Thursday, 22 August 2013

Sharpening The Edge

OK. After some pretty hard Edge bashing in the previous few posts, let's see if we can come up with a new Edge proposal which might stand a chance in this day and age (or rather, in next year's day and age). Since I'm not feeling particularly clever naming-wise right now let's give our imaginary product one very dull name: the Sharp Edge. And now, without further ado, to the specs and beyond...

Main Hardware

No need to be overly creative here, either. If we're talking today's specs, I'd say a Samsung Galaxy S4 equivalent will do. If we're talking 2014, let's say it should match Samsung Galaxy S5. Wink-wink, nudge-nudge, say no more...

Add-ons

Now we're into the territory Canonical sadly forgot to cover with their original Edge (aka RIP Edge). Yes, they mentioned dock, but didn't show one, and also never mentioned whether it'll be included in the box. Let's correct their mistakes here (apart from the showing bit, that is).

Desktop Dock

So, the main dock, the one which converts Sharp Edge into a desktop system. For this, we need something truly elegant and fitting with the overall design. I'm thinking something along the lines of Nexus device landscape docks. This is because I envision the docked Sharp Edge will still show something on its screen. It can be used as an additional notification area (think clock, calendar, general notifications, photo frame, ...). This is, after all, still a phone, and it's easier to use its own screen for phone-like functions than using the monitor for, say, incoming calls. Since it's presumably also going to be a place where headset is connected it makes even more sense to make it have a bit of a life of its own. Hopefully it will also manage to somehow hide most of the other necessary cables, maybe by using a hidden (i.e., connected by a long thin cable and tucked out of view) "black box" where the screen, keyboard, USB, power, and other ports can be located and plugged into. In any case, we need to specify this in our project and make it look appealing. And include it in the box as standard. This is a high end device, after all.

But, this is not the only dock a Sharp Edge needs. Oh, no. So we go on to...

Laptop Dock

Nothing revolutionary here, really. It's been done before, not least by Motorola. We need to have a laptop-like shell where Sharp Edge slots in and becomes invisible, and we suddenly have a full laptop/netbook. To go one better on what I've seen so far, let's plug our Sharp Edge just so that it becomes the touchpad for our little wonder-dock. And why not? It has a touch screen already. Plus, it could again be used as an extra notification area. Patent lawyers take note: you heard it here first! The rest of the dock can be more or less standard fare. I'd go for between 10 and 12 inches screen size (remember, this is just one other way of converting your Sharp Edge). An additional (large!) battery would be great, too, especially if it could also recharge the one in the phone. A sprinkling of extra ports could come in handy, too. Also, let's make the laptop dock battery removable, and replaceable beneath its own cover (as opposed to making up part of the case). That way we can both have spares, and also try and sell battery-less laptop docks for those on a budget or those who value lightness over operation time (a charger port is a must, of course). This could help with crowdfunding perk selection, too. Finally, let's throw in a nice carry case as standard (but not for backers, let them buy them separately, but in various designs).

Cables, etc

Must not forget cables! First the selection that will be available at launch needs to be made clear to backers. Then, we need to specify a very comprehensive set from the outset (pun intended). Most importantly, the retail package (and the phone perks!) must include at least one of every cable available. First, as a totally new product we can't expect an exactly thriving aftermarket at launch, but it's also a good marketing ploy. Why not get all the possible accessories when you already have all the cables you may need? But seriously, this is a high end product. Not including all required cable is cheap and nasty (I'm looking at you lens manufacturers, the ones which do not include a £10 plastic hood with a £750 lens).

I think this pretty much covers all the tangible bits, so we shall proceed to the intangibles: the software...

The Software

Low Level

At the lowest level we absolutely need an unlocked boot loader, and the one for which source code is available - and easily. I'm thinking in the box, or better still on the device itself. If you're going to sell an open high end devices it needs to be really open. Now, for the corporate and security conscious types: there has to be an option to easily lock down a device so that only an authorised user can unlock it. IT departments and CIOs would not touch Sharp Edge with a barge pole if it didn't have this. But, to repeat: this should not be security through obscurity. Everything should be in the open, and only through that it can be made truly secure.

Operating System(s)

The Sharp Edge should ship with the ability to dual boot at least Android and a flavour of Linux.

As a phone, it should be able to run Android (plain Google version, nothing "customised") and one of the FOSS alternatives. Ubuntu Mobile and Firefox OS are the current candidates, but all the required specs should be made freely available so OSes like Meego, Jolla, and similar can be ported with relative ease, too.

As a desktop/laptop replacement, Sharp Edge needs to be able to dual boot again, and again out of the box. This time it should be with Android (yes, it can be useful as a desktop OS) and one of the Linux flavours. Again, all the required information for porting arbitrary OSes should be made freely available.

Software Extras

Above, I have mentioned spec being freely available so anyone can port anything to the Sharp Edge hardware (and accessories). Let's go one better and offer a full SDK. Maybe even include it in the box (hey, CD printing is cheap). We'll have one already to be able to build the thing in the first place, and it'll mostly be FOSS anyway so why not wrap it nicely, put a bow tie on it, and hand it out to customers? We could even sell a crowdfunding perk of early access to the SDK for developers who see the potential in building apps before launch.

Which all brings me neatly to the main thing, which is how to better structure the crowdfunding campaign...

The Crowdfunding Campaign

I think there's at least a bit of a consensus that the Edge crowdfunding campaign has been mismanaged and misconceived - and that's being generous. So, let's try and not make the same mistakes here. Below are the various perks I think have to be available so that the goodwill potential is maximised.

The Hall of Fame Perk

There should be a prominent page on the project's web site (and not just on the crowdfunding handlers's sites, but the official project site, too) where all the backers will be listed with varying prominence, depending on the perk they purchased. It is probably not enough to have just one level here. I'd suggest starting with absolutely minuscule amounts of, say, $1 for a tiny sized mention, up to maybe even $50 or more for a limited (but not too small!) number of increasingly prominent endorsements. The higher amaounts may also be able to receive a minor tangible gift (think, mouse pads, pens, stickers, ...). In any case, with a good PR campaign, hopefully a lot of people will decide a few bucks is a nice way to chip in, show support, and achieve that all-important warm and fuzzy feeling one gets when one backs a dear cause.

The Merchandise Perks

Now, this is the one where Canonical really got it wrong. We need a lot of those. We should scan the most successful similar projects and model ours on them. Mugs, t-shirts, mouse pads, hats, hoodies, stickers, bumper stickers, key rings. You name it, we got it! Every little helps, as the immortal supermarket jingle has it. Some of these should be included with some other perks (Hall of Fame ones, and actual phones, too).

Accessory perks

If the crowdfunding handler allows multiple pledges per backer (and it should or we shouldn't use it) then every single accessory listed above, up to and including spare batteries should be made a separate perk (and there should be accessory bundle perks - several kinds). Remember, we need all the money we can get to fund our project. More importantly, however, our backers need all that we can offer to be able to use our product in the best possible way, and nobody expect to get all the accessories in the box. The more choice we give the more likely there will be a taker/backer.

Phone perks

Here, I'm talking about individual phone perks (well, maybe up to half a dozen in a pack - a family pack?). These should span the spectrum from one individual Sharp Edge retail box to Sharp Edge plus accessories combos (a few well constructed ones), to maybe "family packs" of a few phones in a bundle (up to half a dozen, I'd say). Make all these available at estimated production price (and be open about it!) or a little bit more (and be open about that, too!). Include a few "Limited Edition" runs, too. In any case, avoid the disaster of Canonical Edge phone perks mess.

Developer Perks

Have a few perks customised towards developers. Maybe a number of phones with interesting hardware test points exposed. Some early access to SDK perks. Phone and SDK combo perks. "Developer Edition" phones (think custom snap-on backplates - also a possible accessory perk, and cool design decision). Think like an app developer and let rip.

Corporate perks

A nice idea by Canonical, this one. Have several sizes of these (small, medium, large business). Have various accessory/SDK options. Offer exclusive support contracts. Offer active help in customising and locking down devices.

