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Chess with Kids

As parents, we consciously limit our two kids’ exposure to mobile gadgets as much as possible. While both Hannah and Peter do enjoy the occasional time they get on the iPad, neither seem particularly hung up about it when they don’t get that time – though in Hannah’s case at least, I wonder if it’s because her After school care already has such devices for the kids to congregate over already, and she has her fill of them as a result.

In any case, we supplement their free time with other home activities. Ling has a repertoire of gardening and baking projects that Hannah will typically actively join  in, while Peter usually just looks on. Of late too, and possibly in part because her friends’ induction at After School Care, Hannah now plays chess. We’ve been diligently putting time aside every day to play at least one game, normally after dinner. And it’s fascinating to observe how quickly she’s improving with practice. Since Monday, we’ve played about nine games now. And while it’s been eight wins with one stalemate in my favor, over this short period of a week, I increasingly have to work harder each match! She’s mastered most of the types of moves permitted in each chess piece, and can anticipate the most obvious opponent countermoves one to two steps ahead. Though she’s still missing a clear understanding of the relative prowess of chess pieces and what are considered good or bad trades, and also perhaps a sense of long-term strategy. Those I’m sure will come over time with more practice.

H’s starter chess board is the same type I had as a primary school student too: a small 5″x 5″ board with tiny black/white chess pieces with magnet attachments. Cheaply made of plastic that goes for just a few dollars @ Popular Bookstore. And pieces on the 5″ board are too small for my chubby fingers! Now that she’s really getting into the game, I’ve placed an order for two other wooden handcrafted sets. The first is a slightly larger 7″ x 7″ set that’s going for SGD14 @ eBay and shipping from India. The 7″ set should make a world of difference compared to the small dingy 5″x 5″ board we’ve been making do, yet still small enough for Hannah to bring around. The second is a much larger 11″x 11″ that’s a bit more costly at about SGD45, also wooden handcrafted and shipping from Poland. This one we’ll keep at home to play.

Her little chess board follows her even to weekend breakfast at Olivia & Co. Bistro @ Compass One.

Teaching P, just so that she can beat him at it repeatedly. Notice how many pieces she’s taken as White LOL.

Match #9 on Sunday, and try to understand why she lost the game and what to do next time. Cornered her king after wiping out the rest of her pieces.

Another toy that she’s gotten into: Rubric cubes!

It’s certainly fun to reflect on how our kids play the kind of games we used to as children at their age. I wonder what will be next! :)

 

Notebook 2017

Continuing from a post from just over a month ago here. The month of March came and went past without Microsoft making a formal announcement on the highly anticipated successor to the Surface Pro 4. Insider information though revealed that the SP5 was going to largely see an upgrade from its processor to that of the Kaby Lake series, but not much else. Pretty disappointing.

I was also rethinking what my use cases for a new laptop was going to be. For certain, the 2.5 year old Surface Pro 3 isn’t  keeping up anymore to what I use it for (note to self: never ever again buy a Windows laptop that comes with just 4GB RAM), and its general responsiveness seem to worsen with the recent Windows 10 Creators Update.

There were two scenarios. Either the replacement laptop will be for home use, or it will replace the Dell XPS 13 and bring that home to replace the SP3. My preference was for the latter, on account that the 256GB SSD on the XPS 13 was also straining under work use. I use a lot of media files when I teach, with my eyes starting to struggle with screen sizes of 13.3″.

So, with that, my couple of requirements for a work notebook replacement were:

Preferably a 14″ screen or larger for my old ‘Uncle’ eyes

8GB RAM + 512GB SSD, or at least end-user replaceable

USB Type-C support and preferably with Thunderbolt 3 support

Windows 10 Pro

At least 2 years warranty

On this, there are two nice benefits of being an educator. Purchases of personal IT equipment are partially claimable from work, and we also separately get great large discounts with selected notebook manufacturers, especially from Acer, HP, Asus, Apple, and Lenovo. The discounts offered from Acer, HP and Asus are routinely isolated to specific models however numbering usually 4-5 from each manufacturer, while Lenovo and Apple offer educational discounts on most if not all of its notebooks.

