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!

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!

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.:)

Previous posts on my first impressions of the GX85 here and here.

In-camera battery charging – hooray – but no external charger supplied in the package – hissss boo!!! The advantage of in-camera charging is real – you don’t have to bring dedicated cables and chargers when traveling with the camera, and any old USB charger and battery pack will do the trick to top-up battery power when you’re on the move. On the other hand, that the GX85 package doesn’t include an external battery charger feels real cheapskate of Panasonic. Moreover, switching on the camera seems to suspend charging. You can use the GX85 as a camera or a charger at any one time, but not both. That limits the usefulness of having multiple batteries, so I’ve had to order from eBay a cheapo third party battery charger.

Like the E-PL6, the GX85 isn’t weather-sealed. But the rubber flap that covers its mini-HDMI and micro USB charger ports is neatly flushed with the camera edge, and closes tightly without any gaps. You’d need a finger nail to pry it loose though, so I’m a uncertain how this flap will fare against constant use in time to come.

The mini-HDMI port and micro USB charging port on the camera’s lower right corner.

The battery compartment sits together with the SD card slot.

The GX85’s built-in pop-up flash is released by a dedicated spring button, and is useful – somewhat. Certainly not as a direct head-on flash, but it can be tilted to 90 degree angle for bounce flash. The flash’s pretty weak GN 4.2 at ISO100 limits this utility even then, and it’s hard to tilt the flash up with one finger while keeping another finger on the same hand on the shutter release button. I reckon most people will just go for a discrete and more powerful flash gun altogether, but at least its inclusion is better than not having it at all.

Alongside two of four FN buttons, the back plate cursor buttons as pre-set offer quick ways to configure some of the most important settings, including WB, ISO and drive modes. They’re clicky-enough and aren’t mushy in feeling – which is good. But they are also quite small, and don’t offer a lot of button travel. I reckon the E-M1 sets the gold standard here among my m4/3s – good travel and satisfying to press (minutiae alert!). The remaining two FN buttons sit near the top-plate, and are also configurable.

I’m less enamored by the front and real dials. They can be set to control different functions and offer somewhat more resistance than the E-M5’s and absent altogether from the E-PL6. But they’re still a little too easy to turn. Personal preference and so on here of course. That said, rotating these two dials don’t do a thing when the camera is powered off, so there’s no concerns with accidental changes to various settings.

Two of four configurable function buttons sitting near the top-plate.

Lots of cursor buttons on the back.

Olympus pretty complex and heavily nested menus for m4/3 its bodies have long since borne the brunt of criticism and jokes, though I honestly have never had problems with it. The menu layout is fairly consistent among its camera lines, and once I’ve configured the Olympus E-M1/E-M5/E-PL6 to preference, I didn’t find myself having to get back into the same menus very much anymore. The Panasonic menu is slightly more intuitive and more pleasing to look at aesthetic-wise. Helps too that there’s an embedded guide to explain each feature as you scroll through it, and that little help facility has its own distinct display area – unlike Olympus menus where the help shows up as a pop-up that obscures other menu items. That said, the Panasonic menus seem to use a less deep directory structure that’s perhaps just one level deep. i.e. there are eight pages of submenus already from the top-level REC(ord) menu. So, lots of scrolling around is necessary to find the option you want.

Panasonic’s implementation of Auto-ISO is also not quite like Olympus’. Specifically, you can set an upper ISO limit in the GX85 but not a minimal shutter speed for the camera not to fall below where possible. This is a clunker of course for shooters who’re used to Olympus cameras’ ability to set a slowest shutter speed limit, after which the camera starts bumping up the ISO. Noise is easier to correct than focusing problems from camera shake or subject motion. The workaround in the GX85 is to either adjust ISO maximum levels, or set a specific ISO altogether for specific shots. Not at all elegant though.

The Asian edition of the camera seems doesn’t seem to offer 4K 30p but 4K 25p – ugh. The recorded 4K video output looks great from a newbie videographer’s perspective, though at 100mbps, resultant file sizes are huge. I reckon I’ll be doing a lot of 4K video recording with the GX85, and then re-encode the video to lower bitrates to reduce the file footprints.

Disappointingly, no Adobe Camera RAW support in version 9.5. This means either a conversion of the RAW files to DNG or having to upgrade to a newer edition of Photoshop Elements newer than the version 14 I’ve got.

