Can a $279 camcorder perform? a Sony HDR-CX330 Review

I’ll just come out and say it: the Sony HDR-CX330 is a great home video camera. It’s not great at everything but for it’s intended target which is the casual home movie maker, it excels abundantly. And at a great price to match which heaps on value.

My tenure with the CX330 began this Christmas with a dilemma. I shoot and do professional videography work for clients on digital SLR camera bodies and I love the flexibility and creativity that an SLR can provide. But it occured to me as I began the time-consuming process of importing all our family’s decaying VHS tapes into DV-formatted files that at present, I truly lack the ability to casually film holidays and family get-togethers, and this mostly can be pinpointed on the fact that I haven’t had a workable consumer camcorder in quite some time.

There is something to be said about picking up a handheld video camera, pressing record and just filming. I am very grateful that my parents not only bought a camcorder early on in my life, but took the time and effort to document all these wonderful moments from my childhood. A dSLR can’t do that. A dSLR requires precision and creative authority and sometimes, I just want to record memories rather than a feature film.

So I ended up at Best Buy, initially drawn to the basement-bottom price of the Sony HDR-CX230 on sale for $129. $129! For a Sony camcorder?! It seemed too good to be true (which it was) and so I was easily swayed up-market to the more expensive CX330 at $279, on-sale from $379. Now mind you, my expectations were undeniably in a different realm from that of the footage a dSLR produces and my budget really was in the sub-$400 range anyways. To me, any home video camera that can produce as good if not better footage compared to the standard-definition Hi8 and VHS tapes of my parent’s past recorders is progression especially considering I don’t even have the capability to record casually anyways.

DSC_5514

So I bought the CX330 and was immediately charmed by it. It’s very easy to operate, it’s absolutely light-weight and has a superb optical SteadyShot image stabilization system much to the chagrin of my shaky palm. The last camcorder my parents bought didn’t even have the optical option for stabilization and it cost $700 at the time (c. 2000). Some praise-worthy points worth mentioning are it’s fantastically wide-angle zoom lens that really lets you both pull far out of the shot and almost instantly deep back into it. I don’t think I’ve experienced a camcorder with such a range before, especially at the wide end. The super wide-angle makes getting great shots of a tight room possible which is very important for home movie shooters confined to small living spaces. However, the cost of such wideness is some barrel distortion at the right and left edges of the frame. Noticeable, but not distracting.

Over the Christmas holiday my parents and I took a walk on the farm with our family dog Champ and I toted along the CX330 for a good chance to see it perform in bright lighting (see below for clips from this journey). Much to my surprise, I’ve found that the best out-of-the-camera footage can be had while employing the “Toy Normal” filter. Normally I shun software filters in-camera which tend to make working with footage more difficult in post, in particular the abbreviated dynamic range and color gamut. However, the Toy Normal filter actually corrects much of the worst qualities of this camera’s sensor, namely the oft undersaturated image which tends to lean cold on the kelvin scale and it’s tendency to blow out highlights. The filter properly corrects both these quarrels, adding a bit of warmth, dialing down the exposure, adding a slight vignette (hardly noticeable), elevating color saturation that is consistent but not too saturated, and even correcting garish CFL and florescent lighting. My dad commented on watching the clips how wonderfully saturated all the colors were, in particular the sky, no doubt due to the slight underexposure of the highlights and introduced vignetting.

Watching our little walk in 60 frames per second was kind of a revelation for me. For years I’ve been enamored with the golden-standard of film which is 24 frames per second however, I can now see how much better a movie can be when it’s frame rate is essentially doubled. Every little detail is amazingly rendered in high-detail which seems more relaxing to the eye to rewatch. At least for home movies, having the increased frame rate makes the memories almost seem surreal. It’s something I didn’t expect to enjoy as much as I am and it’s modified my thinking for my professional work that perhaps higher-frame rate capturing should be considered, if only to then use the greater detail of the 60fps master files to resample down to 24.

That said, I do wish there was the option to turn the framerate down to 30fps or 24. Unfortunately the CX330 is stuck on 60 frames for all image and quality modes, which I believe may be part of the reason why low-light video is so grainy: with a high shutter speed and low-light, the sensor must compensate and increase it’s ISO-equivalent sensitivity. If the camera were to shoot at 30fps instead of 60, necessary ISO for any given situation would be a whole stop less, at least in theory, lessening the noise in low-light. So say the CX330’s lens is at f2.8 in a dimly lit living room, at 60fps the ISO might find itself around 3200 which for almost all cameras is a very noisy ISO-rating. If the camera would let the shutter fall to 30, that ISO would be cut in-half, a 50% reduction in noise to ISO 1600. I would gladly forgo frame rate for the ability to lessen obtuse noise in this camera’s upper-end of the ISO range. If I could find a firmware hack to do this, I most certainly would apply it. Until then, the noise will need to be simply dealt with.

