Earlier post in this two-parter here.

A desktop PC would have easily been able to hold a solution that was quick, offer storage solutions as large as its case can hold. Except that if the thing was possibly gonna go into a TV console, I was going to be limited by how big the case could be; especially along the height and depth dimensions. Of the major casing manufacturers, many offer their own unique line of mini-ITX casings. After a lot of exploration, the ones I shortlisted included the Elite 110 and also the SilverStone Sugo SG05. Of the two cases, the Elite 110 was a little taller and wider – which were fine – but more seriously, deeper – which while would have meant a very tight fit into the TV cabinet with very little clearance for cables. The SG05 was a much more comfy fit, though also a less-widely carried model at Sim Lim shops. Very nicely too was that the SG05 was able to hold video cards of up to 10″ in length. It wouldn’t fit the fastest cards that money can buy, but pretty decent solutions nonetheless of the GTX X60 variety.

The rig as configured from existing and new parts from Sim Lim were:

Silverstone Sugo SG05 Mini-ITX Black Casing. The casing wasn’t of the screwless variety, The casing offered space for an SSD, a 3.5 inch HDD, and even a slim DVD bay (unused after assembly).

Silverstone SFX Series ST45SF-G 450W Gold series. Not much options here, as I needed a slim-profile PSU. The casing actually comes bundled with a similar wattage PSU but of the bronze rating, but that was out of stock too. So, paid a little more to get a more power-efficient and higher-rated PSU.

Intel i5-4460. Slightly less quick than the i5-4670 that’s in the desktop rig. I’m not intending to do photo editing or video rendering on this machine though, so a slower i5 was just fine.

Xigmatek Praeton LD963 Low-profile CPU Cooler.  A normal full-sized CPU cooler wouldn’t have fitted in!

Asus H97I-Plus Mini-ITX motherboard. I was originally intending for a H87i motherboard but that wasn’t available at the store I was picking up the bundle from, so went with the newer and very marginally more expensive H97i board.

Kingston DDR3 1600 MHz 8GB RAM. Went with the cheapest 1600 MHz value-RAM I could find.

Western Digital 4TB Green HDD. I’ve had a lot of luck with the Western Digital Green HDDs, compared to the couple of Seagate Barracudas that all failed because of (apparently) batch issues at manufacturing. I swapped this HDD for an older 2TB drive from my desktop rig though – 2TB should suffice for the moment. Added one of my spare OCZ 160GB SSDs to it as the primary bootup drive.

Palit 2GB DDR5 GTX760. The same card to my desktop rig.

Microsoft All-in-One Media keyboard. Compact keyboard with a built-in trackpad. Would had been perfect – were it not for that there’s no function-lock key. Arrgggh.

Casings in this class are very compact, which meant very tight quarters to mount components, cables and connectors around. Still, after a couple of hours installing Windows 8.1, and transferring nearly a TB of family video and pictures, the unit was good to go.

The SG05.

Installing stuff onto the primary drive of the SG05.

Cable management? What cable management LOL.

Cable management? What cable management LOL.

Installing Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, just for the heck of it. Check out the download speed: not quite 1 Gbps as the connection has gone through two routers before reaching this PC, but very good for our needs.

Installing Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, just for the heck of it. Check out the download speed: not quite 1 Gbps and just a shade under half that as the connection has gone through two routers before reaching this PC – but still very good for our family’s bandwidth needs.

The rig all ready to go, and sitting inside our bedroom TV console.

The rig sitting inside our bedroom TV console.

The first TV that gets the honors in hooking-up is our Master Bedroom’s TV panel – the old Panasonic Viera plasma 46″ from our Rivervale home. Oddly, though the Viera supports 1920×1080 resolution, I couldn’t get it to display at that resolution without losing about 5% of its left and right edges, resulting in a very odd though resolution of 1768×992 resolution. Tinkering around the Viera options though revealed a 16:9 Overscan option, and disabling that from the default enabled setting sorted the 1080p problem nicely.

All done and finally ready for an Assassin’s Creed IV: Blag Flag stress test.:)

Long-post, so split into two parts.

Back at the end of last year, I did my every couple of years routine of assembling a new desktop rig to see me through the next stretch. That PC now sits comfortably in its own corner at our workroom, and has worked very well for 8 months now without any issues. Interestingly, when I did a routine check on its internals, there was noticeably less accumulated dust and dirt inside it than I’d expected. Which made me wonder if it’s because our Minton home is less dusty than our old Rivervale place. In any case, at some point, I’d be thinking very hard about making a couple of custom dust filters and putting it at the vents of this machine.

