Category Archives: Reviews

The iPad: Is the Honeymoon over?


Jeff-Jones-And-iPad–8433, originally uploaded by ecfman.

Last time I wrote a rather long blog regarding my impressions of my newly purchased iPad and promised a follow up. Well, here it is. Before you go any further I need to give attention to some details, I have not read the review since I posted it. There may be some overlap between the two reviews but I feel this is necessary to keep me from thinking too much.

Before purchasing, I knew I would like this device, I just never comprehended how much I would love and use it. The reason for buying the iPad was to get me out of the dungeon of my basement (where my normal computer resides) and bring me into the light of the upper world. To that extent the iPad is a complete success.

The purpose, as in the designer’s purpose, was to be almost strictly a media consumer device. In other words, a very simple computer for browsing the web, reading emails, looking at pictures, listening to music and watching movies. To this end, the device performs admirably. While you can do all the above with a laptop, the iPad’s weight, battery life, lack of heat generation and greater portability often makes it superior for these general functions than a laptop. One can hold the iPad easily in one’s hands thus reading ebooks, emails, browsing the web is like, well… reading a book. The controls and functionality make this a very enjoyable experience. While you can lay on the couch with a laptop, it is not nearly the same experience.

While the design and intent was NOT for content creation, a large body of users are making this a platform to that end. There are word processors, spreadsheets, presentation programs as well as a myriad of other productivity/business application out in the market. I am attempting to see how much of my work (as in work at Caterpillar) can be done solely with the iPad. I have a feeling once I get a few things ironed out the amount may be around 90%.

What do I Love?
The low cost of programs (called apps). Generally they are less than $5 and almost always under $10. AND, and…..many of them are FREE!

The vast number of apps. There is almost an app for everything. Given the low cost, it makes trying apps fairly risk free.

The battery life. The company states 10 hour life and I think they are right.

The interface with programs. Touching and physically interacting with the screen is a better experience with many programs. The interface is very intuitive and designed for easy of use.

What I don’t like.

No file folder system. Unlike most computers, files are not saved in some folder that can be accessed by any program on the iPad. Instead, you can create folders, but always within the confines of the individual program. For instance, with Filebrowser I can download a file from my network to my iPad, but it saves it to the folders I create in Filebrowser. To open in Goodreader I need to tell Filebrowser to open it up in Goodreader but then Goodreader creates its own copy in its own folder. Now when I edit that pdf in Goodreader it is NOT making changes to the file in Filebrowser. To make matters worse, some of the older applications force you to email yourself a copy in order to open the file in another application (ala Carbonite). I sure do hope the upgrade to iOS eliminates that..

Lack of Pivot Tables/Charts for spreadsheet programs. This is HUGE for me. This functionality is probably the greatest uses I have for spreadsheets. Without this functionality, there is no way I could ever replace my work laptop.

Multi-processing. I do a lot of shifting between programs to create content. For instance, going between the Notes, a bible app and a pdf reader means shutting down one before going to another. While this does happen rather quickly, this shifting back and forth is very clunky when done often. This should be fixed with the next iOS upgrade.

iTunes – It is perplexing how a company known for innovation and technology interfaces would put out such a MISERABLE PIECE OF SOFTWARE. Come on! This is more than a music management software, this is the method for syncing, backing up and managing files on the iPad/iPod devices. While I get around with it fairly well, it still is a cobbled up piece of software.

Writing on the screen with the finger. The device is very sensitive to touch, but that of a finger tip. I don’t know how the screen registers contact but it is not via pressure. A normal stylus will not work. There are a number of apps that allow writing on the screen with the finger, but this doesn’t work well for a number of reasons. I may purchase a special stylus to see if that helps.

Overall, I find this device indispensable for the reasons noted above. Even with all the apps released, I don’t think the power of this kind of device is even close to being fully utilized. With iPads being on the market for less than a year and with a whole slew of tablets from the “other guys” we are bound to see prices drop, features increase and innovation increase. While the iPad is not a total computer replacement for most people, it definitely will replace a good part of our home usage.

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Posted by on October 25, 2010 in Reviews


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iPad – The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Three days ago I made my first foray in the world of Apple products by purchasing an iPad. After two intensive days of jubilation mixed with frustration, i feel that I am to a point being able to give an evaluation of the products. Before going any further, let me give full disclosure about myself. As I mentioned I am totally new to the Mac or any other Apple product since the IIe. I am reasonably savvy with computers and software and such, but I am definitely out of touch with the latest and greatest.

