Never mind the quality, feel the price!

A reader sent me the following early this month:

I've been a long time reader of your site, and seeing as you have a fascination for interesting cut-price electronic stuff, I thought this site might interest you:

I'm not affiliated with it in any way; I just think it's an awesome place to get things for silly low prices. Obviously build quality isn't great, but I've bought some interesting little gadgets of there for pittance. Also check out their diddly RC helicopter section - they're quite a bit cheaper than most other places!

I buy random incredibly-cheap stuff from Hong Kong eBay dealers all the time, so I just had to try out DealExtreme too. Like several other Hong Kong gadget dealers - USB Geek, for instance - shipping to anywhere in the world is included in DealExtreme's prices. So you don't have to do the usual overseas-shopping thing where you look for other stuff you can barely justify buying, to prevent shipping being 80% of the total order cost; if all you need is a ninety-eight-cent screwdriver, you won't be ripped off if that's all you buy.

I ordered a selection of entertaining objects from DealExtreme on the fifth of September, but the parcel didn't arrive until the 24th. That's because it took DealExtreme until the 16th before they actually sent it. And the package was stuffed too tight, so the pair of novelty tea infusers I'd ordered were both broken.

But DealExtreme's support people replied almost instantly to my request for a replacement, and I've no reason to suppose I won't receive it. Although it may, of course, take another nineteen days.

(The DealExtreme "Customer Service Express" contact form makes you include pictures. This is fair enough, but it makes you feel a bit stupid when it means you're taking 20 minutes out of your day to get a $2 item replaced...)

You can find most of DealExtreme's stuff on sale on eBay and elsewhere, but they stock some items that genuinely are hard to find elsewhere. Their Nintendo DS accessories, for instance, include not only dirt-cheap tri-wing screwdrivers for the little screws that hold a DS together, but also several flash carts for running homebrew (or, of course, pirated) software on your DS.

Flash carts are notoriously hard to find on sites like eBay, but DealExtreme have a bunch of them. They probably even work, too, despite the fact that some of them are cheap clones of the R4 cart I use in my own DS. Apparently future R4 firmware may deliberately break the cloned carts, or even DSes using them.

Many of the other cards are R4 clones too, with a panoply of similar-yet-different names - ND1, M3, N5, K6 - and your guess is as good as mine as to which one's best. But at least you can buy the darn things, and get your DSOrganize, Pocket Physics, Colors! or whatever on.

And DealExtreme do indeed have a ton of other fascinating things. Toys, tools, bare electronic components (including lots of high-power LED paraphernalia), deadly terrorist laser weapons, stationery... you name it.

They also have an affiliate scheme, for which I've signed up. So if you go there from my links, I ought to get a cut!

An excellent, and simultaneously terrible, tool

P-38 can opener

The P-38 can opener is something of a design classic. Tiny, inexpensive and extremely reliable, it's been cracking cans open since the Second World War.

But I'd never even seen one, and was interested to find out how well this iconic military tool actually worked.

So I bought four of 'em, for $US2.25 plus $US4.50 postage to me here in Australia, from this eBay seller. Their only sin was that they packed a worthless cell-phone booster sticker in with the can openers. But that was free.

(Here that seller is on instead of

[UPDATE: That seller's gone now, but there are tons of other eBay dealers with P-38s and their larger cousins, P-51s, for sale.]

Herewith, my in-depth review of the P-38:

It does, indeed, open cans.

It does so quantifiably better than would a sewing needle, a rubber chicken, or a silver dollar.

Opening a can with a P-38 is, I'm fairly sure, on the whole generally preferable to starving to death.

The P-38 is, however, a quite serious pain to use. Clip onto can rim, twist hard to make initial puncture, slide a little, twist again. Repeat many times. It requires considerable strength, and you can just feel the repetitive strain injury growing in your hand.

But the P-38 is only an inch and a half long, folds flat, weighs close to nothing, and can be manufactured in great quantities very cheaply. Given these limitations, I can't imagine how you could make a more elegant or effective opener for all sorts of cans.

So, fair enough. Case closed, right?


I'm told, you see, that P-38-type can openers are actually the normal kind of opener, for everyday domestic purposes and not just camping and the military, in some countries. Finland, for instance, and apparently also Brazil.