Another PC project I’d been thinking of putting together since moving in has been a PC that would be connected to one of our two flat-screen TVs. The motivation for this came about when Hannah started expressing interest at the start of the year to see photos and videos of herself when she was a toddler. Now, most media players can do that to a degree, but format support remains iffy, and the user-interface is also clunky. Forget about scrolling through several thousands of pictures in each folder, and file searches too. The PS3 fares somewhat better with its support of video and picture formats but not by much. So, this home pictures and video rig would had to be based off a PC configuration and running a traditional desktop operating system.

The main challenge though was figuring out a suitable size for it. My requirements for this rig varied over the months, and they went something like this:

Compact enough to fit into our customized TV console deck, or sit on top of it.

Can run full HD content well.

Offer internal storage options of reasonably large capacities (as in a couple of TBs), and preferably chassis space for both an SDD as primary drive and a separate HDD for media.

Can be dual-purposed to run 3D games with some future-proofing.

The last requirement one was especially tricky, as 3D games require decent graphic processing unit cards, and those things are not small, and more significantly, require significant cooling apparatus and ventilation space to keep them operating optimally too. The PC market has seen a selection of miniature PCs, especially from lines like Asus EEE PCs, Zotac Mini-PCs, and Gigabyte Brixes. The EEE PCs are very stylish, compact and would have been a pleasing and futuristic accessory that would go well with the cabinets. But while their line of machines would not be able to drive anything beyond simple flash-based games.  The Zotac and Gigabyte Brix mini-PCs offer a decent range of configurations and choices, with their top-line solution available here being rigs that include an i5/i7 processors alongside Iris Pro 5200 graphics. I found the Zotac models rather drab-looking externally, and favored the Gigabyte models for their strong paint jobs for the casings.

A Gigabyte Brix in  exciting red!

A Gigabyte Brix in exciting red!

A Zotac - not as interesting looking.

A Zotac – not as interesting looking.

The Iris Pro solution was interesting, as it’s widely regarded as one of the current quickest integrated video solutions for small form-factor PCs. It would have run current 3D games somewhat well but wasn’t especially future proof against upcoming content – and more worryingly, the early reviews of the Gigabyte Brix models with the Iris Pro noted serious heat and noise issues. Gigabyte had just announced a new Brix model that would feature a quicker and dedicated graphics card based off the GTX760, but that model wasn’t available here yet – and judging from the prices of the American pricing, would have probably cost about S$1.5K once memory and storage solutions had been included in. These mini-PC models too typically also offer a single-bay for storage options: which would have meant that I’d have to go with a 2.5 inch HDD (slower program and operating system access than an SSD), and also limited to 2TB in capacity too currently.

More in the next post!

 

It might be the company I keep, but I rarely see or hear of many friends who still listen to classical music regularly anymore, if going by social media posts is any indicator. Just earlier this year, I shared a couple of Youtube videos of live recordings of pieces I enjoyed – including a lovely rendition of Handel’s Lascia Ch’io Piango aria as sung by New Zealander Hayley Westenra – and not surprisingly, very few seemed to respond to it. Not quite like the ‘Likes’ any one of Peter or Hannah’s pictures would routinely enjoy.

I’ve still continued eMusic’s subscription service since my last post about my love for the classics 4 years ago now, and picking up to a dozen classical albums each month under its service package – most of which I’ll go through, select, and pack them into the car audio for listening. If it weren’t for this service, I don’t think I’d ever discover much lesser known classical composers like Johann Fasch, Jean-Marie Leclair, Charles Villers Stanford or Pietro Locatelli. I’ve generally steered away from the well-known works from the mainstream composers on eMusic on the other hand – there are only so many versions of Handel’s Messiah, Haydn’s London Symphonies, or Beethoven’s Piano Concertos I want to acquire!

Interestingly and perhaps reflecting also of young people trends, there are fewer manufacturers of dedicated MP3 players these days, what with many preferring to get their music fix via smartphones. Two of the holdouts still releasing updated models regularly are Sony and Cowon. My last MP3 player was a Cowon C2 which I bought from Amazon last year in March and had it shipped here. That little unit produced lovely audio, a very wide range of customization options, and a battery that seemed to run forever – and whose touchscreen zonked out last month. Arrgh. That was my second Cowon MP3 player over the last 5 years, and the first one also failed though for other reasons.

I wasn’t keen to return to Cowon players any time soon again, even though they are still routinely among audiophile’s favorite choices of personal audio units. I was however interested in trying out an Android-based MP3 player, if nothing else that they routinely come with larger touch-based screens, great customization options, and also running off an operating platform I was familiar with and like a lot – if also on the other hand, at the expense of usually shorter battery runlength and also overall stability.

The Sennheiser Momentum hooked up with the Sony F886.

The Sennheiser Momentum hooked up with the Sony F886.

So; in came the Sony Walkman NWZ-F886, and accompanying it a Sennheiser Momentum On the Go – that was picked up early this month. There weren’t that many choices for Android-based MP3 players, quite unlike the almost bewildering range of headphones out there from dirt cheapo ones under $10 to premium ones that have everything and cost a few thousand moola. And after a fortnight of use:

Customization – hooray!

