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 as 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.

I remembered when Samsung released their first Galaxy Note phone with a 5.3″ screen. A screen that size today is considered only ‘average’, but 5 years ago it was gargantuan, and many phone users wondered if the thing would even sell. Steve Jobs as widely reported scoffed at the Galaxy Note then and said no one was ever going to buy a phone that size. That remark was of course one of Apple famously bad tech predictions, and they ended up having to eat their words with their own line of similarly sized phones and play catch-up to Android market leaders.

I have a thing about phablets ever since owning the first Note. And today, anything that’s under 5.5″ display screen isn’t in my reckoning anymore. While the Note 5 remains the best smartphone I’ve owned, I’ve been on the lookout for a second replacement phone after our one week old Mi Note 3 kissed concrete whilst in Ling’s haversack in Melbourne. From checking around, it would have cost half the price of that phone just to fix the cracked screen – simply not worth it.

And as usual, several phablets made the list – with the main requirement of it featuring a 6″ or larger screen:

Leagoo Shark 1: 6″ screen, very attractive priced (available on eBay for just a mite over S$200!), mammoth battery of 6300mAh, and halfway decent build. But some troubling issues with the phone noted in reviews, and I also had low confidence on whether the relatively unknown manufacturer would be keeping the phone current with software upgrades.

Lenovo Phab: a whopping 6.98″ screen and well out of a phone-size at this point. Dim and low resolution display too.

Asus Zen 2 Laser: 6″ screen, moderately-priced and available at many stores, but I’m not fond of the tapered phone edges, dim display and the odd color cast on the screen.

Asus ZenFone 3 Ultra: 6.8″ screen, not released yet but from early indications, well out of my price bracket.

Sony Xperia XA Ultra: 6″ screen, fairly small capacity battery at 2700mAh, and also costing more than what I was willing to part (S$648).

Huawei Mate 8: 6″ screen, very nice premium build, good battery size of 4000mAh, but way more than what I was willing to pay for a second phone.

Xiaomi Mi Max: 6.44″ screen (!), supposedly great build – but more on that later – dedicated buttons that weren’t gonna eat into the screen size, and pretty cheap.

The Mi Max though has only seen release in China and India so far, and there are no indications yet that it would be ever brought in officially for sale in local stores. That said, there are plenty of Qoo10 and Lazada sellers who’ve brought in export (i.e. warranty-less) sets and attractive prices. So – after waiting for the periodic discounts to show up, one such Mi Max unit was ordered at a price that was even less than the Mi Note 3. Amazing.

The new Mi Max beside my daily driver - the Samsung Galaxy Note 5.

The new Mi Max beside my daily driver – the Samsung Galaxy Note 5.

More to come in a bit.:)

 

Whoops. Spoke too soon about the last post on our Melbourne trip being the third and last of the retrospective posts. This one is about things that worked especially well equipment wise, and things that broke and just didn’t work. All for our collective memory so that we don’t do them again.

Before we had kids, we routinely brought along for vacations an entire bag full of camera bodies, filters to do different things, wireless triggers, heavy lenses and even that full-sized Manfrotto carbon fiber tripod/ballhead in the ThinkTank Bazooka case. Things are different now though, since our backpacks now have to hold stuff we need for our kids – diapers, wet wipes, children water bottles, meal bibs, emergency medication, and spare clothing. I brought along far less camera equipment this time round for the Melbourne trip; just the E-M1, the two Olympus Pro f2.8 lenses, Fujifilm X70, and the Panasonic TM700 camcorder. And summarily:

The E-M1 performed superbly again in its second overseas outing.

The 12-40mm and 40-150mm f2.8 lenses and especially the latter worked well beyond my expectations. The close-ups of Lemurs @ Melbourne Zoo were tack sharp center-wise, and the lens was able to resolve very fine detail – right down to strands of Lemur fur at 100% crops.

I’d ordered from Amazon UK a couple of third party E-M1 batteries (‘MaximalPower‘ brand) and brought them alongside the OEM ones as batteries in cold weather routinely don’t hold their charge as well. But I ended up not having to swap batteries at all. Even though a typical day of activities saw about 400-450 pictures on the E-M1 – and there was still power to spare at the end of each day.

Batteries for the E-M1; the third party replacement (MaximalPower) compared with the OEM from Olympus. The replacement has worked quite well in its first extensive outing.