I purchased a 32 Gig, WiFi only model. The starting point for an ipad is $500 for 16 Gig. with a memory doubling for every $100 spent, up to 64 gigs. There was no hard logic used to determine the size I chose, only the typical “middle of the road” reasoning. I suppose if you are planning to heavily use media, or at least store it on the iPad then the bigger the better. I planned mostly to store documents and maybe I could have been fine with the 16 gig, but for an extra $100, I figured that it was safer since I did not want to run out of space.

I did not want the 3G connection since most of my usage will take place in the presence of WiFi. To spend $30/month for a data package just isn’t worth it to me, ESPECIALLY since they put a max to the amount you can download in any given month.

The iPad comes with a USB adaptor and a 110v adaptor so that you can charge your iPad, which is a good thing because, more likely than not, your computer will NOT be able to charge the iPad while it is running. I was confused as to why the iPad kept giving me a “NOT CHARGING” message while it was plugged into my pc. I looked online and apparently most USB ports to not provide enough electricity to sufficiently charge a running iPad, but the good news is that if you leave it plugged in to your PC it will reduce, or even remove the amount of electricity the iPad pulls from its battery.

The first “startling” thing is that before the iPad would even “boot”, it required a connection to iTunes. That means that you CANNOT run the iPad without having an iTunes account, which requires a CREDIT CARD. In the grand scheme of things it makes sense, but it seems very heavy-handed to force this on its users. While I would have given them my credit card anyway to buy applications, I found this rather irksome.

To continue on the bad note, the iTunes store the main means for managing your iPad. This means not only your music and apps, but documents, pictures and various ways the iPad syncs with you applications (like email, calendar, etc.) With two different computers I was afraid that I could only sync my iPad with just that PC but fortunately that is not the case. If you are not PC savvy, i recommend having a friend help you through this. For producers of such a user-friendly devices, their iTunes store does stink.

Since I cannot bash the iTunes store enough, I will add that browsing for apps is a pain. The popular stuff rises to the top and they do have searches and categories, but no other real way of doing intelligent sorting other than that (yes, there are a couple exemptions, but this is the general case.

On a positive note, it is VERY easy to purchase and download apps. Given that most apps are well under $10, and they have your credit card, within seconds you will have the app or book you purchase.

So now for the good…..

My main for buying this device was to free me from the basement where my PC resides. I do a fair amount of reading, from emails to blog posts to user groups to web sites to PDFs and none of these require heavy processing power. I wanted portability and a device that could be used to display by picture portfolio and this fits the bill. I am not sure the specs on this device, but it is fairly light, lighter than a laptop thus making it very portable. While there is some weight, there is no bulk.

Reading is a great experience on this device. The device is the size of a book, and the technology used to bring the page to the screen is quite amazing. The software engineers made this reading experience equal to or perhaps even superior to that of traditional paper books. Some applications, like iBooks, even translate the aesthetic by simulating the curling and turning of the electronic page as your fingers swipes the page.

Since books don’t take up any physical space in virtual library it keeps the house from getting cluttered. This is a biggie for us since our house is filled with books that take enormous amounts of space. But not only is the iPad an answer to tradition books, but it is also a great for reading magazines. In fact, some companies allow you to subscribe to electronic issues, pushing magazines directly to your iPad once they are released. How cool is that?

Using the internet is a breeze as well. Browsing is a very natural exercise that, in many ways, beats the tradition PC. One of the things I enjoy most is being able to lay down on the couch, hold this book-sized item and doing my internet reading. It also gives me a great deal of freedom to read PDFs that I did not have heretofore.

The battery life on this device is amazing. They state ten hours of usage is standard, and extrapolating from my experience, I think they are stating the truth. Ten hours is full usage, not including the “sleep mode”. This is quite amazing.

I bought a wireless keyboard, which was a wise purchase. This simple device makes the iPad a laptop replacement. As an input for web browsing to typing iPad reviews all this device combo is quite killer. While there is a simple notepad app that comes standard, there are a number of other more serious apps at the iTunes store. Word processing, spreadsheets and presentations are all available. While I would not want to spend a day using my iPad for these purposes, it is very doable for hours at a time.

