Saturday, June 9, 2018

Testing a generic 128gb microSD card: it's junk!

I purchased a 128GB SD card from ebay, for $10. At this price it pretty much had to be a lower capacity card that's been programmed to report greater capacity than it really has. Given how good ebay's buyer protection is I was curious to see how one of these preformed. Man, it's junk.


Delivery was quick, just 3 days. The package is so generic it doesn't even have a capacity printed on it. You have to look at the microSD card itself for that, which as advertised on ebay says 128GB.  No speed listing or anything but I will say it was a very easy to open package. So in that one way only, it was superior to what you would get in the store.

Windows recognized it as having 125GB of space, A somewhat odd compromise between marketing GB (1GB=1000^3) and real GB (1GB = 1024^3). FYI  a real SD card marketed as 128gb has 119 real GB. Since we don't expect it to have all that space anyway, who cares. So I tried writing just 1GB to it. Write speed quickly dropped to 1MB/s, and then  failed completely at about 400MB!  I had to reinsert the card to get windows to see it. Interestingly, it now claims to have a 55 GB file on (I've heard of hardware that employes file compression but never file expansion!).

Unsurprisingly, the 400MB that did get written were highly corrupted. I got tired waiting to see how much was actually good, since read speed was just 65KB/s! I mean, what is that? Class .0001? After reading 280MB, only 60mb of the data "written" was stored.

I tried the same trick I  used with my other fake SD card and added a dummy 500mb partition to the start of the disk so that the real file system would start at a later, perhaps better functioning region of flash memory. But that failed even worse, with only 80MB "written" before the drive became inaccessible.

So in conclusion, this generic SD card is complete junk. I paid $10 for "128"GB, but got perhaps .06GB. At that price ratio, a full 128gb would cost $2000! So that's a pretty bad deal. Of course, I asked for a refund, but even at $0, .06GB isn't worth anything.

Testing a fake 128GB Samsung EVO+ micro SD card

For about $45 you can buy a Samsung 128GB Micro SD card from Amazon. Sellers on Ebay offer them new for a lot less. I selected one for $26, shipped (from S. California), suspect it would be a fake, but curious what I would get. What I got looked reasonably real (shown here after opening).


My phone and laptop both reported full 128GB of space. Interestingly, the case contained the regular disclaimer that 1GB = 1000,000,000 bytes, but presumably in an attempt to avoid suspicion the card reported a full 128GB of space (using 1024^3 = 1GB). I tested it by copying some files to it and immediately had problems. The transfer rate was abysmal, between 1 and 2 MB/s, nothing close to the advertised rate on the package. And Windows kept on saying the card wasn't inserted, or needed to be checked for errors. After checking for errors some of the files were missing. I figured maybe the first part of the disk was bad, corrupting the FAT file system data, so I partitioned the disk in two, starting with a dummy 8mb partition.




The dummy partition helped. The write speed of the disk went up to about 5MB/s and Windows stopped reporting damage to the file system.

I also got more systematic and used a tool called H2testw to verify the actual storage space on the card. h2testw is not the nicest tool, but it got the job done, revealing that a full 24gb of "usable" space on the disk. Well, sort of usable: even keeping within that fraction of space, some of the data written was corrupted, though well below 1%.  So the card had about 20% of the advertised 128gb, which is a pretty bad deal for $26, especially given the random corruption of that 24gb (undetected until read back). For comparison, Amazon currently sells real 32GB Samsung cards for $16, or 50 cents/GB, whereas this card cost about 100 cents/GB.

I suppose I could use it to store my MP3 collection for playing back on a old phone. Time will tell if the usable storage remains usable long enough to make even that worthwhile.

Final note: that SD card adapter was so cheap that it failed after just a couple insertion/removal cycles. See the crack in the lower left corner. Thus, all my tests were conducted with a genuine Samsung adapter.


Repairing Win7 autochk "Cannot open volume for direct Access" error after power loss

My Win7 PC recently lost power while it was doing heavy work (compiling my latest android app). The result was file system corruption that could not be fixed the normal way (by scheduling to run chkdsk during bootup).  Here's the very useful error message Win7 gave me:

Checking file system on C:
Cannot open volume for direct access
Autochk cannot run due to an error caused by a recently installed software package.  Use system restore....
An unspecified error occurred (766f6c756d652e63 3f1)


I doubt a power failure really counts as installing a software package, MicroSoft.

What's going on here is unclear, but the problem persists; no amount of rebooting and running chkdsk at bootup fixes it, you always get this message. Nor could I run chkdsk while the OS is fully loaded (since it's my C drive).

But there is a solution, it seems. Reboot into system repair mode (F8 during boot up), and then select the command prompt. Find you C drive (it almost certainly won't be labeled as C; in my case it was H), and run chkdsk /r on it. For some reason it does not let the file system corruption prevent the scan here. The process is slow: on my mostly full 110GB SSD drive (samsung 840), it took a good 30 minutes. But it found and fixed the errors and now my PC can boot properly. Somewhat oddly the scan concluded with "Failure to transfer logged messages to the event log with status 50." but this seems to be non-fatal. 


Friday, June 8, 2018

Sony PSone power supply 7.5v 2a scph-113 disassembly and failed repair

Didn't work & I thought maybe the plug flip mechanism was the cause since there was no conductivity between the prongs and the DC tip. Breaking it open meant breaking glue so it wouldn't have been a pretty fix even if it worked. But it didn't - on the inside it was possible to measure continuity between the prongs and the circuit board. And no caps were visually failing, so I gave up :-(





Sunday, May 27, 2018

Wanted: small-screen phone with stylus

Why is it that the only two phones that have built-in styli are phablets? The bigger your phone the easier it is to use your fat fingers to type, touch, tap, and swipe. A stylus is really most useful on a small screen, where every key, link and button are just a little too small for comfort.

Consider for a moment why you might want a phone with a big screen. Probably because you wanted to be able to see more, right? Larger web pages, more lines in your email. But here's the thing: that's a function of screen resolution and font choice, not screen size. If you think a small font would make it too hard to read keep in mind that you could just hold the phone closer to your face. There's no equivalent trick to making your fingers smaller, however. Thus the stylus.

So here is the proposal: a pocketable phone with a smaller screen, but relatively high resolution. And a built in stylus so that it's not too hard to use the smaller screen. Personally, I think a 4.7" or 5" screen size would be about right.

Such a phone would not appeal to everyone, but it certainly would stand out amoung what seems to be a lot of nearly identical phones currently on the market.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Monument valley is a beautiful walking simulator

It looks amazing and sounds pretty good, but it's not really a puzzle game. Except for a couple levels it's always obvious what to do next. That said it's a pretty amazing experience, if kind of short. The dlc "forgotten shores" is slightly harder and even more of a Escher tribute, and totally worth $2.

I also played Evo explores, a less inspired clone. Except, it had actually challenging puzzles. So it was really better as a game, even if the overall experience wasn't as good.

I akso tried Mekorama, since it was free (no ads, no nags, amazing!). Too much of a walking simulator, no real puzzles. The presentation was more inspired than Evo explores, but nowhere as good as monument valley.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

How does the lg stylus (stylo 3) work?

The LG Stylo is the only budget stylus phone, and it doesn't cost much more than similar spec'ed phones without a stylus. Did LG find a way to make a cheap s-pen or Wacom stylus? Not at all. 

The LG stylus is actually passive and works on capacitance just like the stylus you can buy at the dollar store! Which is not to say it's useless. The LG stylus has a very sharp tip, roughly the size of a blunt pencil, so it's much, much more percise than those dollar store varieties which often are about as percise as a blunt crayon.

The "magic" if there is any, is that the Stylo needs much less capacitance to detect the tip location than most phones.  Maybe the hardware is better, or maybe they just tuned the software to respond at lower thresholds. Point in case, the stylus stylus does work on other phones, like my Samsung S7. But you have to push pretty hard to get enough signal. The experience is much better on the Stylo.

The downsides of LG's approach: no pressure sensitivity, and no palm rejection. The later is the bigger issue, since it means you can't rest your hand on the phone to steady your strokes. Since the stylus is quite slippery it can be hard to draw lines and shapes unless the phone is laying flat on a table. Gravity gets in the way if the phone is at any kind of significant angle. For just tapping, however, it's fine.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Typing in the lg sylo (3)

Typing on the 5.7 inch screen is a joy.  I was excited to use the stylus to type because I figured it would allow error free  letter selection, and indeed it does. But it turns out the extra half an inch over my Galaxy S7 means that 2 thumb typing works really, really well. Very few errors and quite fast. So I end up never using the stylus for typing.  A built in stylus would be more useful on a 5.0" screen. Anybody listening??

Interestingly it's almost possible to "touch type" on the Stylo,  meaning without looking at the keys. This also reduces error rates because you can see errors as they happen and can be sure to select the proper word suggestions. I've never been able to do that on another phone, and I suspect it's the screen size combined with my greater experience with Gboard.