After several weeks of the usual reading-up and tabular comparisons,  the choices came down to:

Apple MacBook Pro 13: a factory refurbished configuration of 16GB RAM/512GB SSD is about SGD2.6K, with new units sold through its educational store a few hundred dollars higher. The general build and quality of Apple’s MacBooks continue to be second to none, but I am pretty uncertain of its butterfly-type keyboards on both the 13 and 15s’ even after spending a good amount of try-outs at the various Apple resellers. The number of complaints of spoilt keyboards on these new MacBooks is also unsettling. The non-Touchbar MacBooks comes with just two ports – both Type-C’s – which would have made using all my USB 3.0 Type-A peripherals, including a ton of flash drives, portable drives and hubs, a real nightmare. The Touchbar version is going to stack an additional SGD400 to the asking price. Drivers to make full use of the Touchbar are still absent for Windows 10 too. Finally, adding Apple Care – a must after my old MacBook Pro 15 went bonkers after one year of use – is going to be another SGD300 too. So, tempting as owning a current gen MacBook is, it was just way more than what I was prepared to spend.

Lenovo Yoga 910: the Yoga 910 is rated by many sites to be one of the two best convertible laptops right now – the other is the HP x360 Spectre 13 (see below) – with both machines offering Energizer Bunny-like battery life of > 8 hrs under typical  use, premium builds, and support for USB Type C. Lenovo Singapore educational store is also offering very tempting discounts for this lovely machine: somewhere to the tune of about SGD500 less. And for a comparatively low price of SGD1679, one would get 16GB RAM/256GB SSD with 2 years warranty, with the storage drive being end-user replaceable. The screen is also a healthy 13.9″ size. In comparison, the HP Spectre x360 13 is going for slightly more at SGD2189 for a 8GB RAM/512GB SSD configuration, but with 3 years warranty. Both tempting options!

The x360 Spectre 13 vs Yoga 910.

Lenovo ThinkPad T470s: was also in the final reckoning. There are very few reviews for this just recently released laptop too. None of the usual local computer stores I checked had it on display. The one web site that had the T470s reviewed in detail was clearly impressed with its general build quality and battery life, though the full-HD screen seemed to be a hit and miss affair over its rated screen brightness levels. The laptop also comes with a very welcomed suite of Type A and C ports too – a feature set that is absent on the Yoga 910 and x360. The notebook isn’t actually as light or svelte as the Yoga 910 or x360 though, but its close enough. Unlike either too, the T470s and the X1 Carbon (below) are built for enterprise use. A 16GB RAM/512GB SSD/i5-7300U/WQHD screen configuration is SGD2477 after educational discounts.

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon: the fifth generation of Leonvo’s top of the line notebook for Enterprise use. The X1 notebooks are basically like the ThinkPad T series: just lighter, smaller, and even better engineered. This model has been widely reviewed, with many sites uniformly praising its build quality and feature set, though not its asking price – it’s Lenovo’s most costly line of notebooks! Lenovo’s educational discount however is significant: for a 16GB RAM/512GB SSD/i5-7300U/FHD configuration was SGD2677.

I’ve always liked ThinkPads, though the current one my workplace gives me is the X230 with its tiny and not elderly friendly 12.5″ screen. After weighing the pros and cons of each, the choices narrowed down to these two ThinkPads: T470s and X1. And several more days of agonizing later, the X1 Carbon it is. Coming in a fortnight (hopefully), with the Dell XPS 13 to come home in a swap. More posts about it to come soon!

The Piano Project – Part 6

There are two things I’m especially grateful my parents did when I was a child: buy us an Apple II computer, and let my two brothers and I learn the piano. Both of these things had immeasurable impacts on what I’ve done since that point. As a direct result of the first – I learned programming as a 12 year old by reading books, programmed my first video game in secondary one, did computing at University, did a PhD centered on video games, and now work in an Information Technology school.

My journey as a result of the second is a little more convoluted: I had piano lessons, experienced a few junctures where I wanted to give up learning, had a wonderful teacher in my later grades who was a much more effective instructor, started listening to classical music, wrote and recorded my own piano music. And now it’s come full-circle – our daughter now also learns the same instrument!

