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Giga Vu PRO evolution: a breakthrough pro product?
Thursday, March 9, 2006 | by Rob Galbraith

When the doors swung open at the PMA 2006 trade show in Orlando, Florida last month, most of the herd of photo retailers, photographers and technology journalists thundered their way towards the big-name camera makers and software developers. Not us. While Canon, Nikon, Adobe, Apple and others were on the itinerary, our first stop was the German Pavilion to see a photo storage device that has the potential to be a breakthrough product for working shooters.

The device is the Jobo Giga Vu PRO evolution, which has been developed by Philips Applied Technologies in Belgium for Jobo AG in Germany. Why are we excited? Because the Giga Vu PRO evolution is designed to be so much more than another me-too handheld enclosure with a card slot, screen and hard drive. Inside the Giga Vu PRO evolution (which replaces the 18-month-old Giga Vu PRO in Jobo’s photo storage device lineup), is:

  • A calibrated (and user-calibrateable) wide viewing angle 3.7 inch LCD
  • A CompactFlash interface optimized for speedy photo import
  • Image review functions that include a histogram (RGB, Red, Green, Blue or luminance), blown highlights warning, cross-hair readout of RGB values and unique dust detection mode
  • RAW file decoding, including reading of the white balance in newer Nikon digital SLRs (or, optionally, the display of a RAW file’s internal JPEG)
  • A smart disk and memory caching scheme for accelerated photo viewing
  • A built-in FTP server with support for transfers from Wi-Fi capable cameras (an extra-cost Wi-Fi CF card for the Giga Vu PRO evolution is required) plus the optional automatic full-screen display of photos as they arrive
  • DVI or analog video out with sound
  • Slide shows with cross-fade transition optionally set to music
  • Full-resolution, full-motion, full-quality playback of common video formats (including standard MPEG flavours found on movie DVDs)
  • MP3 audio playback
  • User-upgradeable firmware
  • 40GB, 80GB and 120GB models
  • Shock-mounted hard drive and rounded case design for better data survivability in the event the unit is roughly handled
  • USB 2.0 port for rapid copying of pictures to a computer, plus a USBOTG port for transfer of pictures directly from a USB camera to the Giga Vu PRO evolution or the incremental backup of pictures from the Giga Vu PRO evolution to an external USB hard drive
  • A rubbery snap-on cover is included to protect the screen and controls during transport

giga_vu_pro_evolution.jpg
Jobo Giga Vu PRO evolution (Photo courtesy Jobo AG)

Are you getting the picture? Since the Giga Vu PRO evolution was announced in late November 2005, we’ve been exchanging emails with Erwin Emmers, project leader for the device at Philips. From his responses to our many questions it became clear that, unlike so many photo storage devices on the market today, the Giga Vu PRO evolution has been designed with the professional photographer in mind. And that Emmers and his team of engineers, working in conjunction with Jobo, were as concerned about getting the details right as they were producing a device with a long list of features. And in a product category filled with a lot of underwhelming offerings, Philips’ and Jobo's apparent effort to make a quality product is really quite something.

We should emphasize that our only direct experience with the Giga Vu PRO evolution was at PMA 2006, and the two Jobo AG had to demo were both early, non-final units that had all the quirky, buggy trademarks of early, non-final units. So our budding love affair with the Giga Vu PRO evolution is based on what we’ve been told about its capabilities and what we could verify firsthand by banging away on the two samples at PMA. But we’re taking it on faith that production models will be better-behaved than what was on show in Orlando. Emmers’ thoughtful descriptions of his team’s design goals, and the depth with which certain features have been implemented, has imbued us with a certain confidence that the Giga Vu PRO evolution is going to be the real deal when it begins to ship in volume in April 2006 (release of the unit has slipped from Jobo’s original estimate of January 2006).