Blue Sky Perks

Include a few "blue sky" perks. One for a cool $1 million. Go even wilder. You may not get any backers for these, but it'll put a smile on others' faces and that may help them open their wallets a bit more. And who knows, maybe a like of Mike Shuttleworth or Richard Branson decides it's fun to back you (and maybe later invite you to a private chat about your next product - or even this one).

Do you agree we have enough nice perks now? I sure think we do!

At this point, a lot of the people I've interacted with (have been shouted at by, in other words) in the course of commenting on the Edge project would ask where do they look to find my - FOSS or other - ideals. To them I say: look again - it's an open project. As open as can be in fact, including the pricing and marketing. But, it also needs money to become a reality. And to get money from crowdfunding one needs to make it appealing to the crowd to part with their money. And one needs them to go away with a bit more than a warm fuzzy feeling and an emptied wallet (to this effect I'd also choose Kickstarter over Indiegogo, as it doesn't lock people's money unnecessarily until the project is a go).

Now, we just need to go away and have a long hard look and think into the economics and logistics of such a project. Once we've done that, all of the above perks and their (un)limited availability will become clear. And to end this post, this last bit seems to have been sorely missing from the original Edge project. Miscalculated, mismanaged, and mis-planned. Sad, really.

Got to go now. I've Richard Branson on Line 2...

"Oh, high Rich, how's the beard..."

RIP The Edge

It's finally over, and unsurprisingly, the Canonical's Indiegogo campaign for the Edge mobile phone has failed to reach its stated goal of $32 million. As a matter of fact it barely managed a third of it.

I have already written about why I think the campaign was destined to fail, and also - for those who actually parse what they read - what may have been done to prevent disaster. I won't bother here with details, and will instead just offer a quick recapitulation:
  • the price of the phone was just not right (too high)
  • the perks structure was wrong (too few)
  • the idea specs can be changed at 11th hour was misguided
  • the specs were not as good as they were made out to be (for May 2014)
  • the concept was not as revolutionary as it was touted to be
  • the tech press PR was poor and missing
What is surprising, however, is the number of people - and a lot of them non-backers, too - who are proclaiming the whole thing a victory and a success. Their argument revolves around the absolute sum raised which is the largest ever for crowdfunding, but also non-existent as the project has failed. They also somehow translate the 5,000+ phone pre-orders and 25,000+ total backers as indication of into sufficient customer demand which will eventually mean the Edge will become true. Finally, they continue to maintain that the specs and features are so revolutionary that the Edge will remain to be undoubted industry leading product.

First, the absolute sum. It's silly, really. Yes, it's a nice headline figure. However, nobody's going to benefit, and not a cent will reach Canonical or Edge project. Sadly, what everyone's takeaway will be is: $12m is way lower than $32m. Fail.

Second, the backers versus potential customers. This is actually a point that could be debated either way. However, seeing as a phone like this has to attract customers in millions to be priced at anything people will actually pay ($800 production translates into more than a $1000 retail) it would mean that behind every one of the 5,000 pre-orders there's 200 waiting in line or - if we're extremely generous - that behind every single backer there's 40 people waiting to see Edge in the shops. I submit that's an unlikely calculation and probably by a factor of 5 to 10. But I am prepared to be proven wrong (by solid market research).

Third, and final, the specs. Yes, on paper, now, they are impressive. In May 2014? Not so much. Size of RAM is already getting to 3GB in high end devices. The amount of flash storage of 128GB is nice, but I still maintain that current 32GB coupled with a 64GB uSD card is sufficiently close so as not to matter. Finally, the quoted screen size and resolution are decidedly average even by today's standards. And again, it's anyone's guess what devices with what specs will be available in May 2014 or later, and it is later that matters as Edge had no chance of being released in time even if it was funded.

So, am I a naysayer with an agenda - as I have been accused of a few times? Methinks not. As a matter of fact, I'd personally love for a project such as Edge to be a success. Why? Because I'd rush out and buy it, of course. And I'd probably be happy to spend close to a $1,000 for one - if done right. None of which is a reason - in fact all of which are reasons extraordinaire - to openly point out the flaws and weaknesses in a public project like Edge. How else Canonical - and others who may be having similar ideas - could be helped to avoid the pitfalls and mistakes of the past? Surely not by being praised to high heavens and patted on the back for a project that failed at the first hurdle.

Finally, will we see a product like the Edge? I'm sure we will. It's just that someone, somewhere (and not necessarily in the summertime) needs to go back to a drawing board and try again. And maybe this time they should do a little bit more of the prep work before going public. The whole industry does not need another public failure like the Edge.

And it is a failure. Public, and provable.

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Ubuntu (Clutches At The) Edge

There is little I can really add to what I said about this project and its crowdfunding campaign yesterday. However, I believe some things that happened to the Canonical's Ubuntu Edge campaign in the last 24 hours warrant a bit of an update and comment.

So, to quickly recap where the campaign was yesterday at around this time. Basically, once the $600 Ubuntu Edge phone perk sold out the funding came to a screeching halt. Intorducing $830 and two-for-$1400 tiers also didn't seem to have helped. At the clip the funding was going at the time the campaign would have easily failed.

Then, out of the blue, we get the $675 Ubuntu Edge perk!


But not only that. Oh, no. Suddenly there are even more ties that will get you an Ubuntu Edge phone: $725, $775, and even $780, plus the other two from yesterday, the $830, and two-for-$1400.

First of all, if this move is not a clear sign of desperation I don't know what is. And it's not just that a new low tier is introduced. Oh, no. Canonical suddenly feels the need to sound the waters by introducing three more staggered ones in $50 increments. Someone in their marketing department should have walked the plank by now, if you ask me.

Not only this back-paddling (to continue watery metaphors) shows a lack of direction (and probably clue), but it is also insulting to the backers. Every single crowdfunding campaign I've seen so far had very distinct perks for different price points. What Canonical is doing here is blatantly pricing the same thing in six (6!) different tiers. Yes, there may be some minor differences in attached warmness and fuzziness, but whoever's funding at these tiers really wants a decently priced power-phone first, and feelings come a distant third. Which is also nicely illustrated by the fact that once all the $675 phones have gone the funding again slowed to a trickle.

So, what have we learned from this exercise?

Well, for one, that Canonical cannot expect to sell their phone - even as a futuristic concept power phone - for more than around $700 or so. Which means they are unlikely to be able to cover the costs of the 40,000 batch they planned as, by their own (careless) admission, it costs $830 to make one. Now, if they upped the batch size by a factor of at least 10 then the pricing may be good enough for what's obviously market expectation at the moment. Whether it was necessary to go to the trouble (and embarrassment) of a crowdfunding campaign to find this out is very dubious.

And then, we learn (as if it shouldn't have been obvious) that Canonical don't seem to actually know how to build a mobile phone, or at least do it to time scales and price. Promising to deliver such a product in 10 months when the hardware (and to an extent also software) choice has not yet been finalised - and we're talking CPU here, not the choice of power connector - is, to put it as nicely as possible, naive.

Finally, we learn that Canonical can't really do marketing either. For all of the above failings in their project, and even if we forgive initial optimism about how much people care about open source and warm fuzzy feelings as opposed to cheap phones, the whole fiasco has been handled so badly from the PR point of view that it was, at times, painful to watch (think: "we are using people's $30 donations to subsidise $600 phone perks as the phone actually costs $830 to make").

But will the campaign eventually, and despite everything, succeed? I am still doubtful. In the past 24 hours it raised an additional $2 million. If it were possible to maintain this momentum then sure, it would succeed easily. However, it seems that almost half of it was made from the $625 phone perk (1250 units, sold out) plus a bit of the $725 phone perk (200 sold out of 1250 available). The other less-than-production-price tiers sold one and none, respectivelly. The $830 tier sold 13 (thirteen!), and the two-for-$1400 sold 88 out of 2000 on offer. It also seems that in the last couple of hours the funding rate again dropped to between $20 and $30 thousand per hour which is not enough.

