It’s not about the specs – dumping my fancy pants camera

relectFor the past year or so, I’ve been taking pictures with one of the most well-reviewed and highly spec-ed out digital cameras on the market, the Sony NEX-7. It didn’t come cheap and a couple of additional lens added to the bill but this was supposedly one of the great cameras out there. Considerably smaller and lighter than a D-SLR, the mirrorless NEX-7 had a largest-in-class sensor to pick up tons of detail, a real view finder, extensive video capabilities, a built-in flash and a highly customizable array of dials, buttons and other controls.

There was only one problem: I couldn’t seem to get it to take the pictures I wanted. Despite the accolades and endless list of killer specifications, the Sony was a beast to actually use — more like a complicated, poorly thought out computing device than a camera. Too many of the dials and buttons were poorly placed leading to frequent accidental changes in settings. Otherwise, the whole process slowed down as you hit a button to lock our changes, then unlocked the lock out to make changes, then locked out again. The video button was a particular villain in this regard. There were other significant issues too, especially the lack of great, affordable lens. That amazingly detailed sensor cries out for great glass, but Sony was deaf to the need.

So the other day, I put the NEX-7 up for sale on eBay. And, after a ton of research, I bought a much simpler camera that hardly compares on paper with the Sony, a Fujifilm X-E1. The Sony has a bigger sensor with way more pixels, higher ISO range, more autofocus points, more video settings, a larger and higher resolution LED screen on the back, weighs less and on and on. But the Fujifilm is one well-designed mother fucker, no two ways around it.

Instead of covering the camera body with a bevy of blank-faced, multi-function, programmable doo-dads like Sony, Fuji chose to have just a few dedicated controls on the X-E1. On top, set the shutter speed and exposure compensation. On the lens, set the F stop. Done. Both dials also have an automatic setting, which means no more messing around with “aperture priority mode” and “exposure priority mode.” And because the dials are labeled, you can see with your own eyes instantaneously how the camera is set for the next picture. I feel like I am taking pictures again, not trying to remember how to work some crazy-complex gizmo. It doesn’t hurt that the camera came with a great prime lens and a fast zoom lens, neither of which were available for the NEX-7 (at least in my price range).

And, as you can see above, now I can take the cool pictures I always wanted to get with no muss and no fuss — and I’m having fun doing it.

Post PC Vacationing: kids, cameras, iPads but no laptops

Ocean Beach in San Francisco

Just back from a short family vacation to San Francisco where much fun was had. We traveled light, or at least light-ish, for this wired day and age. We took smart phones, digital cameras and iPads but we didn’t bring a laptop. For the most part, everything went well. The iPad makes a great travel companion, whether it’s providing maps for driving around the city, instant web searching for cool spots to eat or an ebook or movie for entertainment during down time at the hotel.

Apple has thankfully worked to make the process of using an iOS device the iPad without a computer easier and easier. We downloaded apps and music right to our iPads and never needed to sync anything to anything. Email is all “in the cloud,” so we could access important messages with our travel confirmations from any of our devices. It was all very smooth.

On our first day tooling around the Bay Area in our throwback, sky blue Crown Victoria, we wanted to find Bette’s Ocean View Diner in Berkeley. An iPad 3 with built-in LTE and GPS proved a trusty navigational aid taking us over the Bay Bridge and right onto 4th Street, Berkeley’s more swich shopping district away from the UCal campus. My wife, Whitney Connaughton, is an expert at parking honking large vehicles so we nimble-y parallel parked despite crowded conditions. Unfortunately, by 9 o’clock on a Saturday morning, the wait at Bette’s (which really does have the world’s best pancakes) was over an hour. So we had to make due with the excellent Mexican style Cafe M around the corner. I was snapping photos mainly with my Samsung NX200, a relatively pocketable mirrorless digital camera that takes very fine shots. Later, we checked out the college campus, grabbed some amazing doughnuts in Oakland and headed back to San Fran for a burger and shake dinner.