Getting to Know the Giga Vu PRO evolution

At its core, it’s a photo storage device aimed at working photographers who need to store or backup pictures in the field, separate from their Mac or Windows computer. The Giga Vu PRO evolution itself is a computer, with both a 400MHz AMD Alchemy Au1200 main processor and dedicated co-processors to handle the transfer of data from the CompactFlash card to the device and the transfer of data from the device to host computer over a USB 2.0 link. It’s loaded with 128MB DDR SDRAM and runs Linux. Over 6 million lines of program code lurks under the hood, including 75,000 lines written specifically for the Giga Vu PRO evolution’s photo features.

The device itself is compact, at 145 x 107 x 38mm (5.7 x 4.2 x 1.5in), and fairly light as well at 420g (14.8oz). It contains a 3.7 inch (diagonal), 640 x 480 pixel LCD display, 9.5mm laptop hard drive (40, 80 and 120GB capacities will be available), a CompactFlash card slot (it will accept SD and other formats only through an adapter), built-in speaker plus a complement of buttons and 5-way multicontroller to operate the unit. Connection ports include USB 2.0, USBOTG, DVI (the connector is proprietary and an adapter cable is included), analog audio/video and even 10/100 Ethernet (which will be inactive when the unit ships but may be enabled through a future firmware update, says Emmers).

Let’s look a little deeper at the features of the Giga Vu PRO evolution.

Card Import

Speed of transfer from the memory card is the weak link in almost all photo storage devices we’ve tested. For example, a SanDisk Extreme III CompactFlash card is capable of passing data through a fast card reader to a computer at about 15MB/second. Take the same card, insert it into the Epson P-4000, and photos limp in at about 2.2MB/sec. To put that in perspective, offloading a 4GB Extreme III to the P-4000 takes nearly half an hour, which is fine if you’re on vacation and transferring one or two big cards each night, but unacceptable if you’re in the middle of shooting a wedding reception or a rodeo and are trying to get a CompactFlash card back into service asap.

The P-4000 should be faster, but it’s not alone: of the dozen or so photo storage devices we’ve benchmarked in the past 18 months or so, all but one has been slow. The lone wolf has been the NextoCF, a bare-bones photo storage device that’s capable of importing pictures at over 11MB/second with any of a number of the quicker high-capacity CompactFlash cards. Transferring a full 4GB card takes 5-6 minutes.

Enter the Giga Vu PRO evolution. Philips’ Emmers says the raw throughput rate in card-to-device transfers is about 13.3MB/second with a capable card. Operations that take place just prior to and just after the transfer, including a prefetch step in which photo, movie, sound and other file types are recognized so that they can be sorted into their respective folders on the device at the end of the transfer, means the real-world throughput rate is about 8.3MB/second when calculated from the total transfer time, including the prefetch and post-sort.

At that rate, a full SanDisk Extreme III 4GB card should offload in 7-8 minutes. If true (the one PMA unit we tested certainly seemed fast), that should make the Giga Vu PRO evolution a viable option for working photographers trying to juggle the shooting and offloading of photos as an event unfolds.

The design of the Giga Vu PRO evolution means that the speed of transfer is limited to the maximum throughput that both the card and hard drive can sustain, using the fastest data timing mode they have in common. All modern CompactFlash cards support up to PIO Mode 4, as do current hard drives, and this is the data timing mode the Giga Vu PRO evolution employs for card transfers. But PIO Mode 5 and 6, which are faster data timing modes introduced into the CompactFlash specification in early 2005, have not made their way into hard drives as well.

This makes it impossible for the Giga Vu PRO evolution (or any other photo storage device today) to take full advantage of the inherent speediness of CompactFlash such as Lexar 133X, SanDisk Extreme III and a few others that support up to PIO Mode 6. Still, 8.3MB/second is usable, whereas the many devices that top out at under 2.5MB second aren’t, at least not for our purposes.

Other copying-related features to note:

  • The copy screen automatically appears when a card is inserted.

