The Quest for the Perfect Media Player – or, Why I Love my Apple TV

I’ve long struggled to find the perfect media device for my home – something that can bring together the vast collection of digital media that I have saved mainly on my desktop computer.

For a while, I thought Microsoft’s Windows Media Center Extender idea was going to be the answer. So I bought one (made by Linksys) and tried to use it.

Linksys Windows Media Center Extender

In the end, the Media Center Extender was… just OK. It was a little rough around the edges when used with Windows XP Media Center (the OS it was originally made for), but it got a lot better in Vista and Windows 7.

Still, this little device could only play media that my desktop computer knew about and had saved locally. It couldn’t play YouTube videos (or any other kind of on-line video, such as Netflix or Hulu), and it couldn’t play music I’d purchased through iTunes. It wouldn’t work at all if my PC was turned off, and it had difficulties with certain types of files – sometimes crashing the entire device, or even the Media Center service on my PC!

The final nail in the coffin for this little device though was that Microsoft eventually abandoned the idea, and manufacturers stopped making and supporting them.

It was around this time that I started looking for an alternative. For a long time I thought my only option would be to buy a very small slim PC and just hook that straight up to the TV – but I really didn’t like this idea, for a number of reasons.

As it would be a fully-fledged Windows PC, it would have all the problems of a Windows PC – needing to reboot for updates, needing to have a keyboard and mouse around, driver issues, etc.

Also, it would be rather expensive to buy an entirely new PC just to play back media – after all, the media itself would be stored on a different computer.

I briefly toyed with the idea of using an XBox or XBox 360 to do the same thing – after all, they function as Media Center Extenders as well – but buying a game console just to play back media seemed rather silly to me.

Eventually I narrowed it down to some sort of stand-alone device, specifically, a Roku or an Apple TV.

I decided to try the Roku first, as it was the (slightly) less expensive option – I got a refurbished one for just $75.

Roku 2 XD

The Roku was a neat little device, but I quickly found that it was not going to do what I wanted:

  • It had absolutely NO provision for streaming media from a local source (e.g., my computer), something that was infuriatingly difficult to determine from the online information (it was never made clear if it could or couldn’t).
  • The UI for the device was a bit clunky, sharing that sort of slowness/lagging that the Windows Media Center Extender had – you’d press a button, and there’d be a slight delay before anything happened (especially noticeable if you tried to pause a movie).
  • The remote was a special non-infrared device unique to the Roku, which means I could not use my universal remote with it.

In the end, I returned the Roku after just one day.

At this point, I wondered if I’d ever find something that could do what I wanted, and I seriously expected I’d have to buy a computer just to hook up to my TV. So it was with some trepidation that I walked into my local Apple store and bought an Apple TV (the 3rd generation model).

Apple TV with remote

As with the Roku (and other similar devices), you just plug it into the power and into your TV (and, optionally, into your network – although it has wireless built-in) and you’re good to go.

Right away, I was very pleased with what I saw. If there is one thing Apple knows how to do, it’s design a simple, elegant, useable user interface – and the Apple TV is no exception.

The remote is a bit hard to get used to, as it looks like the scroll wheel from an iPod nano, but it isn’t – it’s just a 4 way controller – but this was a moot point for me, as the Apple TV works beautifully with my universal remote.

The Apple TV does exactly what I wanted it to do – it can play remote media, such as YouTube, Netflix, Hulu, or Flickr, and it can also play music, movies, and pictures from my local computer – all in full 1080p HD quality. And all this for just $99 – what a deal!

Of course that’s not to say the Apple TV doesn’t have its downsides – because it certainly does – but they are at least much more bearable than the downsides of the other options.

The biggest downside (at least for me) with the Apple TV is that in order to stream media from a local PC, you have to use iTunes – that is, you have to leave iTunes open on your computer all the time (or, whenever you want to be able to stream media to your Apple TV). And sometimes, even if iTunes is open, the Apple TV won’t connect to it.

On top of that, iTunes is very picky about what types of files it will play, especially when it comes to videos. If you’re a Windows user and you have a lot of AVI files (as I do), be prepared to have to re-encode all of your videos into MP4 format, because iTunes (and the Apple TV) pretty much will not play anything else.

Also, iTunes is… not that great about letting you organize videos (not surprising, as it was originally designed as a music program, not a video program). It can be done, but it’s slow and awkward – pretty much par for the course when it comes to iTunes, though.