Initially, I was going to wait on pulling the trigger to buy until multi-tasking was added, but when then next OS release is pushed in November, all iPads will have multi-taking. At first I thought the lack of multi-tasking would be a detriment in how I use the iPad, but I found that it has little effect. The applications close and load very quickly and when an application is opened it quickly goes to the last spot you were. Thus popping in and out of applications is so efficient I ALMOST don’t miss true multi-tasking. But there is one area where multi-tasking is missed – streaming audio. You can always play iTunes in the background but you cannot play streaming audio in the background until the new OS release, thus no Pandora while surfing the web until November.

So…what is worth it for me and is it worth it for you? For myself, yes, it is well worth the money. After careful research I was rewarded with a device that exceeded my expectation. I look forward to what the future holds in store.

This device is great for students, for a “second” home computer and for those on the go. This is so much lighter and more portable than any laptop or net book. The drawback is that it is more limited. A smaller screen, lack of raw processing power make it not practical for heavy applications like Photoshop. This device was never intended to replace the workstations but rather to be a great companion.

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Posted by on September 20, 2010 in Reviews


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Thoughts On My Gear – The Lenses

Since the cost for the camera was fairly high, I tried to keep my total purchasing cost down.

Since I did not know what my preference of shooting would be, either wide angle or telephoto I spit the horns of the dilemma by deciding to purchase both. Given that I never owned an SLR of any type before, and the abundance of choices made decision making difficult I went to the Internet for advice. While there are a lot of sites that give information on the various lenses and bodies I really did not want information as much as opinion. Not soft, mamby-pamby opinions, but the kind that stares you straight in the eye. And that is the kind of opinion found Ken Rockwell’s website and, to be fair, there is a good amount of evidence to back his beliefs.

Nikkor 18-55

Nikkor 18mm-55mm

His philosophy, which seems to be echoes elsewhere, is that even the cheap, plastic lenses today are better than many of the glass and metal lenses of yesteryear. While the more expensive lenses are better lenses and will produce better results, one can still get great pictures using the cheaper lenses.

To make a long story short, his advice came down to this, if you have the money purchase a moderately the expensive lens A which will cover the range for both lenses. If you don’t have that much money to spend, buy the less expensive lenses B and C. The B and C lenses are what is known as “kit” lenses, the types of lenses thrown in with a camera bodies to provide a reasonably priced package solution for the mass market.

Nikkor 70mm-300mm

Nikkor 70mm-300mm

So, a few years of use, and thousands of pictures on the Nikkor 18-55 and the Nikkor 70-300 lenses proved Ken’s philosophy to be correct (anecdotally at least). While I do plan to upgrade the 18-55 lens someday, my priority is to fill out my gaps in my lens. In other words, I want to get lenses that are currently provide capabilities currently beyond me .

As far as quality is concerned, the 70-300 is a better lens, but unfortunately, it is the lens I shoot with the least. While the Nikkor 18-55 has served well, it isn’t without some problems. The elements of the lens are a tiny bit “loose”. When locked into focus, the barrel, if touched, moves. This is disconcerting if, after composing a shot, you press the lens against a chain-link fence. (Yes I do those kinds of things).

The other issue with the 18-55 is that it does not have a lens hood ,thus making it very susceptible to lens glare in bright conditions. I need to see if an after-market solution exists.

I did purchase a 50mm prime lens (it doesn’t zoom) as a low-cost fast lens solution since I like to shoot in low light conditions AND this lens is a good choice for portraits.

Nikkor 50

Nikkor 50mm

So, what lens should you buy? That depends on your purpose and your budget. There are so many photography specialties and if you want to get into a niche market, that may require the purchase of more expensive lenses.

Don’t let the vast number of choices in lenses get you down. Purchasing a less expensive lens until you get familiar with your camera and your tastes might make good financial sense. The good thing is that skimping on a lens does not mean your pictures will suffer because even a cheap lens produces images of acceptable quality….for now at least.

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Posted by on June 22, 2010 in Reviews


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Thoughts on My Gear – My Best Purchase

There is no shortage of camera equipment to purchase. Look at magazine ads and see the sexy camera bodies, the sleek lenses and a variety of strobes. If you got the money you will not run out of some very good equipment to buy. While many of these make profound differences in the quality of one’s photography,  my best photography-motivated purchase has nothing to do with image quality, but comfort.

One wouldn’t think that a camera is that heavy since it is just a few pounds and comes with a handy strap that goes around the shoulder. But after lugging that thing around for more than a short period of time is, quite literally, a pain in the neck. It is shocking how painful walking around for hours becomes and pain has a way of taking the fun out of things.

