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Surface Pro (2017) – Part 2

At first glance and at distance, the Surface Pro (2017) doesn’t look different compared to the Surface Pro 3. The new 2-1 hybrid has the same form factor, overall design, and styling. Close-up is when one starts noticing the most obvious difference: smaller screen bezels all round, and therefore allowing for a screen with slightly larger display area: 12.0″ vs 12.3″. The significant differences thereafter are all under the hood and not visible to the naked eye.

The model I picked up was the i5/8GB RAM/256SSD – what many reviewers also note is the sweet spot for price-performance. And after 4 days of fairly intense use, my comments follow. It’s mostly good with a few duhs?!?!.

The larger 12.3″ screen enjoys a beefier resolution of 2736×1824 vs 2160×144 in the SP3. But the latter’s screen was already dense enough at 216ppi. You really can’t see the difference in the higher 267ppi in the SP (2017) unless you have eyes capable of seeing microscopic detail, nor are most people I reckon going to get the additional mileage out of the additional 0.3″ display diagonal. No – the real benefit of the larger screen, for me at least, is that it’s aesthetically pleasing to use a screen that has less thick bezels. The Elite X2 has a similar large 12.3″ screen with length and breadth dimensions similar to the SP (260mm x 173mm) and also identical resolution. But it also uses thicker bezels all round too – making the device’s footprint just that bit larger.

The screen is as bright and contrasty as the SP3’s, with pleasing color renditions for both photos and videos. Not quite like the X1 Carbon: where faces have an odd plasticky look in video playback. However, the new screen still has a very slight yellow tint. It’s subtle, but it’s there. Interestingly, forum discussions from other users do acknowledge this screen’s characteristic, but also attributes our being able to notice it to the fact that many glossy display screens are slightly cool, color temperature-wise, to begin with. So, that’s what we’re normally used to. This color balance can be adjusted, though not by any Intel HD Graphics app. Don’t bother looking for it with an SP out of the box – it’s not installed. You’ll have to adjust color balance using Display Settings => Display Adapter Properties => Color Management => Advanced => Calibrate Display. Yeah, Microsoft has turned something that used to be simple terrifically complex now!

The Surface Pro (2017) line of models was also accompanied by the improved Surface Pen, which is also no longer a standard inclusion – Microsoft claims that most people won’t use the Pen. Which is true enough for me, but Hannah liked drawing on the old SP3, so it seems I’ll have to fork out a bit more money at some point to also pick up this accessory.

My old i5 SP3 had fans that could run up to high-speed and generate audible noise when under load. This i5 version of the new SP is now fanless. Normally, the exclusion of fans is only in notebooks using low performance processors, and certainly not i5’s normally. So, Microsoft has some special design and engineering mojo to have achieved this.

Compared to the SP3, the new Surface Pro (2017) has a larger battery (25% larger compared to SP4) and a more power-efficient processor too. I haven’t completed a full battery usage cycle yet, but the old SP3 could run for about 4.5 hrs with my normal usage patterns. This new SP looks like it’ll last 6-7hrs for me. Not quite at the level of 13+ hrs that Microsoft claims, but it’s still a significant bump.

The Windows sleep mode also seems to work better than the old SP3. Specifically, sending the new SP into sleep – e.g. by closing the type cover – doesn’t seem to consume any significant amount of power. An overnight sleep might drop the battery by about 0.1-0.2% – that’s it. This might be because of OS optimizations with the new hardware under the hood. But the SP3 routinely would sip quite a bit more power than that when in sleep mode.

This is my first laptop with Windows Hello Facial Recognition, and it works well. And like the ultra sensitive and responsive fingerprint sensor on the Huawei Mate 9 from last year, maybe too well even! Basically, the SP’s camera has been configured for near infrared (IR) imaging and recognizes authenticated faces to automatically log into the device. The SP easily registered my face in during setup – spectacles included – and the login process to Windows 10 now is fast and requiring no action on my part. What’s the problem then? It works so fast that it’s harder now to switch user accounts. I’ve set up a safe Windows account for Hannah to use for her homework, and when doing a quick account switch, it has to be her face in front of the SP and not mine – lest the Surface Pro think I’m the one trying to re-login again LOL.

The new model’s kickstand is also different. The old SP3’s kickstand hinge closed shut with a springing ‘snap’ sound, while this new one closes with slightly more resistance and it’s also muffed. I reckon this is because the new SP’s kickstand allows the device to sit flatter and less of an incline. Such will be useful when you’re using the SP in tablet mode.

The Surface Pro (2017) (top) is just a mite thinner and smaller than the Elite X2.

More Trump antics on the daily aggregation from Google News.

The lack of a USB-C port on this spanking new Surface Pro from a technology giant in this day and age is just stupid. I don’t buy Microsoft’s excuse of a lack of informed use of correctly rated USB-C chargers. I can charge my X1 Carbon and also the HP Elite X2 using the same USB-C charger, and can’t do the same because Microsoft thinks users will be confused. Just bullocks.

That said, the  Surface Pro Power Charger does replenish the SP’s battery quickly, and it’s also slightly more compact compared to the SP3’s.

The new version of the Type Cover is functionally the same as Type Cover 4, though there are a few new functions available on the function key row.

The new SP features the same magnesium-painted exterior all around the unit. It’s very nice to look at, smooth to the touch and cooling even when the device is in rest mode. However, the SP3’s similar coating was susceptible to scratches and stains from normal use, and I’m not positive that this new SP won’t also look as dingy and worn on the exterior a year from now. So, a folio wraparound case is on the way from Amazon that’ll hopefully protect the SP from these cosmetic wear and tear.