The obvious solution for Canonical is to offer more phones below cost price so they actually manage to get those $32 million they think they need, and then try to get some corporate donations or start a new, better thought out, campaign to cover the rest of the cost. On past performance I wouldn't put it past them. After all, in little more than 36 hours they've played around with their perks more than probably all other crowdfunding campaigns put together!

Unfortunately, even if Ubuntu Edge does reach its funding goal, there is still a very serious question of can Canonical actually build it for the May 2014 target? Can they even come close, not yet knowing the fnial hardware? I am extremely doubtful, and wouldn't be surprised to see the target date slip - a lot. I would guesstimate it at six months delay, give or take a month or two.

Could all this have been done differently? Sure!

As many others have suggested, the way to prove this sort of dual boot/docked PC concept it was perfectly fine to take one of the very capable current phones and create a custom ROM doing just that. It might even have been possible for Canonical to get some insider information from one of the big guys and be able to do a proper deep job of it. The only difference to what Ubuntu Edge seems to be offering would have been loss of some (but not a lot) of extra RAM, and, depending on the platform used, loss of some or a lot of extra storage. Yes, 128GB SSD sounds great in a phone, but surely for proof of concept project it would have been just as good to pick a base platform with support for SD cards and be able to plug in up to 64GB (plus any on-board storage already there, likely to be 16 or even 32GB). If that isn't good enough to prove your idea of dual boot Android/Ubuntu OS with the addition of the ability to dock as full Ubuntu Linux desktop I don't know what is. Heck, I'd pay them a not inconsiderable sum if they could turn even my SD cardless Galaxy Nexus into a phone/netbook!

So, let's continue watching where Ubuntu Edge will go, and how it'll go about it. I sure still hope we see it in May next year, but I am sad to say I am not holding my breath.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Ubuntu (Falls Off) Edge...

Ubuntu Edge
...or: How Not To Run a Crowdfunding Campaign.

...or: How Not To Build a Mobile Phone.

If you're in any way into new technology in general, and mobile phones in particular, and especially so if you have a soft spot for FOSS, then you must have already hear of the new Canonical crowdfunding campaign aiming to build a concept mobile phone running both Android (as a phone) and Ubuntu Linux (as a PC when docked) - the Ubuntu Edge.

This post is a rehash of what I already said as a comment on these two Google+ posts with maybe a few additions and/or changes.


The What?

First, let's see what's on offer here. You can (should?) also look at Indiegogo project page and browse general tech web sites, but I'll boil it down for you into its essence.

Ubuntu Edge, as described by Canonical, will be a mobile phone with a 4.5" screen with 1280x720 HD resolution, 4GB RAM, 128GB storage (must be flash), 8MP back-, and 2MP front-facing cameras, "fastest" quad-core CPU, and other more-or-less usual and expected gubbins. All of this will be available to generous backers at $600, oh! wait!, $830, oh! wait again! 2 for $1400 - next May (aka May 2014, aka in a year's time - we'll get to that bit of maths later). This thing will dual boot Ubuntu OS for mobiles and Android (versions unspecified) and turn into a full fledged Ubuntu Linux desktop when docked. Sweet!

But wait! Don't you smell something fishy here? OK, maybe not fishy, but distinctly half-baked. Just look - and this is corroborated by interviews given to the tech press - they don't yet even know what CPU they will use (apart from it being quad-core). Now, for your average mobile phone buyer this may not be ringing any alarm bells. Even those who (think they) are in the know usually only care about the CPU when it is listed against the others in the benchmark tests. However, there are two extremely serious issues with this uncertainty.

The Why?

The first one is potentially a very serious problem for those planning to make a lot of use of the docked desktop experience. Here, the choice between Intel (or AMD) and an ARM CPU can make a world of difference. The former would be much preferable since pretty much every single Linux application is ported to that architecture. Not so with ARM! So, if Canonical eventually decide on ARM CPU you may find your desktop experience potentially severely limited. Would this be an acceptable trade-off for increased batery life (and maybe a tad lower price) is something only you can decide. But you can't because you don't know, and Canonical isn't telling. Now hand over your $600/$830/$700-if-you-buy-two, please.

The second issue with this has to do with the overall success, or at least timeliness, of the whole project. Trust me, because I have been there (and in fact still am): ten months is probably an absolute minimum to complete a new mobile phone project from full design to manufacture, and that is when you already know the key design choice - the CPU. If you leave the choice of CPU until later (apparently "the best available before going to manufacture") you will not complete your project on time. This is because "going to manufacture" is usually only weeks away from "stacking the shelves". If Canonical manages to integrate an unknown part in such a short time frame then they should be in the business of consulting for the big guys, not building concept phones (or Linux distributions, for that matter).

The worst thing here: if Canonical actually knew which CPU they're going with they'd have absolutely no reason not to name it in the proposed spec. Which means they don't, which in turn means they have less then ten months (and less and less, by the day) to integrate an unknown part. A tall task if ever there was one. And don't be fooled into thinking that maybe they already know the type but are dithering and waiting for a faster model. Even the change in speed ripples out to potentially different choices and design of other parts of the phone (in simple terms think at least RAM speeds). So, here we already have seeds of failure and they seem to be being watered quite prodigiously.

And now to the other big part of the almost assured failure of this project: the pricing structure of the backers' "perks".

At the project launch you had the following options: $30 for a warm fuzzy feeling and a mention on the web site, $600 for the phone itself, $10,000 for one of the first 50 numbered phones (eh? who on Earth wants the first 50 off the production line? I thought they were usually ritually destroyed to ward off bad luck), $80,000 you get a cool 100 phones and some corporate perks, too.

After a blazing 12 hours or so, the perks structure suddenly changed: $20 for that same warm fuzzy feeling, $830 for a phone, $1400 for two phones (hip-hip?), and the other two from above.

When questions started pouring, someone from the Canonical camp (who shall remain nameless, but does earn the not-the-sharpest-tool title) admits that the production cost of an Ubuntu Edge phone is in excess of $800 and that the suckers, er, $30 backers were used to subsidise the $600 backers before Canonical decided it's time for people to actually pay for the phone they will (not) get. And they tried to sweeten the new deal by offering two-for-$1400 perk. Now, if this wasn't a stupid thing to do in the first place (change the rules mid game), it sure must make those suckers, er, original $30 backers feel like, mmm, suckers, maybe? Bad Canonical, bad.

The Where (is the money)?

Now, you know what happened next? Of course you knew! The funding ground to a screeching halt. That's what happened, and for very good reasons. Everyone with a $600 burning a hole in their pocket is happy to place a free bet and maybe get a cheap well-specced phone in ten months' time. On the other hand, there are not many people who will stake $830 (or even $700 if they found a buddy) to maybe get a phone not necessarily better than something else that may be around in a year's time. Don't get fooled by Canonical's hype machine (only just bragging about $100,000 an hour funding rate after 36 hours). What happened in reality was: zero to $3 million in 12+ hours when all the $600 perks have been taken, then around $750 thousand! in the following 24+ hours (as of this minute). What I see here, rather than a steady $100k/h funding speed which would comfortably reach the $32 million goal, is $250k/h in the first 12 hours, followed by a much more pedestrian $32k/h for the next 24 hours. To me this is a tenfold decrease in funding speed. At this clip, in the remaining 29 days we'll have raised another $22 million, making the campaign a failure, raising just over $25 million out of $32 required. And that is if even this puny momentum is retained for the remainder of the month.

The Wherefore (art thou common sense)?

By all accounts this is such an ill thought out campaign that it is quite painful to watch it (anyone thinking of slow motion car crashes?). This is, of course, unless Canonical never planned for it to succeed in the first place, but use it as a free marketing and awareness raising exercise, maybe even a sounding board for both themselves and the industry at large. This latter because they also allegedly "briefed" all the major players in the mobile phone arena on both the project and the planned campaign. That they still went ahead with it after talking to the big guys means either they (Canonical) are really stupid and didn't carefully read the minutes of those meetings or the big guys happily pulled wool over their (Canonical's) eyes so they get some free marketing/market research. Whichever it was it seems astronomically unlikely the big guys thought that the project so ill thought out could succeed in the time frame allowed. Or, more likely, none of the big guys actually want a FOSS dual boot/desktop when docked phone to succeed - especially not one they didn't make - so they just smiled and patted Shuttleworth on the back and sent him home to fail in front of the gaping audience that are the mobile phone buyers and enthusiasts.