Batteries for the E-M1; the third party replacement (MaximalPower) compared with the OEM from Olympus. The replacement has worked quite well in its first extensive outing. As to whether they will bloat like the DSTN ones did – time will tell.

The JobyPro camera strap worked great, and the strap length was easily adjustable depending on what I was carrying on my back.

The X70 was mixed. It was convenient as a small camera that fitted into my jacket pocket, responsive in starting up and general usage – but just slow in AF when indoors. The lack of optical stabilization, especially important in low-light shots, was a real clunker, and I obtained far more picture keepers using the E-M1 with the 12-40mm taking wide-angles in low-light than with the X70.

Our old Panasonic TM700 was also carted along  with an extra battery and its dedicated charger in our luggage case, and never got taken out. In its place, the Samsung Galaxy Note 5 took pleasing video.. for the most part as there were still that jello effect when panning around and also frequent focusing issues. Still, looks like it’s time to retire the TM700 – it’s served us very well in the last 6 years now.

Ditto also for the little Nissin i40 flash. That got brought along but never left the luggage case.

The iPad Air 2 was great for reading when sitting down on a bed or in a seat at the cafe, but terrifically unwieldy when on the move. When my mobile broadband contact ends in a few months, I’m going to seriously consider getting the iPad Mini 4 when I renew for the contract bundle.

The Google Nexus 7 – which we stored all the children cartoons – were used only on selected evenings when the kids wanted something other than the ABC Kids‘ Channel. But then Peter got extremely restless on the flight home and significantly stressed Mommy out, and he only calmed down after we remembered we had the Nexus 7 in our carry-on luggage, and turned it on for Tom and Jerry cartoons.

The Anker 5-port USB charger I’d ordered from Amazon a year ago was worth its weight in gold. 40W through 8 amps – yummy – and wrapped in scratch-resistant material.

The Anker – and last multi-port USB charger you will ever need.

The Mi 16000mAh Power Bank never got used. The devices it was intended to sustain beyond their typical battery lives – the iPad Air 2, our two smartphones, the Google Nexus 7 – all had enough juice to last for the day’s activities.

The Thule EnRoute Blur 2 Backpack could hold a huge bunch of stuff: two tablets, the Surface Pro 3, the Mi 16000mAh Power Bbank, medicine, lightning and micro USB cables, a small umbrella, a water bottle, the Aztech MWR647 4G Mi-Fi, all our AA/AAA/TM700/E-M1/X70 spare batteries (could not be sent as checked-in luggage at the airport), the E-M1/12-40mm/40-150mm in protective padding, the X70, all our passports, an A4 folder of our key itineraries and map printouts – all still with plenty of space to spare. Shoulder straps were comfortable and helped a lot in distributing the weight. And the backpack could also fit comfortably underneath the airline seat too.

The Aztech MWR647 4G Mi-Fi usage was mixed The Optus Prepaid data SIMs were so affordable that we got enough for all our mobile devices. The Hotel WIFI connections were occasionally unstable, so I tried using one of our spare Optus data SIMs in it, but oddly, connection continued to be flaky. I couldn’t say for certain if the Mi-Fi router was wonky, or 3G/LTE network coverage inside the hotel itself was bad as well.

The shiny new Mi Note 3 – bought specifically for this trip – kissed hard concrete on the very first day of our vacation. It had been left display face-down in Ling’s backpack (made of fairly thin canvas), and the backpack accidentally hit a hard surface. The tempered glass layer shattered, and when removed, the top third of the Mi’s display screen was similarly damaged. The phone is still functional – just dangerous to use as there are tiny bits of glass loose in the screen now. Heart-breaking.:(

Glass met concrete = heart pain.

Glass met concrete = heart pain.

So in summary for our next vacation:

Bring only the two Olympus Pro lenses for the Olympus E-M1.

Rethink on keeping the Fujifilm X70.

One spare battery is enough for the E-M1.

Ditch the filters… unless we’re traveling without kids.

Ditch the Panasonic TM700.

Ditch the Mi 16000mAh Power Bank. Bring along the smaller Mi 5000mAh one – just to be safe, y’know.

Ditch the Nissin i40. Alongside the 4 Eneloop batteries and its charger.

Ditch the Mi-Fi router if data SIM cards are cheap and easily available.

 

Third consecutive and last post on little gadgets – honest! – before I return to this blog’s regular programming, which is… er, heck there’s no regular programming on this blog. We write about anything that pops into our heads!

