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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!

Beauty and the Beast (2017) – Part 1

Many of us who’re in our mid 30s and older would have seen Disney’s first preview trailer of Beauty and the Beast in May last year, and equally held our breadth to see how will Emma Watson fare as one half of the titular pair of characters would sound in the signature numbers made famous from the 1991 film. The first trailer featuring snippets of the sung numbers hit the online circuits in January this year – which is likely about when many of us might have taken a collective sign of relief. And another good number probably groaned – “Oh S H * T”.

I was in the latter. In a nutshell; the film is great if you’re squarely in Disney’s intended audience for this – i.e. a young adult or younger still – generally OK if you’ve never seen the 1991 original – and if you have, like me, then anywhere from Great to Awful. Me, I rank it a Barely Passable. I caught an early afternoon viewing of the newly released film at Shaw @ Nex yesterday afternoon – back to back with a morning screening of Kong: Skull Island just before that at the same cineplex. The afternoon screening of Beauty and the Beast was not surprisingly largely filled with adults, many of whom were retirees.

The film is of course a life-action remark of the 1991 classic, which in part stirred the short-lived resurgence of interest in hand-drawn animated films before the wave died off in preference for 3D animation. Beauty and the Beast (1991) also remains the only animated film to ever have been nominated for the Academy’s Best Picture, an award it regrettably did not win that year (that award went to The Silence of the Lambs). I don’t see this remake ever getting the same kind of recognition, though I reckon that it might be at least nominated for a couple of the technical awards.

So, the good bits, and minor spoilers:

It’s watchable. Even if you’re unfamiliar with the source, the general story remains easy to follow, characters are easy to distinguish, there are no quick-cuts to give you nausea (for the most part that is – see comment on Be My Guest in the next post), and the production is lavish. Spoken dialog is also comprehensible.

The trio of supporting merchandise antique characters – Lumière (Ewan McGregor), Cogsworth (Ian McKellen) and Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson) – all sound like they are having a good time. You can’t be certain of course, since they exist largely as computer-generated creations until the last bits of the film. A special nod also goes to Kevin Kline, one other supporting non-digital character who brought a much needed dose of earthly grounding back to the film.

Emma Thompson’s signature number – “Beauty and the Beast” – is lovingly sung, and I reckon on par with Angela Lansbury’s rendition of the same from 1991. Kevin Kline’s song “How Does a Moment Last Forever” – a short one though and not in the 1991 film too – is also sung full of heart, and moving.

It’s significantly longer than the animated film, and at past 2 hours longer by even current films intended for kids. Some bits of that additional time are inserted into the sung pieces – e.g. there are stoppages for dialgue in “Belle”, and “Gaston“, insertions which I found disruptive –  while others are more effectively in the form of scenes that fill in the story gaps, especially in relation to both protagonists’ parents.

Likewise, the film also tries to address some oddities in the 1991 film – e.g. how and whether the Prince (Beast) reconciled with the villagers mob at the film’s end.

The last act when all seems lost and the Beast’s curse going to last for eternity is beautifully done and made me tear up. *sniff*

More in the next post!


Windows Utilities V – 2017 Edition

The 2017 edition of a long-running if infrequent series of posts on Windows utilities that I have on our work and home computers. The previous post in this edition is here.

MP3 Tag Editor: another long-lived software that I use! I’m still a subscriber to the eMusic store, and every month, buy about a dozen classical music albums. Normally, there’s no consistency in the way many of the MP3 files in music albums are tagged, and when that happens, an MP3 tag editor program is needed to rename those tags en masse. This software, created and maintained by a team of German developers I reckon, does that trick.

Revo Uninstaller: the older iterations of Windows operating systems didn’t always do a thorough job when it came to uninstalling software that you no longer needed. In fact, over time, little bits of data, registry entries and other program elements would remain in the program files folder and registry. Most users would never have realized these bits of litter were left, much less even bothered with them. 