When I wanted to review my pictures for the day, I grabbed the iPad and attached the SD card adapter from Apple’s Camera Connection Kit. You may be familiar with this trick — you can import photos directly into the iOS photo gallery off your camera’s memory card. Once I had the pictures aboard, however, things were not quite so great. You can only do a few, limited things with pictures like upload to Facebook or post to Twitter. Upload to Flickr or post to See you later. With my laptop and Adobe’s fabulous Lightroom program, I have plug-ins to send my pictures to all the services I choose. I tried using some of my other services’ iOS apps, like Zenfolio, but it choked and crashed without uploading my pictures.

treesThe next day, we traveled down to Big Basin Redwoods State Park, an amazing place-out-of-time wilderness area with huge stands of Redwood trees, many more than a thousand years old. On the way, we discovered a limitation of navigation by iPad. Driving up into the mountains where cell phone signals are sketchy at best, the iPad’s maps app lost track of where we were, couldn’t download maps and generally left us blind. We thought we’d be okay since we’d asked the app to get the directions list while we still had a good signal. But we stopped for lunch and let the iPad screen go blank. Logging back in, we discovered that the directions hadn’t been saved, even though no other app had run. Luckily, we were near the park at that point and a few helpful road signs were all it took. Inside the park, iPads stayed in the trunk of the car and we enjoying the gorgeous and lush Redwood forest unwired. If we’d gotten our directions the old-fashioned way (from Google maps on a laptop web browser), we’d probably have printed them out back at the hotel, avoiding the out of service issue.

As far as keeping in touch with friends and family, the iPads and phones were plenty suitable for reading and writing emails, Facebook posts and future blog entries. I kept up with the sports news back home via, checked out restaurants on the SF bulletin boards of and almost finished the latest ebook in Hugh Howey’s “Wool” series.

At night, back at our hotel, everybody wound down with a little technology. Watching video on the go can be an a problem with our 3G and LTE-enabled iPads, however, and we had to be very careful. Sitting in your hotel watching a couple of episodes of the “House of Cards” series on Netflix, for example, can burn through more than half of your entire month’s  broadband usage allowance. And downloading a movie for rent from the iTunes store will actually use up the whole pie and send you into the land of overage charges. Hotel wifi was expensive, slow and limited us to one connected device per room per 24 hours. Ugh. I keep a gazillion movies on my laptop and an accompanying external drive but we didn’t have access to that bounty on this trip.

Golden Gate BridgeNo one among us took any pictures with their iPads, thankfully. Casual snapshots were all iPhone and Galaxy Nexus and I used my Samsung camera for the important stuff. As I mentioned, it’s quite light and — with its pancake 30mm lens — even pocketable in my jacket. It does suffer from a lack of truly great lens, a problem for almost all sub-DSLR size camera systems. That meant some of my low light shots didn’t come out as well as I’d hoped and I didn’t get the kind of mind-blowing semi-focused photos a great DSLR can take when paired with a great (yet still affordable)  lens. I used to rely on a combination of a relatively tiny Canon S-100 and a bulky, full size Canon DSLR. Sometimes the tiny camera let you down, but as long as you didn’t mind carrying around the bigger camera, amazing photos were easy. After this trip, I’m rethinking my switch the middle ground and its lack of upper-end greatness.

The iPads also served ably on the airplane trips out and back. No need to worry about power. Unlike a laptop, an iPad easily lasts for a full cross-continental flight, even showing videos the whole time. That’s a big relief when JetBlue’s multi-channel video system is showing reruns of Seinfeld and movies you don’t want to see.

In the end, I’d call our Post-PC vacation a success with just a few minor hassles. No need to lug that laptop around the world with you anymore. An iPad can set you free.

Finally, serious Lightroom photo syncing on the iPad – no iPhoto required

Old workflow for getting cool pictures I’ve taken from my camera to my iPad:

Import photos into Adobe Lightroom. Throw out junk, make fixes, sort and rate. Choose photos I want on my iPad and export to a folder on my hard drive. Drag said folder into iPhoto. Make newly imported photos into a new iPhoto album. Hook up iPad for sync via iTunes. Place check mark on new album in iTunes iPad photo syncing tab. Wait.

New workflow for getting cool pictures I’ve taken from camera to iPad:

Import photos into Adobe Lightroom. Throw out junk, make fixes, sort and rate. Choose photos I want on my iPad, drag to Photosmith publishing service, hit sync.

