New Hard Drive in the House

coolgear firewire sata enclosure housing a 500gb maxtor maxline pro
My new file storing powerhouse.

I like to keep my eye on on the price of hard disk storage. More storage more better is my philosophy. Not only can I never tell when I’ll need an extra gigabyte or two for projects, but I’m justifiably paranoid about data failure and have become something of fiend for backups as a result. So I’ve been watching with interest as the price of 500GB drives have fallen at a steady clip since the beginning of the year.

My interest was piqued recently when I noticed that a number of external 500GB drives have been hitting the ~$100 area lately, which is nearly too good a deal to pass up. My enthusiasm was tempered though, by the observation that all the drives I found were USB 2.0 only. USB is no slouch and a fine enough protocol, but real file transfers, particularly large ones, are best left to FireWire. Unfortunately, FireWire versions seem to cost $50-$90 more than their USB-only counterparts.

So I did what I’ve done for the last 5 drives I’ve purchased: I looked into do-it-yourself solutions. Assembling an external drive from an internal one plus an enclosure is a trivial task and it helps you get exactly what you want. In the past, that approach has helped me save some cash at the same time.

Unfortunately, the gap in price between internal and external drives doesn’t seem to be as great as it once was. Mail-in rebates can often bring the price of external drives to below that of internals. Realizing that I probably would be out of luck trying to save some dough, I set out to see how much I could get within the price range for an external 500GB hard drive with a FireWire connection ($160-190).

In the end, I think I did pretty well.

Continue reading

Pioneer DVR-107D DVD burner + Max = Perfect encoding solution

Recently, I’ve taken to re-encoding some of my favorite CDs, mostly ones that I originally encoded long ago, some as far back as 1999. Hard drive space was at a premium at the time, so I traded acceptable losses in quality for a smaller storage footprint. When the music is coming from a beige G3’s internal speaker, 112 kbps and 320 kbps mp3s sound basically the same.

But as I’ve gotten older and I’ve been able to afford audio equipment with higher fidelity, the flaws in those original files have become ever more noticeable.

Since hard drive space isn’t much of a problem these days, I’m endeavoring to upgrade all those ancient files to modern quality standards. As I run across those sub-par album rips during my daily listening routine, I’m replacing them with 256 kbps VBR AAC files or Apple Lossless (if they are deserving of the extra attention to detail).

Max Icon

And so was this situation that occurred last week when listening to Velocity Girl’s ┬íSimpatico!, one of my all-time favorite albums. The music sounded “off” and it reminded me that I’ve been meaning to create a new encoding for a long time. I grabbed the disc off the shelf, fired up Max, the handiest freeware audio converter/ripper/encoder available for Mac OS X, and set it to work.

But it did not take long for an anticipated problem to rear its head. The seventh song on the disc, Rubble, has had a pretty nasty scratch for I don’t know how long, a scratch that marred the original file years ago. As I feared, the encoding process stalled, so I canceled it. I’ve known my iMac’s built-in Matshita UJ-846 drive to be problematic with flaky discs, frequently getting hung up on them, so I pulled out my external Pioneer DVR-107D and hooked it up via Firewire.

The DVR107D was one of the first DVD burners available for less than $100 and I got one to use with my G4 iMac, which couldn’t even read DVDs, much less write them. I crammed the drive into an old LaCie case I had and, let me tell you, this thing has performed like a champ for the entirety of my ownership. It has read every disc I’ve put into it. And recently, it allowed me to consolidate some old, and I mean old, CD-Rs onto DVD when the built-in drive balked at them.

So I slipped my CD into the Pioneer and resumed my encoding task. No hang-ups whatsoever. But the thing that blew me away, and I have Max to thank for this, was that when I listened to the new song, all traces of the disc damage were gone.

It turns out that Max leverages the power of an obscure CD audio extraction tool called cdparanoia which uses “high-level error-correction” to resuscitate heavily flawed discs, and completely compensate for scratches on CDs.

