The third – and probably last post on our Minton renovation one year on – unless there are more things to say later in the years to come! Previous post here.

Children’s Bedroom double-beds: this was one of the key design features in our renovation project 18 months ago, and while Peter hasn’t moved into the room yet (he still sleeps each night in his cot currently in the Study room), the upper bed here is at least one of his frequent play areas. The invisible grills in the room have given us relative peace of mind since without them, it really wouldn’t take any effort to climb from the upper bed out of the window. The multiple storage bays built into the bedroom have also been really helpful in keep both children’s clothes out of sight too.

+1/Study Room configuration: we’re waiting for Peter to ‘graduate’ from his cot so that he can vacate the +1/Study Room. After which the first thing that’s going in is one of those large bean bags.:)

Decking: we didn’t write about our decking considerations and final decisions made during our 2014 renovation project, but deciding on the basic material type, material color and also vendor to go with was one of the harder renovation decisions we made last year. Briefly, there are two broad types of decking material: natural wood (e.g. ironwood, Chengal, teak) and wood plastic composites, which basically is a synthetic wood type.The considerations we had in mind included:

The amount of direct sunlight that would hit the decking

The amount of rain that will hit the decking during each year end’s monsoon

The kind of furniture and also usage that decking would be put through

How much maintenance we were prepared to keep up with the decking’s outward appearance

How the decking would be installed

Cost (of course)

From anecdotal observations, most people seem to prefer natural wood decking since it doesn’t have that odd artificial look that’s inherent in WPCs – you know, analogous to computer-generated faces against real human faces that we see in the most Terminator film – and with natural wood, you can at least re-sand and varnish periodically and the decking would look like new again. Still, we read and also saw through pictures worrying on either side, and don’t think we could really finally say which material type is better all-round. We finally decided on an Australian-branded decking type sold and installed by a local reseller, on account of the very long warranty the reseller was providing, the overall package price, method of installation (no drilling involved), and also that the method of installation permitted wider than normal gaps. A note on the later: we went with a larger than normal gap of 5mm between planks. It resulted in a somewhat less pleasing look visually, but also provided a much better water drainage system when the inevitable monsoon rain cycle begins.

Gap between deck planks.

Gap between deck planks.

More than 18 months, and the decking has fared pretty well with a few caveats. None of the planks have warped, chipped, broken etc. but there has been surface scratches and plant acid burns into the material as a result of our usage – basically the children’s toy vehicles running forcefully over the decking, and the many potted plants excreting fluids that over time burn into the deck planks. Not enough for the decking to look unsightly at all, but I guess it’s just the nature of the material.

Solar Film: the solar film still looks solidly in place, and we don’t even notice that it’s there anymore. And the apartment interior is still reasonably bright enough for us.

One of those very Singapore-an things to do on weekends is to check out new homes in new apartment projects. There’s been a large number of such new developments in the north-east side of the island. Heck; our old home at The Rivervale at one point saw six such new developments all in eyeshot! Visiting showrooms is a great way to see what apartment developers are up to, but there’s always that little sense of unease when we get tailed by property agents during a visit and routinely have to fake our guest names and contact numbers just so that we don’t get harassed by the agents later on.

A friend at work had just received keys to her new home @ Bartley Residences, a 702 unit project that just TOPed a few months back, and invited us to go by to take a look over the recent weekend. Which we did, and here are some of our quick observations – especially in comparison with our (relatively) new home @ The Minton. Just casual impressions too since our encounter here was just an hour or so visit and exploring the grounds. Not commenting on the finishing and the general workmanship at BR either, since we only visited one unit. But from what I’m hearing, the general quality of that isn’t different from what Minton residents had too at the point of key collections.

Bartley Residences (BR)’s location is a key advantage and more central than that of Minton’s. It sits directly opposite a train station and Maris Stella High School, one of the brand name boys’ schools. The wife quips that even persons who stay under 1 KM will need to ballot just to get their kids in. It’s also just a couple minutes drive away from a CTE connection. Super convenient.

On the flip-side though; the major road that connects to the sideroad leading into the condo is also a major artery that connects residents from the East to the more central areas of Toa Payoh, Bishan, Ang Mo Kio and beyond in Bukit Timah. We go by the road occasionally on weekend peak hours, and routinely will hit slow-traffic. I wonder if this bottleneck is gonna be a source of daily frustration for residents trying to get home! The Minton on the other hand isn’t exactly near an MRT station – 12 minutes of brisk walking is involved to get to either Kovan or Serangoon stations – and isn’t near a connection to the expressway either. But it does run beside a fairly major main road, which – fortunately – isn’t congested… yet (?!).

The side-road that leads into the condo is also pretty narrow, with at least one of two sides occupied by landed property. Not in itself a problem, since the condo sits among low density housing, but the narrowness of the side-road might pose challenges. We observed a lot of cars parked on one side of the road – and lots of empty or re-purposed driveways in the private houses. Once the main body of residents move into the condo, the side-road leading in and out of the condo onto the main road might get real crowded.

There are 702 units at Bartley Residences, compared to the 1,145 units @ Minton. The latter can feel crowded sometimes, though that feeling is somewhat alleviated by that the blocks are at least spaced relatively far apart facing-wise.

Tranquil World @ Minton, where our block faces.