The versions they use are generally non-folding solid-metal types...

Finnish can opener

...which are more durable than the lightweight P-38, and are often also a bit bigger, for better leverage and less pain. (There's a larger version of the P-38 as well, called the P-51.)

But, based on my experience with the P-38, I'm here to tell you that making this same device somewhat larger and from one piece of heavier metal will not solve its serious problems.

This sort of opener is a bloody awful thing to have to use.

Why in heaven's name would significant portions of the population of any even slightly affluent country prefer it, and - as is apparently also the case in Finland and Brazil - often believe that the much faster and far easier-to-use turn-the-knob "rotary" type of can opener is likely to be an unreliable piece of crap?

Well, unreliable-piece-of-crap rotary can openers definitely do exist. There's one in this house, which I've had to use when I couldn't find the MagiCan.

Even though that crappy opener tends to lose the thread and have to be restarted a couple of times to puncture the lid all the way around, though, I solemnly attest that it is still better than the P-38. I think it'd beat a bigger, one-piece P-51-type opener too, though that might be a close-run thing.

You do not, however, have to spend a lot of money to get a rotary opener which, like the MagiCan, will open many hundreds, if not many thousands, of cans quickly, easily and completely reliably.

Yes, electric can openers for domestic use are stupid if you're not afflicted with arthritis or severely short of the most popular number of fingers, and the very cheapest dollar-store clones of the good rotary openers are not reliable.

But the can-opener design problem has been a thoroughly solved one for many years now. For the first half-century of the history of the can, they were made from such thick metal that no hand-held opener short of a hammer and chisel would do to open one. It didn't take terribly long after the metal got thinner for a variety of purpose-built openers to be designed, though. The first rotary opener was invented in 1870.

If people in Finland and Brazil think that a P-38-ish opener may perhaps open even more cans, without breaking, than a high-quality rotary type, then I suppose they may be right. But the number of cans you'd have to open with your twisty spiky thing to see the difference would, I think, have long since led you to employ that pointy little blade to slit your own throat.

I invite enlightenment on this subject from any readers who live in places where twist-spike openers are the norm.

(If you want to buy a P-38, they start from approximately no dollars on eBay. The P-38's larger and less painful cousin, the P-51, is also easy to find on eBay, for approximately no dollars plus 20 per cent.)

Cheap USB box du jour

The other day, I added another component to the haphazard patchwork of storage devices that've sprouted all over this house by buying the finest, cheapest external USB drive box m'verygoodfriends at Aus PC Market had to offer.

Astone drive box.
I probably should have dusted the N299.

The box in question carries the international mega-brand "Astone", but doesn't seem to actually be mentioned on their Web site. It is, superficially, yer standard slimline external box for 3.5-inch SATA drives. Here in Australia, it's available in silver for $AU38.50 including delivery (but not, of course, including a hard drive), or in black for $AU37.40 delivered.

[UPDATE: As of the end of 2009, the black version of this box is no longer available, and the price of teh silver one has risen a bit, to $AU49.50 including delivery to anywhere in Australia.]

So I bought the black one, obviously.

Along with the "750Gb" (real formatted capacity 698Gb) Samsung drive I also bought (selecting the "Assemble" option in Aus PC Market's checkout system, which tells them to connect together any things you've bought that can be connected, at no extra charge), the black box will set you back a total of $AU167.20 delivered.

(I get a small, and I do mean small, discount.)

So far, so ordinary. OK, it's astonishing that this much plug-and-play drive space costs so little these days, when I were young it were all trees round 'ere, et cetera. But I'm not the first person to notice that.

The Astone box, though, is a wee ripper.

It looks nice, it's made from aluminium, it's not big, and it doesn't contain some stupid 25mm fan that'll start making a noise like a blowfly after two months. It's passively cooled, and seems to have a decent thermal connection to the drive inside; the box gets a bit warm, but I think it'll probably keep the drive tolerably cool even in an Australian summer, not least because it comes with one of those little add-on stands that lets the box stand on its edge. That'll greatly improve convective cooling, and will probably be important when it gets hotter here in the Blue Mountains.

(As I write this, that Flash weather doodad is telling me that it's snowing. It actually does occasionally snow here - there was some lovely sleet the other day, too - but I just went outside to check and I believe that the form of precipitation that's actually occurring at the moment is more commonly referred to as "rain".)

