Wednesday 8 January 2014

Browser for your OS X Time Machine Backups (Updated)

A few years back I was very excited about a browser for OS X's Time Machine called Time Tracker. It probably still works, but remains in its very early "unpolished" state (in the author's own words). So here's another one that I've been using for a while now, one I personally think is well polished and much better.

BackupLoupe by soma-zone — Advanced Browsing for Time Machine

If you're not paying attention to Time Machine as it backs up, you won't see the size differences—and even if you are, there's no easy way to see individual file differences. In some ways that's the beauty of Time Machine—it's totally set and forget, completely out of the way. But sometimes you want to take a closer look... and that's where BackupLoupe comes in.

BackupLoupe is useful for diagnosing why Time Machine is so slow, or why the last backup was 32 GB even though you don't think you changed anything, or even checking that there was actually a 10 GB backup after you imported your holiday photos into iPhoto...

It's well worth the $5 USD (which I paid after using it for a while—there's no copy protection, but its cheap and very useful).

High Level Differences

The main feature in my view is being able to see the differences between any two successive backups. That is, on top of the normal browsing features of Apple's own Time Machine interface (browsing for a file, viewing/restoring it).

Basic BackupLoupe interface—colours indicate where the big chunks of backup data have gone, and you can easily dig down into backups to see exactly what changed.

My first use of BackupLoupe was looking for cache data, logs and other essentially temporary/transient files that really didn't need to be backed up on my previous, slower Mac. Some applications do indeed prevent their cache files being backed up, but there's some caches (like my email application's local cache of my already-remotely-backed-up-emails) that just doesn't need to be backed up every hour, slowing the rest of the backup down, and ultimately using up space that would otherwise allow longer-term backups of my important data.

File Changes

BackupLoupe also works with MobileBackups. These are the backups that Time Machine does when it can't find any of your Time Machine disks (e.g. when you're away from the office/desk), so that you still have hourly backups, even though they're not on a redundant/separate disk. They proved quite useful recently when I was playing a game and several save files were lost due to a bug in the game's UI.

Thanks to Time Machine, the files were backed up exactly as they had been about 45 minutes earlier. Thanks to BackupLoupe it was very easy to see which ones had changed (updated, and thus OK), and which had been lost (deleted, and needing to be restored).

MobileBackups saved my saved games, BackupLoupe showed me which files had changed and how, even though I would otherwise have no idea which file is which.
And if you want to see how and when the file has changed over time, you can do that too. Just open up the 'History' panel to see a list of backed up versions of the file. Double-clicking takes you to that revision in the backup history, or right-click to bring up the 'Show Differences' option, which opens the two versions of the file in Apple's excellent FileMerge application, showing you the actual changes to the file, side-by-side.

See detailed file changes with the 'History' side panel. Bringing up the context menu allows you to see differences between snapshots in FileMerge.

All up a very useful application, if you want to delve a little deeper into your Time Machine backups, see exactly what is being backed up, see how big each incremental backup is, what files are changing and how, and look for possible exclusions to speed things up and save space.

Monday 6 January 2014

Sensor Aspect Ratios — What's Best?

I was inspired by a question on the Photography StackExchange site to think about digital camera image sensors, specifically the aspect ratios commonly seen.

Without getting into a long history of aspect ratios, I'll just say that far and away the most common aspect ratios for digital cameras are 3:2 and 4:3. There's various aspect ratios around these commonly used (TV 4:3, HDTV 16:9, Movies 1.85:1 or 2.4:1) as well as many variations in things like picture frames. Another common aspect-ratio is 1:1, though often for smaller things like profile pictures, and instagram photos.

Suffice to say, whatever camera you have, there's a good chance you'll end up cropping images for different purposes (even if you don't do it explicitly, such as the automatic cropping when you print for a specific frame). And you'll probably find you use one or two aspects ratios more often than others (e.g. HD videographers will probably mostly want 16:9, many professional photographers like 3:2, social media junkies perhaps prefer square).