The Panasonic 12-32mm pancake lens isn’t too bad. It’s taking decent enough general purpose pictures so far, and will probably come to its own in video work.. The GX85 supports Dual IS when mounted with it – useful when I’ve had too much morning coffee and my hands aren’t steady LOL.

The 12-32mm f3.5-5.6 pancake lens. Not too shabby.

That sums up the first impressions of the camera. Pictures to follow in posts in the next couple of weeks!

Part 1 of my comments of the Panasonic GX85 here. The GX85 has some similarities to the E-PL8, but since I don’t have one such unit, a comparison against the 3.5 year old E-PL6 will have to suffice. So, about the GX85. This is a long post, so it’ll have to be split into a couple of parts.

Quite a bit heavier, deeper and larger than the E-PL6. The overall size will matter, since the camera is barely pocketable and only in a large jacket pocket. It’s also offered in three colors: black with a silver top, brown, and fully black. The brown unit would have looked lovely with the 17mm f1.8, but every other m4/3 lens I’ve got is black. So, it was the black unit.  It feels dense and well-built, and the weight seems nicely distributed around its entirety.

Doubt if there’s a more lovely-looking combo than a silver-colored E-PL6 with the 17mm f1.8. The GX85, all things on balance, isn’t that bad looking though.

Size-wise, the GX85 is clearly larger than the old E-PL6 it’s replacing. Weight-wise heavier too at 426 vs 325g.

GX85 with the 12-32mm pancake lens.

A minimalist look when viewed from the front, and its top-panel is relatively free of dials, buttons and knobs. This is a personal preference of course, but I like dials, buttons and knobs! If there’s any one thing that almost made me buy the Pen-F instead, it would be that. There’s also a leather-type grip on the camera’s right, but it’s not sufficiently deep for you to get a good handhold if you’re mounting large lenses. A wrist strap of some type is necessary (might do a post on that at some point too).

Very fast start-up and AF. The GX85 is good to go as soon as you flick the power-on lever (though if you’ve got the 12-32mm pancake lens mounted, you might need to extended out from collapsed mode first too). AF and confident. There’s also a nifty feature to adjust to varying levels the size of the focusing box. A similar feature is also found on the Olympus cameras, but it isn’t nearly as graduated as it’s here on the Panasonic.

One of the most annoying things I felt on the E-PL6 was its plasticky and finnicky mode dial. It was too easily turned, and very often, I’d find myself in M(anual) or S(hutter priority) mode when fishing the camera out of the bag. The GX85’s mode dial doesn’t feel metallic either, and it’s somewhat stiffer than the E-PL6. That it’s slightly recessed from the edge of the camera helps, but unlike the E-M1, the absence of a mode lock button means that it’s still possible for accidental changes of recording mode.

The GX85 powers-on quickly. Mixed feelings about the command dial though.

Most people won’t bother about shutter sounds as long as it’s not too loud. Odd as this might sound, I like the GX85’s shutter release sound! It’s reasonably soft, and offers a reassuring double ‘thud’ when triggering a release. If I had to rate my most recent cameras in minutiae like this from love to hate it, it’d be the GX85, X70, E-M1, E-M5, and the relatively loud and annoying ka-plak coming out of the E-PL6. And for fully silent shooting in quiet and stealthy environments (e.g. churches, weddings), the GX85 has an electronic shutter.

Fixed-position electronic view finder. Unlike the E-Ms’, the viewfinder doesn’t use a separate eye-cup – which is well and good. The E-M5’s eye-cup is especially fiddly and comes loose easily. Two such have already been damaged from wear and tear, necessitating a costly replacement each time. As for the view inside the EVF itself, responses have been decidedly mixed. Many Internet gadget reviewers have remarked that the quality of the 2.76M dot effective field-sequential-typed EVF might had been alright some years back, but against today’s modern cameras, its quality is a step-down. Its most serious issues include possibly visible color tearing. And also that the eye needs to be perfectly lined up against it, otherwise you might see ghosting in selected elements, especially aperture and shutter speed text information. I’d put the EVF on the GX85 below that of the almost 5 year old E-M5 now. Oh – It’s still usable, just not anywhere near what you’d get with older cameras coming off Olympus.

The GX85’s touch-screen monitor isn’t fully articulating, which will make wefies with the kids tough, unless I go with a wide-angle lens and get lucky blindly composing a wefie that doesn’t ungraciously snip off one of our foreheads in the frame! The monitor is flushed with the camera’s back – nice! – and its hinge also feels extremely sturdy – distinctly more so than the E-PL6 – and decent size. The touch-screen itself is useful in configuring the camera and choosing spot AF.

