How to Spend Some of that Year-End Cash

As 2006 draws to a close, many of us will sit down to watch our expensive new HDTV sets, or will plan to save up to buy one in 2007. Consequently, we may have a little less year-end cash to spend than we’d like. So this seems like a good time to discuss some products I’ve found that solve real-world problems at down-to-earth prices. They may be too specialized to make nice gifts for your friends, but they will make very nice gifts for yourself.
iPowerUS 9-Volt Lithium Polymer Batteries
My wireless mic transmitters burn through a lot of 9-volt batteries. At $2 to $5 a pop that adds up in both toxic and monetary waste. Rechargeable NiMH 9-volt batteries don’t provide enough run time to be worth the trouble.
But now iPowerUS has a rechargeable Li-Polymer 9-volt battery that’s affordable and powerful, and a charger that’s fast. The battery holds 500mAh and is good for at least 100 charging cycles. The charger will recharge the batteries in an hour and includes auto detection and auto stop features to avoid overcharging. The charger will also recharge NiMH and NiCD batteries in about two hours. But it’s the Li-Polymer battery that makes the iPowerUS systems special.
The battery will run a Lectrosonics UM400 transmitter for five hours (better than alkaline in my experience) and they work well in the cold. Just $90 gets you four 500mAh Li-Polymer batteries, a four-bay charger, and both wall and car (12V) power adapters for the charger. Additional batteries are $15 each. Perhaps not everyone will be as excited as I by the iPowerUS battery, but this gives me a way to save money and pollute less without sacrificing performance.
Cheap spherical paper lanterns cost $5 to $15 and make good and inexpensive soft lights- once, that is, you manage to attach them to a stand. And don’t move them much. And figure out how to ground them. Sure, you can jerry rig a solution, but I’d rather use a Lanternlock.
These paper lantern holders and light sockets are built around a welded 3/16-inch steel rod, come with a grounded power cord and end in a standard 5/8-inch stud. They easily mount on a C stand and, with an adapter, on portable light stands. Once mounted, you can position the lantern any way you want, easily attach duvetyn without tearing the lantern and otherwise treat the lantern as any other lighting device.
Available in sizes for 12- to 24-inch lanterns, and with either E26 (i.e., standard) or Mogul sockets, Lanternlocks cost between $60 and $85 with a lantern, but not including bulbs.
Matthews RoadRags
A few years ago I wanted a small light-control kit (i.e., some flags and scrims) that I would fit in my light kit. So when Matthews Studio Equipment introduced RoadRags, I bought a set. I’ve used it regularly ever since.
The 18 x 24-inch RoadRags frames are constructed like modern backpacking tent poles- lengths of aluminum tubing with an elastic cord running inside. Assembling the frames and slipping on the panels takes seconds. The kit doesn’t replace a 4 x 4 or 6 x 6-foot kit, but it’s so portable and easy to use that I always have it with me. It’s gotten me out of plenty of lighting jams.
The kit includes two folding frames and four fabric panels: single scrim, double scrim, artificial silk and flag. The whole thing folds into a bag that’s about 24 x 8 x 2 inches. It lists for $250, but is widely available for less. Matthews also makes gold and silver reflector panels that fit the RoadRags frames, and it sells a larger 24 x 36-inch RoadRags II kit that lists for $420.
DV Monitor
DV Monitor from Red Lightning Software lets you use a Mac computer as a field monitor on live video shoots. Connect the FireWire output of your camera to your Mac and see the full-resolution camera image. Checking focus, framing, lighting and exposure with DV Monitor is much easier than using a viewfinder or tiny flip-out LCD on a camcorder.
Of course, a monitor is only as good as its calibration, so DV Monitor provides a simple one-minute process that helps you calibrate it. The process affects only the DV Monitor application, not your whole computer system- a nice benefit.
It also features adjustable high- and low-exposure zebras, title-safe and other guides, including rule of thirds, a 16:9 digital squeeze mode and an image-flip feature that corrects the inverted images generated by some 35mm lens adapters.
DV Monitor doesn’t have all the features of DV Rack from Serious Magic (now Adobe). There are no scopes, direct-to-disk recording or other features. What DV Monitor does, though, it does well. And unlike DV Rack, DV Monitor runs on Macs (but only Macs).
The current version, 1.1, only supports SD NTSC and PAL video. DV Monitor requires Mac OS X 10.4 or newer and a 867 MHz or faster G4 or Intel processor. The program costs $149 and can be downloaded from the Web site.
I usually send interviews out to a service to get transcribed to text files with timecode, but sometimes I transcribe the video myself. It’s not usually a budget issue, since my time is worth something. But for technical content, or when I just need to spend time reflecting on what was said, doing the work myself makes sense. InqScribe from Inquirium makes the task as painless as possible.
Available for both Mac and Windows, InqScribe works like a combined video player and word processor. In a single window you watch and listen to the video (or just the audio) and type what you hear. A keystroke inserts a timecode marker into your transcript. Another steps the video back a few seconds. Adjust playback rate to match the content and your typing speed.
You can use a USB foot pedal to control the video and convert transcripts into simple subtitles. InqScribe works with AVI, MOV, MPG, WAV and MP3 media files and exports transcripts as HTML, plain text, tab-delimited text or XML. InqScribe works with Mac OS 10.02 and Windows 98 or newer, and costs $69.
USB HDTV Adapters
If you don’t want to spend the money for a big home-theater system, you could turn a computer into an HDTV set. For example, the EyeTV Hybrid from Elgato Systems and PCTV HD Pro Stick from Pinnacle Systems are both inexpensive, small USB adapters that let you watch NTSC analog and ATSC digital signals on personal computers.
About the size of a small cell phone, both devices come with coax cable F connectors, breakout cables with composite and S-Video inputs and software recording features and program guides.
EyeTV Hybrid from Elgato Systems ( costs $150 and requires Mac OS X 10.4 or later. Watching 720p or 1080i HDTV requires a Mac Dual G5 or Intel Core Duo system. PCTV HD Pro Stick from Pinnacle Systems ( costs $130 and requires Windows XP. HDTV needs a Pentium D, Dual Core or Athlon 64 CPU. (Note: Though Liquid is now an Avid-branded product, this Avid division continues to support its consumer products and upgrades for existing Liquid customers.)
Over-the-air (OTA) HDTV reception requires a bit more attention to antenna selection and positioning than does analog reception. In my neighborhood, RadioShack’s ( $50 DA-5200 HDTV UHF Outdoor Antenna seems to work well. Since your mileage may vary, the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) maintains an antenna mapping program,, that will guide you in choosing an appropriate antenna for your particular location.
A killjoy may say that once you factor in the price of the computer and monitor the total cost of a computer-based HDTV isn’t that great. You can make a similar argument about any of these gadgets, but if you buy into that, you might as well just watch video rather than make it. And what fun is that?