  • Glossy screens may make blacks look blacker, but they also act like a big mirror and reflect any light in the room.  Skip the glossy screen and get something with a matte screen instead.
  • Do NOT buy HDMI cables from your local electronics retailer unless you want to get ripped off.  Try www.bluejeanscable.com or www.monoprice.com.  Any HDMI cable that actually works is just as good as the most expensive one you can buy.  Spending more on one is foolish and a waste of money. 

Hope that helps.  Happy TV shopping!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Apple Tablet: Small Mac, or Big iPhone?

There are rumors circulating that Apple will be releasing a tablet device sometime early next year.  There are certainly a lot of Apple fans that are very excited about such a device, even though they don’t even know what it will be.  (Can you think of anyone besides Apple that can get people excited about something that doesn’t even exist (and hasn’t even been announced) yet?)

There is very little information to go on at this point.  The rumors seem to be indicating that it will be a 10.1” touch screen device priced around $799.  Other than that we really don’t know much, including what it will do, or even whether it would run a full version of OS X or a modified version of the iPhone OS.  There is a rumor that the device will have some sort of cellular radio for Internet connectivity as well, but again, none of this is confirmed.

But even amidst Apple’s perpetual silence on future devices, I think there is a lot about it that we can conclude, should such a device actually come to pass.

The pricing alone could tell us a lot.  If it is priced at $799, it is $200 below the price of the white MacBook.  And about $200 over the selling price of the iPhone (price to carriers, not consumers). That alone tells me that the device will be one of two things: either it’s going to be a lobotomized netbook, or a large multimedia device.

I come to that conclusion based on the products that Apple already has in its lineup.  Think about this: the current Mac “netbook” is the MacBook Air.  In a lot of ways it is much like the PC netbooks that are on the market: small device, lightweight, low power, missing devices like optical drives and myriads of connectivity.  In fact the specifications on PC netbooks aren’t that far off of the MacBook Air, aside from the 13” screen that the Air offers where the screens on netbooks are usually 9-10”.  (Even the CPU isn’t that different between the two.)  An Apple netbook would have to be essentially a smaller, even more stripped down version of the Air at a lower price.

But we know that the device will have a touch screen.  That adds to the cost of a device.  And Apple won’t be happy if it doesn’t support multi-touch, and multi-touch capable touch devices are more expensive than the touch screens used on Tablet PCs.  For Apple to be able to release an OS X-powered computer that offers decent performance, plus a multi-touch touch screen, the price is going to be somewhere near where the MacBook Air is now, if not higher.  Nobody would buy it.

The other problem with trying to go the OS X route is that OS X just isn’t designed for a touch screen interface.  I develop software for touch screens and have learned a lot about what works and what does not work.  Menu bars, like the one that stays at the top of the screen all of the time in OS X, are totally unusable on touch screens.  Buttons, in order to be clickable, must be at least 3/4” wide and high.  A typical button in the OS X user interface would only be about 3/8” high on a 10.1” screen, making them too hard to press accurately.  A screen that size is simply WAY too small to even consider doing general purpose computing.  Even the 15” screens we use as part of my business are too small for that without software being designed specifically for that application.  Applications on OS X are not.

This, of course, ignores the fact that a tablet device lacks a keyboard.  Much of what people do on computers is based on having a keyboard.  People, especially Mac users, use their computers to browse the Internet, read email, write documents, edit photos, listen to music, and watch and create videos.  As we have seen with the iPhone, browsing the internet can be done on a keyboard-less touch screen device, but it is usefulness is limited.  Composing email without a keyboard is totally impractical.  And editing photos and creating video are both difficult (at best) on a low resolution screen, especially when the likely low capacity hard drive of the device is considered.  That leaves us with browsing (sometimes), watching video, and listening to music.  What does that list of activities sound like?  Yep.  There’s your iPod Touch/iPhone functionality.

Yes, I know the iPhone has an on-screen keyboard.  And that works okay for creating short text messages, or even short emails.  But for composing larger emails or documents, a touch keyboard just won’t do.  People like having the tactile feedback of actual keys to press when typing, especially as keyboards become larger than the screen on an iPhone.  A decent size on-screen keyboard on a tablet would fill more than half of a 10” screen, and that doesn’t leave any sort of room for software to run.  You couldn’t even rest your fingers on the screen because the act of just touching the screen would activate the capacitive touch sensor, so you’re left hovering your hands above the display.  This becomes very tiring very quickly.  Short of the tablet device being a netbook with a real keyboard, I just can’t see Apple trying to run OS X on a device this size. 

