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A Week With Windows 7

Posted by Scott

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If you follow this blog you’ll know that the past year of my life has seen me running a veritable gauntlet of operating systems on my new-ish PC. I’ve run XP32, XP64, OS X, Vista32, Vista64, Server 2008×64, and now, finally, I am running the superb Windows 7 64-bit. Yes, superb, I didn’t expect it either. Although I did notice marked improvements in Vista/Server 2008 over XP, I always felt there was a compromise somewhere and it never felt quite as stable as I’d like. So it was with great anticipation last week that I followed my friend Dusty’s advice and installed the Windows 7 beta. It’s only been a week since the upgrade but I have really worked this thing hard and I am happy to report that it’s been the most stable and responsive OS experience I’ve had yet and outshines all of the examples mentioned above.

Although the beta program is “officially” closed, there’s no shortage of Windows 7 torrents to be had. Even Microsoft has tacitly endorsed the torrent acquisition method, honoring these versions with legitimate serials upon registration (although these serials are only valid until the final product is released). The install was a snap, it was very similar — but seemlingly even more streamlined — than with Vista and it’s right up there with the speed and ease of an OS X install routine. Once installed, it boots up very quickly and everything about the experience is very much “straight to the point”. Gone are the nags, pop-ups, and wizards (I hate wizards) of Vista/XP past, now virtually everything is disabled by default, letting the user choose what features they want. I usually spend the first hour of a new XP/Vista install going through and optimizing the settings, disabling services and generally clearing out the bloat and cutting the fat. With Windows 7 that process took literally 2 minutes, I only had to disable a few notifications and one of the more annoying features of the Aero theme (the slowly animated minimize/maximize of the windows).

Speaking of the Aero theme, Microsoft have “borrowed” liberally from the OS X “Aqua” interface on many fronts. From Windows 7’s new dock functionality to it’s feeble attempt at some sort of expose-esque functionality, they’re obviously taking cues from the success of their Mac brethren. While I think the new dock is very successful, I think the Windows expose falls flat. In fact the one big thing I still miss about OS X when working in Win7 is the show-all-windows / show-desktop hot corner functionality of the Mac; it’s just so damned useful. Unfortunately, the Windows 7 knock-off is not quite there.

Anyways, back to the install. I had all my fonts and the full CS4 suite loaded within 15 minutes and was tearing through 3GB PSB’s (Photoshop Large Document Format) shortly thereafter. In my experience Photoshop stability (and stability in general for that matter) is greatly improved in the new Windows. I also found noticeable (but not incredible) processing performance increases. Where I think Windows 7 really shines though is file handling and disk read/write functions. Saving and opening very large PSD’s has dramatically improved over Vista. Vista’s much maligned file handling was sluggish and inexplicably slow across the board. I’ve heard they had some sort of base-level DRM checking built into the core of the OS. That could be BS, but whatever it was it was a real problem and they’ve fixed it in Windows 7.

The icing on the cake came when I started working with Adobe Bridge CS4. In both XP and Vista I had horrible issues with Bridge, so bad that I had to quit using it. Every session would result in a crash, without fail, across the board. Every OS I have used until this point just didn’t play well with Bridge. But it seems to like Windows 7; I can churn out previews of PSB files in excess of 4GB in size with no problem. Thousands of NEF RAW files in one folder render to thumbs without a hitch now. Either of those would have choked Bridge half the time in the older OS’s on the same hardware. One glitch I’ve found is that the GPU acceleration in Photoshop is not working (see image below). It doesn’t recognize my video card as openGL capable even though I have the Win7 beta drivers installed, which was working fine under Vista. I suspect this is something that will be fixed sooner than later though through a driver update. Although now that the GPU acceleration is disabled and everything is running so smoothly, it makes me wonder if it was contributing to any instabilities I was experiencing under Vista. I guess that remains to be seen though.

A quick side note about the image below: Notice where it says “Available RAM: 7216″, that might be the number one reason I ditched the OS X install I had on this very same machine. PS is still 32-bit on OS X and therefore cannot utilize even half of that amount of RAM.

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To be fair I haven’t put Win7 through it’s paces for audio yet, all of my testing has been with graphics apps only (Photoshop, Illustrator, Bridge, etc.) Next week I will be loading up Sonar and all the VST’s and giving that a spin. But Dusty, who uses Windows 7 solely for audio, has assured me that — with Ableton Live at least — it’s performing far better than Vista or XP on the very same machine. As a lifelong PC user (I do have a Macbook Pro, which I absolutely love for everything other than work) this is such a relief. Yes, Vista was a dog out of the gate, but anyone who has used it lately can’t help but recognize that Microsoft has gone a long was to fix the problems that plagued it and with Windows 7, I think they’ve finally gone the distance and realized the operating system that Vista was meant to be. I also think a lot of budget-minded creatives can now breathe a collective sigh of relief that the OS of choice for people who don’t have $4000 to spend on a computer is back.

