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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!

 

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.

eBay – Part 2

Putting aside the time it takes for items from sellers based in China to get delivered, most of my eBay transactions have been problem-free. That said, one problematic purchase is already one too many. Hence, there are a couple of things I’m routinely mindful of whenever I buy something off eBay:

The Positive Feedback rating for business sellers is a first indication. More importantly also are the written comments made by the business’ customers and whether their feedback is responded to/acted on. It’s bad enough if there’s sufficient negative feedback to warrant concern. Much worse if the seller does not seem to care enough to reply to that feedback.

The expected delivery time. I’ve noticed that some sellers, especially those based in China, state very long delivery periods to this part of the world, despite that we’re all in Asia. For instance, a typical delivery period quoted is 20-35 days. Now, even if you’re not in a hurry for the item and can accept the length of this window, there’s a bigger problem: that buyers typically also have a limited window to raise a purchase dispute. I’ve had two occasions over the years where the delivery window was as long as the above, and when the item failed to arrive timely, the seller begged for an extension before I raise a dispute. I gave the benefit of doubt on both occasions – and when the items still had not arrive, the deadline to raise a dispute similarly sailed right past too.

Now, sellers do not like disputes being raised, even if they are resolved amicably – as I believe it affects their overall seller reputation. Still – because of those two experiences, I’ve learned not to hesitate to initiate a purchase dispute the instant the item does not get delivered within the promised period. Raising one such at least gives us as buyers more time to see if the item finally does arrive and to cancel the dispute then.

To raise a dispute, you’d need to have first paid using a payment system that supports such though. Last I checked, Paypal disputes have to be opened within 45 days after payment – something to keep in mind! The vast majority of business sellers support Paypal, while a few private sellers – e.g. those who are shipping from Singapore – want direct bank transfers. Be warned though: going with the latter means you have zero protection in case items do not arrive. You could try Cash on Delivery in such cases, but only hand over the cash after you’ve inspected the device and are fully satisfied with it. Don’t expect refunds of any kind if you handed over cash and find later that you’ve bought a lemon.

Most items listed on sale at eBay Singapore have delivery charges to our island clearly stated – e.g. either as a separate charge, or already included in the item price. If you venture outside our country market to access an even larger of items, do especially check for delivery costs.

Similarly, don’t feel compelled to immediately leave (positive) feedback as soon as the item has arrived. Give it a couple of days to make sure that the item is indeed working properly. Case in point: a PS4 Remote Controller I bought worked for all of 1 day – after which no amount of cajoling could revive it. Thankfully it was a pretty low price item! While it seems possible to still open a dispute after you’ve submitted feedback, I’ve always reckoned that it’s better to contact the seller directly to resolve any problems ahead of feedback submission.

And finally, in reference to lenses and camera bodies; do check to see if the supplied warranties are from manufacturer or from the seller itself. The latter for grey market equipment is common, and in my opinion, not worth much if the seller is out of the country. And it’s because the cost of packing fragile equipment and delivery charges can add quite a bit to the overall cost of repair. That said, I’ve never actually had grey market camera equipment – whether from eBay or Amazon – fail on me before within warranty periods. Still – I reckon most buyers will want a grey market item to be significantly cheaper than recommended local retail prices before giving it serious consideration.

 

eBay – Part 1

There are plenty of Internet-based ecommerce sites today that support consumer/business to consumer sales transactions. And while I have accounts on a large number of sites, the two that I find myself buying most from remain Amazon and eBay. Between the two, I’ve been on Amazon for much longer – since 2002 in fact, with my first order on that site comprising several research and dissertation writing books I bought to bring along to Perth – and the site remains my favorite place to access a large range of items that aren’t normally sold in Singapore, or sold here but at higher prices. I reckon that’s why Amazon’s reported plans to expand to  South-East Asia and through Singapore excited many here, since it would finally bring to shore Amazon Prime, and also – likely – cheaper delivery.

That said, the number of items I buy off eBay are almost as many as that on Amazon. My first purchase on eBay was from 2008 – and a camera product LOL. The range of items sold on eBay run a crazy range, and it can often be hard trying to find exactly what you want, since each of its country market can offer a different range, with many items typically available from multiple sellers at different prices. With a large roster of international sellers also brings about issues of varying customer quality service levels. Over the years, my general impressions are that:

Sellers from the dominantly western-countries (e.g. UK, US, Australia) offer great service, though you sometimes pay slightly more for shipping. I’ve never had to raise a dispute with sellers based in these countries. Shipping is also often quick, with the turnaround from UK-based ones especially impressive.

Sellers from South Korea: normally quite good too, and I typically get my lens filters from them. Delivery is reasonably quick: usually a fortnight.

Sellers from China: are a huge hit and miss. I’ve received counterfeit items before with their sellers flying aeroplane (‘disappear’ for our Ang Mo bud!) thereafter. Items can take anywhere between a fortnight to six whopping weeks to arrive. On the other hand, their products are often priced lower, and shipping is typically free/incorporated into the cost of the product, or minimal.