Swiping works fine too, but it's completely unnecessary, unlike with a smaller phone. I never thought I'd want a screen this big but I'm starting to come around.

The one area it works very poorly is one hand typing. The screen is just too big to reach across with one thumb.  There are one-handed keyboards that stick the buttons in one corner, but I find it too much trouble to switch back and forth.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Lg stylo 3 stylus test and review

Given the main point of this phone is the stylus, it's criminal that the reviews don't really discuss how well it works.
The answer is pretty well. Here is a comparison of my best writing, and box with a dot inside-ing. Top is finger, bottom two are stylus, at two different angles of incline.
Note that for some shapes I find it much easier to use the stylus when the phone is laying flat on the table. Then you don't have to fight gravity. That is one notable downside to the stylus. No gliding resistance, and no good way to brace your hand. Makes drawing long straight lines surprisingly hard and fatiguing.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Have we reached peak smartphones?

There's an idea going around that there's not a whole lot of improvement in smart phones these days. If there  isn't  much  improvement  in  the new phones  there  isn't much reason  to  upgrade  until  yours breaks.

In such a market repairability and durability seem like they become much more important than they used to be. I haven't seen any evidence of that currently but I sure would like to. The only phones that are easy to take apart and swap parts on are budget phones made of plastic. You know, I have nothing against plastic. The problem with budget phones, by and large, are the processors and screens, Etc. At the very least, we all know that batteries wear out. Being able to put in a new battery seems like such an obvious feature if you're going to use your phone for more than a year.

PS:
Peak smartphone refers to the number of shipments per year.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Samsung screens scratch easily?

I've had my Samsung S7 for about 6 months ( it was cheap because the s8 had just come out ). Despite being the most expensive phone I've ever owned, the screen is already a haze of near invisible scratches. More than I can count. None of my other phones (Nexus 4, Moto x2, LG volt) had any scratches on them in over 2 years use. I doubt I suddenly got clumsy six months ago. So what's your excuse, Samsung?

To be fair the scratches are invisible during use, but it doesn't bode well for the future.

Windows 10 feels like beta software: removing photos app

I'm amazed how Microsoft could go from an os that did everything you need (xp) to a bloated but somewhat improved os (7) to a barely useable unfinished os (8) and then get accolades for releasing something barely better (10).  

My latest run-in with 10 is with the built-in "photos" app. I installed irfanview which is much more powerful, and windows immediately proceed to reassociate all image formats with the built-in viewer. At least I got a notification. But it included no way to undo Microsoft's "fix", which kept on being applied every time I told infanview to take over jpgs again.


The solution seems to be to uninstall "photos". Well easier said than done.  "Add/remove" programs does list "photos". But it helpfully indicates that uninstall is not a supported option but flashing when you click that button.

Thanks Microsoft.

The solution was to Google. Thank goodness for Google in this messed up world of windows 10. Because to un-install photos you need a rather long powershell command: Get-AppxPackage *photo* | Remove-AppxPackage Luckily Google knows your pain and it's the first hit.

Now recall xp, fondly, where you never had to Google to know how to remove an app. Or 7, where the built in search was good enough to find the right screen to do it.

2 years till Microsoft stops supporting 7. Oh what am I to do.

Monday, February 12, 2018

The hidden cost of internet (power): cable vs Fiber/DSL (Uverse)


We have cable internet, delivered via a cable modem (ARRIS (formerly, Motorola) SB6120) to our wireless router (Asus RT-N16). Both have reasonably efficient power supplies, but their combined power consumption is measurable, around 12 Watts, at least under moderate use.  In SoCal that's about $24 a year for power. 

We just "upgraded" to ATT U-Verse. I was curious to see how much power it uses, since the service comes with an all in-one modem/router/wifi combo box (Pace 5268AC). You might think that would mean a lower power draw, but under light use it's coming in at 13 Watts. So the yearly cost is a near tie. I was pleased to see the router was just as configurable as RT-N16 in the ways I cared, such as routing external ports to internal devices. 

The other downside to our U-verse service is it's much, much slower - but that was a choice. The up-side is that you can choose to pay less for lower bandwidth. I was happy to only pay $40/month and only get 25MBps. Only a month ago I was paying $40 for ~100MBps from TWC (ahem, spectrum) but now they want $55/month for that service. Ever since the merger TWC has been raising prices steadily. So much for mergers leading to cost savings. 

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Fix PowerShell: The term 'Install-Module' is not recognized as the name of a cmdlet, function, script file, or operable program

I tried to use PowerShell to Check and Update Windows Systems for the Meltdown and Spectre CPU Flaws but I was dead in the water because the first step, installing the software, didn't work. What follows is the steps that worked to get Windows 7 to install a version of PowerShell that supports "Install-Module".

Here's the error I got:
The term 'Install-Module' is not recognized as the name of a cmdlet, function, script file, or operable program. Check
the spelling of the name, or if a path was included, verify that the path is correct and try again.
At line:1 char:15
+ Install-Module <<<<
    + CategoryInfo          : ObjectNotFound: (Install-Module:String) [], CommandNotFoundException
    + FullyQualifiedErrorId : CommandNotFoundException

The supposed solution was to install the newest version of PowerShell but all the advice didn't work, because all the recommended downloads from microsoft's website refused to install.  The only one that did work was Windows Management Framework 4.0, for windows Vista (6.1). This provided an older version of PowerShell but still didn't support Install-Module. However, once WMF 4.0 was installed I could install PowerShell-6.0.1-win-x64.msi from github and that finally supported Install-Module!

What a involved process! I guess microsoft doesn't test Windows 7 compatibility much any more. Sadly, while the PowerShell script now installs via Install-module, it crashes mid-execution. Oh well. Instead I used a simple Win32 app to check the registry status.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Power consumption of DIY NAS (network attached storage)

I've been working to set up some network accessible storage (NAS) for remote backups. Cloud storage seems to run about $10 a month for a reasonable (200gb) amount of storage. Can we do better running the server ourselves? Very likely, though it depends on how much you pay for the hardware and electricity (and your time!).

These days we pay about $0.23/kwh in So.Cal. Very high relative to the rest of the country. So that's going to make this tricky since the server will be running 24x365 = 8760 hours a year. That means that each watt will cost us about $2 a year (eg a 5 watt LED bulb will cost $10 a year to run).

Lenovo S10-3 Atom N455 netbook (pinetrail)


First up is an old 1.6ghz Atom netbook (Lenovo S10-3).  I installed Linux on a SD card, and left the 250GB mechanical HD for the storage partition. The idea is that the hard drive can be physically put to sleep most of the time and only spun up when data is being stored or retrieved from the NAS.

I chose lubuntu because it's small and aimed at modest hardware AND as a member of the ubuntu family there's tons of stackexchange posts and such relating to configuring it.

Plugged in, booted up and using the X desktop the power draw of the netbook was about 12-14W. That would be about $26 a year, which is much less than paying for 200gb of storage on the cloud. But we should be able to do much better with the screen off and power saving features maximized. Since this is Linux there's an infinite number of tweaks, an unknown number of which are supported by the particular distribution in use. What worked for me was the following:

 powertop --auto-tune

An interactive tool which, among many things, enables power management features for most parts of the hardware. The invocation above skips all the interactivity and just enables all power saving features.

xset -display :0.0 dpms force off 

This turns off the display hardware to a deeper extent than just shutting the lid. Worth an extra watt, maybe even 1.5. The downside is there's no way to turn it back on without shell access (xset -display :0.0 dpms force on) . So hopefully your box is good and stable before you do this!

 hdparm -B1 /dev/sda1 -S100

This set the HD for maximum power saving (which means that it spins down quickly). It might be overly extreme, but in my use case the hard drive will either be working hard or off for a couple days, so it seems reasonable. I tuned it to wait 8 minutes before spinning down -S100 /dev/sda1

With those 3 settings I get 6.6W power usage at idle. Rounding up just to be realistic that's $14 a year, or not that different from the monthly cost for cloud storage. Of course my system has no redundancy, tech support, etc. 

According to this forum post, that number is reasonably representative of another netbook of that era, the Dell mini 9, which drew 7W at idle. Which goes to support my theory that all Atom netbooks are pretty much the same. 

One annoyance is that lubuntu insists on suspending the machine if the lid is shut, despite any settings in the gui, but the link describes how to fix it. Shesh, linux is not for the faint of heart. 

Raspberry Pi (Zero w?)

The choice not taken, perhaps to my detriment was to buy a cheap linux computer (more like chip, or SOC) like one of the Raspberry Pi models. I would expect that it could do much better in terms of power consumption. The hardware's not free but it is cheap. How much lower would the power draw be, though?