I think the prospects of an Apple tablet being based on the iPhone OS, however, are much higher than something based on OS X.  Nearly everything sort of falls in line with what we know. 

Since tablet devices are, by their very nature, touch-based, it would make a lot more sense for Apple to start with a product that is already based on touch.  OS X is not, and it would take a major overhaul of not only the OS but all of the applications that run on it to work in a touch screen environment.  The iPhone OS, on the other hand, is totally designed around a touch screen.  Touch, swipe, pinch; all of these are the fundamental operations that take place on a touch device and they’re already supported on the iPhone. 

One of the problems with the iPhone and iPod Touch is the small screen.  Watching videos on something that small is not fun, especially if you are trying to share content with someone else.  You can’t comfortably have a group of friends crowd around an iPhone to watch a video; it makes a lot more sense to take turns.  Or for Apple to release a device with a larger screen. 

An iPhone-like device with a 10” screen could be a very good multimedia player.  It’s big enough for the kids to watch in the back seat of the minivan.  Or large enough to watch a video comfortably on an airplane.  Or perhaps even large enough to become an ebook reader that competes with the Amazon Kindle.  (Yeah, battery life wouldn’t be as good, but I think most people are used to charging their electronics every night anyway.)

Creating such a device wouldn’t be without its own set of hurdles, though.  Something with a 10” screen absolutely has to have a higher resolution screen than the iPhone, so all of those apps in the App Store aren’t going to work without significant reworking to fit the larger screen (or look absolutely horrendous after being blown up to fill the larger display).  So should the mysterious Apple tablet be iPhone-based, expect that it will be limited to off-the-shelf iPhone capabilities for a while after release until developers have a chance to rewrite their software to fit the new screen.  But it would surely have music and video playback as well as web browsing built-in from the start.

But one of the biggest indicators to me that something like this will be iPhone OS-based is that Apple has a hole in their lineup of multimedia devices.  You can listen to music and watch videos on tiny devices like the iPods and iPhone, or something big like a computer monitor or TV by using the Apple TV.  There is a class of devices between the iPod and computer that is missing.  Apple wants to sell you iTunes content, but they don’t have anything that competes with portable DVD players.  The largest portable device (aside from laptops) for watching iTunes video is the iPhone. 

Also consider this… there are rumors that Apple is in talks with Verizon for a partnership for mobile data for the tablet device.  $799 might be a little steep for the average consumer.  But if the device were to be tied to a mobile data plan (like the iPhone is), that $799 might come down to $299 or $399 with Verizon contract.  That puts the out-the-door price right in line with the iPod Touch and Apple TV, and iPhone.  All of which target the same demographic they are already catering to.

I really don’t see Apple releasing a device based on OS X if it is strictly a touch screen.  And such a device certainly wouldn’t cost $799.  There is already a Mac-based device with a tablet display, the Axiotron Modbook.  It’s very expensive, and its only interesting to a very small segment of the market.  A $799 multimedia device is much more appealing to a nearly infinitely larger group of people.

The other thing that really leads me to believe that this will be a multimedia device rather than a computer is that tablet computing is not something that the masses are interested in just yet.  Microsoft’s Tablet PC features are very well implemented in Vista and Windows 7 and yet those devices are only being picked up by a very select group of people.  Outside of the world of doctors, salespeople, and maybe a few in the construction industry, a tablet computer just doesn’t make a lot of sense.  And among that group, a device at $799 might as well be $1999; they’ll pay whatever it costs.  Trying to target people for a $799 tablet just doesn’t make a lot of sense for Apple or its shareholders, especially considering how much they like their premium product markup. 

Since Apple likes to charge a 50-100% premium for their products, we ought to look at what’s in the market that would compete with a $799 product.  Yes, netbooks fall into that category, but not tablet PCs.  The other thing we find in that segment would be… you guessed it, portable video devices.