I’ve been quite interested in mobile 4G routers. Basically, these are devices that work with a mobile data SIM card to broadcast a small WIFI network to surrounding devices. It’s a novel concept that’s been around for years now. Its actual utility in today’s world though is a lot less now – on account that many mobile non-phone devices also include the ability to receive mobile network signals, and smartphones themselves can also broadcast their own WIFI networks now too.

So why would a 4G mobile router be a valid device today still? Well, my use case for it was quite specific.

Be able to put up a WIFI network that can connect at least 5 devices. We were gonna be carrying two smartphones, two tablets and one laptop to Melbourne. But most mobile phones can support at least that many.

Run for at least 12 hours – so a substantial battery is important. I haven’t stress-tested mobile phones running hotspots for extended periods yet, and Internet forums don’t seem to agree on how quickly (if at all) mobile phones will drain their batteries while doing that. At least some sites do point out that the battery drain for a phone to take a relatively high-speed 4G signal and then converting it to a WIFI hotspot posed a significant drain on battery life.

Will not overheat too much, as it will likely be stuffed inside a bag. Not a scientific experiment of course, but the couple of times I’ve tried producing phone hotspots have all resulted in the phones warming up considerably.

I reckon that’s where a dedicated mobile 4G router is useful then. Quite a few networking equipment manufacturers make these little gadgets, with the industry leader looking like it’s Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant. Their highest spec devices – those that support 4G networks and also have neat additional features – are pretty expensive though and easily costing several hundred moola, and their lower end devices won’t run for as long as I need them to.

Scouting around, I found that Aztech – again a Singapore-founded company (hooray – go local!) – does have one such model that is reasonably highly-spec, and costing much less than Huawei’s equivalent. Unlike say Valore products, I’ve had a lot of luck with Aztech devices – I’ve used their Powerline Internet devices for almost 10 years now and they have worked very well on the overall. The headline features for the Aztech MWR647 4G Mi-Fi sounds like this:

Very large 5200mAh battery that can also double up as a Powerbank. Many mobile routers do not have this feature, and their batteries are routinely half that capacity even.

Support for 4G and connections for 10 mobile devices simultaneously.

Up to 300 Mbps wireless speeds. That’s a pretty good performance specification. No, you’re unlikely to even get that kind of speed off a 4G connection, but the 300 Mbps wireless speed makes a lot more sense when one considers it in relation to the next feature:

Ethernet Port feature. In case my overworked home router ever fails.:) And also in the rare event we are ever again staying in a hotel room where it’s LAN cable only (the last hotel I stayed in which had that in-room and not WIFI was in Shanghai 4 whopping years ago).

Full suite of network administration tools. For those of us paranoid about securing and monitoring our WIFI networks, this is the one big difference between a mobile phone hotspot and a mobile router. The former simply does not offer such.

So, one device later and coming along for our trip to Melbourne. It took about 30 minutes to properly set up the entire thing, including locking down the SSID and password, further hiding them, enabling access filter by MAC address and then registering all five of our Melbourne-bound mobile devices on it.

Since the real test of its use will be when we’re on the trip itself, just some brief initial comments first then.

The typical black and red tone boxes of Aztech networking equipment.

The device isn’t small. It’s less tall than a typical smartphone, but a lot thicker. Relatively large compared to most other mobile routers too on account I reckon of the very large battery contained inside it.

From left to right: the USB charging port, a small charging indicator light, four lights to indicate the current battery level, and a button to trigger that very check.

A full-sized USB port if you want to use the router’s built-in Powerbank to charge another device. Next to it is the hole to reset the device, and also the LAN port.

The SIM card slot. The device accepts micro and nano SIM cards, but does to supply the adapters themselves. Boo!

More comments to come soon enough.:)

One of Singapore’s most well-known computer accessories and electronics retail store is Challenger. I vaguely remember how small they once was – visiting their small shop in the mid 1980s’ then Funan Center I vaguely recall – compared to the giant they are today here. Their stores are now likely more ubiquitous in malls than Popular book store is, and some malls even feature more than one outlet in the building. And their main megastore now occupies the entire top floor of Funan DigitaLife Mall. Or at least until the end of this month, before it closes to be redeveloped as “Experiential Creative Hub” – whatever that is.

