A Cautionary Tale

Posted on by Larry

[ This article was first published in the April, 2009, issue of
Larry’s Final Cut Pro Newsletter. Click here to subscribe. ]


Eric Solstein sent me the following story to share with you.

I encountered a most mysterious problem during the rendering of a short film, my computer just decided to go to sleep. I woke it up, of course, I needed the render for a DVD I had to deliver. This all happened about one third into the render thermometer’s snail-like crawl, and once awoken, my reliable old G5 tower, the last of a noble breed, cranked for only another three or four minutes before it conked out again. And again soon after that… and then….

Wiser heads than my own suggested I reinstall the System, or render from a new account to diagnose the possibility of “OS Preference File corruption.” Neither of these measures appealed to me, but I decided to try the less drastic, and so dilly-dallied, changing the various permissions required to allow a new account to access the files of an older one. This tactic ultimately yielded a render only interrupted to two brief snoozes, not like the deep catatonia my box had fallen prey to earlier. Maybe I was onto something… or maybe not.

The rendered movie file appeared to be all right, so now it was time to squeeze out quick fresh DVD from iDVD, my quick, easy DVD-making tool of choice. About two hours into this six hour render and burn, iDVD was going through the same narcoleptic fits as FTP, and I was the only thing burning. Clearly this was a bigger problem than I imagined, and if I was going to have to reinstall my otherwise pretty darn reliable Mac OS, I would just have to bite the bullet and do it. But I still felt vaguely uncomfortable about the whole thing.

Did I mention that I had recently moved into the hottest apartment in New York City? Soon after the move, it was noticed, my computer’s fans were a bit noisier than in the past… actually, I was blissfully unaware of anything, but my wife had made a rather big point of mentioning it. So, I went into that handsome aluminum tower and cleaned out a mess of dust. Reverting back to my previous state of unawareness immediately upon the self-satisfied completion of computer cleansing, I failed to note that the noise had hardly diminished.

Now, with my normally dull senses sharpened by the impending deadline and colossal delays I had run up, it dawned on me that there might be a reason it sounded like a jumbo jet was taking off beneath my desk. I dived once again into the guts of my near-state-of-the-art graphic tool (and near term antique) with a mind to solve problems and bust down whatever invisible barriers stood in the way of that task. Penetrating more deeply into my Mac’s labyrinthian innards than I had in less desperate time, I noticed around a plastic corner, a very visible barrier – a thick, fuzzy gray blanket of dust, dirt and dander, over the shiny silver louvers that defended the entryway to my dual processors. Funny, I couldn’t remember seeing those louvers before.

Yes, now my computer ran (more) quietly, and no longer spontaneously sleeps. I guess I’ll be working late tonight, catching up.

Larry adds: Eric, thanks for writing this up. I tend to keep my computer off the floor, but, even so, it still gets dusty. I’ll make sure to clean it out more often from here on out.

UPDATES – April 2, 2009

Bob Godnik adds:

The part of Eric’s story that I was especially interested in was that iDVD is his DVD-making tool of choice. Until recently, I sometimes used iDVD as well, depending on my DVD requirements but, usually used Compressor/DSP.

A couple of weeks ago, a videographer friend brought over a miniDV tape with some wedding footage on it. He was considering a Mac and just using iLife for simplicity. He wanted me to author a few minutes of the tape to DVD and compare it to the DVD he made with an old Casablanca editing system (A dedicated hardware editor with input and output through SVHS!). I captured a couple of minutes in iMovie, exported to Quicktime and authored through iDVD (iLife ’09). It looked fine…, until we watched his DVD. The iDVD sample was a lot more faded and less vibrant than his DVD. The iDVD disc looked “flat” and more film-like than video. His DVD looked much closer to what the monitor looked like during the capture. I had the “professional quality” setting invoked in iDVD.

Out of curiosity, I then used Compressor to convert the exact same Quicktime movie that was used for the iDVD sample. With the “Best Quality 90 min” setting the DVD looked much more vibrant and (surprisingly) only slightly better than his Casablanca/SVHS to DVD solution. I had previously assumed the “professional quality” setting in iDVD (’08 and ’09) was the same as the “Best Quality 90 min” setting in Compressor but that wasn’t the case at all, at least not when working with video footage from his miniDV camera.

I looked all over the internet for more ways to tweak the settings in iDVD or if anyone else noticed this. I couldn’t find an answer. Have you heard of this or ever tested iDVD against Compressor/DSP with the same source footage?

Larry replies: Bob, I’ve always preferred using Compressor for both speed and quality, but have never done any “testing.” If anyone has additional opinions, I’m happy to share them.

Ben Balser adds:

I can tell you, as a semi-retired IT engineer, with almost 2 prefessional decades behind me, CPUs have come a long way. Used to be, CPUs would physically overheat and burn up, bang, dead computer, expensive repair. About ten years ago the higher end, hotter running CPUs got thermal protection, that would cause them to go into sleep mode, even if the OS is set to never sleep, to cut down on heat, and save them from an internal physical melt down (literally). Today, all CPUs have this, and speed reduction, built in.

Thus, if your computer slows down a lot, or sleeps when it shouldn’t, or gives similar strange symptoms, think about the the temperature of the room it’s in, it’s position in the room as far as air flow, and check the inside for a good cleaning. Monthly cleaning out (with compressed air) is a must for computers that run 24/7. It not only will save you from the type of situation Eric encountered, but will actually prolong the life of the CPU itself, as heat breaks it down faster over time.

Larry replies: Thanks, Ben. It is always good to hear from you.

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