Now, don't get me wrong. Personally, I'd love for such a phone to be made. Heck, I'd probably be the first in line to buy one. After all, I'm not running a Linux-only shop (but not Ubuntu Unity or Gnome 3, mind!) and Android only mobile shoplet for nothing. And of course I wish Canonical all the very best in building Ubuntu Edge. Once they do, and manage to go for more than a puny 40,000 build run so the price becomes more in line with other similar devices, I'd also probably be the first one to beat the path to their door (provided I can get rid of Unity on the desktop - it is still just dire). But, as this Indiegogo project was conceived, both technically and in funding, I just cannot see it happening. First, I don't think it'll reach its $32 million goal - not by a long stretch. And then, I also just can't imagine how they can meet May 2014 shipping target from where they are now. And every day they miss it is a day which makes your $600/$830/$700-if-you-buy-two phone worth less and less so even thinking about the possibility of delays (and these are likely to be months rather than weeks or days) makes you less and less likely to become a big supporter, and those $20 donations just won't do the trick.

The Afterthought

So, in conclusion: if you really have those hundreds you don't know what to do with (which is, let's be frank, unlikely) by all means sign up for a nice phone-to-be. Just don't be too disappointed when in a month's time you realise it just ain't gonna happen, at least not with this campaign. So you may want to either put your hundreds in a bank and wait to see what'll really be on offer come May 2014, or spend them on something else which will give you immediate gratification. And immediate gratification is not to be sneered at, IMO.

Good luck, Canonical and Ubuntu Edge!

PS
There's also one other cheeky bit of Canonical's marketing: the hype they're beating up is all about how much better the specs of Ubuntu Edge are than anything else available. Now, stupid humans we evolved to be, we tend latch on the key phrase "much better", rather than also taking into account that almost unsaid "available" to which we need to add a totally unuttered yet crucial "now". Worst thing, the statement, even when fully parsed, unsaid bits and all, is in fact true. Ubuntu Edge is in fact (or rather will be, or better still, could be) much better than everything else in the market - now. But, and this is a very big but, will it still be so much better than everything else in the market in May 2014? Anyone has a crystal ball handy? No, thought not. Even worse if you also managed to parse May 2014 into "months later than May 2014" because of uncertain hardware spec (and I haven't even mentioned unknown OS versions!). Who's to say other big (or even some newcomer small) guys won't come up with something at least comparable and probably at a similar or even lower price point (big guys can order much bigger production runs - 4 million phones are considerably cheaper to make than 40 thousand). So, why not put this Post Scriptum into the post proper above? To which I respond: why add insult to injury? 

Monday, 22 July 2013

A Balancing Act

I took my OM-D and the Lumix 100-300mm to the zoo!

They liked the experience very much, and so did I.

(OK, I also took my 16 month old, my sexy lady partner wife - and her mother. They liked it, too. However, for the purposes of kit-talk and this post this is irrelevant, and you won't hear any more about them.)


So, apart from the fact that both the OM-D and the 100-300mm liked the field trip, how did they fare and - more importantly - how did I fare and what the shots were like?

Here, on the right, is one example I'm particularly proud of (you may not be, but I was shooting for me). Do note, this was handheld, in a dark giraffe stable, on a bright sunny day with the light coming more or less entirely from the back and the right of the lady pictured. The photo has been ever so slightly adjusted for light and colour.

Now, for some impressions and advice:

First and foremost: if you plan such an outing yourself do everyone a favour and bring a tripod or at least a monopod. It is not so much that it's impossible to get a clear shot handheld, but it tends to be both difficult and tiring. And, of course, with better support you'll be able to choose more favourable shooting parameters overall. And you'll get clearer shots, too.

Second: if you're taking a toddler with you try to also bring a pushchair! I can vouch that carrying an OM-D with 100-300mm fitted on one shoulder, and a toddler on another is not fun. Juggling the latter from arm to arm in the process - even less so. So, either have a pushchair (for either!) or be very nice to your sexy lady partner wife/girlfriend/boyfriend/husband/mother-in-law and have them take the brunt of the carrying (of either). Seriously.


Above is another nice example of OM-D and 100-300mm in action, this time taking a candid shot of a meerkat in repose. Again, handheld, in somewhat diffused light (haze/part cloud), with some slight light and colour adjsutments.

Oh, and back to the toddler/sexy lady partner wife issue: do not expect to have time and space to plan and frame your shots in any detail. Your best bet is to have visited the target area at least once before and then plan the shots at least two enclosures in advance and gently guide your company and their actions so you actually have at least a fleeting chance of getting the shot you wanted. Like here on the left where said company was craftily sent on their way to the next enclosure so I can get this safari-like shot of a herd of giraffes on the Hampshire grassland. This was fully zoomed in at 300mm, and ever so slight light and colour correction and teeny-weeny touch of unsharp mask. Shame about the distance and the hazy day, though.



Finally, a word about balance and overall handling of the combination...

While, as you can see in the photo at the top, the OM-D and 100-300mm combination does look ever so slightly silly I submit that pretty much any camera, DSLRs included, looks a teeny bit silly with the very long zoom lens (and I'm not even talking about pro wildlife/sports ones which would look teeny-weeny silly on a Sherman tank, too). Yes, it hangs from your shoulder like nobody's business and knocks the living daylights out of your kidneys, hips, elbows - and most passers-by. But, in actual use there is nothing unnatural in holding the camera and the lens and zooming out all the way. It sits there in front of you, if held properly, just like it should and as you can hopefully see above manages to take more than decent images even handheld and in a rush.

For that matter, I have also found it performs surprisingly well as a portrait lens, too! The only trick is you have to be able (or willing) to back out a looong way since the 100-300mm in the 100mm position on an OM-D is effectively a 200mm lens which a) will not focus from less than 1.5 metres, and b) has such a narrow field of view that you need to be much further away for a chance of a decent head and shoulders shot. However, once you've backed out enough (and without falling into a gaping manhole - or a leopard's enclosure) you will get a marvellous portrait of your toddler and/or that sexy lady partner wife. I certainly wouldn't recommend this as standard use, but if you already have this lens mounted and can't be bothered to swap it - or the camera - why not?

As the last few words, and to accompany this decent enough but poorly cropped and marred by the enclosure fence shot of a couple of zebras cooling their arses but tanning their faces, a thought about whether it makes sense to mount the 100-300mm (or Olympus 75-300mm, for that matter) when doing travel/tourist photography (think family holiday)...


The 100-300mm is a heavy lens (and the Nikon counterpart probably too, even if it is a bit smaller and lighter). The first question you want to ask yourself is: when you're spending a (long) day sightseeing (think Paris, for example) do you really want to carry such a monster on your camera or even just in your bag (out of which you'll probably never take out if you're honest with yourself). And then, even if you decide that you absolutely have to have that shot of your sexy lady partner wife peering into middle distance from the top of the Eiffel tower while you are clicking away at the bottom, even if you absolutely have to have such a shot - you'd probably only ever put the 100-300mm on for that one shot. For everything else you'll most likely want the flexibility of wide/zoom combination, something like the Olympus 14-150mm lens. As I discussed before, you may even be better off taking your E-PM1 (or similar) with the Olympus 45mm/1.8 mounted for street/portrait/general fooling around photography, while you put the 14-150mm on your OM-D for everything else. The former will not make a significant bulge in your bag - or weigh you down too much, and the latter will rest happily around your neck and let you capture most everything you want. Heck, you may end up not taking the E-PM1/45mm combination out of your bag unless you end the day in the deepest recesses of some dodgy Parisienne tavern and have absolute need for that 1.8 aperture.