And truth to tell – I like Challenger. Ling will always look on in amusement whenever my eyes linger at what’s in a Challenger store whenever we walk past one, and Hannah sometimes likes to accompany me to look at gadgets too. There are demo stations for notebooks and all manner of peripherals. And for a long period of time,  I bought most of my portable hard drives from Challenger, before Amazon’s direct to Singapore shipping packages made buying hard drives from Challenger (and to a lesser degree Sim Lim Square) less attractive. Still, they remain a great place to browse for many other smaller less expensive items like keyboards/mice, networking equipment, printer accessories and the like.

A couple of years ago they started carrying their house brand range of items, named Valore, and also another interestingly-named ValueClub. Not sure what the difference is. But both ranges of goods aren’t high-priced items (at the moment) like laptops, smartwatches, networking equipment and the like – but the huge spread of fairly low cost items, including all manner of phone accessories, data cables, Powerbanks, home computer accessories like speakers and I/O peripherals etc. The store is pretty aggressive too in promoting their house brand, including providing discount coupons for store customer members like myself.

The problem though is just this: their range of housebrand products are being panned by some online, like one will see from this thread on Hardwarezone, and the occasional blogger here and here. And you also have that incident not too long ago when some of their Powerbanks had to be recalled.

Not to be deterred and also more likely though that I’m always all-in when it comes to supporting local companies, I’ve given Challenger’s Valore/ValueClub products a try myself. And out of three, it’s been damn-it-the-thing-broke, damn-thing-doesn’t-even-work, and a bleh. The experimental buys were:

LED Wooden Clock. Worked for one month, stopped working thereafter. We did not drop it.

And their 8-pin/lightning data and charging cable - except that I hooked it up to my iPad Air 2 which was at 82% battery life for charging, it was still at 82% one hour later.

Their 8-pin/lightning data and charging cable – except that when I hooked it up to my iPad Air 2 which was at 82% battery life for charging, it was still at 82% one hour later.

And finally, their Gem Power Bank; came as a freebie. Too small a powerbank to be of any use to me, and the light emitting function was too complex to operate. But it did seem to work.

Admittedly, their devices aren’t that bad looking. I really liked the wooden clock and the black version we got was a very neat and matching decor item also to my master bedroom frame – and the little cable’s woven exterior isn’t just tough but also with intricate patterns. Maybe it was just my luck to have bought two items that both turned out to be duds. And to be fair, the two items weren’t too expensive, so it wasn’t too costly an experiment.

But with this kind of track record, I don’t think we’re gonna be buying a fourth item. I think we’ll rather just stay with the other manufacturer products from their store next time!

I remembered that there was widespread sentiment a decade ago when Made in China products started appearing everywhere, and much of that first reaction was anything but positive. Products labeled ‘MIC’ were scoffed at with derision.

The more forward thinkers back then were more circumspect though. Some were resigned to that China – for many reasons that include economic muscle and manpower costs but which details are well beyond what I’d care to cover here – would eventually emerged becoming the world’s factory for just about everything, while others pointed out that the often reported shoddy quality of MIC products were a result of poor quality control at a specific company or factory rather than an inherent problem with that country’s production capabilities. Either way, what some tech companies didn’t realize as well then are the long-term impacts of relocating too much of their manufacturing of key strategic technological products to China and are now only slowly realizing the dangers, as articulated in this PC Magazine article (well worth a read for those who carry or worry about geopolitics).

In any case, despite the amount of broken and badly manufactured MIC swill I’ve bought, I remained in total agreement with the second of the two camps above – that whether an MIC product is of any good really comes down to that specific company’s care for QC. And I’m not about to put down an entire country’s production, though Ling will readily disagree with that when it comes to fresh produce!

One Chinese company’s products that I’ve become intrigued with is Xiaomi, the fairly new Chinese company that has become one of consumer electronics biggest disruptors – in that they are not first and foremost technological innovators, but instead are regarded as one of the best companies for taking existing technological innovations and making their versions as good and selling them at price points a fraction of their competitors’. I’ve owned several items in their product categories now: headphones, powerbanks and most recently a couple of smartphones – and they have all turned out to be exemplary devices, and whatever niggling annoyances easily looked over by their sheer advantage of costs. I might blog about the Mi Headphones (we’ve got two of them) or powerbanks (have two of them too) at some point. But for this post, it’s about the Mi Note 3.