And lastly. If there was a singularly large issue with this new SP, it’s that my i5 unit has the utterly slow Toshiba SSD installed on it. Some of the reviews online had units with the blazingly fast Samsung PM971 SSD, while others – like mine – ended up with the slower drive. And no, I can’t change it as it’s soldered onto the motherboard. Arrggghh!!!

The X1 Carbon (left) wipes the floor with the new SP (right).

Still, the slow-like-turtle Toshiba SSD aside, I’m glad I picked up this new SP, and it’s a great machine for its asking price. More notes to come later after another extended period of use.

Surface Pro (2017) – Part 1

There was an article in the national media several days ago about the amount of electronic waste that the average Singapore generates: and it’s a pretty significant amount. I reckon that’s one of the consequences of a technologically advanced nation, where devices are used not just in productivity, but also for personal consumption. In the old days, people could be encouraged to try repairing and fixing failed electronic appliances. But this sort of DIY repair and making good is just not practical for a lot of the appliances we use today, what with their compactness, tightly integrated hardware and electronics etc. For instance, technicians are already finding it difficult to open up a closed system like a MacBook or iPad, much less end-users.

I have a lot of preloved technology gadgets at home. But it was only a week ago when I finally resolved to sell off as much as possible what’s still working, and drop off to e-waste recycling bins all the rest that aren’t. And nicely, after about 4 days of selling a half-dozen new/unused/pre-loved electronic items, I accrued a small sum of money from the proceedings to buy the new Surface Pro (2017), a model that was released middle of last year.

Why a new Surface Pro though? I already use two to three laptops at work. My workplace has just given me also a very nifty and decent HP Elite x2 1012 G2 tablet for use, a model that is basically HP’s equivalent take of the Surface Pro, if designed specifically for enterprise use. For my personal machine, the Dell XPS 13 was my daily driver at work for 2.5 years before being replaced by the X1 Carbon last year – and the Dell XPS 13 battery sensor failed promptly thereafter, consigning this ultrabook permanently now to a desktop table where it can only run on A/C power.

But these two workhorse machines have been/are functional machines and not nearly as fun as a Surface Pro is to use. There’s just something alluring about Windows 2-1 hybrid notebooks, with their svelte form factor, stunning screens, support for stylus pens, and also detachable keyboards. I love the Surface Pro 3 I’ve had for 3 years, but choosing the 4GB RAM at the point of purchase was a huge mistake on my part. It ran the pre-installed Windows 8.1 sufficiently well, but struggled after it was bumped up to Windows 10 when Microsoft ran the free-upgrade programme for all users of Windows 7 and 8.x. Whatever notebook I was going to get from this point onwards needs to have at least 8GB RAM.

With about SGD1.6K – including a small flexi-spending incentive given by my workplace to buy technology equipment for use – and after an additional small top-up, I had enough to buy such a spec-ed new Surface Pro (2017). Microsoft – for some unknown reason – doesn’t call their latest iteration of their Surface Pro line of hybrid notebooks the SP5, even though it’s clearly succeeding the SP4 that was released in Oct 2015. The local stores were carrying an attractive promotional bundle this month where the i5/8GB RAM/256SSD + Type Cover (Black) for SGD1,688 – an attractive bargain.

The HP (left) and Microsoft.

Handling notes and usage comments in the next post!

Samsung Gear Sport – Part 2

I had a funny early experience on the first full day of use with the new Samsung Gear Sport. I’d lost track of time while working on documents in the office. Until the new watch suddenly vibrated, announcing that I’d been sitting on my butt for too long – an hour to be exact – and I should get up, and do five torso twists. Don’t know what those are? No worries – the watch helpfully ran an animation to guide me along. And sometime later in the day, I had to head out of my office for a meeting. After getting up, barely 5 steps later, the Gear Sport helpfully piqued “well-done, good to know that you’re off your feet finally to do some exercise!” LOL.

There’s basically my net takeaway of the Samsung Gear Sport. As a smartwatch, it’s not really too different from the Huawei Watch from a functional point of view. But as a health and activity tracker, it sure is zealous in its mission to get its wearers to do simple physical activities all day long.

The Samsung Gear Sport is sold at a recommended retail price tag of SGD449 in stores here. Quite a bit higher than Amazon’s list price of USD275 with frequent price fluctuations, though various stores here also offer bundled discount vouchers and also additional accessories (e.g. straps). I found a Lazada reseller selling it for SGD378/USD284 – a little higher but I get the local warranty. Credit especially to the reseller too who delivered the watch to the door step in less than 24 hours.

And four days after wearing the watch at all times – excepting short 15 minute charge cycles a few times a day to keep the watch juiced up, my comments:

This is my first watch that runs Tizen, and I’m a fan of it now. Samsung’s operating system isn’t as sophisticated as Android’s, but it’s nonetheless looks polished and runs fluidly. I’m not a smartwatch power user, so have no need for the gazillions of Android Wear apps out there. So that the Tizen OS is comparatively less expansive in its range of third-party apps doesn’t bother me.

Samsung Gear’s signature rotating bezel is really helpful, and is my preferred method of scrolling through screen pages and tabs on this watch, rather than via touchscreen. The bezel though only handles scrolling and not actual input for the most part. It would had been perfect if there was a third dedicated watch button that defaults to ‘enter’ or ‘ok’.