The condo sits on a gentle incline which the developer has employed to good effect. We explored the Kid’s splash pool and were wowed by the views the deck offered: a pleasingly far view to Maris Stella High and Bartley Secondary Schools, and well beyond too.

The condo feels cosy, especially in how the pool-facing blocks hug the pool’s circumference, with good use of plants to and greenery to provide a lush garden pool feel to it. The Minton main pool in contrast is more functional and probably has to fit multiple intentions – including pool-side BBQs, the garden awnings, and also for lots of kids running about with pool-side toys.  The BR main pool is also literally right at the door for the patio units, which might be a good or bad thing depending on one’s expectations of privacy. The Rivervale’s poolside patio units had two barrier types – a walkway, and also taller than human height flora – such that pool users would never be able to peer into homes.

The Main Pool @ BR.

The Main Pool @ BR.


Hammocks @ BR!

I thought that the main pool seemed relatively small for the number of units it has to support, while Minton is at the other extreme with four separate pools – a pretty large main, lap, heated, and children’s – and you can imagine the ruckus on weekends at all four pools. Not really idyllic living anymore LOL.

The general BR compound is beautifully landscaped too, and Ling especially liked the numerous little relaxation corners where residents can hide out and chill. The planted flora/greenery is already of sufficient height to provide a degree of privacy to patio units, unlike the Minton units back in 2014, though by this point now the flora has grown to sufficient heights.

I like the general aesthetics of the blocks. BR’s blocks are a mix of white, browns with embedded design patterns that run along the entire height of blocks. Not quite like Minton’s more industrial look of concrete, steel and glass.

The Bodhi Tree-facing blocks @ BR.

The Bodhi Tree-facing blocks @ BR.

Structure of steel, glass, wood and stone @ Minton.

No bay windows at BR! Bay windows are awful for already small rooms – a room constraint we had to think very hard to get around @ Minton.

No planter boxes at BR too and hence no wasted space on the balconies.

The developer-supplied washing machine and dryer stack is elegantly tucked and hidden away inside the kitchen. Definitely beats the experience we had squeezing our brains on how to fit our own laundry stack into our yard toilet last year.

There’s a huge tree that sits on one side of the compound, which is a protected specimen that’s hundreds of years old. The tree looks awesomely huge and I felt like a midget standing beneath it. Certainly one of the key highlights of BR. Several blocks surround this tree, and also a further-on view of low-rise houses yonder too. Very serene! And right beside it is a children’s playground with several fixtures – something that’s sorely lacking at Minton. We do get a crochet lawn beside the children’s treehouse – the lawn of which has been re-purposed to a mini-soccer pitch / BBQ extended area / picnic lawn / children’s badminton field / playing catching field / morning Qigong area – and of late, even a drone launch pad.

A dedicated Children's Playground @ BR.

A dedicated Children’s Playground @ BR.

The Bodhi Tree @ BR.

We saw just one vehicle entrance and exit point at BR, compared to the multiple points of vehicular entry/exit @ Minton. Three in the latter! Good in the sense that it spreads things out quite a bit, bad because the access control can be uneven across all points of entrance/egress. The manned main guardhouse and vehicular gantry at BR is also placed exactly where it naturally should be: right at the property’s main entrance.

There’s a picturesque cascading waterfall adjacent to the main pool, and deck chairs that are immersed into the shallow end around the pool too. Very neat! The pool is also surrounded by blocks and quite private, like at The Rivervale. The Minton pools are relatively more exposed.

The rooms in the sample apartment we visited were rather small. In the oft chance that the sample isn’t representative, the apartment sizes reported on other sites are also telling. E.g.: a Bartley Residences 3 bedroom size is ~1,022 sqf compared to Minton’s ~1216 sqf, and the 3+1 configuration (ours) is 1,162 sqf at BR compared to 1,495 sqf at Minton. These aren’t trivial differences in sizes and seem to be the norm for newly built condos. I wonder how much smaller can apartment developers shrink units until they essentially become unlivable! Part of the generous floor area of Minton units though is taken up by those massive balconies in most units here, with the joke being that our front balcony is larger than our bedrooms.

The sliding door-type of wardrobes in each room is also more practical than the swung out wardrobe doors @ Minton, which posed further constraints on the furniture we could fit into the bedrooms.

The final verdict? Hannah liked Bartley Residences, and said “We should come here more often and swim in the pool!”. :)

Hannah approves!

Hannah approves!


Ling comments that it’s hard buying tech toys for my birthday every year. Thankfully, it’s easier on my end for her birthdays – on account that, apart from apparel and things that women use (i.e. handbags LOL), there are always new kitchen or home appliances or gizmos out there. And I actually enjoy the learning process involved with finding out about the new home innovations, and comparing between them using the usual spreadsheets.

One home item that Ling mused about early this year was a juicer. We do consume some fruits at home as a family of four on most evenings, but it takes time to wash, and slice/dice them. Moreover, I’m a temperamental fruit eater: there are many fruits I dislike, and I have low tolerances too for fruits that are sour or bland. The juicer is supposed to take care of all that, since when they are mashed and squeezed into pulp and fluids, and mixed into different concoctions, blandness and tastelessness become less of an issue.

There seems to be at least two broad types of fruit juicers: fast juicers that use centrifugal forces to essentially grind fruit pieces into pulp and juice, and slow(er) juices that use pressure. The ‘net is awashed with a lot of material comparing between the two and occasionally trying to separate fact from fiction of both juicers’ advantages. The fast juicers as sold here are also somewhat lower in average pricing than the slow ones, with some premium models in the latter category coming close to or crossing the thousand dollar mark.