  • It’s possible to have screen-resolution versions of each photo generated and cached during the transfer, for speedier full-screen viewing of those photos later.

  • A thumbnail of the file being transfered can optionally be displayed on screen as the transfer progresses.

  • An option to verify the data transfer to ensure the integrity of the imported pictures.

  • The unit can be set to automatically switch off after a transfer is complete, as well as power down after a user-settable idle time has elapsed.

  • The Giga Vu PRO evolution has a CompactFlash card slot only; SD and other formats will require an adapter. Jobo will have an SD/MMC adapter available as an accessory, and it's likely that many aftermarket adapters will be compatible as well.

The Screen

The Giga Vu PRO evolution will be one of the first devices to ship with a new 3.7 inch (diagonal), 640 x 480 pixel LCD from Sharp. Emmers has extolled the many virtues of the screen, including its wide gamut (for a display in a portable unit), brightness (it’s spec’d for a maximum white luminance of 250 cd/m2, which is comparable to desktop flat panel displays), 6-bits/64 shades per colour rendering to the screen (4-bits/16 shades per colour is more common in photo storage devices) and crispness (as should be the case from a company called Sharp).

Seeing is believing. We loaded 21 of our own pictures, ones we’ve viewed many times on calibrated desktop displays and in fact use to evaluate monitor calibration packages, then had a good, long look at them on the Giga Vu PRO evolution. What we saw was easily the truest colour and tone and the smoothest transitions into the shadows of any photo storage device we’ve ever used. It fairly faithfully displayed the intense hue of a purple jersey (the Epson P-4000 renders this same jersey as more royal blue), skin tones were acceptable, while screen brightness and contrast held up well under the glaring trade show lighting (typically, this kind of illumination murders screen contrast).

Only one photo, containing saturated orangy reds, came up looking lifeless. And like the LCD screens built into cameras or other photo storage devices, there’s a slight harshness to the look of all pictures that evaporates when those same pictures are shown on a desktop display or even a good-quality laptop display. The bottom line, however, is the Giga Vu PRO evolution has the best portable screen we’ve ever laid eyes on, right down to its impressively-wide viewing angle and 217 ppi sharpness.

The screen component is one part of the success story here. The other is the fact that Philips has profiled the display using GretagMacbeth ProfileMaker Pro 5, and hand-tuned the profile using the editor in Fujifilm ColourKit Profiler Suite. The display profile is combined inside the unit with sRGB and Adobe RGB profiles to create separate lookup tables for each colour space, and the colour management system in the Linux OS renders sRGB pictures or Adobe RGB pictures through these lookup tables to the screen. We’re not sure how the Giga Vu PRO evolution handles pictures in other colour spaces; our raving about the screen in previous paragraphs was based on the viewing of mostly Adobe RGB files, with a handful of sRGB tossed in as well.

Philips isn’t building a profile for each Giga Vu PRO evolution as it rolls off the production line. Instead, they’ve created a single profile and incorporated that into the firmware of the device. Unit-to-unit screen consistency, says Emmers, makes this possible. We have no way of verifying the validity of this approach prior to shipping, but we do know the Giga Vu PRO evolution supports the overriding of the included display profile with one created by the user. Emmers stepped us through the procedure for loading a new display profile temporarily (the device reverts to the factory profile when the unit is switched off and on) or permanently (only reinstalling the firmware restores the factory profile if needed).

We’re not clear on the procedure for creating a display profile, since it’s obviously not possible to load ProfileMaker or any other Mac/Windows calibration package into Linux. This probably means the measurement of colour patches by software running on a separate machine or other all-manual operation. In other words, it may be that only the most committed of colour geeks will attempt a calibration. If the screens on all units look as good as the ones at PMA, we certainly wouldn’t bother. And if a screen is slightly off, basic adjustments of screen brightness and colour vividness are possible through on-screen menus.

