Saturday, March 21, 2020

Pocket Fuji

On our recent vacation my ultra-wide angle lens, the Panasonic 12-32mm, broke on day 1 - because of a simple fall. I was left with wide, but not wide enough lens for landscapes, the otherwise exceptional pancake Panasonic 20mm. It was only after I returned from the trip and consolidated the photos from my camera and my phone that I realized how I missed the ultra-wide perspective.

So I looked into getting a cheap used one - but I also considered why not just get a separate truly compact camera, just for travel, where carrying the slightly bigger lens - even the pancake one, is not pocketable. I was hoping someone in the micro four third's world made just a camera like this. And there are a few of them, which could be used with a pancake, or expandable lens, but none with a fixed lens (Panasonic LX100 comes close, but not quite there). So I looked at other formats too - presuming I'll get a fixed lens one anyway. And the one that interested me the most was the Ricoh GR II/III, which has a cult following. But the GR II seems to have dust issues over time, and the III was a bit costly for my budget for a secondary camera. The alternatives recommended for GR II included Fujifilm XF10. It seemed intriguing - and after reading up bunch of reviews I decided to take a swing at it.

The Fujifilm XF10 has a 18mm (APSC) lens and it's quite pocketable. It appears quite well suited for landscapes, travel use and some street/portrait photography - with the inbuilt upscaled digital crop. I took some samples at nearby parks and such, it seems to be what it is, so far so good. The handling is fine, the controls are easy and straight-forward (simple even compared to my Olympus EM10), and the image quality is better than my expectations. And then I used some of the film simulation modes that Fuji has in most of it's pro/prosumer cameras. The film simulation modes may seem gimmicky like Instagram filters - but boy they are not! I'm kind of surprised with the photo processing and color science that Fuji uses, and the impact of their subtely. The black and white modes are so good, I'm now inclined to take most of the photos in black and white. I'll see how it fares, after it goes on full field test - one of our next travels.

But despite all of it's promises, one word of caution. It may pose like a natural progression for a casual smartphone photographer, being a compact, fixed lens camera - but it's not. To get the most out of camera, you need to have had some experience using a non-point-and-shoot camera. But once you figure those things out, I think this is a very capable camera without appearing too serious - mine even has a light gold and leather finish!

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Small Wonder

My short review of the Acer C720, as posted on Amazon.

This is my first ever review on Amazon, I was compelled to write one.

Got this as a gift from my wife. I knew the machine would be good, but I wasn't expecting it to be _this_ good! This $200 machine has same snappy performance as my work Macbook. And it manages to do this with a entry level Celeron processor, that's just insane. Boots up in 2-3s and shuts down instantly. The keyboard is good, though the keys aren't very deep. Trackpad is very accurate and smooth, I haven't seen a trackpad this good outside of a Macbook. Even though it has just 2GB ram, I haven't had even a slightest hiccup with multiple tabs/apps running with music streaming at the same time. I think Google has done an excellent job optimizing the OS, so much so that you get the same performance from entry level processors as an i3/i5.

I initially thought that the small size could be a problem, but it hasn't been in my last few weeks of use. The resolution of the display is same as the other machines with 13in displays. I was so enamored by this small wonder that I decided to ditch my work Macbook and tried working on this for two full weeks. And I haven't missed a thing. Attach it to a external monitor and it handles a higher resolution equally well - no hiccups there too.

My only little gripe is that the Cisco VPN doesn't work out of the box (for certain types of authentication, for some others it works). I'm hoping Google or Cisco will fix that soon. But if you're a little handy, you can install crouton and vpnc to get it to work even now.

All in all, things don't get better than this. I haven't been more satisfied with any tech product as this. Tip of hat to Google and Acer.

PS: The battery life is outstanding, I consistently get 8-9 hrs.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Micro four thirds - 5 years on

Way back in 2010 I had got the GF1 and fell in love with it. I was amazed at what it can do or being so small in form. More than that it convinced that mirrorless compact cameras were the future.

Here we're back to the future where I believe the promise of mirrorless format still holds true and a good part of its potential has been realized too. Credit goes to Olympus and Panasonic for envisioning a new photography format through the micro four thirds and sticking by it, while rest of the industry kept the old ways for the digital world. Five years on and most players have released their own version of mirrorless format. But micro four thirds are the pioneers who has now matured into a full blown platform. Just look at the lens selection and quality, nothing else comes close. And the camera bodies are available from everything to the most compact to the most pro.

The advancement in image quality and technology has been significant in the last five years. I upgraded to a E-M10 from GF1, and it's a quantum sized leap . It's just better in every possible way. I can now shoot in low light at 150mm stopped at f5.6 at ISO3200, and still get a sharp usable image. That is unprecedented. Kudos to the image stabilization and sensor sensitivity improvements. Cherry on top are the glorious Olympus colors - which are widely attributed to the best in class JPEG engine that Olympus has.

