iTunes & iTunes Extras: A viable alternative to physical media – at last!

One thing I love about buying movies and TV shows on physical media: the extras.  You usually get audio commentaries from the filmmakers along with little featurettes (and occasionally feature-length documentaries) about the making of the film.

But the problem with physical media is having to store it somewhere.  All those cases all add up.  And if higher definition versions come out later, you’ll have to replace the disk, packaging, etc.

Until recently, I had been put off of iTunes movies because I’ve a reasonable fear that the movie studios may pull the movie off the service at any time and remove my access to the movie.  After all, this DOES happen with iTunes music – if you buy a track or album and it’s no longer sold on iTunes, you won’t be able to download it again if you’ve removed the files to make room on your computer or device.

However, I think Apple (and the movie studios) treat movies & TV shows differently.  Given the size of HD movies, they can take up an enormous amount of space on a device.  And the Apple TV has limited storage (we’re talking about the 4th generation here).  So it makes sense that purchases remain in the cloud.   Thus I’m pretty certain that movies & TV shows bought on iTunes will remain a permanent fixture – and even if they don’t, I’m sure Apple would refund accordingly (although I shall bring this up again in another blog post about iTunes in-app subscriptions – what a mess THAT is!).

Anyway, one thing I have come to love with iTunes movies is iTunes Extras.  When movies first started being released with Extras, the offerings were not brilliant.  But more and more movies are being released with DVD/Blu-Ray quality features – and with audio commentaries.  The audio commentary thing is a HUGE deal.  Something that’s traditionally been limited to physical media is now being made available online (or offline if you download the movie to your computer or device).

Even Amazon Prime Video has jumped on the audio commentary bandwagon – offering a few of their TV shows with audio commentary.  It’s essentially a different title because the Amazon Prime Video platform doesn’t appear to offer multiple audio streams.  But it’s a start.  Netflix doesn’t offer ANY audio commentaries for any of their shows yet – so they’ve got some catching up to to.

But there is a downside to iTunes Extras.  They’re not available on iTunes TV shows.  If you buy a series or individual episodes, there are absolutely no extras whatsoever.  None.  Nada.  Kaput.  I hope Apple and the respective studios will put that right.  It’s essential, I think, to do this if Apple has any ambitions to make Apple TV a viable platform.

As for making backups of all the iTunes things – I use one of these, a Drobo.  Lovely device (on loan from work) – it offers full redundancy – up to two disks can fail at once and the data is okay.  But it’s a seriously noisy thing – and one of the disks (the second one from the bottom) is humming like mad.  So it’s on to take backups of my systems, then shut off.

Coming up next on my blog: iTunes subscriptions – is Apple passing the buck? and What movies to watch on iTunes, Netflix and Amazon Prime Video in 2017.

My first negative feedback on eBay!

I don’t use eBay often, but when I do, it’s usually to sell kit I don’t need or want to keep.  It’s proven very safe and reliable over the years.. until last week!

I bought the Sony RX100 mark V.  After encountering many articles and videos extolling the new features (especially the super fast 315 phase detect auto focus points) over the mark IV, I decided that I could take one more hit and bought the thing with the intention of selling the mark IV.

Alas!

What a flipping nightmare!   I’ve sold much more expensive kit on eBay and haven’t had a single problem with it.  But initially the mark IV refused to budge. The price for a new mark IV on Amazon  is about £100 less than what I originally paid for it six months ago.  So given the age of the device, and how that it wasn’t used very much and kept in a case, I thought £100-£120 less than the current price would be fair.  No dice. I had a few too low offers, including the person who would eventually buy the thing.  At one point I took the listing offline, revised the description to add as much information as I could from the questions that were being asked, and settled to a figure of £600.  And that included the breakdown and accidental cover insurance for three years.

On Sunday night I went to bed.  During that time, the buyer submits questions before buying the camera.  It is stipulated in my listing that it can take up to two days before I ship the item.  This is because as I work full time, and I work in middle of nowhere, and that I also work a shift system, the ability to get to a post office is somewhat limited during the week.  The earliest I would have been able to get to a post office is today (Tuesday) after work – and that’d be around 5pm. Given that I choose to ship Next Day Special Delivery (with the right level of insurance), that would be not have made a Wednesday delivery.