So, in overall conclusion: do get that Panasonic Lumix 100-300mm f/4.0-5.6 lens. It's at least as good (if not better) than the Nikon (and you'll need the Power O.I.S. on any Panasonic body) - and it's almost half the price to boot. However, do also get a good tripod (or at least a monopod), too. And take it out with you. And use it. Just, please, please, please -pretty please - do not create monstrosity like this one:


PS
Do make sure you disable Power O.I.S. on the 100-300mm when mounted on an Olympus body. Olympus bodies have their own image stabilisation and trust me when both are in use at the same time the only thing they do is vigorously fight each other and it is absolutely 100% not possible to get a shot. Any shot. Unless you call a blurry mess with ghost images a shot. I don't.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Hilariously Unbalanced!

Have a look at the photo to the left! Just have a look!

If it didn't make you laugh then your sense of humour must have been surgically removed at birth. Go speak to your mum or the delivery staff.

No, I have not conjured up a silly camera/lens combination. This is a perfectly valid and working Micro Four Thirds setup.


What you are seeing, if you haven't recognised it yet, this is an Olympus E-PM1 camera body attached to a Panasonic Lumix 100-300mm f/4.0-5.6 lens. Yes, you read it right: a camera body attached to a lens. To say that this lens is attached to this camera would be ridiculous and, I'm afraid, factually incorrect.

Now, tell me: how is one supposed to shoot with a setup like this? I have tried, and I have to say that - after I have stopped laughing - it felt utterly ridiculous. I just meant to say that the balance was all wrong, but in all honesty I couldn't detect any balance to speak of in the first place. And that is with the lens at the widest 100mm position, too!

Now consider the photo on the right, the lens now at 300mm.

How ridiculous is THAT?!

Can you even imagine how it felt in the hand? No, I guess not. You're probably a sensible person and wouldn't try this in the first place.

Ah, I hear some of you asking why did I not just use a tripod?

But you see, the tripod mount is on the camera body. How sturdy and wide legged would a tripod need to be to not topple over, or at least not allow the lens to sway around freely like a candle in the wind?

A tripod collar! Use a tripod collar! I hear some shouting...

But the Panasonic lens doesn't come with one, you see. And nor does the similar Olympus 75-300mm f/4.8-6.7 lens which is of comparable size, if not weight.

So, here we have what one gets when one chooses to go for as small a Micro Four Thirds camera one can find (and same goes for other compact system mirror-less cameras) - a monstrosity. I actually wouldn't mind if this was just a visual monstrosity. I could live with that. But this monstrosity is totally unusable in any reasonable sense of the word.

Luckily, I have my trusty OM-D which is just about usable with this lens, and there are other Micro Four Thirds bodies available which could make more sense than the E-PM1. But, now I have the body and the lens to hand, I just had to show you what was I talking about when I first griped and moaned about this issue.

So, now you have it, all nicely illustrated - and in colour. A couple of thousands of words worth, eh?



Wednesday, 3 July 2013

New Best Friends...

...or how to shoot like a pro for £600.

Having now played even more with the Olympus E-PM1 and various Micro Four Thirds lenses, I can announce that, apart from the already mentioned Panasonic 14mm/2.5, there is one more lens that is a very good, if not exactly perfect, fit for this camera.




As you cannot see in the photo to the left, but should be able to see in the photo just below, this is the Olympus 45mm/1.8. In itself, this lens is a great choice for portrait work. Of course, you may prefer the Olympus 75mm/1.8 one for that - if you can afford it, but it also falls way out of my proposition of a £600 kit combo. And, the 45mm lens can also be quite handy for street photography, too.



So, in my kit combo, you now have the E-PM1 body - currently £220 new, including the 14-42mm kit lens, the Panasonic 14mm/2.5 wide angle lens - currently £200 new, and the Olympus 45mm/1.8 - currently selling at £220 new. Add this all up and you end up with £640 - and a spare lens. Now, you can either sell the 14-42mm kit lens and recoup anywhere from £40 to £60 (if you're lucky), or you can keep that one, too. Who knows, you may decide at some point to take the E-PM1 out as point-and-shoot with just the kti lens on. You won't get any depth of field control to speak of, but at least you won't have to carry a spare lens in your pocket, and will have the convenience of a medium zoom.

If you wanted you could now claim that 28mm equivalent of the Panasonic 14mm lens is not exactly what a pro might choose to shoot as either wide angle or a standard prime, but for me that's both close enough to the lovely 35mm equivalent, and at the same time gives that little bit of width to play around either with cropping or wider composition. If you now tell me that for a pro the only true standard prime is 50mm equivalent, and that thou shalt not crop - I'll tell you to go away and continue being a pixel peeping Tom hung up on numbers and lore. Same if you tell me that the only true portrait lens is neither 150mm nor 90mm equivalent, but 120mm or 180mm or whatever you may like in between. After all, we're talking £600 worth of kit "pro" pro (and even less if you go for second hand or just shop around).

Finally, to illustrate what kind of quick and dirty winners you may be able to score with this combo here's one I took with just a second's thought and mostly because the E-PM1 with Olympus 14mm on was to hand while I was lying down on the floor playing with my 15 month old. The photo has not been edited in any way, and the scene wasn't staged. This is straight after a 15 month old left the scene, and straight out of the camera (and no flash - of course). Enjoy!


PS
Will I be abandoning my Olympus O-MD for this combo? Of course not! But it is a viable alternative for when you want to travel even lighter or you have concerns someone may steal and/or damage your kit.


Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Dog Food

I love dog food! Don't you? Let me expand...

If you are closely watching this space (I know you're not), you may remember how I ranted against the smaller models of mirrorless cameras. Then, shortly afterwards, I had a better look and found that not all of those cameras are as bad as I  thought they must be. Next, I decided to bite the bullet and have a dollop of my own dog food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and I gave you a longer missive about how Olympus OM-D was in fact a great little (or not so little) camera.

Now, finally, I managed to come across an affordable really small Micro Four Thirds camera, the Olympus PEN Mini E-PM1. It helped I got the body only as I could easily use my OM-D lenses on it. As you can see in the photo above, it also takes the Panasonic Lumix variety (lens shown is the H-H014E Lumix G Pancake, 14 mm, f2.5, Wide-Angle - highly recommended).

So, having played with the E-PM1 for a few weeks now, I can tell you that I still stand fully by my original rant. With anything but the smallest of pancake lenses (like the one in the photo) the camera becomes unwieldy to put it mildly. If you want a more honest assessment: it's useless. It is horribly inconvenient to both hold and stow away, bulging in the most unexpected places, and wanting to tip and tilt when held in either one or both hands. I have tried the Olympus 14-42mm kit lens. I have tried the excellent Panasonic 14-42mm, too. The former is almost, but only almost, usable. The latter looks silly - which I can live with, but also handles silly - with which I can't. Even the otherwise nimble Panasonic 20mm/f1.7 pancake is just too big for comfort. The only lens I can live with on this camera is the 14mm one pictured.

In short, I would probably recommend against getting such a camera, unless you want to stick a tiny pancake prime on it. Yes, this would give you a very good wide angle camera, but it sort of defeats the point of getting the interchangeable lenses model. You'd probably be just as happy with a fixed lens camera, or even a compact (think Sony RX-100). A plus here may also be that you won't be tempted to spend a fortune on lenses which you may end up not using as they make the camera unwieldy.

Unless...

Yes, there is an unless, and a but: if you already have a camera like the Olympus OM-D or one of the Micro Four Thirds Panasonics which are a bit bulkier and work well with all available lenses, then - and only then - and if - and only if - you can afford it, do get a tiny counterpart camera like the Olympus E-PM1 or one of its newer (and unfortunately much more expensive) siblings.

Why?

Well, precisely because they are tiny, or at least tiny for an interchangeable lens camera - when kept without the lens on.

And why would you need that?