So how about you, anyone else been using Windows 7? What have your experiences been so far? Sound off in the comments

Update: As Peter Stoinov pointed out in the comments, the much-improved Windows 7 Release Candidate comes out May 5th so you might want to hold off installing until then.

Update 2: Microsoft has announced that it will be offering Windows 7 RC1 free to the public for one year. Awesome.

Epson Large Format Printers

Posted by Scott

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I got an Epson R1800 a few years back and was always happy with it; the output was incredible and it was rather inexpensive considering. Sadly, it has clogged heads now. I fed it third party ink and then hit the road for a few months. When I returned almost all the colors were jammed up and despite numerous attempts at cleaning with various methods, it’s still not working. Fortuneately, Alex has one and has been printing off my proofs in the meantime while I try to decide on a new printer.

I’ve always kicked myself for not having gone for a larger format printer when I bought the R1800; the 13″ width was very limiting and it just wasn’t economical with those tiny, expensive ink tanks. So this time around I am looking to move up to the large format models, either 26″ or 44″. I have had to outsource a lot of my large format stuff in the past and by now, I probably could have bought the printer with what I’ve spent paying the print shop for jobs. So I think I’ve narrowed the search down to the two new Epson models, the 7900 (24″) and the 9900 (44″). They both have all the same features, they only differ in maximum paper width and price. I posed the question of which one to go with on Twitter today and got some good responses. The one that stuck with me though was from @jheftman: “Buy it nice or buy it twice.” Indeed, I’ve been through that already with the R1800. But I am glad I learned my lessons with the R1800, they could have been much more expensive with one of the large models.

As for the alternatives, I did talk to my friend Erik Natzke about his setup. He’s running an HP 44″ and had nothing but good things to say about it. I have heard a lot of opinions on both platforms and it’s a tough call. In the end I might go with Epson just because that’s what I know and it was a pretty steep learning curve with a lot of trial and error to get predictable color output from the R1800, I wouldn’t want to go through that again with another brand.

So I thought I’d pose the same questions to you: What have your experiences been with large format printers? Any reason that Epson is superior at the point to HP, or vice versa? Sound off in the comments, any info you might have either way would be greatly appreciated.

The GUI Godfather

Posted by Scott

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You’re looking at the Xerox Star which “represented the most complete implementation of the ‘Desktop Metaphor’ of any system until the advent of mature Desktop graphical interfaces later on the Mac and PC/Unix/Linux in the 1990s” [source:digibarn] Digibarn has posted up several Polaroids from 1981 depicting the various facets of the Star 8010’s interface (a few of which are shown below). I don’t know what’s more amazing: how ahead of it’s time this GUI was, or how little the OS interface has changed in the past 28 years. This was nearly three decades ago and we’re still clicking folder icons and using archaic pointing devices. Where’s my Minority Report interface!? My wrist hurts.

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Check out all the rest of the hi-res Polaroids here.

Teenage Engineering: OP-1

Posted by Beamer

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This thing’s gonna change everything. The new Operator 1 (OP-1) from Teenage Engineering truly shows how beautiful synthesis can be (though the Buchla 200e definitely has some chips in the pile).

A hybrid digital synthesizer and MIDI controller with enough features to question if this thing is even real.

8 synthesizer models (FM, Virtual Analog, String, +), 8 samplers, on board effects, OLED display, battery powered, built in microphone, FM radio, built in speaker, mp3 export, and a sequencer so cool – it’s still “secret”.

ETA: 10-12 months. Price TBA.

More info here: http://teenageengineering.com/products/op-1/

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“TE-10″ – Audio Sample

OLED Display Test

SSD + RAID = Photoshop Performance

Posted by Scott

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I had planned on writing an article about using RAID with Photoshop for increased swap disk performance (more on that below) a while back but decided to hold off as it seemed that the arrival of SSD (solid state drives) would be a game changer for the concept of Photoshop swap disks. The only issue with SSD’s was the price; they always seemed to hover around the $1,000 range and weren’t any faster than normal drives. But recently SSD prices have plummeted and their speeds have shot up. It seems the age of affordable SSD’s is upon us and anyone interested in speeding up their workflow should take note.