That said, the Apple TV is a nice little media device, and it also has a few neat tricks up its sleeve – for example, if you turn on AirPlay, you can use your Apple TV as a remote set of speakers, so you can stream something from iTunes or your iPod Touch/iPhone directly to your Apple TV. Since I hooked up my home stereo (via optical cable) to the Apple TV, this means I can now fulfill part of my childhood dream to have music playing throughout my home.

You can also use “AirPlay Mirroring” to mirror your iPhone’s screen to your TV through the Apple TV – although you do need to be using at least an iPhone 4S for this to work, otherwise you’ll only be able to display some things (videos and photos). If you have a Mac and the latest version of OS X, you can use this to make your TV a remote second monitor – which is a pretty neat trick, if you ask me! (Sadly, there is no ability to do this from Linux or Windows, although for Windows there is a 3rd party program that can kind-of make it work, although there is some very serious lag to the display.)

Still, of all the media playback devices I’ve found and tried, the Apple TV is the best balance of function, form, and price… so much so that after a few months with it, I went out and bought a 2nd one for my bedroom TV!

These days, every new TV or DVD (sorry, Blu-Ray) player seems to have some sort of media playback options built in – but oftentimes these are afterthoughts, poorly executed and with horrible UI that is never updated or improved. The Apple TV, at least, is purpose-built for what it does, and has a typically Apple-ish polished UI that actually is updated (and even if it isn’t, it’s so well done to begin with – it’s like the iPod; if you get the basics right the first time, you don’t need to keep “fixing” it).

The Apple TV’s combination of (almost) perfect function, small size, good UI, and low price, make it the perfect choice for home entertainment – or, at least they do for me, anyway. If you’re looking for a media device, you might want to give the Apple TV a try… you might just be surprised.

A Second Look at Windows 8

Not too long ago I took the final RTM (release to manufacturing) edition of Windows 8 for a spin and shared my thoughts about it. Well, just the other day I took the plunge, ensured my backup was up-to-date, popped the DVD in and upgraded my computer. (Yes, upgraded – I did not do a clean install.)

So this is technically my second look at the final release version of Windows 8 – and this time I’ve been using it legitimately, all day long, doing all the things I normally do with my computer, and I now think I have a much better “feel” for things, to the point where I’m ready to share them.

Don’t Use Metro – Just Don’t

Yes, I know it’s technically not called “metro,” but honestly, who cares what it’s called? Just don’t use it. Unless you have a touch screen, avoid using metro apps entirely. There is absolutely no reason for you to use them on a desktop PC (or anything that uses a mouse/trackpad/etc. and not a touch screen).

None of the built-in metro apps are very useful, and with so few 3rd party apps, there’s not much else you can do here. And as we’ve already established, metro apps were made for touch screens – if you don’t have a touch screen, using metro apps is going to be frustrating and awkward.

Corners are Fun

In my original review, I thought that the new “hotspots” were limited to only on the primary monitor, but it turns out this is not true – you can use any of the 4 corners of ANY monitor! This means that technically you can use the lower-left corner (where the Start button used to be) of any monitor to bring up the Start page. Pretty sweet!

Above: The new “charms” bar can be brought up on either monitor by pointing to the upper-right corner of either screen, and the same is true for all the other corners of the screen.

I Miss The Start Button

Start button, come baaaack! I miss you!!

This may be nitpicking, but I really do miss having an actual “button” to click to bring up the Start menu (or Start page, or whatever the correct term is for the new full-screen Start screen). Not having a button there just makes the desktop look “unfinished,” and although technically speaking the corner is a much bigger UI target to hit with the mouse, years and years of training have conditioned me to hit a big button in the lower-left corner, which is now… gone.

Well, that’s not quite fair – it’s sort of still there, but it’s hidden, and will only appear once you slam your mouse cursor (or your finger, if you’re using a touch-screen device) into the bottom-left corner of your screen (any screen, if you have more than one).

Not really a “button” so much as it is a hidden, pop-up Start “tile.”

Still, the Start button is not something that should have gone away. I mean, Mac OS still has the little “Apple icon” system menu in the top-left corner, and that’s been there since version 1.0!

But I Do Like the Start Page!

I admit it – I like the new Start page. But one thing should be absolutely clear – I am not your typical user. Most “average” users have about 4 or 5 programs they use frequently. I have… a lot more.

Still, the new Start page is basically an over-sized, full-screen version of the old Start menu’s MRU (most recently used) program list.

The bigger “tiles” are obviously meant to make it more touch-friendly, but a side effect of all this is that you have a lot more room for shortcuts as well – and I like being able to have all my programs within easy reach.