You might need that so you can slip one tiny camera body into the same pocket as a couple of tiny MFT lenses and have a backup for your main one. Also, there are times when you may need to switch between two different lenses, but find you either don't have time to fiddle, or you're in an environment where that's not a good idea (either because it may damage your lenses or camera - or your reputation). Think, for example a nice portrait lens on the OM-D (a 45mm/f1.8 or even better a 75mm/f1.8 - if you can afford it) and the wide angle 14mm/2.5 on the E-PM1. The former to capture all the beautiful people, the latter to capture what they happened to be doing with each other. Or any other similar combination you may think of (a long zoom vs normal prime, maybe).

But, again, as a main or only camera I still firmly believe that these tiny bodies are j-u-s-t  n-o-t  r-i-g-h-t. If you were thinking of getting one think again - and have another look at the Sony RX-100.

PS
When mixing Panasonic and Olympus bodies and lenses do keep in mind that Olympus puts image stabilisation into camera body, and Panasonic puts it into lenses. Therefore, a Panasonic body with and Olympus lens will not give you any image stabilisation. Going the other way around should be fine as long as you don't mind paying for Panasonic OIS system which will not be used.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Nook = NO(T) OK

I've recently took advantage of a considerable price drop in Nook e-readers and got myself a shiny new Nook Simple Touch with Glowlight - a reader touted by Barnes & Noble to be an ideal bedtime reading companion. Having used it now I have to disagree. Not only that, but I think I now understand better why Barnes & Noble thought price cuts for Nooks are a good idea - at least the e-ink models.

Let me count the ways in which this Nook is simply crap:

First, the bezel around the screen is huge and very dark in colour which I find distracting. Yes, it may make it easier to hold, especially for people with large hands, and yes, it does have physical buttons (my only gripe with Kindle Paperwhite), but we'll come to that, too.

Second, said physical buttons are so stiff that the whole blinkin' thing rocks in your hands when you press them. True, this is a touch screen model, but then we come to:

Third, that wide bezel is also quite a lot raised from the screen so if you want to touch the edge of the screen to turn the page and not cover text in the process you are either out of luck, or need to press against the (sharp-ish) bezel edge. Not quite conducive to seamless bedtime reading.

Fourth, when not held in hand, e.g. when you lay it on a dinner table, turning pages is either still uncomfortable if you're touching the screen edges or, if you're trying to use physical buttons, turns into an exercise in not making the whole thing jump and roll in the air the back of it being so rounded that pressing on the edge rocks it - a lot.

Fifth, I have read about - and witnessed - slight unevenness of backlighting on the Kindle Paperwhite  but on the Nook this is becoming almost ridiculous. See, on the Kindle Paperwhite, you may notice slight unevenness at the very bottom of the page caused by there being four separate light sources there - in most books it may reach the last line on the page. On the Nook, however, there's a sort of a pattern across almost the fifth of the top of the screen making it clearly visible on the top several lines of the page.

Sixth, actually getting to the book you're reading from a Nook that's been idling (showing a screensaver) is unnecessarily cumbersome. First you need to press a button to "wake" it, and you'd expect to be shown the page you left off at, but no. Next you're presented with an unlock screen where you need to swipe along a narrow-ish area the width of two thirds of the screen. Even if we disregard the awkward feeling you get on your finger from that raised and sharp(ish) bezel one must ask a simple question: WHY? What woudl be so wrong with either just a button press or just a swipe (even if the latter will use more battery in idle)? Why require both? Stupid!

So, there you have six serious - IMNHO - flaws of this otherwise highly acclaimed e-reader. Having just one or two may be acceptable even if you planned serious and long term use. But six! And I found them after only a couple of days' playing with the thing! No way! And no wonder it obviously wasn't selling that well at all.

Any redeeming features? Anything actually better that, say, Kindle Paperwhite  Well, yes: it is easier to switch off (and back on) the backlight. Kindle Paperwhite seems to be designed to be used with the light on all the time. The Nook starts up (every time) with the light off, but just pressing the button for a bit longer switches it on. Nifty. But not nearly nifty enough to make it any more palatable.

Am I keeping the Nook then? Well, yes. Why? Because I may - just - come across a title I want to read and it's either only available in EPUB and cannot be converted to MOBI, or it is considerably cheaper for the Nook. It's not that bad, after all. I am sure I could survive reading a book or three on it. Plus, it was really inexpensive (relatively speaking) so why not have (yet) another way to read books handy?

PS
Oh, there's actually a seventh gripe: memory size. Kindle Paperwhite has 2GB. Much  more than reasonably needed quite probably, but still there should one need it. Nook? Only 256MB. Again, probably more than enough for most use(r)s, but not really acceptable at this day and age. Also, I may not be happy/able to connect it to a computer often enough to swap titles. Much nicer to just dump a lot I may want to read than spend fifteen minutes picking and choosing carefully as I had to when I got the thing. Another fail, Barnes & Noble, and a cheapo one at that.

PPS
I think I speak with authority when I speak about e-readers. I have owned a lot, including several Kindle models, at least one or two Sonys, and an assortment of lesser known (and way crappier) ones. I also use e-reader software on my Android devices, my Linux and Windows computers, and have also used it on various Palm OS devices (yes, Palm OS, not WebOS). Plus, I actually read. A lot.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Keep On Praying - It Doesn't Work

Since the BBC copped out to a meagre (and shameful) 2,133 complaints fro mthe viewing public, and doesn't include Rowan Atkinson's Children In Need Archbishop of Canterbury sketch in its programme archives, as a service to general public and TV License payers, I am quoting the transcript here.

Enjoy!

It's very delightful and apt that as your new Archbishop of Canterbury – hello! – I should be able to talk to you on the occasion of Children in Need, or Red Nose Day as some of the younger people amongst us – hello to you too! – like to say.

When I was a young man – and may I stress a young heterosexual man with quite a few girlfriends, but no tongues obviously, teenagers beware! - charity was much less fun that it is now. However, behind the fun, or arsing about, as I like to call it, ha ha ha! – God doesn't mind swearing, you know – there was a more serious message. And it's my job as your new "Arch" – call me what you like, it's not about titles, is it? – to remind you of the spiritual dimension of a night like this.

Jesus said love your neighbour – and let's be perfectly clear, because there's a lot of misunderstanding about this, he doesn't mean shag your neighbour. He hates that. Absolutely hates it. Though as I say, he doesn't mind the word shagging, he's got a terrific sense of humour. He doesn't like the f-word that describes the same thing. He thinks that's very rude.

But anyway, Jesus said love your neighbour as yourself. And so when you give money to Children's Nose Day, you're actually loving your neighbour – and that's brilliant.

So in a way, even though what you think you're doing is watching One Direction singing their fabulous new sound – I love One Direction and so does Jesus, they remind him of the disciples – what you're actually watching is Christianity in action, and that's my message. If you love the Lord, please donate tonight.

If you love the Dark Lord, you – ha ha ha ha! – you've been reading too many Harry Potter books! You see, I'm terrifically up-to-date and humorous. I think they should make a movie of those books, it'd be brilliant. Possibly Simon Cowell as Snape. But what do I know? I'm an Archbishop of Canterbury, not a movie director.

Anyway, I hope I'll be able to talk to you more often like this but for now, from all of us in the good old C of E, have a wonderful night, keep on giving, keep on laughing, keep on praying – it doesn't work, but it's a good part of a getting-to-sleep routine if you've got insomnia.

Happy Easter by the way. Coming soon! Big day. Lots of chocolate, lots of rabbits, one rip-roaring resurrection. Almost as much fun as Children's Comic Relief In Need Nose Day, I think. Thank you. Good night.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

No Contest

Let's have a little contest...

In the blue corner we have...

Contestant 1:
Model: Hewlett-Packard EliteBook 8440p
CPU: Intel Core i5 2.4GHz
RAM: 4GB
HDD: 250GB
OS: Microsoft Windows 7 Enterprise SP1 64bit, fully patched
Uptime: 4 days, plus



And in the red corner we have...