What a great program, though it does cost $20. What I’ve just described, using the app to send pictures or albums right from Lightroom onto your iPad, is worth more than $20 to me. You also have to install a free Lightroom plugin on your computer to make to all work.

But the other side of the app is for doing field work on photos using just your iPad, which I have not done much in the past but may get more into. Using Apple’s Camera Connection Kit, you can import photos right off your camera into the Photosmith app, rate them, tag them, flag them for deletion etc. You can also directly upload them to a couple of services such as Facebook, Flickr and Dropbox. Then just get near your Mac, open up Lightroom and sync back to your computer. Sweet.

photosmith app screen shot

Annoying limits I’ve encountered so far?

You can’t sync iPad screenshots back to Lightroom. That’s because the iPad makes them in the PNG format which Lightroom doesn’t support. But a fix is coming.

It seems like you can’t use the iPad app to re-arrange photos imported from Lightroom among your collections or make them into a new collection and have the changes sync back to Lightroom. Only new photos imported directly from a camera to the iPad (or taken with the iPad, god have mercy on your soul) sync back to Lightroom.


Androids and apples among the sci-fi

It’s amazing, or maybe it’s not amazing at all, how quickly people jump to conclusions about your motives after you write a blog post they don’t like. There were actually commenters recently who thought I was picking on Apple because I obviously hated the company and loved Android. How did they know? They saw the Android cookie jar in the photo sitting atop the blog page. Seriously?

Okay, so truth is I’m an equally opportunity gadgeteer with plenty of Apple machines to prove it. But I’ve added one more Apple…up top…in the photo…on top of every blog page…just so there’s no confusion.

The iPad as digital library and other lessons of the first year

Well, we’ve been very satisfied iPad owners for just over a year now so it’s a good time to look back and review. My intention is to dig a lot deeper than the usual gadget reviews and give a sense of what it’s like to have an iPad day in and day out for a year. The list is aimed at people who might be considering buying an iPad more so than people who already have one. And all of the points apply equally to the original iPad and the iPad 2. So, without further adieu, here are 10 things we’ve learned.

1. The iPad is the perfect digital library of the 21st Century. In the last century, people had rooms they’d call a library filled with physical objects. Look around and spot something of interest, grab it down off the shelf, put it back in place. Now we have it in digital form and the iPad, with its multi-touch screen, allows those same familiar physical interactions. Photos, emails, books, recipes, movies, maps, songs, web pages. You want to have it with you and easily accessible so you keep it on your iPad.

2. Corollary of #1: Get the most memory you can afford, preferably the 64 GB version. Of course, it’s more convenient to have all your stuff with you when you want it. But the flip side is also important: it’s an annoying waste of time trying to hone your vast digital song collection or photo library from your computer to fit onto your iPad. The more places you can check the “sync everything” box, the better. And syncing itself a slow train to bummersvile.

3. The iPad is not great for working on standard office software tasks like word processing and spreadsheets. The on-screen keyboard experience is okay, not great, but the processes to select text and move the cursor around are just plain bad. Moving documents back and forth from the iPad to another computer is also extremely treacherous because iPad apps have the nasty habit of eliminating or mangling formatting. Printing is also complicated or impossible, particularly when you’re on the road.

4. The iPad doesn’t like to sync and you find yourself syncing less and less. The original iPod connected over a firewire port that was super speedy. But Apple eliminated firewire syncing years ago and the iPad is stuck in the slow lane known as USB 2.0. Hopefully, Apple’s new super-fast Thunderbolt port will quickly make its way to the iPad. In the meantime, prepare to get a cup of coffee while your iPad backs up all its data, loads app updates and transfer your photos, songs and videos each time it syncs.

5. Battery life is insane. You will find yourself charging less and less.

6. The iPad is very personal, it’s not very multi-personal. There’s no way to set up individual accounts for different people on an iPad, which gets to be a drag after while when the device is being shared around the family. I’m not as taken with background pictures of puppies as my daughters, I don’t want 15 games on my first home screen like my son and I want to read my Gmail, not my wife’s, when I use the mail app. Still, the iPad is too fun and too huge not to share.

7. The iPad is less delicate than a laptop. We take ours into the kitchen when we’re making a recipe, for example, and just wipe off the occasional spill.