So what is the best aspect ratio for a camera? Why don't they make native 16:9 cameras, given the prevalence of 16:9 video, or square sensors in phones mostly used for social media?

Ok, so there are some that don't conform to the 3:2 or 4:3 standards. The Lytro actually has a square sensor, Canon are rumoured to be developing a square sensor, and OmniVision make some low resolution Native HD Sensors (16:9, 1-2MP). There's probably more, but its pretty uncommon, even in dedicated video cameras. I had assumed GoPro Hero 3+ Black cameras had 16:9 sensors because of their 4k video (4096x2160), but it looks like they're a ~4000x3000 sensor.

So are square and wide sensors an untapped market? Or are they just gimmicks we don't need?

Obviously if you are always shooting/recording for a specific aspect ratio, then the ideal sensor is also that aspect ratio—that way you're not wasting part of the image circle by cropping. So let's see what's actually being wasted when we crop...

The ideal case is going to be a circular image sensor. Well, sort of. The viewfinder would be weird. The RAW files would be weird. Framing would be awkward. You'd probably just set it to 4:3 or 3:2 anyway unless it was super easy to adjust on-the-fly. It's another thing to think about, etc... But mathematically, it does give you the most pixels on your image (assuming a given maximum pixel pitch) and give you the most coverage of the image circle (what with it being circular and all).

So this is a few standard crops from a "circular sensor":
Some standard aspect ratios, at maximum size within the image circle.
And here I've taken each of those standard crops, as if they were the image sensor, and applied various crops to show how much smaller they get.
Crops from a 1:1 sensor
Crops from a 4:3 sensor
Crops from a 3:2 sensor
Crops from a 16:9 sensor

The point to notice is that the non-native crops start to get quite small, specially from the 1:1 or 16:9 sensors. Look especially at the 1:1 crop from the 16:9 sensor, and vice versa—both are considerably smaller than they could otherwise be. You can see the 4:3 and 3:2 sensors provide a bit more of a 'middle-ground', and are thus more flexible to be used with different aspect ratios.

Below is a table showing the coverage of each crop of the image circle for comparison. The columns show what 'limits' the crop (i.e. which sensor is used) and the rows show what shape the crop is. Higher values mean a larger area of the image circle is used, which is generally a good thing (more pixels, assuming a specific pixel pitch).
Coverage of the image circle for the various crops from the various sensors described above.
The table shows much the same information, as the images, though perhaps a little easier to compare directly. As you'd expect, the maximum coverage is achieved when only limited by the image circle (IC). In general, the 4:3 and 3:2 native aspect ratios provide the most 'general purpose' sensor, in that they provide reasonable coverage for both 1:1 and 16:9.

Note, however, there's still a significant chunk of the image circle 'thrown away' by using rectangular (including square) sensors. The CMOS Sensor Squared rumour about Canon's square sensors talks about the square sensor as fitting entirely within the image circle. I think the more likely implementation would be this:
Extra-large square sensor, covering square, and both portrait & landscape oriented 3:2-sized regions.
Instead of using the 'inner' square, which immediately loses the edges of a 3:2 image in either orientation, a slightly larger sensor (or possibly even the kind-of-plus-shaped-sensor) means you keep full-sized 3:2 crops in both orientations, as well as an otherwise-impossibly-large square crop.

Bigger sensors get significantly more expensive though, and require bigger mirrors, so this may well be out of the question. I'm even wondering if the rumoured square sensor is possible with the EF-mount lens-flange-distance.

Anyway, I hope the table and graphs show why we're still using 4:3 and 3:2 sensors.

Sure it'd be nice to have native 16:9 or 1:1 for those who only use one aspect ratio, but a 16:9 crop from a 3:2 sensor is only 8% smaller, while you lose 28% of the area for any of the squarer crops from a 16:9 frame (compared to cropping from 3:2). And, while you lose a lot cropping to 1:1 from any of these sensors, cropping to the common rectangular sizes from 1:1 cuts the image down by 28% compared to cropping from a 4:3 frame. For generic use: small gains, big losses.