One feature sacrificed in the transition from Giga Vu PRO to Giga Vu PRO evolution is the former unit's touch screen. This feature, says Emmers, was a drag on display quality, so the decision was made to eliminate it in the new model.

Image Playback

Display accuracy is only the beginning of what’s important in a photo storage device aimed at pros. Next on the must-have list is display speed: photos need to pop up quickly on the screen, with a healthy complement of image evaluation features at the ready. Emmers says that speed of image display was a design priority, both in the selection of hardware components and in the implementation of features such as the generation and caching of both thumbnail and screen-resolution preview files. The Giga Vu PRO evolution can also be set to grab the internal preview JPEG inside most cameras' RAW files, thereby saving the time it would otherwise take to process the RAW data fully (though this is an option as well). And with 128MB RAM, it can hold an entire 16+MP picture in memory for faster zooming and scrolling.

All of this may add up to a device that feels peppy when browsing large folders of digital SLR JPEG or RAW photos. But we'll have to withhold judgement for now, since the units at PMA were too flakey to know whether some of the slowdowns we witnessed while switching from thumbnail to preview modes and turning on the histogram were inherent to the design of the Giga Vu PRO evolution or just pre-production glitches. It's the latter, we hope, since the device seemed responsive for many other basic tasks. Officially, the Giga Vu PRO evolution is to be able to display a full-screen JPEG from a 6MP camera in less than 1 second, with full-resolution zooming of the same size file requiring about 3 seconds of initial processing time.

The Giga Vu PRO evolution isn't lacking for ways to display a picture. In addition to full-screen, picture + EXIF info and 12-up thumbnail display modes, the device will show a Red, Green, Blue, RGB or Luminance histogram, blown highlights and a cross-hair readout of RGB values. It has a black and white display mode, where the blend of red, green and blue channel information in the rendered grayscale version can be controlled channel-mixer style. It's also possible to have the black and white rendered from the luminance information exclusively. This mode is meant to enable the photographer to preview pictures in black and white, even though the camera is capturing in colour; the picture data itself isn't converted to shades of grey. There is also a function that can locate dust spots in a reference photo (such as a shot of a blue sky) as an aid in determining whether the camera's sensor needs to be cleaned and where the worst spots are located.

When engaging the zoom mode, the device loads the entire picture into memory first, which delays the first appearance of the zoomed version of the photo (the delay is several seconds with an EOS-1Ds Mark II JPEG). Once loaded, however, there is only a short pause when stepping up and down through the magnification range. At 100% magnification, the clarity of the screen means judging the point of focus in the picture is about as easy as on a full-size display and there is also a navigator that shows the current zoom location. Like most digital SLR cameras, the Giga Vu PRO evolution can be configured to display newly-shot verticals either upright or flopped over.

One of the Giga Vu PRO evolution's features that Jobo is playing up is its ability to decode RAW files from a variety of camera models, for the purpose of displaying the rendered RAW data on-screen. This capability, says Emmers, utilizes dcraw, though with no control over typical RAW conversion parameters such as contrast or software exposure compensation. Instead, most conversion parameters for each supported RAW file are hard-coded, though the white balance inside the file is observed (this is true even of the encoded white balance data in RAW files from recent Nikon digital SLR models). The result is a RAW file that might not, and in fact probably won't, match the colour and tone of an in-camera JPEG.

In performing its RAW conversions, the Giga Vu PRO evolution splits the processing duties between its main processor and a custom hardware accelerator, so that it can finish the job as quickly as possible. But the Giga Vu PRO evolution is no match for a desktop machine laden with multiple Pentium or G5 processing cores. In fact, Emmers pegs the RAW file conversion time to be between 30 seconds and multiple minutes, depending on the RAW file being converted. He also notes that the Giga Vu PRO evolution can display the internal preview JPEG inside an EOS-1Ds Mark II CR2 or Nikon D2X NEF file in about 10% the time it takes to decode and render the actual RAW data.

