Travelling on stand by tickets is as bad as they say

Posted on May 25th, 2007 in Life by andrija

I’m writing this from Amsterdam Schiphol Aeroport, having paid 10 Euros for the privilege. Not cheap by any means but it’s just a drop in the bucket compared to 450 Euros I had to pay for the return ticket from Amsterdam to Budapest.

This whole trip is turning into a, well, not quite nightmare but a tedious, expensive exercise. See, I work for a company providing airline services. Therefore I’m eligible for some discount tickets from my employer. I had to wait for 1 year service in order to be able to use this “benefit” so ever since I learned of it, I was looking forward to flying home on the cheap.

Given I am visiting Japan this year, it would normally be out of the question to travel home to Europe as well. But cheap tickets should help, right? I was counting on – at worst! – half price. The usual price is around 1200 dollars, for a return trip to Budapest via Amsterdam (or London or Frankfurt). I was therefore hoping for about 600 bucks ticket. After all, I am only going for 2 weeks so it wouldn’t be worth it to pay full price for such a short and exhausting trip.

Well, first of all, when the time to order tickets came, I found out that I don’t really have an abundance of carriers to choose from. Despite of us doing work for British Airways and Malev Hungarian Airlines – both of which projects I worked on, incidentally – we do not actually have ticket deals with either! I thought, oh well it’s not too bad since I usually fly KLM anyway, and we do have a deal with them.

One thing though – all these tickets are standby tickets. Which means, you show up at the airport and they let you on the plane – if there are free seats. With a little thinking you can figure out yourself that you should travel in low season and preferably in the middle of the week in order to minimize chance of being denied boarding. So I planned my trip and my time off around those facts – and not around when I wanted it. By doing so I ended up not being able to take advantage of Victoria Day statutory holiday to extend my vacation. So I was in the “minus” so to speak from the get-go. Anyway, I placed the request for tickets. Oh, did I mention that the minimum wait time is 2 weeks during which you have no feedback whatsoever regarding prices, availability etc?
Then the problems started. I got the reply that KLM does not fly to Budapest. Strange, since I was sure I flew with them before. Unfortunately, what happens is that KLM partnered with Malev to fly to Budapest, so the flight is operated by Malev only. Not a problem if you’re just buying tickets from KLM via travel agent or directly – they’ll sell it to you as if they were operated by them. But for standby tickets – no, you can’t.

That was when I made the first mistake. I should have said thanks but no thanks and booked the flight myself for the full price. I probably would’ve gotten a decent deal, two weeks before departure. But I decided to book the flight to Amsterdam only and arrange my own transportation from there.

I then received the approval to get the tickets. But not the tickets themselves. I was to go to “any Northwest Airlines ticket counter in Canada” to pick my ticket. Northwest is KLM’s North American partner. Ok… except that there is no ticket counter anywhere but at the airport. And as you probably know, Vancouver Airport is a major pain to get to if you don’t have a car. So I called the airport to find out when is NWA ticket counter open. They told me, till 6pm. But they weren’t sure.

So I called up Mabel – who often goes to Richmond for her toys fix – to see when she’ll go there next time. It was to be on Friday. We went there around 16:30 but there was no NWA ticket counter to be found anywhere. They were supposed to be there as they had a flight at 6 – or so they told me on the phone the day before – but there was nothing. I thought of taking it up with KLM directly but there was a massive line up – almost hundred people! This is of course highly unusual. I gave up, almost giving up the ticket entirely – if I only did! Before leaving the airport I glanced at the departures screen and found out the reason for lineups – flight 682 was canceled!! If that happened when I was to fly, I could kiss goodbye my ticket as the plane would be full for days.

I decided to come back next day – Saturday. I took public transit and of course that meant an hour each way of standing in packed buses and total of two transfers in one way. Between these two trips to the airport this ticket was already losing its value fast. Luckily this time there was a counter available – devoid of lineup as well. In about 10 minutes I had my ticket, and paid about 518 for the privilege. Not too bad but not outstanding either. The ticket would probably be around 800-900 hundred if I shopped around and bought it in advance.

Next few days I was looking at tickets from Amsterdam to Budapest. My friend Robert mentioned that there are some cheap companies flying to there – turns out only SkyEurope does that. Looking online, prices were very similar to Malev, however – about 80 euros each way at it cheapest. But SkyEurope flights were at extremely inconvenient times, such as 6:30 and 22:00, although you could get a ticket for 3 euros if you did that (one way only, the other would still be 80 euros or more). In the end, I could not get two tickets for 80 euros each unless I stayed overnight in Amsterdam. This seemed reasonable thing to do since a hotel room would pretty much cover the price difference to flying immediately – especially since “immediately” meant many hours later in the day. The last thing you want to do after flying for 9 hours is waiting 5-6 hours at the airport before yet another flight, not to mention a 3 hour drive home afterwards.