One of the reasons why I wanted the Silent Piano module when looking for our home piano last year came from an interest to record. Like debating: there’s no better way to learn where your mistakes are than listening to your own self performances. There are a couple of ways of recording music on our Yamaha U30BL, each with its own advantages and challenges:

Turning on the Silent Piano module, and recording a piece on MIDI.

Turning on the Silent Piano module, and recording a piece directly via headphone jack.

Using a camcorder LOL.

The first method will only record audio, and using a MIDI sequencer, you’d also be able to correct very minor mistakes in the performance. You’d also get pretty clean audio, no noise, and you can fine-tune the soundscape as you like. Recording via MIDI though is a crazy amount of work though, and while I have a fairly systematic workflow, the process is not something I relish.

I haven’t tried the second method yet. You won’t be able to correct any mistakes and the quality of the sound is entirely dependent on the note samples embedded in the Silent Piano module – which is adequate but not great.

The third method is the most convenient, and as a bonus, I get video to see all my fingering goofs! The acoustics in our living room aren’t really very good, and there’s pretty poor clarity in the lower registers. A better and fourth method would be to record video but use the audio output of the Silent Piano – but I lack sufficiently long audio cables at the moment to run those things about the piano.

So, in the mean time, I’ve been doing some video recordings. Oddly, the Panasonic TM700’s microphone input resulted in heavily muffled audio, while the E-M1 fared somewhat better – though neither methods were producing an ideal audio experience – with limited aural range, reverberations caused by the living room acoustics, creaking from the piano seat, and my next door neighbor moving house LOL.

Huawei Mate 9 – Part 4: Final Notes

Last couple of posts of the Huawei Mate 9 here, here and here.

Many of the larger Android phone manufacturers routinely load up their new phones with a lot of bloatware. Sometimes, it’s useful – like additional storage space on Dropbox – but a lot of other times, it just isn’t. The difficulty becomes even worse when you can’t actually remove those built-in apps from your phone. Attempting to Uninstall the app will fail. At most, you can replace the app with factory version, so these apps will remain on your device and likely also an eye-sore.

Huawei isn’t different from Samsung in this regard; the Mate 9 came with several of its own apps that I didn’t have a use for, except for one: a Truecaller program that I’ve not seen before. A check showed what this app is about: it’s a cloud-based solution to that attempts to check the IDs of all incoming calls. In other words, CallerID on steroids! Truecaller doesn’t just display the phone number, but searches in crowd-contributed databases where the phone number really is from.

Here’s a case in point. For several months now, I’ve been getting calls persistently from a local mobile number, and – as a creature of habit – I routinely ignore numbers that I do not recognize and when I’m not expecting a call either. But after using the Mate 9, the Truecaller was able to identify the number as coming from a Piano Tuner:

The Tuner’s full phone number masked out in this picture of course.

That’s real neat! Our Yamaha U30BL piano package comes with two free piano tunings in the first year, and I reckon the fellow has been calling to try to make appointments for it.

Another quirk of the Mate 9: the phone’s rear fingerprint sensor works a little too well. It’s responsive and instantly unlocks the phone. And I’ve never had a single instance of print rejection over the two weeks I’ve had the phone. Totally unlike the iPads and Samsung Note 5 which can take a couple of tries for the phone to unlock. But the Mate 9’s fingerprint sensor is also so sensitive and responsive to touch that even lightly brushing the sensor with my finger – e.g. something as innocuous as just holding and not using the camera in my palm while I’m walking – is enough to unlock the phone.

Many of the top-tier phones from manufacturers today also use slightly curved glass along the long sides of the display screen. The Mate 9 isn’t different from the Note 5 nor the Mi Max in this regard: all three have the same screen characteristic. While this makes for a more premium product, finding tempered glass protectors that cover the entire screen edge to edge is annoyingly tough, as it’s not easy to, well, manufacture at low price points thin glass pieces that are slightly curved along edges. Most tempered glass protectors deal with this difficulty simply by not covering the entire screen. Alternatively, the protector might come with black borders that run along its edges – which will cover the entire phone screen, and at the same time mask the fact that the protector doesn’t actually curve neatly along the display screen edge. The down side of this is that you’re likely to lose a tiny bit of display area – but for many users, including myself, it’s the best of what essentially are non-ideal situations from a design limitation.