Here’s a list of things I’ve ordered recently on eBay that I’m pretty happy about at least.

Leather belts. Alright – so most men do not really care to spend money on apparel. I’ve had pretty bad experiences with under $35 belts that I buy from brick/mortar stores here, with most fraying on the edges within weeks, and the belt material also beginning to disintegrate shortly after that. I assume it’s because the material isn’t genuine but faux leather. I found a UK-based reseller of leather and sheepskin products, and their prices for genuine leather products are routinely cheaper than what one would pay here. And the item takes just a week from point of ordering to arriving in Singapore.

Battery cases and pouches. There’s been revised regulations concerning the transportation of Lithium-Ion batteries on board airplanes, and largely to do with risks of them causing undetected fires. AA battery cases are easily available at camera shops, and I found a seller carrying colorful ones like these, and selling them for cheap at just over a dollar each including shipping. So, a couple were picked up:

How about camera battery wallets? Think Tank sells a pricey version of a 4 battery wallet (USD18!). While on eBay, an almost similar replica can be had for $5:

Four pouch camera battery wallet.

And lens filters! Granted, it’s tempting, and sometimes maybe even necessary, to get a UV filter as soon as you buy a new lens. But if it can wait, then you might save a few dollars by just buying them online. Important though that you get from a reputable reseller, as there are plenty of fakes around.

I’ve been buying from the same South-Korean reseller of Hoya filters for several years now.

More in the next post!

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!

Accessorizing the m4/3s – 2017 Update

Temporary break from the series of GX85 posts and to write about something still related to photography – accessories!

I’ve done a couple of posts on accessories for the m4/3 cameras, with the last one more than a year ago. So, it’s time for an early 2017 edition again, and concentrating on wrist straps this time.

Wrist Straps

Cameras are fragile things, and if you’re using an interchangeable lens camera, they are also not exactly always light either. Sling straps are great when you’re shooting on the move but I tend not to keep them on the camera when I’m taking pictures of our kids at home. That’s where wrist straps become real important, and all the cameras I own routinely will have one permanently attached to the camera lug:

Not the new GX85 (extreme left) though, since I was waiting for a new strap to arrive. My four m4/3 cameras (excepting the E-PL2 which is still sitting in the dry cabinet) like ducks in a row: the GX85, E-PL6, E-M1 and E-M5.

I’ve tried several brands of wrist straps now, including the:

Herringbone Leather Handgrip – which is great for heavy DSLRs but too large for smaller m4/3 cameras;

Gordy Camera Straps – which are fine but I have one which is tripod-mount: bad idea as it causes all sorts of balance challenges with my cameras;

Andy Camera Straps – similar to Gordy’s but at a lower price point, and I bought several of the lug-mounted ones over the years. While their web site is still live, I’m not sure if he’s still in business. An email request to custom-make a new strap some months ago went unanswered.

Leather straps are comfortable to use, and there’s little chance of them breaking. In fact, I reckon the metal split ring is likely to give way first in a stress test! Years of use have also made the leather straps supple and soft, but the edges have also started fraying a little. And the straps have a tendency to curl up and get in front of the lens if you don’t have them already coiled around your wrist when fishing the camera out for a quick picture. I’ve missed a couple of potentially great shots with the kids as I had to shoo the strap out of the frame!

So, after some scouting around, I found a UK-based maker of camera straps that uses weaved Parachute Cord. They’re priced lower than Andy/Gordy camera leather straps, and at SGD18 to SGD20 each including postage to Singapore. The web site offers some customization too; different braid colors and wristband size. I ordered one Classic Duo type strap, liked it, and ordered two more. Pictures:

Three Camera Duo straps. Woodland Camo/Burgundy attached to the E-M1, Black/Marine Blue, and Red/Olive at the bottom of the picture. The latter two just arrived too.

Wrist loop at the woven eyelet for the Woodland Camo/Burgundy.

Intricately woven Black/Marine Blue. Makes for fun pictures using my macro lens too!

Each strap comes with a rubber bumper and a metal split ring that you connect to the camera lug. The bumper protects the split ring from damaging the camera side. It seems a pretty standard inclusion for straps that connect to camera lugs.

The Woodland Camo/Burgundy with 20cm wristband. It’s just slightly large for my wrist, so persons with smaller hands might want to opt for the 18cm wristband. Unlike leather straps, paracord straps are also easier to secure around your wrist. In the former case, you’d need to adjust the strap’s rubber O-ring – which you can only do with a spare hand. For Cordweaver straps, all you need to do is to pull your wrist away from the camera body for the strap to loop tightly around your wrist.

Like the Jorby sling strap, these wrist straps can also loop around a long lens barrel for easy storage and packing into a camera bag. So – quite happy with these purchases. Hopefully these straps are washable too.:)