Note that small drive boxes which tightly thermally couple the drive to the enclosure have, of necessity, no real impact protection at all. Any 3.5-inch external hard drive is likely to die if you knock it off your desk (2.5-inch and smaller laptop drives are tougher), but slimline boxes like this are the most fragile. Handle with care.

All of the above drive-box features are nice for the money, but not amazing. There are plenty of eBay USB boxes sold by cheap-'n'-cheerful Hong Kong retailers that have the same feature list.

The Astone box, though, supports spin-down.

Regular readers will know that this is a bit of a hang-up of mine. Home and small-office hard drives, especially add-on external drives, are often powered up for far more hours than necessary. This is exactly the purpose for which "sleep mode", spinning down the platters and thus saving power and component wear, was created.

But, generally speaking, sleep mode only works for internal drives. Cheap external drive boxes just don't support it. Their drives are either spinning whenever the box's power switch is on, or spin down only when the host computer is turned off or disconnected. Neither is a good solution.

Realistically, many cheap desktop drives will probably last at least a few years even if they're spinning 24/7. I resigned myself to this when I bought the Astone box.

But it turns out that the blighter spins down!

I don't know whether the spin-down feature is a simple timer, or whether it's getting it from the host computer. It's possible to send a drive-sleep command over USB, but I thought that Windows generally didn't do it, and that almost all external boxes ignored the command anyway.

Perhaps there's a new wave of cheap drive boxes that all support spin-down - wouldn't that be nice? I'll look into the issue in more detail when I get a moment in my busy schedule of writing very important articles.

In the meantime, be advised that AusPC's cheapie drive boxes are well worth buying.

Shoppers from Australia or New Zealand (and, I'm afraid, nowhere else - AusPC don't deliver outside these two countries) who'd like to order the black Astone box for $AU37.40 delivered can click here to do so. [UPDATE: As of late 2009, that version of the box isn't on sale any more.]

Big spenders willing to drop the extra $1.10 on the silver model [which is still available as of late 2009, but now costs $AU49.50] can order it here.

UPDATE: I've taken the box apart now (easy to do; just remove two little screws and the drive and little electronics module slide out, attached to the rear bulkhead), and squinted through my Optivisor at the tiny bridge chip.

Its markings:


Apparently the Initio 1606L is well-thought-of (especially by people who don't speak English), and Mac-compatible - I'll give it a shot on the tame Mac here shortly.

(The chip doesn't seem to be mentioned on the Initio site, which is ominously "copyright 2001". The closest I could find was this PDF datasheet for the INIC-1606, without an L on the end of its name.)

There's a little light guide in the front of the Astone box that looks as if it ought to be an activity light, but the box does not actually have an LED in that location. If the drive you use has its own LED that lines up, you'll see something there. There's an activity light on the electronics module, though; it's a blue LED that shines out of the back of the box, next to the DC-in jack.

UPDATE 2: I'm having a hard time finding ways for people outside Australia to buy this box. But you should be able to get one that works the same.

"Astone" is the house brand of Australian IT distributors Achieva, whose Web site is much better than the mummified Astone sites. Here's the page for this particular box, which they call the "ISO GEAR 360".

The box is actually made by Noontec. Finding the identity of the OEM source for yum cha gear usually makes it a lot easier to find that same gear under other names in other countries - but wouldn't you know it, Noontec is another brand that seems to be unknown outside Australia.

I just noticed that the small print on the Astone packaging actually says "Designed in Australia, made in China", so I suspect this particular enclosure really is pretty much impossible to find outside this country.

Fortunately, that's not a huge problem - all enclosures that use the same chipset should work the same. If you find another enclosure that uses the Initio INIC-1606L (and, preferably, also lacks a tiny short-lived fan), I bet it'll work just like this one.

If you're not in Australia or New Zealand, though, don't bother clicking the AusPC order-this-product links above; AusPC don't deliver outside AU and NZ.

A tale of two power supplies

I started writing a whole big thing about a Flexiglow "Series Connect" power supply, but there's not a lot of point to that since I don't think it's possible to buy one new any more.