So what I do get when I ask the buyer for the details so I can start to arrange the transfer of the insurance?  She needs it before Thursday as she’s heading off to South America.  Talk about leaving things a bit late!  I’ve basically said that given the current timescales, I couldn’t do it, so I refunded her and cancelled the order. It would be better to buy from somewhere like Amazon’s used marketplace – these are usually professional sellers who can ship next day guaranteed.  I’m just an individual just looking to sell a camera in my spare time.  She told me that she couldn’t afford those prices.

If I had been told all of this before the order went through, I could have very probably made prior arrangements.  But the number of questions (and two different, much lower offers – the listing was set-up for a fixed price only) preceding all of this had slowed everything down.  Least of all I did not know it was urgently required.

Needless to say, the subsequent email exchange (through the eBay system) did not go too well.  I was always polite, but firm, in that I wasn’t going to work outside of the eBay guidelines to get this thing to her – she wanted to arrange a courier which would very likely invalidate that because if things went wrong, PayPal and eBay would not be able to assist me if she were then to put in a claim – they would side with her, and I’d have lost both the camera and money.

So in the end, I got my first ever negative feedback – after I left her a positive for the quick payment, but this was before I knew about her deadline).  The comment she left was that I was uncooperative and rude.   I was never rude. Rude, by her definition, is that she simply did not like what I told her.  I was never aggressive or impolite.  If she only organised herself better, was upfront about her expectation on delivery times, and made the decision to buy within a sensible timeframe, she would have had the camera yesterday.  Today at the latest.

I’ve decided to keep the camera.  I’m not sure I can bring myself to sell it just yet after all that rigmarole.  I’m trying to decide how it will fit in with my existing trips, but I’ve been looking at what other people do with multiple cameras and I’m coming up with some (cunning) plans.

At the time of writing, my camera kit now looks like this:

I’ve gone a bit mad on audio kit.  This stems from my time shooting Imagineer System’s marketing video.  Having good quality microphones is a must.  Though at the time of making the marketing video, I had little knowledge of audio gain control – the result was that a lot of audio was very fuzzy.  I’m not making that mistake again.  The AX53 camcorder replaces my ancient Sony DCR-PC100e, which was a lovely miniDV unit.  Alas, it’s dead and I haven’t any way of playing anything I recorded unless I take them to a specialist who can take transfer them to DVD or external hard drive.  The AX53 uses fast SDHC memory cards which I can import footage into Final Cut Pro on my Mac.

(BTW, my first ever digital camera was a Sony DSC-S70 – it was super chunky, only offered 3.2 megapixels, was super expensive, but the quality was absolutely brilliant – which perhaps explains why I returned to Sony products after a brief spell with Cannon)

I still need to get a couple of small tripods.  I’ve settled on Joby Gorillapods which will enable me to wrap the arms around objects as well as act as a stand and grip.  BTW, the case that you see is an Amazon Basics camera backpack.  Super light too.  The case also has lens cleaning kits and all the manuals (which I also have in PDF form on my iPad).  You can’t say I’m not prepared.

Westworld meets the humble Stereo

The one thing that I’ve been lacking at home has been a radio player.  I do have a 10 year old second hand component-based DAB radio, but it’s now so old and clunky that it’s been retired and is about to go to silicon heaven.

I’ve taken a rather unusual approach to its replacement.  Rather than get another component based stereo system, I’ve chosen to get an Amazon Echo (and Echo Dot for the bedroom).  These are speakers that happen to have an artificial intelligent assistant built into them.

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Alas, “Alexa – Destroy All Humans!” doesnt work.

In essence, the Amazon Echo is a big speaker with plenty of bass that you can connect to over Bluetooth.  Handy for playing music from one’s phone.  It has very few buttons other than a microphone mute and an “action” button.

But the Echo (and Echo Dot)’s niftiest feature is that it’s controlled by your voice, and it can connect with a number of services (over Wi-Fi) to form a very capable personal assistant.   The commands are pretty basic, and there is no context to follow-up questions/commands.  For example, if you were to ask about a personality and then followed it up without referring back to that personality – Alexa (for that’s her name) will be very confused.  Google appears to be winning the contextual war, so to speak, but I’m sure Amazon will be on it.