I make this noise problem sound far worst that it really is. Noise in this camera is not at all distracting unless the lighting is very dim in the scene. Again, look at the target market and for that, it’s a great performer. Comparatively, my past SD video cameras all exhibited similar noise levels. The CX330 is however shooting in HD which means you can actually see the noise more clearly than would be possible with a lesser-resolution shooter. Also the small, pixel-packed sensor is inherently going to produce noisy video and perhaps thats a bad thing, but what you loose in noise you gain in overall resolution which is certainly welcome. Sensors have come a long way indeed. At the bottom of this post I’ve included some demo videos exhibiting noise levels of this camera in-doors to give you a better understanding of what to expect.

DSC_5516

Housing the sensor is a very elegant and simple body with little in the way of buttons and switches. Sony has clearly refined this Handycam formula into a very streamlined and focused device. There is a large record button, a lens open/close switch, zoom toggle, dedicated photo button, menu toggle stick, and playback button. Everything thing else is tucked away in the menus, for better or worst. I tend to enjoy this marked simplicity, especially for the consumer space. I don’t think my Grand Mother would have any trouble using this camera, which is a very good thing. Also of note, is the absence of a power button. Sony completely did away with it, instead coupling power-on/off functionality with opening the LCD display. It really is quite elegant. No need to worry about the device being switched on or off, just open it up and start recording. The only downside of this design choice is the camera wants to turn on every time I go to remove the memory card from it’s slot located on the inner wall of the camera body covered by the LCD. It’s a minor inconvenience compared to the ability to effortlessly power-on, run and gun. It’s also worth noting how fast this camera is at coming from standby to record. I estimate about 1-1.5 seconds.

The included Sony FV50 980mAh battery provides about 2.5 hours of shooting time on a charge. It’s adequate and doesn’t weight down the camera too much. Luckily for really long shoots, Sony offers their (pricy!) FV100 battery with a claimed 12 hours of record time. For me, I like the discrete size and weight of the FV50 so I bought a second one to charge while I’m using the other. This is where I have my biggest gripe with the way Sony designed the CX330: the battery charging system is integrated into the camera so when you want to charge one battery, the camera must stay put until it’s done charging. With no included external charger, this design is entirely frustrating. I ended up buying a cheap charger from B&H to solve this problem but it’s very clear this is where Sony decided to cut-costs. I get it, most people won’t have two or more batteries but for those that do, Sony really ought to have included the external charger or at least make clear on the packaging that an external charger is not included.

Beyond this gripe, the charging plug is cleverly built-in to the hand strap and also works double-duty as a USB data transport for camera footage to and from your computer. When I first opened the box I was concerned that something was missing as I didn’t seem to have the ability to charge the camera. But I soon found the hidden plug in the strap and it’s impressively simple.

Because of it’s lack of heft, holding the CX330 is surprisingly comfortable almost on the verge of being too lightweight. I found I never use the hand strap, rather I tend to hold the camera with my fingers and palm. It’s very ergonomic this way and surprisingly agile. The size of this thing lends greatly not only to it’s portability but also to it’s discretion in filming. People tend not to immediately see it which makes recording tender family moments all the more magical and spontaneous.

The CX330 has been a delight to use for home movies this holiday season. I am glad I acquired it. At $279 it was definitely a bargain, even it’s original price of $379 is not terribly expensive for a camera that works this well for it’s intended purpose. Don’t expect dSLR results and you will be very happy with it. It’s light, fast to record, smartly designed, and just gets out of the way so you can record great memories.

Pros:

Super wide-angle fast f1.8 lens
Feather-light weight
28mbit PS 1080/60p h.264 AVCHD recording
Near instant power-on to record time
60 frames per second recording
Discrete size
Good battery life
Sleek, uncomplicated body
Powers-on when you open the LCD
Smartly disguised USB cable in hand strap

Cons:

No external battery charger
Considerable noise in low-light
Can not alter frame rate from 60
Handles CFL light poorly

This video of our hike on the farm demonstrates the CX330’s daylight sensor capability as well as it’s long-range zoom and optical SteadyShot. I had the Toy Normal picture filter on for these clips but did not color-correct or alter the video in any other way outside of transcoding the edit back into 28Mbit h264 for the web. Audio was transcoded into AAC 160kbit Stereo from the original track. 724MB


Download the video file instead, 724MB

Sample indoor CFL lighting noise clip, no picture mode
Unmodified, no transcode; raw capture MTS file direct from camera
Picture Mode Off
Size: 200MB
Length: 1 minute
Download: CX330-no-picture-filter-PS-28mbit-raw-capture.MTS

Sample indoor CFL lighting noise clip, Toy Normal picture mode enabled
Unmodified, no transcode; raw capture MTS file direct from camera
Picture Mode Toy Normal
Size: 200MB
Length: 1 minute
Download: CX330-toy-normal-picture-filter-PS-28mbit-raw-capture.MTS

Chrome OS by design

chrome-lettered

Earlier this year I published a fairly glowing review of my HP Chromebook 14. While the article was lengthy, I chose to focus mainly on the hardware of the device and leave a more exhaustive exploration of it’s Google-bred operating system, Chrome OS, to another post. Since that time I have used the HP mostly as a quick-reference device while watching TV. It otherwise receives little attention outside of being a large matte-white paperweight on my bedroom dresser. However, as fate would have it I had to take my MacBook to the Apple Store for repair last week and thus needed a temporary computer to use for my day-to-day duties at the office. In lieu of not having a spare Mac for the task, I decided to give my Chromebook a try to see if it could do what was needed. Much to my surprise it has exceeded all expectations and proven how versatile and powerful Chrome OS has become as a desktop operating system, even on cheap commodity hardware like the HP 14. Because of this, I’m publishing a 2-part series focusing on two elements of Chrome OS that are worth pouring over: OS design and Applications. Today I will be focusing on the design of Chrome OS as an operating system, how well it functions and how it looks/feels aesthetically and intrinsically.