Possible hype and unfounded fears aside, I decided to go with the slow juicer early on – if nothing else that I think power-pulverizing by motors does strike me as being very cruel to fruits! There’s a wide range of slow juicer models, with the cheapest ones costing just slightly over a hundred dollars. I wasn’t sure how a juicer would finally fit into the kitchen, since there’s been a couple of big ticket household appliances that turned into white elephants (a certain vacuum cleaner from OSIM or breadmaker machine for example), while other low price items that have turned out to be a lot more useful than we envisioned (e.g. an Electolux handheld vacuum cleaner). Erring on the side of caution this time round again, we went with a fairly cheap slow juicer – the Philips HR1830 that cost slightly more than S$200.

Despite it being Ling’s birthday present, I’ve been the primary user of this new juicer now since its purchase 5 weeks ago now – on account that it’s fun to juice, and everyone gets their Vitamin C fix almost every night. Some comments about the juicer and juicing!

Our concoctions most of the time are what comes out from a pineapple, 3 large oranges, 4 apples, 1 carrot, and 1 celery stick. Enough for everyone to get at least a full relative-sized cup – even Peter. We’ve of course tried many other fruit types at this point, but this particular mixture seems to provide us with a blend that is reasonably tasty without strong flavors in particular directions.

The HR1830 isn’t a heavy duty juicer, or at least not with the daily abuse it gets put through. The machine wobbles, and depending on how hard one nudges (or forces) the cut fruit slices down the main vertical tube, the juicer can shake quite a bit as it tries to slice fruit and drive them through the metallic sieve.

The machine’s not silent. But the motor sound is far less than the din of what you’ll normally hear from a fast juicer.

The juicer is fairly easy to clean too. Disassembling the machine takes just a minute, as also is its assembly, and it’s super easy all round. No really small parts to figure out either. No parts with sharp edges either too. Pretty child friendly!

From what I’ve observed against online notes from other juicer models; the HR1830 does an adequate job at squeezing juice out from pulp, but there are clearly other models that do an even better job at maximizing the amount of juice you can get from the cut fruit.

Soft fruits are easy to juice – up to a point. We tried water melons, but they provided so much liquid volume that it was hard to balance it off with other fruits and to reach an appropriate taste… unless you don’t mind drinking what is essentially gonna taste like melon juice to the max.

Our daily pile of fruits that go into the juicer.

Our daily pile of fruits that go into the juicer.

Hannah's interpretation of what is really going on.

Hannah’s interpretation of what is really going on.

I can’t believe I’ve gone from talking about photography and cameras in the last post to kitchen juicers now LOL.

I was looking at my tabulation of camera expenditure since 2008 – I am that obsessed over all things tabular – and it’s interesting to see my spending pattern:

Expensive hobby, but the photos of our kids are priceless!

Expensive hobby, but the photos of our kids are priceless!

Broadly, the spending spikes especially every several years whenever I change a camera system or buy substantial new gear. So:

2008: I didn’t track my camera spending before this point, and had owned a bunch of different digital compact cameras, pro-user cameras, and also my first DSLR: the Konica Minolta Maxxum 5D. I sold that away and in 2008, bought into the Nikon system with the:

D300 – an M1 Abrams Tank-life DSLR, and with a whole bunch of lenses and accessories to follow later including the…

SB600 speedlight

Sigma 10-20mm Ultra Wide Angle

Nikon 50mm f1.8

Hannah and Mommy @ Nikon 50mm f1.8

Sigma AF150mm f2.8 Macro – took some lovely pictures at the Orchid Garden with it

Street cat at Punggol Park @ Sigma 150mm f2.8 Macro

Sigma AF24-60m f2.8 – which is currently with our ang mo bud!

Hannah at three years old @ Sigma 24-60mm f2.8

2009: more lenses and accessories for the D300, which included:

MB-D10 battery grip

Sigma 18-250mm – this was for its time among the first all-in-one travel lenses which could shoot somewhat wide and relatively far along in the focal length too. The lens increasingly faced AF issues, and at this point today, is no longer working reliably.

Hannah @ Sigma 18-250mm

2010: when I bought into a second camera system to accompany the heavy duty Nikon system, starting off with the…

Olympus E-PL1 – which at the end of the year, accompanied us on our Japan trip, and also for my month-long stint in Massachusetts. The camera even survived dunking at Niagara Falls!

2011: no looking back from the m4/3s now! Apart from selling off several Nikon lenses that offset new purchases, the acquisitions that year were:

Olympus E-PL2 – a significant upgrade from the predecessor. The E-PL2 seemed better built, had a bumped up LCD, and the kit lens focused a lot quicker. The camera is a backup-backup m4/3s camera now that I still take out for an occasional spin.

Panasonic Lumix 20mm f1.7 – pancake prime that was extremely sharp in its center image, and capable of lovely pictures. Only issue was that it focused slowly.

Hannah and Mommy in the evening @ Panasonic Lumix 20mm f1.7

2012: this one was a messy year and also the one where I finally moved away from owning two camera systems. The Nikon D300 was sold away, and in its place:

Nikon D7000 and MB-D11 grip – with hindsight now, a somewhat impulsive buy. The DSLR was a landmark in the Nikon system, offering – at that point – unsurpassed cropped sensor imagery, but it was also at a point where I was seriously considering moving fully onto the m4/3s standard.

