Evans Above

Apr 21, 2016

A workflow for archiving and backing up important papers and memories with the ScanSnap iX500

We’ve all seen the news story where a person who has just been the victim of a disaster cries out that everything is gone and all of their memories are lost. We know about the natural disasters like hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes and floods. We know about the fires, natural gas explosions and man-made flooding caused by aging infrastructure. We also know that geopolitics, terrorism and unrest can also put our personal information and memories at risk.

Fujitsu ScanSnap iX500

Fujitsu’s ScanSnap iX500 can help reduce the mountain of paper in your home and safely archive your important papers.

It’s not just the memories that are gone. A person may be thinking about the old letters their great grandfather wrote home when he was in the military, but perhaps the immediate issue at hand is the important papers asked for by the insurance company or local government office. There’s a way to take care of both the memories we want and the important data we need. It does require some time. It does require some planning. However, if you ever face the day when a CNN reporter is standing where your house used to be, you can be the person who’s able to say, “We’re alive. A house can always be rebuilt and thankfully all of our memories and documents are backed up and safe.” Isn’t that worth a little time and effort?

Yes, I said it. Time and effort. It’s going to require both at first, because you’re going through your home and collecting all the paper debris that clutters our space and minds. If you do it right, the real “heavy lifting” occurs just once and then after that you’re just updating as the papers come in or, say, once a week. The peace of mind is worth the price of admission.

The good news is that the hardware exists to make the job easier. As part of our research into this article, we were given the chance to review the Fujitsu iX500 ScanSnap scanner, which is consistently rated as one of the top picks for small office/home office scanners. I am not exaggerating when I say the scanning was the easiest part of this process. Once you collect all of your life on paper, the ScanSnap iX500 will make it a breeze to capture it digitally. Let me say it again: I actually found the scanning part to be fun.

We wanted to give this process the full test. We went through filing cabinets and shelves, drawers and cupboards, wallets and closets until we collected all the paper hiding in our home. We then categorized it and sorted it by date. We had bank and credit card statements going back years. We had university lecture notes, essays and exams. We had tax documents. We had Christmas cards and birthday cards and photos and product warranties. We ended up with the proverbial mountain of paper.

Collecting the paper is one thing. Organizing it is the real task.

Let’s take those various statements that you get monthly from your bank or broker. Or the tax statements that you get from the government. Clear off a table or put something down on a bed or floor as some of your older documents might be a little dusty. The main thing is that you need room.

First off, organize them by category. You might have literally grabbed a foot high stack of paper from a shelf or old box that’s completely unsorted. Now is not the time to sort it by date. That will just slow you down. You want to go from big picture to small detail, macro to micro. So grab that first pile of papers and put all the statements together by company. You’ll soon have a pile for each company or government that you deal with.

You’re not done. That was just the first pile you grabbed from somewhere in your house. You know when you watch a police drama and they smash into a home looking for the bad guy? They go from room to room checking for their suspect and yelling “clear” as they sweep each room. Okay, you don’t have to yell “clear”, but sweeping room by room is a good idea. Why? You might think you only have papers in one room. You don’t. You might have forgotten, but you quickly grabbed that credit card statement you left on the table before Thanksgiving and shoved it into the dining room hutch as the guests arrived early. That letter from your bank? You put that in the sock drawer so you wouldn’t forget it on Monday. (You did.) The report card was shoved into the kitchen drawer by the phone after you suddenly remembered you had to run out for groceries. To paraphrase the old saying about cockroaches, if you can see one piece of paper out in the open, there are probably dozens hiding elsewhere in your house. So sweep each room and then take those piles and add them to the piles you’ve already got on the table.

If you’re running out of table space, it’s okay to consolidate similar statements for now. You might have gone through a few different insurance companies or banks. In that case – for now – put all of your bank statements together if it gives you more room on the table for other categories. Once you’ve finally swept your house, you’re ready for the next step.

A quick message of support. You can do this. It seems like a pain right now, but the good news is that you only have to do this once if you do it properly and then setup a process for future incoming paper. This giant scanning dump will then be replaced by a “scan it as you get it” or weekly scanning run that will keep things under control and keep you prepared for anything.

Okay, so you’ve got everything in piles. Grab one of the piles. Organize it by month and company. Do the same for the next pile. And the next. Suddenly your table is full of organized piles of paper. We’re finally at the step where we can start scanning.