The Gear Sport comes with onboard storage for MP3s, so you can play music through a wireless Bluetooth headphones without needing the phone. I didn’t think I was going to use this feature, but after trying it, it’s actually a lot more useful than I thought. I had no difficulties coupling it with two Bluetooth headphones – a SonicGear EarPump Studio V and an Audio-Technica ATH-AR3BT – and I’ll be taking both out in turn for running soon enough. The 4GB capacity is somewhat limited though compared to the kind of storage options you have on smartphones, but it’s still sufficient for most use-cases, excepting 40km marathons!

The watch comes with about a dozen preinstalled watch faces that’s varied in styles, and several offer further customization options. There are also additional free and paid watch faces, and I reckon that the former offers easily enough variety to satisfy most users. So, no need to purchase additional watchfaces before you find a couple that you like.

The battery dipped 3% with brightness set to ‘7’ (of 10), all tracking features on and watch face on (with 15s auto-dimming) after 90 minutes, Bluetooth integration to watch on. So, the Gear Sport should last two days, and more if power-saving features are enabled. That’s also borne out Samsung Gear app’s battery monitor – picture below.

The watch charger replenishes the watch battery wirelessly, and the dock’s base has a fairly deep cavity that helps you easily seat the watch. I recalled reading one report that the charger only works if you connect it to the USB port of a computer, but I had no such difficulties and it’s worked fine with the couple of non-Samsung third party USB chargers I’ve used it with so far.  Other users have also reported that vibration alerts are a little mild, which can potentially make it hard to ‘feel’ incoming alerts. The vibration motor isn’t quite as strong as what you’ll normally get on smartphones, but if you wear the watch close to the wrist, it’s not so bad.

Charging takes a bit more time than the Huawei though even though their batteries are similar in capacity – 300 mAh. A charging test revealed that it takes roughly 15-16 minutes to run the battery up by 10% – which means about 2.5 hours to fully charge the Gear Sport – more than twice the time it takes for the Huawei.

The Samsung Health app has a nice layout, and customizable too. Oddly, I couldn’t get the app to measure heart rate using the watch only and not smartphone. A bug maybe?

Pictures and screen shots!

The Gear Sport supports the National Steps Challenge too!

Securely packaged. The watch silicon strap as supplied has an almost alluring almond scent.

Emptying the box: the watch, a spare strap, a charger (don’t need that), the charging dock, and a quick start-up leaflet.

The rotating bezel looks silver-ish here, but is really a dark grey in color.

Slightly smaller screen and lower resolution than the Huawei Watch, but the Gear Sport uses the same AMOLED display technology. The Samsung Gear app allows customizations for its baked-in watch faces too.

Projected battery life of just over 2 days with all sensors and phone-tethering on, maximum brightness, with display on 15s auto-off. This is with no fiddling on the phone too.

Gotta improve on that sleep efficiency rating!

The Samsung Gear Sport and Huawei Watch.

The Gear Sport really does feel heavier, despite its almost marginal weight difference of 4g.

The Gear Sport as won. This watch face is titled ‘Analog Utility’, comes pre-installed, and allows you to choose different info dials. From top to bottom, it’s displaying Sunrise/Sunset timing, current weather (Singapore has been experiencing a much colder than normal monsoon – brrrr!!), and step counter.

The Samsung Gear Sport would be perfect if the watch battery could run longer than its 2 days longevity in most use-cases, and the watch slightly cheaper than the about SGD370 as sold here. Still, I’m glad I went with this rather than a Garmin offering. Tizen works great, the screen is lovely, and built-in trackers and alerts actually useful and effective in reminding me to get up when I’ve been sitting too long. I’ll do a follow-up post once I use it for running and swimming, so more to come at some point!

Smartwatches

It’s pretty much a given that most electronic gadgets do not hold their value well over time. Whether it’s cameras, laptops or smartphones, these devices basically start depreciating the instant you buy them – bringing about the adage that you only really want to buy these gadgets when you absolutely need them.

Which makes the Huawei Smartwatch pretty special: not only is the phone still in production more than 2.5 years after it was announced, the watch still sells for about the same price as it did: I bought the watch on discount for USD249 – and it’s listed at USD299 @ Amazon today.

On this, I reckon Huawei did something really clever: while they have put out a second version of the phone, their second gen phone is pretty well-differentiated from both a design but also specification point of view from the original Huawei Smartwatch so that the new version doesn’t cannibalize the older model too much.

I’ve had my Huawei Smartwatch now for about 20 months, and it’s been my daily-use device almost exclusively (though see below). Despite newer smartwatches being released – and Apple and also cheap Chinese knock-offs – Huawei’s first-gen offering still remains a real looker, and with an appropriate watch face easily nice enough for use as a a dress watch too.

On the other hand:

Battery life – as with most watches on the Android Wear OS or even Apple Watch – just isn’t very good, and near daily charging is mandatory. The daily juicing also means that the watch doesn’t accompany me out of the country – I already have too many accessories to bring to charge the several powerbanks, still/video/360 camera batteries, tablets and smartphones!

Android Wear 2.0 was announced in Feb 2017, and it’s been quite a mixed bag after it was installed for the Huawei Watch. Notifications were all different, and seemingly inconsistently working.

The watch is water-resistant, not waterproof. That means it can’t be worn when Hannah and I swim every weekend at the Minton pool.