I use my Echo and Echo Dot to play audio books from Audible (an Amazon company) – and having collected all four Round the Horne series (30+ hours worth of beautifully crafted comedy), it’s superb.  The Echo can also play live radio streams from TuneIn including all the BBC Radios and local radio stations – “Alexa, play Eagle Radio” will invoke Eagle Radio’s live stream.

Echo can also control smart devices in the home too.  And there are so many more things this “speaker” can do.  The radio player has become intelligent.  I now fear that if the toaster and kettle also become intelligent, they may form a household rebellion against me.

But in all seriousness, this is the next big development in IT.  We’ve seen it in smartphones (although Siri over here in the UK is terrible in comparison to what Amazon and Google are currently doing), but now it’s coming into the home.  My TV will eventually be voice controlled (just waiting for LG to issue an update). Sky have plans to do the same as well.  The future is here.

Forrest Gump UHD – Pixels UHD – Liverpool vs. Barcelona UHD – Anomalisa – Trumbo – High Rise – The Good Dinosaur – Hail, Caesar!

It was a weekend at the movies.  At home.

Sky had kindly stuck a copy of Forrest Gump and Pixels in 4K UHD on their service for us 4K folk to try before they official launch their UHD services.  I’ve always loved Forrest Gump, but seeing it in UHD was like watching it in the cinema again.  A 35mm film scan to 4k has yielded a superb sharp picture, with glorious colours.  This film has never looked or sounded so good.  Pixels is another story – wasn’t impressed as much with image quality and that was taken from a 3,4K digital intermediate.

Then there was the Liverpool FC vs Barcelona.  Live.  In UHD.  Alas, I did not see it live, but set the Sky Q Silver box to record it whilst I watched a few other films instead.  When I came to watch it, however, I was impressed with the quality of the image.  Sports certainly do look better in higher resolution – indeed, Japan’s NHK is filming this year’s Olympics in Rio in 8K.  It requires a $125,000 TV to watch it, and it’ll be probably be obsolete in a years time, but hey, it’s technology.  It’s also being broadcast in select theatres in Japan at full 8K res for those without a burning hole in their pockets.

Meanwhile, on Amazon Prime (my replacement to iTunes), I rented a few movies.

Anomalisa – directed by Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson.
Kaufman is a wonderful filmmaker whose oddball and provocative (yet thoughtful) films are a great inspiration.  Being John Malkovich was the first really odd film that caught my attention.  Adaptation in which Nicolas Cage plays twin versions of Kaufman himself was utterly insane.  Synecdoche, New York, with Phillip Seymour-Hoffman, took all of that and ran through the streets naked before diving into a teapot of jelly.

Anomalisa’s overall atmosphere reminds me that of Being John Malkovich meets Lost In Translation.  It was made using stop animation with some of the most expressive puppets I’ve ever seen on film.  They’re so good, there’s a sex scene which took Duke Johnson and his animators SIX months to animate – because they wanted to do it properly.  The film stars David Thewlis as Michael Stone, a highly successful customer service/motivational speaker who stays overnight at the hotel Fregoli in Cincinnati, Ohio, before speaking at a conference the next day.  While he’s there, he calls up an old flame which, as you may imagine, doesn’t go at all well.  He eventually meets two women attending the same conference, one of them is Lisa, an insecure young woman.

I should point out that other than Michael and Lisa, everybody else is voiced by character actor Tom Noonan.  He plays absolutely everybody else – from waitresses, Lisa’s friend, Michael’s wife and son, their friends, the hotel manager, all the secretaries – everyone.  The reason for this is that Michael is depressed.  He perceives everybody around him – apart from Lisa – as identical white men with the same faces and voices .

All in all, this is a very strange film.  I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would, and I think it’s worth tracking down on Blu-Ray when the price is right.  Technically one of the best films I’ve seen.  Kudous to everybody involved in making it.