The ScanSnap iX500 is incredibly easy to use. With such a wonderful tool, the scanning is easily a one person job. Yes, you can climb this mountain of papers without anyone else. While the iX500 is scanning a pile of paper, you can be grabbing the next one and tidying it up. As the iX500 whips through the scanning, you can watch the scanning progress pop-up for any error messages (you will hardly ever see one) and name the newly scanned file before inserting the next pile of papers. Rinse and repeat. The ScanSnap iX500 scans quickly. It will go through your papers so fast that all the sorting and preparation will make the scanning seem anticlimactic. Does it have to be a solo job? No. If you’ve always looked at a friend or family member and thought they’d enjoy scanning, invite them over to make it a scanning party. Then wonder why you think about scanning so much.

How should you group and name the files? You might have papers going back years. Your process will be slowed down if you do the really old stuff by month. I’d grab a year of old statements, sorted by month, scan them and name them something like this:

Year-Name of person-Name of company and type of statement.pdf

So John Doe’s ABC Bank VISA statement files might be like this:

2001-John Doe-ABC Bank VISA statements.pdf, 2002-John Doe-ABC Bank VISA statements.pdf, etc.

The year makes it easy to find if you suddenly need to grab all the files for a certain year. Need all the 2009 files? Search your computer for 2009*.pdf

You might be thinking, “I’m single, I don’t need the name.” Well, one day you might be a couple or a family and it might be great to have files like 2001-John Doe-ABC Bank VISA statements.pdf, 2001-Jane Doe-ACME Company paystubs.pdf, and 2020-Billy Doe-report cards.pdf. A second creating a good file naming scheme now saves you minutes in the future.

Let’s say you’re part way through the year. I’d still save all the statements you have for the current year into a file named for the year. With the iX500 scanner and its ScanSnap Organizer software, when the latest statement arrives, you can open the current year’s file and scan the new statement directly into it. If you are using another scanner or software, there are PDF merge utilities out there. After using other scanners and software, I’d really recommend the ScanSnap iX500 for its ease of use and features.

Here’s another reason why scanning documents is great. I call them the “one offs”. Tossing all of your bank statements into a filing cabinet is easy. But what about all the pieces of paper that you only have one of? Are you going to toss them into a giant overflowing physical file folder called “Miscellaneous”? Probably not. But need to prove that you were called for jury duty a few years ago? Scanning that jury notice as 2014-John Doe-Jury Notice.pdf can easily be found on your computer with a search for jury.pdf. I’d also recommend scouring the web for downloadable copies of the manuals you have. Can’t find it online? Carefully cut up the manual and scan it. Now you’ll always have the instructions for your vacuum cleaner handy.

The ScanSnap iX500 comes with a carrier sheet that can be used for more delicate documents. In simple terms, it’s two joined plastic sheets that you can put delicate items into so the plastic takes the brunt of the rollers that bring the documents into the scanners. I’d use it for delicate items like old paper birth certificates, newspaper clippings, old family letters and photographs. You can also use it to help scan old birthday cards or the drawings your kids have up on the fridge.

Let’s digress for a second and discuss photographic prints. Yes, the ScanSnap iX500 can scan photos. Yes, it has a carrier sheet to protect the photos as they go through the automatic document feeder. Yes, the highest colour resolution of 600dpi will do a good job of scanning your prints. As a photographer, I still find myself partial to a flatbed scanner for prints. That’s just me. If you’re going to use the iX500 for photographs, check it out with a few photo prints and see how you feel about it. If you’re happy, I’m happy. If you find that you’re family has a lot of larger prints or even books you want a record of, you might want to invest in a contactless scanner like the Fujitsu ScanSnap SV600 Contactless scanner.

Here’s another thought about photos. Why not leave them for scanning after the papers are out of the way. A credit card statement from 2014 or a report card from 1972 is pretty self-evident. But maybe you found a box of photos in the attic that you vaguely remember. Why not get together with your family historian? You know, the parent, cousin, aunt or grandparent who remembers everything and everyone. After you’ve grouped the photos and scanned them, why not invite your “historian” over and have them tell you the people in the photos or the stories behind them. This way, you can create a digital memory book. There are various print-on-demand services that can even help you make a nice bound book full of the photos that you could give as presents to family members. If you’re one of those people who has a hard time coming up with gift ideas, I’m giving you a great one here. This is gold ticket stuff. You can thank me later. Oh, and if you see me, I take my coffee black. Just spit-balling here, but you could also use slideshow software that allows recordings and actually record Grandma talking about the birthday party photo that ended in a food fight. You can be your family’s Ken Burns.