“Google has envisioned a world where
everything is the web”

In terms of what desktop computing can or ought to be, Chrome OS has been built to be a very pragmatic example, melding past paradigms with future vision. Where Microsoft so keenly missed the mark with a scattered and jarring Windows 8, Google has created quite the unique operating system that is built not on previous ideas of what an OS should be, but on what people mostly do with their computers: browse the web, in some form or fashion. But it’s far more than just webpages. Google has envisioned a world where everything is the web and brilliantly displays this vision in Chrome OS.

Chrome OS is extremely visually clean. From just an aesthetic point of view, the OS is near-transparent with nothing too severe, everything buttery smooth, and a color palette and overall texture that’s entirely Google. I love how the interface pops into view quickly but then fades away without distracting ornament. There is a truth in the minimal nature of the design that is original yet staid, a careful attention to never letting the user “feel” like the computer is bogging down which is a mastery considering the underpowered hardware. There is great emphasis put on Chrome OS that it’s not monolithic or heavy like OSes of the past, that this indeed is something new emerging from decades of stale ideas; a Venus birthed of the dark, deep sea.

Screenshot 2014-10-15 at 11.47.32 AM

Starting with the basics, Chrome OS does not try to ditch the all-too-familiar desktop paradigm that everyone knows. There are lovely and diverse wallpapers to decorate with, but the desktop in Chrome has been relegated to just a pretty background. It’s not a place to save files, nor is it spot for shortcut icons: it’s just a background for your apps and functions beautifully at that. Related, the filesystem has also been trimmed down to basics. Where coming from other systems a user might baulk at the over-simplification of something so necessary as file and folder management, Chrome deliberately melds old with new in a way that’s not scary or overly new. When Apple introduced the now old version of iCloud file storage, they forced everyone to abandon the idea of a traditional filesystem, and there was much dismay and backlash against it. Google understood these grievances and has wisely designed a very familiar traditional filesystem style for it’s operating system.

“a Venus birthed of the dark, deep sea”

The file system on Chrome OS essentially gives you two places to store data: a catch-all Downloads folder residing on the internal SSD and of course, Google Drive. That’s it. Managing files this way is quite liberating with Google Drive holding a majority of what you would normally “save” and that data being instantly accessible to any other Google Drive-connected device. This paradigm makes filesystem management utterly transparent and universal across devices.

I still am getting used to the idea of applications being merely “webpages” wrapped in tabs at the top of the screen as for years tabbed browsing on other platforms meant something less permanent than opening Photoshop for example. However, in terms of organizing and understanding what is open and running, the tabs do function rather well, grouping everything in a common location much like the task bar used to do in Windows XP of which I was always rather fond of. Mac OS X groups application windows under singular icons displayed in the Dock which tends to prevent the user from jumping instantly to a particular window but this style does look less cluttered and more relaxed than a task bar full of tabs. Chrome OS seems to have nodded at both as it exhibits a hybrid design: open applications display an icon in the “Shelf” with a simple white line underneath letting the user know its running while most app “windows” are contained inside a tab in the browser. This dualistic nature of both icon and tab seems to have been born out of necessity due to the nature of some Chrome apps existing in tabs and others in windows.

This is also where I believe Chrome OS becomes slightly misaligned. While some applications run in a traditional tabbed browser format, others can run in a floating window disconnected from the main “flow” of open tabs Because all Chrome apps appear and feel similar, I’ve found I must always remain conscious of what style of windowing a particular application is using before jumping back and forth between them. While minor, I would have liked a more universal approach to the interface. This problem is most visible with some of Google’s own applications. For example, Google Drive has it’s own icon in the Shelf but when clicked, it appears in a browser tab in the Chrome browser window. Google+ Photos app however opens up in its own floating window independent from the Chrome browser. Both Drive and Photos have their own icons in the Shelf but each operates in a different way: Drive appears to be tied to Chrome the browser but Photos appears to be an independent application. Technically speaking, both are just HTML5 webpages but it’s this quirky difference in interface design that slightly jars the user and adds a bit of mental separation that certain things are traditional webpages and others are “real” applications. In my opinion, if Google wants to merge the traditional web with the new, it’s going to need to address this with it’s own applications first.