The 500W Series Connect had been sitting on my to-review pile since late 2005. The nice people at Anyware who sent the PSU to me might have been annoyed about that. But it's now clear to me that they should instead count their blessings that I didn't get around to looking at it until now.

This power supply turns out to have armour on all of its cables that's so thick that the main motherboard power lead feels like a garden hose under full mains water pressure.

If your computer layout happens to match where this PSU's ludicrous cables want to go, it'll work - though you may find it impossible to put the side back on the computer case.

For almost any other computer, it's likely to be physically impossible to plug this PSU in, even if you only need a few of its leads.

I managed to get the main motherboard connector to plug in as long as the PSU itself was six inches in position and ninety degrees in orientation from where it was meant to be. Any attempt to move the PSU closer to its proper mounting location threatened to wrench the motherboard socket right off the board.

I then tried just cutting the useless armour off the leads. I've got a pipe cutter that made short work of the outer rubber layer. Under that, though, there's braided shielding, which of course frays all over the place and stabs your fingers and is difficult to cut without cutting the conductors under it and it's all a horrible schemozzle.

Do PC power leads need braided shielding? Of course they don't. PC components expect to get a bit of RF noise on their DC input. It's possible that some marginal (or heavily overclocked) components will work slightly more reliably with slightly less noisy input, or that some cruddy sound card will be a little less noisy that way, but there's a reason why the ATX12V PSU standard does not require shielding for DC wires.

The standard does, however, prohibit PSUs from sending more than a certain amount of noise down their DC wires, because that noise can easily out-shout - by orders of magnitude - the amount of noise the wires can possibly pick up from the air.

Shielding the wires, in that case, simply ensures that the PSU's own noise remains uncorrupted by noise from elsewhere.

I still needed a PSU to replace a dead one in a home-server box, though, so I made a shortlist of power supplies with enough plugs to support the forest of drives inside the server, then stuck a pin into the list and ordered a Corsair TX750W.

Apparently this PSU actually can deliver 750 watts of power, which is (a) way more than this server will ever need, and (b) quite unusual in the consumer PSU market. "Generic" PSUs usually underperform their stated capacity by a truly shameful margin, and you shouldn't expect even a brand-name "750W" PSU to be able to deliver more than a constant 600W or so. Some do, but many don't, and the bad ones drive the good ones out of the market.

(The TX PSUs are made for Corsair by Channel Well Technology, who make similarly high-spec PSUs for other companies, like Thermaltake.)

This PSU also has far more connectors than the server will need - but it's got enough drive connectors, which is all I really care about. And it wasn't much more expensive than a much less capable PSU. And under-loaded PSUs generally live for a very long time, and are likely to be more efficient. So what the heck.

I'm already glad I bought the Corsair, because it gave me such a laugh when I opened the box.

PSU in handsome presentation bag.

Within the box, and within the foam anti-shock packaging, but outside the final clear-plastic-bag level of packaging, this PSU comes in a fuzzy drawstring bag.

It's a very cheap fuzzy drawstring bag; thin, with fuzzy pseudo-suede on the outside only, and redolent of the various outgassings of the fresh electronic components that've lived within it since the PSU was bagged up at the factory. It's not nearly in the same class as your traditional Crown Royal dice bag.

But it is, nonetheless, within the definition of the term, a fuzzy drawstring bag.

For a computer power supply.

So, like, if you feel the need to unscrew just the PSU from your computer and carry it around with you, you won't have to tuck it uncomfortably under your arm or carry it by the ATX cable like a big square dead rat or something.

No, man. Not you. Not the Corsair TX owner.

You can bag that sucker up, man!

And then, if any punk on the street should allege that your rig be insufficiently pimped, you can say to him "Yo, I gots my P-to-the-S-U right here in a bag, bitch! What you got? Well? You got a motherboard hangin' round yo' neck that I ain't noticed? Huh?"

(And yes, I'm pretty sure there's a factory worker out there who can't believe he's making these things. Previously.)

Here in Australia, you can buy your own TX750W from m'verygoodfriends at Aus PC Market for a mere $AU211.20 including delivery anywhere in the country. And you might as well; it looks to me, and to people who bothered to actually test it, as if it'd be a perfectly good piece of hardware for the money, even if you didn't get a fuzzy drawstring bag into the bargain.

Australian shoppers can click here to order one.

