The Meike MK320F for the Fujifilm cameras arrived yesterday. The Chinese company has an online store, and the MK320 Speedlite is also available through places like Lazada. You’d likely going to get it cheaper off eBay though. There are numerous resellers of this particular flashgun and for different mounts, though the usual caveats and cautions apply when buying anything off eBay. Hmm. I reckon I should do a post soon on the hits/misses I’ve had buying items off eBay over these several years now!

The ordering and delivery from my eBay reseller went without a hitch though, and it took just over a week for it to arrive via registered post, and substantially cheaper than what I’d paid through Lazada resellers or in-store in Singapore. Some early impressions:

The unit comes packed in a tightly-fitted box, with the flash gun protected snugly with molded dense foam. Not quite the norm, and it affords a high degree of protection for the flashgun while in shipping.

Flash gun seems well-constructed with no loose parts. The buttons provide reassuring clicks when pressed. Oddly though, it’s possible to mount the flash gun the wrong way onto the camera’s hotshoe without one realizing it quickly, so some caution is necessary.

The battery compartment snaps open with a light press of the latch. Pretty convenient compared to the usual battery sliding hatch common in other flash guns. My Metz flash gun’s battery slider broke after two years of fairly light use. The MK320 seems better engineered to withstand similar abuse.

Flash recycling time feels somewhat quicker than the Nissin i40 though I suspect it also has to do with the unit permitting shots to be fired even when the flash has not been fully recharged.

The unit permits swiveling 60 degrees left and 90 degrees right. Not as generous as the Nissin i40 which permits 180 degree swiveling – very useful for bounced flash shots where you have to point the camera/flash gun downwards.

No zoom head, so the light angle is fixed. I’m fine with it though since it’s married to the X70 and the latter’s fixed lens anyway.

Like the i40, the MK320’s Sto-fen-styled omnibounce diffuser comes supplied with the flash gun, and while it snaps onto the flash head, isn’t especially tightly fitted. It won’t take much for the diffuser to be knocked off.

The flash output seems a little off when set to TTL, and specifically less than expected. Might be something to do with that the flash control is different from Olympus, which I’m very used to. The i40 also throws out more light at its maximum setting than the MK320 – it’s GN 40 vs GN 32.

Micro-USB charging port is a terrific inclusion, though that it’s intended for a 1A charging. I tried several chargers which exceed that suggested charging current and the batteries felt super-heated after a while.

The instructional manual is in English and riddled with language errors. Not bad enough for you to not understand how to use the unit, but language QC is clearly not on par.

All in, it’s a pretty decent flash gun but I don’t think it surpasses the Nissin i40 in its versatility. That said, the LCD screen and USB charging are very nice touches. One has to keep in mind that the MK320 costs about a third of the i40’s price, and for what I paid, I reckon I can’t complain too much!

Unboxing the unit, and it's as chokeful of goodies as the Nissn i40.

Unboxing the unit, and it’s as full of goodies as the Nissin i40.

Very nifty LCD panel at the rear of the MK320. Pretty unusual inclusion for a flashgun at this price point.

Very nifty LCD panel at the rear of the MK320. Pretty unusual inclusion for a flashgun at this price point.

A micro-USB port for charging... on a flashgun. Amazing!

A micro-USB port for charging… on a flashgun.

The LCD display shows the current charging status, alongside also the green indicator.

The LCD display shows the current charging status, alongside also the green light indicator.

The MK320 sitting atop the X70. Pretty top-heavy and somewhat unbalanced.

The MK320 sitting atop the X70. Pretty top-heavy and somewhat unbalanced.

Light yet powerful flashgun units for my two primary cameras now.

Light yet powerful flashgun units for my two primary cameras now.

After another week of pretty intensive use of the new Aftershock S17, my summary takeaway is that it’s a machine that’s for the most-part well-worth – and even some part beyond – the very reasonable price paid for it. The machine runs briskly and handles well stuff within my scope of use (daily work productivity, and a bunch of other current 3D video games thrown at it), typing on the keyboard is a real pleasure, and the machine’s brushed metal all-round cover has put up to heavy use well so far. The annoyances I noted in the previous post though – low and weak-sounding output speakers, and a not very bright screen – are still present. The former isn’t a factor if one plugs in headphones and the like, but the latter is something to be really mindful of.

I was big on running computing and 3D benchmarks years ago when I was habitually tearing down my desktop PCs and reassembling new ones a few times each year. Of late though given how long the in-betweens are now when it comes to disassembling PCs (something like once every 2 years only), I rarely run benchmarks to to see how precisely well is a computer performing, outside ballpark intuitive sensing of whether a computer is performing the way it should. So, this post here is really just for fun and not nearly as scientifically conducted as some of the other enthusiast or gearhead sites out there.

Starting off with work/productivity benchmarks, and running the CrystalDiskMark for the Samsung Evo 850 M.2 250GB:

On the Aftershock S17.

On the Aftershock S17.

That’s about – in the ballpark – what the Evo 850 churns. Just for fun, here are the ratings for my other two notebooks that I use everyday.

On the Dell XPS 13.

On the Dell XPS 13 – which uses the Samsung PM851 M.2 256GB SSD.

On the Surface Pro 3.

On the Surface Pro 3.

 

PCMark 8 Home/Free edition.

