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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!

 

Kids @ 17mm, 25mm etc. – Part 31

If there is one large down side about owning multiple m4/3 camera bodies, it’s trying to decide which one to bring along for vacations when space and portability is premium. I’ll have to decide soon enough which two of the four m4/3 bodies – the E-M1, E-M5, GX85 and E-PL6 – will come on our June trip to Western Australia. The E-M1 is a given for certain and coming, since the 40-150mm f2.8 works better on that body than the others. For the other three, and particularly in reference to the trip’s requirements:

E-M5: EVF, uses the same battery as the E-M1, so I don’t have to bring a different set of batteries and chargers.

E-PL6: lovely styling, great touch-AF and release implementation, super portable, articulating screen for wefies. No EVF though.

GX85: USB charging so no additional charger needed, 4K video so that I don’t have to bring a camcorder, EVF for the more tricky shots.

I’m leaning towards the GX85. So of late, I’ve been putting the 12-40mm f2.8 (which will be also coming for the trip) with the GX85 to get use to its handling and if there are quirks I need to be mindful of. The below is a selection of pictures taken with the 12-40mm + GX85, all set to f2.8, multi-segment AF, and the last three also with the Meike-MK320 flash unit.

This one was a bit of a test shot to see if the GX85 will correctly detect AF points – our two kids at extreme edges, and not the persons in the center. The GX85 got it right for 7 out of 8 shots.

Keropok Conference with Grandparents (keropok = Malay for deep fried crackers). Mom does enough of these every now and then to fill up a couple of jars.

Peter has inherited the set of six Mickey Mouse Clubhouse pocket books from Hannah, and enjoys putting them together to form a picture puzzle. This BTW is just 15 minutes after he was disciplined for essentially not behaving himself over dinner. Guess boys at this age don’t get too hung-up over being punished for misdemeanors!

In large part that we wanted her to provide her an opportunity to buy responsibly, we let her use the first of the Popular store vouchers she received from her Edusave award to buy anything from the book store. She chose the set of coloring pencils here.

All in; the GX85 works well with the 12-40mm, though AF is still very slightly less blazing-fast compared to the same lens on the E-M1. Oddly too, several pictures in the series were registered with incorrect image rotations: basically, shots that were taken in normal landscape fashion were determined by the GX85 to be portrait instead. Not a killer by any measure since the photo just needs to be rotated 90 degree clockwise in edits, but still annoying.

Parenting a 7 Year Old

For all intents and purposes, I reckon we have it fairly easy with Hannah. Our 7 year old listens to instructions well, is conscientious, generally diligent and always seeking to do well. She’s adapted well to her new school environment – if her invitations to birthday parties in her class is any indication – and seems to enjoy school and after-school activities. Of her quirks; she still does not take failure of any kind well at all and easily tears up when she’s faulted for something. She can also be a little bossy, and is naturally inclined to tell people what they should be doing. These seem to have been ingrained in her for several years now.

There is one other quirk that gradually surfaced since starting Primary One though. In the last year, we’ve discovered a few instances where she had not been truthful. The story about this goes back though slightly further back to Nov 2015 and two months before she started Primary One. Hannah’s school advised us then during that briefing for parents that one challenge parents would face would be their child’s tendency to hit the school book store to buy all manner of stationery items they don’t really need but are nonetheless attractive to girls at that age. I recalled the both of us chuckling at that point and musing to ourselves “Nah – Hannah’s not into these things”.

How wrong we were and the irony. The instances where she’d been untruthful have all centered on how she uses the pocket money we give to her to buy food during recess time. Specifically: on those three occasions, rather than use her money to buy food, she’d spend it on cute things at her school book store, and then not tell us. When quizzed on it, she typically acted ignorant first, but folded in short order under Mommy’s interrogation. After which, she teared up and sobbed.

The most recent of these were yesterday evening. Rather than physically discipline her this time though, we got her to write a reflection instead after a stern talking to – which she did:

Got date and itme-stamp even.