On the other hand and unlike Olympus, the screen seems to have low nose-rejection (!) if Touch-AF has been enabled. I’ve had my focusing AF accidentally changed a couple of times now when my nose contacts the screen! Its got so bad that I’ve since configured one of the FN buttons to quickly disable the touch-screen, and turn it on only when I need to choose an AF spot.

Viewfinder’s in a fixed position, with the diopter adjustment dial beside it (can’t see from this picture though).

More handling notes in the next post!

Mention Panasonic, and one would immediately think of the electronics giant whose refrigerators, TVs, laundry machines and all manner of household appliances line electronic stores like Courts, Harvey Norman and Best Denki here. The Japanese company though is as widely regarded by photographers as one of the main manufacturers of cameras and lenses.

I’ve owned a couple of Panasonic cameras now – including the compact LX7 that was used to take several of the wide-angled and panoramic shots of The Minton while it was still in construction, and also more recently the LX100. The four year old LX7 is still going on great and was recently used by Ling to take several hundred pictures of Malay clothes tailored made by mom-in-law. The LX100 used a m4/3 sized sensor and was wonderfully featured, but the lack of overall sharpness and especially softness in the corners when shot wide was a real bother.

Like Olympus and possibly even more so, Panasonic has been quite illustrious in continually releasing new and improved camera bodies and lenses. In fact, they’ve got as many as four distinct lines which in the m4/3 system, all with fairly recent updated models: the GF9 at entry level, the DSLR-styled G85, the video-centric, top of the line GH5, and two rangefinder-styled mid-priced entries: the GX8 and GX85. Of these: the GF9 is very compact, attractive styling, a tilt up/down screen for wefies, but does not offer sensor stabilization which I need as the majority of my m4/3 lenses are Olympus which are typically not optically stabilized. I wasn’t interested in another DSLR-styled (G85) camera – the E-M1/M5 combo is still my go-to when I have to do event photography at work – and the similarly styled GH5 is extremely expensive. Finally, the GX8 is over-sized.

The GX8 (left) is about as large as the E-M1 Mark I, and actually even heavier!

The GX85 (right) is literally the GX8’s little sibling in only size and not what it’s packing.

The GX85 is regarded as the younger and cheaper sibling of the GX8 from a pricing point of view at least, but the GX85 offers a number of newer and really useful features on top of the GX8, largely on account of it being released about a year later. The GX85 has been receiving a lot of praise, as it essentially offers a state of the art camera, jam-packed with technological achievements, and at USD799. Panasonic Singapore carries this model, and it’s recommended retail price is SGD1149 – fairly close to the USD equivalent. Not surprisingly, that Singapore RRP didn’t drop when large retail stores like Amazon dropped that attractive price even lower to USD699 just before the year ended. This price-point would really make Olympus sweat, since it’s only marginally more than the USD649 the Olympus E-PL8 commands, but the E-PL8 isn’t nearly as feature-packed as the GX85. It misses an EVF, support for 4K video modes, built-in flash, 3 instead of 5 axis stabilization, and overall build quality doesn’t feel as premium as the GX85.

Recommended Retail Price for the Panasonic GX85 @ Jan 2017.

So, when I did find a brick and mortar store here which was selling it for lower than the RRP at SGD929 – which at USD663 is substantially cheaper than even Amazon – I didn’t hesitate. I did think whether to just get the body sans 12-32mm kit lens, but while I’ve got plenty of kit lenses in the 12/14mm to 40mm-ish range, the general consensus is that the Panasonic’s 12-32mm pancake isn’t too shabby, and it can be separately sold away if necessary later. And the bundle even includes a couple of extras: a couple of Sandisk 16GB cards that are slow for my needs, and a very useful extra OEM battery.

Next post on my first impressions of the GX85 and first handling!

Doing an update to this ongoing series of year-end review posts can be really distressing on account of how the year again just went past and that we’re all a year older again.

Playstation PS4 – Mixed: our first toy-technological purchase of the year, and the number of PS4 games I’ve played on it is still.. one. The device works great as a Netflix, YouTube, media and Blu-Ray player – but is criminally underused as a gaming rig.

Aftershock S17 – Win: the largest notebook I’ve owned with its 17.3″ screen. The S17 is now a permanent fixture in our bedroom, sitting on top a portable laptop desk on the bed. The machine is brisk, the keyboard offers great depth and tactile feel, and I’ve gotten use to the relatively less bright matte screen. Not so good for watching video material, but great for productivity!