Not the detail-obsessive though, and there were programs aplenty around that purported to do a more complete job of completely uninstalling programs. The more recent and current versions of Windows today I think do a better job at removing programs but if you still want to be sure, there’s Revo Uninstaller. This software will scan the program’s folder and attempt to remove everything. There’s one annoyance in this program though: and that’s the persistent reminders for you to buy the Pro edition.

Ninite: this is a nifty web site that lets you select from a list of popular and free software, and proceeds to automatically install them in the background. As a special bonus, the installation scripts will avoid installing all the extra ‘freebies’ that you really do not want (e.g. Toolbars from Yahoo LOL). Very useful not only when you’re setting up a new PC, but you can also run the software thereafter periodically to mass update all your apps too.

Just a portion of software that can be installed using Ninite.

Adobe Digital Negative Converter and Adobe Photoshop Elements: most people are perfectly happy with JPG pictures that come out from compact cameras and smartphones, but serious enthusiast photographers routinely shoot in RAW. Granted – it takes a lot more time to process RAW images, but you simply can get much better images editing a RAW than a JPG image. I’ll probably do an updated post about processing RAW files soon. The problem with RAW files though is that each camera’s file format is proprietary, which makes it difficult for RAW image editors like Adobe Photoshop to keep up. 

So, Adobe’s very novel solution is this: rather than come up with frequent versions of Adobe Camera Raw and make customers keep buying new versions of Photoshop just to read RAW files of new cameras, they’ve come up with a Digital Negative Converter. Basically, the application converts the RAW files into a common and open format so that it can be read by more image editors. The key advantage, using industry lingo, is ‘archival confidence’.

The RAW and DNG image editor software I’m currently using is Photoshop Elements. It’s for two reasons: I’d rather not have to pay a yearly subscription to Adobe Creative Cloud just to edit RAW/DNG files, and the feature set offered in Elements is more than sufficient for my needs. And Elements I think remains perpetual license software (and I hope for indefinitely!), so once you buy a version, you can use it for as long as you need to – as long as you still use DNG Converter to convert newer RAW files to their format.

Adobe’s DNG Converter.

Microsoft Image Compositor: I haven’t been taking as many panoramic shots during vacations as I once did, and largely because it’s much harder to methodically set up shots when you’re vacationing with children! And many modern cameras today offer a built-in panoramic shot feature. Still – for those of us who prefer to take panoramas the old way, Microsoft Image Compositor is a nifty application that lets you construct such from a series of photos.

Advanced Renamer: the last software item in this Windows Utilities edition, and a real boon for enthusiast photographers. This software allows you to easily mass rename files (e.g. image files!). This software is highly customisable, supports all manner of name amendments – and it’s free.

That’s it for the 2017 edition. I probably won’t wait nearly as long a period of 8 years before I do a next update in this series!

Huawei Mate 9 – Part 2: Usage

Continuing from the last post. Well:

It’s Huawei’s current flagship, and it especially shows through its choice of processor and camera functions. The Mate 9 feels well-built, dense and of good heft without any creaky joints. I doubt if it’s of the same level of construction as the Note 5 – whose sturdy frame makes me never worried about stuffing the Note in my back pocket and sitting on it – but the Mate 9 doesn’t look as though it’ll break into two any time from normal usage.

Three of the four phones we use: from left to right, the new Mate 9, XIaomi Mi Max, and the Samsung Galaxy Note 5.

For those of us who do not use protective cases with our phones, the Mate 9’s matte surfaces will keep your fingerprint smudges at bay. Though then again, there are many others who prefer the all metal and glass premium builds of the Note 5.

The phone comes with a pre-fitted film screen protector and also a thin phone case in the box. The film screen protector is the clear type. It doesn’t seem to have a smudge-resistant coating, so attracts fingerprints easily. The thin plastic case is fine protecting the phone from scratches when when you have your keys, coins and the like alongside the phone in your pocket – but it doesn’t look nearly sturdy enough to protect the phone if it gets dropped. Either omissions wouldn’t have bothered me too much, since the film protector will come off as soon as the tempered glass protector I purchased arrives. But these inclusions are an awfully nice gesture on Huawei’s part, and are helpful for people who don’t intend to buy any additional  accessories for it, or would like to use these as placeholders while they (slowly!) decide what accessories to buy after getting the phone first.