This fellow measured power consumption for a bunch of Raspberry Pi models. None exactly matching what I need but at idle all used between 0.5W and 1.5W, with WiFi powered on (but presumably not transferring anything). That sound fantastic, but you'll need storage to go with that. The same fellow measured idle consumption at 5W with a 64GB SSD drive connected. I don't know if that's as idle as my mechanical HD spun down, but it makes the Pi series much less appealing if that's what it draws with some attached storage.  I'm not sure if I trust those numbers because another source tested SSDs in a desktop and found closer to half a Watt at idle. 

The remaining issue is hardware costs. The Zero W costs about $15 delivered. 256GB of storage in MicroSD costs ~120. The same size in USB flash is $50, so I'd go with that. Total then, depends on some more factors: Case? Power supply? USB-OTG to plug in that USB drive?  Let's guess 20 for those misc. items, bringing the total to $85. If it magically used 0W then the breakeven would take 6 years, but assuming a more realistic 2W breakeven takes 9(!) years. 

Not done yet

Other than getting linux installed I haven't set up the actual NAS yet. I'll need some kind of dynamic DNS so it's reachable from anywhere, and if I'm using it for backup, some decent backup software (cross-platform, hopefully). I've used Unison in the past as a poor-man's (or geek's) alternative to dropbox and I expect I'll do that here as well. 






Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Converting 480i to 480p or higher: how to play PS2 games on an LCD. Updated with vp50 review

Note: this is an update of an earlier post, now with a review of the DVDO VP50 included.

PS2s were built with CRT TVs in mind. They look best on those. If you can, use a CRT connected via  a YPbPr (component) cable. There are two reasons.

PS2 games are mostly output in 480i (480 pixels of vertical resolution, with 240 pixels painted each frame; first the even lines, and then on the next frame the odd ones). In between frames the game image is updated, so when there is lots of motion the odd and even lines will show significantly different views. But because CRT pixels fade quickly, you almost never see the disagreement. Because LCDs have high persistence the even and odd lines are visible at the same time, and when there is lots of motion the result is ugly. If you happen to have a PS2 game that supports 480p (progressive, as in not interlaced), put in that mode and everything will look a lot better on your LCD.

The other issue is that the PS2s doesn't do anti-aliasing by default so sharp edges can look pixelated on an LCD. This is particularly bad in 3D games, and not so much of an issue in 2D games (of course, >90% of games are 3D). On a CRT this issue is partially hidden by the fact that image is blurred a bit by TVs hardware (unavoidably). This blurring is due to the amplifier that drives the cathode ray which cannot make large transitions (say, black to white) instantaneously, and thus spreads the change over a couple pixels. Small changes in brightness/color require less change in the amplifier gain, and thus are displayed more faithfully. This is exactly what you want for a "low-fi" antialiasing . You could turn down sharpness on your LCD display, but that will make everything blurry, which is crappy antialiasing.

I realize this post would be 10 times better with pictures, but it turns out to be nearly impossible to take representative photos of an actual LCD or CRT. So I'll just give my personal experiences, from best to worst.

DVDO VP50 

This is one of the most expensive prosumer deinterlacers ever made, at least when new. Now they go for less than $300 on ebay, which is still a lot. In comparison to the HD+ reviewed below, it's a step up, but probably not worth the extra cost (HD+ go for half as much, or better).

As a premium device, it's ultra-configurable. It supports 20+ resolutions and then you can tweak them in single pixel increments to create resolution never before seen by man (or at least your LCD). Pro gear can be fun sometimes. Not sure how useful that is, but wow. The VP50 supports pretty much every analog input known to man, and also lots of video formats including 480p, which makes for zero interlacing artifacts.

The deinterlacing is top notch, though still worse than a real CRT. You get 3 useful modes that are relatively easy to switch between. "Auto" is the smoothest, but supposedly has up to 3 frames lag. Gamemode 1 is just bob deinterlacing, which can be nice in games where the deinterlacer has a hard time (sly cooper for instance). Gamemode 2 is intermediate - it looks about as good as "auto' but only has 2 frames of lag. Being able to switch is really nice, as bob deinterlacing can be good in FPS games, but sucks for text and UI heavy games like Final Fantasy.  The other nice thing about the VP50 is that the sharpness of component input is adjustable. For games that have bad aliasing, turning down sharpness looks really good (final fantasy X for instance, or the first jak and daxter).

I haven't seen a reliable source on price, but it appears it went for about $3000 new. Now it's about 10% of that on ebay. The one I picked up had bad noise issues on the input side, filling the screen with blue streaks, and making it mostly useless other than for reviewing purposes since the noise was intermittent enough that I could judge how a correctly functioning VP50 would work. There are some risks in paying $300 for a 10+ year old device.

PS3 with PS2 hardware

Early (launch) PS3s can play PS2 because they have most (or all) of the PS2 hardware built in. The PS3 has HDMI out, and if you plug that into an HD TV you can select up to 1920x1080p as the output resolution. The PS3 doesn't do any magic at the PS2 level though - it just runs the ps2 hardware's 480i output through a built-in deinterlacer and upscaler. I found the output to be noticeably blurry, independent of settings. But interlacing artifacts basically disappeared, and aliasing was very low, because of the blur.

Both HDMI and YPbPr are supported. HDMI worked the best; I found that 720p and 1080p over YPbPr were not recognised correctly by my iScan HD+. Interestingly, you can use HDMI for video output and still use the sony "MultiAV" to output audio over RCA plugs. Handy if you are connecting to a computer LCD which does not support HDMI audio.

The PS3 will also work with games that support 480p, with sharper output presumably. Note that in the one case I tried, shadow of the colossus, 480p didn't actually look clearly better, and in some ways worse. But I find that hard to believe and presume it was entirely an anomaly.

Some downsides to the PS3 are: no built in way to plug your PS2 controllers in, and no built in way to use your PS2 memory cards (to transfer old save files). It appears that adapters exist for both of these issues. I'd be interested in suggestions in the comments section below.

The other big downside is that launch PS3s are hard to find, and have a reputation for dubious longevity. I don't know how true that is. A real ps2 costs about $20 on craigslist, and if it breaks, just get another. There's also the question of how compatible the PS3 is with ps2 games. Not all of them work, esp. if you buy the version that only has part of the ps2 hardware built in. Wikipedia has a fairly exhaustive list, and it seems that significantly more than half do work.

The big upside is you also have a PS3 out of the deal :-) It also plays PS1 games, just like the PS2.

Cost $600 in 2006, and now at least $100 used, probably more.

DVDO iScan HD+

The HD+ is clearly sharper than the PS3. There is a clear tradeoff however, because some of the interlacing also made it through, and there was another artifact, which shows up when there's a lot of motion - sharp edges appear blocky because in areas of high motion the HD+ eliminates interlacing by just doing line doubling. I think the algorithm is basically as follows: When the scene is essentially static, concatenate the first and second field together such that all of the 480i pixels are visible simultaneously. When motion exceeds a threshold, show just a single field at a time,(240 pixels, stretched vertically to fill the screen). This might sound horrible, but in practice it looks ok because it only applies it to regions with high motion. So the status bar, for instance, will stay sharp the whole time. This effect is somewhat masked by motion blur, but if the lines are high contrast enough (such as a black tile floor with white grout) it's quite visible. Unlike the VP50 there's only one deinterlace mode, so there's nothing to be done about these issues.

The other issue with the HD+ is that its default level of sharpening is too high, highlighting the lack of hardware antialiasing on the PS2. Unfortunately, they do not let you change the sharpness setting if you use the YPbPr input, which unfortunately is necessary to get the best PS2 image. To adjust sharpness you have to use composite which looks awful on the PS2, or S-Video, which looks ok except that color resolution is halved (but hey, that's not clearly bad since it helps with the aliasing). Another way to reduce the sharpness somewhat is to set the output to less than your panel's native resolution. Here the HD+ shines, much like the VP50, and is equally configurable.

The HD+ was made in the mid-2000s, and cost $1500 new. Now they go for less than $200 on ebay. It's clearly a premium device with loads of settings. It also has an extremely unintuitive interface, at least if you use the front panel (I don't have the remote). I was disappointed to find that the used one I purchased had extremely blurred & streaked VGA output suggesting that the analog display path had started to fail. I'm feeling pretty burnt buying the mid-2000s DVDO gear at this point. I wouldn't buy an AS-IS one.

DVDO iScan Pro

The iScan Pro output seemed "muddy". Not a technical term, I'm aware. Something like blurry and low contrast combined with a little bit of noise. Now, that sounds awful, but there are some distinct upsides. Interlacing was virtually invisible (on par with the PS3), and the lack of antialiasing was also well masked, and it's a bit sharper looking than the PS3. Though it is quite a bit older than the HD+, I find myself preferring it in games that are prone to aliasing problems. It's also dead simple to adjust - just a set of 6 knobs on the front for sharpness, brightness, etc. It has the same gotcha as the HD+ for YPrBr input though - you can't adjust the sharpness. Since it's an older device, it doesn't support anything other than 480i on the input side, though it does support  YPrBr, composite, or S-Video. It only outputs 480p over VGA, letting your LCD do the upscaling. Which seems to be fine.