Add it all up and it sounds like RAW file decoding in the device is going to be unusably slow, except perhaps to preview one or two key frames here and there to verify the RAW data is intact. Well, we can also imagine that photographers using older cameras, ones whose RAW files don't contain a higher-resolution JPEG, may be pleased to get a more-detailed look at their pictures, and will be prepared to live with the decoding slowness as a result.

Based on the cameras we use and the workflow scenarios we see the Giga Vu PRO evolution being most useful, RAW decoding will probably be switched off most of the time. And, as we've noted, the device can fairly rapidly display a RAW file's internal JPEG, as well as display the JPEG in a RAW+JPEG pair (it can optionally treat a RAW+JPEG combo as effectively one file for various operations, including renaming).

Note: The only list of supported RAW formats we could locate on the Jobo AG web site is for the Giga Vu PRO, not the Giga Vu PRO evolution, and it doesn't include cameras we know from Emmers to be supported. It's safe to assume that, in addition to the models listed, most or all of the newest Canon and Nikon digital SLR RAW files will be compatible. And, Emmers promises, support for certain popular cameras that materialize after the Giga Vu PRO evolution's release will be added through firmware updates.

The device has minimal support for standard TIFFs produced by some cameras, including several Nikon models. Specifically, it will display the embedded thumbnail.

The video out interface on the Giga Vu PRO evolution is DVI, for promised sharper, clearer output to compatible displays, including plasma/LCD TVs and desktop flat panels with digital connectors. We've not seen for ourselves the quality bump brought on by the inclusion of a DVI port in the Giga Vu PRO evolution. But it just has to be an improvement over the fuzzy image streaming from the analog video port that's common to other photo storage devices. As such, we're glad to see that Jobo is pushing the envelope here in including true digital output. The Giga Vu PRO evolution has a standard A/V port also for connection to analog TVs, VCRs, etc.

The video out resolution is 640 x 480 pixels over both its analog and video out paths, and the Giga Vu PRO evolution's screen can remain on and active while the unit is driving a TV or other external monitor. As noted above, the DVI interface should make for a better external screen image. But, 640 x 480 pixels of resolution is relatively low these days when driving computer displays, decent projectors and even high-definition TVs. The unit, says Emmers, is actually capable of 1024 x 768 through the DVI connection, though this would require revising the Giga Vu PRO evolution's preview generator to build 1024 x 768 versions of each picture. Plus the device's own screen would be have to be blanked when operating at this resolution, he says.

It seems likely that a 1024 x 768 image over DVI is going to be dramatically crisper and more detailed than a 640 x 480 pixel one, at least when the external display is capable of resolutions higher than 640 x 480 itself. Knowing that the Giga Vu PRO evolution is capable of the higher resolution, then, we're of the opinion that 1024 x 768 ought to be at least an option, and we hope that Jobo/Philips chooses to add this through a firmware update soon after the product is released.

The DVI connector on the Giga Vu PRO evolution is proprietary, and an adapter cable will be included with the unit. Lurking behind the same connector is a 10/100 Ethernet port, though it will not be active when the unit is first available. Emmers indicates that they're evaluating whether to switch on Ethernet functionality through a firmware update at some future point, though it's clear that they're looking for a workflow scenario that would make wired Ethernet a compelling addition (and, presumably, a different proprietary connector adapter would also have to be made available).

The Giga Vu PRO evolution's slide show feature offers several slide duration presets, and an MP3 audio file can play as background music during the show (with no per-slide control over music timing). There's only one slide transition, a cross-fade. But that's okay, since it's silky-smooth. There is also a menu for controlling cross-fade speed, but it didn't appear to be wired up in the PMA units. The slide show can be presented on the Giga Vu PRO evolution's screen and on a connected display at the unit's current maximum of 640 x 480 pixels. Music can be played through the tinny built-in speaker or the audio out jack.

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