Okay, back to your files. You probably don’t want to have one giant folder full of scanned files on your computer. Yes, you can use the search to find a file, but give yourself a head start by creating a hierarchy of folders in your documents folder. Do what you feel works best for you. You could have folders based on name and then category so, for example, you have a John Doe folder with Tax, University and Banking folders inside. Or you create category folders and then have separate folders for each family member inside them. See what works best for you. I tend to lean towards names followed by categories, so when Billy Doe moves out you can easily grab all of his files in one swoop for him to take.

What’s next? You’ve scanned all of your documents. You’ve worked out that you may want to shred some of the documents you no longer need hard copies of in order to reclaim some space in your home. Before you go on a massive shredding binge, I’d strongly recommend backing your files up. Your hard drive is perfectly timed to die the second you shred a file you haven’t backed up.

Backing up, like visiting the dentist, is one of those things that we intend to do but always put off. However, what’s the point of scanning all of your paper documents if your computer can be destroyed in the same disaster or accident that would have destroyed the paper original? So you need a backup.

Backing up to a second drive in your computer or home is a start, but not a solution. That sort of backup is good if one drive dies a natural death as you can quickly be up and running by restoring the data from the second drive. But again, if a fire or flood or theft destroys one drive, the second one isn’t going to be miraculously safe just because it’s a backup. You need an offsite solution. That solution can be physical, in the cloud, or preferably, both. For example, you might backup all of your scans to an external hard drive and put it in a safety deposit box. Chances are that you’re not going to keep going back and forth to the bank to update the drive and yes, the natural disaster that hits your home could hit your bank too. So a remote backup and/or a cloud backup is a much better solution.

The cloud is just an easier, friendly marketing term for a collection of networked computers securely accessible through the internet. So when people say “Why not backup your scans to the cloud?”, they’re suggesting that you use a service that will securely keep a copy of your backups on remote, geographically-dispersed computers. There are many services out there like Backblaze, Carbonite and Crashplan, just to name a few. Typically you sign up for the service, install a small piece of software and sit back as your computer backs itself up the cloud automatically. Depending on the size of your files and the speed of your internet connection, the initial backup might take hours, days or even weeks. So again, hold off on that shredding party until your initial backup is done. Typically these services cost about $5 a month or so. So for the price of a fancy coffee, you can have a backup process that works silently in the background. Isn’t that worth your piece of mind? You did all that hard work getting your papers ready to scan, so take the extra step and make sure those scans are safe to. Again it’s all about piece of mind and having information at your fingertips.

Information retrieval is another area where this whole collect and scan process can help you. The ScanSnap iX500 can use OCR (Optical Character Recognition) to “read” your scans and save them as searchable PDF files. So now you can search your computer for “calcium” and it will find all the references to calcium that were in those newspaper and magazine articles you scanned. Or use it to find certain charges in your credit card statements. Your life is getting easier already.

In just a few work sessions, you have saved your important documents, saved your even more important family memories, and earned some peace of mind and maybe even some extra space in your home. I can’t stress enough that though the project may seem daunting at first, a wonderful tool like the Fujitsu ScanSnap iX500 can make the project easy to accomplish.

The Fujitsu ScanSnap iX500 scanner makes scanning effortless

I was recently given the chance to take a look at the Fujitsu ScanSnap iX500. I was planning an article on the need to scan and backup important documents and memories and my initial research showed that the ScanSnap iX500 was routinely on top of the list when it came to SOHO (Small Office Home Office) scanners. I’ll get to the nuts and bolts in a second but first let me give you my initial reactions to the iX500.

Fujitsu ScanSnap iX500

Fujitsu’s ScanSnap iX500 makes scanning a breeze.