I'm excited to learn more about putting the E-M10's feature set to use, and I'm eager to see where the micro four thirds platform goes in the next five years.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Android mini pc: The $50 tablet

I was thinking about getting a Raspberry Pi for some tinkering at home. While looking for it, I stumbled upon the China mass market made "android sticks" which sell for $50 round about. I decided to give it a shot - expecting hardly anything. The only thing I knew was that the hardware of these sticks was better than the Raspberry Pi. So I took the plunge, and boy was I surprised.

First the specs. For $50 you get lot of value for your money. Dual core 1.6Ghz Rockchip RK3066 SOC, 1G ram and 8g of storage. Add micro sd card slot, HDMI connector and USB OTG cable. Benchmarks put the Rockchip's ARM processor equivalent to Tegra 3 if not better. So this is basically a Nexus 7 equivalent, which you can directly connect to your HDTV. And voila, we have a 46in Android tablet running Jelly Bean.

Functionality wise this thing flat out delivers the kitchen sink and more. It does HD display output without a hitch. Netflix, Hulu Plus videos play like a champ, and you get good UI to play with, instead of the rusty and not so often updated UI for these apps on other smart devices like TVs and blu-ray players. It also comes with flash support, so you can play the "watch movie online free" searches natively ;) No need to keep messing around with the PC/TV connectivity.

And then there's the basic Android customization and playfullness that comes with it inherently. You can change launchers, backgrounds, icons, apps; stream music using different services, get notifications, weather - everthing. Much smarter than your smart TV.

The only catch that I saw was the lack of touch UI. A wireless keyboard/mouse combo works fine for almost all apps, but you might miss touch for playing some games and such.

Well there is a fix for that too, Rockchip has written an app that you can run on your phone and provide touch/accelerometer input remotely. With this app you don't need any other controlling device, but this keyboard/mouse thing is way more easily usable than unlocking your phone all the time.

There are Linux distributions that you can install on this too, like PicUntu. All in all, it's super bang for the buck at $50. Guaranteed to make your gadget thirsty soul happy :)

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Asus X401a - the affordable ultrabook

My laptop of five years, the 2007 13 incher macbook has taken a hit. Fixing it is costly enough to warrant buying a new machine instead. So I decided to go shopping.

No Apple machines this time though. It made sense to cough up a grand when the competition cost only $200 less, and owning a macbook felt quite elite for a grad student. Not anymore. Laptop prices for the entry level ones have come down to less than half of what they were just 3-4 years ago. And what the OEMs call entry level, are by no standards entry level either, they just want you to buy a fancy spec-ed configuration, which you probably don't need.

I started with some market 'survey' so to say, sometimes I think I like doing that more than actually getting the thing I want! Talk about the journey being more interesting than the destination.

Some observations.

- The traditionally good players seem to be losing ground in the market. Dell/HP/Lenovo/Toshiba designs look dated compared to ones from Acer/Asus/Samsung.

- There are way too many CPUs from Intel and AMD available over a wide range of laptops, from  entry level to mid to the ultrabooks/performance machines. The problem with that is it is difficult to understand - for most buyers, even the 'serious' ones, which CPUs are better at what when compared. There's Intel's Pentium B9xx series, i3, i5, i7 and newer architecture Celerons; and AMD's C series, E series, A4, A6, A8 and some Athlon's still hanging around. It's a crowded market with not so obvious boundaries. So do your homework.

- Most entry level laptops are more than good enough for almost everyone, keeping gamers aside. Offcourse not including netbooks, which ship with the underwhelming Intel Atom, skip that.

- AMD's APU processors totally rock the graphics scene on laptops.

- Some in store models are absolutely not available online. Read that again. 

With all this in mind I was hunting for a reasonably priced machine. And just like that I stumbled across a machine just unveiled at Computex 2012, and it was sitting on a BestBuy shelf, exclusively, not available anywhere else, including Newegg and Amazon. 

It was love at first sight :D

The Asus X401a. It's slim, almost like an ultrabook. Weighs less than many ultrabooks. Plays 1080p on my TV without missing a pixel, while running cool. Runs Gimp like a champ.

Specs - Asus X401a, 14 in, Pentium B970(dual core), 4G RAM, 320GB HDD, USB 3.0, HDMI, 4lbs, $350

And you can buy three of these in the cost of a macbook air, and still save money for a Nexus tablet.

Like some other early reviewer said, this machine is a category in itself. And I'm impressed with the build quality and design by Asus, at this price. It even comes with a collapsible ethernet port to keep the design slim. Lenovo and Apple should learn from this. I'm sure Asus will sell a ton of these.