PCMark 8 Home/Free edition.

For the 3D benchmarks next; Gsync was switched off, everything else – CPU/GPU performance levels left as they are, and benchmark quality settings set to default:

Unigine 4.0.

3DMark

3DMark

I’m not much of a 3D video gamer as I’m particularly susceptible to bouts of nausea. Typically, 5 to 10 minutes in a first or third person perspective setting is sufficient to induce vertigo, give or take a bit more time depending on other perspective aspects – e.g. motion blur, screen reflections, head-bobbing, frame rate etc. Quite a pity, since until very recently, video game design and development was one of my primary areas at work – and some of the most interesting stuff from a technological standpoint at least is typically in games that deploy first and third person perspectives.

So, it was quite a pleasant surprise that somehow, nausea inducement was less immediate when running and experiencing the same games on the Aftershock S17. A game like the critically acclaimed The Witcher 3 had been sitting in my digital shelf for almost 8 months now. 5 minutes of that on my usual desktop PC with a 27″ monitor would normally be enough to force me to lie down for the next couple of hours. But I’ve been able to – finally – get through longer periods of about 30 minutes per seating  on the S17. I’ve been really wondering what’s the reason for it – since the Nvidia GTX960 on the desktop PC can run content as well as the S17’s GTX980m. The only differences I think are the smaller screen on the S17 (17.3″ against 27″) and also that it’s non-reflective. Something to think about!

Getting the Aftershock S17 might seemed like an impulsive decision, but it has really been longer in gestation than just a few weeks. A good part of that lied in that I have been wanting to move my main location of work at home from out of our work room to the dining/living room areas, especially at least in the early evenings. Part of it has to do with that our work room tables aren’t as deep as I like to permit outstretched legs – yes I slouch like a bum when I type away on the PC – but just as importantly I’d like to also keep an eye on our kids in the couple of hours each evening after dinner whey they run around the living and dining areas.

Aftershock as in the local company is just two years old, but they’ve been making news headway in technological enthusiast circles here for being a well-regarded reseller of Clevo notebooks. An Aftershock notebook now won’t be my first Clevo notebook though. One such machine ordered from and shipped to Singapore was the American-based Clevo reseller Sager, and that machine was my workhorse computer over the years I spent on my doctoral degree in Perth. The primary benefits of Clevo notebooks today were the same back then, that they are primarily enthusiast machines that allow for Musings extreme customization and at a price-point that’s often cheaper than equally spec-ed notebooks from mainstream manufacturers. So, a 15″ notebook, 16GB RAM, 6th generation i7, 120GB SSD, and the GTX970m GPU would cost about $2.1K as configured on Aftershock – compared to likely around $2.6K from a mainstream manufacturer.

So, the S17 I configured had these key specs:

i7-6700HQ processor

GTX980M 8GB DDR

17.3 FullHD Wide Gamut display with Gsync

16GB DDR4 RAM

Samsung Evo 850 M.2 250GB SSD

The interesting bits above include that the GTX980M – the fastest mobile-version of Nvidia’s offerings (the desktop variant of the GPU in a laptop notwithstanding) – has 8GB rather than 4 GB RAM embedded as routinely offered by competing notebooks, the GSync screen, and also the Samsung Evo M.2 SSD, one of the fastest SSDs at this fairly bargain price-point. The stock configuration also included a 1TB 2.5″ hard drive that I dropped off for a $50 offset. The notebook was ordered at the recent ITShow event @ Suntec City where there were some minor discounts applied and also a couple of other freebie items thrown in too.

The overall experience of ordering and collecting the S17 was what just about every Aftershock customer has said: quick, painless, and giving off that techno-geek/enthusiast vibe all around. Unlike most manufacturers of notebooks, Clevo notebooks – like Dell’s – are routinely assembled only on the point of ordering, though as my configuration wasn’t too different from their stock S17s, any further-on customization wouldn’t have taken much additional time. So, ordered on Thursday, collected on Sunday 3 days later at Aftershock’s ‘HQ’ office – which was really an industrial-type building along Bendemeer Road. One noteworthy point too: the Aftershock staff from ordering to collection throughout were pretty much all young geek-looking adults who obviously like what they do. Not quite the same typical experience of ordering from more middle-aged salespersons at Courts, Harvey Norman etc whom on more than one occasion I chuckled at their misunderstandings of some aspect of technology or computing.

So, initial thoughts of the S17:

The thing is h e a v y. If you could foist it up to shoulder height, you could conceivably give someone a real concussion if you swung it at someone’s head! The thing is well-built enough for it to be used as a bludgeoning weapon. The S17, sans power brick, weighs 3.1kg – the heaviest notebook I’ve had so far, with the Dell XPS 16 coming in close at 3.05kg.

The footprint of the device is massive. It literally occupies twice the space of the Dell XPS 13.

The power brick is larger than a Samsung Note 5.

I opted out of chassis customization and paint-jobs, going with the default black brushed metal external case. It looks pretty nice and is cool to touch. Some persons have pointed out that the default case is prone to finger-prints, and also nicks and scratches if you don’t take care of the case though. Something to be mindful of.