Not supporting 480p is a real bummer though, since that really improves the appearance of the games (zero interlacing issues, which is after all most of the reason for this post in the first place). Perhaps your TV has decent support for 480p and you can just switch cables depending on the game. Or have two PS2s, they are that cheap after all.

The Iscan Pro was about $1000 in 2000, and now goes for around $100 on ebay.

LKV7000 / HD Box / GBS8220 

The final choice; both cheapest and something you can still buy new. The output looks kind of like the iScan Pro, but even muddier. Aliasing issues were masked very well, but interlacing was still visible at times, unlike the iScan Pro. Not so often as to be a problem, but definitely noticeable during high motion. I used this device for a year, and I got very used to it, so for the price it's a pretty good option, but it's also clearly the least good. Plus, mine has a strange green cast which I've occasionally heard other people complain about. Not clear if it's an intermittent manufacturing issue, or a universal problem that not everybody notices. It only supports YPbPr input, but that's fine for PS2 users. It supports 480p, and looks really good in that mode (better than the iScan Pro on 480i for sure). You can combine the two devices somewhat easily, because the LKV7000 has VGA passthru that is active when the YPbPr cable has no signal, but you'll need two PS2s, or to swap cables. 

The interface is also horrible. 3 hard to reach buttons on the back that don't properly debounce, so when you push one once you get anywhere from 0 (oops didn't press hard enough) to 4 effective button presses. Once you've found the settings you like, there's not much need to change them, though sometimes I like tweaking the sharpness. 

Conclusion (!?!)

I can confidently say that the LKV7000 is the least good solution, though not without merit. While I claimed the list above was ranked from best to worst, it's not entirely true because the ideal device depends at least some on the game. For instance, Shadow of the Colossus has horrible aliasing. It looks best on the iScan pro and VP50 for that reason, with the LKV7000 coming in 3rd. The HD+ highlights the aliasing to a painful degree, while the PS3 is somewhere in the middle. For Jak II, the PS3 is good, but is definitely soft looking, whereas the HD+ keeps everything sharp and the interlacing issues are minimal (and eliminated if you switch to 480p). Aside from the price, the VP50 really is the best choice because of how configurable it is, and the adjustable sharpness setting. But that price is certainly hard to ignore, esp. when combined with the reliability issues I have seen. That leaves the HD+ as a pretty tempting runner up since it's not so expensive and still pretty tweakable, so I'd probably go with it, except that the PS3 is cheaper and plays PS3 games. So really it's a toss up. 

Except for this: none of these solutions look as good as a CRT. If you can, go that route. It's a shame that now that we have high speed LCDs (240hz according to marketing, at least) that we can't just emulate the interlaced display of a CRT properly, and display 480i as interlaced pixels, drawing half the screen at a time and leaving the alternate lines black.

Also, thinking out of the (black) box here, maybe use an Xbox instead of a PS2. Many of the games were cross-platform, and most xbox games supported 480p. Now even the lowly LKV7000 is good enough since it's the deinterlacing that's the hard part, not the digitizing component input & upscaling.

Finally, I would like to acknowledge that all of this blather is in some sense derivative of http://retrogaming.hazard-city.de/, which reviewed all this equipment too (that's how I found out about these devices in the first place). The opinions here all mine, however, and are based on my actual experiences, offering a 2nd datapoint from fudoh's. 

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Hangout was designed to look pretty, not be usable. There's a lot of wasted space in the layout.

I spend at least 20% of my Android time chatting on hangouts with friends and family. Every time I open it on my phone I'm struck by how badly designed it is. Lots of pixels are devoted to either blank open space, or options that hardly ever get used. Did anybody bother to test this design on something smaller than a (phab/tab)let?

Here's a quick mockup showing how much more of the conversation could be shown on a 5.1" galaxy S7 with no loss of useful features. Here the percent increase in visible text is significant, but not as much as on many other phones, such as my Moto X2 which, despite having a 5.2" display has significantly less usable space due to the onscreen back/home/recent tasks buttons.


What I've done should be obvious, here's the justification:

The green header (magic bar) has been made half as tall. Active yesterday is frankly optional and could be eliminated, but getting rid of the redundant go back arrow leaves enough space for it to remain. Last active arguably should be shown down in the conversation view next to to the (j) icon. Either way, no excuse for hiding so much of the current conversation.

The second "magic bar" inside the "write a message" area contains useful but rarely used options. There's absolutely no reason why they could not be put on the upper magic bar, under the [...] menu. The whereami button is legitimately useful, and perhaps deserves to be on the main magic bar, the rest can go under [...]. Maybe you are the type to use lots of emoji's so perhaps you would mind the placement of the emoji icon in the [...] menu? Need I remind you that the keyboard has two emoji buttons of its own? Alternatively, the emoji icon could stay visible in the "write a message" area until you actually start typing.

This is all a general symptom of valuing pretty-(stylish?)-at-a-glance over useful-all-the-time. And a small dose of "easy to discover", since hiding the 2nd set of magic buttons under the menu does make discovery slightly harder. So, no big deal. Google, give us the option under settings to enable a compact view, for goodness sake. This gives you "pretty" and discoverable to start out with, and provides usability for your actual users too.

It's really too bad that hangouts no longer supports xmpp or the 3rd party api, or I'd write a simple client that didn't suck so bad. Given that there's no advertising in hangouts, it wouldn't even lose Google any money if people prefered my app over theirs.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Inverted camera hardware mod for Sony PS2 dual-shock controllers: for purchase!!

I grew up on inverted camera controls (joystick forward to look down, etc), but for some reason there are games that don't offer inversion as a toggleable option. Very frustrating, because once you adapt to a control scheme it's hugely distracting and difficult to switch to another. I would even say it makes the games unplayable. My solution to this problem is to rewire the Sony dualshock2 controller so that the inversion happens at a hardware level. To "switch" it on and off you have to swap controllers, which is a pain, but so much better than not having inverted camera. To cut to the chase, now that I've figured out how to do this, I'm offering my services to modify your dual-shock controller to be hardwired to inverted too.

To be fair, it's all about what you are used to. Once you grow attached to inverted (or uninverted) it just feels natural and all other schemes feel wrong. An inverted dualshock controller merely swaps what is reported to the console. E.g. when you push the joystick forward it sends the signal that it was pulled back. So an inverted controller can un-invert a game that only offers inverted camera, if that's your preference.

The form of inverted camera I prefer is inverted in both X and Y. That means pushing the stick forward shifts the view down (Y inversion). X inversion means that pushing the stick left turns the view to the right. Both X and Y inversion feel especially logical in 3rd person perspective games, where the camera "rotates" around the player.

Either X, or Y, or both can be hardwired inverted. A lot of games offer Y inversion as an option, but then don't invert X, so IMHO the most useful rewiring of the dual shock controller is just inverting X on the right joystick. I can invert either joystick or both. It doesn't really matter much in terms of complexity. (In fact the easiest is to invert x and y of both left and right joysticks; unfortunate, since that's not particularly useful).

A partial list of unconfigurable games that become playable with a hardwired inverted dual-shock controller: Red Dead Revolver, Ironman, Chicken Little: ace in action. There are many more. Of course there's a completely separate list of unconfigurable games made playable if you are the type that don't like inverted camera.

I'm offering my services for $30. That's actually not a good financial return on my time but this is a issue I feel fairly passionate about, and I'm really pleased that I figured out how to do it. For that price you need to send me a genuine Sony PS2 dual-shock controller to have moded. Please make sure it has plenty of life left in it. You can also do it yourself by opening up a PS2 controller, cutting some traces, and soldering new ones. It's not hard, just time consuming, but if you can solder it's totally worth it. I'd provide detailed instructions here but I've seen the inside of a few PS2 dual-shock controllers and each were different! The key is that each joystick has 3 pins for each axis. You need to swap the voltage between the two outer pins.

You can email me for more details/shipping address with the form at the bottom of this page.

What made the Amiga special? A 5-star review of The Future was Here

This is a review of The Future Was Here: The Commodore Amiga (Platform Studies), a book I enthusiastically recommend.

Growing up I read many times about the amazing powers of the Amiga, particularly for gaming. I always wondered what it had that my 386 didn't. Turns out by then my 386 was probably a better computer (combined with a Sound Blaster and a Super-VGA card) than most Amigas, albeit at a much higher price. Prior to that generation of PC clones the Amiga had a legitimate lead, however, even without factoring in the price.