"Crawford, please don't eat those."

Touch me!

I just watched From Beyond, which Stuart Gordon made a year after the more famous, and similarly Lovecraft... ish... Re-Animator.

(There's an animated 2006 version of From Beyond, as well, but an IMDB rating of 1.7 doesn't tempt me.)

The movie didn't get off to a good start. Every automatic door in a hospital - including the glass swinging doors on the exit - made the Star Trek door noise.

(This movie also turned out to be the source of the "giving them drugs, taking their lives away" sample from Empirion's acid-house classic Narcotic Influence. Which is neither here nor there, but which I found surprising enough that I just had to mention it.)

The acting is also not a good reason to watch this movie. And the script has only the tiniest skerrick of a connection with the original Lovecraft story.

Chompy otherworldly jellyfish thing

The special effects have their ups and downs, too.

(Actually, this beastie looks pretty good in motion.)

Oh, and then there's the bondage gear. And the supernaturally-induced horniness. I don't remember that from the original story either.

But, for all that, I quite liked it.

Like all good horror movies, From Beyond gives you the impression that there's some method to the madness even if you can't really figure it out. It also held my interest; there were no long predictable scenes with characters walking backwards into the grasp of a monster or failing to be believed by scornful, obviously-doomed townsfolk.

The movie's also got classic-horror stalwart Ken Foree, amiably tolerating a bit of light blaxploitation. And the silly bits of the ending are also the funny bits of the ending, so that's OK. I've watched far worse movies with far better production values.

As Neil Gaiman points out...

...visual media are not a good place to put Cthulhu Mythos stuff, because the whole idea is that the ghastly Things are as far beyond human comprehension as Jupiter is beyond the comprehension of an ant. But since this isn't really a Lovecraft-y story, that doesn't matter.

The version I watched is the unrated Director's Cut released only last year, which includes a couple of bits of footage that didn't make it past the censors when the movie was in theatres. Pay attention and you can spot the places, in a couple of particularly nutritious shots, where the recovered-from-the-cutting-room-floor footage was spliced back in.

Oh, and I made a panorama of the laboratory.

From Beyond lab panorama

You're welcome.

Forging ahead

The Forged Alliance expansion pack for the CPU-gobbling Real Time Strategy monolith of the moment, Supreme Commander, is rather good.

A couple of Ythothas. Or Ythothae.

First up: It's a stand-alone game. And not a terribly expensive one - sixty Australian bucks delivered from eBay dealers like the one I used, forty US bucks from Amazon).

If you only have Forged Alliance and not the original Supreme Commander (now only $US29 at Amazon!), you can still play multiplayer games against anybody else who has Forged Alliance, with or without SupCom. But the only side available to FA-only players is the new one, the weird alien Seraphim.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. The Seraphim, once you get past the bizarre names and shapes of their units, are actually simpler than the other three sides. They've got slightly fewer units available, but what they have combines the features of multiple enemy units.

So, for instance, they've got a very annoying "combat scout" unit, which has the wide view and radar coverage of everybody else's scouts, plus a decent gun (the other scouts either have no gun at all or a gun that does nearly no damage), and an automatic cloak feature that makes the scout almost completely undetectable if it's told to "hold fire" and doesn't move.

Forged Alliance's typically lousy storyline revolves around the Seraphim, whose weirdly-named units all look fantastic (those giant chicken-walkers in the picture above are "Ythothas". Or possibly Ythothae). Often asymmetric, always shiny, and usually with some parts that just hang there in the air with no connection to the rest of the machine.

This ultra-tech does raise the question of why the Seraphim units are roughly equal in power to those of the three human sides, but the answer to that is of course "because otherwise there wouldn't be much of a game".

FA has a short, but rather difficult, single player campaign in which you can play any of the three original sides against the Seraphim. (I, of course, would have rather liked the opportunity to play the Seraphim in the campaign and crush the miserable hominids, but we don't always get what we want.)

Forged Alliance is not just a unit pack. The whole game's been dramatically rebalanced, so if you've never played SupCom before you may be surprised to find yourself actually winning against someone who's been playing for months, but is now trying to do the same things they did in the original game.