The wide-gamut GSYNC screen deploys the full HD resolution of 1920×1080. That’s my preferred resolution for monitors at this screen size. The QHD and 4K screens sound nice on paper, but it causes havoc for Windows given how sloppy it handles scaling. And it’s not as though current mobile GPUs can easily run 3D content on 4K resolutions anyway. Viewing angles are pretty good, though I’ve been thoroughly spoiled by the deep contrasts and brightness of the Macbook Pro Retina and Dell XPS 13. Simply put, the S17 matte screen suffices, but it’s not as nearly attractive to use as screens on those two recent notebooks.

Zero bloatware. Not that it would have mattered anyway, because the first thing I did at home was to wipe everything on the notebook and restore to a pristine Windows 10 state, and manually install only drivers and the most important monitoring applications.

The keyboard features good key travel and minimal flex.

Machine responds well under load (so far) with good heat dissipation. The OS updates caused an audible spinning of fans to keep the i7 CPU cool, but it wasn’t loud enough to be annoying. 3D loads also resulted in some minor perceivable warmth on the left side of the keyboard, but the right side remained relatively cool to touch. And the bottom of the chassis was almost cold even – amazing.

The Onkyo speakers are disappointing. While the S17 features the Creative Soundblaster X-Fi sound processing, the speaker output lacks bass and sufficient volume. I was simultaneously refreshing the old Dell XPS 16, and that 5 year old notebook dished out speaker audio that’s leaps ahead of the S17.

The Aftershock S17.

The Aftershock S17.

Beside my Dell XPS 13. Brightness and contrast on the S17 doesn't quite match up to the XPS 13.

Beside my Dell XPS 13. Brightness and contrast on the S17 doesn’t quite match up to the XPS 13.

Twice as large as the XPS 13!

Twice as large as the XPS 13!

Left-side ports: air vents, USB 3.0, HDMI, and two display ports.

Left-side ports: air vents, USB 3.0, HDMI, and two display ports.

Right-side: Kensington-type notebook lock socket, LAN port, SD Card slot, two more USB ports, and the usual audio ports.

Right-side: Kensington-type notebook lock socket, LAN port, SD Card slot, two more USB ports, and the usual audio ports.

The Aftershock logo emblazoned on the brushed aluminum top.

The Aftershock logo emblazoned on the brushed metal top.

The keyboard deck. Some minimal flex experienced, but not nearly enough to be annoying.

The keyboard deck. Some minimal flex experienced, but not nearly enough to be annoying.

The large and heavy power brick.

The large and heavy power brick.

More comments and maybe benchmarks in the next post!

 

Another four years since my 2012 post on notebooks, and the 2008 before that. Right about time to do another update, since there’s been a whole bunch of machines since that point. Here’s what the table looks like now:

Manufacturer Model From To Screen CPU Type OS
1. Toshiba Satellite Pro 1997 2000 12″ Pentium Full-featured Win 95
2. Dell Inspiron 3000 1999 2000 14″ Pentium Full-featured Win 98 SE
3. IBM Thinkpad 240X 2001 2001 10.4″ Pentium III Ultraportable Win 98 SE
4. Toshiba Protege 3000 2001 2002 11.1″ Pentium III Ultraportable Win 98 SE
5. HP Omnibook 500 2002 2004 12.1″ Pentium III Ultraportable Win XP
6. Sager 5650 2003 2005 15″ Pentium IV Full-featured / Gaming Win XP
7. Acer Travelmate 3001 2005 2007 12″ Pentium M Ultraportable Win XP
8. Dell XPS M1210 2007 2008 12″ Core 2 Duo Ultraportable / Gaming Vista
9. IBM Thinkpad T60 2007 2011 14″ Core 2 Duo Full-featured Win XP
10. NEC Versa E6310 2008 2010 14″ Core 2 Duo Full-featured / Gaming Vista
11. MSI Wind U100 2008 2013 10″ Atom Netbook Win XP
12. Apple MacBook Pro 13 2009 2012 13.3″ Core 2 Duo Full-featured iOS
13. Dell Studio XPS 16 2010 16″ i5 m460 Full-featured Win 7
14. Apple MacBook Pro 15 2011 2015 15″ Core 2 Duo Full-featured iOS
15. Samsung N305 2012 11.6″ AMD Dual Core Netbook Win 7
16. Apple MacBook Pro Retina 2012 2015 15″ Quadcore Full-featured iOS
17. Asus Zenbook UX31E 2013 13.3″ i5-2557M Ultrabook Win 7
18. Microsoft Surface Pro 3 2015 12″ i5-4300U Tablet hybrid Windows 8.1
19. Dell XPS 13 2015 13.3″ i7-5500U Full-featured Windows 8.1
20. HP Pavilion 15 p257TX 2015 15.6″ i7-5500U Full-featured Windows 8.1

Entries 17 to 20 are new since the 2012 post. Here’s the reckoning, notes, updates and whatnots for these and others:

  • #11 MSI Wind U100: Traded this in for a refurbished Asus Zenbook UX31E (#17) a couple years ago.
  • #13 Dell Studio XPS 13: Ling used it for a couple of years – the laptop still has an amazing screen and was very fast-performing especially after I did that home upgrade to an SSD. The keyboard however has gone kaput, as is also the power adapter. The notebook is currently now in cold storage. I’ll have to find some time to disassemble and salvage what I can from it later this year.
  • #14 Apple Macbook Pro 15: office notebook that was returned last year.
  • #15 Samsung N305: still going on great and currently used by parents at Lentor , and I recently bumped the OS from Windows 7 to 10.
  • #16 Apple MacBook Pro Retina: Ran great for the first year, had a motherboard failure immediately after the first year of warranty ended, begged for and got a repair waiver, and the laptop continued having issues last year. Finally stabilized it, and had it traded in.
  • #17 Asus  Zenbook UX31E: a fairly lightweight ultrabook with premium build. Bought it at bargain bin refurbished prices. The processor is a little slow though, as is also the SSD that doesn’t run nearly at typical SSD speeds.  I’ll probably sell it away soon.
  • #18 Microsoft Surface Pro 3: great screen and lovely little machine that I use in the bedroom every night, but the 4GB RAM is barely adequate to run Windows 10.
  • #19 Dell XPS 13: my current workhorse laptop. Beautiful screen though with some light bleeding at the screen edges, comfortable typing, though I don’t quite like the carbon fiber wrap.
  • #20 HP Pavilion 15: Ling’s home notebook that was picked up last year too.

I’ve been continuing to keep an eye on the Aftershock notebooks, and they sure look tempting – the more so given their very attractive price points. Perhaps one will be in my purchase radar soon!

I’ve mostly stayed clear of virtual reality headgear, on account that the few I’ve tried in the last couple of years have invariably induced massive bouts of vertigo within minutes. I’ve also found these head mounted gadgets massively discomforting, to say nothing that I’ve not found them to work well with the current prescription spectacles that I wear.

That said; the current hot name in wearable VR devices now is Oculus, and they have a device that has long been in gestation – the Oculus Rift – with the consumer version finally to be available sometime this year. The Oculus Rift is expected to cost a pretty penny and I’m not prepared to throw half a thousand moola on the this. Which is why I was especially intrigued by the recently released Samsung Gear VR – which goes about providing for consumer-level VR experiences at a pretty attractive price-point.

The Gear VR has garnered quite a bit of interest here, and Samsung (Singapore) has spared no expense in marketing their product. The Gear VR is carried widely in the Samsung Experience stores in many places on the island, alongside also in smaller demo areas in the large consumer electronic chains like Best Denki. So, I paid $148 for one such device over the weekend at the Parkway Parade Experience store, and here are my bunch of first comments on it after playing around with it intensively over the last day.

samsungVR-01

The product works as advertised.The product is compatible with the most recent generation of Samsung smartphones, and no other accessory is required for it to start working. Getting it to work with my Samsung Note 5 was also painless. Apart from installing the requisite Oculus/Samsung apps onto, the smartphone easily connected to the headset via the micro USB port, snapped in place onto the two device holders, and I was all set.

The device fits snugly on the head, more so if you also use the head strap. The visor’s cavity is deep enough for my pair of glasses. The front focus adjustment wheel permits you to adjust the optimum eye focusing point, though I found myself having to adjust it each time the visor shifted.

You need a good pair of headphones to complete the experience. The device’s holders do not impede using the headphone jack, so a wireless headphone set isn’t mandatory.

Interesting content. I’ve tried/purchased quite a few of the VR apps/games at this point, and there are some that provides for a really immersive experience. Of particular note are these three:

Jurassic World Apatosaurus – where you come nose to nose with a lumbering dinosaur… that looks very real, even with one as normally jaded with CG as I am. The app is fairly short at just a few minutes, but it’s an amazing couple of minutes.

Ocean Rift – paid app, but there’s a free demo version for one to try out. Each setting has a particular marine wildlife for you to find and interact with, and you can swim about in each setting too. Can take a while for you to find the critter though, and the app doesn’t feature more than one wildlife type in each setting.

Eve: Gunjack – paid app. This VR turret game was one of those that was loaded at the Samsung Gear VR devices at the demo shops, and it’s pretty much the kind of game genre that will sell VR devices like these. It’s visually impressive enough and gameplay is straight forward (i.e. shoot at oncoming alien ships) with increasing tactical challenges as the levels advance.

I’ll write more on other apps along the way. Of the couple of issues I have with the device so far though:

The touchpad on the right side of the device is finicky. The first couple of days’ use will likely see many users accidentally pressing the touchpad.

The thing sucks battery power like no tomorrow. There is a micro USB charging port on the headset itself though which helps heaps, though you won’t want cables dangling from the headset when you’re trying to experience full 360 degree content.

The viewing experience is still somewhat pixelated. Not much of an issue for typical moving visuals, but you can see jagged edges in text displays. If there was ever a need for 4K resolutions on smartphone, here is it!

Below picture says it all. Yeah I know the device is not intended for kids under 13, so we’ve only been letting Hannah try it for a few minutes!

samsungVR-02

 

I was once in the habit of reviewing films and books several (or maybe many?) years ago here on this blog, and did so for a couple of years. That stopped after I concluded that while it was easy to comment briefly about something I saw or read, it was much harder to write thoughtful reviews worth the digital space it’d take up. I still watch a lot of films through video on demand subscriptions, DVD rental, blu-ray and in the cinema of course, and some really continue to impress – e.g. two recent Netflix TV series Narcos and Daredevil. And we’ve been binge-watching seasons of 24, with Ling lamenting that half the time the series “don’t have head or tail” since she’s often busying with housework and thus missing a lot of episodes in-between.