The 64GB built-in memory is useful, and it’s also fast becoming the standard amount of storage in new smartphones. And if you need more than 64GB, the second SIM card slot dual purposes also as a micro SD card slot. I can finally bring my entire 223GB collection of classical music MP3 files on the go now LOL.

It’s the first device I’ve used with Android v7.0 Nougat. This new version of the Android OS includes better task switching and multi-tasking, though if you primarily use the phone for just mobile communications and browsing, most of these new features might not mean much to you. A couple would definitely though: bundled notifications where users who receive incoming messages across apps non-stop will appreciate, and a new data saver utility for those of us on who’re heavy data users on stingy mobile data plans.

The Mate 9’s fingerprint scanner is like Xiaomi’s – more reliable and quicker than either the Samsung Note 5’s, the iPad Mini 4 or iPad Air 2. Having experienced my two Mi phones’ rear fingerprint scanner and now this Mate 9’s, I’m now convinced that the fingerprint scanner belongs to the back of the device and not the front.

It’s touted machine learning feature is interesting, but any benefits won’t be seen until you’ve used the phone for a while. Morever, I’m doubtful if it’ll improve my personal experience of the phone: my usage of the phone will be fairly low-intensity (basically mobile communications and web browsing), and the phone is already quick enough as it is.

Type C charging and data port. Certainly the way of the future – just maybe not now.

Fingerprint sensor right where it should be – at the back of the phone.

The Mate 9 (left)’s screen is visibly larger than the Note 5’s – but once you take on board the space occupied by the row of on-screen buttons, the actual physical display area between the phones is about similar. And once you consider also the lower resolution screen, the Mate 9 simply does not display as much info on the screen as the Note 5.

And now we have mobile devices using three completely different and non-interchangeable charging connectors – ugh. There aren’t a lot of 3-in-1 adapters in stores. This one from j5Create – works like a charm, thankfully. These are sold at Challenger (with member discounts applying) and also at Popular for example.

The 4K video capture does not seem to benefit much from optical stabilization, and videos come out quite shaky. This will be a real issue in our June trip – it looks like I’ll have to use Ling’s Note 5 now to take videos.

The audio jack produces sufficiently loud sound – important for those of us who listen to music in noisy environments like MRT trains, if slightly muffled at the bass levels compared to the Note 5. Oddly too – there is no built-in graphic equalizer to fine-tune audio, so one will have to go with third party Google Play apps for that.

And on the flip side:

USB Type C charging. The new USB standard might indeed be the way of the future, but I’m not sold on whether it’s ready for mainstream yet. It’d at least mean that I’d have to bring yet another charging cable for our June vacation to Western Australia. That the phone box includes a microUSB adapter is helpful though.

The built-in notification LED is both a little too small and also limited to be of much use. The LED sits on the top right corner of the phone and doesn’t emit sufficient light for one to easily notice it. Unlike the Note 5 too, there doesn’t seem to be any way for the LED to be customized to display different colors to signify different types of events.

I’ve said enough of the Mate 9’s Full and not QHD screen. Color and contrast wise, it’s ‘good’ enough, and like the Note 5, the Mate 9’s maximum screen brightness is high enough for me to see what’s on the screen when outdoors.The default color is very slightly on the warm side, but an equally small shift to a cooler temperature helps. Still, photos still look better on the Note 5 though, no doubt because of its technologically superior Super AMOLED screen.

Using the Mate 9’s color temperature adjuster.

So there we go. The next post on some final observations, and also pictures taken using the Mate 9.