All of this coupled with the total lack of rumors or information leaks of Apple’s upcoming Snow Leopard having any sort of support for a touch-based Mac, and the rumors of an unidentified device running the iPhone OS lead me to believe that there is absolutely no way that a touch screen 10” tablet device is going to be running OS X as we know it now.  Aside from creating a brand new OS family for such a device, the only choice Apple has is to base something on the iPhone OS.  It makes perfect sense, while all of the other possible options just defy logic.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

To Netbook, or Not To Netbook, Part II

Yes, I have written about netbooks before. But it keeps coming up and people keep asking me questions. So here’s take two.

For about the last year or so there has been a huge craze around “netbook” computers. They are selling like hotcakes. Personally, I don’t think I’ve ever purchased any hotcakes, but I’m told that they set the standard for product sales. Nevertheless, netbooks are very popular. But before you consider buying one yourself, it might do you well to understand what they are and aren’t good for.

Simple Tasks, Simple Machines

Netbooks can be manufactured and sold at low prices because they use lower cost (slower, often older) parts than regular notebook computers. The price you pay (in addition to the lightening of your wallet) is performance and usability. Netbooks are fine for some tasks, but are horrendous at others.

Simple tasks like reading email and browsing most web pages usually work fine on netbook computers if you can live within their attached limitations. Personally I don’t find their slow processors to be much of an issue (most of us don’t really need fast CPUs), but they have other limitations that might be show stoppers.

Tiny Screens

The most significant for most netbook computers is the screen. Not only are the screens small, but they are of low resolution so you can’t display very much on screen at a time. In fact, if you install a couple of toolbars in your browser, nearly HALF of your vertical screen space will be used up with buttons, menus, etc. even with your browser set to Full Screen mode. That’s an awful lot of space being taken away from the web site you wish to view. Email might not be much better. The Preview Pane in Outlook only shows about 4 lines of each message… hardly useful at all.

Dell and HP both make netbooks with High Definition screens, which are MUCH better, but these are rare, must be specially ordered, and add noticeably to the price tag. (Don’t expect to pick one of these up at Best Buy.) The screen resolution on netbook computers is typically 1024 pixels wide by 600 (or 576) pixels high (that’s 0.6144 megapixels for anyone counting). The width is fine, but the height can become a real limitation. We’ve become used to high resolution monitors on our desks, and so have software developers and web page designers. Everything is designed around larger screens, so expect to do a lot of vertical scrolling no matter what you’re doing on a netbook. And please don’t expect to be editing photos or videos on screens that small unless you happen to enjoy pulling out your hair.


Storage may or not be an issue as well. Many netbooks come with Solid State Drives (SSDs for short). These use memory chips to store your data instead of rotating hard disk drives. While being more resilient to vibration, SSDs are much more expensive than hard disk drives for an equivalent amount of storage. So to keep prices down, netbooks with SSDs have VERY small amounts of storage when compared to models that have hard disk drives. One of the main virtues of more expensive SSDs is that they can be much faster than hard disk drives, but don’t expect any wonderful performance in the low-end SSDs used in netbooks. My advice: the only real reason to consider a model with an SSD is to lengthen battery life. Otherwise I recommend going with a traditional hard disk drive instead.


One last limitation to look at is the keyboard. Some models are okay. Others stink with a capital S. The keyboard on my Dell Mini 9 is infuriating. In order to make a keyboard fit on a small device Dell decided to relocate the apostrophe/quotation key to its bottom row. Each time I go to add a ‘s to the end of a word I die a little inside. Other keys have been moved too, and it’s really hard to adjust back and forth between the keyboard on the Mini 9 and a regular keyboard. Most other models tend to be much better about this, but I strongly recommend taking a look at a netbook’s keyboard before considering a purchase. Any funkiness in the layout will be sure to enrage later on.


Netbooks also nearly always come with 1 GB of RAM or less. This is probably fine for people who run one or maybe two programs at a time, but it probably isn’t enough if you’re someone who regularly keeps 5-6 applications open all of the time.

Saving Money… Really?

The most common reason for people buying netbooks vs. a notebook computer is their low price. (Some truly buy for portability, and I won’t argue with that… much.) But I’m not sure that the apparent lower price is worth it.