Most seriously though: the charging pins on three chargers – Huawei’s OEM and also two cheap Made in China knockoffs – have degraded over time. From the beginning, it was already a little hard to get a good magnetic lock from watch to dock to start charging, requiring a few tries. Now it’s frustratingly difficult if not outright impossible.

The last bit is a really serious problem – since the watch is essentially unusable if it can’t be charged, and daily.

How the Huawei Watch is getting charged of late – on a good day, that is! At least McDonald’s Curry Sauce sachets are of some use.

Coupled in large part also that the entire of Singapore is ramping up efforts to get people here to live healthy lifestyles, and also providing free health trackers and wristbands. The Health Promotion Board for instance has also setup the National Steps Challenge – which (who would have guessed) I have also signed up for. So, I figured now’s about the time for me to look into getting a smartwatch with robust health and activity tracking and is also waterproof for me to wear when I swim.

So, what options? I checked out the Nokia – no, they’re not (yet) making their own smart watches but bought a company that did so – Steel HR, Garmin’s Vivoactive 3 and HR models, AmazFit Pace, Samsung Gear Sport, LG Watch Sport, Apple Watch 3, Huawei Watch 2, Fitbit Blaze, and the Samsung Gear Fit2. Not all of these are waterproof though.

And after a week of research, I still haven’t quite decided what to go with!

Year in Review – 2017

Another year has almost rocketed right past us. So, time again to do the annual review of things that went well and those that just didn’t. As before, this blog is a fully independent entity and we’re not affiliated to any social media influencer agencies, nor receive any free gadgets/dining experiences/vacations to review. Everything is paid out of our own pocket.

Huawei Mate 9 – Mixed: this phone came out of Ling’s mobile biannual re-contract. The phone was Huawei’s top of the line (at that point), decent build and quite highly spec-ed with a very large battery – but the hyper-sensitive thumbprint scanner resulted in a lot of accidental phone unlocks. Moreover, it’s hard to step down to a FHD LED screen when you’re used to Samsung Notes’ QHD Super Amoled screens. The phone got exchanged for the Samsung Galaxy S8+, which turn right out to be a…

Samsung Galaxy S8+ – Win: … easily. Still not quite the best phone I’ve used (relative experiences at that point, mind you) with the Samsung Note 5 taking that crown still, but the S8+ has come very close to it! The screen is gorgeous, takes 4K 30fps videos, Android 7.0 runs along swimmingly smooth, and the screen to body ratio is as good as it can get at this point. I still prefer my phones to be less curvy around the edges – but oh well. Coupled with the UBeesize rugged underwater case I bought @ Amazon, the S8+ now also doubles-up as an underwater cam too.

Using the S8+ @ The Minton pool.

Panasonic GX85 – Win: the first of three cameras I picked up in 2017, and this one was right at the start of the year. I got the mid-range GX85 at a great price, and it has in-turn won over the bits of trepidation I had about getting a Panasonic m4/3 camera as I’ve only used Olympus m4/3s up to this point. The out of camera picture resolution isn’t quite where my E-M1 or E-PL6 is at, and the color rendition is… different. But the camera counter-punches with reliable AF, silent shutter, handling, and useful trimmings like USB-charging and support for 4K video. I had to send the GX85 for a minor repair in October though when the sensor was – oddly – knocked out of alignment. The unit was still in warranty, so Panasonic fixed it quickly in a week.

Samsung Gear 360 (2017) – Mixed: only on account that I still haven’t quite found frequent use for this novel gadget that was picked up for cheap in time for our June trip to Western Australia this year. The camera takes acceptable stills but the quality of the 360 video is a result still of limited technology implementation at this consumer-level price-point. I reckon it’ll still be at least 1-2 years before 8K 360 cameras reach a price-point that doesn’t hurt as much as it does now, so I’ll try to have get more mileage out of the Gear 360 in 2018.

Lenovo X1 Carbon – Win: the trauma I had with repairing the X1 Carbon when it catastrophically failed 2 weeks after delivery this year in June nearly made me want to throw this notebook out of my level 8 office! Alright – just kidding on that one, but Lenovo’s after sales service was exasperatingly slow to the max, and things only started moving when I insisted my repair request be escalated to management. The notebook after having it replaced now works as it should: lovely keyboard to type on, good battery life, screen that’s easy on the eyes, and very light to hold.

Sirui T024X – Win: this moderately light tripod has come on a long trip out of the country so far, and fared well enough. Tripods are largely considered life-time investments though and not something you really need to upgrade, short of mechanical failures of whatever tripods you’re currently using, or that your general camera equipment has changed to the point that you really don’t need the heavy duty and just plain heavy stuff. Mine was the latter. Since I’d finally sold away all of my old Nikon DSLRs and lenses, I didn’t need the old Manfrotto 190CXPRO3 tripod anymore and wanted something lighter.

Thermomix TM5 – Win: Ling should finally note this one, but judging from the very long list of pastries, Western/Asian cuisine she’s whipped out using this all-in-one kitchen gadget, I reckon the TM5 has been one of our best investments this year. If only it wasn’t this expensive!

Char Siew Chicken using the Thermomix.

iPad Pro 12.9″ – Win: This was a fairly expensive buy but also an example of an acquisition whose actual use went beyond the initial projection. I’d been struggling to display multi-page piano scores for practice on our Yamaha upright since the start of the year. It was either a display size or page-turning issue. The Acrobat Reader app on the iPad Air 2 – which has since experienced a irrecoverable battery failure – could turn pages reliably with finger flicks, but the screen was small. The Surface Pro 3 is of the right display size, but I couldn’t adjust my feet to turn pages using the AirTurn PED. The iPad Pro 12.9″ has finally solved both challenges, and effectively: the large screen and True Tone screen displays music scores with great whites, and page-turning is easy. The iPad Pro has also come become the children’s choice gaming device when they do get some time on it.

