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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. The E-M1 Mark II was 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!

Home Recording – Part 1

One of my life-long ambitions has always been to do a proper studio recording of pieces I play on the piano. There’s been sporadic occasions over the years where I’ve attempted to do variations of that. For example, using a Korg keyboard work station to record my piano compositions in the early to mid ’90s and then using sampled notes from a Steinway & Sons Grand Piano to render the MIDI files to CD-quality audio recordings. And more recently, HD video recordings using the E-M1 – which I’m still not yet brave enough to make public on YouTube LOL.

I’ve never been fully satisfied with either method. Recording via MIDI format results in pristine audio quality, but the approach always felt a little unauthentic. You’re essentially recording computer data that gets next mapped via instrument samples, then finally rendered to an actual audio recording. The benefit of a MIDI approach though is that you can fix note errors and dynamic issues before mapping.

Recording via camcorders and digital cameras is closer to a studio recording – but the built-in microphones in these camera devices are usually second fiddle to imaging. These devices are first and foremost imaging devices not sound-recorders! The camera microphones do not offer good dynamic range, pick up all kinds of odd noises, and most significant, do not present a proper stereophonic experience.

So, earlier this year I resolved to get round to trying the real deal: I’ll find out and learn what is necessary and how to do home studio recordings. This is of course a highly specialised and professional industry, and those beautiful and warm-sounding acoustic piano recordings we hear are the intentional results of a whole host of contributing factors: including the performance of the artiste, the ambiance in the recording venue, the equipment setup, and the sound engineering.

The initial survey was pretty intimidating and learning curve very steep: a lot of the learning material both text and videos, and even equipment documentation seem to be written for persons who’re already familiar with the domain of professional-standard recording. I wasn’t ready to throw a lot of money into this thing either – professional level condenser microphones can easily cost thousands each – but I found very well-regarded branded equipment that were at entry-level prices, and was lucky enough that Amazon was able to ship them here too using free international shipping. More on that in the next post.

Freshly arrived kewl lewt from Amazon and Lazada SG.

There’s a last method too: using digital pianos, or acoustic pianos with silent piano modules – like the Yamaha U30BL upright we have at home. The U30BL’s module though hasn’t quite resulted in the kind of audio fidelity that I need, so in case this simple home recording studio setup still doesn’t work well, I’ll have to either revisit recording using the U30BL’s silent piano module, or think very hard about getting a digital piano – if we can find space at home for it to begin with!

iPad Pro 12.9 (2017)

While the stunning form factor and premium design language are traits no longer exclusively in Apple’s purview, Apple fans will still have us believe that the Cupertino super company creates products that never fail, or at least are more reliable than everyone else’s.

That might indeed be true from a general sampling perspective, but that has – simply – not been my personal experience of Apple devices. I’ve had, at this point, owned about just over three dozen Windows/Android devices across the years, and the only two devices I can recall that catastrophically failed with no warning was an Acer Travelmate 3001 from a decade ago, and – very recently – the Lenovo X1 Carbon.

Compare that to the about nine Apple devices I’ve had: three have failed:

MacBook Pro 13″ – selected keys failed just after 18 months.

MacBook Pro 15″ – catastrophically failed just after the one year warranty period ended. And even after repair, continued to fail – to the point that even when it was discovered that the source of persistent failure seemed to had been a fault of a faulty batch of hardware, Apple refused to replace my laptop unit or repair at their cost.

Apple iPad Air 2 – started failing 3 days ago. Specifically, the tablet seems to be running on full 100% load all the time, with the battery draining from full to zero in 6 hours even when set to standby mode. My guess is that the Touch sensor has failed in a way that might be causing the tablet’s Mainboard to get stuck in a continuous detection loop. So, even when the Air 2 is in standby mode, the tablet is still running on full processing, causing the battery to drain at top speed and also for thermals to rocket. Factory resetting has not done a thing either.

3 out of 9 devices – not a good rate at all. And none of these three have ever been mistreated.

Barring the couple of trips out of the country, the most recent one being the trip to Western Australian, the iPad Air 2 had been largely used at home to display music scores when I’m on the piano. Or put in another way, with the Air 2 failing, I needed a replacement. I’ve blogged previously about the relatively small display canvas on this iPad when compared to the typical A4 score sheet sizes, and figured this was just about as good an opportunity to look into the iPad Pro 12.9″ tablets.

iPads 12.9, 9.7 and 7.9.