Contestant 2:
Model: Lenovo G770
CPU: Intel Core i3 2.2GHz
RAM: 8GB
HDD: 1TB
OS: Xubuntu 12.04 LTS, fully patched
Uptime: 4 weeks, plus

Can the judges please rate the contestants on responsiveness and general speed?
What are your verdicts?

Contestant 1: Like walking through treacle.
Contestant 2: As snappy as on the day it was installed.

Can the judges please rate the contestants on the speed of rebooting to usable state?
What are your verdicts?

Contestant 2: Back to where we started in a jiffy.
Contestant 1: Dunno. We gave up at 10 minutes and popped out to grab a coffee. Or three.

So judges, what's your overall verdict for this little contest?

No contest!

Re Focus

Here it is, then, in all it's g(l)ory. The post I advertised at the end of the previous one. Enjoy...

Remember the almost quote from the precious post? The one to do with the best camera being the one you actually want to use? Well, this post is all about that one. Or, for the impatient among you, all about how - and why - I have made what looks like a step back in terms of my photo kit.


As you may have noticed (or, more likely, not), I have spent the last couple of years in the DX format DSLR camp. And what a most enjoyable journey that proved to be. I loved my Nikon D3100. I adored my (now almost vintage) D90. I was impressed by the almost current D7000. I fell in love with fast primes, but also saw where the attraction is with versatile long zooms. Oh, and must not forget medium zooms!

Also, along the way I happily learned a bit about how to make nice photos. And by this I mean intentionally, not just because digital allows you to make 700 slightly different shots of a single scene in the hope that one will actually be nice to look at a month later.

But, above all, I started taking a lot more photos than ever before (no, not the above mentioned 700). And this is what eventually led to this post. Or, more accurately, to the focus shift that I feel the need to share with you (yes, you in particular - the only reader of my musings).

Let me quickly recap my photographic history...

The first couple of cameras I used seriously were 35mm film ones: Zorki 4, a Kodak with an extendable harmonica lens setup, and later a Chinon which was almost as automated as modern digital cameras. I am sorry I can't remember the exact models here, but it was a long time ago, and the ones I still have are too much hassle to get to.

And then I entered the digital world, sometime in 2002. From the relatively basic point-and-shoots, all the way to bridge cameras (and back to the miniature ones with non-extendable zooms), and then finally to DSLRs.

The DSLR experience was quite significantly punctured by the Fujifilm X100, a hormone unsettling camera if ever there was one. Having gotten there, I honestly thought that was it, as far as the kit of choice is concerned: a DSLR - eventually to move up to FX, and a smaller fixed lens beauty of the X100 kind. Teh compact system cameras seemed an abomination, despite some rave reviews, and some undeniable advantages (and also quite sizeable sensor sizes).

But then, there came the Olympus OM-D E-M5...

Rave reviews - check. Good looks - check. Compact system, Micro Four Thirds - unfortunately also check.

Around the same time I started realising I am using my Nikon D7000 less and less. At first I didn't quite realise why that is, putting it down mostly to just not really needing it at various occasions.

Then, I came across the quote from the top, and it suddenly dawned on me: I am choosing my Sony RX100 over the Nikon D7000 because the latter has become a pain to lug - and use. But mostly it was about the size, I realised. For a serious photo trip with a Nikon I needed the body and at least two lenses, and none of these were either light or small. Yes, the Fujifilm X100 was more than superb for occasions where its fixed lens was appropriate, but for anything else the RX100 won over the D7000 hands down.

And the RX100 could just about cut it for all my photographic needs were its sensor a bit bigger, and thus its bright lens a bit more capable of more than amazing low light performance (not to mention the lack of optical zoom past 3.6x mark).

So, with some trepidation, I decided to give OM-D a go. And, just to be on the safe side - and, because I recently wrote a scathing post about just such cameras  - and, because I don't mind being proven wrong - and (just this one more, OK?), because I saw a bargain should I decide to keep one or the other, I actually went and procured an OM-D as well as an E-MP1, the latter a nice example of (even) small(er) sensor and body compact system camera. With these came two kit zooms: 14-42mm and 50-150mm, neither particularly fast, but neither particularly slow, either.

As I already mentioned in the previous post, my highly critical post just before it turned out to be pretty much spot on: the tiny E-MP1 with these two lenses (and most people would have them) feels wrong in so many ways I can't be bothered to ever try to name them. On the other hand, the OM-D... Oh, the OM-D...

Not only does the OM-D have that gorgeous retro look and feel about it, but the two lenses fit it just right (and so does the 45mm f/1.8 fast prime I tried a bit later) in all possible ways. OK, for more serious shooting, you'll want to replace them with some others, but there is none of the awkwardness of mismatchign relative sizes which maims the E-MP1. The balance is well and truly right. It's a true joy to shoot, almost (but not quite) in the way the X100 is (but it's very, very close).

So, with all this joy at my fingertips and the good advice Ming Thein supplied, I felt I could - I should - do one thing that seemed unthinkable a fortnight ago: I got rid of the whole Nikon DSLR malarkey and used the proceeds to buy into the Micro Four Thirds (MFT), and the OM-D E-M5 in particular.

I have made this decision when I only had the two kit zooms to play with, but when I got the 45mm f/1.8 prime and played with it a bit I knew for sure I have made the right decision. To my eye, and even at 100% magnification, there is absolutely no difference in image quality between the APS-C sensor in Nikon DX cameras, and the MFT one in the Olympus OM-D E-M5. I also couldn't find any difference in lens performance between the two systems. Of course, I will be replacing the kit zooms with something more serious (think a fast wide prime at least), but all in all I see no degradation in quality whatsoever.

On the other hand, something that was distinctly impossible with the Nikon is now a breeze: sling the OM-D with the 14-42mm zoom fitted over the shoulder - and forget about it; slip the 40-150mm zoom into the shirt pocket (yes, a shirt breast pocket) - and forget about that one, too! Go and spend a day out and about with a 13 month old, and come back home with a bunch of great shots and none of the sourness of having to also tackle the weight and bulk of the DSLR.

So, all in all, unless you are a pro, or an artist (and maybe even if you are), you may find you do much better with the OM-D (or similar, well balanced) MFT camera if for no other reason then because you enjoyed using it so much more, and having used it so much more you got home with more shots to choose from, and much more crucially, with more practice and experience without which you can't become - or stay - a good (or even great photographer).

The moral: do try and eat your own dog food, and once you ate it don't hesitate to have some of your own words for desert, too. After all, you are after bettering yourself, and not just being right at all cost, aren't you?

Are you?





Monday, 22 April 2013

Re Balance

In the past few days I had a chance to play with two currently very popular - and very different - compact system cameras of the Micro Four Thirds (MFT) variety.

The first one was Olympus Pen E-PM1, a small sensor and small body entry level camera. The other was the top of the range - and a lot of people say top of its class - Olympus OM-D E-M5, pictured to your left.

The lenses I used were the 14-42mm and 40-150mm ones that come as part of the kit you can see if you follow the E-MP1 link above.

I am not going to talk about image quality here. This is just fine and as expected for E-MP1, and excellent to superb for E-M5. Also, there's plenty of reviews for both if you search a bit (I recommend the views of the good people from DP Review).

What is of most interest to me here is validating - or not, as the case may be - of the conclusions from my previous post. In short, if you can't be bothered to read a bit more of this post, E-MP1 totally and utterly validates all the complaints I had about the wrong balance of compact system cameras paired with anything but pancake primes.

On the other hand, we have the OM-D E-M5. Now, here we have an entirely different kettle of fish...

For one, the silver version, for me, has that same tactile, sensual - heck, I'll say it: sexy - feel as Fujifilm X100. Only, the E-M5 is a bit smaller, and a bit lighter - or at least feels like it is. But crucially, I found this not to be a problem, even with the long 40-150mm zoom lens. In other words, I experienced none of the frustration of the camera feeling wrong in my hand with either 14-42mm or 40-150mm lenses.