8. Great for multi-day trips, not great for out for the day tripping. The iPad is lighter and smaller than a laptop, sure, but it is not nearly light enough yet. It’s great to use sitting down but not in one hand and it doesn’t fit in a pocket so it can be a burden to carry around. And it’s too flashy and expensive to use in some places, like the subway.

9. The speaker should be much better. When you have the perfect, self-contained travel computer, it should be able to play music in your hotel room without add-on speakers.

10. We love the app store and installing new apps is simple. But the process of moving apps around, organizing them on multiple home screens and deleting the occasional dud are not intuitive or easy.

Rock, paper scissors: Should I get a Kindle, iPad or MacBook?

Well, we’ve been Amazon Kindle owners for almost four years now at our house, we’ve had Apple’s iPad for almost a year and we’ve had Mac laptops since too long ago to remember. So we’re getting asked a lot now: Should I buy an iPad or a Kindle? Can I use an iPad instead of a laptop? Do I need a computer to use my Kindle? With all three products hot right now, the answer is sort of like the old game of rock, paper, scissors. Each has different strengths and weaknesses not to mention very different prices. Let’s review some of the basic strengths of each, starting with the cheapest.

Amazon Kindle  (3rd generation)

$139 with wifi or $189 with free mobile wireless for life

You are a reader. You always have at least one book on hand, sometimes several. When you finish a book, you simply move on to the next. The Kindle has been carefully honed to meet your needs.

You use it to read in any place you would read a book in the way you would read a book: hold it in one hand, read outside, read inside. There is no backlighting, so if you are in bed at night, you need a lamp. The black and white screen is incredibly easy to read and easy on your eyes — you will never feel the eye fatigue you get from staring at a computer screen all day. And when your eyes are already tired after that long work day, you can adjust the size of the Kindle’s type on the fly.

You want a bring it and forget it device. The Kindle fits in a purse or jacket pocket, weighs practically nothing, the battery lasts for weeks on end. You never need to sync it to a computer ever. Because the wireless connection is built-in and free (it runs on Sprint’s network but you don’t need to know that) you can access the bookstore anywhere, anytime. You can also grab any ebook you’ve ever bought any time from your personal online library maintained by Amazon. Any ebook you buy can also be read on other Kindles you own or on special apps available for most smart phones and computers — or the iPad.

The Kindle has a primitive web browser that works on the free wireless connection. It may be perfect for catching up on news, blogs or other text content but no video or complex stuff at all. There is also a mini-sized built-in keyboard. It’s handy for searching for ebooks in the store, taking a few notes but not much more. Your fingers would cramp and die trying to write the great American ebook novel on this thing.

New versions of the Kindle have historically come out around the holidays so you’re safe buying one now.

Apple iPad 2

$499-$699 with wifi, $629-$829 with mobile wireless (plus monthly contract)

You want to enjoy digital entertainment like music, movies and web sites when you’re not sitting at your desk. The iPad loves to be in the family room, the living room, on the train, at the coffee shop. Its crisp full-color screen, much larger than the Kindles’s and fully back lit,  is great if you like watching a lot of video. It also works as an ebook reader with apps for Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble’s Nook and Apple’s iBooks (though there is some danger Apple is going to banish its competitors later this year). The back lighting lets you read in bed with no lamp, a feature much appreciated by sleepy spouses.

The iPad is perfect when you need to pull it out quickly and use it for 15 minutes here or 30 minutes there — waiting at the doctor’s office or to board a plane, say. There is no boot-up time, it’s instantly on and, with the mobile wireless models, connected immediately almost anywhere. Great for taking the train to work, waiting at the doctor’s office, 15 minutes here, 30 minutes there.

There is a full strength web browser built in. It’s absolutely great at almost everything but won’t play Flash content (more on that below). You will pay extra, considerably extra, over a Kindle for the iPad models with a mobile wireless connection. You can choose AT&T or Verizon but monthly plans are going to add several hundred dollars a year at least to your total cost of ownership. AT&T’s plans start at $15/month and Verizon’s at $20/month. One way to avoid the bill is to buy the wifi-only model and use your smart phone’s tethering capability or a mobile hotspot like the Verizon mifi.

The iPad can be used like a computer with its on-screen keyboard but it’s best for writing short notes or emails. There is no feeling of physical feedback from pressing each key on screen as there is with a normal keyboard, of course.