Svelte form factor. Compact, light, and its case that oozes confidence and density – none of that creaky stuff that you get with cheap plastics. Very premium-looking too.

Pretty good audio – and almost as good as the Cowon players.

Android runs well on it. No lag or stuttering observed in music playback. Haven’t quite stress-loaded it with other apps though (no intention to).

Reasonably high-resolution screen for me to squint at the album covers.

Charges quickly.

On the other hand:

Battery isn’t as cracked up as others have suggested. I’m maybe squeezing about 15+ hours of it with some light usage of the screen and scrolling about albums.

Finger-print magnet.

Somewhat low screen viewing angles.

Dated Android OS at 4.1.1, even with the most recent firmware update.

Uses Sony’s proprietary charging and data cables.

On the overall, I’m pretty happy with it – not that I would have had much other choices if i wasn’t!

Discovering Schubert's Overtures - thanks to eMusic.

Discovering Schubert’s Overtures – thanks to eMusic – and also all of Rossini’s Overtures, part of Christian Benda’s series of recordings with the Prague Sinfonia Orchestra.

 

 

Six months ago I picked up the Google Nexus 7, that very compact Android tablet designed by Google. The tablet is still very much alive – to/fro from home and work every day, and inside the side pockets of my berms over the weekends. Something happened though that I didn’t anticipate when I bought the Nexus 6 months ago – specifically, that I’d start developing Old Flower Eyes (short-formed to OFE for this post) earlier this year. For our Ang Mo buddy, Old Flower Eyes is a literal translation of a Chinese phrase that describes Presbyopia. The funniest thing is that I only realized I was gradually developing OFE in February this year, though the farsightedness started around the end of last year already.

As for what to do with it; the optician I went to to consult if I needed a pair of progressive glasses shared – with a chuckle – that a pair of such glasses will nicely solve the reading difficulties I’ve got, but I shouldn’t get them yet – because my eye-sight has yet to worsen to the point it won’t get worse. Gaaahh.

in the mean time, the Google Nexus 7 and its compact screen was making it harder to read things now. Oh, I had a custom ROM installed on it that allowed for a generous re-sizing on-screen fonts, but it wasn’t fool-proof, and many a time, the font had to get so big, that a simple web page with any length of text would mean a lot of scrolling just to get to the end of it. I’d initially intended to pick up the third generation iPad mini at the end of this year to replace the Nexus 7 then, but the worsening eyesight basically brought forward that purchase, and I settled for an iPad Retina Mini LTE; the second generation model in its series.

The Google Nexus 7 and iPad Mini Retina, both from 2013's line-up.

The Google Nexus 7 and iPad Mini Retina, both from 2013’s line-up.

The new iPad still fits nicely into the side-pockets for most of my berms, though not into the pockets any longer – not quite like the Nexus 7 which could fit easily, and even the jeans backpockets. The battery runs for quite a bit longer than the Nexus too for my usage pattern, though iOS 7 still feels constricted in how far I can customize the look and feel of the tablet, especially coming out from the Android OS. It’ll be interesting to see how the iOS 8 fares, though judging from the many preview articles about it now, it’ll still be some ways off from the sheer customization possible only on Android.

It’s the end of another year, and Ling was asking just the other day when I was going to do another one of my end-of-year review of our big ticket and asset decisions in 2013. To be fair, we’ve kept the decisions that cost a lot of $$$ somewhat minimally this year, given the large expenditures we’re projecting for 2014 i.e. home renovation. Looking through the list, we had a large number of interesting (or just fun) purchasing decisions though mostly still relatively small purchases. Going with the list again in chronological purchasing order…

Panasonic-Leica 25mm f1.4 (Win). 2013 was the year where I picked up a number of micro-four-thirds lens, all of which turned out to be great purchases. The first one in the year was the 25mm f1.4, which is closest the m4/3 standard has to a ‘standard’ focal length reach. The lens focuses very quickly, and has become one of the two main-stay lenses for my two m4/3 cameras. The only issue I can think of – and this is really being creative – is that the lens makes an odd soft squeaky sound when it focuses. And er, that’s it.=)

Panasonic-Lumix 14mm f2.5 (Win). This lens normally comes bundled with an earlier generation Panasonic m4/3 cameras, and lots of people were selling the lens out of the bundle for cheap on eBay. In terms of focal length, the lens is redundant since it’s covered by several other kit zoom lens already, but as a semi wide-angle and very compact prime, it works great. Attach it to the E-PL6 and the form profile is small enough for the camera to be pocketable. I don’t use the lens as much, favoring the 25mm and 17mm, but it’s still a win because of how cheap it was.