Trumbo – directed by Jay Roach
This is the first non-comedy film for Roach, whose previous works include the likes of Austin Powers, Meet the Parents/Fockers, Dinner for Schmucks, etc.  And it’s a blinder of a film.  I would have to say that this has fast become one of my favourite films of all time.  I love biopics, and this is definitely one of the best I’ve seen.  In part, perhaps, due to the excellent and strong casting, including Bryan “Breaking Bad” Cranston in the role of Dalton Trumbo, Louis C.K. as Arlan Hird, and Alan Tudyk as Ian McLellan Hunter.

Trumbo concentrates on the part of Dalton Trumbo’s life that concerns his blacklisting in Hollywood thanks to the McCarthy hearings (the House of Un-American Activities).  The USA was exceptionally paranoid during the height of the Cold War, and if you were suspected of being a communist, you’d go to jail.  Many people lost their jobs, families and even their lives during this time, and this film brings home just how horrific it was.

That’s not to say it’s all doom and gloom.  Trumbo is punctuated with humour throughout, and what makes this film so good are the performances.  We get to see the relationship Trumbo had with Edward G. Robinson: Robinson ratted out Trumbo in the end, albeit not before handing Trumbo a massive cheque to fund his defence; after everything blew over, Trumbo paid Robinson back, with their friendship now ended.  Of continuing to write scripts whilst blacklisted and using false identities to cover himself up.  During this period, his script ‘Roman Holiday’ went on to win an Oscar – albeit for Ian McLellan Hunter who was persuaded by Trumbo to take the credit.  Many years later, the Academy would hand Trumbo’s widow a new Oscar with the corrected credit.

As we know (well, I didn’t actually), Otto Preminger saw Trumbo and got him to write Spartacus.  This would be the first time since the blacklist that Trumbo’s name was restored to his work.

A truly wonderful film.  Oscar and BAFTA nominated in its own right, but didn’t win, it’s still a very worthy contender for your time.  I’ll be buying the Blu-Ray – this one’s a keeper.

Hail, Caesar! – directed by the Coen Brothers
Set in a spookily similar period and surroundings to that of Trumbo, this fictionalised comedy drama about real-life studio fixer Eddie Mannix sees the big star of a forthcoming big budget Roman epic motion picture kidnapped by a group of communist writers who demand $10,000 in cash.  Or else!  As Mannix deals with this crisis, he’s also dealing with a Western star that’s been shoehorned into an upmarket period piece, gossip columnist twins (both played by Tilda Swinton), and other diversions (including contemplating a very generous offer of new employment from Lockheed).

Hail, Caesar! is a great farce, but ultimately it doesn’t really go anywhere.  Quite unsatisfying as a story.

The Good Dinosaur – directed by Peter Sohn
In the same year that Pixar released Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur feels more like a bonus side-attraction rather than a fully fledged feature.  But what there made me cry like a little baby at the end, as do most Pixar (and Studio Ghibli) films.  Pixar are experts in the art of storytelling combining up-to-date technology, and even if it’s not their best film to date, it’s nevertheless heartwarming and technically brilliant.

High Rise – directed by Ben Wheatley
I was really looking forward to this adaptation of J. G. Ballad’s science fiction novel.  I do like a bit of dystopian future, me.  But I found that I couldn’t stomach this film at all.  It’s horribly depressing, the characters completely unrelatable, and even the plot seems to be disjointed.  I gave up a third of the way through the film.

Other films:

Kung Fu Panda 3 – directed by Jennifer Yu Nelson & Alessandro Carloni
A good few years ago, back when I was married, we were looking to adopt from China.  We went as a far as volunteering for an NGO outside of Beijing where we got to help look after children who were being prepared for international adoption.  But as for the adoption itself?  It never happened – for many reasons.  But I still have an interest in the entire adoption process, and I’ve found the Kung Fu Panda movies to be one of the best at explaining and looking at adoption in a very positive light.  In fact, there were a few times in Kung Fu Panda 3 where I broke down and cried.  I can’t tell you how well this handles a very sensitive topic.  But adoption aside, this is a fantastic film that manages to keep the momentum of the franchise going nicely.  We meet old friends and new, and the background artwork (principally produced by Oriental Dreamworks) is fantastic.  It’s perhaps the first major collaboration between a US and Chinese film studio and the result is something that’s very special indeed.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of the Justice League – directed by Zak Snyder
Haven’t gotten around to finishing this one as it’s THREE hours long.  And boy, do you feel every minute with this one!  That said, what I’ve seen so far makes sense, but I’m just not sure whether this needs to be the War & Peace of DC films.  What I will say is that the UHD works very well – worth the investment.