Over a year a ago as I read a reader’s hints section in a Popular Photography section and somebody came up with a elegant solution – Binocular Harness. Wearing one of these will not win you any fashion awards nor will it earn you any reputation for coolness but it will provide you with hours and hours of comfort.

Not only does the harness distribute the weight of your gear over both shoulders and back but elastic straps dampen inertial forces the camera and lens exert on your shoulder as you walk. Think of the camera as bobbing up and down as you walk and with every “decent” the camera sends a shock of kinetic energy to our neck and shoulder. Individually these shocks are small and seemingly negligible, but each shock adds up over time. The elastic strap puts that horrible energy into a judo throw.

The harness is very easy to connect to your camera; simply slide on two rings onto the eyelets that you normal straps run through and then clip the harness to the rings. It is a very simple task to remove the harness as you simply unclip from those rings.

If you think that I am exaggerating the severity of this problem then either you don’t own a DSLR/SLR or you have never carried it for extended periods of time.  Here is a picture of a harness but note that is not the one that I use and thus functionality may be a bit different.. These are found in good stores and for around $20.


Posted by on June 7, 2010 in Reviews


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Thoughts on My Gear – The Tripod

My New Tripod

It doesn’t take long to realize how important a tripod is. Stabilizing the camera goes a long way to eliminate camera shake which results in blurred pictures. No matter how steady one thinks they are and no matter what technique one uses to hand-hold the camera the body will still make slight movements. This is especially true for long and multiple exposures as required for low light and HDR photography.

But is isn’t just a problem in those specialized applications; if you are shooting portraits, the subjects can never stand or sit perfectly still. Effectively the photographer and the subject slowly sway like buildings in high winds. One way photographers often use fast shutter speeds to compensate for movement effectively mitigating the affects of hand-holding the camera. Since a faster shutter speed means that sacrifices have to be made and you don’t have the light to spare. That is when tripods will save you.
Tripods are expensive. Or, I should say GOOD tripods or expensive. I tried the cheap ones. I tried multiple cheap ones and they were terrible. Here are some problems they gave me:

  • The legs were hard to extend
  • The head wouldn’t lock down tight allowing the camera to drift..
  • The gear action or elevating the head would allow the camera to slowly slip down.
  • The head broke.

After much research and angst I finally purchased a Manfrotto 725B. At around $150 it was rather on the low end of spiffy tripods. There are many options to tripods and the options can lead one down a bunch of rabbit holes. I did not need carbon fiber legs, I did not need quick release legs (though that would have been sweet), I did not need a very compact nor a very heavy tripod. The 725B fit the bill quite nicely.

I quickly fell in love with the ball head. Most heads requires separate adjustments for each axis and that is a pain if you are wanting to be like a commando (drop in, shoot your pictures and get out). There is some sacrifice with a ball head, namely if you are planning to use a big honking lens. I had no problem with my 70-300.

Since my tripod is officially lost I went to order a new one. Unfortunately I could not find the 725B new (that model was discontinued) or used. Luckily Manfrotto had me in mind since they replaced the 725B with the 7302YB. It looks mostly the same and is supposed to have some improvements. Time will tell.

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Posted by on June 2, 2010 in Reviews


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Thoughts on My Photography Gear – The Camera

After a few years of accumulating gear here are some of my thoughts about what I own. Remember your mileage may vary…

Nikon D80 –

In general this has been my workhorse for these three years, and other than a slight mechanical issue (see below), it has been trouble free. Here are some points to consider with the D80:

Camera settings are visible on the top of the camera – This is a very nice feature. Most lower priced cameras demand that either you use the view finder or the LCD screen on a back to look at and adjust your settings. This is a problem because flipping through menus wastes time. This really adds up if you shoot a lot especially in changing situations.

Speed – While the D80 is quicker than almost any point and shoot camera it doesn’t perform at the speeds needed for serious sports photography. Undoubtedly I am responsible for a good portion of my camera’s performance lag since I only use inexpensive CF cards. There are a number of high peforming cards on the market that ensure that the slowest part of the process IS NOT the writing to the card. But with the type of photography that I normally shoot speed is not an issue, but low light capability is.

ISO and Noise – Going past ISO 500 does generate a good deal of noise, or at least more noise than I care to have. Now, how much noise is too much noise? Undoubtedly the photography beats himself over the head about issues that a customer never notices, but excessive noise leads to undue feeling of softness in an image. Occasionally I shoot up to ISO 800 and normally just deal with it. Lately Lighroom 3 has come to my aid since its noise reduction capabilities  is quite phenomenal and provides a fairly clean image without savaging too much detail.Shooting at high ISOs without noise is a big deal. This is perhaps the single biggest issue I have with my camera. I like to shoot with available light, but often the conditions mandate the use of a flash otherwise the ISO levels would trash the image.

