To Do: Oast One Blog Design Refresh...

It's been on the cards since Summer '08 but I still haven't got round to doing it. I really need to tweek the look of my blog to match the rest of the Oast One refreshed brand. I have been managing to slowly roll it out since last summer (new business cards, stationary and even the website has had an overhaul at last) but still not got onto the Blog.

I really need to sort the catagories out too as they are a little confusing and don't really reflect what I've been blogging about.

Will have a good hard think...

Oast Rider Font - Free for personal use...

As our updated brand rolls out a few people have been asking what the font we use for the Oast One logo is. It is called Oast Rider and we created it from scratch inspired by a font named Ghost Rider. So, after much debate, we have decided to make the font available to download free for personal use...

Download: TrueType

Oh - and I should also mention that the logo on the blog still uses the old font - we just haven't got round to updating it yet.

2Mb Broadband for the entire UK. And then we're stabbed in the back...

Yesterday Lord Carter announced that by 2012 the entire population of the UK should have at least 2MB broadband access in their homes.

Excellent I thought. I live at pretty much the furthest point from the local, and by all accounts pretty dire, exchange and my home broadband struggles to download at speeds higher than 100Kbps. Awful when you think there's people less than a quarter of a mile away enjoying 3Mbps and two miles the other way rolling at speeds around the 7Mbps mark. Although 2Mbps is far less than the current national average Broadband speed (3.5Kbps-ish) it was was still going to be a welcome policy for people like me. Even though, at this stage, it was a bit uncertain as to who was going to pay for this massive communication upgrade.

But then today I woke up and recieved the newscast equivilent of a massive hammer in the groin! Lord Carter was suggesting that we all absorb a £20 a year tax increase. At first I thought this was not too bad if it meant we had these increases in Broadband speeds.

But then I learnt what the £20 was really for...

No - not the speed increase. Lord Carter required this extra cash to help the Music and Film Industry fight file-sharing! He wants to tax the UK's ISP's the equivilent of £20 per head which, of course, they would have to pass on to the customer. For absolutely NO benefit to them at all.

Now correct me if I'm wrong but I've never really noticed a massive lack of cash in the Film or Music Industry's. Why should the consumer pay to fight the debateable crime of file-sharing if it doesn't affect him or her in any way? I don't file share. I can't think of anyone else I know who does. As far as I'm concerned its the Film and Music Industry's probelm. Not mine. I would like to know why the government feels it needs to step in and help the poor film and music industry when, if my business was repeatedly being burgled, I certainly wouldn't recieve a govenment handout to upgrade my security. I would be lucky to get the police to turn up.

Where are the local help files in Adobe CS4?

I recently upgraded to Adobe CS4 Producton Suite. It's pretty good as far as upgrades go. Photoshop now uses your 3D card to make zooming in on images a treat to behold and the groovy new interface for After Effects is a little bit more like Final Cut than my previous version of AE (something like 6.5 I think).

The problem was the help files...

If you clicked on About > Help (or hit F1) in any of the CS4 applications to bring up the help it took you online to the Adobe support area. There's lots of information there - from all over the shop - user posted info from the Adobe community, training videos, stuff from the Adobe support site and all sorts... Far too much data if all you want to do is know how to loop a sound clip in Soundbooth or reverse a piece of footage in After Effects.

How could I get to the local help files that are installed with the CS4 applications?

I knew that if I unplugged my internet connection and hit F1 I would be taken to the local help files so they must be on my computer somewhere. After a spot of searching I finally managed to stumble across where they were all hiding:

C:\Program Files\Common Files\Adobe\Help\en_US

or

Macintosh HD:Library:Application Support:Adobe:Help:en_US

All the folders are there for the various applications so I was able to make a load of shortcuts to the index.html files and stick them somewhere easy to find.

J

Computer Hardware - Mac or PC (and a little bit about Boot Camp)...

As an Interactive Designer I've always worked on both Mac and PC - dependant on the application, the software, the delivery platform the but mainly what machine was available at the time. Personally I own a MacBook laptop and also a Dell desktop PC. I can see the advantages (and disadvantages) in both OS's.

This, in my experience, is an odd way to be. Most people in the design industry fanatically champion either PC or Mac... but not both! I know people who would take you outside to 'discuss it like men in the street' if you so much as suggested a PC was as good as a Mac. I know another individual (no name mentioned) that has a tattoo of the Windows logo on probably one of the most painful areas to have tattooed on the human body... now that devotion!

