Category Archives: Apple/Mac

Apple and Mac related postings

Sorting the Frame Rate Problem Using RasPlex

Back in January I wrote about the problems of trying to get streaming video to play back smoothly from Plex on our Apple TV, or XBox, or Fire TV, or pretty well anything, whilst I’d got around the problem by manually switching the Apple TV back and forth, it was still not really a satisfactory solution, and also didn’t solve the problem with any 24fps movie content. I also found that even well established apps like Netflix suffer the same problem on the Apple TV when we were watching The Crown where the shots with trains passing the camera had exactly the same jitter problem that was coming up on my content from Plex.

After a bit of research I’ve found that there is only one TV streaming box that can switch frame rates for Plex playback, and that is the NVIDIA Shield, but since that retails for £170 and doesn’t do anything much more than the XBox, Apple TV or Fire TV options we have already I wasn’t too keen.

From looking through the many online discussions of the problem, it seems that people running the now deprecated Plex Home Theater had got around the problem, and people using the built in Plex clients on smart TV’s didn’t have the issue, but again getting a new PC or Mac to go in the living room, or replacing our TV wasn’t really a cheap option either.

Then I came across RasPlex which is an actively developed port of Plex Home Theater to the Raspberry Pi. Like the PC and Mac versions of Plex Home Theater it was able to switch resolution, and with the arrival of the Raspberry Pi 3, the little £33 computer is more than capable of driving 1080p video.

At this point, after my experience setting up flight tracking with a Raspberry Pi I thought I’d be writing an explanation of setting it up, but RasPlex is really dead easy. The most fiddly bit of the whole process was getting the tiny screws that mount the Raspberry Pi 3 I bought into case into the equally tiny holes. RasPlex provide installers for Windows, Mac and Linux that will set up the software on a suitable memory card, and then it is as simple as plugging the Raspberry Pi into a power socket and your TV and turning on. The Raspberry Pi 3 has built in Wifi that RasPlex detects, and whilst it takes a bit of time when first booted to cache data from your Plex server, once it is up and running it is fine.

To get the resolution changes you’ll need to dig down into the advanced video settings, because by default RasPlex will stick to whatever resolution is set for the user interface, much like the commercial streaming boxes. However once that setting was changed, whatever video I threw at it worked fine on our TV – a slight pause as the TV switched frame rate and off it went. The other nice plus was that even with our seven year old Panasonic TX-L32S10 we didn’t need a separate remote for the Raspberry Pi as since the TV has HDMI-CEC support we can navigate the RasPlex user interface with the regular TV remote.

There are a couple of downsides, firstly unlike the Apple TV, the Raspberry Pi doesn’t have a sleep mode. The power save options on RasPlex will shut the whole Raspberry Pi down, at which point you have to cycle the power to wake it up again. Also the Raspberry Pi didn’t seem able to drive the picture through the cheapie HDMI switcher we have connecting the increasing number of HDMI devices we have to the TV.

However even with buying the Raspberry Pi, a suitable case with heatsinks for the processors on the Raspberry Pi that potentially get rather a workout, memory card and power supply, I still ended up with a Plex box for less than £60, and one that plays video significantly better than any of the established players by switching the TV to the correct frame rate.

That of course just leaves one final question, if a £33 box can do it, why can’t Apple, Roku, Amazon and all the rest do the same thing? Apple and Amazon especially are selling content that would benefit from a switchable box, and yet none of them do it, and instead ship boxes that make their content look rubbish.

The TV Frame Game

Through another one of the numerous techie competing standards stories, (the TL;DR summary being that NTSC TV standard was considered a bit rubbish on this side of the pond and as a result in Europe we developed two alternative standards PAL and SECAM) in the UK and the USA we ended up with two somewhat incompatible TV systems. In the USA they had TV pictures with a vertical resolution of 480 lines, playing at a frame rate of 30 frames per second, whilst on this side of the Atlantic we were watching a  higher resolution 576 line picture, but playing at a frame rate of 25 frames per second. The TV companies had ways of converting pictures between the two standards, and eventually we got to home video recorders being able to play tapes recorded in the other standard, and TV’s that could cope with both, indeed these days in the UK you’ll find most DVD or BluRay players and TV’s will quite happily switch between European 50Hz standards and the North American 60Hz, whatever the standard of the material that was put into the machine.