Melbourne – Win: our longest family vacation to this point, and one in which nearly everything went along swimmingly: the accommodation we selected, the itinerary, the three day-tours, and the flights both ways. The only mishaps: weather was gloomy for the second half of the stay, and the newly purchased Xiaomi Mi Note 3 kissed concrete.

Fujifilm X70 – Mixed: lovely form factor and takes stunningly beautiful pictures when used outdoors. But indoors focusing is a real hit and miss when your subjects – i.e. our kids – are constantly moving. The 3 year old E-PL6 just got fixed too – and and there’s even less reason now not to sell away the X70 soon.

The X70 vs the E-PL6 – and I’m likely only gonna keep one in 2017. Which one?!

Thule Enroute 2 Blur Backpack – Win: capacity-wise, it’s very slightly larger than the older Enroute it replaced though I still prefer the notebook compartment design of the older backpack.

Huawei Smart Watch – Win: seven months into the watch, and it still looks as pristine and new as it was. The manufacturer provided watch charger dock remains finicky, but cheap third party replacements can be had off eBay that – ironically – secure the watch far easier than the original manufacturer equipment.

Xiaomi Redmi Note 3 – Win: decently spec-ed phone that was picked up for cheap. This phone was purchased specifically for the Melbourne trip and sadly was the only outing it’d ever have. The phone still works, barring the cracked display screen which looks like it can completely shatter anytime and thus dangerous to use. Sigh.

Xiaomi Mi Max – Win: the largest smartphone in my inventory, nicely contrasting display though maximum brightness is a little low, and funnily, as a grey import purchased at an even lower price than the Note 3 above. And the Energizer Bunny battery that runs forever!

Stacy the Syrian – Win: I wonder how many fathers in their mid-40s purchase a Syrian hamster not for their kids LOL. But our Syrian has provided our kids with learning opportunities, though we don’t feel they are yet old enough to provide responsible care and maintenance of the hamster. The only down side? That we’re reminded that Syrians have short lifespans of 2-3 years.

Yamaha U30BL – Win: apart from the Melbourne vacation, our most costly purchase in 2016. I haven’t used the Silent Piano module very much yet, on account that my piano technical skills have, surprisingly, not degraded by that much for me to feel embarrassed of having to practice on the piano. Both Hannah and myself now spend an hour each every night making music. It’s a nosier household sure but also a lot livelier!

Wangz Staycation – Win: small boutique hotel in Outram we stayed at for our 10th Wedding Anniversary. A little light on property amenities, the room was lovingly appointed, clean and modern. Recommended for couples on short vacation stays if you like the off-city location too.

D’Resort @ Downtown East – Mixed: were it not for the bundled admission to Wild Wild Wet – a significant bonus – and that this resort was about the only property to stay in in the immediate vicinity, the resort just wasn’t as cracked up as what we’ve read from social media.

All in, this was a mostly good year for us. We can only hope that 2017 will be just as good!

Memory cards are a dime a dozen these days, with prices coming so low and capacity limits far outreaching camera sensor image resolutions. In fact, it’s quite common for new cameras to come bundled with Secure Digital memory cards. These freebies are fine for single shot or casual use, but if you’re thinking of firing shots in RAW in quick succession or even in drive mode, they’re just too slow.

I’ve accumulated a small mountain of memory cards over the years now, so figured it’s time to do a simple benchmark cycle of selected cards. This isn’t a scientifically grounded test by any means, but it does give a rough indication of where some common memory cards lie in along the performance spectrum.

Clockwise from top-left: SanDisk Extreme Pro, SanDisk Extreme, SanDisk Ultra, SanDisk SDHC, and Panasonic SDHC.

Test environment: using the Aftershock S17, and CrystalDiskMark v5.

SanDisk Extreme Pro SD 32GB

I bought a couple of these for the E-M5 several years ago. They were quite pricey back then, and while prices have come down quite a bit, they still command a premium over other cards. There are better performing cards than these now, but they are still worth the money you’ll plonk for them from cost/GB against the performance you get.

SanDisk Extreme Pro SD 32GB

SanDisk Extreme SD 64GB

The cheaper and supposedly slightly less quick sibling of the Extreme Pro. This was picked up well after I’d bought the Extreme Pros and mostly for the X70. Interestingly, the 4K performance surpasses the Pro cards:

SanDisk Extreme SD 64GB

SanDisk Ultra SD 16GB

This one’s a freebie card from some years back:

SanDisk Ultra SD 16GB

Panasonic SD 16GB

Another freebie that came with the Panasonic LX100 that was sold away earlier this year.