Chrome OS has been built to meld past
paradigms with future vision

The rest of the interface is an exercise in restraint and good functionality. I much enjoy the app menu with it’s clean white 4×4 grid of app icons and Google search bar at the top that enables Google Now voice search whenever the menu is in the foreground. The Shelf geniusly fades to nothing when the desktop is revealed but becomes completely opaque when a window is maximized so as to not distract with a dimmed or jarring desktop showing on only part of the screen. On the right-hand corner is the utility tray that displays the picture of the logged in user along with the time, battery and wifi icons. When clicked it reveals another white memu with common settings and widgets like shutdown, volume control, and bluetooth. Some settings are controlled in-menu while others launch a familiar Chrome settings tab in-browser. Placement of the various system settings is unambiguous and easy to understand, something Windows could learn a thing or two about. Google Now notifications also appear in this area of the Shelf with a simple number enclosed inside a semi-opaque square alerting you to how many notifications are waiting. They open above it as cards that can be dismissed, much like they do on Android or the iOS Google Now apps.

Chrome OS Menu 2

On my particular Chromebook, the trackpad uses three-finger swipes to allow fast switching between open tabs which I am becoming very fond of. I can only hope that Google enables more gesture controls like OS X does. The login screen is very direct, showing the picture of the user while prompting for credentials to login. The whole system is geared towards getting out of your way quickly. Startup is in less than 5 seconds from shutdown, updates are prompted when available by a small icon on the Shelf but never force you to restart at any particular time, only when you’re ready. They also apply without any interaction. It should be mentioned that restarting and shutting down is almost akin to sleeping as everything essentially remains the same as you left it. A brilliant feat indeed.

In close on the design, it really should be noted that Google has achieved something remarkable with Chrome as an ecosystem and it’s that no matter what kind of computer you use be it Windows, Mac or Chrome OS, if you are using Chrome then the experience is going to be markedly identical. Chrome OS by design has been built from the ground up to make the web instantly accessible, instantly secure and dramatically uniform across the entire OS. No other operating system today is as tightly integrated with the web than Chrome and it’s really a remarkable system to behold in-action. It alters the concept of what an application can be, what the web ultimately is and how the future will look with everything moving to the cloud.

(As an aside, all the images on this post were both created and manipulated solely on Chrome OS using Chrome apps.)

Doesn’t everyone want their parents dead? ‘Prometheus’ and origins

Prometheus

My first fully visceral experience with the fantastically imagined Alien franchise was 1986’s “Aliens” as watched on my tiny 12″ iBook G4’s display back in 2003. Before this I had seen bits and pieces of the film on television, but never in it’s uninterrupted entirety . I can still taste the texture of that first experience, feel the coolness of that night air, the thrill and adventure and horror captured so expertly in those dark corridors of LV-426. That film introduced me to the series and engendered a real sense of connection with it’s mythos albeit at the time, only with it’s most outer shell of science fiction thrill and mystery. If any themes presented themselves, I was mostly unaware of them.

“somehow faith still held firm and even offered a superior avenue toward understanding the universe”

Fast forward to 2012 and Ridley Scott’s return to the franchise he helped create with Prometheus, a spectacle full of dreary scifi landscapes and a decided shift away from mere horror and fantasy to a film that seeks to resolve the most fundamental (and yet unanswered) questions of humanity’s origins. Upon my first encounter with the film in theaters June 2012, the question of religious faith particularly Christianity playing a prominent yet juxtaposed role against a science fiction setting seemed at the to,e to be the most notable theme woven throughout the tale. The idea intrigued me that instead of science supplanting religious faith, somehow faith still held firm in such a advanced yet desolate environment and even offered a superior avenue toward understanding the universe that empirical scientific inquiry couldn’t surmount.

On my second viewing however, more dimensional themes emerged to my consciousness. No longer was I entirely impressed with the religious and mythological references, instead this idea of creation usurping creator, that the young should inherit or perhaps even topple the old was surprisingly apparent and richly explored. “That is the natural order of things,” Charlize Theron’s character states to her soon to be dead father, Peter Weyland, from whom she will inherit a vast corporate empire. Her thesis rings true to many of the supposed parent-child relationships throughout the film. David the android, played by Michael Fassbender, at once seems bent on the destruction of his human companions but is also serving his own human father’s interests. His true feelings towards Peter Weyland become apparent later on when he remarks to Dr. Shay “Doesn’t everyone want their parents dead?” with the tonality of malice consequence. David, like most of Ridley Scott’s film exploration of androids, seems caught between being human in appearance and mannerisms, yet feeling largely indifferent to or even hostile toward them and their quest for understanding origins. To David, his creators are all around him and his fount needs no more explanation. Later in the film however, this doesn’t necessarily hold true as David’s own intrigue towards the Engineers seems to surpass even Peter Weyland’s intended programming.

“humanity will one day rise up and destroy them”

As for the Engineers, it is pivotal to this concept of creation-usurping that perhaps their need to destroy their creation is that very fear of Prometheus bringing fire to humanity: that humanity will one day rise up and destroy them, the gods; the creators. When the Engineer encounters David, his body language at first seems to indicate a kindredness with humanity’s ultimate achievement in creating their own beings. However, this idea is short lived when the Engineer reasserts his superiority, perhaps even disgusted in a uncanny valley sort of way, by decapitating the android and subsequently, sets in motion a chain of events that will ultimately lead to the extermination of humanity on earth. Perhaps it was the intention all along that when their creations devised adequate technology and resources to reach the prescribed location in space of what was thought to be that race’s origin, they would inevitably awaken the sleeping Engineers and inaugurate their own planet’s destruction. A sinister irony it is that at the very moment when their creations had reached comparable levels of sophistication and were reaching out to their maker for understanding, they now posed such a threat to the makers in the cosmos that they must be snuffed out.