Comments and observations from one purchase of the iPad Pro 12.9″ 64GB:

The tablet was first released in 2015, with a recent 2017 refresh from just a few months back. The older model is available at Apple’s refurbished store about 20% cheaper. But the 2017 upgraded model features a couple of significant upgrades, two of which are particularly important for my usage profile: the Pro Motion 120 Hz display, and also that the screen is brighter and displays obviously richer colors.

The larger 12.9″ display canvas really helps. I was squinting all these months using the Air 2’s 9.7″ display!

The tablet is really heavy. This is not something you’ll want to hold on one hand for long.

iOS 10 is not optimized for the large screen. The 5×4 grid of icons looks silly on the 12.9″ screen, what with all the unused space between icons. Hopefully this will change with the upcoming iOS 11.

The 10 hour-rated battery life seems slightly conservative. I was on the piano for about 90 minutes Sunday yesterday, and battery dropped from 100% to about 88%.

The iPad Pro 12.9″ is pretty expensive though, even for the cheapest model with cellular data support, and with the educational discount I got. Still, it’s a device that I use for the piano and thus necessary expense. And the convenience of being able to carry around dozens of piano score books everywhere cannot be understated. Hopefully this one lasts longer than the Air 2!

Passion10 Electric Scooter – Part 2

If there’s one thing the government of our little island has done well, it’s maximizing greenery and outdoor areas in already fairly congested areas. Of particular note of course are our island’s interlinked network of Park Connectors,  which has not only become an easy and convenient way for Singaporeans to get to and enjoy the multiple parks and outdoor areas, but has also become a way for people to get to places of work even.

Truth to tell, we haven’t really gone on the connectors much. In fact, our Ang Mo friend has spent more time on them in his almost yearly visits to Singapore than us residents LOL. But now that we’re armed with scooters both electrical and kick-typed, we’ve started exploring the PC Networks just behind our Minton home – and over time, we’ll probably starting driving out to explore the rest of the network.

So, after scootin’ for about 20km on the new Passion10, here are more of our pictures and observations.

The 15.5kg Passion10 e-Scooter. I’m not 100% certain of this, but I think the basic model is also rebranded by other manufacturers and resellers, though Passion Gadget’s S$599 price point for this model is likely among the lowest I’ve seen. It can be lifted by adults, but the handlebar stem is rather slippery. Passion Gadgets sells a fabric-type carrying handle though, so I might have to buy that later.

A round color LCD screen shots that shows different information depending on options you’ve set. The master power button and acceleration lever sits on the right of the screen. The LCD doesn’t seem to let me adjust brightness though, and the default brightness level is too dim for easy viewing when outdoors. The scooter supports a cruising mode too, which sets the scooter to coast along at a constant speed.

Kiddie handle bar, with additional rubber stops add-ons that cost 50 cents each. Hannah wanted pink – No Way Jose LOL. The bar can be adjusted to where the protective plate along the handlebar stem stops, and is just about of right height for Peter. Hannah holds onto the main handle bar. The Kiddie bar though gets into the way of cable management when unfolding the scooter from storage.

Vehicle’s front light. Can be switched off with a dedicated button. I don’t intend to scoot at night, so that this light is included is useful – but finally not of any use for me.

Suspension for the Pneumatic 10″ front tire. Both really do help to cushion (somewhat) potholes and small debris like dead branches on surfaces.

Two thick anti-slip strips pasted on the foot board that really do help in providing additional grip to footwear. They’re pretty hard to clean though. The kickstand is also visible from the picture, and while it bears the scooter’s weight just fine, I would have liked it to be a little sturdier. The scooter’s battery and charging port are situated below the foot board. The sales technician advised that it’s necessary to switch on power to the charger adapter first before connecting it to the scooter port. I haven’t needed to charge the battery from flat to full yet, but that’ll take between 4-6 hrs according to the user guide.

Rear tire and dual light reflectors.

The 20km distance we tried the Passion10 on used up perhaps just about 20% of the battery power according to the LCD indicator. But to be sure, we’d set the throttle to 50% of its maximum torque – a maximum of 11km/h – and didn’t push the engine too hard. Both our kids have had a lot of fun riding the scooter with me so far @ Punggol Park and the park connector behind Minton. We’ve since slightly increased the scooter throttle limit to 60% of its maximum torque, i.e. a limit of 15km/h – which is plenty fast enough already for us –  the limit for foot paths and well below the 25km/h limit for shared paths.