A typical usable netbook configuration is going to be in the $400 ballpark. Sure you can get one for a lower price, but you have to give up something to get there. For between $400 and $500 you can also buy a reasonably-spec’d full-size notebook computer. Yes, the prices have dropped that much. Most manufacturers offer at least one or two models in that price range. And you get a lot more. Faster processor, more memory, bigger hard disk drive, larger (higher resolution) and higher quality screen, more external connection ports, bigger battery, just to name a few. If you’re considering a netbook because of its price, you’d probably be a lot happier buying a notebook instead, without denting your wallet too much more, if at all.

It also isn’t uncommon to find that low price netbooks run the Linux operating system instead of Windows. This is strictly a cost-saving measure. Linux is free, Windows must be paid for. But unless you’re already a Linux guru (in which case you probably wouldn’t be reading this post), skip it. It isn’t worth it.

It’s Cute ‘Cause It’s Little

Size is a different issue altogether. Netbooks are indeed smaller and lighter than notebook computers. They typically come in at around 2.5 pounds, and around an inch thick. They tend to be much smaller in person than you expect based on pictures online. Modern small notebook computers, on the other hand, are usually 4.5+ pounds, have a much larger footprint, and are just over an inch thick.

While netbooks are small, they aren’t tiny. If I were a woman I wouldn’t carry one in my purse “just because.” I certainly don’t take mine everywhere I go, but when I need something to browse the internet, check email, or answer a customer support call, my netbook is my preferred device because of its small size and light weight.

Time to Buy?

Now is probably not the best time to be buying a netbook; it might be better to wait until late this fall if you can. The reason is Windows 7.

Windows Vista does not run well on netbook hardware. Vista's hardware demands are a little bit too much for netbooks to handle, so netbook manufacturers have been shipping the machines with Windows XP instead. Windows XP runs pretty well. But Windows 7 runs very well on them also, often better than XP.

Windows XP was discontinued before the netbook trend even started, so it hasn't been updated or optimized for netbook hardware. Windows 7, on the other hand, has been. It knows how to handle and optimize for the CPUs and storage devices used in netbooks; XP doesn't. I have been running Windows 7 on my netbook for several months and it works wonderfully! It has fewer issues than XP ever did, and the performance is just as good, if not better. It was also much easier to setup on W7 than XP because I didn't have to go find drivers for the hardware that was too new for XP to recognize.

Many regular notebooks being sold with Windows Vista are eligible for free upgrades to Windows 7 when it ships in October. But netbooks are left out for two reasons: (1) Windows XP, and (2) pricing. Windows XP doesn't qualify for the free upgrades, and computer manufacturers are actually paying for the Windows 7 upgrade on behalf of Vista users. Since the price on netbooks is so low, there isn't enough markup in any netbook for the makers to pay for that upgrade, even if they did include Vista.

Presumably sometime this fall netbooks will begin to ship with Windows 7. The official release of Win7 is October 22nd, but manufacturers are free to decide when they will begin to put 7 on the machines after that date. Some will probably act quickly, while others drag their feet. But either way, I really think it is worthwhile to wait for Windows 7 instead of running Windows XP now.

Should I Get One?

If size and portability are more important to you than power and capability, a netbook might be the right thing for you. I don’t think price alone is a good reason for one, though.

One last bit of advice: don’t make it your only computer. You’ll probably learn to hate computers if you don’t have something else to work on regularly. Netbooks are supplementary devices, not designed to be anyone’s primary machine by any stretch of the imagination.

Using a netbook can be sort of like trying to ride a scooter on the freeway. Yeah, it gets you to your destination, but it probably won’t be very fun getting there.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

8% Cash Back on eBay Purchases

You can get 8% cash back on eBay Buy-It-Now purchases from Microsoft by using their Bing search engine.

1. Sign up for a Bing Cashback account (it’s free, only Windows Live and PayPal accounts are required).

2. Perform a search of what you are looking to buy using the bing.com search engine.

3. If there isn’t an eBay link at the top of the page, do another search for something more common or generic (like iPod, Xbox, etc). 

4. Click the eBay link in the tan box to perform the search again at eBay.

5. After arriving at the eBay site, you can search again for the item you are looking for. 

6. Buy an item using Buy-It-Now, and pay for the purchase using PayPal. 

7. On the page that confirms your auction has been paid for there will be a link to claim your cash back.  Click that link and log in to your Cashback account.