Nikon 35mm f1.8 DX – among the most highly rated Nikon primes for the APS-C sensor.

Hannah @ Sigma 35mm f1.8

Sigma APO 70-200mm F2.8 EX DG OS HSM – my first ‘pro’ f2.8 zoom lens! This lens was considered a much cheaper alternative to the Nikon equivalent that cost almost twice as much.

Hannah and Mommy @ Sigma 70-200mm f2.8

Olympus E-M5 – the real game changer in the m4/3s standard and also for me. The entire Nikon camera system I owned essentially got sidelined because of this camera.

Metz 50 AF-1 MZ 50312OPL Digital Flash – throws up an incredible amount of light. Worked well enough until the camera battery door broke!

Panasonic 45-200mm f/4.0-5.6 – owned this lens briefly, with several of the earlier Minton in construction photos taken with it.

Sigma 30mm f2.8 DN – this prime was longer than the Panasonic Lumix 20mm and weren’t as quick aperture-wise, but it focused a lot faster.

Hannah @ Sigma 30mm f2.8

Panasonic LX7 – highly praised rangefinder-esque camera that I got for dirt-cheap from Amazon. Used it for some of those very nicely wide-angle shots of the Minton.

2013: the prime lens year! Sold away some of the m4/3s gear, picked up the:

Panasonic Lumix 14mm f2.5G – fun wide-angle prime that’s flat as a pancake. Great for wefie shots.:)

Hannah @ Panasonic Lumix 14mm f2.5G

Panasonic-Leica 25mm f1.4 – still the best portrait prime I’ve got for the m4/3s. Picked it up from Amazon JP and had it shipped here. One of the three highly-rated prime lenses for the system, with the other two the next two lenses below.

Hannah @ Panasonic Lumix 25mm f1.4

Olympus 17mm f1.8 – pretty much permanently mounted onto the E-PL6, and color-matched too. This one’s an all-purpose general photography lens.

Hannah @ Olympus 17mm f1.8

Olympus 45mm f1.8 – the longest focal length prime I’ve got at this point. Capable of rendering nifty bokeh, though best used out of home where there’s space to move around.

Peter @ Olympus 45mm f1.8

Olympus 75-300mm II f4.8-6.7 Zoom Lens – an updated and much sleeker-looking version of a consumer-level zoom lens. Never mind that it’s a slow-lens aperture-wise, but this lens is capable of 600mm equivalent shots on the E-M5. All those crazy zoomed-in pictures of the Minton construction were taken on this one.

Workers at The Minton @ Olympus 75-300mm II. This was shot from an opposite block some distance away.

Olympus E-PL6 – one of the two cameras I tot around these days, and largely as a replacement for the old E-PL2. Uses about the same sensor and processing as the E-M5, and capable of producing images as good!

2014: a lull in spending, finally! No major camera purchases that year, and I sold off most of my remaining Nikon gear.

2015: the year’s not up yet, and at this point:

Panasonic DMC-LX100 – my first (relatively) large-sensor compact with a nice 2.8 aperture. The camera isn’t without its issues, but it still has more strengths to it than weaknesses. As a bonus, works well with the m4/3s flashguns I’ve got.

Nissin i40 – as a replacement for the Metz 50AF-1 flashgun. Perfect in every way – except that the rear dial’s mode markings have started fading off from wear/tear, though it’s only been 6 months.

Olympus E-M1 – got it for a great price, and is really as mint as it can be for a used unit.

Olympus 12-40mm f2.8 Pro – from the same seller as the E-M1! A post on the lens to follow soon.

Kids @ Olympus 12-40mm f2.8

Olympus 40-150mm f2.8 Pro – a very recent acquisition, and largely to take pictures of Hannah’s upcoming K2 Graduation concert this weekend. A post to follow on it soon too.:)

Whew – that was a long post. I think I’m pretty much embedded into the m4/3s system at this point, and the only gaps I can think of are:

A macro lens, maybe.

A ultra-wide angle, big maybe – only because I’m not a fan of ultra wide angles.

The stunning Olympus 75mm f1.8, at some point!


Continuing on a widely spaced thread on our Minton home, post-renovation one year on. The last post in the series is here.

If there is any one aspect of our home renovation that has not worked well, it’s been our choice of supplier for the LED downlights. We picked them up from a large supplier located in the Ubi area, and had them installed by our ID’s general electrician. As I recall it, the first units started failing barely 3 months into our moving in, and along the way, several more did. Our initial experiences of the LED downlights are here, and here.

I’ll have to do an accurate tally of the units that failed, but here are the failure numbers off the top of my head:


The 8 failures are over the 18 month stretch, and I think roughly split between the LED light emitting unit, and the driver unit. As I recall it, the first four failures (all 3-in-1s) occurred in the first year, and were exchanged without complaint at the warehouse. The remaining ones zonked out about this year – after their guarantee period – which meant we had to look for options.

Clarifying our usage too: the lights are not heavily used. In fact, two of the dead units were in a part of the living hall and were rarely switched on. One of our Minton neighbors got their LED downlights from the same supplier and experienced failures of their 3-in-1 lights too.