In all, there are better machines than the Passion10 – with longer range, lighter, sturdier, faster, better featured etc. – but none that offered the ideal balance of specifications I preferred, and priced so attractively too. More posts to come soon enough when see start visiting segments of the Park Connector Network!

Passion10 Electric Scooter – Part 1

E-Scooters have been around on our streets for some years now, but it’s only been in the last year or two when they’ve really become common both in heartland areas and even retail stretches like Orchard Road on the island. The government here has been trying very hard to ween citizens off cars and get on public transportation. But buses can only run on so many roads, so Personal Mobility Devices – or PMDs – have become the choice of many as a last-mile transportation solution.

Increasing PMD ridership has introduced a host of challenges though – from competition between pedestrians, cyclists and now PMD users for space on walkways, to riders with death wishes using PMDs on main roads, residential apartments catching fire because of fault battery management systems in the PMD, and tragic and unfortunately fatal accidents involving E-bike users.  The regulatory authorities seem to be inclined to support the use of these devices, but perhaps also recognized that some regulation was necessary. Among the rules of use include device weight limits (20kg), speed limits (25km/h), and finally that they cannot be used on roads. And the Land Transport Authority of Singapore is clearly ready to throw the book at riders who run afoul of rules.

I’ve been quite interested in getting an e-scooter since the start of the year. But a serious purchase exploration kept getting put off – until we bought both our kids kick scooters from Decathlon. So, why not an adult e-scooter now, if not just to create another opportunity for family activity! There are a lot of e-scooter stores on the island, but perhaps just a handful of especially well-known ones. One particular store is Passion Gadgets, who carries a very wide range of scooters, including parallel-imported branded and fairly expensive scooters, and house-brand scooters priced very attractively.

Truth to tell, while this store seems quite well-regarded online and has been around for years now, I was initially still quite hesitant about stores that do parallel imports. Most of that hesitation dissipated after I checked out their retail store and also service center, housed in two separate buildings in close proximity and also a short 7 minute drive from Minton. The staff working at both places were all quite young – I reckon in their early two mid-twenties – very friendly, and were clearly enthusiasts of what they were selling. There must had been at least two dozen persons working at the service center, not just preparing devices for pick-up and repairing scooters sent in for repair, but also working on what seemed like artwork and publicity materials, answering questions on the web site etc. This seemed clearly a very busy business!

Even though this was going to be my first e-scooter, the thought process went through the same methodology like for every toy I buy – i.e. a spreadsheet detailing the different models I was considering, and specifications for each.

Of criteria:

At this point, the scooter’s main purpose is just for family joy rides and not for long-distance traveling. A power mileage of about 25-30KM would be more than sufficient. Likewise, I wouldn’t be carrying the device up and down public transportation, so vehicle  weight wasn’t a key factor. Though I didn’t think I’d want to handle a scooter that was heavier than 18kg!

The scooter’s foot board would need to be large enough for an adult and a child – i.e. space for me/Ling and H or P.

Safety and stability are of utmost importance: which pretty much meant that the scooter would need to use 8.5″ or larger Pneumatic tires, and offer suspension to provide some cushioning over bumps, potholes and small debris.

Cost no more than $1,000. The scooter is really meant to be used just for recreation, and I didn’t want to spend more than that.

The purchasing process @ Passion Gadgets is a little involved. The retail store front-end is a fairly small shop situated at a ground floor for one building. After choosing your model and initial accessories, you go next door to their twin shop to make payment. And finally, the actual scooter is on the fifth level of another building 3 minutes walk away LOL.

One corner of the warehouse that serves as the service center.

Hannah came along to provide advice!

And what we landed up with – the Passion10, and costing S$599.

Continued in the next post!

Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus – Part 2

And after a week of using the S8+, more comments on it!

We use our smartphones to tell the time a lot, and the S8+’s Always-On Display (AOD) to show that is incredibly useful. Despite Samsung’s promise that there is only minimal battery consumption by enabling AOD, the battery does seem to drain noticeably quicker though. The AOD themes all also seem to always include the battery percentage as a fixed information item, so if you’re one of those persons who get into a fit every time the percentage level drops an additional bit, then the AOD might actually be annoying.