Huawei Mate 9 – Part 1: Decisions

One of the nicest things about living in Asia is access to a wide range of mobile technologies, more so with China’s emergence as a leading tech giant. The large telco providers invariably bundle their subscription plans not only phones from mainstream manufacturers – e.g. Samsung, LG, Apple, Sony – but also from equally large manufacturers that are normally not sold bundled with Western carriers, e.g. those in the US . These manufacturers, often from China and Taiwan, include Asus, Oppo, Huawei, HTC, ZTE, Xiaomi, Leagoo and so on. And that’s not counting the other less-known manufacturers that are sold directly from retail shops, usually without manufacturer warranties but with in-store support instead. It’s as one YouTube reviewer of Huawei’s phones mused: that some of these Chinese manufacturers are capable of producing really crazy good smartphones that are sold much cheaper than the well-known ones. But despite their advertising dollars spent, these phones are still largely ignored by the American consumer sector as they simply aren’t bundled with carrier plans.

I was initially intending to change phones only in June when my current contract makes me eligible for a re-contract without the early termination fee. As luck would have it, Ling’s phone contract had already expired, and after some discussion about what she’d want for her next phone, my Note 5 would go to her. On account that she wanted a phone with a stylus, that she didn’t want to pay much for it, and the phone can’t be larger than her Note 3 (something about not fitting into her handbag pouch LOL).

So, I’d be out of a phone earlier than I thought. Between the couple of phones I listed in the recent post:

Samsung Galaxy A9 Pro: was out of stock.

Oppo R9s Plus: would had been my next choice, were it not for the fact that it does not support NFC – i.e. no Android Pay. Too bad. The relative lack of reviews and commentary about this phone also made me a mite less confident about it.

Huawei Mate 9: reviewed in a lot of sites, and for the most part quite well-received with reviewers noting its decent build, great battery life, brisk processor and speeds, and decent cameras if still slightly under the Note 5 in terms of imaging quality. And on the flip-side, OK screen only and not QHD (not as nice as the Oppo’s or Note 5’s), and on-screen buttons only (matter of personal preference).

Huawei Mate’s Advertising.

So, it was the Huawei Mate 9. And for once, switching to this phone from the Note 5 actually feels more like a downgrade than an upgrade LOL. The Note 5 is superior in just about every aspect that I care about: screen quality, resolution, stylus-support, imaging, build, and that it runs for even longer on its 3000mAh battery despite it being smaller than the Mate 9’s 4000mAh. The only thing that the Mate 9 has going for it in comparison is the very slightly larger screen – and that it’s new LOL.

Still – unboxing pictures for the phone that just arrived, with notes on actual usage to come later!

This is the nicest packaging I’ve yet seen from a smartphone package. Huawei packs the Mate 9 in a premium and oversized gift-styled box.

User guide, a slim translucent case, quick charger, USB Type-C cable, and microUSB adapter. The earphone’s still in the box.

More in the next post.

Windows Utilities IV – 2017 Edition

It’s been 8 years since I last did a new post on Windows utilities, with the previous ones here, here and here. So, time for a 2017 edition of some of the Window tools, applications and utilities I routinely load all computers with. Interestingly, several items from the 2009 series of posts continued to live on our Windows computers – certainly a good testimony to the dedication of their developers to continue improving these software over time. There are lots of new software to talk about, so there will be a couple of new posts in this series.

FastStone Image Viewer: I’ve tried a bunch of image browsers over the years, but none have supplanted FastStone’s offering. It still continues to be my default image viewer. The software is in version 6.2 now and still is regularly updated, remains brisk, oozes with features, features a decent set of image editing functions, supports batch processing for the more basic edits, and – importantly – can read JPG images that are embedded into RAW files.

PDF Split and Merge: ever had a PDF file that is hundreds of pages long but you only need an except? Or you have a whole bunch of small PDFs that you want to merge into a single one? And do you have a non-duplex scanner that can only scan one side of a stack of pages, and now need a tool to alternatively merge odd and even pages into one PDF file? PDFSam provides all these and more – and is also open-source and free for use. The software’s user interface is clean and intuitive, and there’s also a commercial version that adds more functionality too.

PDF Split and Merge’s main dashboard.

Greenshot Image Capture: this one’s a screen and region-capturing software that I use a lot both at home and at work. In fact, the various application illustrations included in this and the next post were captured using this app. The configurable hotkeys – especially Capture Region – make capturing and processing segments of your desktop a cinch. Free and open-source too.