The ScanSnap iX500 is so easy and convenient to use that it quickly becomes an indispensable part of your computer/office setup. Some other scanners I’ve used require launching the software, adjusting settings, doing a prescan and crop and then the actual scan. The extra steps can sometimes lead you to put off scanning tasks and we all know how easy a deferred task soon becomes a forgotten one. With the ScanSnap iX500, you can set up a preferred workflow, e.g. always scan to a searchable PDF file, and then just insert the paper, press one button, and name the resulting file. It becomes so easy to return home and scan receipts or grab the mail and scan that new financial statement. That ease of use lends itself to one of the principles of David Allen’s GTD (Getting Things Done) productivity method, which is if a task can be done in less than five minutes, do it now. The ScanSnap iX500 makes keeping up with your paper life so easy that your inbox never turns into a mountain. I’ll have more on that in my backing up memories and documents article.

Let’s put it another way. If the ScanSnap iX500 was a friend, I’d invite it to parties. If I knew when the unit I’m using was manufactured, I’d get it a birthday cake. The thought of scanning filing cabinets full of documents was scary, but the ScanSnap iX500 made the task simple and, dare I say, fun.

Let’s take a look at the technical specifications of the ScanSnap iX500. It has an auto-document feeder which can hold up to 50 pages at a time. It’s a duplex scanner, which means that it scans both sides of a page in one pass, which is great for documents like credit card statements that try to cram as much information into as few pieces of paper as possible. In Normal scanning mode, the ScanSnap iX500’s scanning resolution is 150 dpi (dots per inch) for colour and grayscale and 300 dpi for monochrome. Best mode takes it up to 300 dpi for colour and grayscale and 600 dpi for monochrome. At those resolutions, the ScanSnap iX500 is able to whip through the pages at 25 pages per minute, which means 50 pages if you’re looking at a double-sided source. The only time that scanning speed is reduced is when you crank up the resolution to Excellent. It will then slow down to 7 ppm but in return you get a scanning resolution of 600 dpi for colour and grayscale and 1200 dpi for monochrome.

The ScanSnap iX500 is excellent at recognizing paper sizes automatically, though there are adjustable guides to steady the paper flow. Without any assistance, the feeder is able to handle A4, A5, A6, B5, B6, business card, letter, legal and custom sizes from a maximum of 216 × 360mm to a minimum of 50.8 × 50.8mm. Using the carrier sheet, which is a see-through plastic handler, you can scan delicate pages and photographs as well as A3, B4, and double-letter pages. You can even carefully fold a page that is too big for the scanner in half, scan both sides, and the ScanSnap software will stitch the image together for you.

The ScanSnap iX500 weighs about 3 kg and when in its off mode (which means the paper holders are closed) it takes up a mere 292 × 159 × 168 mm (W x D x H). It’s very sleek looking when it’s closed and could best be described as looking like Darth Vader’s lunch box. When you open it to reveal the paper feeder and scanned document output tray, it is still not something that is going to take up a lot of space on your desk or shelf. Opening the device powers it on and closing it turns it off. I really like the fact that the indicator LEDs are only illuminated when the device is on. The ScanSnap iX500 knows it’s cool and doesn’t feel the need to brag that it’s around by illuminating the room with bright airport landing lights when it’s off like so many other devices these days. (Yes, I’m looking at you, Mr. TV.)

How do we get started with the ScanSnap iX500? After excitedly removing it from its box, you open the unit and take out the protective packaging (a few small pieces of foam taped to the unit) that protect the scanner’s more sensitive areas. Before attaching the ScanSnap iX500 to your computer, use the ScanSnap setup DVD to install the required software. You then attach the ScanSnap via USB or follow the instructions to connect it to your computer via WiFi. The ScanSnap iX500 has a USB 3.0 connector (and is USB 2.0/USB 1.1 compatible) and on the WiFi side can connect via 802.11b, g or n.

The WiFi abilities and its built-in dual core CPU means that the ScanSnap iX500 is able to act independently of a connected computer. What does that mean? It means that if you’re about to head out the door and want to quickly scan a document to your iOS or Android tablet or smartphone, you just fire up one of ScanSnap’s free apps, put the paper into the scanner, hit the scan button in the app and in seconds the document is in your tablet or phone even if your home PC is off. Again, that makes scanning convenient and easy to do as needed.