We scouted around for alternatives, and eventually settled on a Qoo10 supplier who has a new warehouse over in Woodlands. This supplier has a web site – which gave us a slight bit more confidence than the previous supplier which had nothing of this sort, though the web site still states their old Jurong warehouse address. We’ve had enough bad experiences with 3-in-1 types now, unfair as it might sound to tarnish all lights of this type because of one bad experience with a supplier. The new units, according to their supplier, have some components made in the US while assembly is in China.

Pictures of the new units:


The 6200K temperature of these Cool Daylight units meant that they are very slightly warmer than the units they are replacing. We ended up replacing all the 3-in-1 units in the study with these single-color types, and keeping the 3-in-1s that were still working as spares.


Output watt is the same at 12W, and size too. The panel design though is different – though one would have to be looking hard up at the ceiling lights to tell!


The output here at 24-48V DC is slightly higher than the old driver types of 21-45V DC though rated current is identical at 300mA.

This time round too, we picked up spares so that we can replace them on our own if it comes to that later. Funnily; these replacement lights at about $19 each cost less than the old ones at $28. Our neighbor – who shared the similarly bad experiences with the old LED lights – helped us install the replacements, and judging from what’s involved, I’m fairly confident that I’d be able to do the same later if I need to. Oddly though – the traumatic experience our ID’s general electrician had last year when installing the LEDs seem unfounded. Our neighbor was able to mount/dismount the old lights with relative ease.

Oh well. Hope these new ones work better this time round. And if not, at least we have spares to replace several more.:)

I’ve owned and used almost every one of the Samsung Galaxy Note phablets, with the exception of the Note 4 that was released to retail last year in October. The Note 3 was picked up when I renewed my telco subscription plan in December 2013 – so when it was time to renew again 1 year 9 months i.e. this very week – it made no sense to pick up the Note 4 when the Note 5 had also just hit retail.

Interestingly, the Note 5 is less of an evolutionary step from Note 4 than between the latter and Note 3. Gone are the removable batteries and the microSD expansion slot, and what’s taken its place is premium build, though not without its issues. I was frankly – loathe – to trade-in the Note 3, so asked Ling if she’d like to inherit the Note 3. The Xperia Z2 I bought her in March this year is a nifty premium-built phone that we got at a decent bargain, but the additional screen space offered by the Note series is just that useful, not to mention the Super Amoled screen. So, it was goodbye to the Xperia Z2.

And so – my first notes on the Note 5 after several days of use, and especially in comparison against the Note 3.

Stunningly exquisite build. The earlier generations of Notes had been criticized for build qualities and material use that weren’t commensurate with their routinely high asking prices. There were improvements in the Note 3 onwards – aesthetically anyway if not the materials itself – especially in the faux leather shell, but the Note 5 is the first phone in the Note series to feature the new Samsung design language: glass, metal, and density. This is one phone where the photos don’t do it enough justice. Picking up and holding the phone will make you feel as though this is a phone that’s worth its asking price.

Fingerprint unlock. The scanner in the note 5 in my opinion works just as well as the iPad Air 2’s. I noticed that the scanner takes a lot of prints in the initial setup – at least a dozen – and even encourages you to register your fingerprint in different ways.

Near bezel-less display, making the phone very slightly smaller than the Note 3.

Jotting with the stylus is quicker, especially since the phone doesn’t need to be unlocked.

On the other hand:

The thing feels like a bar of soap! A case is a definite must for this, unless you don’t mind risking the Note 5 slipping out of your hand and hitting a possibly concrete floor. The Note 3 had no such issues, since the faux leather shell provided a good tactile grip against the phone slipping out of your hand.

The glass back, stunning as it looks, is a terrible fingerprint magnet. So, unless you don’t mind frequently fishing out a hankie to wipe those printers off, or wiping it against your pants/skirt/shirt, the glass back is likely gonna be covered by a case – which basically defeats the purpose of having that stunning glass back to begin with.

Slightly curved glass screen edges, making it hard to find tempered glass screen protectors that will fit the screen exactly without bubbles inadvertently seeping onto the edges at some point.

Near bezel-less display takes some getting use to, especially when palm rejection isn’t matching it. In the first day of use and while holding the phone, my palm kept accidentally triggering icons placed on the left side of the screen.

Retrieving the stylus is a slower two-step process now, since you need to first eject the stylus off its spring-loaded mechanism, then use your fingernail to pry it out.

No microSD card slot and non-removable battery. The loss of the microSD card doesn’t bother me since I don’t use phones as media consumption devices nor mobile gaming machines. But the non-removable battery has a real impact, and it came out of a design decision I assume was necessary to get the sleek glass/metal body on the new Note. I was able to buy a new Note 3 battery since the old battery had experienced some visible wear and tear (the battery has slightly bloated from thermal expansion I think), and the phone longevity is now as it was 2 years ago. No such possibility with the Note 5 when it goes through the same usage demands in the years to come.


Note 5 (left) and 3.

Note 5 (left) and 3.

The Note 5 is just capable of a tad higher level of brightness (as far as my eyes could tell).

The Note 5 is just capable of a tad higher level of brightness (as far as my eyes could tell).

Very different backs. One is premium-looking but a real fingerprint magnet!

Very different backs. One is premium-looking but a real fingerprint magnet!

Taking a look at their data/charging ports.

Taking a look at their data/charging ports.