Combined with Pioneer’s hardware, Max turns out perfectly encoded songs. Just give it a listen. The following are from multiple encodings excerpted from the damaged section of Rubble from my Velocity Girl CD:

This first sample was encoded to 128kbps AAC/M4A by iTunes 4.7 using the built-in CD drive on the iMac G4 I owned two years ago. The glitches on the disc is quite prominent:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

This file, however, is golden. It was encoded to Apple Lossless by Max using the Pioneer DVR-107D. Pristine; nary a hint of trouble:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Frankly, I’m amazed by the results. Max + Pioneer makes for a seriously perfect encoding solution.

The DVR-107D shipped as the standard optical drive in some (but not all) of the PowerMac G5 towers, so you may already have one. If not, at the time of this writing, Other World Computing has its descendant, the DVR-112D for less than $50.

Even if you don’t have access to the drive itself, download Max. It’ll go a long way toward creating higher-quality files.

::

PS: Google Docs, which I use to store drafts for this site and other correspondences, now works with the new Safari 3 beta from Apple. This post was written using the combo and it’s nice to have my familiar Mac OS Services, integration and text and keyboard handling at my disposal.

The $200 terabyte has arrived

western digital my book

A couple months ago, I wrote about the advantages of maintaining a large digital music library, specifically with regards to cost and storage as compared to maintaining a large physical music library. One of my points was that the decreasing prices of hard drives makes it increasingly easy to store, as well as backup large quantities of high-quality music.

I even went so far as to say that “before too long” we’d see the $200 terabyte, which is roughly enough storage for 80 continuous days of lossless quality music plus a complete backup of it all.

Well, that day has arrived. OfficeDepot currently is listing a Western Digital My Book 500GB for $99 after mail-in rebate.

At that price, you might as well get two and secure all your digital media.

In defense of digital music files

Volkher at livingwithmusic posted the other day a rather thoughtful treatise against digital music files as a medium. He does a good job of bringing up all the relative shortcomings of abandoning physical media, including the effort required to encode/download and properly organize/tag files as well as the burden and cost that goes into storage and preventative backups. And he’s right on the money about picking an audio format that may or may not be around for the long haul.

It’s a valid argument; you should go read it. But as one of those “young folks” who’s been living with mp3s and related files for 10 years now, I’d like to offer a friendly rebuttal, because digital music files do have much to offer, despite the occasional hassle.

Firstly though, I’m going to side-step rights-management and other DRM-related issues. It’s quite possible to build a large collection of digital music and never touch the stuff. Plus, with all the talk lately about eliminating DRM from the marketplace entirely, it may well not be an issue in the near future.

Carrying on then, why embrace digital music? In my case, the number one reason is convenience and flexibility. Using iTunes, it only takes a handful of clicks to set up a playlist that will last all day. That playlist will only include songs that I like, ignoring ones that I might not care for. I can listen to one hundred different artists as easily as I can listen to Radiohead’s complete discography, including live shows and unofficial tracks. No need to organize or hunt for physical CDs, or interrupt the music to change discs or skip ill-favored songs.

With some extra up-front effort and Smart Playlists, I can turn my library into a self-refreshing and randomized jukebox that I can assume control of at any moment. With an iPod, I can take it all with me, wherever I go. It truly is awesome stuff.

Another reason I enjoy digital music is the physical space savings. I still have a large number of CDs, even though the vast majority of my music listening is done via iPod or iTunes. Finding a place to put all of those discs has proved challenging and, after 19 months of living at my current house, most of them are still boxed up and hard to access. That’s fine though; they can stay in the garage/closet/attic because I already have everything I need on my hard drive.

Additionally, expandability is a significant motivation for taking to digital music. As a physical collection grows, the tyranny of the shelf kicks in, which ultimately limits the collection’s size and imposes increased time-overhead on organization and media retrieval. iTunes offers no practical limit to the number of songs it can manage. Hard drive space and memory are the only true limitations (though a computer’s processor speed can become an issue, especially if there are a large number of live-updating Smart Playlists). Currently, I’m storing about 18,000 files (between my library and my wife’s) + a backup drive in the same physical space as about 6 CDs. I could double the amount of songs and hardly use any more desk space.

Of course, this digital utopia is not without its pitfalls, many of which Volkher mentioned. Number one, by far, is data security and integrity. Hard disk drives are notorious for failing, whether though a mechanical fault or corrupted disk header. And they usually fail inexplicably and at exactly the wrong moment.