8. The credit will not show up in your account immediately; it will take a few minutes. 

9. Funds will be available in your Cashback account in about 60 days, at this point they can be transferred to your PayPal account.

I just bought a projector lens this way, and sure enough, 8% of the purchase price showed up in my Cashback account.  Pretty easy way to save.

There are restrictions that apply.  You should probably click the cashback link on the eBay site and read over them there.

Finally Got a P&S Digital Camera

I finally broke down and got a decent point & shoot digital camera this last weekend.  I’m sure some will be surprised that it took me this long.

I did have one before, but I hated it, so I never used it.  In 4 years I shot a couple hundred pictures on it in total, maybe.  Probably significantly less.

So this time I did a little bit more homework, and decided on the Canon PowerShot SD960 IS


I got the pink one.  Just kidding!  They only had silver, and that was fine with me.

I ultimately picked it over other models because it’s small enough to fit in a pocket, has pretty good image quality (though no P&S comes even close to the quality of a DSLR), has a 4x optical zoom, and it does 720p HD video.  It also has a really fast user interface, so I don’t have to wait for it to react to my button presses like some other cameras I played with.  It still has some shutter lag (time between you press the button and when it actually takes the picture), but it’s better than most, and the only way to cure that problem is with, again, a DSLR. It’s also the first P&S from Canon with the widescreen LCD, which is nice, as I prefer wider images over the standard almost-square 4:3 aspect ratio that most cameras use.

So far I like it, though I haven’t really had much of a chance to use it just yet.  I bought it for a concert I was going to go to on Saturday night, but I was late because of an accident on the freeway on the way, and they had stopped selling tickets before I finally arrived, so I missed it.  D’oh. Oh well, I’ll find other occasions for it.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Monday, July 6, 2009

Celtic Woman at Red Rocks

So this past Wednesday I flew to Denver to see Celtic Woman perform their Isle of Hope show at Red Rocks Amphitheater. I absolutely loved their Salt Lake show back in May, and wanted to see it again, but a little closer. In Salt Lake, my friend Phyl and I were quite a way back and couldn’t see the performers very well, so I wanted to see it again, but with a better view.

I actually managed to get a ticket for the front row for the Red Rocks show, and pretty close to the middle too. My seat was so close… there was absolutely nobody between me and the girls as they sang; they were literally as close as 15 feet at times, and never more than 25 feet away. What a way to see a concert!!!

DC090701011My view of the stage. Just the rope and railing between me and them.

I had relatively little difficulty getting out to Denver. I arrived at the Salt Lake airport with plenty of time to make my flight. The flight ended up being delayed by about 20 minutes, but I had planned some extra time into my schedule so I could still make the show on time even if I were delayed somewhere along the way. But we made up some extra time in the air and I was able to get my rental car pretty quickly. I went straight to my hotel to check in, but I didn’t even bother to go up to my room before I headed back out to the car to head up to Morrison where Red Rocks Amphitheater is actually located. The show was scheduled to start at 8:00, with the gates opening at 6:30. I heard that parking at Red Rocks was a real problem, so I arrived at 6:00 to make sure I had a place to park.

Red Rocks is a gorgeous venue. I hadn’t ever been, so it was a pleasant experience taking in the view for the first time. And it is huge! I had no idea. I had seen pictures, but pictures just don’t do its size justice. It has to be at least 100 yards deep, and at its narrowest point 40 yards wide. The rows of seats are spaced about 3.5 feet apart, so even while you are seated there is plenty of room for people to walk in front of or behind you. No crowded knees there.

I had a lot of time to kill, but when I sat down the gentleman in the seat next to me had already arrived. We talked for a bit. He was from southern Colorado and had driven up to see the show. Two years ago he did the same thing but they had canceled the show due to rain, so he missed out on that one, and was looking forward to seeing the girls live for the first time. Since I had already seen it I knew both he and his wife would thoroughly enjoy it.