Dropbox / Google Drive / OneDrive: at this point, aside from the amount of storage space that comes included with free accounts, the main cloud-based storage providers aren’t really different from one to the next for most end-users. All three are well-supported with dedicated apps, basic synchronization features, and also apps for mobile devices to access your files while on the go. Of the lot, Google Drive is probably the one that has the best integrated functionality if you use Google products a lot, but it might mean that a good portion of the space you get on it gets also used up by other services. OneDrive on the other hand is especially generous with storage space, and educational institutions might also have arrangements with Microsoft that give its staff and students more space than you’d ever need.

K-Lite Codec Pack: most users won’t ever need additional video codecs on top of what is already supplied on Windows. But if you have loads of video files from older formats, then obtaining this codec pack is one way of ensuring your media player continues to be able to play those files. This is one of those software that I install when setting up a new Windows PC, then forget it’s ever there until the occasional pop-up appears informing that there are codec updates.

HandBrake: while 4K video support still isn’t a common inclusion in smartphones, the top-line models – e.g. Samsung Galaxy notes – do. 4K video files are huge though, and unless you have loads of storage space, at some point you’ll seriously feel tempted to re-encode those 100Mb/s files into something more manageable. The video transcoder software I’ve been using for some years now is the open-source HandBrake. Worth a look especially if you’re wrestling with large video files.

Customising video transcoding parameters in Handbrake.

KeePass: we use the cloud for its services far more today in 2017 than ever before. There are several advisory cautions that are constantly issued on the use of cloud services: one is to always activate 2 Factor Authentication when it’s offered, and another is to not only use strong passwords (e.g. those that do not contain common or recognizable text strings) but never to recycle passwords across services too. Really – what with incidents of password database leaks becoming almost daily news now, the last thing you need is for one provider to lose a password that you are using across multiple services. But if you have difficulties remembering different passwords across the services you use, then you need a password manager like KeePass.

More in the next post of this series!

Smartphones 2017

Many technology enthusiasts here look forward to a special occasion every 2 years – expiration of our mobile phone subscription contracts! When that happens biannually, we get to shop around for a new smartphone to go along with contract renewals. Oh, it’s possible to be on a mobile plan without being tied down to a two year contract, but who would pass up an opportunity to renew with a new phone? And one nice thing about Singtel -is that its customers are eligible for re-contracting after 1 year 9 months and not 24 months without having to pay an early recontract fee.

My current plan with Singtel is ending in a few months. Funnily, and for the first time since I’ve been on biannual mobile contract plans, I actually don’t feel a particularly strong compulsion to upgrade this time. It’s a nice opportunity to that I’ll likely still take up. But the Samsung Note 5 I’ve had for coming to two years now still looks as pristine as it did at purchase – a characteristic that we routinely associate more with Apple products than other manufacturers’ products. Specification-wise, the Note 5 was as high-end as one could buy back then, and it still holds its own today: Quad HD and Super AMOLED screen, still decent battery life, RAW support for its camera, 4K video recording etc. Incredibly, the Note 5 is still sold on retail in large part I suspect because of the Note 7 fiasco, and its prices haven’t dropped by too much either.

From last year’s post – the Mi Max with the Note 5.

Still, it’s a chance for a new phone – so why not. The Mi Max – which has only been lightly used since picking it up last year – might had been a suitable replacement were it not for the fact that I prefer my main day to day device to have a Quad HD screen – the full HD screen on the Max struggles against its 6.4″ huge screen – and better video/imaging abilities. And so:

At least equal or larger than the Note 5’s 5.7″ display;

Either 64GB built-in storage or support for a microSD card expansion. I’m not a smartphone gamer, but the phone does triple-up duty as a video recorder and also MP3 player, functions which gobble storage space.

Decent imaging that’s on par with the Note 5’s;

4000mAh battery or higher. Those huge displays suck juice;

NFC support for mobile payment systems.