Passion10 eScooter – Win: There’s been an awful spate of accidents involving Personal Mobility Devices on our roads, some fatal – and several from inappropriate use of these devices, e.g. e-scooters on our roads where they are not permitted. Our eScooter is used purely as a leisure device, never on roads, and very gingerly on pedestrian pathways even. Both kids enjoy their turns on it, and the device is just big and powerful enough to have both kids and an adult riding short distances on it too.

Scooting around the Marina Bay area.

Guinea Pigs – Win: As a child, my parents strictly forbade my two brothers and myself from owning pets, so Ling quips that I’m reliving my childhood by adopting a Syrian hamster last year, and now two guinea pigs this year. To wit – Rudolf and Danny’s primary caregiver is me, and the kids are only the beneficiaries. The scale of work and costs involved in caring for two male boars is vastly heavier than Stacy the Syrian – our spare +1 room now has huge containers of piggie food, hay, hiding places, pee toilets, bedding material, and – of course – about eight large economy bags of pee pads! Think baby diapers LOL.

Blurb Books Vol. 8 – Lose: I’ve been putting together and printing photo books with Blurb for almost 10 years now, and for our volume this year, finally hit my first very large glitch – misprinted jacket covers. Granted, the misprint was the result entirely of an oversight on my part using their in-house desktop publishing software, but the lack of reasonably priced solutions was unacceptable. Who in his right mind would agree to reprint an entire pricey book of about SGD140 just because its separate jacket cover was misprinted?

Staycation M Hotel – Lose: Objectively-speaking, it didn’t affect our anniversary celebrations as we had a blast everywhere else with checking out places in the central business district that we previously didn’t make time for – including stuffing ourselves at two Keisuke restaurants, and catching the comedy, whoops super-hero film Thor: Ragnarok. But our stay at this hotel itself wasn’t really any good.

Zhiyun Smooth Q Smartphone Gimbal – Mixed: Unlike the Samsung Gear 360, the Smooth Q is pretty good as what it does, judging from the limited time I’ve spent with it so far. Like the Gear 360 though, I haven’t yet found a persistent use-case for it right this moment. Hopefully the next time I do an extended video-recording session, the Smooth Q will prove its chops.

Canon G7X Mark II – Win: after almost three years of back and forth wondering whether I should try a 1″ compact, the G7X Mark II got discounted to a price at a store here that was substantially lower than what Amazon was charging themselves. Hooray for the (very rare) tech bargains we do get here! In very good light and outdoors, the G7X II produces images that are almost indistinguishable from what get out of m4/3s – but in less light than that, the differences become a lot more evident. The camera however focuses briskly, is jammed pack with features – the lack of 4K video support being the largest omission for me – and is more portable than any m4/3s camera I’ve got at this point.

The G7X II has made possible wefie shots like these.

That’s a wrap for 2017, and how fast the year has come and gone!

Kids @ The Minton Pool

One thing about living on an island is that as since we’re completely surrounded by water, it’s practically a life-skill requirement for all of us island-dwellers to learn how to swim! We often brought Hannah as a young girl to our old condo pool, and took a lot of pictures on the now six year old setup: a cheap Canon IXUS HS115 protected with its dedicated underwater casing. This little camera over the years has survived loads of water dunking, beach sand etc. without ever breaking a sweat figuratively, and the little Canon compact camera always emerged unscathed and continued to work perfectly.

If there are limitations to the HS115 with underwater setup:

It shot full HD videos at a fairly pedestrian 24 fps rate that’s closer to film than home video.

It didn’t shoot in RAW – and color sensing was very occasionally off, given the significance presence of blue colors in a typical pool or underwater image.

The camera slightly heated up after extended use – which in itself doesn’t hurt the camera in any way, but it inadvertently caused condensation to build in the air cavity in front of the glass lens elements and housing’s lens protrusion.

Water droplets occasionally retaining on the lens protrusion: resulting in ugly blobs on pictures taken.

With our trip to Phuket coming up shortly, I’ve been looking into replacing this setup for pool and underwater pictures. Despite that dedicated underwater housings – what I’ve been using – are supposedly more reliable than underwater compacts, they are also by their very nature bulky, and also are a hefty additional expense – the HS115’s housing being a rare exception as I bought at a very low price. I did find a fairly cheap third party manufacturer of housings, so kept that in view for the GX7 Mark II.

So – looking at underwater compacts then. Most of the large camera manufacturers – Panasonic, Canon, Nikon, Olympus and Fujifilm – carry their own compact underwater cameras, with many costing at least SGD300 and more. But with the exception of a couple of the higher-tier (i.e. expensive) models, the cameras routinely do not support RAW. More worryingly though was that no matter how highly rated and well-reviewed each model was, there would be a few reviewers @ Amazon who’d comment on water seeping into their units – sometimes eventually, at other times shortly after purchase – typically rendering the camera useless thereafter. And manufacturers apparently do not honor repair warranties for damage from water for their underwater cameras. The irony!

The solution I eventually went with was different: the Samsung Galaxy S8+ is water-resistant (note – not waterproof though!), so why not just couple the phone with a dedicated waterproof case? And the S8+ would offer RAW support, touch-AF and controls, 4K video at 30fps – all the nice trimmings of a full-featured compact camera. And the housing isn’t technically sophisticated since there are far fewer dials or buttons on the S8+. The case just needs to be solidly waterproof. And to begin with, even with some water got in, the S8+ is water-resistant!