Billingham Hadley Pro (Win). My luxury camera bag for this year, and the last messenger-styled bag I’ll need for a while. The bag normally costs a lot when purchased here and nearly as expensive even through Amazon stores. For some odd reason, the bag is much cheaper in South Korea, and after assuring myself I wouldn’t buying an imitation, I picked up one through eBay. The bag has accompanied me for all of this year’s Minton shoots from March, and it holding my two m4/3 bodies, several lenses, filters, and a camcorder.

Olympus 75-300mm II (Win). This lens is a consumer-grade long zoom lens – as compared to the f2.8 equivalents which cost twice as much – and an improved model over the earlier generation lens of the same focal length range. I picked it up locally mostly for the Minton pictures. There’s some very slight perceivable loss of resolution and image degradation at its longest focal, but with the 2X crop factor, it’s a pretty cheap way to reach up to 600mm.

Zojirushi Bread Maker BB-HAQ10 (Win). The first of three presents I got for Ling this year, and I’m one of the main beneficiaries of it! I’ve been able to enjoy home-baked bread in the form of packed lunches to work, though Ling is quite concerned with the flour-intake when she bakes an entire (small) loaf for me to finish in a day.=)

Olympus 17mm f1.8 (Win). The second of my preferred lens for m4/3s. Robustly constructed, focuses very quickly and reliably, and nicely balanced between offering both a very slightly wide-perspective, and also capable of subject isolation when used wide-opened. I picked up the silver edition of the lens, and it looks gorgeous when attached to the similarly-colored E-PL6.

Shortly after this photo was taken, Peter reached out and pulled Hannah's hair, leaving her just a little crossed with her baby brother.

Pictures like these are why good prime lenses are worth every cent.

Olympus 45mm f1.8 (Win). The fifth and last m4/3s lenses for 2013. The lens is a small telephoto prime and while it doesn’t quite have nearly the same kind of reach as the 75-300mm, it’s a fast prime. The lens has allowed for some very nice close-ups of the two kids with plenty of subject isolation. The focal length also lets me put some distance between myself and them too, and Hannah is also less self-conscious as a result for it too.

Viking E20 Sewing Machine (Win). Ling’s birthday present this year. She hasn’t blogged about it yet though, but she’s already sewed a dozen baby bibs for Peter. She mused that these bibs sell for $15 each. This could easily become an alternate source of income if she ever decides to churn these out like a sweatshop.=)

Olympus E-PL6 (Win). The best sensor that Olympus has created in a smaller body. Handling is quite different from the older E-M5, the mode dial is fiddly, and you don’t really get to use the full 3 inch screen when previewing RAW images. But the camera allows for selfies and was picked up for cheap. Both the E-PL6 and EM-5 are in my bag whenever we’re out as a family.

Samsung Galaxy Note III (Win). A new phone that came out of my renewal of a teleco plan this month. Snappier and looking more gorgeous than the earlier generation device. I was considering numerous devices to upgrade to – including the LG G2 and the even humungous Sony Xperia Z Ultra – but none of them offered the stylus.

Google Nexus 7 (2013) (Win). Not an easy decision here as there are so similarly sized tablets. Among them included the Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0 (nearly bought this because of its stylus, but did not because of the comparatively low-resolution screen), the Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.0 (low-resolution screen – ugh), the LG G Pad (ideal size, high resolution, metallic back place, but no 4G/LTE arrgggh!!), and the new iPad Mini Retina (but didn’t want another iPad). The updated Google Nexus 7 won out in the end, given how reasonably future-proof it is, low-cost, great screen, and that it’s such a popular device that custom ROM developers have been churning out builds for it like no tomorrow.

Krups Dolce Gusto Circolo (Win). Ling’s Christmas present from me, though we’re again both beneficiaries. We’ve been enjoying gourmet coffees every evening now, and are gonna try the entire range of brews over time. The machine is one of mid-range models in the popular line of coffee makers, and is for the most part well-reviewed by purchasers. Interestingly, a couple complained about the apparent lack of full automation, but I actually appreciated that you can control the amount of water you’re using when brewing each cup.

Check out the stack of coffee capsules of differing blends.

Check out the stack of coffee capsules of differing blends.

That’s it. Happy 2014.=)

If there’s one thing I dislike about living in this part of the island, it’s the amount of dust that gets blown around the house. When we first moved in our current home, we actually had a routine where we’d mop the house twice a week. The frequency dropped down to once a week, and before long – or rather when Hannah came along – we finally engaged part-time help to clean-up the place every two weeks, which isn’t nearly enough. The worst hit room in our home is the workroom too, since that’s the room where we do all our work, and all our computers and notebooks, book shelves etc. all are – all potential little pocket areas for dust to accumulate.

The computer equipment isn’t spared. My current desktop is a heavy-duty ensemble I put together 4 years ago, but in the last two, have been starting to get real cranky with intermittent failures. Opening up the casing alone reveals layers of dust and dust balls aplenty. The most serious failure was earlier this year and caused by the video card accumulating so much dust and gunk in its intake fans that it no longer was able to dissipate heat properly, causing the desktop to crash repeatedly.