The iPad is great with web-based email services like Google’s gMail or Apple’s MobileMe. The built-in iPad email app for old-fashioned email accounts where you download all your mail, however, remains rather limited. Compared to Apple’s desktop email, the iPad version lacks basic features like spam filtering and folders.

The iPad is a great device to review or present large documents, spreadsheets or PDFs. It’s not bad for typing documents but has only limited formatting options, which can cause huge problems if you are planning to move files back and forth with a PC. And it is pretty darn horrible for spreadsheets, which cry out for a mouse and full keyboard.

The iPad is at its best showing off personal photos and home movies to friends, offering amazing slide shows anywhere you happen to be. I mean really great. The feeling of pulling up photos, zooming in and out and flicking around your albums all with your fingers in comtrol is constant fun. The iPad is less great for organizing or editing photos but you can do that on your computer and sync them over.

The iPad is part of Apple’s vast and growing iOS app ecosystem. There are thousands of great games and zillions more apps to do all sorts of things, guide you through the Louvre, track your eBay bidding, download digital comic books and on and on.

We have found that the iPad is the perfect second computer if you already have a computer for work. Get your personal life off your company’s computer (really, you should!). The iPad is light enough that you can travel with both. It now has a built in camera so you can do video chatting on the go, too.

The iPad is also kid-proof and there are lots of kid friendly games. It’s like letting the kids play in a sandbox — they can’t mess it up the way they inevitably seem to mess up full-powered computers.

There are a few weaknesses versus the Kindle or the MacBook Air. The iPad is too heavy to hold in one hand so it doesn’t work if you’re standing up on the subway or trying to use it in a cramped space where the Kindle is great. Also unlike the Kindle, the iPad does want to be synced to a computer. That’s the only way to back up your stuff and the only sane way to re-arrange your app icons if you have more than a few. And storage space can easily get tight, requiring that you sync big files like movies or TV shows back and forth with your computer.

The battery lasts for a day, maybe even for two, but then needs to be recharged. And, without getting too deep in a matter of some controversy, the iPad is not compatible with Adobe Flash so there are web sites that you cannot see (like those for some high-end restaurants and hotels) and you cannot view flash videos or play flash games (hello Club Penguin). And Apple does not let you add your own favorite web browser to your iPad.

The updated iPad 2 came out almost a year after the first iPad and while there are some vague rumors of an update in the fall, again I think it’s a pretty safe time to buy now.

The 11″ MacBook Air


Another contender in the mobile and useful computing category is Apple’s new MacBook Air with an 11″ screen. It is about the same size as an iPad though almost twice as heavy (2.3 lb versus 1.3 lb).

The MacBook Air is one of the most powerful and capable laptops in the history of the category we used to call ultraportable. It has a full-size keyboard and is ready for serious writing, document creation, photo editing, pretty much any task you want to throw at a regular computer, all in a super-portable package. Load up a full copy of Microsoft Office, Adobe Lightroom or Apple’s Garageband and get to work. Spreadsheet jockeys will be happy with the trackpad. You can easily do serious emailing using Apple’s email or whatever software you like.

The web browser on the MacBook Air is a full-powered browser capable of displaying, with the correct plug-in, all flash-based web sites. You can also choose to add any browser you prefer like Firefox of Chrome.

But it’s also small enough to make for a fine movie player on the couch or in bed. You can run the Kindle ereader app for Mac and use it as an ereader, too.

Battery life is reported at 5 hours. There are no built in mobile wireless options but it’s easy enough to get a mobile wifi hotspot like Sprint’s Overdrive or Verizon’s Mifi for on-the-go connectivity.

MacBook Airs have gone a long time between updgrades so even though the current model came out almost six months ago, I’d also put this in the safe to buy now category.

Rock, paper, scissors:

As you may have gleaned from the above discussion, there is plenty of overlap in the uses and capabilities of these three great gadgets but also some major gaps for each. The Kindle may be the “paper” covering the iPad “rock” if you want to read on the subway, but that same iPad “rock” may break the Macbook “scissors” if you want to watch YouTube videos instead. Hence, if you have the budget, you might be well-served with more than one or even all three. And remember, a family with kids that owns an iPad is a family shopping for a second iPad. And a family with kids and two iPads is a family shopping for…well, you get the point.