After the kids went to bed, the two of us had a further discussion on this, as it struck us that it’s hard for 7 year old girls not to be attracted by these things. Moreover, at a level, we wondered too if we finally needed to provide her an outlet to buy these stationery, as these things often become social topics of chitchat with her friends. We agreed that we would provide opportunities for her to buy these stationery, but in an organized fashion and to better teach her personal responsibility.

Parenting: an ongoing learning journey!

Learning Music for Kids

Both Ling and I started our formal music and piano lessons when we were in junior Primary school, which is about the age that many parents here today still get their children started at too. Both of us learned the piano using what many music teachers refer to as the ‘traditional’ method: basically, you learn to read notes first before getting onto the keyboard.

Hannah’s piano teacher – who himself is also a Minton resident – has been teaching her using the Suzuki method. There are many apparent differences between this method against the traditional form of learning, one of them being the emphasis of listening to a piece of music extensively to learn how to play it. Which sounds like a perfectly right way to learn – and one that Hannah has really taken to, since she’s inherited one of my old Sony MP3 players and listens to the pieces of her current Suzuki music book whenever we’re in the car.  I reckon that even my piano teacher had the chops to teach me all those years ago with such a method, it would had been a lot harder anyway since personal audio players weren’t the norm as they are today.

There’s one other key difference between learning music today yesteryear and today: and it’s that young learners today have access to all kinds of learning aids. Like these:

A Music Magnetic Board.

Two music books from a Malaysian publisher and from the same author Ng Ying Ying.

This book comes with stickers for kids to paste: exactly the thing to engage them!

Structured exercises laid out in child-friendly fashion.

And that’s not counting music software you can find on on computers and tablets. How I learned music theory was through a lot of rote: my teacher made me draw pages of stave lines for both clefts, and then all manner of notes on them as though I was learning calligraphy LOL. I think our old Lentor family home still has several of these books from more than 35 years ago – and I’ll find one such and scan those pictures in to show Hannah how her parents learned!

The Malaysian publisher Poco Studio has a decent catalog of music books, and their line is carried on international retailers including Book Depository and Amazon UK.  The former in particular lists the books from a shade under S$10 to S$13 including shipping. The Magnetic Board is also of interest: it allows young learners to arrange music notations and learn rudimentary concepts of timing and such. This particular board is from Yamaha Music School. Hannah isn’t enrolled in one of course, so we got one pre-loved.

 

Peter and OCD

If there’s another one thing that sets Peter apart from his older sister, it’s his occasional-OCDing. Though thankfully, most of it is harmless and even beneficial for us parents. For instance, our boy at just a few years old now would:

Neatly arrange his crocs at the doorway. And everyone else’s shoes that’s in his view angle.

Running around the common lift lobby outside our main door to latch all the fire escape and utility doors properly.

After soiling himself, would take his soiled clothes… and put them back into his clothing drawer. OK – that was totally not funny for mommy!

Using the Ikea sticky roller (normally used to pick up lint on clothes) around the house to pick up hair and tiny dusty bits off the floor of our home.

Child labor LOL.

Child labor LOL.

The couple of instances above were taken towards the end of 2015, and of late, he hasn’t demonstrated this compulsion to the same degree. Maybe this was just a passing phase where he mimicked a good deal of what his sister and parents do.:)

AirTurn PED

We’ve had our new Yamaha U30BL piano for a few months now, and its usage hasn’t been quite what I initially thought it to be. Specifically, Ling barely touches it, while I have been on it more than I initially thought I would! I’ve been buying and acquiring sheet music from several modern day pianists-performers that I enjoy listening to, including Jim Brickman, David Lanz and David Foster, and practising them too. Hannah is also on the piano about 4-5 times a week for about half an hour each time – and myself slightly less but each time it’s an hour and a half to run through the 35 or so pieces I’m trying to master.

Incidentally, there’s an interesting debate among professional musicians regarding the use of digital devices to display sheet music. The advantages of using tablets like the Apple iPad Pro 12.9 are obvious: convenience, ability to hold a large amount of sheet music, and effective use of technology. The concerns largely lie around the fact that digital devices can fail (e.g. crash) or someone accidentally knocks them over if they’re being propped up on a music stand – both of which would be deadly to an ongoing performance.