Initially, I’d intended to assemble a new desktop PC when we’d projected we’d be moving to The Minton by the end of this year. That got delayed, but I stuck to the new PC project timeline nonetheless. Most of the PC’s key parts were picked up during a Sim Lim square outing this afternoon, but a couple were bought separately: the new SSD drive was from Amazon a month ago during the Black Friday sales, the Dell 27 inch monitor is currently at my workplace, and the blu-ray drive is still somewhere in delivery.

Here’s the outcome several hours of work later:

desktop

All my harddrives are labeled with masking tape with information on manufacturer, capacity, and month/year of purchase. Makes it easy for me to see which drives are nearing end-of-life and needing replacement.

Like the 2010 desktop, I didn’t go for broke in picking up the best equipment possible. I went with average components, since I mainly use the computer these days for work, image and video editing. Here’s the outlay:

Corsair Carbide Series 400R MidTower: Well-reviewed midtower casing with 6 internal and 4 external drive bays.
Asus H87-Pro + 4670 3.4 LGA1150: A reasonably-spec CPU and motherboard with sufficient USB 3.0 ports. Unfortunately, the motherboard supports slightly less SATA connectors than the last desktop. Looks like I’ll have to pick up a SATA expansion card soon.
Cooler Master Hyper 212x PWM CPU Cooler
Western Digital 4 TB Green 64MB 5400rpm: more storage for cheap for me to keep backups of backups.=)
Crucial Ballistix 1600 MHz CL8 (16 GB): a bit excessive for today’s normal usage, but more RAM is always good when I’m doing video-editing.
CoolerMaster V750S 750W 80+ Gold: this was one component that I didn’t scrimp on.
Dell S2740L Monitor: budget large-screen monitor
Palit GTX760 2GB: average-spec video card
Samsung Electronics 840 EVO-Series 250GB SSD: bought for cheap from Amazon
Corsair AF120 Quiet EDT 1,100 RPM 21dBA: an additional fan mounted on the top of the casing

Oddly speaking, the motherboard still doesn’t play nice with the Probox enclosure I use for a couple of external harddrives. Basically, none of the drives will properly mount when connected with USB 3.0 (USB 2.0 works fine though). I experienced the same difficulty with the old desktop, which leads me now to wonder if it’s an issue with the enclosure than the desktop itself. That aside, the new desktop works great – I’ll put it through a couple of torture stress tests soon and see how the configuration works out.=)

 

Ling was sharing a story that she posted on Facebook just this morning. Conversations with Hannah again.

H: Mommy, what’s the fan for?
Mommy: To cool us down when we feel hot.
H: Orh.
H: It can also blow my hair dry.
Mommy: Yup.
H: Mommy, what’s the fan for?
Mommy: No more already.
H: No, it can also blow the mosquitoes away so that they won’t bite me when I’m sleeping at night.
Mommy: Oh, okay.
H: *giving me a cheeky grin*

It might just be a thing about young children, but they sure are fond of saying or pointing out the most obvious things! Or maybe she just likes an audience, and goes about chatting to everyone who is around her, and to herself when there are none within earshot. To be fair, we’re of mixed feelings here. On one hand, we’re thrilled that she’ll go out of her way to engage with us. On the other hand, we wonder if she’s just a little too friendly and without restraint! On a couple of occasions now when we’re out of home at shopping malls, she’ll bring along Disney character stickers, and give them out to other children she walks past. And we’ve observed before too that she has no compunctions telling others off when they do things she believes to be wrong – like shushing other children in the public if they make too much noise around her and if Peter is trying to nap in his pram. So far we’ve not had angry glares from irate parents in return yet, but who knows.=)

And of Peter; we were again reminded last week how quickly stronger he’s grown compared to Hannah at coming to six months old. It often takes the both of us to apply his facial creams to deal with his drool rash, and when we’re arm carrying him, he’ll continuously struggle to break free – and we’ve found ourselves having to exert a lot of energy just trying to keep him from tumbling off our arms. I guess it comes down to gender; many parents have shared before how more energetic baby boys are compared to baby girls. I imagine how different we’d be feeling if Peter had come first before Hannah – we were would be appreciating how much easier Hannah is to carry than her brother.

Several more pictures too taken over the last fortnight, including on my birthday.

Dinner at one of our favorite restaurant hangouts at Hougang Mall - Ichiban Sushi. We like the clean ambiance, and good family-friendly selection of Japanese cuisine. Mommy has become quite adept at eating with one hand and cradling Peter with the other.

Dinner at one of our favorite restaurant hangouts at Hougang Mall – Ichiban Sushi. We like the clean ambiance, and good family-friendly selection of Japanese cuisine. Mommy has become quite adept at eating with one hand and cradling Peter with the other.