The wife was musing that she never gets her own new laptop at home. Oh, her workplace provides her a Fujitsu laptop, but it’s a pretty clunky machine that she doesn’t seem to like bringing to and fro work and home. All the home notebooks she’s used – the Dell XPS 16 (fabulous machine with a beautiful display) and the Macbook Pro Retina – had been hand-me downs. Powerful machines yes, with the latter still the most high-spec laptop I’ve (ever) owned. In any case – probably also in part that it’s a month to her birthday – I went about with the usual vigor to find her one such.

And of requirements: the wife only said she didn’t need it to be mobile. I was already eyeing a beautiful Asus Zenbook UX305, solid unibody construction with a bright and good-contrast matte screen, fitted with a 128GB SSD – and all for just $999… and that option was thrown out of the window.

Her workplace also had a small grant claimable by staff to support them in the purchase of such technological equipment. Since her new notebook was going to mostly sit at home, the other requirements I had in mind were:

14″ to 15.6″ screen. Has to be full HD – none of that 1366×768 resolutions

At least 8 GB of RAM

Preferably non-reflective glossy screen, but even if it’s matte, it needs to offer wide viewing angles

Preferably an SSD drive

At least an i5 processor

Not too cheap looking

Good warranty terms

All for under $1.4K

Of the bunch of requirements, the hardest requirement to meet was really the screen and also the SSD option. Very few notebooks at this price range will offer a large full HD screen with wide viewing angles and an SSD drive to go alongside that. I did think about going for a custom-assembled Aftershock notebook that could had been configured within that budget, but that came sans operating system and would require an additional purchase – an expense I was trying to avoid.

I finally got lucky over the weekend evening when after dinner at Parkway Parade, I chanced across the HP Pavilion 15 at the Best Denki, and of the following specification:

Got it for a lot cheaper than the Recommended Retail Price on the August 2015 HP Retail Guide.

Got it for a lot cheaper than the Recommended Retail Price on the August 2015 HP Retail Guide.

i7 processor – nice. Upgradeable to Windows 10 – check. 8 GB RAM – check. Dedicated if yesteryear generation GPU – don’t need it. 15.6″ screen – check. FHD matte screen with wide viewing angle – all check. And 3 years warranty – nice! I would have likely shortlisted this model for further consideration – but the notebook also was tagged a promotional price of $1099. That sealed the decision pretty much.

After spending a day loading up the usual office productivity software and other applications that Ling typically uses, and forced-upgraded it to Windows 10, what I liked of the new HP Pavilion 15 p257TX:

Full HD screen with a decent viewing angle, and good brightness levels to match. The color gamut isn’t quite as wide as the XPS 16 nor the Retina, but it’s still pretty good for a matte screen.

Comfortably spaced chiclet styled keyboard with a nice tactile and springy touch to its keys.

Properly placed USB ports: the right USB 2.0 port for the mouse, and two USB 3.0 ports on the left.

Large trackpad.

At 2.2 Kg weight, not that heavy for a 15.6″ laptop.

Attractive-looking design. Not a fingerprint magnet.

Dirt cheap for what it’s offering.

And as for the stuff that’s less stellar:

The 1TB 5400 rpm hard disk is slow. Or maybe it’s just that this is my first notebook in 4 years that’s running off a HDD.

Hard disk activity lights situated on the right-hand side and away from immediate view.

Keyboard lid exhibits some flex.

Thick bezel around the screen.

Not a backlit keyboard.

Lots of the usual bloatware, but thankfully – I was able to install all of those I didn’t care for.

Apart from the slow hard disk, pretty minor annoyances, made even more trivial when one considers the low asking price.

The HP Pavilion 15 p257TX.

The HP Pavilion 15 p257TX.

Slightly off-centered keyboard to make way for the numeric keypad.

Slightly off-centered keyboard to make way for the numeric keypad.

Spacious trackpad, though still not with the same tactile feel of a Macbook.

Spacious trackpad, though still not with the same tactile feel of a Macbook.

Two USB ports on the left, alongside a LAN and HDMI port, and air exhaust vents.

Two USB ports on the left, alongside a LAN and HDMI port, and air exhaust vents.

Another USB port, and the optical drive.

Another USB port, and the optical drive.

Attractive if somewhat plasticky chassis.

Attractive if somewhat plasticky chassis.

The Dell XPS 13 is diminutive - while the HP Pavilion 15 is... normal size!

The Dell XPS 13 is diminutive – while the HP Pavilion 15 is… normal size!

More notes to come after extended use!

Every week, Hannah at Kindergarten 2 has two spelling quizzes; Chinese spelling on Monday, and English spelling on Tuesday. Each quiz requires the kids to write several words – usually three for Chinese and five to six for English. Hannah often practices for them at her nanny’s, and also at home from the weekend onward. Hannah genuinely seems to enjoy school work. And getting the words mostly if not all correct at the quizzes is often a source of great pride for her. She’ll often gush with joy when she reports her results to us on Tuesday and Wednesday late afternoons when we pick her up, and we’ll also draw additional ‘stars’ and smiley faces in her report book as a reward for her.

Practicing her English spelling.

Practicing her English spelling.

Our girl normally does pretty well for English spelling, but Chinese spelling is a huge hit and miss. Like what Ling muses – Hannah simply doesn’t get sufficient Mandarin speaking practice at home. Mommy’s Mandarin is decent, while Daddy’s on the other hand is… – well, the less said the better! So Ling had a grand idea the other day: print the Chinese words of the week using that new Epson L550 printer, and put them up in her bathroom (of all places).