Still. The 4000 mAh battery is absolutely incredible in making me assured that I don’t have to be near a USB Type C cable and charger every half-day. Part of this I suspect is the hardware and Android 7.0’s ability to sparingly sip power when the phone is in standby mode. It’s not unusual for the phone to be disconnected from the charger at 11PM before I turn in, and 7 hours later – battery power has dropped by only 1% or at most 2%.

All in; the Mate 9 isn’t the best phone I’ve had – that honor still sits safely with the Samsung Note 5 – but it’s ‘good enough’ for the moment. Until the real successor to the Note 5 comes along. :)

Brother P-Touch PT-H110 Label Maker

This is one of those little home gadgets that’s a must for those of us who like everything neat and organized (e.g. me!). I’ve been wanting to get one of these at a stationery store. Popular Bookstore has a couple of models from Dymo, Casio and Brother, all at varying price-points of $49.90 and upwards. I’m not running an asset inventory store at home, so figured I really didn’t want to spend much on this – so went with the cheapest handheld model: the Brother P-Touch PT-H110 (what a mouthful LOL).

Commented in the picture captions below.

The label maker, a sample cartridge, user guide, and also a tape accessory guide. The device powers up quickly, and is easy to operate – though you can always leaf through the foldout user guide to see if there are features you’ve missed after exploring the menus on your own.

The back plate is easily pried opened to reveal internals: cavities to hold the tape cartridge, and six AAA batteries. I wished the unit uses AA batteries since I have a lot more AA recharcgeables than I have for AAA ones. The unit can be powered using an AC adapter too, but one such isn’t supplied with the package.

The sample cartridge is the 12mm width type, and is of the black text on white laminate type. It’s sufficient to print perhaps 40-50 labels, and the sample type is great for labeling kitchen containers, computer accessories and cables, and boxes etc. but too large for stationery though. The label catalog lists many other types, including ones to paste on fabrics.

Punching in text to be printed. The key buttons are quite mushy, but you’re not going to be typing essays on this thing anyway. There is no caps lock on the device too, so if you like your labels to shout in all caps, you’ll have to depress the Shift key each time for a capital letter.

After you’ve entered text, the next screen allows you to set the number of copies to print. Press OK and the machine will silently churn the label out.

Pressing the large yellow-green lever on the top right corner will snip the label piece. The unit produces an unnecessarily long tape buffer though, which some reviewers have noted might be because of the cutting mechanism. Or in other words, the unit does waste quite a bit of tape. Part of this can be mitigated by reducing margins, but the wastage cannot be completely eliminated.

Hannah was fascinated with the whole thing, and acted as mommy’s little helper – jotting down everything in the kitchen that could use a label. You can also see the fairly large gap between labels.

A more organized fridge – maybe!

In all, it’s a decent and helpful machine, and cartridge replenishment is easily available at bookstores. The keypad is a little annoying, and the tape waste even more so. But it’s a cheap purchase on the overall still, so I can’t complain too much.

Shooting with the Panasonic GX85 + Olympus 45mm f1.8

One of best things about having four micro four-thirds bodies is that since I have four favorite lenses, I can mount each one of them on a different body and not have to as frequently switch lenses with bodies! The first two posts in this series has been centered on the E-PL6 + Olympus 17mm f1.8 + E-M5 with Panasonic 25mm f1.4. The third post in this series and the last one with primes is the GX85 + Olympus 45mm f1.8 combo.

The 45mm can work just as well with either of the E-Ms though perhaps less well with the E-PL6. At 90mm full-frame focal length equivalent, I reckon my camera-holding technique needs to be just a little steadier and using an EVF than through a rear LCD. Of the three primes, the 45mm is the most challenging to work with when indoors and in the small rooms typical of high-rise apartments in this part of the world. I do get more obvious bokeh with the 45mm than the 25mm of course, but for the most part, having to step back all the way into a wall and still have one of the kids’ heads chopped off in the frame makes whatever bokeh I might get a non-starter.