This Platform Fanaticism is a strange phenomenon... almost like the hatred you get between Snowboarders and Skiers - if you are one you automatically have to hate the other. Yet no one really knows the reason why. If you challenge a member of either faction you usually get the response: "Cos PCs/Skiiers are ****!" or "Macs/Snowboarders are just ********!" Not very well thought out, or considered, answers. It’s almost like two separate religions blindly going along with their own individual faith and totally unaccepting of others. Maybe in the future when the human race no longer has need for traditional religions we will begin aligning ourselves with Operating Systems (or ways to travel over snow) instead.

Personally I find that Macs are great for design and video editing. They specialise in throwing graphics around quickly, they are easy to use and (since OS X) they always seem to just work. PCs are more versatile and I find it is much more sensible to develop website and Flash or Director Applications on them. There are two reasons for this: mainly that the chances are the end user will be using a PC to view the finish project so it makes sense to develop and test on one. But also because you have a lot more features available on the PC to help you with development processes.

However – things have changed slightly lately. Since Macs have been using Intel Processors it is possible to run Windows XP and Vista on them. This means I now only need to buy one piece of hardware. Although Macs can be expensive it is far cheaper to buy a Mac and a copy of Windows than it is to buy two whole computers. This brings me on to Boot Camp…

For those of you that may not know Boot Camp is Apple’s way of helping you to install Windows XP onto a Mac creating a dual-boot system that can start up using either Windows Vista/XP or Mac OS X. I have to say – it is excellent. You simply download Boot Camp to your Intel-based Mac. Once run it will create a disc containing all the Windows drivers for your Mac hardware and allow you to partition your hard drive - one partition with the existing OS X and the other for your new Windows install. Once this is done you simply insert your Windows installation disc and away you go.

I have heard people say that it is as easy as installing Windows on a normal PC. In my opinion they’re wrong. It’s easier!

You see once I’d installed Windows on my MacBook I simply put the disc Boot Camp made for me in – it automatically installed all the Windows drivers for my MacBook - even rebooting where necessary and continuing afterwards. It was a simple as that. Everything worked perfectly.

As a comparison I have recently reinstalled Windows Vista on my Dell desktop PC. It was been a nightmare. Yes Dell supplies the drivers but they are bundled with all the other drivers for the current Dell models via a very cumbersome interface - it’s not really that clear which ones need to be installed. Dell also have a useful web-tool where you type in the serial number of your Dell and it comes back with a list of all the hardware your Dell was shipped with plus links to the drivers. Good idea. Except you still need to click on all the drivers separately to download them (even if you add the drives you need to ‘My Download List’ you still can’t download them all in one go). And of course – once you have downloaded them you still need to install them all individually. Time consuming and - compared to boot Camp – irritating. It took me a whole day to get Windows Vista up and running on my Dell.

I have been running Windows Vista on my entry level MacBook (with 2GB memory) for almost two years now. I use the apps from Adobe Master Suite all day, every day and it has been excellent. It runs far, far, far better than my (slightly newer) Dell – which was “Designed for Vista”. It’s almost embarrassing that the Mac can out-strip the PC in terms of reliability when running a ‘borrowed’ OS. Yes it does have a few niggles such as the lack of right-click on the track-pad and no ‘print screen’ button. But I can get round both of these with a piece of free software. Or just plug in a normal mouse.

So – after the nightmare I have had re-installing windows Vista on my desktop Dell I have made a decision… No more native PC hardware. From now on (and unless anything major changes) I’m only going to buy Macintosh computers.

Alienware Area 51 Laptop Review...

A good few years ago (February 2004) I purchased an Alienware laptop. I didn't have a blog at the time so wasn’t able to comment on the product or my experiences with Alienware. However - I was having a chat with a friend on the weekend and he reminded me that somewhere in storage I have a ‘Saucer Silver’ Alienware Area51 Laptop and thought it may be beneficial to someone if I was to post some sort of review about it.

It wasn’t cheap – costing me about £2,500.00 (inc VAT) – but was a great spec. I was after a really powerful, hi-res laptop that would enable me to run Photoshop / Illustrator / Flash / After Effects and the like when I was out of the office or on contracts where they couldn’t supply me a reasonable machine. The Alienware seemed a good choice though I must admit it was the slick looks (yes – and even that little alien on the back of the screen with illuminated eyes) that tempted me away from the likes of Sony Viao’s or MacBook Pro’s.