UBeesize Transparent Shockproof Underwater Cover for Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus.

After a lot of exploration around competing cases, I found a S8+ case that was well-reviewed @ Amazon, and made by what sounds like an Asian – likely Chinese – company called UBeesize. The small number of negative feedback mentioned its bulkiness – but still way smaller than a dedicated camera housing – and issues of sound echoing when the phone is used, a non-issue as I do not intend to use the phone in the pool. And the case costs just USD22 – so it’s it doesn’t burn the pocket. But being the kiasu person I am, I ordered also an Amazon Basics generic waterproof case.

Both items have arrived, and after the usual extended water test using absorbent material, the UBeesize got taken out for a spin at the pool over the weekend – and the results were wonderful! The case kept the S8+ fully dry, and I had no difficulties triggering pictures and videos (note: touchscreens do not work underwater, so the phone needs to be configured to snap pictures using one of the physical buttons). And the images and videos coming out of the S8+ were pleasing too, though all were taken at fixed focal length.

Pictures!

We don’t bring P to the pool often enough. Lucky though he still takes to it naturally!

Low-angle shot with the S8+ lens just above the waterline.

H providing the necessary horsepower!

And a quick video. The source is 4K 30fps, with YouTube’s usual video compression algorithm applied too. But the short 14 second clip shows pretty decent results.

 

 

Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark II – Part 2

Usability and handling notes!

As with all digital cameras in general, these imaging devices tend to do better when taking pictures in good light – and the smaller the sensor is, the most pronounced will be the issues of noise in low light photography. So, I’ve not been under any illusions that the new G7X Mark II would be a low light photography wonder.

The G7X starts up quickly, and is ready for pictures about a second after starting-up. There’s the familiar ‘chime’ song played at start-up, but it’s something you can easily disable in Settings – and likewise also the Canon startup logo too.

The camera is jam-packed with features. There are two different auto settings, scenes modes, bracketing, time-lapse, a somewhat configurable shooting info display, Face ID, different C-AF modes, ND filter, ability to set an upper ISO limit and adjust rate of change when in ISO Auto. While the G7X doesn’t support 4K, I appreciate that the camera out of the box supports both NTSC and PAL video systems. Some of the cameras from other manufacturers – including my Panasonic GX85 and also likely the Sony RX100s too – only support PAL for the local models, which in turn fixes video shot to 25fps, or 50fps if the camera happens to support it. I prefer my videos to be in 30fps – so there.

AF is quick though not what I’d call instantaneous. There’s some AF hunting in low-light, more so if I turn off AF-Assist (which I always do). Still, nothing quite as bad as the X70 though whose AF sometimes went forwards, backwards, forwards etc. as if it had a mind of its own LOL.

Muting the camera will not get you totally silent shooting. Triggering the shutter release will still produce a soft and pleasant ‘click’ sound.

The mode and exposure compensation dials are stiff and offer good resistance. One huge problem I keep having on the E-PL6 has been how easily the command mode dial turns – often just by putting or lifting the camera in and out of my messenger bag. Too often, I’ll pull the E-PL6 out of my bag to take a quick shot – only to see that the picture is significantly over/under-exposed because the mode dial has been turned to ‘S(hutter)-Priority’ instead of ‘A(perture)-Priority’ that I normally shoot in. The G7X’s buttons also offer adequate resistance, don’t feel mushy, and put out a muffled ‘click’ sound when depressed.

In several very nice usability touches too, the camera includes a Step/Continuous selector that lets you decide whether you want the control ring to turn smoothly, or with graduated ‘clicks’ to provide a more tactile experience. The ring turns smoothly silently on the RX100s – which of course is important when I’m taking videos: you wouldn’t want clicking sounds to be recorded! However, the clicking feedback is very useful when I’m taking stills. Canon offers both – just amazing. Finally, the G7X has a rubberized handgrip – missing on the RX100s.

I’ve come to realize how convenient is it for my cameras to support in-camera charging, as it really lightens the amount of clutter we have to haul on vacations. Charging using the micro USB port on the G7X is a little fiddly. Not in that the micro USB port is loose or anything like that, but the port seems just a mite larger than a typical micro USB connector. Not a deal breaker, but it’s a little annoying to have to jiggle the connector until the camera detects the appropriate connection for charging to begin.

In case the connector fails at some point, Canon includes a separate AC battery charger – something that the RX100s do not. Cheapskake Sony and hooray for Canon!

The G7X is about 4mm wider than the RX100 V, and very slightly taller.

The mode and exposure compensation dials offer adequate resistance. While this isn’t to say it can never happen, I’m far less likely  to accidentally change dial settings on the G7X compared to some of my other cameras.

The buttons situated on the back panel a clicky – nice – but the control dial doesn’t offer a lot of travel. Coupled with the fact that the dial is small – not much space on this compact camera to begin with – turning the dial is a little fiddly.

The HDMI and micro USB ports. The left eye socket is situated very close to both ports’ dust flap, so if you have a wrist strap with a metallic ring, the ring might interfere with your use of the dust flap. My particular G7X’s micro USB port also seems very slightly larger than the half-dozen micro USB male connectors I’ve tried plugging it into.

The G7x uses the NB-13L battery, rated at 1250mAh. It’s a pretty small battery, with a CIPA rating of 265 shots.

