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.

While waiting for the Huawei Smartwatch to arrive from Amazon here, another item that I ordered got delivered in the interim. A new backpack for work and the upcoming Melbourne trip – the Thule Enroute Blur 2 Daypack and from an eBay reseller.

That’s admittedly quite a mouthful. Over the years, I’ve had a number of backpacks that I carry to and fro work, on account that the backpacks routinely hold one (or two) notebooks, my larger than normal-sized coffee tumbler, and a bunch of other accessories. Each backpack routinely gets used for about 3 years before they have to be discarded for one reason or another; sometimes because the zippers break or the bag gets too badly stained from spills from the tumblers. Several years ago, Ling bought from Amazon for my birthday a Thule EnRoute Blur daypack and that lasted for a good while, until the woven side-pouches developed small holes from wear and tear. Over time, the holes have grown fairly large. So I figured it was about time to get a replacement.

Thule is a well-regarded Swedish manufacturer of consumer good, though unlike brands like Samsonite, Lowepro or Targus, one tends to find just a small range of their bags carried in local stores. Like many of the other items from bag manufacturers here, they tend to be sold at recommended retail prices at most stores (camera shops being the possible exception as they seem more willing to offer in-store discounts). The EnRoute line has seen a couple of new updated models, and the most recent iteration being the Enroute Blur 2 daypack. This particular backpack is sold at a couple of stores – including Isetan and The Wallet Shop – in just a few colors, and for what seems to be the RRP of $179. Amazon US does not ship the item direct to Singapore. But I found an eBay reseller who was offering the item for substantially less at $133 and including shipping. The reseller is also, apparently, a husband/wife team who run a brick and mortar shop in Kansas specialising mostly in outdoor and biking gear, including many of Thule’s other non-bag products. The bag did take slightly more than a fortnight to arrive, but arrive safely through registered post it did, and in the same condition as one would get buying from a local store.

First impressions – I’m very satisfied. The bag is ever so slightly larger than the EnRoute it’s replacing, slightly more voluminous at 24l than the previous 23l, offers additional compartments, and is of exactly the color – Drab/Green – I wanted. And best of all, at $46 cheaper than if I bought it in Singapore. Not chump change!

Pictures and comments.

Thule bags. They ooze quality.

Thule bags. They ooze quality.

The Thule EnRoute Blur 2 Daypack/Drab colored.

The Thule EnRoute Blur 2 Daypack/Drab colored.

A 'Safe Zone' compartment that is reinforced. Can contain fragile goods like handphones, glasses, and even my Breadtalk Bun for breakfast!

A ‘Safe Zone’ compartment that is reinforced. Can contain fragile goods like handphones, glasses, and even my Breadtalk Bun for breakfast.

The main compartment with a sensible arrangement of smaller pouches for accessories. I like bags that aren't black in internal color. Easier to find small items!

The main compartment with a sensible arrangement of smaller pouches for accessories. I like bags that aren’t black in internal color. Easier to find small items.

The laptop compartment, with a dedicated tablet sleeve too.

The padded laptop compartment, with a dedicated tablet sleeve too. The compartment can fit a 15″ Macbook Pro/15.6″ laptop – but not my Aftershock S17.

Lots of nice little touches, including excess strap organizers.

Lots of nice little touches, including excess strap organizers.

Strap organizers for the shoulder straps even. Not a standard inclusion in many other backpacks.

Strap organizers for the shoulder straps even. Not a standard inclusion in many other backpacks.

Thick padding to distribute weight across your shoulder blades and back.

Thick padding to distribute weight across your shoulder blades and back.

Long product guarantee, but I reckon I'd not be using the bag for this long.

Long product guarantee, but I reckon I’d not be using the bag for this long.

The old EnRoute/Black and the new EnRoute 2/Drab, with the latter being noticeably slightly larger.

The old EnRoute/Black and the new EnRoute 2/Drab, with the latter being noticeably slightly larger.

I’ve a pretty good track record of using Android devices. None of the probably about a dozen Android tablets and smartphones I’ve used in the about last 7 years have failed in a fashion that I haven’t been able to recover from – until the recent weekend that is. The LG G Watch R that Ling bought for my birthday 17 months ago got into a infinite boot loop, and I’ve been stumped on how to restore it back to working state. The failure is apparently common among LG G Watch Rs if Internet tech threads are any indication. And short of returning such units to manufacturer for repair, recovery measures in tech forums have included unlocking the bootloader to flash custom roms to using ice packs to bring down the watch’s internal temperature. None of these solutions have succeeded in coaxing my watch back to life , and it got to the point of utter exasperation that I’m ready to toss the phone down the rubbish chute!

So; looking around for a replacement smart watch and what my options were.

Apple Watch: knocked out of the list real quick. No non-round watches for me. No iPhone to pair it with anyway too.

Asus ZenWatch 2: very affordably priced, but also non-round in form factor.

LG Watch Urbane: The premium version of the LG G Watch R, but after seeing how the Watch R has failed, I’m not inclined to give LG watches another go.

Motorola Moto 360 (2nd Gen): for tech sites, one of the two most highly-regarded Android watches at this moment (the other is the Huawei Watch below). The Gen 2 comes in two sizes and is widely available in Singapore. Unfortunately, the watch while round in form factor also does not make full use of the display area, resulting in what Internet pundits jokingly refer to as a flat-tyre screen. The Gen 2 has two sizes, and my preference was the larger one of 46mm diameter screen. The relatively low resolution used in the screen though was a disappointment; display pixelation was obvious.

Huawei Watch: well-regarded and with stunning looks and premium build. The unit goes for about $450 in Singapore – ouch. But the watch as sold through Amazon exports sales was enjoying a hefty discount of more than a hundred moola savings, with free shipping to boot too.

Samsung Gear S2 Classic: was a real contender. Desirable form factor, chic look, and I didn’t mind that it wasn’t running off Android. Unfortunately, the watch’s retail price is pretty high, and no discounts were offerd on Amazon.

So it was the Huawei watch, and on the way to Singapore. A review to follow soon with comparisons to the LG G Watch R!

LG G Watch R, 2014-2016. R.I.P.

LG G Watch R, 2014-2016. R.I.P.

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!

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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! :)