For some reason I still have the manual in my bottom drawer so I can give you the spec:

CPU: Intel Pentium 4 CPU 3.00GHz (x2)
Case Colour: Saucer(!) Silver
Memory: 1024MB
HDD: 60.1GB HTS726060M9AT00
Optical: QSI DVDRW SDW-041
OS: XP Pro
BIOS: American Megatrends Inc 080009 A M I 2000410
AGP: ATI Mobility Radeon 9600/9700 Series (128)
C-Media AC97 Audio Device
Smart Link 56K Modem
Realtek RTL8169/8110 Family Gigabit Ethernet NIC
O2Micro OZ711Mx MemoryCardBus Accelerator

As I recall the computer also had 3x USB ports and one of those mini FireWire ports. It also had a built in Wireless adapter, a IrDA Fast Infrared Port and a combined SD/Memory Stick reader. It came with a remote control (as big as an average TV remote), an Alienware T-Shirt, mouse mat and manual/folder with some nonsense about “For your eyes only: Agent James Marett” printed on the front. I think I had also opted for a Microsoft Intellimouse in Green, branded with the Alienware logo.

Sadly I can’t find an image of the exact model I bought at the moment but will post if I do come across one.

As far as ‘looking forward to new hardware’ goes I was pretty excited after completing my order online and checked the automated tracking system on their website at least bi-daily. I was pleased to see that, quicker than estimated, my laptop had been assembled and was ready for shipping. Over the next few days I tracked my order from Ireland, to the UK and on to the Midlands… But suddenly the trail went cold. My laptop had seemingly disappeared! I waited a few days then felt the need to make further enquiries. After a good deal of to-ing and fro-ing between Alienware and the shipping company (who both blamed each other) I finally got Alienware to look into the situation. This took over a week and luckily resulting in my order being restarted from scratch as, in Alienware’s words, a priority order. What happened to my laptop I'll never know. Without wishing to offend anyone in the Midlands I'm guessing it was stolen...

Possibly ‘priority’ means something different in Ireland because Alienware’s second attempt at assembling my laptop took over three weeks. More than five time longer than the first time round. This time it was shipped it actually made it all the way to my house. Though instead of being delivered it was driven straight past and back to the depot! It took a great deal of phoning, complaining, being hung up on, made false promises and finally begging to get the shipping company to allow me to go and pick it up from the depot the following Monday rather than wait an indefinite period of time for the next ‘scheduled delivery’.

So finally… I had in my hand my shipment. I rushed home and set to work removing the outer packaging. The box inside was very swish – gloss black with the Alienware logo picked out in white on the front. Nice! This, I thought, is going to be worth the wait.

It wasn’t.

(Before I go any further I should say that this all took place over four years ago, Alienware may have vastly improved (or otherwise) since then so please don’t relate this article to any of their current products. I also want to steer clear of pounding the reader with a swathe of negativity so I am going to use a concept I saw on Family Guy… The ‘Compliment Sandwich’. This means I will say something good followed by an ‘area that needs improving’ followed by something good followed by an ‘area that needs improving’ and so on. So here goes…)

I carefully opened the box and removed the well packed laptop. I’m afraid to say that in the flesh the design of the laptop was disappointing. The Alienware machines always look so great in all the well-lit, cunningly positioned marketing photography but sadly in reality they aren’t so stylish. Just like the Ford Puma! What part of the ‘aluminium casing’ that was aluminium (the lid) was, to my mind, poorly pressed out of thin and tacky feeling metal. The Alien head logo in the centre of the lid looked decidedly cheap. And the rest of the casing was bulky and bulbous. It didn't seem to hang together very well – certainly a million miles from the sleek lines of a Sony or MacBook. I couldn't believe I had fallen in love with this lump of tack I was staring at.

Undeterred I pressed on, opened the screen and pressed the power-on button. It sprang to life and booted up into XP Pro in no time. It was, and still is, one of the fastest machines I have ever owned (Mac or PC). I noticed a demo of Quake (or something) that was installed as part of the OEM so I thought I’d give it a whirl just to check out how fast it really was.