The Amiga's advantage was special purpose hardware for graphics and sound that allowed very impressive visuals if you were willing to work within the constraints (which were significant). An illustrative example: scrolling the background at reduced speed relative to the foreground was implemented just by changing the offset in video RAM that the display drew from. This would have scrolled everything except for a clever trick: the background used a limited palette that didn't overlap with the colors used for the foreground, and you could specify different starting offsets for different colors (technically, bit-planes). This kind of trick allowed very fancy, multi-layered games way before CPUs were fast enough to draw each frame of animation from scratch. By the days of the 386, however, CPUs had gained a lot of speed, allowing you to draw much more of the screen on each frame, offering the flexibility to go way beyond the hardware tricks of the Amiga.

If you found that interesting, then you will enjoy the Future was Here. While some technical details -are glossed over, by-in-large it makes clear why the early Amiga was so much better than the early PC, and why the Amiga was eventually outclassed by the much more generalist IBM PC clone market. It also has a lot of interesting history about the rise and fall of the Amiga, and a nice survey of what kinds of software it was able run, often way before the other computers of the day had anything comparable. Always wondered what was so "deluxe" about Deluxe Paint? Or what the Video Toaster was? It's all here. I do wish for a little more technical detail, but to be fair no other book out there comes close to this one in describing just what made the Amiga special. If you read just one book about the hoops early programmers had to jump through, this is the one.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

The best open-world 3D platform/adventure games of all time (2017 edition)

I'm a big fan of Zelda, Mario, and Ratchet & Clank. Though each are very different, they all share a heavy emphasis on exploration, world building, and puzzle solving. Combat plays an important role, but not the primary role, unlike a beat-em-up.  If that description is too nebulous, just look at the list below. I'm not trying to make a philosophical claim about the existence of this category, just to help folks find games they may not have played and would enjoy. I will acknowledge that nostalgia plays a role in some selections, but I'm trying to rank these according to modern sensibilities, at least in terms of gameplay (the graphics of older games is of minimal concern to me as long as it doesn't hamper gameplay).

These are ranked from all-time-favorite to still-worth-playing but-only-if-you-really-like-these-kind-of-games. Note that I take my time on acquiring gaming hardware until it's very long in the tooth (and super cheap!!) so although this list may be written in 2017, none of these games were released even remotely close to that. The newest might be 10 years old??

Legend of Zelda, Ocarina of time (N64)

Nostalgia plays a role here, but this game is still amazing. The world is huge and exploring it feels like a real adventure where you get to decide where to go next. The slow evolution of your character's abilities, though trite (especially today!), makes it feel like you are growing with the game. Combat is only moderately challenging, but never devolves into a button masher. The dungeons are full of puzzles, and are at least moderately varied. The controls are perfect. Graphically, this game is extremely dated, but the game play is not. And the graphics are not so bad as to get in the way of the game, though it probably helps that I first played this when it was relatively new. There are many remakes on recent Nintendo platforms, or you can easily play with a free emulator on a PC. Though the N64 controller was pretty different from the dualshock design that's pretty much swept the console/pc world, so it can be hard to find a elegant control scheme. 

Ratchet & Clank (PS2)


This is a great series, but the first game is arguably the best.  It's a "puzzle shooter", in that there are a huge number of guns that each behave in distinct ways. Half the challenge is deciding which would be best for the current situation. It's also a first-class platformer with lots of running, jumping, and exploring. Each level typically has several paths to explore, though to finish the game you will have to play them all, so it's not as open as a zelda game, but the design does a good job of hiding any linearity. Much like zelda your character gets more and more powerful, meaning that you can go back to earlier levels to complete challenges that were impossible before. There is a tiny bit of hidden stuff, but for the most part there are no secrets. Just blast your way through the levels and when everything is dead you win. Graphically, the game still shines; with a cartoons sci fi aesthetic. The game play is also up to modern standards, though you will find yourself repeating parts of levels more than you might like because you didn't get far enough to reach the continue point.

Mario 64 (N64)

Nostalgia may also play a role in this pick, given its age. Certainty, as the first open-world 3D platformer, it deserves to be on this list for historical reasons. And frankly, it's hard to imagine that you haven't played it, so maybe I shouldn't belabor the point much. But part of the reason to go into so much detail on the first few games is to help define what this list is about so I will spill at least a few characters. Mario 64 succeeds for several reasons. Unlike the earlier Mario games, each level has a series of challenges to complete, keeping gameplay more varied; there's a level select stage, so it's ease to jump (heh) around to different levels when you get stuck; most of the levels are fairly open and exploration oriented, rather than linear. Keeping with the Mario tradition, there's lots of secrets to discover and all kinds of tricky jumps to execute, and combat plays very little role except for bosses. It really sets the standard for pretty much all mario games that have followed. I find the controls just slightly less smooth than in later games, but perhaps that's because I played on an emulator, using a dual-shock style controler. The graphics are very crude by any standard, but don't hold the game back much. If you haven't played it, I suggest that you do for historical interest - you'll be shocked how much of the mario style was established so long ago.

The rest...

Having established the pattern of what I'm going for here, I'm going to go for more short and sweet descriptions of games; as always google for further details.


Jak and Daxter: the precursor legacy (PS2)

A really pretty "gather the magic orbs" kind of game, ala Spyro. Lots of platforming, and good level design. 

Mario Sunshine (GameCube)

What if Mario was a FPS? Would he have a gun, or a power-washer backpack that is as good at cleaning away black sludge as it is giving short hover assists for tricky jumps? Well that sounds like a weird mashup, but the game is actually quite fun. There aren't that many open worlds to explore; instead each "overworld" also has a bunch of fairly linear "challange" levels which are kind of like 3D versions of NES mario. I feel like it was kind of short.

Zelda: The Windwaker (GameCube)

Ever felt like Zelda was too epic and didn't feature enough watersports? This one is for you. I've heard that it's only got about 10 hours of traditional zelda gaming, but I haven't played it recently so that might be an exaggeration. I do recall a lot of sailing between islands that was only fun the first 200 times. The islands themselves are traditional zelda overworlds with traditional dungeons. Since there aren't that many zelda's it's still worth playing but the bang for your buck is pitiful. 

Mario Galaxy (Wii)

The gimmick here is that some levels are tiny planets that you can circumnavigate in a minute or two. It's large, it's open ended, and it's the mario you know and love from 64. For some strange reason I have fonder memories of the shooter mario (aka sunshine), though. But it's very solid

Spyro the dragon (PS1)

I'm not sure of the history of the "collect all the thingies" genre, but this is one of the best early examples. Every level has 400 gems. There are weak monsters wandering around that make it slightly hard to get all the gems, but mostly this game is about exploration, tricky jumps, and figuring out the path to platforms that cannot be reached directly It makes the most of a few very simple gameplay mechanics. I found it surprisingly sublime, and was tempted to put it higher on the list, but it is such a basic looking game with such repetitive gameplay that it found it's way down here. It looks much better on a PS2 with texture smoothing on.

Ratchet & Clank Going Commando (PS2)

More Rachet & Clank. Slightly heavier emphasis on the run and gun 3rd-person shooter aspect of the game, and less on the platforming and exploration, but not really enough to change the flavor of the game.A great looking game and a solid choice if you liked the original.

Jak II (PS2)

Jak and Daxter made over to be a lot more like Ratchet and Clank. The guns are much fewer and less interesting than R&C. The collect the thingies bit from the first game is almost entirely gone; instead you just have to get to the end of each level (many of which are rather linear, but well disguised) . Way, way, too hard for its own good, with lots and lots of replaying each level because you died.  I'm sure I died over 100 times on some levels. I would rate this one much higher if it didn't have that going on. It looks fantastic, and is a lot of fun until the difficulty level gets ramped up. I don't care too much about plot line typically, but man this one is hard to follow and there's a lot of it. Playing Jak and Daxter first helps, but I kind of think they meant for it to be confusing.

Tak and the power of the JuJu (PS2)

A collect all the thingies game, but with more interesting puzzles than most, and pretty good graphics. Sort of a Jak and Daxter + Spyro + something with puzzles + "humor".  Sometimes frustrating. Combat has a very strange place in this game - it can be hard, but you come back to life after dying without losing any progress at all. I think they could have skipped combat altogether or made it easier but given death some actual consequences. Sometimes I get lost in the levels because they are a bit visually repetitive.

Zelda Twilight princess (GameCube/wii)

Felt pretty linear for a Zelda. Otherwise sold, typical zelda style game.

Spyro: Legend of the Dragon (PS1)

This game is third in the series, and looks so much better than the first Spyro. Some of the levels approach PS2 level complexity, though certainly not ps2 level graphics. It might be worth seeing just as a testament to what a well-programed PS1 can do; I think it's easily one of the best looking 3D games for the system, esp. with PS2 texture smoothing turned on. Sadly, the sublime simplicity of "collect all the thingies" has been somewhat diminished here, though not as badly as in #2 (Ripto's Rage). Though there are still secrets and tricky to reach areas, they are much less significant than in #1. While the boring challanges of #2 have been dropped, in their place are sub-levels with different playable characters, such as a monkey with raygun, or a kangaroo that can triple jump. None are as smooth playing or as well-thought out as spyro, but they are moderately fun to play. 