It was really hard to miss the hype train for Star Wars: The Force Awakens in the last 12 months, not when the daily Facebook feeds were filled with posts about J.J. Abrams forthcoming take on the venerable property. And I’d come right out to say it: I realized that there would be no pragmatic way for me to avoid all the buzz and predictions about story and character fates in the months on social media before the film’s release. The only way would be to go off Facebook altogether LOL. So, I gave up trying to avoid it, and ended up watching the theatrical screening of the completed film in December last year already pretty much knowing what was going to happen at most plot points. And yes – there were dedicated SW: TFA spoiler sites, and though one might scoff at them, they nailed an amazing number of predictions and photo leaks. I’d put their hit rate predictions at about 90% in fact.

I’m also one of many weirdos who after getting inducted into Star Wars-verse with the first film’s screening at the Odeon cinema in 1977, have continued to invest in the pop-culture phenomena, including owning the original trilogy on VHS tapes, VCDs (does anyone even remember those LOL), laser discs, DVD, and now finally blu-ray. And there’s also been the (many) books I’ve bought and read on it. So, since Star Wars has become a good part of my growing up, I figured I’d do a series of posts collecting some of my notes and thoughts on it! Starting off with the the new film, and then I’ll probably write about the other films, the books, and some of the merchandise.

I wasn’t going to cram with everybody else for the Day 1 opening of SW: TFA here in Singapore on the 17 Dec Thursday, and opted instead for an 18 Dec screening at Serangoon Nex. Truth to tell, it’s been a while since I’ve seen a cinema hall in Singapore sold-out like that evening. The audience was for the most part well-behaved, and unlike some of the other Day 1 screenings here and outside Singapore, there were scant cheers when the trademark scrawl opened the film, nor applause when John Williams’ signature Star Wars march brought on the end-credits.

star-wars-tfa-poster

Spoilers… spoilers… spoilers!

And the good bits for me:

The cast, right at the top of the list of things that I felt went well. Harrison Ford didn’t missed a beat in his return to one of his two most iconic roles (the one being a certain archaeologist with a fedora and a bull whip) as the sardonic one-time space pirate Han Solo. He has a few outright hilarious lines with Chewie, though all rib-tickling also leads one to wonder – in at least one case about Chewie’s weapon of choice – why he’s only making the jibe now and not 30 years earlier in the original trilogy. Of the three new young leads, Daisy Ridley displayed the widest emotional range and whose character arc seemed better fleshed out than the others, and especially in comparison to Oscar Issac’s Poe Dameron who spent more time in torture chambers and behind the cockpit controls of the newly stylized X-Wing fighters cheering the other Resistance pilots onward than having a real story told of his character.

The script, for the most part, though not the overarching plot. The banter’s cute, with Finn and Rey’s lines eliciting the most chuckles among the audience. Heck, maybe a bit too much even – and I wonder if Finn’s character was included in the story largely for laughs.

Minimal lens flare. And you have to see J.J. Abrams’ treatment of the two re-imagined Star Trek films to see what I mean here. In fact, the general Internet was so fearful of his overuse of digital lens flares that fan-made parodies of the teaser trailer were made – called ‘lens flare editions’. Thankfully, this was all dialed down for TFA, and the computer generated elements were nicely integrated into the film’s practical effects and real-world sets. Totally unlike the three prequel films, where the CG was pretty obvious everywhere it was used.

Lots of story and branching possibilities. Despite the film’s already longer than usual run-length of 135 minutes, there’s clearly a lot of subplots that were not concluded or characters’ agendas explored at this point. The Internet was buzzing with speculation on Rey’s real lineage after theatrical release, and it’d be no surprise that many of the secondary characters will be mined and fleshed out in literature in the coming years. E.g. Lor San Tekka on Jakku, Captain Phasma, and General Hux.

Lightsaber duels that look like real sword fights, and not gymnast show demos and kungfu bouts. As one Youtube channel quipped, the original trilogy duels were routinely like two geezers poking each other with walking sticks, and the prequel trilogy went the other extreme – totally incomprehensible with duelists flying and somersaulting in the air, though the bits where the Jedi were hurling machinery and furniture at each other was cool. The ferocity and energy exerted in each thrust and slash in TFA are apparent, and underlines the duel’s life or death intensity.

Some very impressive action set pieces, especially the dogfight on Jakku where the Millennium Falcon gets chased through the bowels of a ruined Star Star Destroyer.

Nice updates to vehicles, including the X-Wings, Tie-Fighters, land vehicles, and the dagger-shaped descendants of Star Destroyers.

No Ewoks, no Gungans, no Jar Jar Binks. ’nuff said LOL.

And the less impressive bits:

John Williams’ score – apart from the already very familiar opening and end-credits music, the score was for the most part nondescript.

The overarching plot being – essentially – a retread of Episode IV, albeit with some minor character variations and agendas. You have Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth replayed. The hero(ine) is from a desert backwater planet. You have the shadowy main villain and the more ominous ‘master’. You have the planet destroyer weapon, this time round deployed at a planetary system.

