Welcome to the first installment of the Toolbox. My goal for this monthly column is twofold: to let you in on some of the latest and greatest innovations in hardware and software that projection designers should know about, and to give you taste of some real-world use of the product in my own adventures.

Anyone who has worked with me will tell you that I am a huge Apple fanatic. If there is a new Apple product on the market, I gotta have it. A bigger laptop? An iPod that can play video? I am totally addicted. But recently, I had a rather scary experience that led me down a dark path — a path that ended up with some pleasing results and some rather interesting realizations.

Picture this: October 2005, New York City. It was the first day of tech rehearsals for the new Broadway musical, In My Life. I was associate projection designer to none other than Wendall Harrington. We had the extremely talented and innovative Ruppert Bohle programming the Dataton Watchout for us. I had just gotten a new (very slightly used, but new to me) Apple PowerBook 17" laptop the day before our tech started. After almost four years of working on an ultra portable 12" PowerBook, I realized that it was time for a bigger screen. I needed something more like a desktop setup but still portable enough to take home. Ruppert and I set up the computer network at the tech table and started creating our show. It was a good day. Everything seemed to just work.

The next morning, I awoke, as I always do, at 5:45am. I booted up my PowerBook to check for any last minute emails I should be aware of before I arrived at the theatre at 8am. The silver Apple logo came onscreen but then nothing. I waited and waited…nothing. I am pretty sure I woke up a few neighbors as I yelled at the computer (a technique which I have been lucky enough to avoid prior to this incident). This was a first for me. I had never met a Mac problem I couldn't successfully troubleshoot. But then again, I had never met a completely dead hard drive either.

After accepting the fact that there was nothing I could do to fix the problem on my own, I stopped by NYC's famed Mac repair mecca, Tekserve, and dropped off my seemingly deceased PowerBook. We had the next day off, and somehow, I mysteriously found myself in a computer store staring a hole in the screen of a Compaq V2130US laptop. That's right, a Windows machine!! Had I lost my mind?

At last June's Entertainment Design Master Classes, I learned that Dataton's plans for the next version of Watchout included many exciting new features, including one which I have lusted for since my first Watchout experience with Harlem Song at the Apollo: rotate. But I also learned that the application was completely rewritten for version 3 and used Microsoft DirectX display software to achieve these new features, which meant no Mac programming version of the software. Since learning this and taking a crash course in programming, I have been thinking more and more about getting a Windows machine. So I figured now that I had no laptop at all, why not give it a try?

Off to the store I went, and when I returned, I had a shiny new Compaq V2310US laptop in hand. Well, it is not actually shiny at all. It is kind of a dull textured grey plastic. The bottom line on this machine? Very capable, affordable, ugly design! On the rundown posted next to the machine in the store, it advertised it as being “sleek and slim.” I think part of what makes Mac people Mac people is that they want their machines to be as beautiful as the artwork they are creating. This PC's appearance said “business.” It really said “9 to 5 boring day job” business, but I suppose that is how they keep the cost down.

With an $850 street price, the Compaq boasts a very speedy 1.6Ghz AMD 64-bit processor, an 80GB internal hard drive, 512MB of RAM (I added another 512MB, bringing the total to 1GB), a 128MB ATI graphics processor, a built-in DVD burner, a slew of USB2 and Firewire ports, built-in Wi-Fi, and it comes preloaded with Windows XP Professional. It also has a cool feature that even surpassed any Mac: a built-in multi-slot that gives you the ability to directly insert just about any kind of memory card from any digital camera. It also has a nice bright 14", 1280×768 wide screen, which is a good large size but still portable. I loaded up Adobe® Photoshop® CS2 and After Effects® 6.5 onto the laptop and set up shop in my tech table.

I had already built some of the video for the show in Apple's Final Cut® Pro 5, so I brought along my Mac Mini 1.25Ghz G4 to work with the video we had shot for the show. Using one the LCD monitors provided by Scharff Weisberg for the Watchout System, I plugged in my Mac Mini and was almost ready to go. The spare monitor from Scharff was a little long in the tooth and had a pretty washed out appearance, but Ruppert happened to have his trusty GretagMacbeth Eye-One Proof monitor calibrator on hand. This device has an USB electronic “eye” that you hang directly in front of the monitor. Once the eye is in place, the companion software application displays a series of tests on the screen while the eye measures the color temperature. At the conclusion of the three-minute color test, the monitor was displaying bright colors and deep rich blacks with an almost better-than-new accuracy. It really revived the screen. I plugged both machines into our gigabit Ethernet network, and we were off.

As the show takes place in only a few locations in present day New York City, we were able to do all of the location shooting ourselves. The media in the show was a combination of stills, animated stills, and video, which was shot on a 3-chip, 24p Panasonic MiniDV camera. I used Final Cut Pro 5, which is capable of editing natively in 24p to handle the video editing. Other than the stock still images that were purchased from various sources, most of the stills were shot with a Canon PowerShot G6 7 megapixel digital still camera and processed in Photoshop.

So, what did a 20-year Mac user think of Windows XP? Not bad but not great either. For my money, Mac OS X 10.4 feels a lot snappier. The whole experience is more responsive: checking email, surfing the web, and even waking the computer from sleep (something that seemed very slow on the PC). The experience of working in Photoshop and After Effects seemed equal to the Mac. But the big difference seemed to be in the rendering of large animations in After Effects. On average, it rendered most video clips at least a third faster than the Mac did. When you are building a show in the theatre as the rehearsal is going on around you, this is a big difference in time.

So, the conclusion? I learned that there are far more similarities than differences between Windows and Mac. I also learned that sometimes the right machine for the job does not always have the friendliest interface. When I have a project that requires a lot of animation, I will seriously consider a setup that allows a Windows machine to do all the rendering.

Of course, with Apple scheduled to move all of their machines to Intel processors in the next two years, this could be a very moot point. I would love to have a laptop with the Mac OS and a 2.6Ghz processor, or better yet, a dual 3.2Ghz Xeon desktop Mac. But until then, this designer will have to bring two computers to the tech table.

RESOURCES MENTIONED IN THIS COLUMN:

Adobe After Effects and Photoshop: www.adobe.com

Apple: www.apple.com

Canon PowerShot G6: www.canon.com

Compaq: www.compaq.com

Dataton Watchout: www.dataton.com

GretagMacbeth Eye-One: www.gretagmacbeth.com

Panasonic: www.panasonic.com

Scharff Weisberg: www.swiny.com

Tekserve: www.tekserve.com