Prometheus-David

Theories on the fictional universe aside, it is remarkable what a bridge this connection is with explaining the origins and bizarre nature of the xenomorph from the Alien series. It is implied that not only are the Engineers responsible for human life, but they are also responsible for the vile biological weapon that indeed, it seems, the Alien creatures are intended to be. In this, the Engineers are vastly more powerful than initially understood, with their absolute omnipotence and firm control on the cosmos fully revealed. The power to both create and destroy is indeed the ultimate nature of a god, one that humanity in the film is quickly achieving on it’s own. Peter Weyland even admits it here. However, even the measure and sophistication of Weyland pales in comparison to the Engineer’s prowess. Considering their genius in design, it seems plausible as an explanation as to why the alien creatures in the Alien series are so bent on destroying humanity. Is it some primal instinct of a savage animal, or is it an engineered compulsion towards specifically eradicating humanity, programmed genetically by the very same Engineers who made humanity in the first place? Tantalizing questions, yet all still unanswered.

“Must there be hostility towards
one’s own foundation?”

So what are we to make of all of this? Is it indeed the nature of the child to supplant the parent? Must there be hostility towards one’s own foundation or, should we be more like Dr. Shay, seeking to understand our beginnings and not be afraid to explore the possibility of origin and meaning? Elizabeth Shay loved her father and never desired to live outside of his shadow and influence. He symbolized a kindred need for one’s parents, one’s creator, which shaped her life’s purpose and drive to answer the question of human origin. David too loved his father but at the same time, understood the necessity to break away from him, that somehow David could not be free to live while his own parent was alive. Perhaps in the fiction this is a universal truth, that the Engineers must fear their creation and indeed destroy them if necessary to uphold their god-like status. Perhaps the nature of the universe is hostility towards the old, that the new must usurp, that it is the “natural order” which the Engineers must fight against. If the film makes anything clear, it’s that the desire to truly understand and come to terms with one’s own origins is held only by a minority, the rest of the universe seems hostile to this end, and perhaps it’s engineered that way.

Hacking the Mac: running OS X Mavericks on a Dell XPS 8700

Apple's OS X is the operating system that has dominated my computing life for over 12 years now. It's so engrained in my personal culture that I just couldn't imagine working on computers without it. Every time I've tried to use Windows as my primary OS it's failed to engender that same feeling of permanence or offer superior utility in my workflows compared to X. I am keenly a Mac guy on the desktop and am completely satisfied with that however, an ideologue I most certainly am not as I do own and maintain a variety of Windows machines as well as deploy Windows Server installations in enterprise settings. The PC is markedly different not just in terms of operating system but also in the ideology of it's hardware. As an open platform, x86-based PCs come in a multitude of shapes, sizes, specs and so on with every component built to be uniformly swapped out and upgraded. It's the beauty of the PC to be flexible with it's hardware which I've always admired. The Mac's strength however, lies in it's tight homogenization of software and hardware all from one company with the same culture. It's a model that has worked marvelously for Apple, both on the desktop and more recently in mobile with the iPhone and iPad. But this is also where I find myself being most at-odds with Apple as well. I'm a computer guy and I like to have as much control as possible with my hardware. Last week, I was researching upgrading the SSD in my MacBook Pro 13" Retina and discovered that Apple is using a proprietary connector, of which only Apple or OWC supply SSDs for. This floored me because the connector is almost identical to mSATA which is a widely used connection bus for slim SSDs. This was sort of the "last straw" for me. Don't get me wrong, I love my Retina MacBook and Apple but clearly, more and more Apple is building throw-away computers that are so entirely limited in their upgrades that it feels like I'm getting a bum wrap.

My last MacBook previous to the Retina has a Late-2008 13" Aluminum Unibody MacBook (before it was the Pro) and I performed all sorts of upgrades to it over my ownership. Hard Disks, Memory upgrades, keyboard, finally an SSD right before I sold it. The thing was such a great machine for upgrades and my previous MacBooks (and PowerBooks as well) also offered some serious tinker-ability. The new Retina line? Not so much. And I get it, most of the system is tightly integrated and hardwired to be as energy efficient as possible and to make room for larger batteries. Just the only cost here is the inability to upgrade pretty much anything and that is most sad.

All of this to preface the point of this article which is my willful subversion of Apple's woeful tactics to prevent us from running OS X on non-Apple hardware for use in a production environment. It is indeed very possible, and even with a pre-built Dell system which I didn't think would work quite as good as it has until it all came together this weekend.

I picked up my Dell XPS 8700 at Sam's Club of all places, just the tower with keyboard and mouse. A very sparse package but that's all I needed and it had the specs I was looking for, namely a 4th generation Intel Haswell Core i7 4790 quad-core CPU.