Same old protagonist, same old antagonist. Little seemed to have changed in the last 30 years in between trilogies..One would have thought that the galaxy would had been in total upheaval since the Emperor’s demise in Episode VI and the galaxy witnessed seismic changes. But heck no – it’s still the same two loggerheads going at it. The Empire is now The First Order, and the Rebellion is the Resistance. At best, unadventurous and worse, lazy writing in my opinion.

Needless character deaths, whose so-called emotional outcome could had been achieved just as well without killing the character.

But my biggest grip of the film was how little the new trilogy used  material or even drawn general ideas and themes from the Expanded Universe (EU). Granted that the latter is pretty convoluted now with all the published books, games and comic books prior to TFA, and Disney has come out to say they’re disregarding the EU. But there’s a lot of rich material there – and some of it is far more compelling than TFA’s newly developed continuing story and context. I’ll write more about this in the next couple of posts when I reflect on some of the EU books I’ve read and really liked.

More in the next post!

I’m only reminded again how quickly time zooms past when it’s time to do another year-end post summarizing our key purchasing decisions in the year. It only seems last month when I did the 2014 version of this annual post!

Dell XPS 13 – Win: an easy win for this purchase, since it’s become my daily work horse laptop. The laptop still looks as good as it did about a year on with nary a scratch on  the aluminum case. My only two quibbles with the XPS 13 is in the minor light bleed around the edges of its ‘infinity’-styled screen – guess I got a lousy unit upon notebook delivery – and also that I still don’t especially like the carbon fiber palm rests. Would have much preferred if the notebook had used the same aluminum material all round, like in the Macbooks.

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 – Win: this was picked up at about the same time as the XPS 13, and I’ve ended up using it a lot more at home than I’d thought – so much so that the exterior casing has gotten quite a few nicks. The tablet-notebook hybrid has accompanied us on two vacation trips now, and I recently picked up the new Surface Pro 4 type cover keyboard for it too – an accessory that provides a better speed typing platform than the older type cover. The machine’s 4GB RAM was initially sufficient when the Surface Pro 3 was running Windows 8.1, but ever since the upgrade to Windows 10, performance is noticeably more sluggish now. Note to self: if I get a replacement, get one with 8GB RAM!

Panasonic DMC-LX100 – Mixed: I never quite took to the LX100 the same way as I’ve liked using the older E-PL6, a similar-sized though also functionally very different compact m4/3 sensor camera. The camera is wonderfully featured, but was also finally quite soft in the corners wide-open, and I routinely found it easier to work to get the colors I wanted using RAW images out of the E-PL6 than the LX100. So, the LX100 got sold off a couple of months ago.

Nission i40 Flashgun for m4/3s – Win: much smaller and also more compact than the flashgun it replaced (the Metz 50AF-1). The flash is sturdily built, recharges quicker, and – aside from that Olympus’ TTL doesn’t quite typically throw up exactly the right amount of light as the Nikon speedlight flashguns did – has worked well otherwise. The only minor annoyance: the left real mode dial markings have almost all but faded off. Poor quality imprinting onto the rear dial I guess.

Mazda 3 – Win. We’ve adapted to our new 2015 ride, and have pretty much adjusted to the limitations of the vehicle compared to our old Nissan Latio – basically reduced leg head room spaces, and the absent footbrake. The car purls along with less effort than the Latio, even though the rated engine horsepower is identical. Though oddly, we ended up not using a lot of the vehicle’s nice features, including the sunroof, the Bluetooth connections, nor the built-in GPS maps (really not necessary with Google Maps).

Epson L550 Printer – Win… for the most part. I’ve printed several hundred A4 and 4R-sized photos for family, Hannah and our photo albums. The ink tanks are still more than half-full. Not unexpectedly, how well the print retains colors is dependent on both the photo paper used (Epson papers have worked much better on the L550 than another manufacturer’s!), and also display conditions, e.g. if the printed surface is exposed without protection. Of issues: the printer started making odd mechanical noises during print runs shortly after purchase, and from the sound of it, the print head its roller mechanism is impacting something in the printer’s innards. Aside from the din that makes, it doesn’t impact the print at all and can be solved by simply lifting the document feeder cover altogether by an inch or so. Still annoying nonetheless though.

Samsung Galaxy Note 5 – Win. Lovely phone with a stunning build and design. I’ve not typically used phones as personal audio players yet, but tried it out in the recent Club Med trip, and found that the device churns out audio quality that’s every bit as good as the Sony F886 Walkman I’ve been using for more than a year now. One less device to bring around now – hooray!

Philips Slow Juicer – Win. We’ve significantly cut-down on our usage of the Slow Juicer a month back after Ling read that too much juices was leading to sugar overdoses in our diets. Not through any fault of the Juicer of course.

Olympus E-M1 – Win. Handles quite differently compared to the E-M5, and also a much better camera body to use with the 40-150mm f2.8. Got it at a wonderful price point, and supports WIFI tethering too – which eliminates the need for separate remote controllers.

Olympus 12-40mm and 40-150mm f2.8s – Win. The 12-40mm has been heavily used since its purchase. I never quite expected to put the 40-150mm through similarly heavy use, but the recent Club Med Bintan trip proved that wrong. The lens’ responsiveness and handling, alongside how confidently it locked focus even in difficult lighting conditions, has assured that this lens will see a lot more use than the Sigma 70-200mm f2.8 I had for the old Nikon DSLR.