The battery drains about 2-3% overnight without AOD, and twice that when it’s enabled. The power consumption without AOD is roughly about equal to the Mate 9’s overnight drain, but still higher than the Mi Max which routinely drops just about 1%.

There are several drop, bending, freezing and even Coke (?!) tests comparing the S8+ and iPhones on YouTube, which while – admittedly – is fun to see how well these top-line phones can withstand well extraordinary abuse, can also be incredibly painful to watch thousand dollar phones get, well, basically destroyed!

The curved screen also makes it very hard for tempered glass screen protectors to be pasted onto it without experiencing a range of issues – whether it’s inadvertent edge bubbles or loss of touch sensitivity – with The Verge having a good write-up about the difficulties here.

The phone is also water-resistant up till 1.5m for 30 minutes. So, according to specifications at least, this phone can survive a drop into a shallow puddle of water too. Not that I’m ever going to try that sort of test, but it’s nice to know that the phone will very likely easily live with rain.

The S8+’s navigation bar occupies the bottom bit of the tall screen, but – ingeniously – can also be set to auto-hide, like Windows’ taskbar, and brought back up with a flick of the thumb. This means that applications can use the full 6.2″ screen if need be. Like other phones with onscreen buttons, the ‘back’ and ‘recent’ buttons can be swapped. It’s also possible to unlock the phone by long-depressing the ‘home’ button, and in a very nice touch, the sensitivity of this button can also be adjusted.

There’s a dedicated button on the S8+’s left side to start-up Bixby, and the button cannot be natively disabled or remapped to do something else without relying on third party apps – and no guarantee if Samsung will not implement low-level changes to disable those customizing apps. Some reviewers have reported that they’ve frequently accidentally pressed that button and starting up Bixby when they do not intend to. It was indeed an annoyance in the first day or two of my use, but I’ve since gotten used to gripping the phone somewhat less tightly in my hand, just so that I don’t accidentally trigger Bixby.

The speaker and audio jack volume levels are adequate but aren’t particularly high. So, if you like music blasted out loud through your head/earphones in noisy environments, you’d need either a separate personal amplifier or a third party app to drive up phone volumes.

The S8+ is USB Type-C, and charges up quickly via cable, and it also charges as expected using a Samsung wireless charging pad and also Xpower’s wireless charger, albeit more slowly.

News cards on Bixby, Samsung’s personal voice assistant. Attractive visual layout.

Though Bixby Vision clearly still needs a lot more work! It thought the Microsoft Mouse I’m using is anything but LOL.

More in Part 3 later!


Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus – Part 1

If I had to name one characteristic of the Huawei Mate 9 that’s both great and also annoying at the same time, it’d be its rear fingerprint sensor. The sensor is located at the camera’s back and where one’s forefinger naturally rests. It hasn’t been just unfailingly accurate in recognizing my fingerprint, it’s also extremely sensitive – to the point that lightly brushing my finger over the sensor will instant-unlock the phone. The Mate 9 frequently unlocks in this fashion without my being aware, with all manner of functions also accidentally also triggering from the touchscreen as a result.

My phone plan was up for renewal this month, so I took the opportunity to not just continue with a new 2 year contract, but also migrate over to Singtel’s Corporate Individual Scheme – one of the nice perks of working where I’m at. The new plan approximately bumps up the tier of my current mobile plan to the next higher tier at no cost. Even better, there was also a hefty seasonal discount during the first week of July for selected phones – including SGD200 off the Samsung Galaxy S8+. So, the Huawei Mate 9 goes back in exchange for Samsung’s current top-of-the-line phone plus a small top-up fee.

The S8+, and before the trade-in value of SGD300 for the Mate 9, and another SGD30 discount for an online order.

And my comments after several days of usage of the new Samsung Galaxy S8+:

The S8+ has an usual aspect ratio, and the relatively skinnier girth of the S8+ also makes it slightly easier to hold than all three of my last phones – the Huawei Mate 9, Mi Max, and Samsung Galaxy Note 5. The taller than normal screen, coupled also with the QHD+ screen resolution and 6.2″ of screen estate, lets you see more web page content – though the ratio is also less effective for viewing photos and videos.

The phone feels very dense, and as is the current fashion for many top-line phones coming out of manufacturers these days, no creaks and joints are observed in the phone’s chassis. Like the Mate 9, the S8+ is begging for a case. Not having one is going to mean a high chance of the phone slipping from your grip and kissing concrete.