The ScanSnap iX500 also comes with a suite of software:

  • ScanSnap Manager allows you to easily change the settings and workflow for the one-button operation of the scanner.
  • ScanSnap Organizer (Windows only) allows to view your PDFs and JPEG files and arrange the files in folders.
  • CardMinder allows you to quickly go through that mountain of business cards that you may have collected over the years. The software uses intelligent text recognition to grab the data off the cards and assist you in placing them into a contact database that can also be linked to a wide variety of other applications.
  • ABBYY FineReader for ScanSnap performs OCR (optical character recognition) on your scanned files and enables you to convert that data into Word, Excel or PowerPoint files.
  • Evernote is a program with a rabid fan base. It allows you to collect notes, images and web pages and store and access them in the cloud via the web or app. Since you’re using the ScanSnap iX500 to scan a ton of paperwork and images, Evernote is one tool that can be used to access and search the resulting information.

If you wondering what the heck the cloud is, it’s just a term for networked storage of documents on servers hosted on the internet, which means you can generally access your files anywhere you are. Besides Evernote, which goes way beyond simple cloud storage, the ScanSnap iX500 also comes with software to access the popular cloud services SugarSync and Dropbox.

On the “Windows only” side of things, the ScanSnap iX500 also comes with an application to scan files to Microsoft SharePoint and Office Live, a trial version of Rack2-Filer Smart, which is a digital document manager, a trial version of Magic Desktop which enables you to sort scanned data or mobile created documents into work and personal groups. The ScanSnap iX500 also comes with the global standard for creating, manipulating and editing PDF files, Adobe Acrobat X Standard. Our review unit did not come with Acrobat, so I won’t be discussing that.

I’m a huge fan of the ScanSnap Organizer software. You can quickly view and edit a PDF file from its built-in viewer and rotate or delete pages that you don’t need. I also like the ability to import a PDF that was previously created by the ScanSnap iX500 and add pages to it with a new scan. You just import the PDF, open it in the built-in viewer and then hit the scan button on the ScanSnap iX500. It will then ask you where you want to append or insert the new scan. This is great if you create a PDF for, say, the current year statements of an account and want to add the new new months in as they arrive.

The Fujitsu ScanSnap iX500 is easy to setup and even easier to use. I can see why it has been so heartily recommended. Great tools and services reduce friction, the impediments to getting a task done that cause you to delay or abandon the task. The ScanSnap iX500 smooths the process and can help you reduce the clutter and increase the productivity and peace-of-mind in your life.

It’s also the perfect tool for our article on backing up and archiving the important documents in your life.

Apr 05, 2016

Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens Blu-ray review

To call Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens “eagerly anticipated” was probably the biggest understatement of 2015. Forget the fans for a second. When I went to the press screening, cynical reporters and hardened critics looked like kids waiting to open a Christmas present early. I swear that one TV correspondent was literally hopping in anticipation.

So needless to say the Blu-ray release has been just as anticipated. After all, know the hardcore fans can pore of each scene looking for clues and further information on the story to come.

The Blu-ray has a 1080p transfer in a 2.40:1 aspect ratio. To sum it up, it looks great. Star Wars has never been as clean a universe as Star Trek. It may a world full of space ships and intergalactic travel, but equipment still gets dirty, grease is still needed to lubricate things and clothes get torn in battle. The Blu-ray captures every bit of detail, every fabric texture and every menacing piece of hardware. Colors pop when colors need to pop and darker scenes are dark but not muddy.

To say sound is important to Star Wars is also stating the obvious. What fan cannot hum whole passages from John Williams’ score? On the soundtrack side, the disc has an English DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 track as well as French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks, with English SDH, French and Spanish subtitles. The soundtrack is immersive to say the least. The surround channels get a real workout as the viewer is placed in the center of the action and the surround always supports the scene and is not gimmicky. The low-end of your system also gets to flex as starships rumble into view and battles rage on multiple fronts. Starting the Millennium Falcon has always been an exercise in skill and luck and viewer can hear the clicking and beeping of every switch thrown in the process. Dialogue is clear and precise.

The release has a great selection of extras on their own dedicated disc. An hour plus making of feature examines the franchises move to Disney, the hiring of J.J. Abrams, on location filming, digital effects, and character evolution.

We also get a quick look at the table read, creature crafting, building the new droid BB-8, lightsabe duels, practical and digital effects, the John Williams score, and deleted scenes.

Let’s face it, for fans I could have just typed “yada yada” as they’ve already ordered the set. If you’ve just discovered Star Wars, you’ll want this in your collection.