Legoland Malaysia – Win. Of the two short vacations we’ve had this year, neither were entirely free from issues, but the Legoland Malaysia one was far less problematic. The room was passable, trips to the theme park a lot of fun – though the cost of the trip wasn’t exactly low.

Club Med Bintan – Lose. This one was the real disappointment of the year, after reading all the praise heaped on the resort in blogsphere, never mind that the Tripadvisor reviews were clearly less forgiving on the resort’s accommodation challenges. At least Hannah enjoyed the trip, and I really appreciated the opportunity to put the E-M1/40-150mm f2.8 through extended use at the nightly concerts, and think I have a much better appreciation of the difficulties in concert photography now.

2016 here we come! :)

 

Macro photography is hard and requires a lot of practice for one to be any good in it. I’ve over the years dabbled occasionally in it, including the one-stop flower macro photography spot in Singapore i.e. National Orchid Garden @ Botanic Gardens, over a variety of small sea critters during our Telunas Beach Resort stay, and also at the stunning Butterfly Garden @ Museum of Science in Boston. The half-way decent selection of pictures in those posts though are a result more from a couple of occasional hits from a sizable number of misses with cooperative subjects.

There are several ways of taking macro shots. Serious enthusiasts will typically invest in dedicated macro lenses. The Sigma 150mm f2.8 I owned for a couple of years for my Nikon system then cost a decent sum of money and was well-suited to flower photography but IIRC not for insects. I haven’t yet bought a similar dedicated lens for my m4/3 cameras now, though there are several such for the system at typically somewhat lower price points than say for the Nikon system. The Olympus 12-50mm kit lens that came with the E-M5 comes with macro ability though. Not a very good one by any measure, but it’s still useful when I have to take the odd close-up picture.

A second way of taking macro shots is to add extension tubes. These get attached to the camera mount and before the lens. Without glass and optical elements, tubes are simple in design, and essentially reduce the minimum focusing distance of a lens. Depending on supporting electronics in the tubes (e.g. to support aperture control and autofocusing), extension tubes for the m4/3s range from a very low price point of about $20, to branded Kenko tubes that cost about $160 and more. Finally, the third method is to add optical accessories to the front of the lens – e.g. close-up filters.

I was quite interested to get into macro photography again for the m4/3 system but loathed this time to spend money to buy a dedicated lens for it, though the excellent Olympus 60mm f2.8 Macro sure was tempting. The Kenko extension tubes were a real viable alternative and popular among many enthusiasts. Two disadvantages with this solution though: some of the clone copycats of Kenko tubes have, according to some Amazon reviews, damaged the electronic contact points on the camera body. I didn’t read of similar concerns for the Keno-manufactured tubes – they are apparently made to higher quality specifications and in Japan, compared to the cheap knock-offs which I think are made in China. Still, that got me worried. The other disadvantage lied in the very nature of using extension tubes: you have to dismount your lens, mount the tubes, then remount the lens. Not only is it tedious, any such swapping increases the possibility of foreign elements getting into the camera and landing on the sensor. Ugh, the horror.

So, it was to the close-up type optical accessories. There’s a whole bunch of close-up filers/lenses sold at shady camera shops here that seriously degrade or distort the image information that hits the sensor, so I was quite wary about them. The Raynox macro conversion lenses though are a different breed. These are well-regarded, manufactured in Japan, and have been around for a while now and I’ve been keeping my eye on them for several years. There are two particularly popular models in the series. They cost a mere fraction of what one would pay for a dedicated macro lens, and is also cheaper than Kenko tubes. The series is carried in several stores, but I went with an online reseller of it that’s been carrying Raynox products for several years now.

The Raynox DCR-150 is the model more suited for macro photography dabblers, and here’s the unboxing of the package, alongside some quick shots using the Olympus 12-50mm. I primarily intend for this conversion lens to work with the Olympus 45mm f1.8 (hope there’s minimal vignetting!), so will report on that once the cheapo step-up ring necessary to mount the DCR-150 onto a 37mm filter thread arrives from eBay.

Compact box that measures about 3x3x2 inches.

Compact box that measures about 3x3x2 inches.

Box contents I: a plastic carry case, a brochure of Raynox products, and an instruction leaflet.

Box contents I: a plastic carry case, a brochure of Raynox products, and an instruction leaflet.

Box Contents II: clockwise from top left: the box, the carry case with the lens, the stacking ring, universal adapter, and front/back lens caps.

Box Contents II: clockwise from top left: the box, the carry case with the lens, the stacking ring, universal adapter, and front/back lens caps.

Close look at the lens. The filter size is 49mm, but the packaged universal adapter will permit the DCR150 to be mounted on a larger ranger of lens diameters.

Close look at the lens. The filter size is 49mm, but the packaged universal adapter will permit the DCR150 to be mounted on a larger ranger of lens diameters.

The DCR150 attached to the universal adapter.

The DCR150 attached to the universal adapter.

Casual test of the DCR150's magnification ability. This is the Olympus 12-50mm as close as it can get. No cropping here.

Casual test of the DCR150’s magnification ability. This is the Olympus 12-50mm as close as it can get. No cropping here.

With the DCR150 mounted onto the 12-50mm. The lens' front element was perhaps just about 1-2cm away from the box!