The phone’s thumbprint sensor has been widely criticized by many gadget reviewers, but I didn’t find it that bad. Sure, a larger fingerprint sensor and also one that’s not quite so close to the camera lens would had been better, but putting the phone in a case helps my forefinger feel where the sensor is.

The S8+ comes in different colors: black, blue, gold and grey. Unlike other Samsung phones, the front plate is a generic black in color regardless of the back plate color one chooses.

The phone supports PIN and iris recognition too. The face-recognition works so well though that that’s my default method of unlocking this phone now. Unlocking isn’t quite as instantaneous as the Mate 9, but a second lost from delay in exchange for not having the phone unlocked from accidental finger brushes is a good trade-off.

Many reviewers have remarked that the S8/S8+ super AMOLED screen is the best screen there is for smartphones, and I wholeheartedly agree! The Mate 9’s screen is no slouch, but the S8+ combination of color rendition, resolution, and contrasts in its screen – blows it right out of the water, and not even the current gen iPhones, good as they are, can match the S8/S8+. Like the Note 5, the maximum brightness level on the S8+ makes the display legible even in direct sunlight.

I really rather a bezel-less but flat display screen like on the Mate 9 and Note 5 than the curved one on the S8+. But oh well.

Samsung’s much talked about Bixby – their Google Assistant/Siri personal voice assistant equivalent – is gimped at the moment, as the voice client hasn’t been activated yet for local users LOL. But the image recognition module is lots of fun to play with. Basically, you use the phone’s camera to scan an object, and Bixby will attempt to recognize it and then produce a list of web sites that are related to that object. Pretty cool!

The S8+ beside still one of my most favorite phones ever, the S5 Note.

The Samsung Galaxy S8+.

Next post here!

Western Australia – Equipment Comments

Just a few more posts in our WA series – honest! And this one is for tech junkies – comments on how various gadgets and toys fared during the trip!

The Olympus E-M1 continued to perform admirably on it’s third major overseas outing. Oddly though, the camera occasionally required a few seconds to power-up from a cold-start. Might be something to do with the age of the battery – one of the two BLN-1 battery is about 5 years old now, and its internal circuity might be starting to fail.

The Panasonic GX85 did amazing well in its first major overseas trip! The GX85 was mostly coupled with the 40-150mm f2.8 with 1.4x converter throughout the trip, and I was able to get pretty good picture retention rates, with the C-AF modes able to track moving subjects. There was some minor annoyances though: the camera seems to have its own mind sometimes by selecting its own aperture against what I really want to shoot at. Specifically, I can set aperture on the Olympus m4/3 bodies set on Aperture-Priority and don’t ever worry about it again. But the GX85 will sometimes change f-stop on its own even on Aperture-Priority. I’ll have to read up a bit more about how Panasonic m4/3 bodies treat A modes.

Two batteries accompanied each of the bodies, and on most days, the one battery apiece for the E-M1 and GX85 was able to last for an entire day of shooting on most days. That is, excepting the really heavy days during the day tours, though the batteries were also routinely nearly drained by the day’s end. Sill, the weather in WA wasn’t cold enough at usually between 18 to 7 degree Cs for either the E-M1 and GX85’s batteries to discharge faster.

Shooting sunsets with the E-M1 and Sirui T-24X @ Margaret River.

The number of exposures I triggered on the E-M1 and GX85 was about 3,250 and 2,251 respectively, about 227 using the Samsung 360, and another hundred or so using  Huawei Mate 9 – a total of about 5,828 pictures. And of that, I processed and finally kept about 3,331 of them – a keeper percentage of about 57%. This WA trip goes well past the 5,013 exposures I took for the 23 day New England trip in 2010 (still the most memorable trip ever!) but I kept 4,327 of them then – or a much higher 86% retention. A huge number of shots for this WA trip were on burst mode – particularly the animal feedings – while the ones in New England were of a lot of scenery, which don’t require shooting on drive modes.

Three lenses came along for the trip: the 12-40mm f2.8, the 40-150mm f2.8 with 1.4x teleconverter, and the 17mm f1.8. The approximate picture distribution was 65% 12-40mm, 34% 40-150mm, 1% 17mm. Yep – just a small handful of pictures taken using the prime!