Besides, you likely get a much better quality mass-produced-3:2-sensor than you would a (slightly wider, but lower production) 16:9-sensor anyway.

Tuesday 13 November 2012

Amazon Pricing Irregularities

I'm by no means the first person to point this out, but figured I'd point out a pretty serious irregularity in Amazon's pricing for a returning user compared to a 'new' user.

I was looking on the Amazon Kindle e-book store, as one does when procrastinating, and saw the following NRSV Bibles for Kindle listed for $7.99. A pretty standard price for an e-book, right? But when I clicked on them the price had almost doubled to $14.82! Naturally I went back and forth a few times, looked closer, but each time the prices in the search were $7.99 but rose to $14.82 when I clicked on the book. See screenshots from my browser below.

I've seen this on some other books, though with much smaller increases, around 10-15%, and assumed it was just a tax thing. Maybe they only show tax once you view the book details... annoying perhaps, but maybe its just too hard to cache search results and work out the local tax rates all at once... who knows. But that's clearly only part of the story (sales tax does indeed apply in my area for this publisher), because sales tax isn't 85%... it's only 10%. So where does the other 75% come from?!

Unlike some reports, this isn't just a case of multiple versions of the same book at different prices. There's no '+' icon next to the formats to show other versions; this is the same item.

So I opened up Google Chrome and went into Incognito Mode and repeated the search. I didn't log into Amazon, just checked the prices. Here's the search and item details, both showing the $7.99 price.

What the hell? If I log in and tell them who I am, they want to charge me 85% more for the same book?!

This is definitely an extreme case. The highest of the price discrepancies I saw, but its not uncommon to see a rise of 10-15% over the 'incognito' prices, when they know who you are. Another similar book from the same publisher rose "only" 14.7% (from $15.67 to $17.97), which is "only" 4% over the applicable sales tax.

This is pretty poor form from Amazon, and is pissing me off enough not to buy from them. Even the 4% increase (over sales tax) is dodgy, but seriously... 75% increase for logging in?! No thanks.

Sunday 22 April 2012

Pixelsync — Photomanagement for Aperture and iPhoto on the iPad

Update: Pixelsync is now discontinued, due to significant changes in Aperture 3.3

It's a shame to see it go this way, but I'll leave the rest of the post as is, since the info may still be valid for those who've not updated. Here's hoping Photosmith start working on an Aperture version!

Update 2: Pixelstream App?

A very bare Pixelstream website is promising to "Bring Aperture, iPhoto, and Lightroom to iOS", which may well mean a PixelSync replacement. Stay tuned...

Ever since I got an iPad I've been wishing Apple would make me some kind of iOS 'client' to Aperture so that I could do basic photo management and editing from my iPad. I often leave my laptop at work, or would like to be able to work on photos with something smaller, and which doesn't produce so much heat if I'm not doing serious edits. I can imagine those with a Mac Pro or iMac would have even more reason to want such an app for their iPad...

So Apple haven't stepped up to the plate, but two iOS developers have:

Pixelsync for Aperture and iPhoto, or Photosmith for Lightroom users

I only use Aperture, so can only really talk about Pixelsync, but it looks like it has pretty similar functionality, at least comparing version 1.x of both... Both have announced upcoming 2.x releases, so looking forward to some significant new features from both!

So what does it do?

It lets you sync photos from your main library (Aperture or iPhoto) to the iPad app, make changes to metadata (e.g. ratings, keywords, colour labels, titles, etc) and sync those changes back to your library.

You can also export these photos (email or the iPad's photostream) and show slideshows of any of the synced photos, if you're into that kind of thing.

This all works using a helper app on your computer that provides access to your Aperture and/or iPhoto libraries (yes, it supports multiple libraries at once).

What doesn't it do (yet)?

Obviously running on an iPad, you're not running a full version of Aperture — it's just a companion, so its worth knowing what you can't do with it...

You can't edit photos (yet). You can't rearrange your library or add photos to albums/books/etc (yet). You can't use the faces or geolocations features (yet). And you can't import photos from your iPad directly into Aperture (yet).