The printed song books I’ve bought are typically larger than A4 print, but page turning is tough – since many of the modern day pieces are spread over 5+ pages. So, the 2+ year old Surface Pro 3 has been re-purposed as my preferred digital score display device. This digital display is likewise a challenge too though for different reasons. Swiping right to left to turn pages is much easier than trying to turn a paper edge, but still inelegant. On several occasions, Microsoft’s PDF reader mistook a quick finger swipe to mean pinch-zoom instead of a page turn – which resulted in a thumbnail version of all pages in the PDF i.e. immediately unusable for continued playing. Each time, I’d have to stop playing to reset the tablet display.

There had to be a better, e.g. hands-free, way of turning pages on a tablet. So, after some Googling, I found a small number of companies who make devices that do exactly just that. They seem to be primarily designed for use by professional musicians, and work on the same and maybe even obvious premise: controller device connects to the tablet via wlreless connectivity (e.g. Bluetooth) + musician uses their feet to tap pages front and back.

Evidently and from Internet research, the relatively better known company who manufactures a range of these devices is AirTurn. My needs weren’t particularly complex – I basically just need foot pedals to move pages forward and backward, and it needs to compatible with Windows and iPads. So, their cheapest model – the PED – would suffice. Unfortunately, I could not find the model on sale in Singapore. Amazon listed the device at USD69 but wanted a further princely sum of USD50 to have it delivered here. Ouch.

But after another week of scouting for International music equipment resellers who carry the device and offer options for shipping to Singapore and not cost the price of a return air-ticket, I finally found a UK-based store who was charging a nominal fee for shipping. Total damage was GBP59 + GBP4 for shipping. Total cost savings of about USD54 compared to Amazon’s price – not chump change for sure!

The item took two weeks to arrive, and here’s what it looks like:

The controller box was shipped in a parcel and also further protected by bubble-wrap, though the box itself does not contain foam padding to further protect the controller inside. So, if you want your device boxes to arrive shrink-wrapped with zero dents, you might be disappointed here.

The box contains a printed manual and the AirTurn PED controller itself. The controller exterior is metallic and feels cool to the touch.

Side profile of the controller. It’s sloped from one end to the other.

The reverse side of the controller has anti-skid padding, so no chance of it sliding on the floor. The device doesn’t look like it was entirely machine-made though. I reckon the anti-skid material was hand-glued. Note too: “Manufactured in USA” – a rarity since most of everything is Made in China these days!

The box comes with a small colored printed manual, with the online version available here too. The device offers connects to a variety of devices: including Windows, iOS and Android devices. The manual took a bit of figuring out though – I didn’t find the setup instructions particularly intuitive. But once I sorted it out, the Surface Pro 3 readily identified the device via Bluetooth for pairing, automatically downloaded the device driver for it, and thereafter connected without further hitches. The controller also supports different key associations for each foot press: e.g.up/down, left/right, page up/page down. So, the last step was to configure which of these key associations I need the controller to drive. Since I was using Microsoft’s built-in PDF reader, the correct mode was left/right.

The one down side of the PED: you can only pair the controller to one tablet at any one time. I occasionally use the iPad Air 2 for score displays too, so this is a bit of a dummer.

And that’s it. The device so far is still taking some use to. I have to use my toes to feel for the device and where I should be tapping on, since my eyes are on the song sheet when playing the piano, not on my feet!

Chinese New Year 2017

I reckon in a few years time when Hannah turns 10, we can do a series of CNY Family pictures to see how the kids have grown every year! As is tradition, here are our family photos on the first day of the Lunar New Year.

Triggering these photos is quite a bit easier on the E-M1 than the cameras before that. The Nikons D300 and D7000 and E-M5 all had their turns over the years, and shots were taken using remote/wireless triggers that didn’t always work reliably. The E-M1 and GX85 though are WIFI enabled, and Olympus and Panasonic support these cameras with respective Smartphone apps – which make taking the extended family shots a cinch. It’s probably hard to tell: but my left hand in the first two pictures in this post is covered – because my fingers are behind triggering the shot!