Feb 02, 2016

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs Signature Collection Blu-ray review

Disney once again releases its classic 1937 film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first full length animated colour feature. The audio and video presentations of this 2016 Signature Collection Blu-ray release are identical to the 2009 Diamond Edition. There’s some slight alteration to the extras with a few new ones but several that are missing. If you already have the Diamond Edition, you’ll have to decide whether this latest release is a must have. If you don’t have it, then you’ll have to decide which disc to add to your home entertainment library.

The original material was shot with the 1.37:1 Academy ratio also known as 4:3. Since we’ve all mostly moved to widescreen TV’s the presentation of this 1.34:1 1080p transfer would leave us with black bars down the sides of the screen. To get around that, you’re offered the option of watching the film in DisneyView, which places artwork from Toby Bluth in the areas where the black bars would be. The transfer was restored and remastered and looks great. The colour palette is bold, the black levels and contrast nice and deep, and the level of detail captures the artistry of this hand-drawn, hand-painted masterpiece. The digital transfer does not exhibit any noticeable banding or aliasing. Disney has given this historical film the love and attention it deserves.

On the audio side, we get an English DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 soundtrack, the original mono English soundtrack in Dolby Digital and French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks. Subtitles are available in English SDH, French and Spanish. Since they’re working from a mono original, Disney has used the low-frequency and surround tracks subtly, moving some aspects of the soundscape to create a slightly immersive experience. Dialogue is clear and the music and songs sound great. They treated the original sound work with respect and don’t do anything too gimmicky.

As noted the Signature Collection disc has some new extras, some old extras and is missing some material that was available on the Diamond edition.

Here are the new extras on this edition:

  • In Walt’s Words: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: An audio interview with Walt, with accompanying images, the inspirations, and process involved in making the film.
  • Iconography: Various individuals reflect on the iconic film and imagery and the film’s legacy and influence.
  • @DisneyAnimation: Designing Disney’s First Princess: Various animators discuss the character design and history of Disney’s first princess.
  • The Fairest Facts of Them All: 7 Things You May Not Know About Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: Descendants star Sofia Carson shares interesting facts you may not know about the feature.
  • Snow White In Seventy Seconds: A hip-hop version of the story.
  • Alternate Sequence: The Prince Meets Snow White: A never-seen sequence of Snow White meeting the Prince for the forest time.
  • Disney’s First Feature: The Making of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: A longer version of the extra found on the Diamond Edition release.

Holdovers from the Diamond Edition:

  • Bringing Snow White to Life
  • Hyperion Studios Tour: The version on the Diamond edition is longer.
  • Decoding the Exposure Sheet
  • Snow White Returns
  • Story Meetings: The Dwarfs
  • Story Meetings: The Huntsman
  • Deleted Scene: Soup Eating Sequence
  • Deleted Scene: Bed Building Sequence
  • Animation Voice Talent
  • Audio Commentary: Commentary from Roy E. Disney and John Canemaker, and as well as some audio of Walt Disney.

As mentioned, some of the extras from the Diamond Edition are missing. If you’re interested in explorations of the departments that handle story, art direction, music and background painting you may want to explore the Diamond Edition. Don’t feel bad which version you choose, the money’s still going to Disney!

Bridge of Spies Blu-ray review

In my review of Bridge of Spiestheatrical release, I said that “Bridge of Spies is a film that find its strength in its convictions.” This isn’t a loud summer blockbuster but a mature, taut Cold War thriller. I was eager to see its Blu-ray release.

The Blu-ray transfer is very good. It’s a 1080p video transfer in a 2.40:1 aspect ratio. Details abound, whether it’s in the heavy winter overcoats or the stone and brick of New York and Berlin. Skin colours are realistic and in a movie that has a lot of action in the shadows of a cold and grey Berlin, black levels are nice and deep. There’s some occasional softness in the backgrounds but apart from that the image is very sharp. The video presentation does not disappoint.

On the audio end of things, we get an English DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 soundtrack as well as French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks. Subtitles are available for English SDH, French and Spanish. The surround tracks immerse you in the world of the film adding lifelike details like passing cars, footsteps, clacking typewriters and putting you in the centre of the proceedings. Dialogue is clear and well-placed in the centre channel.