It is, for instance, no longer economically sound to build vast resource farms full of generators and mass fabricators. Massfabs are much worse value than they used to be, so you can't just button yourself up in a self-sufficient base and not bother trying to control territory.

And veterancy - units getting tougher as their kill count rises - has been dramatically revamped. You used to practically never see a veteran unit except when something got to shoot at a factory that had a long build queue, so the attacker got credit for a kill every time it blew up the latest 1%-complete unit-in-progress. Now, most units get their first veterancy level - and some more hit points, and slow hit point regeneration - at five or ten kills. Little level 1 units veteranise even faster.

What this means is that, although tech-level-one units are more useful in FA, it's now a very bad idea to just spam hordes of tech one tanks at the enemy base. The defenders, including the enemy's all-important Commander, will very rapidly become rather buff at your expense.

(All we need now is Kingdoms-style gold highlights on veteran units!)

People are, of course, still finding things to bitch about, most notably the fact that FA is an even bigger system hog than "vanilla" SupCom, even after you turn off certain features that really pound frame rate down.

Pretty much any dual-core CPU and moderately recent video card is good enough for small multiplayer games of FA at reasonable resolutions (on one or two monitors!), though, so this isn't a You Must Upgrade Your One-Year-Old Computer game (like, say, Crysis).

I recommend it.

New Nvidia drivers: Worth having.

I just installed the brand new v163.71 Nvidia drivers (the last non-beta release was v162.18), and benchmarked Supreme Commander before and after. There's a small but significant improvement.

I'm tired of seeing articles about AMAZING NEW DRIVER IMPROVEMENTS OMG and then discovering that there's only any difference if you're using a GeForce 8800 on Windows Bloody Vista.

I've got a 32-bit-WinXP computer with a 2.2GHz (at the moment) dual core Athlon 64 and a 256Mb GeForce 7900 GT.

That's probably still faster than the average, but it's pretty far from the current cutting edge. (Only two cores, dahling? However can you cope?)

Driver tweaks aimed at the super-expensive dual-slot super-cards won't help me at all. I'm guessing that they won't help most of you, either. Tweaks that help a GeForce 7900 ought to be some use for various other current affordable Nvidia cards, though.

I've also got an effing big monitor, so I ran the tests in 2560 by 1600 resolution. That's practical for fullscreen Supreme Commander if you've got some flavour of 8800 (ATI aren't really in the very-high-end race at the moment), but it's actually very playable if...

Supreme Commander at 2560 by 1600 split the monitor between the normal view and the easy-to-draw topographic-view map.

Running the standard "perftest" benchmark in that resolution guarantees, despite Core Maximizer, that the game will be video-card-limited most of the time.

The Supreme Commander benchmark reports total frames rendered, "sim" performance (how fast the game calculates everything-but-graphics), "render" performance (graphics alone) and a "composite" score that roughly represents overall performance.

In this graphics-heavy test, my "render" result increased by nineteen per cent with the new drivers. The giant resolution and less-than-incredible video card meant that, in the peculiar jargon of the perftest benchmark, the "render" score only improved from minus 1029 to minus 863. But trust me, that's still good.

The logged-frames difference was +0.7%, which probably means less than experimental error and definitely means nothing you'd ever notice. The sim score improved only slightly more, at +1.6%. But the composite score improved 4.7%, from 5794 to 6065.

You probably wouldn't actually notice that in play - it's a general rule of thumb that differences of less than ten per cent aren't noticeable. But almost five per cent is not a bad improvement to get for free.

Complex Supreme Commander games are almost 100% CPU limited. Smaller games, though - and even complex games when you can't see much of the enormous map you're playing on - don't give your graphics card much time to breathe, especially if you've taken advantage of SupCom's still-rare ability to make use of a second monitor. So I don't think I'm lying with statistics, here.

(I'm not, to be fair, actually playing much Supreme Commander at the moment. I got ETQW yesterday, and intend to Strogg 4 Life for a while before getting back to the direction of vast robotic armies.)

Today, I received a press release whose title was "FixMyMovie Launches with James Bond-Style Video Enhancement".

This did not fill me with joyous anticipation. "Video enhancement" is one of those ridiculous action movie cliches - any old security camera footage can be "enhanced" to hundred-megapixel detail whenever it's necessary to move the plot along.