Shortly after this photo was taken, Peter reached out and pulled Hannah's hair, leaving her just a little crossed with her baby brother.

Shortly after this photo was taken, Peter reached out and pulled Hannah’s hair, leaving her just a little crossed with her baby brother.

Peace on earth reigns when Peter finally naps.

Peace on earth reigns when Peter finally naps.

Hannah wearing the Baju Kurung at the newly opened Bedok Mall - she enjoys dressing up!

Hannah wearing the Baju Kurung at the newly opened Bedok Mall – she enjoys dressing up!

Helping herself to the complimentary birthday ice-cream at Lenas.

Helping herself to the complimentary birthday ice-cream at Lenas.

Hannah has quite taken to the child-oriented Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 for kids; this was at Toys R' Us at Tampines Mall on Tuesday. I'm a little tempted to get this for her - it's really loaded up the gills with child-friendly applications, several of which are quite educational.

Hannah has quite taken to the child-oriented Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 for kids; this was at Toys R’ Us at Tampines Mall on Tuesday.

About the latter – I’m a little tempted to get the Tab 3 for kids for Hannah – it’s really loaded up the gills with child-friendly applications, several of which seem quite educational, and it helps that the tablet comes with parental controls for accessibility and the like – e.g. to control usage. Hannah enjoys her gadgets time, but at least she doesn’t pine after them too much, which at least removes my concern about addiction to these toys if we were to get her one at some point later.

Ling has all but given up trying to find the right gadgets when it comes to my birthday. There was this occasion when she bought an (expensive) electronic shaver, that on my first try using it, turned my chin into a bloody mess. Not long after that, and knowing my love for mobile devices, she did thorough research and got me an Asus Transformer TF101, that very well-received tablet when it was released in 2011 – only that she got me the Wifi-only model which basically limited what I could do with it outside home. Lesson learned, so she said – so she got me a non-electronic and very useful notebook backpack for this year’s present to replace an old that has got frayed all over the edges.

I still love my electronic toys though. So, in the last week, I picked up two Android-based devices: the Samsung Galaxy Note 3, and also the new Google Nexus 7.

The Google Nexus 7 in hot-pink, and the Samsung Galaxy Note III.

The Google Nexus 7 in hot-pink (that was the only available case color left), and the Samsung Galaxy Note 3.

I’ve really liked the Samsung Galaxy Note series, owning the first two generation devices. And while other competing mobile phone manufacturers have come up with similarly themed and styled phablets, none have come with the built-in digitizer and stylus support that the Note series have – a feature that I use a lot e.g. when jotting down notes that come to mind. Hannah loves doodling on it too. My contract plan with the telco was up for renewal, so that was opportune time to get the new phone on discount.

The new Note certainly has a nicer build than the Note 2. It’s slightly thinner, lighter, less rounded around its edges, and with its faux stitched back really feels nicer to hold. The bumped up resolution is a bonus though at my typical view distance holding the phone, I really couldn’t see that much of a difference. The Note 3 also has an enhanced feature suite for the S pen, though I found it intrusive – I prefer to just use the stylus for simple writing – that I disabled most of the new pop-up features. The device on the whole also feels snappier and quicker in doing most things, exhibiting none of the occasional sluggishness I got on the Note 2. This was an easy upgrade choice.

The Nexus 7 on the other hand was a much deliberated purchase, especially considering I already have a Motorola Xoom 2 that was picked up from clearance sales when it was getting phased out more than a year ago, and also an about year old Apple iPad 4 Retina. The iPad 4 is still working well and survived the iOS upgrade to version 7 recently – but the device also weighs a ton that of late that I’ve found myself using it less when on the move. Once the iPad Retina breaks, I’ll go with the iPad-mini instead. I’ve also been quite keen to try one of the custom ROMs that have been put together by the thriving Android developer community. This wasn’t quite possible for the Xoom 2 – OS upgrades from Motorola for this tablet has been quite disappointing, and the device is now stuck permanently on Android 4.0 – the device though still works great for Hannah, so I’ve got it loaded up with lots of her usual cartoons.

After picking up the Nexus 7 LTE over the weekend and taking the next few days to become familiar with its functions and quirks, I went about rooting, unlocking the device, and installing a custom ROM on it. The procedure wasn’t quite as smooth as I’d hope though. The version of the custom recovery software I flashed into the tablet didn’t play nice with the ROM I initially wanted to try. And compounding the problem – I accidentally deleted my backup factory image that I’d installed too, resulting in a tablet that for a couple of hours had no OS installed, couldn’t boot past BIOS, and couldn’t be detected by Windows 7 either for me to do a sideloading of a new ROM. For those us who’re not geeky – that basically means that for several hours, I had a tablet that couldn’t connect to a computer, and also had nothing on it. Potential brick and return to manufacturer situation, without warranty even LOL.