Truth to tell, I was quite half-half about trying out the Mi Note 3. I already have a superbly performing Samsung Galaxy Note 5 that still looks and feels as premium today as it did 9 months ago. I was however figuring out a way for the number of devices we were bringing to Melbourne to use local mobile data but without buying too many local data sim cards (affordable as they are), and one solution was to get a mobile phone with a dual-sim card, an capability that is, interestingly, still missing from Samsung’s top line Galaxy phones – including the Note 5. I did briefly consider the budget range of Asus Zenfones, but they were simply not as nicely made as the Xiaomi’s, and most importantly – the couple of models I checked out all had displays which were too cool in tone for my liking.

Mi phones are available here either directly through their web site, or through resellers. And they are also one of those weird phone manufacturers where their phones are cheaper on their web site than through resellers – and largely because their most popular phones are typically available through flash sales that are pre-announced (to build up hype?!), and get sold out so fast that resellers will jack up their own prices for those enthusiasts who couldn’t get one through the Xiaomi web site. The Mi Note 3 has been out of stock for several weeks now. So, when the next flash sale was announced for last Tuesday at noon, I actually set aside a calendar event reminding me specifically to book one in. And gone in a flash it again was – the Mi Note 3 was out of stock again at their online store in mere hours.

My unit dutifully arrived two days later, shipped without additional cost and it was available for self-pickup at SingPost’s POPStation. Another one of those nice perks ordering from the Xiaomi store.

And so, my brief notes on the Mi Note 3, and also in specific comparison to the Samsung Note 5.

The Mi’s has a metallic body that is painted matte and slightly slippery, though not nearly as much as the Samsung’s bar of soap feel. It’s at least resistance to fingerprints, unlike the Samsung which practically requires a case unless you don’t mind that shiny phone becoming coated with prints in mere minutes.

The Samsung Note 5 vs Xiaomi Mi Note 3.

The Samsung Note 5 vs Xiaomi Mi Note 3.

The Mi’s screen has good viewing angles, and isn’t as obviously saturated as the Samsung’s. There are also two other color balance settings you can toggle around with, none of which makes the phone look better IMO from the default setting. The more serious issue with the Mi though is its limited maximum brightness. Indoor usage is fine, but this phone’s display is simply not bright enough for sunny outdoor use.

The Mi’s screen is reportedly not protected by Gorilla Glass – and that has been included by several reviewers as a disadvantage. However, there’s an interesting YouTube video making its rounds showing how tough (whatever it) is the Mi Note’s display, and it’s reassuring.

The thing has a large 4000mAh battery, compared to Samsung’s 3000mAh battery. Oddly though, it’s actual reported use time is somewhat shorter on some review sites. I haven’t put the phone through long periods of use, but the Mi does seem to mildly sip battery power at least, so having it last 2 days on normal use seems to be easily possible.

Plug-in audio output on the Mi is noticeably louder than the Samsung – important for those of us who listen to music in noisy environments – and clarity in the lower frequencies in music playback is better too.

The thumbprint scanner on the Samsung is somewhat fast and so-so in accuracy, as in it sometimes takes a couple of tries for my thumbprint to register. The Mi’s on the other hand is blazing fast and unfailingly accurate. For added effect, its thumbprint unlock works even when the phone is in standby mode. That’s missing on the Samsung, which means unlocking the phone is a two-step process.

Whatever mojo Xiaomi did do their Note 3's thumbprint scanner, it's working great!

Whatever mojo Xiaomi did do their Note 3’s thumbprint scanner, it’s working great!

If there is one common feature between the two phones where the Mi is at a significant disadvantage, it’s the camera. Pictures are bland and Full HD video quality is awful looking when compared to the Samsung.

As our Ang Mo bud recently remarked too, the Mi doesn’t seem to support all the 4G bands that are used in the US. So, as effective as the phone might be here in Singapore, it might not be as much over there. I had no problems accessing Google services and the usual suite of products on the local version of the device thankfully, though users of the grey import versions of Xiaomi phones have to jump through all sorts of hoops to get them to work.

Summarily – the Mi costs $299 compared to Samsung Note 5’s $848. That’s almost three times as much – and whatever the Note 5 is better in (e.g. overall performance, the stylus, camera, better screen, VR possibilities) isn’t in that multiple even then. For those of us who don’t care about branding or need the higher-tier features from Samsung, LG or Sony – the Mi phones seem pretty much like the real deal. Good stuff!

I’ve had loads of luck with Amazon purchases. Even without the Amazon Prime membership, their free-shipping options to Singapore has made it possible for a lot of items to be bought online and delivered here and costing less than what one would pay for. Just so long as you’re willing to forgo warranty claims though, as these exported items typically carry warranties local to the US. Still, as long as you’re not ordering electronic goods, the chances of failure are minimal. And savings on the other hand are significant.