FixMyMovie does not, however, actually make such stupid claims. It would, in fact, probably be perfectly useless to James Bond.

What it aims to do is apply MotionDSP processing muscle to low quality video, to make it better looking without losing detail. At the moment you can make a free account on and upload any video clip smaller than 352 by 288 pixels in resolution and 20 megabytes in file size, and see what transpires.

So I did.

When I reviewed the Aiptek Pocket DV2 toy digital video camera back in early 2003, I strapped it to the top of a model tank and took it for a drive around a park. The Pocket DV2 produces grainy, fuzzy, nine frame per second 320 by 240 video, which is pretty much on par for cheap phone cameras these days. FixMyMovie is specifically designed to enhance phone camera video, so I figured one of the Aiptek clips would be a good sample.

Here's a Google Video version of the clip. [UPDATE: Now moved to YouTube.] Video of this quality is one of the few things that GooTube compression won't make a whole lot worse, but it's still lost some quality; you can download a DivX-compressed version of the original footage, which looks almost exactly the same as the original Motion JPEG video but is quite a bit smaller, here.

Here's the FixMyMovie-d version. If you can't see it, you probably need the latest beta Flash plugin. [UPDATE: This post is years old now, and the above FixMyMovie player code doesn't work any more. The YouTube version of the stabilised video is below.] If you've got the right plugin already, you've probably noticed that the FixMyMovie player currently has a MySpace-style auto-play function, which you can't turn off. Sorry about that.

The difference really is quite impressive. FixMyMovie has gotten rid of the prominent blocky compression artefacts in the original video, without noticeably blurring it. It's not an amazing, incredible, action-movie-bulldust improvement, but it's very worthwhile. Rapid camera movements - an acknowledged weakness of the enhancing technique - leave noticeable ghosts from previous frames. But they're only noticeable if you're trying hard to see something wrong with the video. The improvements far outweigh the problems.

The deal with FixMyMovie - once it leaves its current beta state - is that it'll only enhance the first ten seconds of any clip for free. If you like the look of it you can "Order" a fully processed version, which will cost money - 99 US cents, to enhance this clip.

(It took quite a long time to process this clip, presumably because people are already hammering the FixMyMovie server. You get an e-mail when processing is finished, though, so you don't have to sit there refreshing the My Videos page.)

At the moment, you get $US25 credit when you create a free account - and no, you don't have to give them a credit card number; use a disposable e-mail address if you're really paranoid. $25 should plenty to try the service out.

The player lets you play the whole clip even when only ten seconds have been enhanced, seamlessly connecting the enhanced beginning to the unprocessed rest of the video. Click the bar on the right-hand side of the video and you can compare processed and unprocessed still frames with a nifty mouse-drag interface.

As the FAQ explains, once you've fully processed a video, you can download it in various popular formats, including native h.263-encoded FLV flash video format, for upload to YouTube, which will then not recompress the video.

Here's the video on YouTube - I only just uploaded it, so it ought to be viewable in a moment. If you can't be bothered installing the new Flash player, or if it's not available for the computer you're using, this is pretty close to the version.

Google Video and YouTube still aren't completely harmonised; you can upload FLV-format video like this to YouTube, but not to Google Video.

The enhanced WMV and MOV versions of this dinky little one-minute clip were fifteen megabytes in size. They've got a bit more detail than the online Flash version - they look a bit better than the 7.5Mb FLV-format version too - but they're not nearly better enough to justify that huge file size.

The FixMyVideo enhancement hasn't done anything to the frame rate (which is good), but it's blown the file resolution up to 640 by 480, which along with 64 kilobit per second audio (which the crappy-camera original didn't have) accounts for the file size inflation.

The smaller FLV-format version is 320 by 240, as it should be, because that's the native resolution of GooTube.

The big file sizes aren't really a problem, because this enhancement technique is based around interframe interpolation; it tries to find the same image components in different frames, and overlay them to leave the image data and eliminate various forms of distortion. So it's kind of like speckle imaging and image stacking, but for motion video. Sticking with the original resolution would have thrown away some of the interpolated detail.

In brief, though: Yes, FixMyMovie works. I don't know how much value it'll have for video that looks OK to start with, but if you've got some crappy phone, web or toy camera video that you'd like to improve, check FixMyMovie out while it's still free.