Ratchet & Clank up your arsenal (PS2)

The continued evolution of R&C away from its platforming roots and towards being a 3rd person shooter. Still has a ton of interestingly different weapons, and still has plenty of platforming, so I still recommend it, but not as much as the 1st or even the 2nd of the series. 

Starfox Adventure (GameCube).

Much more Zelda than Starfox. An odd game that got it's Starfox branding late in life. Somewhat linear, and a too much emphasis on combat, but still a fun Zelda-alike.

Spyro: Ripto's Rage (PS1)

#2 in the series, uses the same engine as #3 reviewed above. Gameplay is disappointing though.  The, the sublime simplicity of "collect all the thingies" has been traded in for a bunch of varied challenges like animal herding or killing all the monsters. Though challenging they don't tend to be fun. Reminds me of how Mario 64 introduced reusing each level 8 times, but requiring different tasks each time you return. The tasks are less fun but at least there are only 3-4 per level here. You can still collect all the gems, but there is no real in-game motivation plus they are not hidden very cleverly.

Games I haven't played but should probably be on this list

For being written in 2017 this list is horribly dated. Even I know of many games that should be on this list (and even own some of them), but haven't played them personally yet. Some are listed below. I'd be eager for suggestions for more in the comments section.

Mario Galaxy 2
Zelda Skyward Sword
Zelda Majora's mask
Jak 3

Adventure/platform games that are overly linear to be on this list

 Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus
All crash bandicoot games on PS1 and PS2.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

The best looking PS2 output on LCD displays: retro upscaling and deinterlacing in the digital age

PS2s were built with CRT TVs in mind. They look best on those. If you can, use a CRT connected via  a YPbPr (component) cable. There are two reasons.

PS2 games are mostly output in 480i (480 pixels of vertical resolution, with 240 pixels painted each frame; first the even lines, and then on the next frame the odd ones). In between frames the game image is updated, so when there is lots of motion the odd and even lines will show significantly different views. But because CRT pixels fade quickly, you almost never see the disagreement. Because LCDs have high persistence the even and odd lines are visible at the same time, and when there is lots of motion the result is ugly. If you happen to have a PS2 game that supports 480p (progressive, as in not interlaced), put in that mode and everything will look a lot better on your LCD.

The other issue is that the PS2s doesn't do anti-aliasing by default so sharp edges can look pixelated on an LCD. This is particularly bad in 3D games, and not so much of an issue in 2D games (of course, >90% of games are 3D). On a CRT this issue is partially hidden by the fact that image is blurred a bit by TVs hardware (unavoidably). This blurring is due to the amplifier that drives the cathode ray which cannot make large transitions (say, black to white) instantaneously, and thus spreads the change over a couple pixels. Small changes in brightness/color require less change in the amplifier gain, and thus are displayed more faithfully. This is exactly what you want for a "low-fi" antialiasing . You could turn down sharpness on your LCD display, but that will make everything blurry, which is crappy antialiasing.

I realize this post would be 10 times better with pictures, but it turns out to be nearly impossible to take representative photos of an actual LCD or CRT. So I'll just give my personal experiences, from best to worst.

PS3 with PS2 hardware

Early (launch) PS3s can play PS2 because they have most (or all) of the PS2 hardware built in. The PS3 has HDMI out, and if you plug that into an HD TV you can select up to 1920x1080p as the output resolution. The PS3 doesn't do any magic at the PS2 level though - it just runs the ps2 hardware's 480i output through a built-in deinterlacer and upscaler. I found the output to be noticeably blurry, independent of settings. But interlacing artifacts basically disappeared, and aliasing was very low, because of the blur.

Both HDMI and YPbPr are supported. HDMI worked the best; I found that 720p and 1080p over YPbPr were not recognised correctly by my iScan HD+. Interestingly, you can use HDMI for video output and still use the sony "MultiAV" to output audio over RCA plugs. Handy if you are connecting to a computer LCD which does not support HDMI audio.

The PS3 will also work with games that support 480p, with sharper output presumably. Note that in the one case I tried, shadow of the colossus, 480p didn't actually look clearly better, and in some ways worse. But I find that hard to believe and presume it was entirely an anomaly.

Some downsides to the PS3 are: no built in way to plug your PS2 controllers in, and no built in way to use your PS2 memory cards (to transfer old save files). It appears that adapters exist for both of these issues. I'd be interested in suggestions in the comments section below.

The other big downside is that launch PS3s are hard to find, and have a reputation for dubious longevity. I don't know how true that is. A real ps2 costs about $20 on craigslist, and if it breaks, just get another. There's also the question of how compatible the PS3 is with ps2 games. Not all of them work, esp. if you buy the version that only has part of the ps2 hardware built in. Wikipedia has a fairly exhaustive list, and it seems that significantly more than half do work.

The big upside is you also have a PS3 out of the deal :-) It also plays PS1 games, just like the PS2.

Cost $600 in 2006, and now at least $100 used, probably more.

DVDO iScan HD+

The HD+ clearly had the sharpest image of all the solutions I tried. There is a clear tradeoff however, because some of the interlacing also made it through, and there was another artifact, which shows up when there's a lot of motion - sharp edges appear blocky because in areas of high motion the HD+ eliminates interlacing by just doing line doubling. I think the algorithm is basically as follows: When the scene is essentially static, concatenate the first and second field together such that all of the 480i pixels are visible simultaneously. When motion exceeds a threshold, show just a single field at a time,(240 pixels, stretched vertically to fill the screen). This might sound horrible, but in practice it looks ok because it only applies it to regions with high motion. So the status bar, for instance, will stay sharp the whole time. This effect is somewhat masked by motion blur, but if the lines are high contrast enough (such as a black tile floor with white grout) it's quite visible.

The other issue with the HD+ is that its default level of sharpening is too high, highlighting the lack of hardware antialiasing on the PS2. Unfortunately, they do not let you change the sharpness setting if you use the YPbPr input, which unfortunately is necessary to get the best PS2 image. To adjust sharpness you have to use composite which looks awful on the PS2, or S-Video, which looks ok except that color resolution is halved (but hey, that's not clearly bad since it helps with the aliasing). Another way to reduce the sharpness somewhat is to set the output to less than your panel's native resolution. Here the HD+ shines. It supports 20+ resolutions and then you can tweak them in single pixel increments to create resolution never before seen by man (or at least your LCD). Pro gear can be fun sometimes.

The HD+ plus supports pretty much every analog input known to man, and also lots of video formats including 480p, which makes for zero interlacing artifacts. Doesn't help with the aliasing issue tho.

The HD+ was made in the mid-2000s, and cost $1500 new. Now they go for less than $200 on ebay. It's clearly a premium device with loads of settings. It also has an extremely unintuitive interface, at least if you use the front panel (I don't have the remote). I was disappointed to find that the used one I purchased had extremely blurred & streaked VGA output suggesting that the analog display path had started to fail. There are some risks in paying $200 for a 10+ year old device.

DVDO iScan Pro

The iScan Pro output seemed "muddy". Not a technical term, I'm aware. Something like blurry and low contrast combined with a little bit of noise. Now, that sounds awful, but there are some distinct upsides. Interlacing was virtually invisible (on par with the PS3), and the lack of antialiasing was also well masked, and it's a bit sharper looking than the PS3. Though it is quite a bit older than the HD+, I find myself preferring it in games that are prone to aliasing problems. It's also dead simple to adjust - just a set of 6 knobs on the front for sharpness, brightness, etc. It has the same gotcha as the HD+ for YPrBr input though - you can't adjust the sharpness. Since it's an older device, it doesn't support anything other than 480i on the input side, though it does support  YPrBr, composite, or S-Video. It only outputs 480p over VGA, letting your LCD do the upscaling. Which seems to be fine.

Not supporting 480p is a real bummer though, since that really improves the appearance of the games (zero interlacing issues, which is after all most of the reason for this post in the first place). Perhaps your TV has decent support for 480p and you can just switch cables depending on the game. Or have two PS2s, they are that cheap after all.

The Iscan Pro was about $1000 in 2000, and now goes for around $100 on ebay.

LKV7000 / HD Box / GBS8220 

The final choice; both cheapest and something you can still buy new. The output looks kind of like the iScan Pro, but even muddier. Aliasing issues were masked very well, but interlacing was still visible at times, unlike the iScan Pro. Not so often as to be a problem, but definitely noticeable during high motion. I used this device for a year, and I got very used to it, so for the price it's a pretty good option, but it's also clearly the least good. Plus, mine has a strange green cast which I've occasionally heard other people complain about. Not clear if it's an intermittent manufacturing issue, or a universal problem that not everybody notices. It only supports YPbPr input, but that's fine for PS2 users. It supports 480p, and looks really good in that mode (better than the iScan Pro on 480i for sure). You can combine the two devices somewhat easily, because the LKV7000 has VGA passthru that is active when the YPbPr cable has no signal, but you'll need two PS2s, or to swap cables. 