Subliminal learning!

Subliminal learning!

In both language cases though, Hannah still doesn’t take well to failure, and an early morning incident today brought this to the fore again. Today’s English spelling quiz involved the words: ‘lizard’, ‘caterpillar’, ‘worm’, ‘snail’, centipede’, and ‘spider’, and Hannah did her usual practices last night. This morning just before driving off from home, we got her to mentally rehearse the six words again – and when she had difficulties recalling how to spell ‘caterpillar’, we could see her tears starting to well-up. A quick reassurance and prompting helped her recall, but it reminded us of what her kindergarten teachers often share when we meet them: that our girl has very high expectations of herself and her work. Yes she takes pride, but she also gets super emotional at failures.

We’re not sure what to make of it, especially since Peter, even at just two years old, shows no such perfectionist tendencies. In fact, if nothing else, he has that curious if also destructive streak when he rampages about the house.

It’s indeed something to think of and reflect: on the one hand, we beam with pride when Hannah’s teachers share about Hannah’s academic accomplishments in class, her sociability and her natural leadership tendency to take charge, but are also a little worried if she doesn’t grow to better handle not being good at everything and failing as she grows older.

We’ve been using at home the very office-capable Fuji Xerox M255z printer for more than a year now, and the unit has posed no issues. Of late though, I was tempted to get a personal laser printer to situate at my office. So, the list of possible candidates from Canon, Brother and Fuji got included in a spreadsheet and I started checking out the models in person at the usual electronic and computer accessory shops whenever we were out of home for dinner and outings and the like.

The search for an office laser printer however got a 180 degree change at the start of the week – and largely because we wanted photo printouts of our recent trip to Legoland Malaysia but kept procrastinating in getting them done at the usual photo printer shops, and I figured that that having a second laser printer would be convenient, but would not fundamentally add anything new to what I do at home and in the office. Hannah loves to look at pictures and photos, and I thought why not get something for the home that would enable us to print photos on demand.

I was initially looking at portable photo printers, and learned quickly that there wasn’t a lot of choices there. There was the Canon Selphy C910 that had an attractive price-point for the unit, convenient in usage and using reasonably-priced consumables – but offered only average quality photo prints, and also printed at slightly smaller than 4R sizes. There was also the Epson Picturemate PM245 that was widely appraised to offer better photo prints at the right 4R size, but also slightly more expensive, and harder to find, and let alone the consumables.

So, it was to be typical size inkjet photo printer, and preferably with duplex printing and scanning features. There’s a very large range of photo printers on sale from the major manufacturers which made arriving at the final decision tough. Duplex printing/scanning features weren’t the only considerations though, but also the availability of consumables, same manufacturer photo paper, and also ongoing costs. After a couple of days of exploration, the choices came down to:

Canon Pixma MX727: decently-priced at $259 with a $50 cashback, this printer is fairly short but has a large footprint, and supported duplex printing/scanning. Requires a number of ink cartridges that were fairly expensive. Interesting, one salesperson said that the MX727 is an old model and going to be phased out. Canon consumables are widely available though.

Canon Maxify MB5370: quite a bit more expensive at $459 with a $70 cashback but featuring real office-type functionality, including single pass duplex scanning. Fairly tall unit, using fewer ink cartridges of a different type than the Pixma series that seemed cheaper and also slightly more ink capacity too.

Brother MFC-J2720: average-priced at $368, pretty compact, duplex everywhere, average-priced ink cartridges that were available at stores, capable of printing A3 even. This was initially on the top of my list and I nearly decided on it – but stopped short when I couldn’t readily find manufacturer photo paper for it. Gaah.

Epson L550: average-priced at $359, and after nearly an hour of indecision, that’s what we settled on.

The Epson L550!

The Epson L550!

Why the L550 though? First comments after two evenings of setup and use to print 50+ photos on premium photo paper, and starting off with its limitations and what we didn’t like:

No duplex printing or scanning.

Primitive and ancient-looking 1980s monochrome LCD screen.

Somewhat old model from two years ago.

Does not support borderless printing, or rather, I haven’t found the setting for it. Ling doesn’t mind though and in fact prefers the prints with white borders.

Very slow printer setup. The ink took 20 minutes to initialize, and if that wasn’t bad enough, the excruciatingly slow software installation took another 30 minutes. Or maybe the installation got stuck somewhere without my realization.

Noisy. The L550 printing was like monkeys hammering away on conga drums. Laser printers aren’t noiseless of course, but I guess we’ve been spoiled by the M255z’s relatively silent operation.

And on the other hand:

Stunningly beautiful photo prints, especially at the highest quality settings and using Epson’s best photo paper. Ling took one look at our first A4 photo printouts of Hannah and Peter, and said “Worth every cent!”

Three of our first A4 photo printers. Beautifully rendered colors that look very professionally printed,

Three of our first A4-sized photos. Beautifully rendered colors that look professionally printed.

Very cheap ink. Epson has come up with a clever ink tank system that not only requires just 3 colors (apart from Black), but is refillable at extremely low cost. The printer came bundled with a complete set of fully-filled inks each costing about S$10 for about 70ml volume, and two additional black bottles even – and between them are rated to churn between 4,000-6,000 color pages. That’s cheap ink and able to print a crazy amount of material. In fact, I seriously doubt that we’d ever need to buy ink anymore – the printer will probably die out first LOL.