I never got that far. As I moused towards the icon I got a MASSIVE blue-screen crash! I say ‘MASSIVE’ because it truly was. Nothing I did would resurrect the machine. Turning it off and on, various safe modes, system recovery, even reinstallation from scratch. Nothing worked. I phoned the Alienware 24/7 technical support line only to find out that they weren’t! Eventually I had to call to my IT Guru brother, Alexis, to help me to figure out what was wrong. I forget the exact details now but it was pretty major and required something major to be fiddled with at BIOS level. I was eventually able to reinstall the OS and went to bed composing a lengthly letter of complaint in my mind.

I had some success with the re-install and was able to run all my high-end apps such as After Effects, Lightwave, Director, etc. on the huge 1600x1200 resolution monitor which was crisp and focused. Feeling smug I went ahead and also installed a copy of Doom 3 as a little ‘treat’.

It soon became apparent that although everything ran smooth every 20seconds or so the system would lock up for a few seconds pausing whatever you were doing. This became highly irritating. It also seemed that unless the laptop was within three meters of the wireless router the built-in WiFi was just not powerful enough to get a signal. In addition to this the battery-life of the simply enormous battery (stretching the full width of the already chunky laptop and surely weighing a full kilo) was about 50 minutes at best. Not even long enough to survive my train journey to work. This meant that I had to cart around the absolutely massive power supply as well as the extremely heavy laptop itself. During this period of my life I had almost constant backache! Portability was not one of its key features.

After I realised that I could turn off the built-in WiFi and therefore prevent the constant system lock-ups I began using my laptop on a daily basis as my main computer. Oast One was in premises in Hammersmith and I would carry the laptop to work and back every day. During this period the machine did me proud. It was fast (most the time) and enabled me to create many high-end CD ROM, Flash animation and use After Effects. I had learnt to work-around the silly niggles and blue-screen crashes the computer kept throwing at me and the keyboard was pretty good as far as laptops go, allowing me all the usual functions in a fairly well laid out manner. However – after I started working with a big Sony monitor plugged in to the Alienware as a second screen I thought I would invest in a USB keyboard (the Alienware had no PS/2 ports).

Deciding to maintain the Alienware theme rather than going for a more cost effective option I phoned Alienware and ordered a USB keyboard compatible with my Area51 laptop, a new mouse and a second power supply (so I could leave one in the office and one at home and only need one bag to carry my laptop in). The sales person happily took my order and a week or so later I took delivery. The first thing I noticed was that the MS Intellimouse was not branded Alienware as before, despite the description and premium price tag. This being the case I’m not sure why I had paid extra for it but let it slide. However – what I could not let slide was the incredibly cheap PS/2 keyboard they supplied. I had specifically requested a USB keyboard compatible with my laptop and the sales guy had looked this up on the system as the correct one. After calling to enquire Alienware told me that this PS/2 crud was the only keyboard they sold! In disbelief I asked for my money back and was told to ship the keyboard back before they would return anything. Fair enough I thought and shipped recorded delivery. I am STILL waiting for my refund over four years and many phone calls/promises later. I must admit I kind of gave up three years ago.

OK… something positive… Did I say the screen was nice?

Shortly after this we decided to set up a better network in the studio. Until now we had been pretty much surviving by email small files to each other and putting larger files onto portable hard drives or iPods. Backing-up was done manually onto externals. This is where I learnt that the Ethernet adapter in the Alienware was as good as useless. It would connect to the internet no problem but was not able to perform on a network. IF you could actually see the network when you booted it was short lived. As soon as you started copying files the network connection would disappear after two or three megabytes. Maybe as much as ten if you were lucky. Once this happened you would have to reboot and hope that the network showed up again this time round. No amount of driver updating, calls to support or fiddling would correct this.

The illumiated alien eyes on the lid changed colour depedant on what mode you we in. Red for charging, green for normal use and blue for something else. Cool bu totally pointless…

I had had enough – the Area51 was getting on worse on a daily basis. It had always intermittently blue-screened but it was now getting far worse. About 50% of the time you booted it would blue-screen. Then another huge crash that required an OS install took out a load of personal files I hadn’t backed up. I decided to get a new desktop PC and stop using it. The damn thing had been the bane of my life for well over a year and was certainly not worth the money I spent on it. Yes, on paper, it looked great but there were so, so many issues. In addition to the ones I have mentioned above:

  • The DVD drive totally stopped working
  • The remote control never really worked correctly
  • The Infrared Port never worked properly
  • The thing very big and heavy and the build quality was not up to much so it would literally rip itself apart under its own weight in transit. Even in a padded laptop bag.
  • It was incredibly noisy
  • The fan vents along the side would spew out superheated air, akin to the after-burn of a Tornado Fighter Jet. Occasionally the whole machine would get so hot it would stop working. It required over an hour to cool down.
  • Over time the monitor became discoloured in one lower corner – possibly as a result of the incredible heat it produced.
  • One of the catches on the screen broke within a week
  • The catch on the battery broke within six months

I’m sure there were more issues that slip my mind right now.

