Tag Archives: gadgets

Olloclip

This is a long way of saying Thank You to F for the Olloclip, the ideal gadget for someone who loves both their iPhone and photography. Literally only available a couple of weeks before Christmas (for iPhone 5 at least), it still arrived before the 25th.

For those that don’t know, the Olloclip is an attachment for the iPhone’s camera. It looks like this:

IMG_1037

It sits over the iPhone’s camera. It has three lenses on two sides. On one side there’s the fish-eye adapter, on the other is a wide-angle. If you unscrew the the wide-angle it becomes a macro adapter.

The least useful is probably the wide angle. The iPhone camera is fairly wide anyway. Useful maybe but not as dramatic as the other two.

The fish-eye is, perhaps, dramatic but not useful. Something doesn’t have to be useful to be a lot of fun…

IMG_0986

The best of the three is the macro adapter. You have to get it surprisingly close to the subject to make it work. I think this is both useful and dramatic. And still fun.

IMG_1020

The quality is pretty decent too.

IMG_1021

Focusing so close and with a wide aperture, the depth of field is very narrow but this just adds to the drama. Even coffee beans and Cheerios look out of the ordinary.

IMG_1027

And trees look like an alien landscape.

If I had to make one criticism of the Olloclip — and this sounds absurd — it’s too small. I hesitate to put it in my pocket more often because I’m afraid it will fall out, and it’s tricky to use the macro without risking losing the wide angle lens.

Of course it’s difficult to see how else they could do it so this probably says more about my paranoia than anything else.

Overall, it’s great. This is something that’s going to get a lot of use over the coming months I think.

Canon EOS 50D

In the end it was the reliability that did it. Over the last few months my trusty 300D has been coming up with odd errors, refusing to recognise memory cards and generally getting cantankerous. Luckily I have always been able to coax it back to life but in the end the thought of travelling somewhere and have it fail became more painful than the anticipated hole in my bank account.

I decided to stick to Canon since I already have a couple of decent lenses. Having discounted the 450D and 5D Mk II for performance and cost reasons respectively, the 50D pretty much selected itself.

What follows is not a review of the 50D; there are plenty of those already. Instead it’s my subjective experience moving up from Canon’s consumer DSLR range to its enthusiast/semi-pro range. Unless you’re the kind of person who upgrades every eighteen months you may also be surprised at how much things have changed in five years.

First impressions were positive. It feels good and solid. Playing around with it before I got it home it seemed heavy. However side-by-side with my 300D1 the difference wasn’t as great as I had initially feared. There’s a much greater difference between the 300 and 300D than the 300D and the 50D. I guess most of the pictures and comparisons you see are with the 400D and 450D which are much smaller and lighter than the five year old 300D2.

Canon EOS 300D vs EOS 50D
Canon EOS 300D vs EOS 50D

Other superficial comparisons are pretty much night-and-day. A short list of immediately obvious differences: the 50D’s screen on the back is nearly twice the size and much brighter; the viewfinder seems huge and bright; it’s better balanced with my 17-85mm lens; the buttons are more numerous and have a more positive action; the “clunk” of the mirror flipping up even, somehow, sounds better. Basically, it’s more expensive and feels like it.

There are a few things that don’t feel like improvements, though I’m sure I’ll get used to them. On the 300D there are a number of buttons to the left of the screen. You can happily prod them with your left thumb while holding the camera normally. Those same buttons are below the screen on the 50D, presumably because they wouldn’t fit anywhere else. The main thing, though, is that with the 300D you could have the review — the image that appears on the screen for a couple of seconds after you take the picture — display with a histogram rather than just the image. I’ve not figured out how to do that with the 50D yet. [Update: Turns out that the option is “sticky,” unlike on the 300D where it’s a menu item. Thanks to the friendly people on photo.net for answering that.]

My first outing was on the south bank of the Thames between London Bridge and Waterloo, from about five-thirty to six-thirty. The idea was to get a feel for the camera, try to get familiar with the controls and test out the low light performance.

Having used the 300D for five years, the first thing that struck me was how fast it was. I’ve been used to waiting five seconds for the machine to switch on, a pause while it writes the image to the memory card, a further pause while it displays the image on the rear screen. There’s none of that with the 50D, which is all the more remarkable when you consider that it’s working with fifteen mega-pixel images rather than “only” six. Maybe all moderns DSLRs are like that?

But it’s not just technical speed, but handling speed. The rear dial and the mini-joystick allow you to access the options that little bit more quickly that the menu system. The view finder is also bigger and brighter, meaning that the display at the bottom is also easier to read. This is going to help avoid some silly errors. I’d like to see the mode displayed too, as I still have a tendency to leave it in aperture priority mode when, say, I meant to switch it back to program.

This increase in speed is going to leave me with more time to think about the picture I want to take.

This is a JPEG saved with more-or-less the default settings — I changed the picture style to neutral — and the only mucking around I did in Photoshop was to resize it.