And if that’s not your thing, well you can still search for programs the same way you did before – just start typing when the Start page is on the screen, and it’ll start searching for applications, just like it used to do in the Windows 7 Start menu.

“All Programs” Still Sucks Though

In earlier versions of Windows, you could arrange your shortcuts on your start menu (under “All Programs”) into folders to keep things organized. In Windows 8, you… can’t do that. Instead, you have “All Apps,” the equivalent to “All Programs,” and it is… well, just look:

The horror, the horror!!

It is a mess, to be sure. Everything is laid out in one big grid, and nothing is hidden. In my case, because I upgraded, things are still in folders (hence the sub-headings you see), but I have no idea how you’d create these headings or organize things.

On the other hand, I don’t really see a need to worry about it. Searching apps is simple and easy, just like it was in Windows 7 (just start typing when the Start screen is displayed), and this is honestly a faster way to find the program you’re after, no matter which OS you’re using.

Searching still works just fine – it’s quick, it’s easy, and for once, it kind of works for both touch and mouse interfaces!

Hate Metro? Consider the Alternative

I see a lot of vitriol out there for Windows 8, when really what people don’t like is the new metro-style apps and interface.

This is fine, and in case you can’t guess, I don’t exactly like the metro-style interface either. It really makes the OS feel like it’s got a split personality, and more than a few people have suggested that it might have been better to split off into 2 separate OSes, instead of trying to awkwardly combine them.

But consider the alternative – what if Microsoft had done exactly that? What if they had made an OS (the Metro OS) for tablets, and one for desktop PCs?

Keep in mind that the benefit of an OS is not the OS itself, but the programs and applications that the OS lets you run. So to begin with, a new Metro OS would have been worth… nothing. Because there would have been NO apps for it. If Microsoft had done this, the Metro OS would have been a complete failure.

Microsoft had to include compatibility with existing Windows apps in the new Metro OS, and if they were going that far, why not just merge the two OSes together, instead of re-inventing the wheel and wasting a lot of effort maintaining them?

Oh, sure, you can argue that this is exactly what Apple did with OS X and iOS – but keep in mind that iOS was in a unique position when it started out, since it had the first-mover advantage. There was no other big smartphone OS to compete with it (well, not really), and also Apple included some really great starter apps to make up for the fact that no other 3rd party apps existed.

On top of that, iOS got its start on phones, which are useful even without apps (you can still use them as a phone, after all) and they also had the famously popular iPod music player capabilities built-in.

Our hypothetical Microsoft Metro OS would have none of these advantages – it would start on tablets instead of phones, and tablets are nothing but very expensive paperweights without lots and lots of useful applications.

This is why it had to be merged with the regular Windows desktop OS, and it kind of explains why we ended up with the OS we ended up with in Windows 8. Sure, Microsoft could have shipped a “desktop only” version of Windows 8 without metro… but if they did, people would instead just be demanding to have some new “Pro” or “Ultimate” version of Windows that had both, and we’d be right back where we started.

An Acceptable – but Uninspiring – OS

The bottom line is, the whole metro apps thing in Windows 8 is a bit of a gimmick – at least as far as I’m concerned. I have no idea if Microsoft’s marketing might can make this last into the next version of Windows (or even past the next service pack), or whether it will quietly fade away and die, much like its spiritual predecessor the Zune did (remember the Zune?).

But the good news is, you don’t have to use metro apps. In fact, beyond the big Start page, you never need to see any “metro-ish” stuff in your day-to-day use. You can use the same programs you’ve been using all along in Windows 7, and aside from some slight UI tweaks, you’d almost never even notice the difference 99% of the time.

So my verdict on Windows 8 remains much the same as before (although for slightly different reasons) – it is a perfectly OK, average, and uninspiring update to a popular operating system. While I wouldn’t exactly rush to upgrade, I wouldn’t go out of my way to avoid it, either.

Update: After using it for even longer (6 months now), I’ve posted my (final) thoughts on Windows 8.

Windows 8 – When Worlds Collide

I got my hands on the release version of Windows 8 the other day, and gave it a spin. What is this new version of Windows really like? Let’s find out!

So, I was able to get my hands on the final release version of Windows 8 the other day (thanks to the TechNet subscription I get through work), and in order to give it a proper look-see, I decided to install it on my computer using my real hardware, but also use a virtual hard drive. This would save me from the troubles of dual-booting (and potentially screwing up my existing Windows 7 installation), while still letting me run on “real” hardware (unlike a virtual machine).