The E-MP1, however, felt so weird with both of these lenses - and especially with 40-150mm one when fully extended, that the experience was almost funny. I mean, the body of the E-MP1 feels not considerably larger than, say, the body of my once favourite pocketable Sony DSC-T100. Putting a very long lens on something this size well and truly feels just wrong. Plus, one most definitely has the urge to use the lens as a carrying handle for the lot, which borders on ridiculous.

So, dear reader, beware the small compact! If you can, try it out first and with the longest lens you plan to use attached (you may actually be quite fine if you only ever or almost all of the time plan to use a pancake prime). There is a very true piece of advice I read recently, I think here: the best camera for you is the one you will actually want to use.

Which brings us back to the OM-D - and my next post...



Saturday, 23 February 2013

Keep The Balance Right

Have a look at the photo to the left. What do you think?

Yes, of course, this really may be the best compact system camera you can buy these days. That is, unless you agree with Ken Rockwell and want warmer colours and a better built-in flash. To me, the former may not be a show-stopper, but I would probably miss the perfection of the built-in flash of my X100.

But I digress. What I want to tell you about is how pretty much the whole lot of these new compact system, interchangeable lens, cameras are mostly just plain wrong.


You see, regardless of undoubted image quality, versatility, and probably a few dozen other great features they all have, one thing where, for me, they fail is balance. Simple, honest, balance of both looks and, well, balance.

I mean, of course, with a small, probably wide angle prime, you still get something that is pleasing to hold, and doesn't feel awkward and front heavy. But go for a nice big portrait lens, or even just the kit lens these things tend to come with - especially the kit lens which, being a zoom lens, extends, too - you get something that just can't feel good to hold and balance, not to mention that it also looks a bit silly (well, it does to me, anyway).

You may now argue that the overall size and weight, especially compared to a DSLR, outweigh my objections. But do they really?

If you're going to mostly use your X-E1 with just a short wide prime then you could have saved yourself almost a grand if you went for the X100 instead. And with the X100 you also get a better flash, too.

If you plan to use mostly the normal zoom kit lens, then the overall size, due to the length of the lens itself borders on carrying a DSLR with a similar lens. While this may not be true inch for inch, it would certainly feel the same. I don't yet see very long zooms for compact system cameras, but these would be even bulkier.

And if you plan to use your expensive compact system for portrait work, then, first of all, you get to attach a lens that is similar in size to the kit zoom when zoomed all the way out. Unless you plan on doing candid street portraits, for which a DSLR may be too conspicuous and/or noisy, then again you may be better off - at least in terms of costs - with a DSLR and a portrait lens. For example, it seems that the excellent Nikon D7000, with a somewhat older, but still excellent, 85mm f1.8 prime, is again almost a grand cheaper than an X-E1 and its 60mm prime (which is at least a stop slower, too).

Finally, if you plan to haul a set of lenses for your compact and change them as you need them, then almost all smallness and convenience factor gets rubbed out by the fact you still need a large, well padded bag to carry the lot. You might as well take your DSLR instead

Objection! I don't own a DSLR. A compact system camera is all I need.

Overruled! Look at the first two or three reasons I gave. The balance is just wrong. It would feel awkward in your hand, and you may find the stability compromised, too. Of course, you may not mind, or you may prefer a compact to avoid shutter noise, but that's beside the point here. It would still be a suboptimal shooting solution. Especially so if you plan to have it as your only piece of kit, and let's see why is that.

So, your argument is you only need a compact with a nice selection of lenses. Fine. This, in theory, makes you a serious enthusiast (it certainly does not make you a pro). The only difference between a serious enthusiast and a pro should be that the enthusiast does not make (enough) money out of photography so cost is a consideration, often a serious one. Implied here is that a serious enthusiast cares about image quality at least as much as a pro.

Does that describe you? Yes? Perfect. Then, go and buy a DSLR, too. A small sensor one is fine, too. Just don't tell me that you can get all the shots you want, exactly as you want them with just a compact - and do it all the time, to boot. Of course you can't. So, you need both (at least, a nice even smaller digital camera, like Sony DSC-RX100 may come handy, too). And if you have both, you will probably eventually find that faffing around with an unbalanced compact may not be much better than taking out your DSLR, unless you shoot wide or normal primes. In which case I point you back to my argument that an Fujifilm X100 may be a better choice anyway.

Did I persuade you? Probably not. Do I care too much? Probably not. I am actually hoping you'll go out and buy all the compact system camera and lenses you want. This will nicely fund the development of other (more) worthwhile photography kit - which can only be a good thing. Where I win (and you do, too, only I get to win for free).

Heck, if you do buy all that kit, and then find I was right after all, you may be inclined to sell it cheaply second hand. That's where I come again and buy it - to add to a DSLR, an X100, and an RX100. Win, win, win, win!

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Stamping On Your Face - Forever

Entertain a thought experiment:

After some, but not too much, getting to know somebody, somebody you think just may become that special somebody, you two go out for a quiet drink, a movie, then maybe a nice meal. That out of the way, you are invited for a night cap. You agree even if you forgot to bring your own condoms. After all, a special somebody would understand you may be apprehensive having sex unprotected so early on. Up in her flat, you have your drinks and you are in no uncertain terms offered sex. Ascertaining that your partner is also fresh out of condoms you politely decline. And then all hell breaks loose and after a little while you find yourself on the wrong side of the door, alone.


While you may reel for a while, you eventually get over it and get back to your old life, lonesome as it was. Until, that is, the moment when you get arrested for attempted rape. What? What rape? The only thing you feel might have been rape on that night was your ego. And it gets worse, your name appears in all the local papers, together with the big news of a local sex predator. A little while later, in between your attending your local police station to be bailed until the trial, and the trial itself, national tabloids get in on the act. You're a celebrity. Only it is the completely wrong kind. Your neighbours look away. Even speaking to your parents make syou feel they might have bought the whole lie, too.

Eventually, after a trial that somehow got reported less and less towards the end when it became clear you may actually be innocent, you manage to clear your name. Or do you? Yes, there is a court ruling, jury and all, saying you didn't do it.Your accuser gets a bit of a punishment, too (not nearly enough in your opinion, but you realise you may be biased so you don't take yourself too seriously). However, those same media who fed voraciously on your plight in the beginning forgot to at least say "sorry", let alone publish an equally hysterical account of how you have been wronged. What you realise you're left with is a stigma almost impossible to remove. Once accused of a grim crime you can never really be considered innocent. You know, the smoke and fire drill...

Still with me? Tried to live the little horror story above? Any questions? No? Good.

Now, between 1976 and 1988, in Britain, you were protected from just such misfortune by law. All defendants in sex related cases were granted anonymity until, and unless, proven guilty. Not so for the past twenty five years. And now, according to this BBC article we have a senior lawyer arguing for the return of such anonymity. This is admirable indeed, and I totally support it. Shame this was not raised much earlier.

What really got ot me, though, was the reaction of the relevant charity, Rape Crisis. While I understand they need to do everything possible to protect rape victims, I also believe that this should be fair to everyone else, too - and it has to be sensible and well targeted. However, according to BBC, these people claim that defendant anonymity will cause less rape cases to be reported in the first place. I must say I am totally dumbfounded as to how this is supposed to work. Unless, that is, the assumption of Rape Crisis is that a good number of rape accusations are in fact bogus, and raised with the express intent of causing pre-trial, and pre-sentencing harm to the defendant, even regardless of his innocence or otherwise. Either that, or Rape Crisis believes that British courts are so ineffective in prosecuting rape that at least some punishment has to be exacted in advance of trial, implying also that a bit of collateral damage is quite alright, too.

If former, then Rape Crisis is in serious crisis of credibility, if not worse. If latter, then the aim should be to repair the court system, not use loopholes in the bad one. Either way, the comments were worse than useless. They were positively harmful to everyone - rape victims included. I also question the BBC approach of soliciting only one opinion when reporting on this latest push for anonymity.

The moral of the story? Read everything with eyes wide open, and critical mind set to 11. And try to imagine the other side's angle, too. Oh, and do lobby your MP for defendant anonymity in sex related cases. It is only right and proper, given our stone age mind that sometimes just cannot accept that there just might be smoke without fire.