I was all ready to buy tickets and reserve a hotel room – until Steven told me over our regular Tuesday dinner that it would not be wise to do so when I’m not even sure I’ll end up in Amsterdam the day I was planning to. So I didn’t buy reserve in advance – a wise decision it turned to be.

On 23rd I showed up at the airport – only 20 minutes before check-in closed, due to horrible taxi service and even worse traffic; did you know it takes 15 minutes to get through to a cab dispatcher on a phone on a random weekday afternoon?! They made me run around to the ticket counter to first “list” for the flight, then they made me wait – the flight was full so maybe I couldn’t get on. Turns out, it was indeed. They didn’t let me on! I went to re-list myself for tomorrow – Thursday – and went home. At this point I was extra $70 in minus thanks to needless taxi drive. At least I didn’t waste money on connecting flight tickets and hotel!

Next day it was pretty much the same story – taxi was faster to show up though slower to answer the phone, so I was there earlier. But they made me wait again. At this point I was thinking of alternatives… but at the last moment they did let me on. So I got on, and got a dead center seat. I always book an isle seat as I find it really uncomfortable not to be able to stand up, go to toilet or get my gadgets out of my carry-on bag. Chalk up another minus – this was at least expected so I didn’t complain.

So now I get to Amsterdam. Instead of heading off to the gate for my connecting flight, I have to go to the baggage checkout – through passport control, thankfully seamless. Then I have to find the ticket counter to buy my tickets. I had to ask twice – see, there is no Malev ticket counter; it’s handled by KLM. Even their tickets look like any other KLM tickets. But just you try to fly on standby with KLM to Budapest… suddenly “oh, but it’s not us”. Kind of like Telus was telling us when it was time to pay us bonuses and give us raises – “yeah, sure, the company is doing great, but we’re the subsidiary that’s just breaking even”. Talk about double standards and brand misrepresentation. Anyway, that’s not the point.

Naturally, there’s a lineup. A big lineup. I take my number and wait close to half an hour. I get to the ticket counter… and get hit with a shocker sticker – 450 Euros!! That’s about 700 dollars! Way more than my four times as long trip and way more than about 300 euros that I was expecting to pay after taxes.  Not only that, but I was only able to get 18:00 flight, even though there was one earlier flight (to be honest, it might have been too late to catch it – no thanks to ticket counter lineup).
But that’s the thing… all it takes is one weak point and this stand-by house of cards collapses. I have a weakness like most people and am not always able to respond immediately to things like standing at the counter and being summarily issued a price in a “matter of fact” way. Thinking back, the only thing I could’ve done is to log on to Internet and buy tickets online, and save perhaps as much as 150 euros, if not more.  But I didn’t know where – and if – I can get access, plus there was extra time needed, plus I didn’t have a printer.  Maybe I didn’t need a printer – but I can’t know that in advance.

In the end, I paid more than a full price ticket when everything is added – yet I had all the aggravation I could get.  And I don’t even want to think of not being able to get on the flight back!
Anyway, I believe that the moral of the story is – don’t get stand-by tickets if you can’t get them for each and every leg of the flight.  As simple as that.  And if your flight is not direct, you should consider whether you want to use stand-by tickets at all.  The other moral is – don’t use KLM for standby flights, at least not the Amsterdam to Vancouver flight.

Comparison of Audio Extraction Quality of Several Optical Drives

Posted on May 4th, 2007 in Audio,Hardware & Software by andrija

If you often have a need to extract audio from CDs and store it into a file on your computer, and you use Windows and know a thing or two about audio and computers, you’ve probably heard of Exact Audio Copy (EAC for short). If that’s the case, you are probably interested in which optical drive will provide you with best quality and highest extraction speed – whether you use EAC or not. I will mention my own experience here and while I used EAC, a lot of the information is not specific to that program.

Let’s be realistic – most people don’t care about audio extraction quality. That is not to say they won’t care about pops and glitches they might hear once they start using those files on their iPods – or wherever else they’re listening to them. However, if grossly audible artifacts are rare, people will tolerate them. And fortunately this is what happens most of the time – if you’re using clean, pressed CD as your source with any reasonable optical drive to do the extraction.

However, the life is often not that simple. I envy people who really can live like that. You know, people who find CD holders or furniture with built-in racks adequate for their purpose. People who can fit their DVD or VHS collection in the storage space under their TVs. People who can buy furniture and find that all the designed openings and holes fit their equipment nicely. People who have total of twenty or so clean trouble-free CDs that “just work” in their players. Who are these people??