Fortunately this was really easy (this guide from Scott Hanselman is how I did it), and it allowed me to not only give Windows 8 a proper test drive, but to do so using my dual-monitor setup.

It is worth nothing that I was not going into this blind – I’d taken a look at the Windows 8 Consumer Preview before, both in a virtual machine and on my netbook. (I had to give up on the netbook because Windows 8’s new UI requires a higher vertical resolution than my little old 10″ screen can provide).

Windows 8 – First Impressions

The setup is very familiar – the same basic “installing Windows” experience we’ve had since Vista, I believe. But it goes by very smoothly, with all the questions up-front, and it doesn’t take forever (which is always nice). In fact, the actual initial “installation” went by surprisingly fast – although after a reboot there’s still more “setting up” to be done. Still, a good start.

windows 8 boot loaderSince I was dual booting (sort-of), Windows 8 detected this and installed a very nice boot loader/OS-chooser thing. It’s graphical, which is neat, and very well designed – simple and to the point. However, this screen doesn’t appear right away – it seems like Windows 8 pre-loads itself, and only later does it show you this screen. This means that you have to wait a while before you can choose your OS. Presumably this is done because Windows 8 is set as the default OS so it just starts pre-loading it, assuming that 90% of the time you’re just going to boot into that.

Interestingly, if you change the default OS, the boot loader/OS-chooser changes as well. I changed mine back to Windows 7 as the default, and after I did, it showed the more traditional text-based Windows 7 OS chooser, which appears immediately after the BIOS POST stuff is done. So, apparently you only get this neat screen if you keep Windows 8 as your default OS.

The rest of the setup was pretty simple – enter your email address as your login and it’ll use your Microsoft account (if you have one). One of the potentially neat features of Windows 8 is how your user account is now sort of online, so if you switch computers some of your settings will come with you. I only have the one computer, so I wasn’t able to try this out, but it has some potential. Also, since your Windows login is tied to an online account (and thus, to your email address), recovering your password if you forget it is a bit easier than it ever used to be on a PC before. So that’s nice.

Once things booted up, I was greeted with this setup:

windows 8 on dual monitors

Windows 8 dual monitor screen capture

As you can see, the new Windows 8 UI is on the main screen, while you can see the old Windows desktop peeking through on my 2nd monitor.

At this point we’re going to need to address something – during development, this new UI style was code-named “Metro.” But just a few weeks ago, Microsoft announced that this is not going to be the final name for it – but they haven’t given us what the final name is going to be yet. So, in the interest of brevity, whenever you see “Metro” in this post, just read it as “the UI formerly known as Metro” or whatever pleases your fancy. Perhaps when they finally announce the real name I’ll come back and change it here.

ANYWAY – the new Metro UI, based on tiles, is your new Start page. If you’ve used Office 2010, you’ve seen something like this before – it’s what is called “Backstage View” in Office 2010 – and it’s what happens when you click the “File” menu/tab in most Office 2010 apps.

Windows 8 start page

Of course, it’s a bit more complex than that, but this is a good way to think of it to begin with. The tiles are interactive, and you can drag & drop them all over the place as you’d expect. The tiles “flow” from one column to the next, in a left-to-right order, meaning that you can’t leave any gaps on the column to the left – it automatically fills with tiles from the next column over. At least, it did for the first 2 columns. The 3rd  and 4th columns seem to be all on their own, and this is presumably likewise with subsequent columns on additional screens (which would appear to the right, and not down, as you might think – more on that odd convention later).

Native Metro apps can have double-width rectangular tiles, while the tiles that represent shortcuts to regular Windows programs will only have the square tiles.

mouse help icon
You’re going to see a lot of useless icons like this.

Since this new Start page/view replaces the old Start menu, this is where you will find every icon/shortcut on your computer. That is to say, if you had an icon anywhere on your Start menu, it will be a tile here on this new Start page instead.

UPDATE: As it turns out, the new Start page actually is more like your “most recently used” items list, as opposed to “All Programs.” Only some shortcuts show up here by default to start with. The rest can be found under “All Apps,” which shows them all in one giant grid as I described here (but with slightly smaller icons).

This is a bit of a design flaw if you ask me – there’s not really any way to organize tiles other than by putting them in columns and spreading them across different pages (the Start page scrolls horizontally). There are no folders or sub-folders like you might be used to from the old Start menu. And if you install any old-style programs, your Start page will inevitably become cluttered with useless shortcuts that you never use.

While it’s easy enough to delete these, it is a bit awkward. And since the tiles on the Start screen are bigger than icons on the old Start menu, this sort of clutter is much more noticeable.