A hard drive crash can obliterate a library of thousands in an instant, often with no warning whatsoever. I know; it’s happened to me on multiple occasions. By contrast, a scratched CD might lead to the loss of that CD and nothing more.

Thus, a workable, redundant backup system is necessary to protect against irrevocable and irrecoverable catastrophe. The cost and effort of doing that, of course, increases with the amount of data to be backed up. A 10GB library is easier to deal with than a 100GB.

In his post, Volkher posits a figure of one terabyte of digital music, once all is said and done and a large collection is encoded and/or downloaded. But is that a meaningful gauge? Just how much music will fit in a terabyte?*

  • At 128kbps, the bitrate of standard iTunes-purchased AAC files, one terabyte is 18,641.35 hours / 776.73 days / 2.12 years of non-stop, continuous music listening.
  • At 191kbps, the average bitrate in my library, one terabyte is 12,492.63 hours / 520.53 days / 17.1 months of continuous listening. That number is about 11 times the size of my current library.
  • Suppose you’re a true audiophile and only deal with lossless encoding, such as FLAC or Apple Lossless format. The average bitrate of all the lossless songs in my library is 728kbps, which is still nearly 3,277.6 hours / 136.6 days / 4.48 months worth of continuous audio.

*these numbers do not take into account file overhead, album art, etc. However, it seems pretty clear that one terabyte will hold a lot of music.

You’d have to own a seriously HUGE collection (roughly 4000 full-length CDs, lossless compression; 7500 CDs, extreme quality 320kbps mp3s) before a terabyte is a serious option for the working copy of your library. I know there are people who can claim those numbers, just not the vast, vast majority of music listeners.

Heck, I consider myself a respectable avid collector/listener/explorer of music and it took me a full year to listen to each and every song in my library, a library that is the equivalent of ~1400 full-length records.

Hard disk storage is cheap and getting cheaper. Practically speaking, two 500GB drives would sufficiently provide enough storage for a live copy and backup of all but the most copious of collections. Add a third for redundancy, if you’re paranoid. At $230 a piece as I write this, the cost of the drives compares favorably to all the shelving and organizational furnishings needed to manage a large physical collection, even those from IKEA.

Which brings me back to physical space savings: how does one translate a digital library into a physical space? Let’s use numbers from my library to hazard a guess. A trusty ruler tells me that a standard CD jewel case measures 11mm thick: a “CD unit” for this purpose. FreeDB tells me that the median number of songs per CD is 12 (with an average of 13). Therefore, I can estimate that each song on a CD takes up .917mm of physical space. Applied to iTunes, the 14,554 songs in my library would use up the equivalent of 1443 “CD units” or 15,872mm or 52.1 feet of “shelf space.”

That number is based on the assumption that a digital library consists entirely of full CDs. When considering partial albums and single tracks, the space savings is even greater. The single track of Nate Dogg and Warren G’s Regulate in my library actually saves me the full 11mm of space rather than .917, since I don’t have to own the full album just to have that one song.

Despite my continued devotion to the digital music scheme, I must admit that I do miss some of the concrete and tactile aspects of handling a physical record or compact disc: album art, liner notes the satisfactory “click” of snapping a disc into place and-contrary to what I’ve said above-the awesome feeling of standing back and viewing a neatly organized array of records on shelf after shelf. But at this point, for me, it’s all digital and there’s no going back.

Volkher goes on to discuss the inherent uncertainty of choosing an audio file format that may or may not be in use and supported by audio devices in times past the immediate future. And he’s got a valid point. I know from experience. Long ago, a portion of my digital music collection was in the MP2 format, which was largely made defunct by the growth of MP3 tools and players. The death knell for me was the iPod. I was dismayed when I bought my first one and discovered that it didn’t support MP2, forcing me to convert those portions of my library into something more usable.