The interface is also horrible. 3 hard to reach buttons on the back that don't properly debounce, so when you push one once you get anywhere from 0 (oops didn't press hard enough) to 4 effective button presses. Once you've found the settings you like, there's not much need to change them, though sometimes I like tweaking the sharpness. 

Conclusion (!?!)

I can confidently say that the LKV7000 is the least good solution, though not without merit. While I claimed the list above was ranked from best to worst, it's not entirely true because the ideal device depends at least some on the game. For instance, Shadow of the Colossus has horrible aliasing. It looks best on the iScan pro for that reason, with the LKV7000 coming in second. The HD+ highlights the aliasing to a painful degree, while the PS3 is somewhere in the middle. For Jak II, the PS3 is good, but is definitely soft looking, whereas the HD+ keeps everything sharp and the interlacing issues are minimal (and eliminated if you switch to 480p). Of the devices, the HD+ certainly offers the most options, tweaks, and supported formats, so I'd probably go with it, except that the PS3 is cheaper and plays PS3 games. So really it's a toss up. 

Except for this: none of these solutions look as good as a CRT. If you can, go that route. It's a shame that now that we have high speed LCDs (240hz according to marketing, at least) that we can't just emulate the interlaced display of a CRT properly, and display 480i as interlaced pixels, drawing half the screen at a time and leaving the alternate lines black.

Finally, I would like to acknowledge that all of this blather is in some sense derivative of http://retrogaming.hazard-city.de/, which reviewed all this equipment too (that's how I found out about these devices in the first place). The opinions here all mine, however, and are based on my actual experiences, offering a 2nd datapoint from fudoh's. 

Monday, June 12, 2017

Can you repair a scratched CD with plastx: empirical tests

I have some PS1 games that I purchased used. Unsurprisingly, 20 years on the resale market hasn't been kind to them. I purchased a cheap disk polisher (monoprice disk repair kit, which is advertised to "clean 99% of all scratches"), but my experience wasn't that great for fixing the PS1 games. I did fix one PS2 DVD that wouldn't play, but mostly it didn't seem to help. So I decided to try other cleaning solutions than provided with the kit, and to run them much longer than the 3 minutes suggested.

Here are my results with Plastx, an automotive plastic cleaner advertised primarily for headlights.

I tried several PS1 CDs, and none became playable. But perhaps I just wasn't running the polisher long enough. So used a Windows program (nero DiscSpeed) to get a summary of the error rate to see if it was improving at all. PS1 CDs are after all just regular data CDs, so my PC should serve as proxy for the PS1, although I've found the DVD reader in my laptop seems to be better at reading scratched disks than my PS1/2s.

Here is the scan result before, on a reasonably badly scratched CD (quake 2).



And here is the result after running the machine for 20 minutes:























The error rate did go down, but less than 1%, which may well be the margin of error of this test. Conclusion: 20 minutes of high speed buffing with plastx does not repair a scratched CD.

Note that these scratches were of medium depth - the disk will load on my ps2. My logic here is that if the scratches are mild-medium and the cleaning can't fix them, then deeper scratches won't be fixed either, as empirically demonstrated on disks that would not load (but without pretty plots, since I didn't use Nero to scan them before and after cleaning).

Now maybe if I used a stronger buffing agent to remove more plastic, and then finished with plastx, I might have better results. I hope to try that next, but in the mean time I'm interested in hearing anybody else's opinion.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Is the DVDO HD+ any good for playing PS2 games on an LCD? Svideo tests.

LCD tvs can display older video formats, but usually do a pretty bad job compared to a real CRT. This is particularly true for retro video game systems, which were games were designed to look their best with some blur (and scanlines)!

Here, I look at the DVDO HD+ deinterlacer for playing playstation 2 games. In my opinion, the output can look *too* sharp when using component cables, so here I use s-video. Check out the labels at the end of this post at the end for comparison photos from other devices.

x-man copyright screen has no motion, so deinterlacing should be at it's very best, and it is:

x-man title screen has continuous background motion, so deinterlacing should be much harder. Still looks good, but the logo is much more jagged:

jack II title screen has jagged edges around the text, but is relatively soft in s-video mode:

shadow of the colossus suffers from very jagged edges. In svideo mode they are not so obvious:

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Whole house fans

First we tried a Master Flow 6000 CFM 30 in. Belt Drive Deluxe Whole House Fan with Shutter. 

 It looked to be well built, but we were a little unhappy by the low-frequency noise it produced (I would call it "choppy", which eventually convinced us to return it. Not so loud that you couldn't carry a conversation, to be sure, but annoying as a background sound while reading or using a computer, at least to me. This was with zero constraints airflow on the intake or output sides of the fan, they warn you it could be louder once it's installed and there's a limit on airflow.

 Power use was 380 watts at 6000cfm; at the lower speed it was 290 watts.

Then we tried a MaxxAir 42 in. Industrial Heavy Duty 2-Speed Belt Drive PRO Drum Fan. Not really meant as a whole house fan, but if you box it in, why not? Slightly quieter, and it moved more air too (6000 cfm vs 95000 cfm). At 9500 CFM it drew 500 watts. At 13000CFM it drew more, I think about 750 watts, but I don't recall for sure.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Fix Windows Update hangs on fresh install of Windows 7 SP1

Microsoft has hit on another way to make everybody switch to Win10 - a fresh install of Win7 (sp1!) can no longer download updates from Windows Update, at least out of the box (literally zero software installed or other configuration changes). It will hang saying "Checking for updates".  The very first thing it downloads an update to Windows Update, but then for some reason it cannot install that update, gives up, and goes on to checking for more updates, forever (I've tried letting it sit for 3+ hours, no change!). In total I wasted about 3 days of sporadic effort on this problem, reinstalling Win7 at least 5 times onto a wiped disk, before I hit upon this exact set of steps. I ran tons of MS Fixit apps, tried deleting the SoftwareDistribution folder, etc. No joy. What a huge waste of time and effort, almost makes me wish I had decided to go with Win10 after all.

Enough ranting! Here's what works. Install the following files, in the following order:

Windows6.1-KB947821-v34-x64
WindowsUpdateAgent-7.6-x64
Windows6.1-KB3102810-x64

You can find all of these on microsoft's website (just google them!). Sorry for not providing their actual names, or what they do, but the M$ pages you download them from will explain (to the extent that MS ever tells you what's going on under the hood).

Now launch windows update for the first time. It will take a while (maybe 15 minutes) before it progresses beyond "Checking for updates". Just to be safe, I've also taken to only installing 10 updates or so at a time.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Online retail: who's making money at this???

I love shopping online. Good prices, good selection, and the occasional useful consumer review. Mostly, I love the prices. I wonder though, if the prices we see today are still somewhat unrealistic, and driven by an attempt to build market share. Lots has been said about this WRT Amazon, but other retailers have demonstrated that they don't particularly care about profits either, by spending way too much on shipping things to me.

I once bought a $3 mouse from staples, and it was delivered in a box that must have been 2x2x3 feet! I had added it to get free shipping, but the sent it separately from the item I really wanted. That was a Black Friday sale, so maybe they were just out of reasonable sized boxes. Better to ship the item than make the customer wait forever, might have been their thinking. Or maybe UPS only charged them by weight, so it wasn't that much more expensive for them?

More recently I bought a couple Net10 phones from Walmart (LG Fuel, just $20, which makes a great music player; I don't plan to activate it). To get free shipping I took advantage of a sale item that they were advertising: a 40lb (total) set of barbells, which cost only $15. Yes, they shipped that for free. Having shipped a few things myself I can tell you that I would have paid over $50 to send that package. Walmart certainly paid less than I would, but there's still a good chance that the shipping on that one item cost more than I paid for the entire order. The kicker is that they were damaged in shipping so I had to return them (to a physical store, so I didn't have to pay shipping). I cannot imagine a context in which selling the Barbells online makes any sense. Let alone advertising them. Somebody actually made the decision to promote that loss leader!

Not to dump on Walmart.com, but my 3rd story also involves them. I bought some blocks for my daughter, which only cost $10. Shipping would have been $5, so I looked for other items that would add up to $50 for free shipping. I added 3 other items I would have wanted at Walmart anyway. Today Walmart notified me that my order shipped. And then again, and again, and again, for a total of 4 separate tracking numbers. That means that each item I purchased is going to be shipped separately. Now, I can't really, really know that this means Walmart is losing money on this order. I can certainly suspect it, but who knows, maybe they have a great deal on shipping rates - certainly, they must have one of the very best deals. But separate from that is the idea that I somehow earned free shipping by buying enough stuff. If each item was shipped separately, they might as well have given me free shipping starting from the very first one.