The Traditional Windows Desktop is Still Here

desktop tile shortcutFortunately, it is super-easy to switch to the traditional Windows desktop. On my computer in particular the desktop was still visible on my 2nd monitor (the Metro start page only covers one screen), and there’s a handy (and large!) shortcut for it right on the Start page.

Once you’ve switched to the traditional desktop, you don’t ever have to see the Metro UI again, unless you click where the Start menu button used to be, or press the Windows button on your keyboard.

As for how things work in the traditional desktop, well… they work just like you’d expect them to. It’s just the same desktop we’ve always had, but better. If these were the only changes in Windows 8, you’d be seeing nothing but praise.

It’s great that the taskbar now appears on all of your monitors (instead of just one), and the “ribbon” type UI in Explorer is kind of neat. Also, the new file copy dialogs are pretty sweet, with the extra info they can give you, as well as the better prompts that appear when you copy files with the same name.

In general, the traditional desktop UI is a bit more… well, square-ish, for lack of a better word. There is a bit of metro-ish UI inspiration here and there, and I sometimes feel like going back to a sharp-edged square UI is a step backwards (remember when having curved edges to a window was a big deal?), but otherwise is it just fine, no real surprises to speak of.

The UI Formerly Known as Metro

OK, I know you’ve probably been waiting for this part – so let’s talk about Metro.

The whole Metro UI is obviously very much inspired by the concept of touch – you see references to it everywhere.

windows 8's touch mentality
How do I “tap” with a mouse?

Having spent a good deal of time doing tech support for people, I can tell you right now that the Metro UI is going to confuse a LOT of people. There is a heck of a lot to get used to here, especially if you are using it on a PC without a touch screen (as most people will be).

Another thing that is inevitably going to trip a lot of people up is that Metro apps do not have a close button, and in many cases they don’t even have a “back” button, either. There literally is no way to “exit” the application in the traditional sense; and this is by design.

Metro apps are completely suspended when they are in the background, meaning they do not use any CPU time, so there technically is no reason to ever close them. This is much like how on iOS once you open an app, it is still “open” in the background when you switch to other apps, and remains open until you do a hard-shutdown of the device (or press & hold the “home” button to show running apps, then touch & hold the app’s icon to make them shake and have a red “x”, which is how you can actually force them to close).

(There are ways to close Metro apps, obviously, but they are not at all intuitive – probably because they are meant to not be necessary in normal use.)

This… takes some getting used to. I admit I found myself in a Metro settings screen and wanted to go “back” out… but couldn’t find any way to do so. For example, look at the picture below and see if you can figure out what you need to do to get out of this window.

Windows 8 metro PC settings page
How would you exit from this screen?

If you guessed “move your mouse to the upper-left corner and hover there for a second, then click the thumbnail which will appear,” you’re either psychic or you’ve used Windows 8 before.

Which brings me nicely to my next topic, which is task-switching in Metro.

Task Switching Just Got… Harder?

In the traditionial desktop, you had the taskbar, which was docked to the bottom of the screen. In Metro, you’ve got… something not unlike a taskbar set to auto-hide and locked to the left-hand side of the screen (each screen if you have multiple monitors). To access it, you hover your mouse in the upper-left corner, which will show (after a moment’s delay) a thumbnail of the last Metro app you were in. You will also see a tiny bit of the edge of thumbnails of any other Metro apps that are open (as well as a thumbnail for the traditional desktop) going down along the left hand side of the screen. Moving your mouse down over these slim edges will cause them to pop fully out, at which point it really starts to resemble the taskbar, just with thumbnails and on the left side of the screen.

This isn’t so bad, as far as it goes, but it does take some extra work to switch apps. (Using keyboard shortcuts still works as before, however.) If you were someone who set your taskbar to auto-hide, this might not bother you as much, but it is still cumbersome to use, especially if you’re used to the default taskbar behavior (which was to be visible all the time). I think this is the “make it tablet friendly” mentality showing through again – on a tablet, you don’t want precious screen space taken up with non-active UI elements like a taskbar. But for a PC with a mouse and a big screen (or multiple screens) it is just annoying.

Finally, there’s a big UI “fail” in the form of the “charms bar.” This is the bar that appears on the right side of the screen if you hover your mouse on that side of the screen, or if you hover your mouse in the upper right corner.