And of preferences:

Quad HD screen;

Stylus support;

Thumbprint scanner;

Dedicated capacitive physical and not on-screen buttons.

Looking at what’s currently out there:

Samsung Galaxy A9 Pro: huge 6″ AMOLED screen + thumbprint scanner + dedicated buttons + NFC + crazy 5000mAh sized battery + microSD card support + dual SIM- hooray! Full HD screen only though, and no 4K video recording. Slightly cheaper than the others below too.

Huawei Mate 9: almost a bumped up version of the A9 Pro above – large 5.9″ screen + thumbprint scanner + NFC + 4000mAh battery + microSD card support + dual SIM + 4K video recording – hooray. Reportedly fantastic dual-lens camera too. But also full HD screen only. Bleh.

Oppo R9s Plus: huge 6″ AMOLED screen + 4000mAh battery + a whopping 6GB system RAM + dedicated buttons and sharing the same characteristics and limitations as the others in the list so far. Does not support Android Pay – oh no.:( And lastly, it’s a pretty new phone, so there aren’t many reviews of this phone out there at the moment.

Asus Zenfone 3 Ultra: humongous 6.8″ screen that’s even larger than the Max’s. 4600mAh battery + 4K video recording. But just too large for it to be pocketable!

Going with the list above, I’m leaning towards the A9 Pro followed by the R9s Plus. The A9 Pro – if I go with that later – won’t actually be a significant upgrade from the Note 5 though, on account of its lower resolution screen, lack of stylus and support for wireless charging, and 4K video recording.

But it’ll still be a new phone, so a decision to make in the next couple of months!


Shooting with the Olympus E-PL6 + 17mm f1.8

The two month old Panasonic GX85 has been a ball of fun to use and I’m gradually adjusting to some of its quirks: for instance, ghosting in its EVF, and that I don’t even notice its occasional tearing anymore. Despite that, I still find that the E-PL6 with the 17mm f1.8 provides me more keepers than my other m4/3 bodies with the other lenses. And this is despite the challenges my particular E-PL6 copy brings about: that both its touch-screen and rear mode dial have become finicky and occasionally having a mind of its own by deciding to change command settings on its own, and the loud shutter release sound it produces when I trigger a shot.

A lovely combo: the E-PL6 and 17mm f1.8.

So; just for illustration, I shot our kids with this combo exclusively over this weekend, and here’s a selection from the series of pictures.

I took a similar shot with Hannah almost exactly 4 years ago, and while both of them were at the same age: 3 years 9 months.

H doesn’t get bored too easily. She’ll always have something in hand to read when we’re waiting for food (this one’s at Coffee Kaki @ AMK Hub).

The weekend early afternoons have been slightly more humid than a week ago, though the two of them are obviously not bothered.

These kiddie sunglasses used to belong to his big sister.

She’s about 2/3s done with the first Suzuki Method book, and got me to load up the second book of pieces into her MP3 player.

Peter getting his first taste of Suzuki Method piano pieces.

The 17mm focal length on the m4/3s sensor is also useful to get a good deal of context and surroundings in without making the shot look too wide-angle.

This picture of H on the children’s see-saw was actually slightly over-exposed out of the camera, while the others taken in quick succession were fine. Seems that the E-PL6 misjudged the metering for this shot. Corrected it in post-processing.

Taken from across the dining table. Shots like these are always tricky, as the thin depth of field makes it easy for one of the two kids to be out of focus if he/she is learning a little backwards.

It might just be that Olympus out of camera rendering is just a bit more to my taste than Panasonic’s, and that the older 3 axis image stabilisation the E-PL6 uses is particularly effective with the 17mm. The low light advantage of a f1.8 stop helps a lot, as thus also the lens’ very quick focusing mechanisms. And lastly, the particular combo looks great together – though the lens and camera body are actually two different color tones: the lens is silver, while the body is chrome-gold.

This was actually a pretty fun of picture series to do for these couple of days. Next weekend I’ll do a similar series – perhaps the almost 5 year old-now E-M5 with the Panasonic 25mm f1.4!