Next post on pictures!

Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark II – Part 1

I’ve always found taking pictures with the smartphone fiddly. They’re pocketable yes – but the lack of a handholding grip makes holding the phone to take any sort of a picture a routinely nervous experience. So, over the last half-dozen years or so, I’ve had a few dalliances with small non-interchangeable lens compact cameras – including the Panasonics LX7 and LX100, and the Fujifilm X70. The use cases for these acquisitions were quite specific: a berms-pocket-friendly camera when my messenger bag isn’t with me, and for family wefies. Of the three, two have been sold away: the LX100 had great specs and handled well – but wasn’t particularly compact, and there was an obvious image softness and also color rendering that I couldn’t get past. And the LX100 couldn’t be used for wefies for its lack of a flip-up or articulating screen. The X70 was compact, but perhaps because of the larger APS-C sensor and the shallow depth of field, it was routinely hard to get all four of us in sharp focus, unless the lens was stopped down significantly.

Many industry observers have reported on the gradual demise of the small sensor compact camera segment, in large part because the imaging you get from it is now matched – and in specific aspects even surpassed – by the current generation smartphones.

There is one holdout segment though: and it’s the one inch sensor compacts. I’ve long kept a close eye on developments and models here, and been tempted to get one for years now. Sony especially has been particularly aggressive with its RX cameras, with the almost yearly iteration of its very popular RX100 series of 1″ compacts. And Panasonic has also just got onto the bandwagon too last year with its aggressively priced LX10. In the last several years though, there was always one issue or another about these models that made me hesitant about picking one up. Whether it’s the asking price – the  relatively new Sony RX100 Mark V comes with an eye-watering SGD1399 RRP price tag – or a specification that disappoints, e.g. battery life, AF or optics.

Our upcoming Phuket trip though made me quicken any purchase decision I might be making: on account that unlike our Western Australia trip in June this year, I didn’t think I’d want to prop my E-M1 on a tripod in a busy street just for a picture of the four of us. Moreover, it’d be icing on the cake if I could find something which had an equivalent underwater casing that won’t cost a bomb. Y’know, if we’re kayaking in Phang Nga bay and a rogue wave hits us haha.

As it is now, the leading 1″ sensor compact models are the Sony RX100 Marks III to V – which other manufacturer still puts on shelves three iterations of their current line LOL – the Canon G9X and G7X Marks II, and the Panasonic LX10. Of these six models, the G9X is the smallest sized and very attractively priced at about SGD600. But the lack of a flip-up screen meant it was knocked right out of consideration. The RX100s also have a small electronic viewfinder, but do not support touchscreen AF. So, after a lot of price comparisons and hunting around – including from pre-loved resales – the summary of it was:

The almost 3.5 year old RX100 Mark III model is the equivalent of the G7X Mark II and LX10, price-wise.

I found a camera store that was selling the RX100 Mark V with significant discounts: at just SGD1,145. This model is top of the line in almost every single regard – imaging, AF, burst mode, 4K stabilization etc. – but the electronic wizardry takes its toll on its already small battery. This RX100 will run out of juice faster than all its predecessors.

The LX10 is about SGD820 and almost the equivalent of the Mark V. But there were a few odd videos I saw on YouTube that showed the camera having issues video focusing. Also, there were no affordable underwater casings for it.

The G7X Mark II was released about 1.5 years ago and Canon is expected to issue an update to it sometime early next year – maybe. The camera is very slightly larger than the diminutive RX100s, and has a cheap third party underwater casing for it. Its’ AF, imaging and optics are pretty good – if not quite where the RX100 is.

And when it finally came down to it, I went for the G7X Mark II over the weekend – largely on account of the price I got it for: SGD699 or USD513 – significantly lower than Singapore’s recommended retail price of SGD799 and even Amazon’s listed price of USD679. Of the three contending models, the G7X was the cheapest. And to think of it: a year and a half ago I was about to buy the G7X Mark I already – but changed my mind to X70 at the last minute. So, this is like coming back full-circle.

First pictures!

The Canon G7X Mark II. It was a close call between this or the Sony RX100 Mark III. The G7X Mark II won out largely on cost and that it’s widely regarded to be an easier camera to hold and use.

With lens fully extended to 100mm. The aperture drop-off at maximum focal length isn’t too severe either – at f2.8.

The camera is also very slightly chunkier than the RX100 cameras, but benefits from it – especially in the rubberized grip. The RX100s lack these, which makes dropping the camera a real risk, unless you’re mindful enough to always wrist-loop it.

The 3″ rear screen can look cluttered but the usual Info button can disable the info elements.

More notes on the usability next!

Zhiyun Smooth Q Smartphone Gimbal – Part 1

Many imaging devices of both the still type (e.g. cameras, smartphones) and video (e.g. camcorders, smartphones too LOL) like to claim that they are stabilized, and feature mechanisms and technologies to reduce if not eliminate what’s commonly known as ‘camera shake’. Olympus of course has the very nifty five-axis optical stabilization technology that the company has continue to improve over its micro four-thirds cameras. For instance, their current top of the line model – the E-M1 Mark II – is able to fairly easily obtain sharp five-second exposures. And this fellow here was even able to hit 20 seconds!