Some of these are planned features for v2.x, some are unlikely to come for a long time. Check out the limitations information for further details or up-to-date limitations of the app.

What's the point?

I find a lot of the time consuming work in going through my photos is in the management side of things. Even just picking which shots I want to delete, keep, share or print can be quite time consuming. This usually takes a couple of passes through an 'event' of rating photos. For some projects I do a lot of tagging as well. So even though this app can only edit metadata of photos, this is still a significant chunk of the time I spend using Aperture

If I want some feedback from my wife or a client about photos (I'm not the most decisive, especially when there are 10 photos of the same 'moment', each with their own technical and artistic flaws!), then having them on the iPad makes this really easy, and saves me bringing the computer home from work.

I'm also pretty bad at getting around to sorting through some of my larger 'events'... like that holiday we took over a year ago that keeps getting pushed back for smaller, easier tasks... so having the whole album on my iPad, with the ability to very quickly go in and rate a few photos, to sort the wheat from the chaff, makes it a much smaller barrier to getting any work done on those larger, older, albums that I never seem to have time for. I'm much more likely to have the iPad on the bus/train than my laptop, and I can only imagine how much of a difference this would make if I had a desktop computer.

I wish it did more...

Yeah it doesn't handle basic edits... that's a pain, when I know I could rotate the photo by 2ยบ to fix that awfully skewed horizon in a couple of seconds in Aperture...

And some of the features being discussed in the developer's feedback forum sound amazing... but apparently independent developers don't have infinite resources to do these things instantly; who'd have thought?...

I'd also love to see some kind of "Back To My Mac"-style connection, so you don't need to be on the same network (ie let me sync between work and home), which might also let me sync photos directly into Aperture while I'm on a shoot or on holidays... but I might just be dreaming here (;

Is it worth it?

Yep. It's about $10 (depending on your currency and I guess whether the developer changes prices), so if you're like me and used to having to pay for photography software its not a big price to pay for a very worthwhile extension to my usage of Aperture. I've been wanting to see an app like this for many months, if not years, and am a bit sad I didn't find it sooner!

I guess the alternative is to use VNC and just use Aperture directly, but having tried this its just not as responsive as I'd like, and so much of what I do in Aperture is keyboard-driven, which kinda sucks when the keyboard takes up half your photo-viewing real-estate on the iPad...

Wednesday 18 May 2011

moneyGuru review

I've had reasons to become a bit more fiscally responsible of late (having gotten married and gone into debt — unrelated of course! — and I've also fallen in as the treasurer for a non-profit group), I've had reason to find an application for recording and managing finances.

I came across one called moneyGuru some months ago and have for various reasons stuck with it (where iBank, GNU Cash, Quicken, MYOB and some others I didn't try long enough to even remember, got left behind). So I thought I'd share some reasons why moneyGuru became my application of choice for tracking my finances.

Now everyone's needs are different, of course, so let me state mine up front: I'm not after all that much from financial software; I want to be able to create some kind of categorised budget and see if I'm sticking to it, and see roughly where the money goes. For our personal finances, we needed to make a rough budget of regular expenses and see if we could afford loan repayments. As for the non-profit group, I need to categorise expenses and incoming money for reporting purposes, and make sure we're not spending more than our budget. I also wanted to find a cross-platform program that's likely to be around a while, so that when I move on from the treasury position, the next person can still use the software (the old records were in the ATO's e-Record system which was no longer available when I needed it!).

What I don't need is payroll software, GST/sales tax support, PAYG and other tax support, capital gains, asset management, etc, which some of the more complex/expensive software does (Quicken/MYOB). I don't need it, so don't want to pay for it, and to some extent don't even want it in the software I use — I'm not a professional accountant, and know only a little of the terminology, so having too many features just gets in the way of learning the basics.

So moneyGuru...

Price — It's not free, but it's fair. Something that various developers and some musicians, and even some restaurants have started doing in recent years is letting you choose how much to pay for their products. I quite like the concept, at least for electronic distribution, though probably because I'm a bit cheap (in my defence, I've been a student for many years so it's not entirely by choice). So I was able to pick a fairly arbitrary amount to pay for moneyGuru, and then, after checking what others had paid recently, and feeling a bit guilty, I doubled it and felt I was probably paying a fair price.