And what can we learn from these films?  That I should avoid any cartoons or family films, because I’m likely to blub.  Already 40, I appear to be turning into an emotional wreck.  On the other hand, you could say that as storytellers, the filmmakers have done a superb job – if you’re that engrossed that you can empathise with a character or characters, it must be good!  Or maybe not.  I don’t know.

Coming up: Finding Dory (cinema), The Suicide Squad (cinema), In Bruges, Whitnail and I, The Man from UNCLE (Guy Ritchie version), Labyrinth, Deadpool UHD, The Room.

As Apple’s cloud services fall over and go splat..

(See Daily Mail: “Apple’s iCloud comes crashing down” which includes a quote from me courtesy of Twitter, but they managed to mangle the caption (9.2.3 versus 9.3.2) and also includes the typo of the week which is: But it is unlikely the tech giant knew it would unleash furry on the iPad Pro.” – this is why I use an ad blocker these days to prevent publications from getting revenue for poor editing)

.. I’m putting the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge through its paces.  Android has come far since I last used it in anger.  Yet there’s still no method of setting up a way of getting the phone to keep notifying me of an unread SMS – essential when you’re on-call and you’re in deep sleep.  There are third party apps, thankfully, but finding the right one is tricky.

I put Android Pay to use this morning.  Unfortunately, the uptake from British banks and Building Societies is a bit thin on the ground at the moment.  Thankfully my own bank has adopted Android Pay and it was just as easy to set-up as Apple Pay.  And even easier when it came to pay for a Costa coffee.  If anything, it felt faster.

The S7 Edge has a great camera built in – capable of even shooting in RAW format (requires that you switch to the Pro mode).   But even when on Auto, it takes some great pictures – take a look at this 12 megapixel shot of keys.  Focusing was extremely fast indeed.

Macro shot of some keys - focusing was very fast.
Macro shot of some keys – focusing was very fast.

I’m a bit undecided about the video.  I’ve not had a chance to put either the HD or UltraHD video shooting modes to use – but I have seen footage where it looks the person shooting the video has consumed 90 pints of beer and taken hallucinogenic drugs.  The background seems to distort and wobble.  It’s been pointed out that this is likely due to video stabilisation being enabled – that is, digital video stabilisation + optical image stabilisation = improbability drive effects.

I’ll get back to testing the video functions later.  Not important to me right now – I don’t shoot much video anyway, the important thing is stills photography which seems to me to be one of the best smartphone cameras on the market.

Call quality is excellent.  The unit supports EE’s Wi-Fi Calling out the box (you just need to enable it within the Phone settings), so if you have decent Wi-Fi, you can make calls over that rather than the cellular network.

Pretty much every app I had on the iPhone 6S Plus (bless it’s recently sold soul) is available under Android, and in some cases is a much better experience.  And like the iPhone 6S Plus, the Galaxy S7 Edge has a fingerprint scanner which works pretty well.  Not quite as spontaneous and as flexible as the iPhone, but it’s come leaps and bounds since the Galaxy S5 (which I have as a work phone) and is perfectly usable here.

The “edge” part of the S7 Edge is a lovely idea: you can access frequently accessed content, apps and contacts by simply swiping from the right hand curved edge of the phone.  Really makes a difference and the whole screen looks extremely impressive as a result too.

Google Play, which replaces the temperamental Apple App Store, works and I can remotely install apps from any web browser.  The S7 Edge also integrates into my Google Apps for Work account and I can manage the device remotely – so if it ever fell into the wrong hands, I can perform a remote wipe (or locate it, or both).

Overall I’m very impressed with the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge and I do not yet regret my move.  Time will tell how fast Samsung will roll out security and Android updates to the device (including new major versions of Android), but so far so good.