Specs:

4th Generation Intel "Haswell" Core i7 4790 @ 3.6GHz
Intel Z87 Chipset
12GB PC3-12800 1600MHz DDR3 Memory (2x4GB, 2x2GB)
1TB Toshiba Mechanical Hard Disk Drive
NVidia Geforce 720 graphics card 2GB

It's a pretty well spec'd machine for an off the shelf system. Unfortunately the processor is the not of the K-series variety which means it's locked in at 3.6GHz with a turbo-boost up to 4GHz. (Intel 4790 specification page) However, in benchmarks this system screams and while the idea of overclocking is tantalizing, a stable and quiet system is more in-tune with my intentions. Being that the chipset is an 8-series Intel Z87, it's an ideal base system for attempting to run OS X as this chipset is natively-supported by Apple.

Upgrades: I replaced the dinky Geforce 720 with a EVGA Geforce GTX 660 2GB right off the bat since I wasn't sure if Apple's drivers would support the 720. I knew the 660 was supported so I eliminated a potential headache before it could be a problem. I have become quite spoiled on SSDs so my boot volume had to be one, of which I installed an Intel 530 series 240GB SSD on the SATA bus but kept the original Toshiba hard disk with Windows installed incase I needed to boot into it. I also installed a spare 1TB Seagate I had laying around for additional internal storage. I ordered this IOGear Bluetooth module since the built-in module is incompatible with OS X and I love me a Magic Trackpad so that became a necessity 🙂 UPDATE: I installed 2x8GB Crucial PC3-12800 DDR3 RAM modules to bring the machine to a total of 24GBs of RAM. I installed another Intel 530 series SSD, this one 180GBs, to be my Windows boot volume and then repurposed the Toshiba as spare storage in OS X. I've also removed the older Seagate, copying it's data to the Toshiba. Also, the IOGear Bluetooth module does not function reliably in OS X so I can not recommend it if you want Bluetooth in this machine.

My journey to running OS X on non-Apple hardware began with the help of the folks over at tonymacx86.com who have developed some really awesome tools for getting an unmodified version of OS X up and running very quickly without having to be an expert. They have entire pages published monthly on which hardware would be the best for building a PC to run X and give you links to each component on Newegg for purchasing, really great stuff! Most of their efforts are to support custom-built machines around Gigabyte motherboards but that's not to say their methods won't work on non-Gigabyte branded platforms, it's just they've had the most success with their boards. However, as I have found first-hand, if the chipset of the board is natively supported by OS X then the process shouldn't differ too much even if the board isn't a Gigabyte.

So back to my Dell. When I bought it, I fully was aware that it would be a challenge, and for this long 4th of July weekend I wanted something to tinker with. My past exploits with running OS X on PC hardware have been mostly a frustration and never produced a stable system that I could use in production so going into my purchase, I knew I'd probably be exercising my 14-day return policy at Sam's. Luckily, and gladly, this was not the case.

The Process

The process begins by following tonymacx86's installation guide pretty much to the letter in creating the Unibeast installation media and putting Multibeast on that same media before booting. I also removed all but one memory module, leaving the 4GB stick in the #1 slot on the motherboard, as recommended by the install guide. Where things began to differ is when booting past the Chimera stage, the familiar gray Apple logo'd boot screen would appear for a fraction of a second then the display would go blank and the machine restarted. After trying several recommended boot flags in the guide with no success I took to the forums in search of some wisdom.

I found the answer in two places, and by melding both together I was able to get the system to boot. One was from a post on InsanelyMac by a member named slave-zero who gives links to the various kexts needed on the XPS 8700 for networking, audio, and also a patched vanilla kernel that would let you past the boot loop. The other is from a tonymacx86 forum member named Kraft2k in this post who gives some detailed instructions on boot flags and modifying Chimera with kernel flags post-installation. Essentially, all I needed to do was replace the mach_kernel on the installation USB stick with the modified version, then booted the system with the dart=0 and -x flags. This ended the loop and got me to the installer.

Post-installation, I installed Multibeast with the EasyBeast setting, also marking the correct Networking driver (RealtekRTL8111) and Audio driver (ALC898) along with Kraft2k's recommended kexts. After a good 10 minutes of Multibeast doing it's install, it finished and then I modified Chimera's kernel flags to automatically include dart=0 per Kraft2k's instructions. Upon reboot to the SSD, not the USB drive, the same booting loop error presented itself but this time it was pretty apparent what happened. The modified mach_kernel on the bootable USB stick clearly is not what gets copied over in the base installation. So, I simply removed the SSD and hooked it up to my MacBook, copied over the modified kernel and everything booted as it should. I was entirely impressed! I then replaced the rest of the RAM I had removed prior to install and it booted again without issue.

Kernel Panics & Memory

And then the kernel panics appeared. They were immediate too at the grey Apple boot screen. In the past I had experienced these kinds of immediate panics on older hardware and most of the time it had something to do with the RAM of the machine being faulty or of the wrong spec or variety. The original configuration of my 8700 came with 12GBs of DDR3-1600 in a 2x4GB and 2x2GB configuration. I considered that maybe OS X didn't like this layout of non-uniform memory modules but I wasn't going to give up too quickly on it either so I booted in to Windows to make sure the memory worked and it did. My next step was to stress test the memory for any potential errors so I downloaded and burned Memtest86+. It came up with no faults. So my final solution was to remove the 2 2GB modules from the board and reboot. Viola! Kernel panics resolved and I have not experienced even one since. I'm not entirely sure what it is about the 2 modules OS X didn't like, they are good memory, Micron branded (while the other 2 4GB modules are Samsungs) and they match the CAS ratings and voltage. A mystery for now. I have ordered 2 8GB Crucial modules from Newegg and hope the system accepts them with the Samsung modules to bring total system memory to 24GBs. I will update this post when I receive them with my final verdict.

