Journal, Photography, Technology

I now have the power to bestow and remove the gift of mobile Internet.

This year, Rae and I anticipate we’ll be traveling a lot as we screen and promote Autumn Gem across the country. Because of this, it will be critical for us to have Internet access wherever we go and whenever we need it.

Mobile Wireless Goodness

Over the past twelve years, I’ve had periods where I had the ability to access the Internet on the run. Initially, it was through the Metricom Ricochet wireless modem. The Ricochet was great because I could hook it up to my PowerBook or Newton and have 56Kbps or 128Kbps access to the Net way back in 1998! Later, I used the Palm VII for quick wireless access from the palm of my hand. The downside to the Palm VII was that you didn’t have full access to the Internet, only access to scaled down Web Clipping applications from select content providers. A few years later, I tried tethering my Sony Ericsson T68i to my laptop, but the speed was very slow. Today, I can use my iPhone to do pretty much all the basic Internet tasks that I require on a daily basis: email and web browsing. If AT&T were to offer a tethering option, I would consider it, but I probably wouldn’t like the slow Edge speeds and the short battery life that would invariably follow.

With that in mind, I’ve been looking for a solution to getting persistent access to the Internet while on the road. From Ziv, I’ve learned of a number of people using the Cradlepoint CTR-350 EVDO/Wi-Fi router ($139) and the Verizon USB727 EVDO modem (free with 2-year service contract). Alex has been using this solution (with Sprint EVDO) successfully since the end of 2007. I picked up these two components along with a BixNet 5V Li-ION battery ($80). This allows me to use share my EVDO Internet connection over Wi-Fi for up to 8 hours on a single battery charge.

So, instead of having my EVDO modem connected only to my laptop, I share the Internet connection through Wi-Fi, meaning my MacBook Pro, iPhone, and iPod touch can access the Internet at the same time at EVDO speeds. As the title of this post suggests, I can also bestow the gift of the Internet to other people.

With an Eye-Fi wireless memory card, I can use this setup to automatically upload photos from my digital camera to my SmugMug account. I wanted to use this at Macworld 2009, but the battery had not come in yet and the keynote room did not have any AC outlets. I ended up manually uploading selected photos to SmugMug for use on John’s live blog posts of the keynote.

I wonder how many photojournalists are using something like this to transmit their photos while on the job. It seems like an excellent way to get photos immediately to the photo editor, provided that the images are small enough. I don’t think I want to try transmitting 21MP images, even if they are JPEG compressed!

Update April 11, 2009: I had a problem with my initial Bixnet battery where the USB cable had to be wiggled in order to provide proper power to the router. I RMA’ed the battery, but I’m not sure if the battery is supplying the router with enough power. At several recent shoots, I’ve noticed that photos were not being uploaded either (1) in a timely fashion or (2) not at all. I’ve got an order in for another battery, the Tekkeon 3450i, which is approved for use with the Cradlepoint CTR-350. The Tekkeon is bigger and heavier than the Bixnet battery, but if it’s more reliable, it’s a better deal. I’d rather have something that works and is heavier than something that only works intermittently. I’ll provide an update when I have tested the Tekkeon. Stay tuned!

Update April 19, 2009 The new BixNet battery does not appear to supply enough current to continually power the Cradlepoint and USB EVDO modem. The connection comes and goes, making the combination useless. BixNet has been selling an “updated” version of the battery, one with a mini-USB port for charging the battery. This version does not come with an on-off switch.

On the other hand, the Tekkeon 3450i battery seems to work well. It’s much bigger, heavier, and pricier than the BixNet. I’ve updated the photos to show a side-by-side comparison of the two batteries. Another downside to the Tekkeon is that it has a huge AC adapter for charging the battery. I really like how the BixNet can be charged with virtually any USB AC adapter like my iPhone charger.