This charms bar has a search button and the settings button, among a few other things. It’s not a bad thing by itself, but the given that:

  •  This bar is always on the right side of the screen
  •  The metro UI is only ever on one monitor

This means that if you have multiple monitors, and have a screen to the right of the screen where the Metro UI is, then this “charms bar” is infuriatingly difficult to bring up, because your mouse keeps “sliding” past the edge of the screen and onto the next monitor!!

The whole idea of using the corners of the screen as “hotspots” like this comes from Fitts’s Law, and that’s all fine and good… but when you have multiple monitors, Fitt’s Law doesn’t apply to the side of the screen between two monitors, because it’s not really the “edge” of the screen anymore!

UPDATE: As it turns out, this isn’t quite as bad as I originally thought, because you can also use the corners of any additional monitors as well. In my setup, this meant that I could use the top-right corner of my 2nd monitor (where Fitts’s Law did apply), in addition to the top-right corner of my primary monitor. That said, getting all the way over to the far side of a multi-monitor setup is a lot of mouse movement.

Horizontal vs. Vertical Scrolling

This is a bit of a pet peeve with me, but… In the new Metro start page, and in all Metro apps, there is NO vertical scrolling. Instead, things scroll left to right (horizontally). Which kind of makes sense for a tablet because the natural thing to do is swipe left and right… but it just feels wrong.

Considering that basically every PC in existence has a mouse with a scroll wheel on it – a wheel that scrolls UP and DOWN – the fact that they decided to make the default scrolling in Metro be RIGHT to LEFT is just utterly incomprehensible to me.

The apparent obsession with touch & tablet design in Windows 8 makes me imagine that there was someone at Microsoft screaming at the Windows team, saying, “tablets are going to be the next big thing! We have to work on tablets!!”

…Which, considering the news about Microsoft Surface, doesn’t actually seem that far-fetched.

Final Thoughts

I wanted to like Windows 8 – and I guess I do. It has some differences to be sure, but what new OS doesn’t?

It is going to be a support nightmare. This is not an incremental change – this is significant departure from the conventions of desktop computing that we have all gotten used to over many, many years. Bringing these tablet-style conventions to a desktop OS is, frankly, more than a little jarring. I do not envy the people who will have to support large numbers of office workers when they switch to Windows 8.

There is going to be the inevitable resistance from people who don’t like change of any kind. People like what they know, and Windows 8 changes a lot of things (for better or for worse).

That said, is Windows 8 done well? Is it well executed?

In my opinion, the answer would be… no, not really.

Taken apart, the Metro UI and the traditional desktop are done very well. By itself, the Metro UI would have made a fascinating new OS, which would have gotten a lot of praise and been tried out by lots of curious people. But when you try to mash these two worlds together – the world of the touch screen device, and the world of the mouse-driven desktop PC – you end up with something that is just not as good as either part alone.

Now, is Windows 8 “stay away” worthy, like some said with Windows Vista (or its spiritual predecessor, Windows Me)? No, I don’t think so. It has its oddities, but the desktop is still there, and as I’ve said, it’s easy enough to just treat the Metro UI as a glorified “backstage view” start menu. The other benefits and improvements to the underlying OS and the desktop side of things are well worth it.

All in all I’d say give it a go if you have the chance, but I wouldn’t rush it.

Update: I finally went ahead and upgraded my computer to Windows 8 “for real,” and after using it for a bit, I’ve posted my more in-depth thoughts. Give it a read!

Update 2: After using Windows 8 for even longer, I’ve posted some more thoughts.

Keith’s Anime Reviews: Waiting in the Summer

A bit of a surprise this time: a review of a relatively new anime. I don’t normally catch new anime, I usually only hear about it much, much later, when it’s had a chance to become well known.

Waiting in the Summer (or Ano Natsu de Matteru) is a very interesting series – it starts with a bit of a “wham” episode, throwing a lot of stuff at you all at once. In fact, some of the stuff in the first episode seems like it’s there only to catch your attention and make you stick around for the rest… but that’s not that unusual in and of itself.

What’s unusual is that it throws all this stuff at you in the very first episode, and then takes its sweet time bringing it all to fruition.

The basic plot is about some high-school kids who are making a film for fun during their summer break, and the way that their relationships grow and change during that time. (The “making a movie” part is basically the excuse for them all to hang out together so often; it plays some other roles but is largely irrelevant to the plot after the first few episodes.)

This show actually plays with some of the tropes common to anime in general; for example, after a few episodes you would be forgiven for thinking that this was beginning to look like another “harem” anime series. Likewise, after few more episodes you’d be forgiven for thinking that certain relationship-based tensions (the classic “UST“) were going to be prominent for the rest of the series, and never be resolved until the very end of the show (if that). However, each time the series looks like it’s about to go down one of these roads, it will make an abrupt left turn at the last minute and genuinely surprise you.