Cyan ink cartridge. $9.90 and 70ml volume. Cheap!

Cyan ink cartridge. $9.90 and 70ml volume. Cheap!

Recommend that you peel off the protective sticker in a single (slow) motion, unless you want ink on your fingers!

Recommend that you peel off the protective seal in a single (slow) motion, unless you want ink on your fingers!

Affordable manufacturer 4R photo papers. A stack of 30 Premium Semigloss (251g/m²) costs $7.30 and is available at most places – which works out to a competitive price of about 24 cents per print. The A4 photo papers are a little harder to find, so I’ll have to snap them up when I do find them!

A couple of niggling albeit minor issues too that I’ve developed workarounds.

Photoshop Elements/printer driver doesn’t properly switch between landscape and portrait picture orientations. A batch print job comprising a mix of both resulted in printing errors. The temporary workaround was to reset print area whenever switching between orientations.

Out of the 50+ prints I churned out, one print job canceled on its own, ejected the half-printed photo, then re-did the print one more time. Weird.

All, in – this looks like a great purchase, and Hannah is already getting her favorite pictures printed for her own personal 4R photo album that she can bring around to show off.:)

Edit 5 Aug: Good read here about Epson’s EcoTank printers.

Beef stew slow roasted italian 4 blogOf all the beef stew recipes I have tried over the past few years, none of them consistently results in moist, tender beef with a reasonably full-bodied broth.

I tried using both chuck tender cuts and stew meat cuts for the stew. Results were hit-or-miss kinda thing and most of the time I  ended up serving dry meats. I almost wanted to give up until I chanced upon a lovely food blog which featured their Italian beef stew.

Although red wine is found in the recipe, using red grape juice as substitute can still produces a yummy stew that is worthy to be served to guests. Yang is a teetotaler and I don’t drink wine as a beverage at home. Hence, not having to add wine to the stew is a big plus.

Now, the recipe still uses chuck tender cuts and I decided to try out a different cut, shin of beef, after reading up on Delia’s recommendation based on her mom’s recipe and knowing my MIL’s preferred cut for her Chinese-styled beef soup. So, gotta listen to your mothers. LOL :)

Finally, I’m so glad to see that tomatoes have no place in the broth. Me thinks the taste of tomato complicates the taste of a hearty beef stew.

At last, moist, tender beef cubes in delicious broth! Ahhh, my search has come to an end. I have a beef stew which I could call my own and feel like a great cook whenever this dish is served.

Credits must go to Donna and Chad from The Slow Roasted Italian for sharing the recipe with the world. :D Below is the recipe modified to suit our family’s tastebuds. It’s a perfect one-dish meal served with steamed white Jasmine rice.

Ingredients (serves 2 adults & 2 toddlers)
• 450 g beef shin – trim fats, sinews/silvery white outer layer, cut into 1.5” cubes
• 2 tbsp all-purpose flour
• ½ tsp paprika
• ½ tsp coarse ground black pepper
• 1 tsp salt, divided (to taste)
• 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
• 1 tbsp unsalted butter
• 1 shallot, diced
• 1 garlic clove, minced
• 2 cups home-cooked chicken stock (unsalted)
• 1/2 cup red grape juice
• 1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
• ½ tsp dried Italian herbs seasoning (I think this is important to the overall taste)
• 4 large carrots, peeled and chopped into chunks (becos’ there’s a rabbit in Yang. JK. Seriously, forget about potatoes. Carrots complement this dish better.)
• fresh parsley to garish, optional

1. Trim hard fat (which does not melt during the cooking process) and silver skin (white and silvery looking) from beef shin and cut into 1.5″ cubes. It takes about 5 minutes, but don’t skip this step. It is so worth it.

2. Combine flour, paprika, pepper and ½ tsp salt in a medium ziplock bag. Seal and shake to combine. Add beef and shake until well coated.

3. Warm olive oil in a French oven over medium low heat (to avoid burnt meat), once you can feel warmth when holding your hand 6 inches from the pot, add butter.

4. Once butter has melted, remove beef from flour and shake gently to remove loose flour. Place coated beef in the French oven, one piece at a time and then brown on all sides. Cook in two batches. Turn pieces until all sides are browned and remove them and set aside in a bowl. Once the first batch is cooked, add the second batch and repeat. Remember, watch the heat. Don’t let the meat burn as the French oven can heat up quickly.

5. Meanwhile, prepare shallot and garlic. Shallot should be diced and garlic minced. Set aside.

6. Once all beef is browned and removed, add shallots and garlic. Cook until translucent. Add grape juice and deglaze by scraping up the browned bits at the bottom of the oven. Add chicken stock, Worchestershire and Italian seasoning. Stir to combine. Return beef to the pot. Cover and bring to a boil. Once boiling, reduce to simmer and cover. Allow soup to simmer for 1.5 hours.

7. Meanwhile, prepare carrots and set aside.

8. After about 1.5 hr of simmering, add carrots. Stir to coat vegetables and cover. Cook for another 30 minutes or until carrots are fork tender. Taste broth. If necessary, add additional salt to taste (mine needed ½ tsp).

About done :D

About done :D

9. Garnish with fresh parsley if desired. Serve hot with steamed white Jasmine rice. Bon appétit! :D

Tuck in!

Tuck in!

p.s. French oven is preferred for its even heat distribution.