That said, and several hours of checking out self-help forums, postings and guides from the developer community, I had the ROM difficulties sorted out – I still couldn’t get my choice ROM working on it, and eventually settled for the most recent stable build of the CyanogenMod ROM instead. Most Android users won’t ever have to worry about custom ROMs like these, but for those of us who love tweaking and heavily customizing our devices, custom ROMs are great. That said, I’d only install custom ROMs on devices that aren’t critical though – so the Note 3 is going with the official firmwares from Samsung.

Ling seemed quite impressed by the Nexus 7. Not by the device itself – but that it was small and compact enough for me to fit it into my bermudas pockets.=)

Continuing from the first post on accessories for the E-M5. Unlike the couple of Nikon (D)SLRs I’ve had, the E-M5 uses an electronic viewfinder, which itself is a prodigious user of battery power. The pair of Nikon DSLRs for instance could routinely take 800 and more pictures – with plenty of image chimping in between too. The E-M5 is CIPA rated to just 350 shots, and though one could get more than that depending on shooting habits, picking up a few more batteries shortly after purchase was necessary when we headed out for our trip to the Telunas Beach Resort last year in June, followed by my 8 day trip to China thereafter.

Trouble is – the OEM batteries for the E-M5 are dreadfully expensive, going at just a shade under $90 each here. Ouch. Shortly after the E-M5 was released last year, there was a lot of online discussion on where one might find cheaper third party alternate batteries for it. These off market batteries can be quite a hit and miss thing, with mildly annoying problems of them not reporting their current charge levels properly to the camera or not holding their charge well, to more serious challenges of them not working with their intended cameras at all. After doing some fact-finding, I settled on a pair of third party alternatives that cost about $40 including a charger for them last year in May. The two batteries were rated at higher amperage of 1450 mAh compared to the 1220 mAh, but no those numbers were deceiving – I roughly squeezed about 80% of the juice I got out of the OEM battery. Still, for this sort of price, I couldn’t complain – and nearly 19 months after the fact, the two batteries remain nice back-ups for the E-M5 and are still working reasonably well.

The original battery that came with the E-M5 on the left, and a knock-off on the right - which still works great, and dirt cheap to boot too.

The original battery that came with the E-M5 on the left, and a knock-off on the right – which still works great, and dirt cheap to boot too.

A more serious issue with the E-M5 that surfaced early was the eyecup though. By design and also depending on how one is handling the camera, the eyecup has a dreadfully nasty habit of slipping off. It might be the result of the eye piece getting entangled with other gadgets in one’s camera bag – which wouldn’t be quite so bad since the eyecup will just drop into the bag – or getting snagged against one’s clothes while on the move, which would likely mean the eyecup will get lost. Either way, enough users have lost their E-M5 eyecups this way that it’s surprising there isn’t a more thriving business coming out of China making knockoff replacement eyecups for cheap. Things wouldn’t be so bad if it also wasn’t for the fact that the OEM eyecups aren’t cheap: they cost US$9.99 each, and add quite a bit more to get it shipped here to Singapore. I’ve already lost one such eyecup during the China trip, and shortly thereafter, a third party replacement too. I decided not to take chances with the third eyecup – securing it this time with a bit of school glue. This is the white sort of paper glue that’s commonly found in art n craft shops, and is also water soluble.

The E-M5 has seen a lot of vigorous use and isn't in pristine condition anymore. The thin white substance layer lining the EP-10 eyecup is the school glue I used.

The E-M5 has seen a lot of vigorous use and isn’t in pristine condition anymore. The thin white substance layer lining the EP-10 eyecup is the school glue I used.

Yep, it does look like an eyesore, and the solution isn’t perfect by any means even. The rubber lining still comes off too easily, and once it’s out, it’s almost impossible to securely fit it back into its plastic holding frame. I’ve just ordered another third party replacement for just a few dollars, and even though this eyecup is really intended for Nikon DSLRs, it’ll at least be a good temporary replacements to ensure that the E-M5’s viewfinder sans eyepiece doesn’t scratch my glasses.

And lastly; something as seemingly innocuous as extra lens-caps. Might not seem necessary at all – until you start losing them! I carted around both the D7000 and E-M5 coupled with their respective long zoom lenses in May this year for an outdoor shoot of water-borne events at Bedok reservoir, and at the end of the event – lost not just the original Sigma 77mm lens cap for the 70-200mm f2.8, but also a 58mm screw-on UV filter for the Olympus 75-300mm. Yeah shocking – how does a properly screwed-on filter even come loose…?! Losing the lens cap was equally as bad, since the OEM ones can cost a lot of money. A typical 46mm OEM lens cap can cost around $10, while generic ones cost just a dollar. From that point onwards, I bought spare generic-type lens caps for every one of my frequently-used lens, and keep the OEM ones back in their boxes.