When the HD standards came around there seemed to be general agreement across the world, and everybody settled on 720 lines or 1080 lines for high definition pictures and all seemed right with the world… Or maybe not…

That brings us to me watching a video last night which involved a number of shots of trains going left to right or right to left across the screen, and a really annoying judder as the trains went past. I was watching from an HD video file playing back on our Apple TV through Plex. Thinking it was a problem with the Apple TV I tried it through Plex on our Xbox One – same problem, and watching the raw file on the desktop, same problem again. Looking at the file it had come from a UK production company and was encoded in 1080p with a frame rate of 25 frames per second, perfectly standard UK file. So I took a look at the Apple TV. Digging into the settings I had the picture standard set to Auto, further down it said it had automatically set itself to 1080p 60Hz. There was also an option to specify which picture format to use, with a 1080p 50Hz option, so I switched that over, watched the file again, and away went the judder, switch back to auto and the Apple TV would decide to switch to 1080p 60Hz.

The basic problem seems to be that unlike the DVD Players, video recorders or BluRay players the latest generation of devices like the Apple TV or Xbox, even though many are capable of switching the resolution, automatically go for 1080p 60Hz and then behave as if the TV they’re connected to is a dumb panel that can’t cope with any other standard, as a result they then try to convert video at another frame rate in software. The judder I could see on the video is a result of the Apple TV or Xbox trying to show 25 frames per second on a device that is wanting 30 frames per second, so on smooth movements you get the judder because 20% of the frames in any one second of video are being shown twice. Knowing my TV is a European model that can cope with a 50Hz picture I can switch the Apple TV over and it works fine (not so for the Xbox incidentally) but then if I watch a North American video at 30 frames per second the Apple TV is locked in 50Hz and has much the same problem trying to handle showing 30 frames in the period when it only has 25 frames.

At this point the cinema purists are going to point out that there is another very common frame rate, with is 24 frames per second, which is the frame rate that most movies are made at, and many BluRays are now released as that standard because again a lot of TV sets these days will cope with the frame rate. So what do the Apple TV, Xbox and other TV streamer boxes do? They try and show those 24 frames in whatever frame rate the box is currently set to, and have exactly the same problem.

Going through my digital videos I have a real mixed bag. Most of the UK stuff is 25 frames per second, some where it has come off film is 24 frames per second, US stuff mostly 30 frames per second. Looking at home videos I have the same mixed bag, primarily because even though they’re all UK bought devices the cameras and phones I’ve had over the years don’t always produce UK standard video, for example iPhones using the standard camera software will consistently record in 60Hz standards – you have to resort to apps like Filmic to get the phone to record in European 50Hz standards, or even 24 frames per second if you want to work with cinema standards.

So even though world has agreed the size of a picture, there is still no agreement over how many of those pictures are shown per second. Most of our digital streaming boxes either will only work at the US 60Hz standard (the earliest Sky Now boxes were stuck on 60Hz) or are switchable but thanks to the software are difficult to switch across – the Apple TV you have to go rummaging in the settings, on the Xbox you effectively have to con the Xbox into thinking your TV can only do 50Hz pictures before it will switch – with the devices doing a second rate job when your TV is quite often perfectly capable of playing things back correctly.

Having one standard is never going to work as we’ll still have vast amounts of archive content at the older frame rates, so for the moment it would really help if the digital streamer manufacturers actually started acknowledging that there are a variety of standards – even your average US consumer who doesn’t have any 50Hz content is going to notice glitching if they watch a movie. We’ve had DVD and Video Recorders that could switch for years, why is it that the new tech seems to have taken such a massive step backwards?