So futureproofing is an ever-present concern. But, like the compact disc and vinyl record, there’s no reason to believe that mass-market digital formats won’t be around for a very long time. The use of MP2 was never really widespread. MP3 and AAC however have users in the tens of millions. Many people and many companies have invested a lot of resources into those formats. They’re not going to die any time soon. In fact, the patents on the MP3 format begin to expire in 2011, just 4 years away. I’d wager that individuals, corporations and open source communities will have a field day with it in short order, continuing to breathe life and support into software and hardware for decades.

Look at the passion with which gamers and code archivists continue to resurrect, port and support obsolete games. Just yesterday I ran across a 30+ year old command-line game called Super Star Trek that certainly would not be playable on today’s technology. But thanks to the efforts of a dedicated user, there is now a refreshed version for Mac OS X, Windows, Linux, OS/2 and DOS.

Likewise, I expect that in three decades time, I will fully be able to enjoy my collection, no matter what size it has expanded to. I believe that the flexible nature of software will make it easier to maintain support for these formats as they age, unlike hardware-dependent media (I’m looking at you, reel-to-reel, 8-track and increasingly, cassette tapes).

The fact that I was able to easily convert my MP2 files to MP3 is a strong argument for digital files. Just try converting a reel-to-reel tape without a reel-to-reel player.

I admire Volkher’s decision to keep his music in the real world; I know there’s no better feeling than finding an old, rare, long-sought-after gem. But for me, the future is all digital. It has its trappings, but they are easy to overcome. The rewards outwiegh the risks.

So, now if you’ll excuse me, I have a playlist to build.

mp3 waveform

Initial reactions to Apple’s iPhone: Mixed

So the mythical iPhone was unveiled yesterday and by all accounts, it is a revolutionary communications and portable computer device. The user interface alone is light years ahead of anything else on the market. And the technology behind it really looks phenomenal… for a phone.

But even with all that legendary RDF action in effect, my own reaction is surprisingly lukewarm. Bias Alert!: I abhor the telephone in general and mostly use a cell phone for short calls to my wife. On most days, I don’t use the phone at all. So that aspect of the device is rather immaterial to me at this time. If I didn’t already have a cell phone, that feature would be a nice perk.

As a portable computing and communication device, the thing looks awesome. When I think of it as a portable computer the $499 price tag doesn’t seem as bad just a little bad, even though it’s not a “full computer,” being currently limited to the apps provided.

Constant web connectivity would be great for looking up info at any given moment, whether it’s looking up traffic while already on the road, settling disputes at the bar, or checking the Scrabble database of words.

The ability to live-blog an event with pictures is revolutionary.

Some questions though. Can it print? Will the device detect a bluetooth printer and allow me to print an email, text message, map or photo? Can I network with computers and other iPhones on the same LAN via WiFi? I know I can text message and send email, but can I type up quick reminders and notes and transfer them between computers. Can I copy files to it directly without having to email?

A GPS receiver plugged into the dock connector would be a killer app. And a PDF reader for ebooks would be, quote, da bomb.

Ironically though, the thing that bothers me about the iPhone, is its branding as an iPod successor. With its current storage capacity, the device takes us back five years, while trying to perform many more functions.

The iPod’s ability to hold mass quantities of songs (and now videos) while also being usable as a portable hard drive are the two greatest features of the iPod line (the full size models anyway). The iPhone minimizes those functions. The argument can be made that it’s impractical to listen to 30GB of music, but that’s not the point. The point is choice. I like being able to keep a large number of playlists synced up and ready to go, depending on my mood, at the push of a button. Alternately, it’s fun to press play and not know what I’m going to get.

Then there’s the fact that I use my iPod to cart large files between home and the office as well as store copies of projects I’m working on so I can pick up from whatever computer I may be near.

And 4GB is laughably small when thinking about full-length movies and TV shows.

So that aspect of the iPhone leaves me non-plussed.

However, I tend to agree that the concept of the iPod proper maybe near the end of its evolution. The form factor seems to be at the limit of what it can do with the only potential improvements being increases in hard drive size.

Now if the iPhone can stream music to an Airport Express, then we might talk. Which leads to another thought: an iPod HiFi with built-in 802.11 wireless, WiFiHiFi anyone?, to receive music from an iPhone or any wireless equipped computer with iTunes. That would be rad.

Until then, I think the 80 gigs in my pocket will do just fine.