St Pauls and Millennium Bridge
St Pauls and Millennium Bridge

A new option to me is auto-ISO, which selects an appropriate sensitivity just as program mode selects the aperture and shutter speed. It picked ISO1600 here. It’s not super-sharp, but it was taken hand-held at 1/6sec with IS enabled.

Here’s a 100% crop of the darkest/noisiest part of the image (on the bridge):

100% crop at ISO1600
100% crop at ISO1600

There’s definitely visible noise but I think it’s very useable. By comparison, I wasn’t happy going much beyond ISO400 on the 300D. At a Music Roll Exchange gig I mainly used ISO800 but ended up converting to black and white and adding grain in Photoshop to disguise the noise. Here’s an example:

Music Roll Exchange
Music Roll Exchange

And here’s a 100% crop on the bottom-right:

100% on 300D at ISO800
100% on 300D at ISO800

They’re two very different shots in very different circumstances so it’s not a completely fair comparison, but the gist is at half the sensitivity there is more noise. Technology moves fast.

One other thing that has changed quickly is the file sizes. When Photography Monthly reviewed the Canon EOS 50D this month, one of the few listed “cons” was the size of the image files produced, as though you could have a fifteen megapixel camera that produced tiny files without losing any data3. Truth be told, the images are huge. Even when told to output in “medium” size, images are eight megapixel — more than the maximum of the 300D. I have difficulty saying that this is a bad thing, though.

Overall, I’m finding very little to say that is bad. I knew that there would be a jump from the 300D to the 50D but I really wasn’t prepared for how big it is. It’s looking like a good year for me on the photography front.

  1. I bought it in North Carolina so it’s badged as a “Digital Rebel.” Since it’s called the 300D here in Europe and as “Rebel” is a stupid name, I’m going to ignore the label and use its numeric code. []
  2. One disadvantage of trying to take a picture of both your old and new camera is that you have nothing decent left to actually take the picture on! This is taken on my iPhone. []
  3. When I reviewed my Minolta Scan Dual II back in early 2002 I wrote, “It?s much better than a digital camera, too. That resolution is roughly equivalent to a ten mega-pixel digital. Don?t bother looking in the shops for one of those just yet.” CMOS sensors improved even faster than I anticipated. []

My delicious.com bookmarks for January 8th through January 12th

My del.icio.us bookmarks for February 6th through February 11th

SliMP3

Introduction

It took me over a year to decide to buy a SliMP3 player. I am not normally that indecisive but I just couldn’t figure out why it cost so much. I mean, what does it do? It streams MP3 music across an Ethernet network and connects to the phono sockets on your hi-fi system. How hard can that be? There must be something cheaper or better than the Slim Devices machine! It took me all that time to research the subject and come to the conclusion that there wasn’t. I still think it’s a lot of money for what it does, but I also still think that it’s pretty much unique.

Out of the box

The pictures show a small, black box with a bright florescent display on the front, but, still, it wasn’t exactly as I was expecting. It’s actually smaller than I thought it would be, not that this should be construed as a bad thing. Close up the smoked plastic front and the tiny box have an amateurish, home electronics project feel to them. It does look fine from a distance and the display is, as advertised, very bright, clear and a major selling point for the device as a whole.

SliMP3The package is rounded off by a fairly compact power adaptor and a decent remote control. The buttons are all big enough to press without having to be too careful and some of the important ones are colour coded. The cursor keys are laid out in a convenient and intuitive plus shape but some of the other buttons seem to be placed in the gaps rather than genuinely useful locations.

Setting it up was a doddle. The Perl-based software installed on my iBook with no trouble and on Linux with a well documented change (RedHat misses out an important Perl module in its default install). I have not tried the Windows installer, but the same, simple process apparently works.

With the server software installed, you fire up a web-browser, type in “http://localhost:9000” and point the server at your music collection. That’s pretty much it!

The hardware is, if anything, even simpler to set up. You plug the SliMP3 into a handy Ethernet port, add mains power and connect it to the phono ports on your stereo. When switched on it, by default, goes out to a DHCP server to get its IP address and then by some mysterious broadcast method (I’m guessing) finds your local music server.

That’s a long way of saying that I just plugged the hardware in and it worked first time.

In use

I’m no hi-fi expert. If you want to know whether the SliMP3 is the last word in digital audio I’m afraid I can’t help you. What I can say is that, to my ear, the sound is clear and sharp and any problems I’ve experienced have generally been because of the source MP3 rather than the hardware.

I have nearly 4000 songs encoded currently — a number that’s gradually increasing as I rip more and more of my CD’s — mostly converted using iTunes at 160bps. At this level the interface is still very usable, especially if you know what you’re looking for. For browsing you begin to see the beauty of the iPod’s scroll wheel, but the SliMP3 also has its web interface for when you’re feeling indecisive.

I have had a few problems with music skipping or stopping entirely, but this has almost always been when using my Linux box. That machine is not exactly state of the art any more and the wireless networking is still very flaky so I suspect that these problems are nothing to do with the SliMP3. However, I mention it here just to point out that you do need a reliable network and a reasonable machine for the job.