The lens though will come into its own when outdoors where’s a lot more space to move and get exactly the composition you want in a shot.

The GX85 with the 45mm.

And a series of shots with this combo: excepting the Bolo bun picture, aperture settings were between f1.8 to f2.0 and ISO200. These are also flash shots too, with the Meike MK320 mounted on the GX85.

Balancing an eraser on the edge of the ruler is a past-time we all had as kids!

Practising for a storytelling competition in school.

Ling says that P takes after me in this trait: we both stick our tongues out when unconsciously when we’re concentrating on something. The fairly long focal length and almost full-body composition required shooting from across the bedroom.

H’s big sister instincts kicking in to help Peter with some writing activities. Two person shots on primes wide-open are always a little challenging, as it’s very easy for one person to be out of focus because of the thin depth of field.

The wife getting creative in the kitchen again. These Bolo buns look so good literally I’m not sure if I’ll bear to have them for breakfast! This one’s at f4.5 to give a bit more depth as this was a close-up shot.

A picture of concentration: H having her school Home-Based Learning exercise across two days this week. I had my back against our brick wall, and her upper body still barely fitted into the frame. The 25mm would have been an easier lens for this shot, though the background rendering would had been less creamy.

That concludes the series of posts using the three key m4/3 primes I’ve got. They’re really fun lenses to use, and I reckon the 25mm f1.4 is the one that I find most useful given the kind of pictures I like to take. I might do a future post on weekend pictures using the 40-150mm f2.8 exclusively, but there’s a huge thing to lug around on family weekends, but we’ll see.:)

Huawei Mate 9 – Part 3: Imaging

I don’t think I’ll ever feel entirely at ease with the smartphone as a handy camera. A large part of it has to do with handling and ergonomics. Smartphones as a direct result of their form factor simply do not permit you to have a good hand-grip when you’re trying to compose a picture, so much so that I’m constantly fearful of accidentally dropping the phone while taking a shot. With the exception of my two Mi phones – which don’t produce very good pictures to begin with – the smartphones we’re using routinely cost upwards of $600-700; a lot more than cheap compact cameras. $600-$700 is a lot of money to throw away if phones kiss concrete!

Still, the old adage tells us that the best camera there is is the one you have with you at that moment. I carry my m4/3 cameras whenever we’re out with the kids, but that’s not all the time – while our phones are always with us. And beyond convenience, smartphone cameras also offer a whole bunch of other neat features, including:

Full-screen viewing with easy pinch in-out zooms to check focusing points and composition. Those 3″ LCD screens on compacts are no match for 5.5″ screens on phones! At high resolutions of 1920×1080 pixels and more too.

USB charging. No need to bring around an external battery charger for the camera.

Filters, picture modes, and decent image editing baked into firmware. And if that’s not enough, you can easily install Adobe Photoshop Express on the phone to get your pro-tweak fix.

Connectivity. Most entry-level compacts won’t include the kind of connection possibilities you’d find in smartphones, while even the cheapest smartphones will have these features. They include picture postings to social media sites, or backing up to cloud services if your data plans permit it. And if you’re on a 60 day vacation across the length and breadth of Europe, auto Geotagging would be really helpful too. You’d need to move up to pricey premium compacts to get all those fun connection options.

Though then again, compacts have got more than a couple of tricks:

Better image quality if you’re willing to spend a bit more to get compacts with 1″ sensors. I’m still hoping to get a 1″ compact camera at some point this year.

Optical stabilization and zooming, though we’re also increasingly seeing the top-tier smartphones offer these features too. And no current smartphone is going to get you good quality zoomed-in pictures when you’re on vacation. Some smartphones can go up to 5-6X, but only through digital zoom – and you really don’t want that.

Handling in odd weather and conditions. Most of us won’t take our cameras to shoot in extreme conditions (ever), but if you want to take pictures in the swimming pool of kids swimming, you’re out of luck with the majority of smartphones. On the other hand, there are waterproof compact cameras abound, and even underwater casings – like the waterproof case for the Canon Ixus, a combination we use to take pictures of our kids swimming.

Better ergonomics and handling. You can easily attach a wrist strap to your camera. Not your 2017 smartphone, unless you get a smartphone case with eyelets for such.