The show started about 15 minutes late. The girls looked and sounded great. They are amazingly talented. Being on the front row, there were many times that I was able to hear their voices over the PA system, and I can vouch for the fact that the show is live… at least the vast majority of it. There were a few numbers (mostly the large group ensembles) where I still wondered if there were some vocal parts that were prerecorded. But even if they did do that, it certainly wouldn’t be because of a lack of talent… it would have to be for a technical reason, like not being able to have that many microphones turned on at the same time without feedback or something similar. If they did use prerecorded audio for any of the vocals (and I think there were a couple of songs where they might have) it was because they didn’t have a choice.

If you haven’t ever been on the front row of a big concert, there just isn’t any way to adequately describe what the experience is like. Because there is nobody between you and the performers, you forget that the show is for a bazillion other people too… you just don’t see them as the show is going on. From the front row, not only can you very clearly see the performers, but they see you, and they react to you. When you smile or wave, they do the same back to you. I caught each one of the girls looking in at me more than once. That is something you just don’t get when you sit farther back. During one particularly powerful, well-performed, and favorite songs, I teared up a little and the girl singing saw that. The experience is great, and I highly recommend it for any shows that I don’t go to. (I don’t want you taking my seat.)

The other interesting thing about being in the front was something I didn’t think about. Most of the time the first few rows are where the most serious groupies and wealthiest patrons will sit. I wasn’t really prepared to hear people all around me talking about their experiences going to many of the shows along the tour (one guy to my right had been to at least a dozen in this tour alone), and their experiences meeting and socializing with the girls. Another guy to my left had been to so many meet-and-greets with the girls that he had long ago lost count of just how many. He had actually flown to Ireland for the taping of one of their DVDs too. Aside from the very boastful nature of his discussion, it was interesting to hear some of the things that he had learned about the girls as he had interacted with them over the last few years. The sort of things that don’t get posted on any web sites, either official or fan.

I was also among the youngest in the front few rows. Each of the front rows at Red Rocks holds about 80-90 people, and in the first three rows there were probably less than a dozen people my age or younger. In some ways it almost felt like I was in the geriatric section, as the average age was at well above 50.

Of the songs that the girls performed, their classics are definitely among my favorites. While some of their new songs are great (“Fields of Gold” and “Isle of Hope” come to mind), I feel pretty “meh” about some of the others. “True Colors” was okay, while “You’ll Be In My Heart” felt very out of place and… well, just awkward. Their all-new “O, America” song is intended to tug at the heartstrings of any patriotic American, but the song itself has some pretty bland lyrics. The whole song is chocked full of cliché phrases repeated over and over, with just the order of the wording switched around a bit: “America, I’ll be true to thee… True to thee, I will be.” Bleh. I appreciate what they were trying to do, but the writing of the song felt amateurish. Fortunately even on the awkward songs the girls sang them beautifully, so it wasn’t like I was bored.

Of the 27 songs on the set list, my favorites of the evening were “The Sky and the Dawn and the Sun” (their opener), “Fields of Gold,” “Orinoco Flow,” “The Blessing,” “Mo Ghile Mear,” “At the Ceili,” (that one is a lot of fun) “Sing Out,” and “You Raise Me Up.” They did “Spanish Lady” for one of their encores in Salt Lake, and that is a really fun one too, but they didn’t do it in Denver (more on that in a second).

Lisa Kelly is my favorite of the group. She has an amazingly wide range with a beautiful tone to her voice. I definitely really like all of the girls, but Lisa consistently delivers my favorite performances, and this show was no exception. She had solos for her standard songs (“The Blessing,” “The Voice,” to name a couple), plus “Fields of Gold” was added for this tour. Hopefully they’ll add “Send Me a Song” to the set list of a future show. That would make me very happy. I also discovered while researching the tour that her youngest sister Helen is also a part of the ensemble as a choir member, and is just as beautiful and talented (it’s really too much talent for one family). She definitely caught my eye as part of the supporting cast this time.

Seeing the same show twice was an interesting experience. The first time through everything was new, even though I knew most of the songs. But it all kind of ran together in my mind as a result. The second time I knew what to expect, and it made it a lot easier to remember the show overall. If you had asked me after the first time which songs they had done and in what order, I could have only given you a blank stare. But if you were to ask me after the second show, I’d have a pretty good shot at being able to name most of the songs, in the right order, and who sang them. I was also better able to watch for and take in the smaller nuances I missed the first time around. At the same time, it all felt very familiar… the new songs weren’t so strange this time, and felt much more familiar and comfortable. I couldn’t go so far as to say that I think everyone should see every show they can multiple times, but it is a very different experience the second time, even while being familiar at the same time.