So what’s an SSD Then?
An SSD is simply a hard drive which uses flash memory — like the stuff in your digital camera — to store data instead of the old magnetic platters used in current drives. The major benefits of SSD’s are extreme reliability — 30+ years of continuous operation, silent operation — no moving parts, low operating temperature — they don’t generate any heat, and speed — very fast read/write and seek times. All of these properties make SSD’s great candidates for use as swap drives for Photoshop and other multimedia applications. In the rest of this article I will focus on the benefits of SSD and RAID (more on RAID below) specifically for Photoshop, but they can greatly increase the performance of many other applications in the Audio/Video/Design fields (think media drive for After Effects or multi-track recoding disk for Logic). The only caveat to all of this is that SSD’s have asynchronous read/write speeds. They can read data much faster than they can write it. At the time of this writing, SSD write speeds are still about the same as normal disks, read speed is where they excel. I expect this will change soon though.

The Swap Disk
If you’re not familiar with how the swap drive in Photoshop works (Edit > Preferences > Performance in CS4) here’s a quick, very rough primer: Photoshop is constantly reading and writing temporary files in the background as you work. Ideally it reads and writes this data within your computer’s super-fast RAM. But as you start to work with larger documents (e.g. full size print work @ 300dpi) it quickly fills up the RAM space and needs some place to write the overflowing information. Now, if you have 64GB of RAM in your system you can stop reading here, but for the rest of us this is where the swap drive comes in. Since your operating system is also constantly reading and writing to and from your primary hard disk, it is essential that you have a second, dedicated disk as your swap drive. This way Photoshop can have all the bandwidth of that drive all to itself. The main problem with this is that while having a drive dedicated as the swap disk will help, it will never be as fast as RAM. This is where SSD’s and RAID can start to make a huge difference in Photoshop’s performance.

RAID Zero
One SSD as your swap disk is great, but what if you could stack several together to act as a single drive with a multiplied speed? This practice is known as RAID and it’s the key to boosting disk performance. I will try to explain RAID in simple terms here as it’s a rather complex subject. For our purposes you only really need to know a few things, if you want to know more just google RAID and you can learn the ins and outs pretty quickly. There are many flavors of RAID, but the one we are concerned with is RAID 0 (that’s a zero on the end). RAID 0 essentially takes multiple drives and treats them as one, leveraging the bandwidth of each to create one virtual drive with a greater speed than each individual drive and a total size equal to all drives combined. For instance, TweakTown was able to coax a 650MB/s read speed out of four Patriot SSD’s in RAID 0 on an Areca card.

The only problem with RAID0 is that it’s not fault tolerant, if any one of the drives in a RAID0 array go down, that’s it, you lose everything on the virtual drive that represents those four disks. But this is less of an issue given the inherent stability of SSD’s and for our purposes, we don’t really care about fault tolerance. Since this is only a temporary swap drive, all the files will be deleted each time we quit Photoshop. If you want to write permanent files to a RAID array, look into RAID1 which is sort of a blend of safety and speed, but with the lifespan and stability of SSD’s, you could probably get away with RAID0 for permanent file storage.

SSD+RAID=FAST
Here’s where things get really interesting. And when I say “interesting” I mean 650MB/s of interesting. When I built my last computer I used ye olde hard drives (non-SSD) for the RAID0 array and it was still very fast. This was waaay back (2008) when even one SSD was outrageously expensive so I ruled them out as a possibility. Now you can snag a very fast SSD for under $100, here’s a good example. You might be thinking that 32GB is rather small, but remember, this is just a temporary drive so we are mostly concerned with speed and not so much the storage space. Photoshop swap files rarely (maybe never?) get anywhere near 32GB in size. And if you plan on putting multiple drives into a RAID0 configuration, size becomes even less of an issue. RAID0 drive size is the sum total of all drives in the array. If you have three 32GB drives in the array, the disk size that your operating system will “see” is 96GB of SSD goodness. I could go on explaining how fast things start to get when you strap multiple SSD’s into a RAID0 array, but this video sums it all up quite nicely. You’ll hear a lot of technical jargon so if you don’t understand it all or can’t stand watching that guy talk for more than 30 seconds, just know this: everything he is saying basically amounts to these drives being ridiculously fast and reliable, two qualities digital artists hold in high regard when it comes to hard drives.