So all in all I’m afraid I wasn’t that impressed. For the price I paid I wasn’t really getting what I wanted out of a laptop. Yes, it was powerful. Yes it was fast. Yes it was high-resolution. But it wasn’t portable and it certainly wasn’t reliable.  It really makes me wonder why you would buy it over a killer desktop PC for half the price. But then again I did. I really regret not going with my gut instinct, making more fuss and sending the thing back with a demand for a refund after that very first crash. Then again I probably would have never received my money back!

A very sorry 2 out of 10 stars and a lesson learnt. No wonder I’m not sure where I put it.

ADDITION 21 December 2010: I have recently found my Alienware and shipped it to Dave White in Germany. He took delivery today - I would be interested to know how he gets on with it.

Windows Live Writer Beta...

After trying to embed video into a blog entry earlier I soon discovered that this blog engine (BlogEngine – current version at the bottom of this page) won’t handle the <embed> code in the online editor. As quick as a Flash I was bending Dave’s (very patient) ear to this fact via MSN. He calmly suggested I download Windows Live Writer Beta. After a quick moan about Microsoft (which Dave cheerfully absorbed) I bit the bullet and installed WLW Beta from: http://download.live.com/ 

I am using it now and I have to be honest – it seems fairly good. (My computer is running a little slow but I can’t be sure that's because of WLW or some of the other programs I have running – I am doing some very heavy vector work on multiple files this morning). After installing a simple wizard asked me for my blog URL, username and password and that was it – I was up and running.

WLW Screenshot

I am able to edit in rich text mode or the HTML source and can even switch to a full preview of the blog entry, using my CSS styles, during editing. It also features a spell-check and loads of other useful tools. Most importantly I can now embed the YouTube video code that the standard online editor wouldn't allow.

The only annoying thing I’ve come across so far is that adding an image seems to be unnecessarily complicated. It allows you to add all sorts of styles (drop shadows, margins etc) to your image but I would imagine any serious blogger has all that set up in their CSS. It also imported it at an odd size and I had to wade through some settings to get it to place it at the size I originally wanted.

Overall though – not bad. I’m sure I’ll work out the little annoyances in time. Seven out of ten.

Scaling embedded YouTube videos...

I posted my first blog entry with embedded video this morning. As you’d expect I simply copied the supplied embed code from the relative video on YouTube (with customised colour of course) and pasted it in my post*. As my blog text column is only 350pixels wide and YouTube’s default video width is 425pixels this meant that I had to resize the video whilst maintaining the videos width to height ratio. How? Easy...

In your YouTube embed code you will see TWO instances of:

width="425" height="344"

Simply change the BOTH the instances to the width and height you require. In my case the width="350". As the ratio of the YouTube window seems to be roughly 1.2:1 to find the height simply divide your width by 1.2

width / 1.2 = height
350 / 1.2 = 291.666 (I rounded down to 291)

Once you’ve plugged in your new numbers the video window will be nicely resized.

J

* Therein lay some problems leading me to have to download WLW Beta – but more on this later.

See the drummer get wicked...

Any one who knows me will know that I am a partial to a spot of Drum & Bass now and then. My friend Steve sent me a link to the below video this morning.

I'm sure you'll agree this guy is pretty slick on the old drum-sticks. Imagine the live music he could create if he teamed up with a double-bassist and a wailing vocalist.

Thanks for the link Steve.

PS: here’s another one:

Modulus in Flash ActionScript 2...

The Modulus is the remainder of division between two integers. I was looking for this operator in Flash a little earlier. Flash CS3's help files are fairly difficult to wade through at the best of times and simply typing 'Modulus' into the search box didn't bring up any search results in Flash's help files.

I hit Google and discovered that the operator required is the % symbol:

X % Y = the remainder of X / Y

For example: 

10 % 3 = 1
10/3 = (3*3) + 1(remainder)