So the "meet this minimum and you get free shipping" model doesn't really work that well if you have multiple fulfillment centers and differing stock at each center. A more realistic model might be too complex for consumers though. Imagine that the shipping price changed in a semi-random way each time you added an item to your cart? The only compromise I can think of is to add a free shipping icon next to an item when it's going to be added to a cart that has an item in the same warehouse.  But even that sounds pretty annoying to use. I don't know what the solution is, but the current system means that a lot of orders are going to cost more than they make.


Wednesday, September 24, 2014

13cu kenmore chest feezer real-world energy efficency

This 13cu ft. freezer (model 16342) was sold by sears in 2013, but does not currently seem to be in their catalog. It is/was made by Frigidaire; as far as I can tell they were the only one's to make a 13cu freezer; other company's just put their name on it. So far I like it, but that may be rather moot for you, if it's discontinued.Here I'm interested in how much energy it uses as a function of the ambient room temperature in our enclosed patio (much higher in the summer than winter), which presumably will generalize to other similar models. 

So, for the summer of 2014, which in San Diego was hot, hot, hot (80-90 highs), I measured it at 37 watts/hour, averaged over 33 days). That's 324kWh/year, should the efficiency stay the same year round. I'm betting, however, that it will need less electricity in the winter months, when the room is cooler, though.  The EPA estimate is 326kWh; I'm impressed that they are reporting what seems to be the upper bound. In 2014, however, when I measured over 82 days of summer, I found the watts/hour to be 54, or 476 kwH/year. Much less impressive.

In San Diego, with current electricity prices, that means the freezer will cost about $50 a year to run. I'll update this post once I've been able to test performance at lower temperatures.


Thursday, June 19, 2014

software to record time-lapse video (garden/nanny cam) under windows xp

There are lots of reasons you might want to use a webcam to record time-lapse video. In my case it was to figure out what pest was eating my butternut squash and tomato plants in the garden. I used a 33 ft usb extension cable so I could place an old webcam outside near the plant, and connect it to my old netbook inside the house. In SoCal it never rains so I didn't worry much about the equipment getting damaged, but I didn't want to leave my laptop outside just in case.

I tried several programs. So far all have issues, so I'm open to suggestions. Here they are, sorted in descending order of usefulness (to me).

AVS Video Recorder (Free) worked very well for 30fps video recording with sound, but doesn't have any options to record video without sound, and at a slower frame rate. Mp4/AVC was supported, so the file sizes were manageable if I recorded at 360x240, but it was really hard to see what was going on at that resolution.

 Webcam/Screen Video Capture (free) looks real slick, and was able to detect my camera correctly. But it doesn't offer any way to change the fps, and the video formats it can record to are somewhat dated. Plus, the installer was very eager to install ad-ware, though if you read carefully it all could be bypassed.

NCH Debut Video Capture ($40) claimed to be free for home use, but actually only a 3-day limited time demo, and is useless after that period. If it weren't so buggy, this might have worked the best of what I tried, in that it supported arbitrary resolution, frame rates, and even time lapse (10 frames a second, 1 frame a second, or slower, all recorded to MP4/AVC). The killer, however, is that it seems to occasionally write corrupted video to disk, such that any attempt to read the file after the corrupted frame fails. A bit of a show-stopper, that. I think it had to do with dropped frames, but the demo expired before I could fully investigate. I tested version 2.00, maybe they will fix this someday.

Weeny Free Video Recorder - only supports windows media (8/9) and though it advertises custom frame rates, no matter what I entered it recorded at 30 instead. It did support my webcam, but the interface was very buggy, at least under WinXP. I'd avoid this one.

One meta program is ManyCam, which allows you to combine multiple webcams into a single virtual camera. But it didn't work with my old Intel USB Video Camera (failed with no error message). So I can't recommend it.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Pale Moon: an alternative to the FireFox 29 interface mess

Like many, I recently rebooted my computer only to discover that FireFox had updated itself once again. This time, the changes were, at the very least, cosmetic. I don't mean they were small, however; rather, the browser looks quite different (uglier) and more important to me, it forces the use of tabs, something which I've managed to avoid for the last few years. Force as in the tab bar is always open whether you want it or not.

My options: downgrade to Firefox 28 (the old interface) knowing that security holes would no longer be patched, or look for another browser. Chrome is a great alternative if you like tabs, but my goal was one window per webpage, so I looked farther afield. Or closer, perhaps: I found Pale Moon, a browser based on Firefox 24, with (some) security fixes back-ported.

The Pale Moon advantages:
  • The same look as Firefox 28 (and older) - yay, I can avoid tabs again!
  • Optimized for more modern processors
  • Features I don't use have been removed, so it should be somewhat more lightweight
Sadly, the experience hasn't been that positive.  Most notably, I've found Pale Moon to be unstable - in two days it has crashed hard once, and misbehaved to the point of needing to be restarted another time. Make that three times - it crashed again while I was composing this post (Of course, that might have been an attempt at self-preservation).

Now to be fair, I've only used it on one machine - WinXP 64. Maybe it is more stable on another setup. But I'm not going to give it another chance. In part that's because of another issue: Pale Moon is based on Firefox source, so Firefox bugs are also PaleMoon bugs. Thus, while no malware is going to target PaleMoon specifically because of its minute market share, anything written to target older versions of FireFox will also hit Palemoon (because it's not updated as fast as Firefox).

In the end, it's a shame. The interface and the web page rendering engine should be entirely separable, so that you can choose the best renderer (which presumably would be the same for pretty much all users) and the best interface (according to your personal preferences, which will likely differ from other people's).  Then it would be easy to keep the renderer up to date, and still be perfectly safe using an obscure interface. Perhaps this is how things actually are in some low-level sense, but there's no way for me to drag and drop a new rendering DLL into the PaleMoon app folder and thus have the latest and greatest security fixes.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Improvements on: Backup and restore Windows 7 activation status (Offline activation after reinstall)



This post is an elaboration of the necessary steps in order to backup Windows 7 activation status before doing a clean re-install and then restoring it back, with the command lines instructions to do the tricky parts. Note that a valid key is required; this does not support piracy, it just saves you from increasing the activation count on a valid key just because you are doing a clean install.
  1. Copy and save or backup the following activation-related files to external storage medium such as USB flash drive or portable hard disk drive: C:\Windows\ServiceProfiles\NetWorkService\
    AppData\Roaming\Microsoft\SoftwareProtectionPlatform\Tokens.dat
    and,C:\Windows\System32\spp\tokens\pkeyconfig\pkeyconfig.xrm-ms
    Note: For 64-bit (x64) OS, C:\Windows\SysWOW64\spp\tokens\pkeyconfig\pkeyconfig.xrm-ms have to be backed up too.
  2. Retrieve and record the product key used to install and activate the current Windows 7 or Windows Server 2008 R2.
  3. Reinstall Windows 7 or Windows Server 2008 R2. When installation wizard prompts for a product key for activation, leave it blank (do not enter anything).
  4. In the newly installed Windows operating system, stop the Software Protection Service in Services.msc or with the following command (run in elevated command prompt): 
net stop sppsvc
  1. Navigate to the following folder:C:\Windows\System32\spp\tokens\pkeyconfig\
  2. Take ownership and give user full control permissions (alternatively add grant full control right click menu item) to pkeyconfig.xrm-ms file.
cd C:\Windows\System32\spp\tokens\pkeyconfig\
    takeown /f *
      cacls * /g users:f
        1. Delete the original default pkeyconfig.xrm-ms file, and replace with the backup copy.
        2. Note: In 64-bit (x64) operating system, also perform the above  actions in C:\Windows\SysWOW64\spp\tokens\pkeyconfig\ folder.
        cd C:\Windows\SysWOW64\spp\tokens\pkeyconfig\

        takeown /f *
          cacls * /g users:f
          1. Navigate to the following folder:C:\Windows\ServiceProfiles\NetWorkService\
            AppData\Roaming\Microsoft\SoftwareProtectionPlatform\ 
          2. Take ownership and give user full control permissions (alternatively add grant full control right click menu item) to tokens.dat file.
          cd C:\Windows\ServiceProfiles\NetWorkService\AppData\Roaming\Microsoft\SoftwareProtectionPlatform\
          takeown /f *.dat
            cacls *.dat /g users:f
               

              1. Delete the original default tokens.dat file, and replace with the backup copy.
              2. Restart the Software Protection Service in Services.msc or with the following command (run in elevated command prompt):
               net start sppsvc
              1. Register the product key for Windows 7 or Windows Server 2008 R2 with the following command (run in elevated command prompt): slmgr.vbs -ipk xxxxx-xxxxx-xxxxx-xxxxx-xxxxx
                Replace xxxxx-xxxxx-xxxxx-xxxxx-xxxxx with the actual product key.
              2. Windows will activated instantly, off-line. To check activation status, uses of of the following commands: 
                • slmgr.vbs -dlv
                • slmgr.vbs -dli
                • slmgr.vbs -ato

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