Watching the Surface Pros

Many of us would be hard-pressed not to think of ‘Apple’ if asked to list a prominent technology trendsetter. To be fair, their first and early iPhones, iPads, iPods and MacBooks did turn their respective industries on their heads. Of late though, Apple’s ability to set such trends have come under severe pressure from other tech giants. Apple is no longer regarded as the undisputed market leader on several product fronts. In fact, as far as smartwatches and smartphones are concerned, companies like LG, Huawei and Samsung of late seem to be real innovators, with Apple’s line-up routinely having to play catch-up.

Likewise for laptops. Apple with its late 2016 iterations of MacBooks still steadfastly refuses to provide touchscreen or stylus support in their refreshed lineup while other manufacturers have already gone ahead with it (e.g. Microsoft, HP, Acer, Lenovo, Dell). Though as these things go, if they do eventually put it in, their marketing pitch will likely make it sound like they are the first to do it properly. And don’t even get me started on the USB Type-C only ports which basically forces owners to purchase additional adapters just for them to work on Apple’s new MacBooks.

Of the two laptops I bought two years ago in January 2015 – the Dell XPS 13 and Surface Pro 3 – the Dell remains my main driver at work, and it’s borne up very well without issues of any sort. Not a small feat considering it’s used 11-12 hours a day, brought from place to place, and chucked into my haversack everyday to/fro home. The SP3 however is just that much more enjoyable to use! The first intentions for it last year was largely as a casual machine. But I liked it so much in its first year of use, that the somewhat modest storage and RAM included in it (4GB RAM/128GB SSD) became a quick limiter to all the stuff I was putting it through.

Hannah on the SP3 last year. She looks visibly more baby-face than she is today a year later!

The second year of use evolved, and especially so after getting the Aftershock S17 last April. The SP3’s primary functions now include Hannah using it for homework and to access the suite of learning systems her school puts out, as a musical score display device when I’m on the piano, as our primary laptop when we travel out of the country on vacations, and occasionally at home in the dining room. Of the latter; the S17 just doesn’t offer enough battery juice to run for 2 hours if it gets carted out from the bedroom to the dining room, and its power brick is every literal sense of that word. Oddly too; the SP3 since the middle of last year has been emitting a lot of heat even under fairly low intensity use (e.g. web browsing), and the metallic back plate near the sole USB 3.0 port has very slightly deformed too. Related?

Circled the part where the metallic backplate on my SP3 seems to have very slightly warped.

Microsoft has put out the SP3’s successor – the Surface Pro 4 – more than a year ago now, but the new iteration received mixed feedback at launch. On the up side, the SP4’s display was better on several counts (color, resolution, and even size), but its battery life – according to some Internet reviewers – was poorer than the SP3’s. Even more worryingly was that the SP4 suffered from serious firmware issues. After a series of updates, much of it seems to have finally been resolved, though battery life remains middling.

There are imitators to Microsoft’s trendsetting Surface Pro-type convertibles of course, and they include (with indicative pricing):

Asus Transformer Pro 3: (SGD1898, i5-6200U, 8GB/256GB) larger screen than SP4’s (hooray!!!), but pricey for comparative specifications and more so given SP4’s recent price-drops. And poor battery life.

Acer Switch Alpha 12: (SGD1298, i5-6200U, 8GB/256GB) very attractively priced right now with seasonal discounts, good range of ports, supports USB-C charging, and runs silent. But also poor battery life. Screen smaller than SP4’s.

Lenovo Ideapad Miix 510: (SGD1499, i5-6200U, 8GB/256GB ) good array of ports, but lousy battery life – again.

Samsung TabPro S: (SGD998, M3-6Y30, 4GB/128GB) thin bezels, dirt cheap with seasonal discounts, stunning AMOLED screen, and long battery life. But stuck with entry-level specs of 4GB RAM/128GB SSD and no other options. Awkward tablet/keyboard configuration too.

Huawei MateBook: (SGD1788, 8GB/512GB) thin bezels, lovely form, good pricing, but yucky keyboard and like Samsung’s above – awkward tablet/keyboard configuration. And if that wasn’t enough still, awful battery life to top it off.