Of note, I went to Best Buy and purchased 2 8GB PNY modules of PC3-12800 and installed them alongside the Samsungs but curiously, they ran in the system at 1333MHz instead of 1600. Even without the Samsung 4GB modules installed they still refused to run at 1600MHz. I think the incompatibility was in the CAS rating of 9 for these modules. It's a shame Dell doesn't give you the ability to manually adjust the CAS of the memory because clearly these should be able to run at the lower CAS of 11 at 1600MHz. Alas, I ended up taking them back in defeat. I hope the Crucial modules perform better, we will see.

UPDATE: The Crucial branded sticks came in and are fully compatible at the native 1600MHz speed. Installed alongside the Samsung chips brings my machine up to a cool 24GBs of RAM and everything is stable with no panics in sight. Crucial is the way to go! Best memory on the market.

Benchmarks

Benchmarking this machine was one the first things I did post-install, and indeed you will see from my published Geekbench result (screenshot to the left) that I was able to get the test performed before the 12GB of RAM thing gave me any trouble. In-fact, I actually installed Geekbench for Windows on the demo machine in Sam's Club just to gauge how powerful this machine was before I forked over the cash for it. The results are a stellar 15,289 in the Geekbench 3 64-bit multicore test suite which puts this machine directly in-line with the new 2013 Mac Pro equipped with a single quad-core Xeon E5-1620 chip (as listed here on the Mac benchmarks chart.)

Evaluating my system against the 64-bit single threaded benchmarks is even more thrilling as it appears to top the chart, besting even the most expensive Mac Pros and iMacs. I couldn't be happier considering I have a mere $1500 in my machine compared to the absurd $2999 starting price of an actual Mac Pro. And unlike that computer, I can actually upgrade and change out components with ease.

Stability So a machine can score great benchmarks but fall flat on it's face when it comes to actually performing compute tasks reliably, especially when running a hacked up OS X on non-Apple hardware. Fortunately, this machine is amazingly stable, without any evidence that it's operating on foreign hardware at all. I still can't believe that I'm able to use Photoshop, Adobe Lightroom and Final Cut Pro without any stability problems. I've even been running Boinc science applications as part of the World Community Grid for the last 2 nights and the CPU is stable as a rock with 8 threads at once processing for hours and hours. This is for all intents and purposes a bonafide Mac. If you never saw the tower under my desk, you wouldn't be able to tell the difference, it's that solid.

Drawbacks & Final Thoughts

There are few annoyances that remain unresolved with the system such as the front-panel USB ports not working, internal Bluetooth and WiFi module being incompatible and the built-in card reader also not registering. Outside of these rather small and easily rectifiable faults, the rest of the system is fully operational. As I mentioned before I purchased a USB Bluetooth module to solve that problem, I don't need WiFi since this is primarily connected to a Gigabit ethernet network, and I ordered a USB 3.0 card reader and USB hub to mitigate the annoyance of no front ports. The DVD writer appears to operate as it should, as does all the USB ports on the rear along with audio in/out. The system actually sleeps when engaged and wakes very quickly. Boot time is literally from powered off to desktop in less than 30 seconds, which in my past experience with hacked OS X installations is extremely fast. I remember one attempt afforded a good 2 minute boot time. Not this time around!

One last thing, when I upgraded OS X to 10.9.4 which was just released, the system started it's boot loop problem again. To fix this, all you need to do is copy over the patched kernel from slave-zero and it will boot as normal again.

This has been my best experience to-date of making commodity PC hardware run OS X and run it well. I can officially say I have every confidence in this Dell XPS 8700 acting as my new production workstation for RAW editing and film projects, all without having to fork over massive dollars on a new Mac or compromise with Windows. OS X, I love you! And now I can love you on the hardware of my choosing. Very glad and very excited 🙂

Chrome Weekend: HP Chromebook 14 review

It has been a weekend of new things. New ChromeBook, new Nexus 7, new Chromecast media streamer. To begin, I'd like to review the HP Chromebook 14, a laptop introduced at the end of last year that breaks with the "traditional" Chromebook formula in that it features a larger 14"-class display compared to the meager 11" and under offerings of other Chromebooks.

The HP 14 is a serious value in terms of dollars alone, costing only $299 which gives buyers up-to-date Intel Haswell silicon with enough power to champion all sorts of internet tasks, 2GB of RAM and a 16GB SSD. This is my first real experience with ChromeOS too, which I am madly falling for because it's just so simple and fast. Granted, the OS shows it's limits in some areas which I will touch on in my review of it coming soon but for those who live in the Google ecosystem, it's an amazingly attractive platform.

