Three months with the Surface Pro 2

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I’ve bought this device exactly three months ago. I’m going to give you a thorough review of what’s good and what’s bad about it, and why, if you want a tablet that is also a kickass laptop, you might want to buy this… over the newest Surface Pro 3.

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H.265 & VP9

You know it if you’re familiar with video compression technologies: in the current generation, you have two big choices for your video streams. The first one is H.264. It’s not patent-free, it’s not royalty-free, but it’s got the best compression out there, most notably thanks to x264, which is the best open-source encoder for the spec that exists. x264 has notably implemented several schemes for better encoder decisions (such as macroblock trees), and optimized them at an assembler level, making it both efficient and extremely fast.

VP8 is royalty-free and (sort of) patent-free, which is cool, but by comparison, suffers from two problems: the encoder is much slower, and the compression is around 30 to 50% worse than x264 at the same bitrate (basing on SSIM results).

The next generation is upon us, and I was expecting the same trend to continue. It turns out that the situation is a lot closer this time around.

I re-encoded some of my videos using the latest available encoder builds for VP9 and H.265, at 512kbps average bitrate, and using the “medium” speed/quality tradeoff. The quality is somewhat similar for both, save for one big thing: H.265 suffers from really awful chroma blocking.

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This is VP9, and here’s H.265.

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Yikes. You can sort of understand what they’re trying to do: the human eye is far more receptive to luma changes compared to chroma changes… but the encoder takes that advice and runs away with it.

All things considered, this is however pretty good for high definition at 512kbps! This is how x264 performs under the same conditions…

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You can download the H.265 file here, and the VP9 file here.

There is however one thing that needs to be said: the VP9 encoder is horrifying slow. One of the major reasons for this: it’s not even multi-threaded. This video took nearly 3 hours to encode with VP9, whereas the H.265 encode took mere minutes.

Here’s a bonus comparison between VP8 and VP9, with a high-framerate 480p video that was encoded at 512kbps as well. This gives you a good idea of the generational gap.

Hopefully more psycho-visual optimizations will be implemented in VP9 in the future; it is extremely distracting to see sudden pixelization across a few frames, even if the quality jumps back right after.

YouTube has also been putting the encoder in production for a few months now, which I personally don’t believe is an entirely good decision considering how slow the encoder AND decoder are (dropped frames ahoy!). And it sometimes does weird stuff, like on the background of this video

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Autodesk can never get anything 100% right

Here’s a version rundown of 3ds Max.

3ds Max 2011 is cool. In fact, left unpatched, it was actually fairly reliable and trouble-free. But if you’re running Windows 8, you’ll get strange random freezes and crashes. Completely at random. It can happen even when the program is left idle. This does not happen if you patch it to SP1 or SP2. But if you do that, you start having weird problems with CAT. The service packs actually introduce terrible bugs, such as shoulder objects disappearing if you move them.

3ds Max 2012 is by far the most crash-happy version I’ve encountered. CAT is unusable. The viewport performance isn’t very fast. Patch it to the latest SP and it actually becomes decent, but there are still a few issues with CAT. It needs to be run as administrator or you get registry error pop-ups.

3ds Max 2013 is better, but the plugin interface has changed, so old plugins made for 2012 and below won’t work. The viewport performance is a little better. As usual it’s better to wait for the service packs to do anything. The same little problems with CAT remain.

3ds Max 2014, once again, makes CAT unusable when not patched to SP1. It took until Service Pack 3 for a really stupid modeling bug to be fixed. Service Pack 4 was so bad that they pulled it off the website because it was corrupting installations. Service Pack 5 is fine except there’s a huge performance regression with high-poly models. It’s basically impossible to interact with models above 400k polygons, and very hard around that threshold, because you’ll be waiting several seconds for each of your operations.

So I regret upgrading to SP5, because 2014 SP3 was pretty much the best version so far for my uses (modeling and animating using CAT).

The most puzzling question of all is: how does this happen? Every year, bugs that were squashed with service packs resurface. Issues that were patched 3 years ago come back again. Is the 3ds Max code base so old and mangled and tentacular that it’s basically unmaintainable, or are the programmers working for Autodesk incompetent? Is it both?

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