Additional links of interest:

CNet’s Brooke Crothers has a good piece looking at an iPad2 versus the Macbook Air for all his mobile computing needs.

Not so simple way to grab screenshots on the Nexus S

As I’ve noted a few times, unlike the iPhone, there is no simple way to grab and save a screenshot on the Nexus S phone, or on any Android phone that hasn’t been rooted. There is a complex work-around, however, that delivers beautiful screenshots. Credit to this post from Androidcentral for getting me started.

To start, you have to download and install the appropriate Android software developers kit, or SDK, from Google here. A current version of Sun’s Java Runtime Environment is also required.

Next, start up the program in the resulting tools folder called “Android” to add a few needed pieces. On the Mac, I just added the Android 2.3 platform extra, but I believe Windows users need to also install some USB drivers.

Now, on your phone navigate to Settings > Applications > Development and check the box called “USB debugging.” Then plug the phone into your computer via a USB cord.

Go back to your Android SDK and run the program called ddms (short for Dalvik Debug Monitor Server). Your phone should be listed in the left-hand window. Click on it and then click on the menu called Tools and select “Screen capture…”

Now you should have a window come up showing exactly what’s on your phone’s screen. Hit “save” and you get a PNG-formatted screenshot saved on your computer. If you want to navigate to something else on the phone, do so and then hit the “refresh” button on the ddms screen. And, as Jerry Pournelle likes to say, Bob’s your uncle. Enjoy.

High-end pocket cameras still trail far behind low-end D-SLRs, sadly

Everyone loves the gorgeous pictures that their digital SLR camera takes but no one likes carrying around the unwieldy, weighty cameras themselves. So we’re all on a perpetual quest. We want a much lighter camera that still takes great pictures and allows for the kind of fiddling and fixing — both in the camera settings and later in the “digital darkroom” — that D-SLRs offer.

Until recently, there was virtually nothing. For one, very few smaller cameras allow you to take pictures in the RAW format that preserves all the data from your digital camera’s sensor. Jpeg and other compressed formats trash some of the data, leaving you with less ability to fix and adjust pictures back home on your computer.

The other major shortcoming was the size of the digital sensors in most smaller cameras. While camera makers want to confuse you with useless information about the total number of pixels on a sensor, the really important stat is the density of those pixels. A ton of pixels mashed on a relatively tiny sensor results in a worse image than many fewer pixels on a larger sensor.

Lately, there have been some strides towards really improving small digital cameras. One of the first of the new breed (which we own) is the Canon S90. It has a larger sensor than most small cameras, saves images in the RAW format and has numerous manual controls to help you get just the photo you’re looking for.

I’ve used the S90 quite a bit this year in place of my aging Canon Rebel XT. But unfortunately, the results have not lived up to my possibly unrealistic hopes. Despite the improvements in the S90, it still remains hamstrung by a built-in lens that has far less flexibility and overall quality than the lens available for D-SLRs. That means worse low light performance, less detail captured and limited ability to take artsy shots with blurred backgrounds.

I kind of knew this was the case after a few recent disappointing outings with the S90. But I confirmed it last weekend by taking both Canons out for a spin in the back yard. Below you can see the S90’s inability to blur the background and failure to capture the same level of detail. Obviously the external conditions were the same in all shots and I was setting the f-stop manually.

Here’s a shot from the S90
Backyard photo with no blurring

And a similar shot from the Rebel XT
Backyard photo with pretty blurring

Notice the flatness of the background in this S90 shot

And here’s some pretty blurring, or bokeh as photogs say, from the Rebel XT

All of this makes me think that I should probably move in the opposite direction. The Rebel has a sensor that is sort of medium sized and known as the APS-C format. Instead of a smaller camera, I should get a better D-SLR — one with a larger “full frame” sensor that is about the dimensions of old-fashioned 35 mm film. A couple of years ago, some less-than-insanely-expensive full frame cameras hit the market like the Canon EOS 5D Mark II and the Nikon D700. But neither has been updated in two years.

Prior coverage:

All I ask is a full-frame and a single mirror to sail her by (July 1, 2008)

Start saving my pennies: Canon updates 5D digital camera (September 17, 2008)