If the above is not you – or if care about sound quality, getting their money’s worth or at least care about getting things done right, then read on. After all, if you paid good money to own a CD, why would you settle for error-ridden digital copy – whether audible or not? Or why not educate yourself a little and do the job the right way – as long as there isn’t much extra hassle? Or perhaps you don’t really care but you ended up with badly glitched files due to other circumstances – CD collection in non-pristine condition or bad quality drives – and are now looking for a solution?

If you’re an average user, you probably use something like iTunes to import your music from CDs into the library on your PC (or Mac). If you have more than handful of CDs, you probably noticed that if extraction conditions are less than ideal, you can end up with audible glitches in your files. Checking the “error correction” option in iTunes can help. But that isn’t the end of the story.

iTunes and many other programs (probably) use so-called “burst” mode to perform DAE (Digital Audio Extraction). On a modern DVD or CD drive (writable or not) this is a very fast process, often reaching 40 or even 48 times the speed of playback (so a 74 minute CD would end up being extracted in 74/40 – less than 2 minutes). If the CD is clean, this will be achieved and the result will be a clean file. However, even slightly dirty CDs may end up causing trouble at such high speeds. This is where the fun starts.

Every CD (or DVD) drive has the error correction mechanism (hardware + software) to deal with these errors. It is capable of fixing them on its own, before passing them to the operating system. But it’s also possible to have the drive flag the data instead and pass it as-is to the OS, leaving the interpretation (error detection and correction) to the user software. As far as I know, not a lot of software operates in this mode – probably for obvious reasons (extra development to do the same thing that the optical drive is already capable of doing). EAC calls this mode “secure”. As you may imagine, by not having the drive correct the data, you are faced with prospect of reading raw data at least twice and comparing it, and then reading even more times when a mismatch occurs in order to determine the real data by the majority rule.

Things aren’t so cut and dry, unfortunately. There are more variables here. First, the process of getting raw data is not equally reliable on all drives. Certain features such as audio caching can make it difficult for the reading software to know what is it that it’s getting. For example, if you ask to read the same section of the drive several times consecutively, the drive might just cache the results the first time and keep returning that same data over and over. Or, it could return data with different offset each time (because it’s designed to stream audio, not provide random access), making it difficult to know the exact position of the data you’re getting within the track. And then there’s error reporting.

Optical drives are capable of reporting errors they encounter during reading. Unfortunately, this isn’t simple either. There are various types of errors, for example C1 and C2 for CDs and PIO, POE for DVDs – and these themselves may be composite errors (i.e. a combination of several other types of lower-level errors such as E11). Then there’s the issue of what is drive actually doing – is it fixing the errors it finds and reports the errors, or only reports errors when it can’t fix them? How often a false alarm occurs, and how often a real error is missed? And what is the accuracy of its error reporting?

You can try to wrap your head around all this – and this is only the beginning. But if you do, you’ll find out that there are just no simple answers. For example, a drive might report 100% of errors it finds with 100% accuracy – but due to bad mechanical design (optics) it would be reporting far more errors than another drive. In other words, it will correctly report that it can’t read a position on the disc, but that same position would be read just fine on any other drive. Or a drive might have bad error reporting accuracy and not report many cases where it actually encounters an error (or report errors when there’s none) – but the errors themselves in the extracted data are actually much less frequent than in other drives. This makes it impossible to answer a seemingly simple question “what is the best drive?” or “what drive should I get?”. While in theory there might exist a perfect drive, in reality there is no drive that is perfect (or even) sufficiently good in all relevant categories.

So I believe the only way to get useful answers in this case is to change the question. The correct question is “what is it that you want to do?”

I will start from the end – the conclusion – because explaining in detail the whole investigation I went through would take too much time and wouldn’t be interesting to many.

In my case, I want to extract my CDs into audio files with NO errors whatsoever. Provided my discs are in reasonably good condition, I feel this is a reasonable request. I would also expect very good ripping speeds on such discs. Even if discs are damaged , I expect them to be extracted perfectly – within reasonable limits of course. I am also willing to pay the penalty – speed penalty and convenience penalty – to get bad discs extracted well. I am however only willing to pay minimum convenience and speed penalty to extract good CDs – which are vast majority of my collection. Given the number of CDs I own and their condition, it would be a colossal waste of my time to take half an hour ripping just one out of hundreds of CDs, almost all of which are clean and unscratched.

This request can be rephrased: what do I use to (and how do I) rip CDs fast and with minimum amount of errors, but be reliably informed if the errors do occur? And the subsequent question is “what do I do when I do get informed about errors?”

The part “rip fast with minimum errors” depends on the quality of optical drive – it’s combination of its mechanism, optics and firmware. I first tried to determined this by making a custom test CD according EAC DAE Quality web page. It’s a cheap way to do one of those fancy CD read quality tests that big review sites put up. The results are presented below. On the horizontal axis you have time in minutes (total of 74 minutes) and on the vertical axis you have error loudness in dB with 5dB granularity; black line on top is 0dB, and so if red line is a flatline on the bottom, that means that there were no errors.