RAID Cards
Another thing to consider in all this is how to connect the drives. Most modern motherboards come with a form of RAID built in. Unfortunately, this is usually a software driven type of RAID and so it’s more about reliability than speed. For true speed you need to get a dedicated RAID card with it’s own processor on board. I have the Highpoint RocketRAID 3520 in my system and it’s been great. There are many others (such as the the Areca cards mentioned in the video above) so dig around for the best value. RAID cards can be expensive but it’s a good investment as they deliver great performance for the price. Spending $300 extra on a more powerful CPU might net you a small margin of increased Photoshop performance, but the same money spent on a RAID card and some drives will put your benchmarks through the roof.

Moral of The Story
If you are using Photoshop for anything, you should at the very least have one dedicated drive as the swap. If you are serious about using Photoshop for print and larger file sizes, you should be running an SSD for your swap drive. If you are obsessed with Photoshop performance and are creating 24×36″ posters @ 300dpi, you should be running multiple SSD’s on a dedicated RAID0 card as your swap disk. Sure SSD is still quite new, and the price per megabyte is still quite high (relatively speaking) but the performance gains can be huge. I’m not saying run out and buy up a stack of SSD’s, but if you are considering a new system or system upgrade in the near future, SSD’s should be on your research list. All told, a solid RAID 0 setup with two to four drives will run from about $400-$700 which could net you anywhere from 400-650MB/s swap read speeds. That’s a great ROI and whether you’re running Photoshop, producing music, or doing video, RAID0 and SSD’s are well worth your consideration. The way I see it, the more speed and power at my fingertips, the faster I can work and the more I can experiment with new ways of working. My goal is always to remove as many obstacles as possible between myself and the finished product and more responsive software goes a long way to eliminate the biggest obstacle of them all: time.

Razer Death Adder Mouse

Posted by Scott

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So I was at Best Buy the other day and I happened upon the mouse isle. I wasn’t really searching for a new mouse so much as an alternative input device (more on that later) but I remembered a few of you had recommended the Razer mice in the comments of the design mouse round-up so I thought I’d give them a shot. I played around with both the higher-priced “Lachesis” model and the “Death-Adder” (yes, only “gaming-grade” products are allowed to have names this bad). The Death-Adder felt the best in my hand so I focused in on that one. After playing around with it for a little while I liked it enough to pick one up. I think it was around $60, not cheap, but certainly not as bad as some of the Logitechs which can push the $100 mark.

Once I got it home the first thing I noticed was how light it was compared to my old Logitech which I had weighted with some quarters. I don’t know how I missed that at the shop but I was starting to think it was a deal breaker, I really like heavy mice. But as I used it I started to realize that the extreme precision of the Death-Adder more than compensated for it’s lightness. I think before I needed the weight to make up for how imprecise the Logitechs can be, in this case there was no need. The Adder floats effortlessly across my desk surface and the resolution is incredible. What I really love about this thing is the width, I don’t have to cramp my hand to hold on to it, it fills out the palm nicely.

It’s really a small issue, but this thing looks really cheap. The industrial design department over at Razer Inc. must be comprised solely of 15 year old FPS enthusiasts because this thing is damn ugly (I know it doesn’t look so bad in that pic up top, but you have to see it in person to truly appreciate it’s tackiness). And to top it off, it has a glowing blue thing in the middle of it that looks like some sort of tribal tattoo from 1998. And no jokes, it actually pulsates! WOW….I can just imagine that design meeting… Designer: “Hey, how about we take the ugliest, most tacky part of the design and then draw as much attention to it as possible by mounting a blue light underneath!” Product Manager: “Make the light pulsate and you’ve got yourself a deal.” Overall, the materials look pretty chintzy too but I guess I don’t mind since they seem to have spent the cash they saved on making this thing look good on making it work better.

As for real issues, I definitely miss Logitech’s Micro-Gear wheel and there are only two extra buttons on this thing, back and forward. Other than that, it’s definitely a winner, I certainly prefer it to my Logitechs at this point and I’ve only been using it for a couple days. They have several models to choose from, some with more buttons/features I’m sure but since their site doesn’t have an index it was really hard to see all the mice and compare them at a glance. I would give you a link to the website, but that too seems to have been developed by high school students so I’ll spare you. Seriously Razer, I know your demo is gamer kids, but that doesn’t mean your site has to be completely non-functional.

Columbia’s DEC PDP-7

Posted by Scott

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The DEC PDP systems never cease to be a source of inspiration for me and the above example of a PDP-7 system at Columbia’s Electrical Engineering department is no exception. I am not sure who took this photo as there was no credit included (source: Columbia Computing History). It would be tempting to gut the cases and fill them with modern studio equipment if you could find a nice used example. Also, if you have an oscilloscope in your computer you win.