With the DCR150 mounted onto the 12-50mm. The lens’ front element was perhaps just about 1-2cm away from the box!

More notes to come soon!

It’s been more than two years since I last bought a new lens, having been pretty satisfied with the trio of m4/3 prime lenses – the 17mm, 25mm, and 45mm – that are considered mandatory for serious owners of the system. The two new Olympus lenses picked up this month are labeled ‘Pro’. According to Olympus’ public information of what that descriptor means, their Pro line of lenses are developed for professional use, and provide constant f2.8 apertures. There are currently three such lenses in this line – the 7-14mm, 12-40mm, 40-150mm – and the latter two were the most recent acquisitions.

At this point, I’ve put the 12-40mm through a few weeks of use, but not for the 40-150mm. Even then, these are just the first and early handling impressions of both.

The 12-40mm occupies an odd spot among what the focal lengths of the three great m4/3 primes. The 17mm and 45mm roughly offer a full stop’s benefit over it – i.e. not a significant difference. But in the case of the 25mm, the difference is two stops, which really improves upon the range of conditions one has to take a picture. I’m of two minds about this. I imagine that I’ll continue to use primes when weight of the setup is a concern, or if I have time to properly setup a shot – e.g. if Hannah is doing her homework and is largely not moving off her chair and running about. But for catching our kids in action or when they’re running around the house, the 12-40mm is probably a more versatile option.

The 12-40mm is also a more convenient focal length range when we’re traveling. The only times I shoot wide is when it’s for a family photo with everyone in the extended family, or when I’m taking landscapes on vacation (haven’t done that since the Japan trip!). I wished it had some macro ability – similar to the very basic facility on the 12-50mm, but oh well.

No complaints about the center sharpness too. At similar apertures, it’s sharper in the center than all three primes to varying degrees, according to posted MTF resolutions at Photozone. Anecdotally though and from what my eyes can tell anyway, the 12-40mm is obviously sharper in the center than the 17mm, somewhat less so than the 45mm, and about the same as the 25mm. Moving off the center onto the borders of the image circle, the 12-40mm holds up well with smaller resolution drop-offs than all three primes. Amazing!

The 12-40mm is also much larger and heftier than the three primes. The lens’ build quality though is impressive and confidence-building, and not quite like the more plastic-y feel of the 25mm and 45mm primes. The pre-supplied petal hood also allows it to be reversed onto the lens for storage.

As for the 40-150mm. There’s an option to buy the lens without the Olympus 1.4x MC-14 teleconverter – though that’s honestly isn’t really the best thing to do. The teleconverter costs a whopping USD349 if bought separately! Locally, the price difference between the 40-150mm sans TC versus with the TC is a mere USD142. No brainer duh. The teleconverter though doesn’t work with most lenses – at the moment with just (apparently) the 40-150mm. It’s reported to work with the upcoming Olympus 300mm f4 Pro, but nope, no interest in that lens at all. The 40-150mm with teleconverter will allow focal lengths of up to 210mm or 420mm full-frame equivalent. Not as long as that crazy upper limit on my Olympus 75-300 i.e. 600mm, but you get a stop of light advantage, and also reportedly better sharpness all round.

And surprisingly, the teleconverter is reported to work quite well with the 40-150mm, putting aside the expected light loss. More to say on this later on once I put it through good use!

The supplied hard plastic hood is a design marvel. Unlike most lens hoods that have to be reversed for storing onto the lens, the 40-150mm’s hood uses a clever retractable system that does away with needing to reverse it. Basically, you twist the hood and it can be retracted. Voilà!

The 12-40mm with the E-M5, and the 40-15mm/1.4x teleconverter with the E-M1.

Relative sizes: the 12-40mm with the E-M5, and the 40-15mm/1.4x teleconverter with the E-M1.

The 12-40mm's weight and girth is nicely balanced against the E-M1 already, making the grip non-essential if weight distribution is a concern.

The 12-40mm’s weight and girth is nicely balanced against the E-M1 already, making the grip non-essential if weight distribution is a concern.

The two lenses sans hoods, with the 1.4X Teleconverter in the foreground.

The two lenses sans hoods, with the 1.4X Teleconverter in the foreground.

Hoods on. The 40-150mm's hood adds almost three inches to the length of the lens. Still finally not nearly as long as the Sigma 70-200mm f2.8 though!

Hoods on. The 40-150mm’s hood adds almost three inches to the length of the lens. Still finally not nearly as long as the Sigma 70-200mm f2.8 though.

Lens hood retracted on the 40-150mm, making for a much more compact set.

Lens hood retracted on the 40-150mm, making for a much more compact set.

The E-M1 with the 40-150mm and teleconverter. Long lens, making the grip an essential item!

The E-M1 with the 40-150mm and teleconverter. Long lens, making the grip an essential item!

The 40-150mm f2.8 and teleconverter will be given its first real exercise this weekend at Hannah’s K2 Graduation Concert. I’ll be bringing that, alongside the 75-300mm for a field comparison. We’ve chosen seats at the Circle – we must have been the only weirdo graduating students’ parents not to sit in the normal floor stall seats closer to the stage – and only because it provides an unobstructed view of the stage for these two crazy long focal length lens to work their mojo. More to say after this weekend! :)

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!