The disc also comes with four featurettes: a look at the real-life events the film explores, an examination of the Berlin Wall and how the film recreated it, a look at the U-2 spy plane and the historical details of the spy swap, including a visit with Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Jan 26, 2016

Goosebumps Blu-ray review

I quite enjoyed Goosebumps in the cinema, so I was looking forward to its Blu-ray release from Sony Home Entertainment.

The 1080p transfer is in the film’s original aspect ratio of 2.39:1. Being a film with a lot of “things that go bump in the night” it has quite a few dark scenes. The black levels are good in those scenes but the daytime and lit interior scenes really pop with colour and detail on surfaces and materials. Except for some occasional banding, the video presentation is pleasing.

On the audio side, your ears get an English Dolby Atmos, soundtrack, Dolby TrueHD 7.1, a French DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 track. Subtitles are available for English, English SDH, French and Spanish. The musical soundtrack is clear and makes use of the low frequency output nicely. Viewers will find themselves immersed in the comic chaos with good use of the surround speakers. Dialogue is crystal-clear and focused in the centre track.

Onto the extras. You get a three minute blooper real, am alternate opening, seven deleted scenes, and a look t the Slappy character’s history in Stine’s books. There’s also a monster survival guide from two of the characters, a look at some on set incidents, a tutorial from makeup artists Steve Prouty and Fionagh Cush, some screen test videos and previews of other Sony films.

Fans of the Goosebumps books will love having this disc around and even newcomers to the books will enjoy having this family friendly comedy in their home entertainment library.

Jan 05, 2016

Infinitely Polar Bear Blu-ray review

We covered Infinitely Polar Bear when it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2014 and now it’s nice to see the movie, starring the always solid Mark Ruffalo, available from Sony Home Entertainment as a Blu-ray release. Written and directed by Maya Fores, Infinitely Polar Bear follows a family as they cope and struggle with their father’s mental illness. The film also stars Zoe Saldana, director Forbe’s daughter, Imogene Wolodarsky, and Ashley Aufderheide.

The 1080p transfer is in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1. Shot digitally, the resulting transfer looks great, with fine details, clothing textures and a pleasing palette of colours. Black levels can sometimes be a tiny bit bright and there is some mild noise but it doesn’t detract from the overall presentation. All in all, this is a very pleasing video presentation.

On the video end, the disc has an English and French DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track as well as Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks in Czech, Hungarian, Polish and Russian. On the subtitle side, viewers get English, English SDH, French, Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, Estonian, Hindi, Hungarian, Icelandic, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, Slovak, and Slovenian. This isn’t an action film that immerses you in a soundscape, but the surround speakers are used to give us some nice atmosphere. The dialogue’s the thing in this script and it’s crisp and clear here.

On the extras side, there’s a UV digital copy, audio commentary from Ruffalo, Forbes and her producer husband Wally Wolodarsky, a Q&A from the LA Film Festival hosted by Executive Producer J.J. Abrams, deleted scenes and some trailers.

With top notch acting, this directorial debut is highly recommended.

Nov 05, 2015

Inside Out’s emotions come out on Blu-ray

In Inside Out, Midwestern girl Riley has her life uprooted when her father takes a new job in San Francisco. Turmoil ensues when the control centre of her emotions get out of whack and Joy (Amy Poehler) has to try and get everything in balance again.

Our emotional life is complex, yet the master storytellers at Disney’s Pixar have once again been able to make its exploration accessible, heartwarming and entertaining.

Inside Out was a 3D release, but no matter how many times I click my heels, my TV remains strictly 2D, so my review will be of that version of the new Blu-ray disc. The 1080p transfer is in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio. If the video transfer was an emotion, it’d be joy. The might be some odd banding, but otherwise the image is pristine. The colours representing the various emotions pop with vibrancy, but that doesn’t mean they overwhelm the movie’s more restrained visual treats as low light scenes have detail and shadows have depth. Textures on objects and clothing are sharp and even the littlest detail like hair is stunning.

On the video end, the disc comes with English DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1, DTS-HD HR 5.1, and Dolby Digital 2.0 tracks as well as French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks. We also get English, English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles. The soundtrack is immersive, whether we’re in the outside world or the world of Riley’s emotions. Surround tracks and low frequency moments are used perfectly throughout, and dialogue is never lost in the mix.