I wish I could say the Red Rocks show was without any glitches, but I can’t, because there were a few. I think that the sound engineers, for both the Front-of-House (what the audience hears) and monitors (what the performers hear) must not have been the regulars. (I suspect the regulars are back in Ireland getting ready for the DVD that is being shot later this month.) There were several times during the show that the mics for instruments or performers weren’t turned on when they should have been. On numerous occasions I could hear the instruments directly with no sound coming out of the PA at all, which meant that anyone farther back heard basically nothing for those bits of the show. It seems like the monitor engineer wasn’t quite doing his job quite right either, as there were many times throughout the show that the girls would pull out their earpieces, an almost sure sign that they aren’t hearing what they need to hear.

There were a few issues with the lighting too… One of the projectors projecting video on the rocks behind the set was badly misaimed and inverting the image. It was a little distracting. There were also several missed lighting cues in the show, where the spotlights would come on at the wrong time, or be pointed at the wrong performer. Many of the moving lights were also misaimed, and missed their targets, especially in the first half of the show until they were re-aimed during the intermission. I was really sensing an inexperienced crew. This was the 96th show on this tour, and any technician active for the whole tour wouldn’t be making those kinds of mistakes.

Even with those mistakes, though, all of the performers took it in stride and it didn’t phase them in the least. True professionals.

The weather was mostly cooperative for most of the evening. About two hours into the show we started to get a little rain. Most everybody was prepared for it, though. I brought along a poncho, which I put on after the rain started to really come down. Chloe (one of the vocalists, and the selected spokesperson for the group), joked that they had brought their Irish weather with them. That got a good laugh. Chloe also said (just as she did in Salt Lake) that this show by far had the best audience yet. I’d beg to differ on that, though…

Most everybody was coping with the rain pretty well, but I think it did dampen people’s spirits some (pun intended). The energy of the audience was definitely a lot lower than it was in Salt Lake, especially after, but even before, the rain started. Where at the Salt Lake show there were probably 6-8 standing ovations for various songs throughout the evening, at Red Rocks there were just two… one just before the intermission, and one at the end. And at the conclusion of the normal set list, and the girls thanking everyone for coming, everybody just got up and left. Apparently the audience didn’t want the encores, and we didn’t get them. So we had an extra few songs at Salt Lake that we didn’t get in Denver. That was disappointing, as the songs they had selected for their encores are some of their more fun ones.

I had heard that traffic getting out of Red Rocks is a nightmare, so I was really expecting it to take forever to get back to my hotel. That turned out to not be the case at all. It took about 10 minutes to get from the venue back to the highway, so I was back to my hotel about 35 minutes after the show got out. (Much better than the 90 minutes it took to get home from Stadium of Fire fireworks last night.)

Getting my rental car returned and back to the airport had a few hassles… When I asked my GPS software to find me a gas station near the rental car return it took me to the airport parking lot instead. Which meant that I had to bite the bullet and pay their outrageous $7/gallon rate to make it to the airport on time.

The Denver airport is a bit of a labyrinth. You walk in at ground level, go upstairs to check in, back to ground level to go through security, then downstairs to catch a train to your concourse. And it isn’t very well labeled, so if you’re new to the airport you feel kind of dumb trying to figure out where you’re supposed to go. And then my flight coming back to Utah was actually delayed by about a half hour, which meant that my poor sister Suzanne had to wait for me that much longer after her flight to Salt Lake to meet up to head back to Orem (she had already been there two hours). I’m not a big fan of the hassles of flying.

But as far as the show itself goes, I don’t want any of this to sound like it was bad , because it certainly was not by any stretch of the imagination. It was still amazing. It just wasn’t as amazing as the show I saw in Salt Lake. I’m still very glad that I went… you can’t trade the experience of seeing a concert (especially one by people so talented, and so well produced) in the front row for anything. It’s certain to be one of those things I remember for the rest of my life. The only thing better would be to do it again, and actually be able to meet the girls in person.

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