Notes and Pictures

Normally, most non-techie persons wouldn’t be aware of the in and outs of the smartphone industry. But the Samsung Note 7 battery exploding fiasco of 2016 was so widely reported that it even became talking points for persons who couldn’t normally be more bothered with techno-trends. I wasn’t ever planning to replace the Samsung Note 5 with the 7, since I didn’t need the new features nor did I especially like the more curvy form factor. But the Note 5’s battery has started to become less effective in the last 5 months now – so I reckon a change of phone late this year might be necessary.

Ling is still using her Samsung Note 3 with a relatively still new battery, and Facebook friends with her will see that she posts a lot of pictures and notes on things that fascinate her, including plants, cooking, nature and our two kids of course. The Note 3 offers a fairly good resolution for its sensor type, but like most camera phone sensors and their accompanying lens, suffer also from distortion, noise and other optical imperfections. One thing that Ling has which makes all these normal limitations less significant though is framing. And this is one thing I have to hand it to the wife – she takes more compositionally interesting shots than I do! One could of course attribute it in part to that the Note 3’s camera lens is pretty wide-angled, but I think it’s more that she has that photo-gene that I lack.

So, here’s a small selection of pictures from her camera, and why I especially like them. The aspect ratio of the Note 3’s camera is also quite different from what I normally shoot with on the m4/3s, and there’s no cropping of the pictures below.

Candid shot taken near our old home in Sengkang; slight angle tilt, and that the kids’ posture are in almost perfect sync.

Baking at home; picture is tightly framed, and strong contrasting colors of yellow, purple and white.

Peter’s favorite fetal-sleeping position; notice the booster position underneath his torso, and that that the photo was taken at the body-down angle – very different from how I’d instinctively take a similar shot.

Harvesting baby tomatoes at home; that H is slightly out of focus, and the composition draws attention to the tomato and her palm in the lower half of the picture.

Ling’s current pet project – two lime caterpillars that were feasting on our balcony plants, which the wife then lovingly re-homed them in a container for their upcoming pupal stage lest they are easy pickings for bids. Liked this shot as both fellows are facing opposite directions.

 

Kids @ 17mm, 25mm etc. – Part 30

The routine of the new 2017 year has settled in nicely over the last two weeks now. Peter is now in his second year at his childcare/kindergarten, and displays none of the separation anxiety he briefly showed a year ago. Interestingly, his teachers at the last Meet-the-Parents meeting said he’s very well-behaved in school and mixes well. But at home, he’s continuing to drive us (or rather Mommy) up the wall with his antics, which include all manner of variations of “not listening”. When we recounted his behavior at home to his teachers, they quipped that it just might be because our second born is socially intelligent, and recognizes that there are different forces at play when he’s around friends, teachers and other people. And while at home, he slips into his normal, real self LOL.

Hannah is now also in Primary Two, and doing pretty well in school – if the couple of academic and study awards she picked up at the end of her first year is any general indication. Though just two months into lessons, she’s coping with her music lessons, and – from what her teacher says – and is very musical, something that pleases us both to no end and we’re both claiming more genetic credit than the other for it! Well, like Daddy at least, she has good musical memory, picks up new pieces quickly and transpose them back on the piano by listening, and can improv – so there.

Funnily, between the two though, it just might be Peter having as strong a music gene as his sister, going with what Ling is observing. P sings and hums. OK, so all kids probably do, but this boy does it a lot. And at his young age, he can also recognize music pieces and say where he heard them. At the moment, much of his recognition comes off the numerous piano pieces I’ve been playing at home, and some of them would seem fairly complex music for young kids to digest.

Photo collage coming out of a bed-time series. The two really enjoy each other’s company, with P especially looking up to his “big sister” (X70 + Meike MK320).

CompassOne, the newly refurbished Compass Point, has re-opened, and it’s been one of our weekend hangout areas. This shot was very near the minimum focusing distance, and incredibly the X70 didn’t trip its AF point.

Beneath that cheeky grin lies a raging force of destruction (E-PL6/17mm f1.8 + Meike MK320).

Both children beds have got new quilts that Ling sewed over the December period. Ya, Mommy pattern like badminton.

The two of us actually compete for time on the piano on weekday evening.