Hardware
Let's begin with the hardware which this machine demonstrates serious dominance in terms of quality materials and design motifs. The first thing I noticed touching the Chromebook 14 is it's grippy rubber matte shell that in my model happens to be white (coral peach and turquoise are also available). This material finish surrounds the machine so the bottom and lid appear continuous in theme which is mostly a feat for any other low-end laptop whose underbelly generally gets the most basic (read: cheap) black plastic available. The machine is clearly more hefty than my 13" MacBook Pro Retina but not unreasonably so, and it feels substantial enough and dense enough that it lends to the sense of pricey-ness which is very much a bonus.

Open up the HP Chomebook 14 and you're greeted with a very tasteful aluminum bezel enclosing a white chiclet-style keyboard customized for ChromeOS and a very high-quality trackpad. I must say typing on this keyboard has been rather pleasant, belying it's $299 price tag. In-fact, I've composed this whole post on the Chromebook with very minimal initial discomfort before settling right in. As for the trackpad, though it generally is that most Windows-based laptop trackpads are efforts in futility, HP has produced one here that I'd say rivals the best from Cupertino. While it's pinch-to-zoom multitouch features are slightly clunky, the two-finger scrolling is precise and general tracking abilities shine brightly. And the material choice feels so much like Apple's that my fingers can nigh tell the difference.

Move to the screen and clearly you will find the one area HP decided to cut a corner, but it's not as dire as I originally assumed. With 1366x768 resolution on a 14" diagonal, the screen is certainly not as pretty as the hiDPI offerings of the Retina Macbooks or a tablet like my new Nexus 7. Even the older first-generation Nexus 7 had a higher density than this display. But that all said, it doesn't seem to matter so much when you consider this machine's intended function. I think I take more offense to the color temperature and slightly-limited gaumet than pixel density on this 'book. Speaking on color temp, the display reads cold more often than neutral but seems to depict most colors accurately albeit slightly muted. The viewing angle isn't great but no where near unusable. It reminds me of the kind of display I had in my iBook G4 or black plastic MacBook (2007). Bottom line, for interacting with Google's services, working with Chrome apps, webpages, youtube videos, and whatever else you do with a Chromebook, this display is fine. And let me clarify, the pixels are not insanely large. It's a clear display that meets it's intended function. Perhaps in another year or so HP (or someone) will have a similar system with a better, more dense screen but for $300, I'm not going to be too harsh on this one.

Battery life is extremely impressive, lasting upwards of 9 hours on a charge which is nearly unheard of in this price segment. I can personally attest that I’ve been using this system for over 4 hours now with the screen at it’s brightest and I still have an estimated 4:20hrs left on the battery. Insanely great!

Other hardware details: white power and charging LEDs on either side of the machine, 2 USB 3.0 ports, 1 USB 2.0, HDMI out, SD card slot, a Kensington lock port, 802.11n Wifi and bluetooth. The fan tends to run all the time but it's whisper quiet and I haven't heard it spin faster at all yet. The screen hinge feels very sturdy while opening and closing, with firm weighted heft. The overall size is just moderately larger than my 13” MacBook and it’s pleasingly thin too. The attention to thematic design motifs is also striking, for example the curvature of the machine's outer corners and the scale of the rounded corners of the keyboard are pleasantly synchronous. Also the use of flat white (or flat colors in the other models) echos Google's services of late. It's very much aesthetically Google and it's these little details that make this Chromebook a joy to behold, and gives me hope that Google can inspire good industrial design even with it's Chromebook hardware partners in the future.

Chrome OS
The centerpiece of the HP Chromebook 14 is Google's proprietary Chrome OS. I'll get more into Chrome OS's impressions and features in a latter post but for the most part, this HP runs Chrome extremely fast with very little in terms of lag anywhere in the interface. Youtube videos display well even at 1080p, beyond the density of the display as expected. Windows snap up and minimize smoothly, the expose-like feature for showing all open windows scales in and out without dropping frames, and scrolling is remarkably smooth on most heavy webpages I've visited. Even some amazing Chrome experitments like this one run so smooth. One downer I've discovered is the Chromecast streaming app won't let the machine stream 1080p content to a TV, limiting it to 720p. I find this odd considering the Nexus 7 can handle 1080p streaming and it's a tablet. I suspect this might be more a software-constraint than a hardware one. Regardless, from a hardware perspective, this is all you could ever want in a Chromebook and right now it's THE Chromebook you should spend your dollars and cents on.

Final impressions In the past, purchasing an auxiliary laptop has always come with some buyers remorse mostly because my MacBook is my primary computer and it's just more of a hassle to maintain two systems when I really only need one. The Chromebook however, seems to fill a void I didn't know I had. I am a big believer in Google's services and regularly use them everyday including the Chrome browser. The way that Chrome OS is so tightly integrated with all of Google makes it a lot less of a secondary computer and more of an alternative interface into the Google ecosystem that's both instantly familiar and focused. The HP 14 makes this all more accessible by paring Chrome OS with a decent Intel Haswell chip, a big enough screen, and a stellar battery all wrapped up in a lovely machine. It's not a compromised computer and for $300, I have no regrets.