HP Spectre x2: (SGD1299, M7-6Y75, 8GB/256GB) amazingly low price now after the list price for this convertible nose-dropped recently. Battery life about where the SP4 is, good screen, LTE support (nice!!) and premium design. Would had been a real alternative, were it not for its smaller than SP4’s screen, thick bezels (yuck), and you have to pay an additional $79 for the stylus. The overall package price would bring it to a whisker under the SP4 below then.

Microsoft Surface Pro 4: SGD1456, i5, 8GB/256GB sans SP4 Typecover as I already have one.

What about the iPad Pro 12.9″? Truth to tell, I’ve been quite tempted by this oversized iPad for months now, and seriously considered picking it up late last year when renewing my mobile broadband plan (I eventually went with an iPad Mini 4 instead). What held me back was that while the iPad Pro 12.9″‘s base unit price is OK, you’ll pay a lot more for the additional keyboard and Apple Pen just so to have it operate like a convertible.

So, it seems that the SP4 for all its flaws remains still the most balanced tablet PC in consideration, followed closely by the Acer Switch Alpha 12 and the HP Spectre x2 from a price-point at least. But with the expected release of the SP5 just around the corner, lots of rumors have come about though Microsoft itself has been quite tight-lipped about what the new machine will feature. My wishlist for it would be for it to:

Offer a 8GB RAM/128GB SSD option. Right now, the SP4 is available as 4GB RAM/128GB SSD and 8GB/256GB SSD configurations – but not in between.

Keep the micro-SD card slot (so that additional storage can be added for cheap.:)

Keep the mini-display port and USB 3.0 port, but also add a USB 3.1 Type-C port that supports power charging

Keep the current physical form factor, so that I can still use back my current Surface Pro 4 Typecover.

But increase the display width. The 12.3″ display on the SP4 is already slightly larger than the SP3’s, but I hope it gets larger still as the screen’s bezels are still fairly thick. I reckon the display can go up to 12.6″ without making the overall unit larger.

Use Intel’s 7th generation Kaby Lake processor. The improvements performance-wise are minor, but the new processors are more power efficient.

And offer better battery life, definitely!

Hopefully something comes up in the next month or two so that it can be considered for our June trip! And if not, the SP4’s recent price drops alongside the educational discount I’d get do make it quite attractive at this point too.

Magical Magnet

As parents of young kids, we have to wrack our brain cells to decide what to buy for presents – whether it’s for their birthdays or Christmas. We generally avoid electronic gadgets and video games, with Hannah’s Nikon Coolpix L29 camera the only exception so far. Books are always a fail-safe when we can’t think of anything else of course. Credit again to the wife who is always a lot more observant in discovering new things for the kids – because we got Hannah and Peter a box of ‘magical’ magnets last Christmas. Basically, these are plastic polygonal pieces lined with magnets for kids to build models with. Pretty much like Lego, with the differences being that constructions are a tad more fragile but can also be disassembled very quickly, and the pieces are also much larger and hence less likely to get lost in sofas, carpets and the like.

Ling found a box of these for sale at a bazaar at a nearby shopping mall late last year, and the kids have been having a ball of fun with the pieces after getting them for late last year. They weren’t too costly too at about $45 a box.

The box comes with a fully colored guide printed on good quality glossy paper, though it’s still not hardy enough to withstand child abuse!

The first pages lay out clear step by step instructions for kids to assemble their first object.

Lots of more advanced designs for kids to figure out too.

Peter getting all creative. He rarely gets attached to a toy for long and frequently moves past them after a month or so. For these Magnets, he’s still going at it every day 10 weeks after Christmas!

The box we bought was made by a Chinese-sounding manufacturer called Xinaida, which also has them listed for sale at places like Amazon, but they should also be widely available for sale at most toy shops here.

By this point, the kids have put together all types of movable vehicles, hamster cages (!?!?), Ferris Wheels, and even simple Rube Goldberg machines . Highly recommended for kids!