Conclusion

After using it quite heavily for a couple of months now, I think my initial impressions were not far off the mark. I think it’s a very impressive, easy to use and well thought out machine. It sounds good and the screen means its usable anywhere in the same room. Most of the competition force you to switch on your TV to edit playlists so I consider this to be very important.

On the other hand, I still think it’s expensive for what it is. The bottom level iPod costs just slightly more but that comes with a 15GB hard-disk!

Overall, I still believe that the SliMP3 is the best product of its type currently available. If you listen to a lot of MP3’s and are sick of headphone or small, powered speakers this is the machine for you.

Addendum: Since I wrote this article, in fact just months after buying the hardware, Slimdevices upgraded the SliMP3 and renamed it the Squeezebox. From what I can tell looking at the pictures, the main difference is a newer (more professional looking) case and wireless networking as well as Ethernet. Of course, all this is currently available at less than I paid for my old model! Such is progress with anything computer related…

Psion Series 5

Introduction

‘The Penguin Says,’ as you know by now, is a Linux application review site. However, since high-tech toys such as PDA’s are likely to be of interest to many readers I thought I’d add a review. Don’t worry, I shall be keeping an eye on using it with a Linux PC.

So, what is the Psion Series 5? It’s one of the new breed of ‘super’ PDA’s; a full 32-bit computer with megabytes of memory and real applications. The main competition would be any machine based in Windows CE. Being a Linux user I do have a bit of an anti-Microsoft bias, though that is not why I bought a Psion. There are two reason:

  • the battery life
  • the keyboard

There are no CE machines with a keyboard of even similar quality. And the same machines can usually manage no longer than a claimed ten to fifteen hours away from mains power. The Psion does thirty-five.

To me, these two reasons make the Psion a much better machine than any of the others currently available. There are, however, other reasons.

In use

The 5 is a pocket sized lump of dark-green plastic. Well made, it feels as though it could take some punishment if necessary. (I don’t recommend you try this out: as robust as it seems, it’s still very expensive.) Until now, the Psion could be a WinCE palm top. Open it up and the difference becomes apparent.

The keyboard slides forward and the screen lays back to rest on the battery compartment, leaving the unit very stable even when you prod the touch-sensitive screen. The keyboard is fantastic. It is as good as many laptop keyboards and infinitely better than the calculator keys on all the competition. You won’t be able to touch-type, but with two fingers it’s quite feasible to get a decent typing rate.

Software

No-one reading this is going to be too disappointed to hear that the Psion doesn’t run Windows. Instead it runs EPOC32, Psion’s own 32-bit PDA operating system. (For the pedantic, EPOC is now owned by Symbian, a company owned by Psion and a number of mobile phone manufacturers.) Psion know what they’re doing, too.

The screen is always uncluttered leaving as much space as possible for your data. There is no task bar and no menu visible, and even the toolbars will vanish as required. (If you’ve never used a PDA before, this might not such a big deal, but screen estate is valuable and much is wasted on WinCE.) The touch-sensitive area extends slightly beyond the screen. Below are buttons to start the built in applications; to the left are buttons to summon the menu, cut and paste, activate the infrared port and zoom the screen.

None of the built in application are like their Windows or Linux counterparts, but they are by no means difficult to learn. I think it’s fair to say that they are more fully featured than their WinCE counterparts.

There is a terminal program built into the ROM that allowed me to log into Linux on my first attempt. Additionally, the CD-ROM has Internet software — a TCP/IP stack, mail and web-browser. I didn’t manage to get this working due to an incorrect cable (couldn’t directly connect the Psion to the modem) and incompetence (I don’t know how to set up the pppd daemon for dial-in).

It’s also worth noting that the 5 feels quite sprightly in operation. This is despite only having an 18 MHz ARM processor rather than one of the more exotic things that the slower CE machines have. (A Linux-like, no-bloat policy on EPOC32 is obviously in place!)

It can’t be all good?

There are some bad points. The screen, for example, is not as reflective as it could have been. The back-light helps, but really trashes the batteries.

The second worst thing probably stems from my UNIX background. I like to be able to use the keyboard for almost everything, unfortunately the Psion doesn’t like this. Although I can use most applications without going for the touch-screen, it’s difficult or impossible to switch between them. Something like Windows ALT-Tab would be ideal.

It’s also a shame that the synchronization software is proprietary and heavily Windows biased. This leaves little potential for a Linux port. Of more consequence, it means that you can’t install extra software, like the Internet bundle, without Windows.

Having used a Psion Siena for the last couple of years, it’s also disappointing to note that a couple of features from that machine have not been carried over. The most useful being able to display partial to-do lists in the weekly and daily views (e.g., all to-do items of a priority over 2). This all-or-nothing approach is annoying!

However, other than niggles, like the word Psion isn’t in the spell-checker, that is about all. The 5 really is that good.

Overall

Psion has nearly as much experience making palmtops as IBM has making PC’s. It shows.

Small. Powerful. Light. Well made. Easy to use. Nearly ergonomically perfect. The Psion Series 5 is all these things and more.