[smugmug url=”″ imagecount=”100″ start=”1″ num=”100″ thumbsize=”Th” link=”lightbox” captions=”true” sort=”false” window=”false” smugmug=”false” size=”M”]


About FireWire on the new MacBook and MacBook Pro

Well, the new MacBooks and MacBook Pros were announced today. I hate to sound like a boo-bird because there are many things to like about this latest iteration: the unibody, DisplayPort across the entire line (including the MacBook Air), better graphics chipset, easier hard drive replacement, and the larger, all-glass trackpad. Positives aside, however, there are a few things that really, really blow:

  • Glossy screen: As a creative professional, reflections are very bad. Glossy screens are a reflection magnet, which makes accurate color judgments difficult. Please bring back a matte option!
  • FireWire 800 only on MacBook Pro. No FireWire at all on MacBook: At least the MBP has a FireWire port, but the lack of one on the MacBook is truly horrible. I wouldn’t be able to import footage from my video camera nor can I get super-fast downloads from my Compact Flash cards using my SanDisk Extreme IV card reader. All of my bus-powered FireWire hard drives? Useless on a new MacBook.

Old MacBook Pro with more ports than new MacBook Pro

When we went to China to work on our documentary project, I bought a MacBook Pro (just before the early-2008 models were released). My MBP has both a FireWire 800 and a FireWire 400 port, which made capturing video and photos a snap. Can’t do this today with either new MacBook Pro or MacBook.

When Apple released the original 15″ MacBook Pro, it didn’t have a FireWire 800 port (like its 17-inch sibling). They later added one. I wonder if public pressure will cause Apple to release new iterations of the MacBook and MacBook Pro with FireWire ports. Is there enough space on the port-side of the laptops to accommodate another port? Only time will tell!

Aperture, Apple, Journal, Tech

MacBook Pro, Aperture, and 30-inch Displays

I recognize that this blog has become very technical lately. Forgive me, ever since I was a kid in San Diego playing Ultima I through V on the home Apple ][ computer, I’ve always wanted to talk computer stuff!

Today, I tested the performance of the MacBook Pro hooked up to my Apple 30-inch Cinema Display. One reason why I chose the Pro over the regular MacBook or the Air was that it could drive a 30-inch display (2560×1600 resolution). The laptop features a Nvidia GeForce 8600M GT with 256MB of RAM; the newer Penryn-powered MacBook Pros have the same video chipset except with 512MB of video RAM. As you would expect, more video RAM typically equals better performance, especially with applications that make use of Mac OS X’s Core Image.

As I’ve known for two-years and counting, Aperture is one of the most GPU-intensive apps I’ve come across. My Quad G5’s beefy 7800GTX 512MB video card — an after-market upgrade that I purchased following my supreme disappointment with the stock 6600 card — has greatly increased the speed of Aperture’s editing adjustments. There’s only a slight delay when changing white balance, exposure, vibrancy and contrast during full-screen edits. Certain adjustments like levels and especially highlights and shadows are a little jerky, but the speed is acceptable.

Aperture Maximized

With Aperture maximized or in full-screen mode, the MacBook Pro starts to struggle when only a few adjustments (WB and Exposure) have been turned on. Don’t even think about using highlights and shadows at fullscreen! Reducing Aperture to its minimum window size results in excellent performance with every default adjustment turned on (WP, Exposure, Enhance, Levels, Highlights and Shadows, and Color).

Aperture at minumum window size

At fullscreen on a 30-inch display, four megapixel images are being displayed and manipulated in real-time by Core Image! A 24-inch Cinema Display would force the GPU to deal with a 2.25 megapixel image. At its minimum window size, Aperture only has to deal with images that are roughly 825×550, less than half a megapixel.

Having a big view of the image is great; that’s why I bought the 30-inch display in the first place. Performance is also very important, so you can be sure that the window size is getting reduced when I’m editing images on the MacBook Pro.

A great source for Aperture speed tips can be found on Steve Weller’s Bagelturf website. The list was originally compiled for Aperture 1.5, but most of them are still valid with Aperture 2.1.

Aperture, Apple, Tech

Aperture Benchmarks between Quad G5 and MacBook Pro

The MacBook Pro (MBP) is my first Intel Macintosh. For the past couple of years, I’ve been using a Quad G5 as my primary machine and a first-generation PowerBook G4 12-inch for travel. Before I purchased the Quad G5 in 2005, my desktop was a Quicksilver PowerMac G4, purchased in 2001. Though the PowerMac G4 ran at the same speed (867MHz) as the PowerBook (purchased in 2003), it was faster overall due to a better graphics card, more RAM, and a faster hard disk.