Sure, this made it more expensive than GNU Cash (which is free), but I chose a price cheaper than the more expensive financial software, since I didn't want to buy all those extra features I just don't need (and of course wasn't buying them here). What I was really paying for was avoiding some of the hassle of just using spreadsheets, which had been sufficient (though a little tedious) in the past.

One interesting novelty that the developer (HardCoded Software) provides is an account of how many hours they have or haven't been paid for their work on their applications. Some are in excess, some are in deficit, so if you're feeling extra generous, you might want to pay a little more to make up for those who haven't paid for his time.

Supported Operating Systems — It's cross-platform and runs much the same on Mac OS X, Windows and Linux. GNU Cash also does this, most others don't. MoneyGuru looks pretty much identical on each, and the features all match up (it's not like Microsoft Office, where the Mac and Windows variants are quite different beasts).

User Interface — It looks nice on my Mac. Much nicer than GNU Cash. And it's not just looks, it's less fiddly than most cross-platform apps, which usually rely on old, outdated widgets, which usually don't support tabbing around and default buttons, meaning you're reaching for the mouse a lot. MoneyGuru uses native widgets and has a lot of keyboard shortcuts, so I can happily work with just the keyboard — the mouse is fine for many jobs, but it has no place in data entry!

Developer Support — One thing that always attracts me towards software is when developers have bug/issue trackers and regular involvement in them. I like giving feedback to developers, and do so on pretty much every application I use regularly (usually, and preferably, by participating in online issue-trackers). Some developers love it and have quickly sent back beta versions for testing, some tell me the bug-fix or feature request is already on their list of things to do (and years later remains undone), some just ignore it (who knows if they've even read it, I usually assume they've given up on the project). So seeing the developer active and responsive on the moneyGuru issue tracker is a great sign for me, and better yet, visibly accepting/rejecting feature suggestions, bug fixes, etc. There's also active support forums for getting help.

Features — Well it does everything I need, and just about everything I want. I can track my accounts, both savings and debts, as well as the cash in my wallet or under the mattress, and can categorise income and expenses very easily. It also lets me import data directly from CSV, QIF and QFX files downloaded from my financial institutions, which means data entry is only really necessary for cash expenses. I won't explain how it all works, as there's a decent manual to do that.

The budget system is usable, though designed for future expenses rather than for checking whether you kept to your budget or not (however an overhaul of the budget system is apparently on the way). There's some pretty graphs for displaying financial history or current status if that makes more sense to you than just numbers. And you can easily look at specific date ranges (months/quarters/years/financial years/custom ranges) to make comparisons between them (though direct graphical comparisons would be a nice feature, also apparently on the way).

  • Compared to iBank, moneyGuru isn't quite as pretty, the graphs are less extensive/customisable, it doesn't sync with your iPhone and it doesn't handle your shares/stocks. Then again, I didn't pay for those features. Also moneyGuru can run on Windows/Linux, so if sharing financial info is important, that may be too. I'd probably get iBank if I could justify the cost.
  • Compared to Quicken/MYOB, moneyGuru lacks a lot of professional accounting features, but as before, you don't need to pay for them if you don't need them. If I was a professional accountant, or running my own business, I'd be using professional financial software.
  • Compared to GNU Cash, moneyGuru is much prettier and simpler to work with. For my money, there's a lot to be said about a really usable and sensible UI, and moneyGuru is one of the few cross-platform applications that manages to still seem Mac-like despite its compatibility.
Summary — If you don't have a complex financial situation, but want to track your finances and budget, then moneyGuru is a very usable solution with a fair price. Complex finances, business owners and professional accountants are going to need something more advanced, and if money's not an issue then iBank is a little prettier and has a few more features.

Finally, in case it needs to be stated, I am not in any way connected to the developers/projects in this post, other than through bug-reports, feature requests and buying/trialling their software.