Panasonic SD 16GB

SanDisk SDHC SD 16GB

Yet another pretty old freebie and slow as molasses.

SanDisk SDHC SD 16GB

 

The TL:DR version of this long post about the new Xiaomi Mi Max phone is this: great phone especially considering its asking price and in my opinion, the best all-round Phablet at this price-point. But it’s also just too large for most people to use as a primary phone.

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The Xiaomi Mi Max, 32GB/3GB Gold edition.

That out of the way, here are my further-on first impressions of the Mi Max!

The Max isn’t a one-hand phone… for the most part. You can hold it comfortably with one hand and do the usual scrolling and button tapping – just so long as the button’s icon isn’t past the imaginary horizontal midpoint of the phone. So, reading a long web page is fine since you can scroll, as is clicking on links.

Even though it has a 6.44″ screen and this is the largest phablet I’ve owned so far, there’s little wasted space form factor-wise. Bezels are thin though there’s an approximately 1.5mm black border around the screen which will likely not appeal to many. Nonetheless, the phone could had been even larger and thicker than this, more so considering the huge 4850mAh battery it packs in. Bottom line, it’s a large phone – but might had been even larger.

I especially also like that the phone offers dedicated keys for phone navigation. Many phone manufacturers implement onscreen keys instead. The jury is still out between onscreen and dedicated keys, but I prefer the latter by far. Onscreen keys eat into the actual usable screen area – in that a phone with a 6″ display with onscreen keys would typically have maybe 5.7″ usable area then.

Build quality is very premium for its price, and is similar in overall styling to the most recent iterations of the iPhone. One reviewer remarked though that the Max bends with just a bit of pressure, but I found no such characteristic on my unit of the phone. Granted, it’s not as dense or rigid as the Note 5, and given the phone’s thin girth the Max might indeed bend or even break under severe pressure, but it’s just doesn’t creak under normal use in my case. Bottom line: for just about S$280, I got a phone that’s akin externally at least to what I’d get if I paid thrice that.

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Very iPhone-like chamfered edges on the left.

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And likewise on the right.

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Dual speaker grills that sit on opposite sides of the micro USB charging and data port.

Battery life is amazing! I left it 100% fully charged before turning in for the night. Six hours later, the battery had dipped just 1% to 99%. Right like a champ.

The fingerprint sensor is very responsive and quick. I liked the Mi Note 3’s fingerprint sensor, and the Max’s implementation of it is equivalent. There’s one minor annoyance though: the sensor is placed fairly high on the back of the phone, and I have to fidget around to find it when grasping the phone. It would had likely worked better if the sensor had been sited lower on the back.

The Max – gold edition in my case – has a textured back that makes finger smudges a non-issue. Totally unlike the Note 5’s reflective glass back – which is also a magnet for prints and feeling like you’re holding a bar of soap at all times. The Max’s chamfered edges gives one some grip on the phone, but I highly recommend a non-slip case for this nonetheless.

The Full HD screen – as in 1080×1920 pixels – is fine for general usage, but the lower resolution is also apparent in selected apps – e.g. Facebook, Whatsapp. The display advantage of a Quad HD screen of 1440×2560 pixels, e.g. that on the Samsung Galaxy Note 5, is apparent in those apps.

Maximum screen brightness higher than the Mi Note 3 but lower than the Samsung Note 5’s – which will make outdoor use in direct sunlight a little problematic. Screen viewing angles though are decent, and outdoor use in the shade is still fine.

Phone performance-wise; I’m not a mobile video gamer, so the performance aspects of the phone’s GPU aren’t of much concern for me. The phone feels brisk enough with page navigation, and launching of the general suite of apps that I use.

As for a couple of first oddities:

The touch screen seems very occasionally finicky for selected apps. Pulling down to refresh my Facebook newsfeed requires several tries.

No NFC. I’ve started using Samsung Pay on the Note 5 and love it. The absence of NFC support for the Max means that it’d be hard for it to be a primary phone.

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The fingerprint sensor placed quite high on the back of the phone. Not ideal.

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Capacitive keys. I would have preferred a a physical button for Home (the middle button above) but oh well.

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Both phones on maximum brightness: the Mi Max’s screen – good as it is – just isn’t a match for the Samsung Note 5’s.