Reducing shake seems also quite different between both types of imaging devices, and I reckon it’s harder when it comes to recording video than still images. The old Panasonic TM700 I’ve owned for almost 7.5 years now – and still working perfectly albeit that it’s covered now with all manner of dings and scratches – has superb optical stabilization for video. But it doesn’t do 4K resolution. All the videos we took in our last vacation were in 4K, and the Huawei Mate 9 was clearly struggling to stabilize the video footage. I reckon trying to reduce shake on crazy high-resolution videos require lots of sophisticated machinery that simply won’t fit into a smartphone form factor.

So and looking around. Apparently, there are fairly straight-forward gadgets that work on more or less the same premise and lets one capture stable videos on smartphones: you mount your smartphone on a three-axis electronic gimbal that tries to sense and buffer your most extreme wrist movements. The solutions have come from quite a few manufacturers – including crowdfunded projects – and typically cost several hundreds of dollars. The most expensive, and maybe also the one which is most effective in its job, is the DJI OSMO – and it costs a whopping SGD430. That’s a crazy amount of money to spend on a handphone accessory. Albeit a very useful one, but no way I’m going to pay for that kind of money.

Most other gimbals cost SGD250 and more too, but I found one from a Chinese manufacturer which costs substantially less – the Zhiyun Smooth-Q, and I picked it up for SGD178. The manufacturer also makes a number of other gimbals, and the general consensus among reviewers in my pre-decision fact-finding is that:

It’s crazy cheap.

It’s reasonably well-built for the cheap price, but slightly lacking the premium build in some of the very pricey devices.

It offers nearly all the features – e.g. object tracking, silent operation – you want in top-line devices, and even more impressive considering its very low asking price.

Some of the user documentation and interfaces might be in Chinese, but it can be forgiven because of it’s dirt-cheap price.

Have I already said that it’s crazy cheap?!

So, a few hours of watching YouTube reviews later, I picked one up from Lazada SG – and it was delivered in two working days after placing the order. A comment about this particular e-commerce company too: I’ve made a number of orders from this site for more than a year now, and am quite impressed with its reliability and speed of delivery.

Comes in a box that’s about as long as the device.

Opening the box reveals the gimbal, a user guide, a micro USB cable, and a carry strap. The carry case reminds me of a miniature guitar bag LOL.

The gimbal itself. Measures about 28cm from head to toe when set in a compact posture.

The phone-clamp. Perfect for smaller phones, and it just about barely fit the Samsung S8+ – sans case.

To be continued in a next post!

Home Recording – Part 2

Coming out a crash course on home recording equipment, the basic outlay seemed to be:

Microphones: two basic types are dynamic, and condenser – with the former more suitable for low-frequency audio signals  (e.g. drums), and latter for higher-frequency audio (e.g. piano). Condenser microphones can be several orders more expensive and in the thousands of dollars range though, but I found Amazon selling pretty decent large diaphragm condensers for USD70 each – the Samson C01. And these weren’t run of the mill ones either, but well-regarded and fairly well-reviewed too.

Microphone cables: these can cost a bit too, but I went with the cheapest that could be delivered to Singapore through expedited and free shipping – at USD7 each. Hooray for cheap Amazon house-brand stuff! Had to make sure that the connector ends were of the correct type with the microphone and audio interface unit though.

Microphone stands: again, not willing to spend a lot on this. The cheapest decent stands – I needed two of them – was available on Amazon: the Samson MK-10 Boom Stand with a very attractive price-tag of USD20 @ Amazon, but the item would not ship with free expedited international shipping. Even Amazon’s slightly cheaper house-brand required shipping fees. Boo! Fortunately, Lazada lists local resellers who carry this item, so two were picked up at SGD40 apiece.

Audio interface: another item I had to read up about as a total noob. Basically, this is a electronic box that interfaces between the computer’s digital audio software and the recording equipment, and the best (i.e. most expensive) ones permit large numbers of audio inputs of multiple types. These can cost several hundred USDs. And as I was just trying out home recording, I got lucky again finding one – the U-Phoria UMC202HD – that was rated highly, and from Behringer, a German audio equipment manufacturer, that cost USD60. Perhaps as a testament to how popular this particular model is, I pretty much bought the last available unit on Amazon – as immediately after ordering it, the item went out of stock – with the next availability at 4-6 months as reported by Amazon.

Digital Audio Workstation: is really just a fancy name for the application software that takes care of the editing and post-processing parts of an audio recording. The professional versions can run to thousands of moola, so I went with the open-source and very free equivalent: Audacity, the widely-praised digital audio editor that I’ve been using for about ten years now after getting introduced to it as part of work.

And since I’ll still be recording video that I’ll merge the new audio layer into, I dug up my old copy of Adobe Premiere Elements and have to start learning how to use it.

Behringer U-Phoria UMC202HD. It’s a pretty compact box, attractively styled, and seems quite well-built.

Two low-latency audio inputs, equipped with MIDAS designed Mic Preamplifiers with +48 V phantom power. The general feeling among enthusiasts is that this unit offers a crazy good feature set at a rock-bottom price.

The Samson C01 Condenser microphone comes pack in a plastic carry case and protected by dense foam.

The mic has a 19mm large diaphragm, and is driven by the 48v phantom power coming out of the audio interface. I did an early test of it on our piano, and it has a pretty wide audio pick-up pattern. That is both good – and bad LOL.

Two Amazon Basics microphone cables, and the two Samson MK-10 Boom Stands that was purchased separately from Lazada SG.

Audacity sound editor – so very free!

All in, the expenditure was about SGD377 – quite a bit lower than what I’d earlier resigned to spending during the initial exploration phase. With two of the key items – namely the microphones and audio interface – high-quality models even!