I was really happy with the videos taken on the Huawei Mate 9, despite the initial trepidation before the trip. Between that and Ling’s Samsung Note 5, we took about 79 videos, most about a 1 to 3 minutes long each. The 4K videos coming out of the Huawei Mate 9 did take a bit of processing though as the Dell XPS 13 wasn’t able to handle the 4K videos well. A comparison between the 2K videos taking in Melbourne using the Samsung Note 5 against the 2K downsized from 4K videos on the Huawei Mate 9 showed that despite the lower frame/s – the Note 5 can shoot at 60fps – there was simply a lot more visible resolution and detail for videos taken using the Mate 9, and less obvious jello-effect too when panning the phone around.

Sirui T-024X CF tripod/C-10S Ballhead: were instrumental in enabling some of our family photos and doubled-up also as the tripod for the Samsung Gear 360. It was light enough also for our 8 year old daughter to help carry around. Call me a traditionalist – but I simply don’t think smartphones take very good wefies!

Samsung Gear 360 (2017): already posted separately on this. The pictures were so-so, videos disappointing – but I got perspectives that traditional cameras simply cannot obtain, and the camera was purchased on the cheap.

But the most valuable item that accompanied us this trip was:

Best camera bag ever – the Billingham Hadley Pro.

Hank – our guide at Margaret River – was quite interested in this camera bag too. Despite it being more than 4 years old now, it still looks as good as it did on the first day. Dirt simply rolls off it!


Samsung Gear 360 (2017) – More Notes

We took just a small number of 360 videos and photos using the Samsung Gear 360 (2017) I acquired just a few days before starting on our trip. The Billingham Hadley Pro bag at any one time contained the iPad Air 2, the Xiaomi 15,000mAh powerbank, the E-M1, GX85, three lenses (17mm, 12-40mm, 40-150mm + 1.4x converter), straps, the circular polarizer filter, spare batteries, and this 360 camera. Between the two cameras, the Huawei Mate 9 which did the lion’s share of work for videos, I just didn’t have enough hands anymore to also fish out the Gear 360 as much as I wanted!

Still; my comments on the Gear 360 2017 edition after the 11 day trip to Western Australia:

The gear’s very smooth plastic surface makes the device a tad slippery to hold. While it doesn’t give the sense that you’re holding a bar of soap – like what the most recent Samsung Galaxy phones can feel like – I still found myself having to very consciously hold the device lest it slipped out out of hands and kiss hard concrete on the floor.

The battery easily offers enough juice for a day of shooting. Charging using the USB-C port didn’t take long either (about an hour at most each time for a fully flat battery?)

Processing stills and video using ActionDirector, the Samsung-supplied software, is pretty easy, and without needing a Samsung Galaxy phone either. You connect the 360 camera into the PC, transfer files to say a desktop folder, then drop that entire folder into ActionDirector. The software program immediately starts processing them in the background and will save them into a working directory that you can easily take out from later.

Stills-wise, the camera does reasonably well in strong daylight. But as the sun goes down, so does the quality of images – significantly.

Video fares don’t look as good after processing in ActionDirector, and YouTube further compresses them until they look like a pixelated mess.

There are obvious imperfections in the stitching – particularly for video, somewhat less so for stills.

Limitations of the current consumer-level technology aside, I still have a long way to go technique-wise too. Specifically:

This thing desperately needs its own good and dedicated tripod. It was too much of a hassle to bring out even the Sirui tripod that’s designed for traditional cameras, so a number of videos included my fingers and thumbs. It’s also very hard to keep the camera level when holding it high above your head!

Once the camera starts recording, keeping at least one meter away from the camera is a very good idea.

As with spherical lenses, objects look a lot further than they really are. I incorrectly judged the positioning of the camera in several video recordings.

The Samsung Gear 360 (2017) sitting on top of the Sirui tripod.

H helped loads!

In summary, consumer-level 360 cameras are still a long way off from what the really expensive 360 cameras are able produce. But that said, they do provide very unique perspectives that traditional camcorders and digital cameras are unable to record. Compared to the other consumer-level 360 cameras that cost between $500 to $900, we got the Samsung Gear 360 (2017) comparatively cheaply at just SGD284. I recommend that if you must get a 360 camera to record these types of stills and videos to get this model. Don’t spend more than that, and recognize the limitations of what the devices at this stage can produce.