The one on the left costs $10. The generic one on the right costs just $1. And they both serve exactly the same function.

The one on the left costs $10. The generic one on the right costs just $1. And they both serve exactly the same function.

Well, that about covers it for the moment. I might do another accessories posts in later months for the couple more odds and ends – like camera bags.=)

I’ve had the Olympus E-M5 for about nearly 19 months now, and only just realized that I haven’t done a post yet on a couple of accessories that I use with it. Over the years I’ve used DSLRs and now mirrorless cameras, I’ve found that that I routinely buy the same type of accessories for each camera body that’s come along the way.

There are a lot of add-ons one can typically pick-up for one’s camera these days, and they range from those that are purely cosmetic, to those that enhance a camera’s feature set, right to those that make possible or significantly alter the conditions one takes pictures in. Here’s the current outlay for the E-M5 then, with pictures and comments on what they do, and how much of actual utility I’ve found with them.

For many enthusiasts, and interestingly also for persons new to photography, the first must-have is a system flash-unit. Olympus manufactures several flash-units for its range of cameras, but the one I picked up was a third-party unit made by a German company, Metz. The company is well-regarded for its range of flash units across a range of camera systems, and it was available on discount at Amazon some time back (around $290 including shipping here). The particular model I bought – the 50 AF-1 – light output more than exceeds my requirements, but it had the swivel range I wanted, and also offered quick flash recharge times.

That said, I haven’t used the flash unit very much at all – much preferring to take pictures in natural light as far as possible. This is a must-have though for the sit-down family portraits that I do for my family every Chinese New Year.

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The Metz 50AF-1, alongside a Sto-Fen-styled flash diffuser that I picked up for cheap.

The E-M5 and flash unit in the picture above is sitting on a new Joby Gorillapod Hybrid GP2 that I bought to replace the old Gorillapod Focus. The latter’s rubberized joints had been slowly disintegrating and falling into pieces for a year now. The GP2 is sold for around $80 in Singapore, but I bought it for $64 off an eBay retailer. The new pod is much lighter at a mere 165g, and while its load capacity is just about a kg – compared to the Focus’ super-heavy duty loading of 2.5 kg – the E-M5 is also a lot lighter. The GP2 also comes with a small bubble-level, though the E-M5 ‘s built-in electronic level makes the GP2’s bubble-level extraneous.

The Joby Gorillapod Hybrid GP2. Incredibly light and also requiring less effort to twist and wrap its legs around fixtures than the Focus.

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The GP2’s bubble-level. Not really necessary when the E-M5’s sitting on top it.

The E-M5 isn’t Wifi-enabled, unlike several of the newer m4/3s models – so an independent remote trigger is what I use for pictures with all four of us at home in it, and of those family portraits. Selfies are hard when you have to squeeze four persons inside a picture! The setup below is a cheapo Chinese knock-off that’s available on eBay for around $25, but works as required. It comprises several parts: a unit that’s connected to the E-M5 via a supplied cable (this unit can also trigger shots), and the remote controller itself.

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The setup makes use of four AAA batteries; two each in the controller, and connected unit.

And lastly, wrist-straps. The next picture might look a little odd – it does look as though there are not one but two wrist-straps attached to my E-M5; only that one of that isn’t a wrist strap. The BosStrap piece below is actually the tail end of a a sling-strap that I use when I’m outdoors and using two cameras simultaneously, and I leave the tail there so that it’s easier to connect the main strap when I need to. I’ve got to thank our Ang Mo bud for recommending this particular string strap; it’s a lot more comfortable than the BlackRapid strap I use for my Nikon D7000!

The actual wrist-strap below is made by a local person Andy for around $25 (you get to choose the color of the strap, wrap, and O-ring), and there are also more costly options made by Gordy, which some enthusiasts feel is more premium. Gordy also offers other connector options. I’ve got and use straps made by both persons, and honestly for my rough usage, can’t see much of a difference between the two.

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Andy’s camera strap. This is a must-have for me!

These leather straps will feel quite stiff when first purchased, but will gradually soften over time after usage. You can also slide the O-ring about to wrap around your wrist quite snugly.

There’s a couple of other E-M5 accessories that I’ll write about in a next post later too – basically, eye-cups, and also batteries. One last accessory that I’ve picked up for all my Nikon DSLRs that I haven’t for the E-M5 is the vertical grip. The E-M5 does have a couple of options in this regard, including the original manufacturer’s grip (which costs a bomb), and third party ones which go for much cheaper, though at the expense of features that are only found on the OEM grip. I haven’t picked up the grip for the E-M5 this time round, on account that it would have defeated the main reason why I’ve switched from Nikon DSLRs to m4/3s a couple of years ago – a large camera is just not nearly as fun to take pictures with as a small interchangeable lens camera.=)