Sensor Size – The D80 has the standard size sensor which means that for a standard lens there is a “magnification effect” of about 1.5. Because the sensor is smaller than the standard piece of 35mm film ((2/3 the size actually) the sensor is catching only a portion of the scene that the lens provides. There is no discernible difference between what the photographer sees through the viewfinder and the image captured but it does affect the nature of the lens. For example, my 50mm prime lens actually acts like a 75mm lens. This is good news for those that want to extend the “effective” focal length of their lenses, but I actually prefer to go the other direction. I am more of a wide-angle shooter than telephoto.

Dedicated Buttons – Higher end cameras have buttons to control a variety of functions. The D80 uses a combination of buttons and dials to make quick changes to the camera settings. All the major settings have a dedicated buttons except one. ISO. I would really dig being able to have that function. The ISO shares the same button as increasing image viewing size. This is a huge hassle because the time I want to make an adjustment is right after viewing a picture on the display. When I hit the ISO button I am actually affecting the display on my camera back instead of what I want it to. Then I am forced to hit another button to turn the back display off so I can then use the ISO function. This isn’t a deal breaker but I definitely want my next camera to have a dedicated ISO button.

My one lingering problem – I did have one constant problem though, my onboard flash does not always pop up and so I tied a piece of string to the latch to make sure I could manually pop it. Apparently some piece of dirt got lodged which interfered with the proper function.

So, where to go from here? The next step in the upgrade is the D90. This has HD video capability and better handles noise at higher ISOs. This is a sweet camera and is at about the same price as my D80 was when I purchased it. But the features are not great enough for me to upgrade.

The D300 is on the next rung. I am not sure that the cost difference between it and the D90 is worth it since they both have the same standard sensor and both shoot HD video. There are other features that may make it more attractive to others but not to me.

The next step up is the D700. That is my camera of choice. It has the same full frame sensor as the D3. Great noise handling at high-ISOs and being able to get rid of that focal length multiplier is something I dream about. It is definitely pricey and it will be a while before I purchase it.

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Posted by on June 1, 2010 in Reviews


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The Tools I Love

In case you are wondering what tools I use to produce my pictures and why I use those tools, the following article is for you…

1. Photoshop CS4 – This is the daddy of them all and for good reason. Without question it is standard. For years I used Nikon’s NX2 as well as Paint Shop Pro X and was generally happy with the results I got. Then one fateful day I picked up a copy of CS4 relatively cheap (around $200). Without going into all the reasons/features, lets just say that the ability to handle RAW files, the ability for many 3rd party programs to hook into it, and the **FREE** inclusion of Adobe Bridge were enough of a reason to make me switch. Actually, Bridge alone was an ENOURMOUS boost to my productivity and made file management much simpler.

2. Topaz Adjust – A wonderful program that produces some very cool effects that you will not find elsewhere AND it hooks right into CS4. It takes a simple shot and gives it some serious pop. It does not add to what exists but rather it accentuates what is there. I really enjoy using this for portraits but often the effect is too strong and needs to be tone down. To address this issue I normally I take the original photo and copy it to another layer. Then I make the adjustment to the top layer. When I am finished I simply decreasing the opacity of the top layer until I get only the amount of effect I want. It is unbelievable how much time and effort this one program saves

3. Photomatix Pro – If you want to produce High Dynamic Range (HDR) photography, this is the program for you. Multiple options and sliders makes it possible to customize how crazy you want to go with the effect. The program hooks into Lightroom in a very sweet way. While program does take a bit of playing around with to get used to, it is VERY rewarding in its results. Often I will further modify these pictures in Lighroom or CS4. Most often the modification is only curve adjustments.

4. Lightroom 3 – the program is currently in beta and will be released in the near future. When I first started playing around with the beta, I wasn’t impressed. The lack of speed was the main concern, plus I didn’t see the benefit over using Adobe Bridge. Well, after the last update to the beta my opinion completely changed. Completely. If you are serious about your photography and deal with lots and lots of photos, this program is for you.. Most of the important functions that once were reserved for Photoshop are available in this easy to use package reducing the need to go to an outside program, like CS4.

This was just a quick overview. At some later date I will go into more details on each tool separately.

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Posted by on May 26, 2010 in Reviews


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