Featured image old tv stuff by Gustavo Devito

Roaming an iPhone on Data Only

Since 3 relaunched their free roaming Feel at Home scheme we’ve been a little spoilt when traveling – we went on a trip to the USA and used our iPhones pretty much as we would do in the UK. It was therefore a bit of a shock when at short notice we had to do a trip to Canada, and we took a look at the roaming costs over the border… Calls across the board are £1.40 a minute, and data, for which I have unlimited in the UK is £6 per MB – definitely not a Feel at Home destination…

In the past we’ve got hold of a local SIM for Canada. HolidayPhone do a Canadian SIM card but they’re not cheap, and they wouldn’t be delivered in time for our trip. Canadian company Similicious have better prices, but on a short notice trip they also wouldn’t be able to get the SIM card to us in time, as international shipping would be about fourteen days.

The other option was to get an international SIM, but looking through the options they’re all primarily focused on voice calls and texts, you can get an international SIM with data, but that adds to the cost even more.  However looking at what we use day by day, the vast majority of the use we now make of our phone is data, not calls. Our phones are essentially handheld computers that just happen to make calls. Quite often we’re communicating through chat apps like Google Hangouts or Facebook Messenger. On the ground in Canada apps like Citymapper and Uber would be essential for getting around. If we wanted to make voice calls we had FaceTime and FaceTime Audio to talk to other iPhone users, and apps like Skype can also be used to call conventional phone numbers for fairly minimal costs. So it seemed like we could get by with a data only SIM – so would those be any cheaper.

Having a search around I came across the Love2Surf card on next day delivery with Amazon. It comes pre-loaded with 100Mb of data, and has a website that allows you to add more, so we thought we’d give it a go.

In the UK the card runs on the EE network, so we swapped out the normal 3 SIM before leaving for the airport, and were able to give it a test run whilst still in the UK. On arrival in Canada it hooked up to the Rogers network and it quite happily made a FaceTime call from the baggage claim hall.

The main issue we had on the trip was a hiccup when we added data to the card part way through, which was a technical issue at the Love2Surf end, that left us with the card unable to connect to any network for a few hours, but it came back and we were able to carry on. There were a couple of occasions when we forgot we couldn’t make voice calls, but you’re not going to end up with a big bill from doing so as the card is only authorised to roam data. All in all it seemed like the little bit of convenience was worth it for the cost saving.

Comparing the prices for Canada if you’ve got enough notice it won’t beat the cost of a local SIM from Similicious but if you’re visiting multiple countries touring around the Love2Surf card is certainly cheaper than buying a local SIM for each country.

Taxi

Recently I’ve been playing around with taxi apps on my phone.

For a while I’ve had Hailo on my iPhone for when I am in London, which is an app from a London startup that allows you to hail a black cab from your phone, but whilst that has expanded to other cities worldwide it doesn’t work in the UK anywhere outside the capital, so for day to day it’s not much use when I’m at home in the depths of Berkshire.

Since Hailo appeared, other competitors have turned up, the biggest and most notorious being Uber. The Moovit app that I have had on my phone for a while also for keeping track of buses and trains I’m using has had an Uber link up for a while, but again it hasn’t been that much use because Uber really only operated in the capital, however recently I noticed that rather than saying no cars available it would more frequently come up with availability for a car, particularly when I was in Reading. Whilst the company hadn’t officially expanded to Reading, they had expanded west along the M4 from London into Slough, Windsor and Maidenhead, and what I was seeing was cars who had carried passengers to Maidenhead becoming available when they had dropped their passengers in Reading and were heading back.

That caused me to take a look again and see whether any of the multitude of apps were usable for someone who didn’t live in the capital.

Hallo was definitely still only working with London black cabs, but GetTaxi, an Israeli startup with a similar concept to Hailo was now operating with the black cabs that operate in Reading. The only downside is that their service doesn’t operate outside Reading so whilst I could order a cab from Reading to home, I couldn’t request one in the reverse direction.

IMG_5766Uber would very occasionally offer me a ride even at home, but not often enough to rely on, so it looked like maybe there still wasn’t a viable option. However I came across another alternative thanks to a blogger I’d come across who worked as a minicab driver. There is lots of interesting stuff on his site, but the main point is that he lives in Brighton but operates mainly in London. He has worked for a variety of operators, including Uber, but is now working for large mini cab operator Addison Lee – the post where he discusses why he has gone to Addison Lee and is no longer working for Uber is well worth a read, but it also highlighted their investment in technology so I grabbed the app. I had seen Addison Lee cars operating around Reading so I knew they had expanded coverage to Berkshire – indeed since their sale to the Carlyle Group and the departure of their frequently controversial founder and CEO they are covering the whole country.