The package is also bursting with extras. We get the shorts Lava and Riley’s First Date?, the female cast and crew featurette Paths to Pixar: The Women of Inside Out, a look at the character design and audio commentary from director Pete Docter and co-director Ronnie Del Carmen. We get a few more behind-the-scenes looks, a look at the sound effects, an exploration of film editing, deleted scenes and several trailers.

Simply put, Inside Out is a perfect addition to your Blu-ray library.

Oct 12, 2015

The Genie grants your wish: Aladdin released on Blu-ray

It’s hard to believe that the classic Disney animated film Aladdin hit the big screen twenty-three years ago. The joyous, high-energy fun, anchored by Robin Williams’ performance as Genie, is now available on Blu-ray with the release of the Diamond Edition. A new generation can now enjoy the adventures of Aladdin, Abu, Princess Jasmine and Genie as they try to escape the clutches of the evil Jafar.

Aladdin is a hand-drawn animated film, but used computer animation in a few scenes and to aid in colouring of the drawings. This disc has a 1080p transfer with a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The result is, in a word, gorgeous. Yes, there’s some colour banding. Yes, there’s some occasional macro-blocking, but none of it takes away from the whole presentation. The colours are as rich as the fabrics being sold in the bazaars. The black levels are inky (traditional animation pun not intended) and the contrast is excellent. Textures on the line drawings and flying carpet are crisp. If you asked a genie for one wish regarding the video presentation, he’d deliver this.

What does Genie give us on the audio side? An English DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 soundtrack as well as French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks. We also get English, English SDH, French and Spanish subtitles. The songs and action are well-served by the surround speakers and the low frequency output gives a firm floor to every joke and musical number. The dialogue is very clean and intelligible, which is so necessary to keep up with Robin Williams’ lightning-fast ad libs.

On the extras side, we have a combination of materials new to this disc and older material that appeared on DVD releases. The new materials include 9 minutes of audio outtakes from Williams, directors John Musker and Ron Clements and animator Eric Goldberg that are interspersed with storyboards, “Genie 101”, where the voice of Aladdin, Scott Weinger goes over some of the many impersonations Williams’ character performs, a look at the collaboration of the co-directors Ron and John, a look at the discs Easter eggs, and look at the Broadway production of Aladdin hosted by Darren Criss. Older extras include audio commentaries by the directors and supervising animators, a full-length documentary on the making of the film, deleted scenes and songs, a shorter musical documentary, music videos and trailers.

Simply put, you need to add Aladdin to your collection.

Oct 02, 2015

Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron Blu-ray review

When I reviewed the theatrical release of Avengers: Age of Ultron, I likened it to a roller-coaster ride with a few issues and the Blu-ray release of the film seems to follow that pattern technically as well. Though the issues shouldn’t have stopped you from seeing the film, the same goes for adding the Blu-ray to your collection. One note, Disney has released a 3D Blu-ray combo pack. We’ve reviewed the 2D version of the disc that Marvel sent to reviewers.

On the video end of things, we get a 1080p transfer with a 2.40:1 aspect ratio. It’s a moody film, with some dream sequences, so there are quite a few dark scenes and in a few, some of the characters disappear just a little bit. However, I really don’t have complaints with the colour palette, which has rich, realistic tones and good black levels. Textures are amazing whether we’re talking live action or CGI effects and the blending of characters both live action and computer animated is done very well.

The place where we get some issues – and a lot of noise in forums and on Twitter – is when we head to the audio side of things. Let’s get the details out of the way first. The disc comes with an English DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 soundtrack as well as French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks. As for subtitles, there’s English SDH, French and Spanish. The surround tracks are immersive, dumping you in the world of Tony Stark and his pals, while never losing the clarity of the dialogue. What many people are quibbling about is that this particular disc seems to be a little less powerful on the bass and low-frequency end of things compared to other action discs played at the same volume. Though the solution is to pick up the remote or head to your receiver and manually adjust the low end volume to your liking, we’re just giving you a heads up that you might have to put the popcorn bowl down for a second and make the adjustments. Why the disc is quieter than others in these frequencies is a mystery…or maybe just a mistake.

On the extras side, we get the usual “making of” featurettes, deleted scenes and gag reels as well as detailed commentary from writer/director Joss Whedon.

If you want to keep your Marvel Universe complete, you’ll want to add this one to your collection.

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