Benq 1655 DAE QualityBenq 1655 (score 81.8 out of 100)

LG4163B DAE QualityLG 4163B (score 76.9 out of 100)

Lite-On LH-20A1S DAE QualityLite-On LH-20A1S (score 87.8 out of 100)

Plextor UltraPlex 40X SCSI CDROM DAE QualityPlextor UltraPlex 40X SCSI CDROM (score 52 out of 100)

Pioneer 111D DAE QualityPioneer 111D (score 82.6 out of 100)

Lite-On LTN-527 CDROM DAE Quality Lite-On LTN-57s CDROM (score 61.3 out of 100)

As you can see, the best performance seems to come from the latest drive I got only a few days ago – Liteon LH-20A1S. Benq 1655 and Pioneer 111D are close behind. However, if I run the second test to get the C2 error reporting accuracy, I get pretty low 73.5% result on Liteon. Two other good drives are not able to report C2 in the way that the test software expects so I don’t know what their accuracy is.However, how useful is this test really? We can find it on a real example, a pressed audio CD that has errors. While this CD looks really clean, I found out by chance that some of its tracks don’t seem to extract well. Problematic tracks were 2, 3 and 10. I decided to use 10 as the reference and read it in all drives I have, and then attempt to clean the disc and get the hopefully reference (clean) data and compare with what each drive returned.

The results were surprising. Out of all drives, not a single one was able to extract track 10 without errors when in burst mode, even if the read speed was lowered (I haven’t tried very low speeds though). While that wasn’t too unexpected, I didn’t expect to get a lot of audible errors on certain drives seeing how they managed to keep the glitches pretty low during tests with the artificial test CD. And errors were very audible and quite frequent, though not in the same part of the file for all drives. Ignoring (or not) the C2 error reporting made a difference, but not necessarily in the right direction. Also, while EAC did report suspicious positions, often there were no audible errors there – and there were audible errors in the parts that were not flagged. Of course, in a number of cases it correctly flagged a problematic region. On the plus side, the extraction was pretty fast even though all drives slowed down as they started hitting errors.

When the test was run in secure mode, only Benq 1655 and Liteon LH-20A1S have read track 10 without errors. By that I mean that the binary comparison of the extracted file revealed no differences whatsoever when compared to reference file. That’s the good news. The bad news is that secure mode extraction is extremely slow, rarely faster than 8X – while there are no errors – and as slow as 1.6X overall, given that there were errors.

Additional tests showed that while Benq and Liteon were also able to read track 3 correctly in secure mode, only Benq was able to also read track 2 without errors; Liteon did have an error on track 2 even in secure mode.

So my conclusion was that out of all drives I own, only Benq 1655 was able to reliably read the (invisibly?) damaged CD. Liteon LH-20A1S was almost as good, and Pioneer 111D was acceptable (the errors weren’t frequent, and they weren’t audible). All other drives were quite simply bad – and yes that includes legendary Plextor Ultraplex 40X. Sure, many of these drives were old but so what – they are simply not capable of doing a good job today and that’s all that matters.

Unfortunately, results of this test didn’t help me much at all. In secure mode, all three “acceptable” drives were very slow, with extraction speed in single digits and sometimes barely better than real time. This is not a solution for extracting a big library of CDs which don’t have errors; it’s simply too slow. To make matters worse, the only error-free drive is not in production any longer; in fact its manufacturer was bought out last year and is now defunct. At the sample I have pretty much sucks for anything other than – apparently – ripping CDs.

In the end, I stumbled upon a solution to my problem. EAC has a copy & test feature; this will rip audio, then rip it again and compare CRC (checksum) to find out if extractions are identical. If I now extract a CD in burst mode, by taking a quick look at two columns on EAC screen (or the extraction log presented after each extraction) I will be able to find out whether there were errors during extraction. I can then put those CDs aside and afterwards extract them slowly in secure mode.

And what optical drive to use then? I cannot in good conscience recommend Benq 1655; while it seems to do a great job as CD reader, it is the worst DVD writer I’ve ever owned. This is in stark contrast with community opinion, which claims that Benq 1655 is one of the best DVD writers ever. The only way that could happen is if my unit is defective. Regardless, that points to quality control issues. But that in itself is irrelevant because Benq division that was making optical drives doesn’t exist any longer. With that in mind, I’d have to say to get either Liteon LH-20A1S or Pioneer 111 (or perhaps 112, the newest iteration which should be fairly similar). Both of them have some advantages, but I believe Pioneer is generally considered one of the best writers on market right now.