All that said though, the general feeling in the photographic industry is that entry-to mid level compacts are a twilight market segment now. In fact, long-standing photography sites like DPReview and DxOMark have also been including smartphones in their product reviews. I reckon the premium and travel-zoom compacts will still continue to hold their own for at least several more years, since it’s a lot harder to build larger than normal imaging sensors into dense smartphones already jam-packed with fragile electronics, let alone the requisite glass elements that’d permit you to do long optical zooms.

So – onto the Mate 9. Here is a sample for pixel-peepers. Taken on a hot, humid and very sunny Saturday just before noon at our parents’ place. JPG compression was set to 90% quality level.

You can probably feel the sizzling heat just by looking at this picture. Click on the image to get the full-sized JPG image (ISO50, f2.2). Click on the above for the full 5120×3840 pixel image.

A 800×600 pixel crop at 100% of the upper left corner.

A 800×600 pixel crop at 100% at about the image center.

I reckon many people will be happy with these pictures – the Mate 9, like many of the other top-tier phones from manufacturers, take decent pictures. The outdoor pictures only don’t look so good when you’re peering at them at 100%. But really, only pros and gear heads seeking absolutely perfection in their optical equipment will do that, ever. The real challenge is in low-light, and on that, the laws of physics governing small image sensor prevails – the Mate 9 isn’t so great in low-light, and the output differences compared to m4/3s is pretty visible.

So in summary. Is the Mate 9 dual-camera setup any good? It’s pretty OK if you’re comparing it against compact cameras, and/or are taking pictures outdoors and in good light. But it’s also not going to replace my m4/3s anytime.

Next and also last post in series here.

Shooting with the Olympus E-M5 + Panasonic 25mm f1.4

The other weekend‘s series of camera + prime lens pictures was so fun to do I reckon I’ll do a regular series on this on our blog. This week’s combo is the E-M5 with 25mm. The Olympus E-M5 is the oldest of my four m4/3 bodies that I still use regularly. I’ve been quite careful with this particular body, though given that it’s seen quite intensive use over the almost 5 years I’ve had it, the scruff marks on the body are now quite obvious to the naked eye. The E-M5 isn’t without its middle age quirks too; the camera doesn’t always power-up now when the power lever gets flicked on, though it normally does on the second try!

I’ve also had the Panasonic 25mm f1.4 for just over four years now, with my particular copy purchased on Amazon JP and shipped here through Tenso, a Japanese parcel-forwarding company. The lens is also showing its age too, though its rubberized lens grip acts also as a protective layer from it getting scruff up with nicks and bangs like my E-M5.

The 25mm remains the fastest and only f1.4 lens I own. Its light-gathering ability of course makes it great for low-light shots, and of the kids especially in ambient light – though it’s also less useful say for night-time shots of scenery. The shallow depth of field also makes any composition with not one but both kids a more considered undertaking, since it’s seriously easy to have one of the two just out of focus.

The lens is still balanced nicely with the E-M5. The lightning quick AF on the E-M5 plus the fast shutter speeds that the camera reaches for when coupled with a f1.4 lens makes it easy to catch decent pictures of fast-moving kids who don’t keep still – especially Peter. In fact, there’s no reason to engage continuous AF on this combo when single AF works great here.

The coming to five year old E-M5 with its scuff marks with the 25mm.

A selection of this week’s pictures shooting with the E-M5 and 25mm exclusively. All were wide-open at f1.4, and between ISO200 to 400. The first four were also just before weekday bedtime so with the Nissin i40 flash gun.




And over the weekend:

Right outside our main door just when we’re heading out for weekend brunch. The 25mm wide-open at f1.4 remains incredibly sharp in the center.

While waiting for Pet Lovers Centre @ Nex to open for the day. It’s possible to use the 25mm for full-body pictures without too much difficulty – as long as there’s working distance.

The trio of child joy rides on the Popular Bookstore level.

The E-M5’s speedy AF with the 25mm makes it possible to take shots like these where the kids were running about Parkway Parade’s joy rides.

Next post in this series will be the Panasonic GX85 + Olympus 45mm f1.8!