And that was pretty much the summary of my experience with Amazon again for the just arrived Huawei Watch yesterday morning. It took just a week from the point of order to it being delivered to our home, and about SGD100 was shaved off the local purchase price to boot – the Watch costs about SGD440 normally in Singapore. The model I bought was the cheapest of the Huawei’s options at USD249/SGD341, is silver in color and comes with a black leather band. The pricey versions are black or rose gold, and with metallic bands.

My random initial comments of the Huawei Watch, and a comparison to the currently dead LG G Watch R of mine.

Huawei wasn’t kidding when they aimed to create a premium Android smartwatch. The Watch exudes quality – from its packaging, scratch-resistant sapphire crystal glass, and its polished metallic finishing.

Spec wise, Huawei Watch’s display is slightly larger and also higher resolution than the LG one: 1.4 vs 1.3 inch and 400×400 vs 320×320 pixel resolution. I can indeed tell the difference in resolution, but not the screen size. The latter looks practically identical between the two watches.

The Watch is noticeably smaller in overall size at 42mm than LG’s at 46.4mm, on account of its thin bezel compared to the thick one on the LG. The LG is also slightly thinner depth-wise at 11.1mm compared to 11.5mm on the Huawei – but you won’t be able to tell the difference for this dimension.

The crown placement is also different between the two. It’s 2 o’clock for the Huawei and the more standard placement of 3 o’clock for the LG. I would have liked the button to be placed where standard watches normally place them.

The Android experience between the two watches is about identical, which I assume is because of Google’s requirement for smartwatch manufacturers not to go about creating unique skins – totally unlike the Wild Wild West look and feel of Android smartphones. As tech pundits have pointed out, once you’ve had and used one, there’s really no learning curve involved in using another. The baked-in watch faces though are a different story. These are by no means trivial, since this is one of the few ways – outside the external design and implementation of the unit itself – where Android smartwatches can be differentiated. There were several more watch faces off Huawei’s that I immediately liked than LG’s somewhat more bland offerings.

The battery life is a different matter though. The Huawei comes with a 300mAh battery compared to LG’s significantly larger 410mAh. I haven’t drained the Huawei’s battery yet, but looking at how the percentage points are dropping each hour, the Huawei doesn’t seem like it’ll run as long as the LG watch before needing a recharge.

Neither watches have an ambient light sensor. Not a critical omission but still a very useful feature to have had in both. Not having one means you have to manually adjust the display brightness when need be moving between dramatically differently lit environments (e.g. outdoor to indoor).

Huawei’s charging dock is petite and very light. The strong magnet built into the unit means that the watch and dock can be lifted off a surface still connected to each other. What’s not so great though is that the USB cable seems permanently attached to the dock – the LG dock connects via a standard micro-USB slot (much more useful) – and more seriously, the charger pins and watch do not naturally align. I have to jiggle the Watch a little each time to get a proper charging connection. The LG dock is noticeably easier to use in this regard – I guess also because their dock has raised ledges around its circumference to help guide the watch’s placement onto the dock.

Exquisite packaging!

Exquisite packaging!

The watch seated snugly in its padded case.

The watch seated snugly in its padded case.

Minimal accessories needed: the US-type adapter (since it was shipped from Amazon), and the charging dock.

Minimal accessories needed: the US-type adapter (since it was shipped from Amazon), and the charging dock.

Quite a few presupplied watch faces, and there are more ones that I immediately like than on the old LG G Watch R.

Quite a few baked-in watch faces, and there are more ones that I immediately like than on the old LG G Watch R.

Back of the watch with the leather strap.

Back of the watch with the leather strap.

The outgoing and incoming. The LG G Watch R won't switch on anymore.

The outgoing and incoming. The LG G Watch R won’t power on anymore.

All said, I’m still quite satisfied with the Huawei watch. These Android watches though aren’t cheap, and I reckon one has to think very carefully about the utility it brings to interested owners at their price-points. I use the Android watches largely because of phone/message/calendar notifications, not apps (e.g. fitness tracking, weather). If you’re happy with your phone already offering those, then it’d probably be wiser to wait this out and let smartwatch prices come down by quite a bit more; e.g. when the other Chinese manufacturers finally get into the game with their equivalent products.