It’s been two years, and here I am with a new MacBook Pro. Unfortunately, it’s not the new Penryn-powered MBP; I was on a plane to Hong Kong just days before the new ones were released. Once there, there was no way to take advantage of Apple’s 14-day return policy.

With a little time on my hand, I wanted to see if the MacBook Pro’s performance was up to par with the last of the great PowerPC Macintoshes. In addition, I’ve been curious for some time about about Aperture’s performance on Intel and Motorola PowerPC chips.

I conducted three tests using Aperture 2.0.1 and a sample library containing twenty RAW photos from an 8 megapixel Canon EOS 1D Mark II. Ten of the images had no adjustments, keywords, or metadata applied to them. The other ten images had keywords and metadata, in addition to white balance, exposure, enhance, and edge sharpening adjustments.

My Quad G5 features 6GB RAM, an Nvdia GeForce 7800GTX with 512MB of RAM, and a 750GB Seagate internal SATA hard drive. The MacBook Pro has 4GB RAM, an Nvdia GeForce 8600M GT with 256MB of RAM and a 160GB Hitachi internal SATA hard drive.

All tests were performed four times, and the results are averaged in the tables below:

Test 1: Export Ten Non-Adjusted Images to 16-bit TIFF

For the first test, I selected the ten images that had no adjustments and exported them to 16-bit TIFF files. Normally, this isn’t something I would do, but I wanted to see how fast Aperture could export without doing much processing.

Computer Total Time (seconds) Time Per Photo
Quad G5 25.30 2.53
MacBook Pro 28.80 2.88

Not bad. The MacBook Pro more than held up against the mighty Quad-core PowerMac in this test with the Quad coming in at 12% faster over the MBP. Since I don’t often export the files without performing any adjustments, I am more interested in the results from the next test.

Test 2: Export Ten Adjusted Images to 16-bit TIFF

Each image had its white balance, exposure, enhance, and edge sharpening adjusted. This is a better test, because the computer’s CPU has to perform additional calculations before exporting the image. If I had another video card for the Quad G5, I could see whether or not the GPU made a difference. In my Quad, I am using a reflashed Nvidia 7800GTX with 512MB of RAM. The original stock 6600GT card was such a dog that it’s no longer in my possession.

Computer Total Time (seconds) Time Per Photo
Quad G5 91.38 9.14
MacBook Pro 117.10 11.71

The Quad G5 is 22% faster than the MacBook Pro. When exporting hundreds or even thousands of photos, every percentage point counts. For a typical wedding shoot, I might be exporting 1000 images. The Quad G5 would take two and a half hours, whereas the MBP would take an additional forty five minutes.

Test 3: Export 1024 x 1024 JPEG

Exporting a web-sized or preview sized JPEG is a common task for me. Here I exported the ten adjusted images to fit within a 1024 x 1024 pixel box.

Computer Total Time (seconds) Time Per Photo
Quad G5 87.95 8.80
MacBook Pro 122.28 12.23

I was a little surprised by this score. While the Quad was faster at exporting an 8-bit JPEG over a 16-bit TIFF file, the MacBook Pro was slower. Exporting 1000 images, the Quad would take 2:26:00 while the MBP would take nearly an hour longer at 3:24:00. I wonder if the Quad was created the JPEG from its pre-generated preview image.

So, after two and a half years, the Quad G5 can still hold its own against a MacBook Pro. The gap might be a tiny bit closer, however, with the new Penryn-powered MacBook Pros. I’m curious to see how much faster the Dual 3.2GHz Quad-Core “Harpertown” MacPro is compared to the Quad. The MacPro would have to be twice as fast as the Quad before I would even consider upgrading. When I went from the Quicksilver to the Quad G5, I saw a 600% speed increase in RAW processing performance. Yes, the Quicksilver took about a minute to process one RAW file!

Another test I’ve been conducting is power per watt. With a Kill-A-Watt power meter, the MacBook Pro is well ahead of the Quad G5, which is one power-hungry computing beast!