Creative Sound Blaster Roar Pro + iRoar Mic – Unboxing

One of the all-time job hazards of being an educator – here at least in Singapore but I expect it to be a challenge elsewhere too – is that we’re especially vulnerable to throat irritations and sore throats. This is on account of the amount of voice projection we have to do when we teach. And when educators have to teach in this fashion for 20+ hours a week, the strain put on throat muscles can be significant. And on the same and ironically too, many educators I know of prefer not to use microphone setups if they can help it. I myself prefer not to too, but if I’m teaching a session in a large lecture theater, then audio-enhancement systems are a must.

Truth to tell; for years I’ve been keeping an occasional eye-out for small-enough microphone systems that I can carry around. Unfortunately, many of them are either too bulky – like those portable Public Address systems , or ungainly belt-worn ones with wires dangling everywhere.

In itself, Creative’s Roar and iRoar products belong to the category of portable Bluetooth speakers, a product type that has seen all manner of manufacturers filled up with wide ranging models. The models are differentiated along battery life, output sound quality, and additional features like support for storage devices, more exotic audio connectors. But they all fundamentally do the same thing: connect via Bluetooth to a mobile device (e.g. smartphone, laptop), and play back sound. I actually already have one such – the critically praised Logitech UE Boom – for several years now, and I use it as a portable audio playback device for all my classes.

These Bluetooth speakers lack the one feature that the Creative Roar Pro and iRoar products offer though: support for a wireless microphone connection. And this is where Creative’s solutions are really quite interesting. Basically the Sound Blaster Roar Pro is a portable Bluetooth speaker that can also double-up as a public address system when paired with an appropriate accessory – Creative’s iRoar Mic in this case. The Roar Pro is normally sold for about USD200, and the iRoar Mic USD75. But Creative Singapore regularly throws up big discounts on its line-up at the IT/Computer/Technology show here every quarter, so it was just a matter of waiting for the right week where the big discounts are in-play. So, at last weekend’s IT Show, I made an order for the Roar Pro and also iRoar Mic at the Creative online store for a total of SGD278. Much cheaper than if I’d ordered from Amazon – what a shocker. Hooray for homegrown Singapore companies! :)

The big box arrived from local courier just a few days after placing the order, and here’s the outlay:

The Roar Pro and iRoar Mic in similarly designed boxes.

The Roar Pro comes with the speaker, a standard audio cable, the power adapter and cord with multiple pin-type inclusions, a user guide. Er – it does not come with a 62mm lens cap (forgot about it!). The speaker unit itself is a hefty rectangular black metallic box that you could use as a weapon! The package did not come with a carry case for the speaker though.

The top right panel buttons. From left to right: the charging port, Aux in port, a full-sized USB port for the speaker to also work like a powerbank, a micro-USB charging port, and micro SD slot to playback WMA/MP3 audio files.

The top left panel buttons. From left to right: Mic on/Mute switch, record/playback buttons, playback modes and buttons, audio profile switch, the Tera Bass feature that apparently intelligently drives up bass, and finally also a mode switch.

Contents of the iRoar Mic:user manuals, a lanyard, cover for the microphone, and the microphone itself.

The iRoar Mic isn’t as small as some of the wearable though wired microphones around, but it’s not oversized larger.

This Roar Pro and iRoar Mic is specifically intended for work and when I have no voice to project to a large group of students, and I haven’t put the set through extensive use at home yet. From initial tests at work though, the Roar Pro seems better able to produce loud enough audio to fill a small lecture theater (around 90-100 seating capacity) and I hadn’t pushed the speaker to its limit yet even. Still, the UE Boom’s bass seems at least clearer than the Roar Pro. But more notes to come soon enough once I use it to teach.

Or maybe I should just keep it up at home and use it to thunder at Peter with several factors of audio multiplication when he misbehaves LOL.

Beauty and the Beast (2017) – Part 2

Previous post here. As for the bits of Beauty and the Beast that just didn’t work for me, I reckon the largest problem lied in its two lead characters.