For example, like any typical anime, this one has the obligatory “beach” and “festival” episodes – but instead of being filler (as they so often are), both of these were actually highly relevant to the main plot of the series, and in a way that felt genuine & not contrived at all. That’s something that can be hard to pull off effectively.

Suffice to say I was surprised several times – and that’s a hard thing to do to me these days.

So the premise is interesting, and the story is refreshingly different – or at least genuinely surprisingly unpredictable. The animation, on the other hand, is nothing to write home about – it’s certainly quite good, but nothing groundbreaking.

At the moment, this is available only in subbed format – as far as I know, no English dub exists yet – and can be watched (legally!) on Hulu for free.

All in all, this is an entertaining series. It may leave you pining for your adolescence, or it may make you glad you’ve left those days behind you, but either way it will probably surprise you, and maybe even make you smile (or blush – often, as it did with me). If you enjoy anime, I definitely recommend it.

Copyright & Fan Creations

Copyright law is complicated, but it’s something anyone who creates fan works should have a basic grasp of. This is my attempt at a layman’s guide.

This is a topic near & dear to my heart (I’ll let you guess why).

If you’re a frequent reader of my blog (or follower of me on Twitter), you probably already know that I have some… let’s just say strong feelings about copyright law. You might also know that I enjoy viewing & reading fan works (and may have even created some shameful ones of my own in the distant past – which will remain hidden FOREVER.)

One side effect of this is that over the years I’ve become very familiar with copyright law itself, which is a useful skill to have these days. So, I figured I’d write up a quick guide to help people out a little bit, because let’s face it… copyright law is weird, non-intuitive, and complicated.

(Oh, and just so we can get the annoying stuff out of the way first: I am not a lawyer, and this isn’t “legal advice,” it is just a layman’s opinion/summary. So don’t go out and get yourself in trouble based solely on what I say, and then come around and sue me, OK?)

If you need a quick refresher on this whole copyright process, I highly recommend you go watch C.G.P. Grey’s video on the subject. In fact, I might just embed the whole thing right here!

Everything is Copyrighted

Every original work, no matter how small or insignificant, is protected by copyright (at least in the US) the instant it is created. Everything from that crayon drawing you made when you were 3 to the amazing novel just finished yesterday. EVERYTHING.

The definition of what is covered by copyright is insanely broad – although it originally started out for things like books and paintings, it has evolved to cover pretty much everything you can “create.”

Who is the “Owner” of Copyright?

The basic rule here is, if you created it, you have copyright over it.

Things get complicated if it was a joint project – in general, to be safe, you should assume that everyone who worked on creating it shares the copyright equally (even if nothing was ever written down or formally agreed upon).

If you created the work “for hire,” that is, if you were paid to create it as part of your job, or if you were commissioned specifically to create it, then you DON’T own the copyright – your employer or the person who commissioned the work does.

Any Unauthorized Use is Copyright Infringement

With only a very few exceptions, if you don’t own the copyright to something, then you cannot use it in any way – and if you do, you are violating the copyright of the owner.

Important distinction: when an unauthorized person uses a copyrighted work, that is not “stealing,” it is a violation of the owner’s “copy right,” sort of like censorship is a violation of a person’s “free speech right.”

There are, of course, some exceptions (again, these are taken from US law and may not be applicable where you are). You might have heard of them – they’re called “fair use.”

Fair use, like most legal terms, doesn’t mean what it seems to mean on its face – that if the use is “fair,” then it’s OK to use a copyrighted work without the owner’s permission. Instead, it means that if the use falls within certain defined uses, then it’s OK.

Fair use is unfortunately one of those things that isn’t (and can’t) be narrowly defined – it’s one of those “you’ll know it when you see it” things, which means people end up in court arguing about it a lot of the time. Sadly, that’s just the way it is.

For a full treatment of what fair use is and means, check out Wikipedia’s article on the subject.

It Doesn’t Matter if You Make Money or Not

Well, that’s not entirely 100% accurate – whether you make money from what you are doing is a factor that is considered in determining whether your use falls under “fair use.”

Not earning money from something does not automatically make it “OK’ for you to use a copyrighted work – but in many cases it will affect whether the owner of the copyright decides to spend the time, money, and effort in suing you to stop your unauthorized work.

Some copyright owners will sue everyone who uses their works, no matter what – and unfortunately under the law it is their right to do so.