The app seems just as good as the equivalent apps for Uber, Hailo and GetTaxi, but unlike all of those it will offer me a taxi at my door, and allow me to book one at any time. Of course the on demand is not the five or ten minute wait you’d get in London – usually between thirty and sixty minutes at home – but booking an airport pick up or drop off the rates are comparable with any of the other cab firms I’ve used over the years, and they will also offer me a home to work, or work to home booking at a reasonable cost. The app also allows me to pay with Apple Pay or PayPal, and even retains the option to pay the driver cash (although one of the advantages of Hailo has always been that I never carry much cash these days, certainly not enough for a reasonable length cab journey). Certainly I’m going to give it a go next time I’m booking a cab, certainly can’t be as bad as some of the experiences we’ve had over the years.

IMG_5767As an experiment, having found a cab app that covered me at home, I then wondered how much their claim to cover the whole country really extended, and as yet, I haven’t found anywhere in the country it hasn’t offered me an estimate for an on demand request, or for a pre-booking, as long as one end of the journey or another is somewhere close to their main area in the south-east of England. This for example is a pickup request for the big hotel in the centre of Portree on the Isle of Skye, for which the app is quoting 295 minutes – whether they’d actually turn up if you made the on demand request is another matter as from experimentation 295 minutes seems to be some sort of maximum and is what it quotes in a number of places I’ve tried, but the app certainly suggests it will take a booking – an eye watering £1770 to come back home!

Do You Need a Digital Camera Any More?

Apple and other mobile phone companies have been pushing how good the cameras in their phones have become for a while now, and certainly because most people have their phone with them a lot more often than they have a camera, people are taking many more pictures on mobile phones. However have the cameras on phones now got so good that you really don’t need a separate camera?

Certainly they’re not as good as a digital SLR, but could they replace a digital compact camera?

Until now, despite having had a mobile phone capable of taking pictures if I’ve been going on holiday I’ve always taken a separate camera. Over the years the pictures from the phones have been getting steadily better, but they were still noticeably better from the camera than the phone. However that has changed with my most recent upgrade to an iPhone 6 Plus where I have been regularly impressed by the quality of the pictures even in situations where previous phone cameras have struggled. So this year, as an experiment when we went on holiday I left my digital camera, currently a Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ10, at home. You can take a look at the album of pictures we took on Flickr by clicking on the image below. The album contains pictures from two phones, my iPhone 6 Plus, and also pictures from the iPhone 6 used by my wife.

Devon Holiday 2015

Certainly they are a pretty good set of pictures, including some that my regular camera just wouldn’t be able to produce such as the panoramic shots. However there are some shots that the Panasonic would have made a better job of – anything that is zoomed for example as the Panasonic has an optical zoom whereas the phones are zooming digitally. A good example is this picture of a train arriving that used the digital zoom on the iPhone 6.

There are also some practical issues, a big one being battery life. A digital camera can quite happily run on a single set of batteries for significantly longer than a multi-purpose device like a phone, indeed on the holiday there was one occasion where the iPhone 6 couldn’t be used because the battery was getting too low. Getting an emergency charge battery like this Anker unit can help if you get caught short on battery, but it would still be better not to have to worry. One big practical issue is that it is one less device to have to carry – more and more the smartphone is becoming a single multi-purpose device replacing still camera, video camera, sat-nav, handheld games console, and even the holiday paperback.

Ultimately though as phone cameras continue to improve, the market for the digital compact camera is going to continue to diminish, especially as the other advantages of photography on a phone such as being able to easily edit and share those pictures straight from the device are taken into account. With services such as Google Photos, Flickr or Apple iCloud Photo Library allowing you to synchronise and share edits, the days of taking pictures on a separate camera and importing them to a computer via USB cable or a card reader will increasingly be in the past