Emma Watson as Belle is easy on the eyes, but it’s hard to shake off that brand name look she’s built for herself coming out of her long years as that insufferable know-it-all chao mugger from the Harry Potter films. As one Facebook friend quipped, the production felt like Hermione Granger decked out in a gown in a 2 hour long prom party. Watson’s emotional range felt stunted with little subtlety, a problem only exacerbated by how the cinematographer chose to put her face squarely in the frame for many shots.

In other spots, and maybe also because of her natural facial features, Watson’s efforts to show what should be half-smiles in a couple of scenes seems to come across as inappropriate smirks. Belle as a 1991 animated character was charming and endearing. Who can forget that cute line delivered in a Southern-like accent when she enters the bookshop “Have you got anything new?” You rooted for her, the village oddball. Watson’s Belle? Not nearly so much. Her response after she rejects Gaston first marriage proposal has her sounding mean-spirited, maybe even nasty.

And how about her singing? Well, it’s serviceable and – like Anne Hathaway in Les Misérables – Watson was able to hit the high notes in her numbers, though the pieces in the film aren’t really that technically challenging for trained singers to begin with. But Watson’s voice simply lacks the tonality and sparkle we heard in Paige O’Hara’s rendition of the character from the original film. For instance, just listen to how O’Hara weaves in a small sign of resignation in the line “Ev’ry morning just the same” in “Belle”, compare it to Watson, and you’d see what I mean.

Dan Steven’s Beast has far fewer sung numbers of note. Like Lumière/Cogsworth/Mrs. Potts , he exists only as a digital creation for most of the film. Unlike the household trio though, less money seemed to had been spent recreating the Beast than those three! The computer-generated Beast looks like it was done on the cheap by C performance grade interns. This computer-generated version of the character, and specifically his facial expressions, is without life and just bland. The general consensus among many IMDB reviewers too is that the digitally created Beast was just badly done.

This low fidelity of the digital creation might not normally had been a problem – were it not for the fact that Beast is the other titular character and is in the film a lot. I’m just not sure why Disney simply did (could?) not do this character properly, when films like King Kong since 2005 and 12 years older than this one were able to digitally create monstrous creatures that look more realistic than what we get here in 2017.

Luke Evans as Gaston blew his big number, “Gaston” – his voice is positively lightweight – but thankfully did better in the Mob Song. More seriously: Evans simply doesn’t have the necessary girth nor physical size to be intimidating. And the irony? One line in “Gaston” is where he sings “As a specimen, yes, I’m intimidating!!” Nope sir, you were not in this film.

The sound engineer on this production seems to have been given a single directive: “Larger and more full-bodied orchestra than 1991? Checked! Now let’s blast out the audience’s eardrums!” I nearly lost my hearing from the film’s very high volume at Nex’s theater. I’m familiar with the sung pieces and know the lyrics from memory, but I reckon persons who’ve not seen the 1991 film would find it difficult to make out some of the sung words. Simply put: they got drown out by orchestral accompaniment. I initially thought this was just a characteristic of the audio set-up in the theater – until some IMDB reviewers posted to say they equally found it hard to make out the singing.

And lastly; the entire film felt overproduced, with the sheer abundance of not particularly well-done CG everywhere on screen only further reinforcing the fact that you’re watching something that was largely created in the computer, supposedly life-action or not. Maybe that’s why Watson looked so wooden for most of the film:  she was acting in response to green-screens. The most egregious example of this is “Be My Guest”, which is visually all over the place, nausea-inducing, and impossible to follow what’s going on in that dance number. Even Belle’s The Sound of Music moment in “Belle (Reprise)” where she sings “I want adventure in the great wide somewhere” to the sights of a soaring Windows-like Vista wallpaper scenery has its suspension of disbelief demolished – it looks utterly fake with badly integrated CG backdrops with the live-character.

Lest it be finally concluded that I don’t think the film is any good- no again, I think this Beauty and the Beast is watchable. It’s just not nearly as good as the original 1991 film in my assessment. Kenneth Branagh’s recent Cinderella, also a life-action remake of the Disney animated film, has showed that it’s possible to bring up to date animated classics with life actors, and not make it look over-processed, with a score and recording that doesn’t overwhelm the senses. Time to buy the Blu-ray of this Cinderella for the kids and watch that instead!