Others, however, will only go after those people who are profiting from their work or who are doing things that directly (and negatively) affect their own ability to profit from their work.

Hey, I never said this copyright thing was going to make sense.

You Can’t Disclaim It

That is to say, you can’t disclaim copyright infringement – if you are using a copyrighted work without the authorization of the owner, and your use does not fall under “fair use,” then it doesn’t matter what you say – you are still infringing the owner’s copyright, and they can seek legal recourse against you.

For example, I can’t post an entire episode of a TV show online and just say “this isn’t owned by me, I don’t have copyright, it belongs to Such-and-such, Inc.” I’ve still violated their copyright; my disclaimer is technically and legally meaningless.

Let me say that again: there is NO disclaimer you can add to the unauthorized use of copyrighted material that will make it OK.

As an aside: if you think your use falls under “fair use,” but you’re worried that the copyright owner might disagree, a disclaimer might help sway their decision whether or not to sue you, especially if you spell out your reasoning at least a little bit. But it’s not guaranteed, and if it goes to court, it will have absolutely no bearing on anything.

You CAN transform it

I started this article in the context of “fan creations,” and if you’re not quite sure what that means, well… I’m not sure I can help you with that. If you’ve been on the Internet for any length of time, chances are you’ve run across “fan creations.”

The thing is, most “fan creations” fall into another legal category when it comes to copyright, one that not a lot of people talk about. Specifically, I’m talking about transformative works.

This is another one of those areas of law that doesn’t have a narrow definition – another one of those “you’ll know it when you see it” things. But in general, if your work “transforms” the original work into something else, something which is original and not merely a copy, then it’s OK, and your work would not be considered copyright infringement.

To take my example from before, while I can’t post an entire episode of a TV show online without violating copyright, if I take that episode, chop it up and re-arrange parts of it (and leave out other parts), and replace the entire soundtrack (voice and effects) with my own recordings, maybe even mix in some original video of my own, and post that online… then this would probably be considered transformative, and not infringement.

Trademark Law makes everything 20% more confusing

One thing to watch out for is that sometimes trademark law gets mixed in, and that just makes everything more confusing.

For example, you might make a transformative work, remixing a TV show with your own dialog, or making your own works featuring original characters (but based on something that is copyrighted), and you could still run afoul of the law (and have your work taken down from whatever site is hosting it) because the owner has registered a trademark on a character’s name or likeness, or on the name of the world, or on some other aspect of the work.

This is particularly likely if there is any sort of “merchandising” involved – which, if it’s popular, there almost certainly is.

Trademark law is a bit more narrowly defined than copyright law, but it’s also more vigorously defended – because you can lose your trademark if you don’t make an effort to stop people from using it inappropriately, for example.

What about this crazy “Creative Commons” thing?

I’m glad you asked – creative commons is a great way to get around all this legal hullabalu, but it has to be done by the owner, not you (the person making the fan work). You can still release your own works under a creative commons license, though.

I’ll be talking about Creative Commons in more detail in a future article, so stay tuned for that.

The Bottom Line (or, tl;dr)

Copyright law (and its close sibling, trademark law) is a complicated subject, but one that anyone who does fan works of any kind should at least have a basic understanding of. It’s extraordinarily easy to violate copyright (even unintentionally), but at the same time, you don’t actually get in trouble for it unless the owner chooses to pursue you in court. This is because copyright law, unlike say murder or theft, is a civil, not criminal matter. (Well, at least it WAS… until the DMCA came along and changed that for some cases.)

If you’re creating almost any kind of fan work, you’re probably skirting the boundaries of copyright infringement, depending on how close your work mirrors the original work – and it doesn’t matter how many disclaimers you paste all over it. If it violates copyright, it violates copyright, no matter what your disclaimers say. This is – for better or for worse – the state of copyright law (at least in the US and any other countries with similar laws).

The rule of thumb I guess would be to try to be inspired by the works you are a fan of, rather than just copy them outright. Use that inspiration to create your own works. And if you must do stuff that straddles the border between violating copyright and not, then for goodness sakes don’t try to make money off of it… because that’s just an incentive for the copyright owner to try to stop you (sue you).

Finally, I don’t want this to discourage anyone from creating fan stuff – frankly, the world needs MORE creative works, not less, and I’m not trying to scare people with legal talk. Honestly, I personally think copyright law needs a bit of an overhaul. But until then, we’re stuck with the laws we do have, and being ignorant of them is no good either, so I hope this at least sheds a little light on the issue for everyone who reads it.