For you Mac heads out there, this is your great-grand daddy. A PDP-7, referred to as the “Unix Genesis Machine”, was used by Ken Thompson and his team in 1969 to develop the Unix OS (a very early precursor to what would become Mac OS X).

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Vista 64: The Comeback Kid

Posted by Scott

Picture 1-11.pngperfps.jpg So it’s late 2008 (what happened?) and I’ve now entered a new chapter in my never ending quest for the ideal OS for design and music. If you read this blog with any regularity, you’ll know that I’m a lifelong Windows user who recently got a Macbook pro, my first official Apple computer. I still use Windows to create music and design, but I have my Macbook for all the other stuff: blogging, surfing, listening to music, traveling, etc., etc. I would love to switch to Mac for music and graphics as well, but the program I use for recording music, Cakewalk Sonar, is Windows only. So unless I want to start from scratch and learn a new DAW software like Logic, I’m pretty much stuck with PC for better or for worse. That being the case, I was pretty excited when Windows Vista first came out, I had read a lot about the enhancements they had made to the OS and at that point, XP was really showing it’s age. But as we all know, when Vista finally did come out it was a bitter disappointment for many, myself included. I plunked down $350(!!) for Vista Business 64-bit edition right when it came out only to find that it was a complete mess. Bad driver compatibility, unstable operation, security holes: you name it, Vista had it. So I reluctantly went back to XP, thought I’d wait it out and let the hardware manufacturers catch up and write new, more stable drivers for Vista. But that didn’t work out so well either, after about 6 months of waiting I installed Vista again with similar results. Add one more, XP-wait-reinstall cycle and that was it for me, I finally put it to rest and retiring the install CD to the storage closet with all the old dusty manuals, floppy disks, and other computer ephemera that I can’t seem to part with.

Fast forward a year: SP1 for Vista is out, a lot of hardware makers have more mature drivers available (MOTU being the most important to me), and 64-bit Photoshop has become a reality thanks to CS4. One day I was talking with my friend Dusty Brown and the subject of Windows came up. Like me, he uses a Mac laptop and a PC desktop. One for daily tasks, one for recording music and graphics. He said he had been using Vista for a while and that it had been working out great for him. This got me thinking, was the time right to finally put that 8GB of ram in my desktop to use? The allure of 64-bit Photoshopping was just too much to resist. So I bit the bullet and installed Vista on my main desktop for the fourth time. It has now been about a month since I did and I can honestly say I am very, very impressed. Perhaps I am only relatively impressed given my past history, but this time around Vista has been super stable (albeit very subjective, I’ve counted 0 lock-ups or crashes in Vista compared with around 8 on my brand new Macbook Pro). Photoshop has been tearing through files, I’ve noted a marked improvement in file opening speed, screen redraws, and overall performance. And perhaps most importantly, when I open the preferences in Photoshop and go to “performance”, the RAM slider goes all the way up to 7224 MB (see image above). It’s ridiculous to think how long it took for that to become a reality, but here we are. Some might argue that I am merely experiencing the benefits of using a 64-bit OS and that Vista itself isn’t really central to my overall satisfaction. Perhaps, but I used Windows XP 64 for about 6 months earlier this year and it was a buggy mess, nothing even approaching the stability and performance I am seeing in Vista. A quick note on configuration: I disabled a lot of non-essential services (as I always do with Windows) and turned off all visual effects and security services. Point being that fresh out of the box, your mileage may vary with Vista, it takes some tweaking.

But as with everything, it’s not all roses. DRM, for one, is not doing Vista any favors. Apparently Microsoft, being the paragon of freedom and privacy that they are, decided to embed DRM (digital rights management) at the core of Vista, to the extent that it scans each and every bit moving through the system to check for copyright information. This can slow certain operations down and cripple others completely. Fortunately, it’s most obvious effects are limited to file copy/transfer and are somewhat sporadic, so they don’t really impinge on my day to day workflow. Let me qualify that information though by stating that it is merely internet rumor at this point (well documented rumor, but rumor nonetheless), to date, MS has made no official on whether or not they have integrated DRM into the OS.

So yes, I bought the hype and listened to all the Vista haters for a long time. And maybe they were right, but the key word here is “were”. It’s almost 2009 and I am here to say that Vista is all growed up. So yeah, there it is, take it or leave it. Anyone else using Vista 64 with CS4? What has your experience been?