Caran d'Ache 849 Office Pen

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: Not bad, but it's nothing to write home with.

The Long Version: I bought this because I wanted a nice pen, and I know that Caran d'Ache makes good ones. I know this because Rado, the Swiss company that makes scratch-proof ceramic watches - so they'll never look worse than they do on the day you buy one - had some as promotional items and I snagged a couple of them. Caran d'Ache is also Swiss, so it keeps it all in the family.

A lot of people use my pen in the course of a week, and the most frequent comments I get are about how small my pen is, and how slippery my pen is in their hand. I'll admit that my model 849 is smaller than average, but it fits my hand and it's easy to carry in my pocket, so it suits me just fine. The slipperiness is a problem that I have to agree with: it can be hard to use when I need to write on carbonless paper, and I often find that I need to grip the shaft so firmly that my hand starts to cramp. If I'm writing with a more relaxed grip the pen is comfortable, but the legibility of my writing isn't something that's improved by being fast and loose.

From the photos on the maker's web site, I think I have the glossy-finished "Metal X" pen. The Rado promo pens - I eventually found them packed in a box from my last move - have a much more comfortable matte finish which gets rid of the grip problem, and it doesn't detract from the look or carrying convenience of the pens. If you have a choice, pick the more textured finish. If you don't have a choice, you might want to skip the smooth version. They look very nice, but ultimately I prefer my buy-it-by-the-dozen Papermate Comfortmate Medium to write with.

updated February 2013: four years later, I have an update.


Coinstar Coin-Counting Machine

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's just 9.8 bucks on the hun.

The Long Version: When I was growing up in suburban Toronto, I was always surprised to see the occasional Poverty Mart cheque-cashing places dotted around downtown - companies that charge about 3% commission to turn one form of money into another. Times have changed, and now these places are everywhere and have moved on to business models that allow them to go after people who have bank accounts and direct deposit. But the basic idea of charging people to change one form of money into another is too good to go away.

Coinstar has put vending-machine-style coin counters in stores all across Canada, the US, and UK. The American ones can dispense 'gift' cards without the 9.8% charge, but in Canada we're limited to only getting vouchers that can be redeemed at the check-out registers of the grocery stores that they're invariably in. The irony is that the amount of change counted, less 9.8%, is almost never going to work out to an even dollar amount, so after paying money to convert coins to cash, you'll get some back in change.

To use the machines requires some time, effort, and the ability to feed the coins through a narrow little slot. It seems to work on the same principle as the fabulous Sort`N`Bank, except that it's mechanized and makes a lot more noise in the process. The two items actually make a decent pair, since using the Sort`N`Bank (or some other sorting device) is an easy way to make certain that the more valuable coins don't get 9.8% of their value clipped from them. I only dump pennies and nickels, since the effort and time involved in counting, wrapping, and then finding a bank that will accept them simply isn't worth the amount of money that Coinstar charges. I'm not a fan of their business model, but I do have to concede that it serves a purpose.

updated 7 jan 2011:

I've checked a couple of these machines recently, and the rate has gone up to 10.9%. I was quite annoyed - but I paid it anyway. From here on, though, I'll be using my Sort'N'Bank's awesome powers to screen out the dimes, and start spending them along with the quarters. It's still better than rolling them and taking them to the bank, and it still leaves the machine with just the heaviest and lowest-value currency. I just worry about what I'll do with the nickels when the rate hits 14.9%.


Canon E1 Hand Strap

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: Canon E1. Yes, Canon.

The Long Version: Camera hand straps are an interesting solution to an obscure problem. The Canon strap only attaches to bodies with a portrait grip, whether integral or accessory, and makes it impossible to reach the portrait grip. So to use this $60 strap you'll need to spend about 150-300 dollars to add a lot of bulk to the bottom of your camera with no real additional benefit except for the ability to carry a bigger battery. As you can imagine, this isn't a need that's screaming out to be filled.

But beyond my desire to own something that pays homage to a classic camera, I also happen to own a battery grip that I don't particularly like to use in the portrait orientation. I've found that the HLD-4 on my E-3 doesn't feel as solid as I like when I have a big lens attached, so I don't shift my grip much. This makes a hand strap perfect for me.

The Canon strap isn't particularly convenient to adjust, which makes it harder to use during the winter - I shoot with two different weights of gloves outdoors, and without gloves when I'm inside. The strap length is currently at a medium position that compromises its snugness, but it does still provide a sure and comfortable grip on the camera. Once glove season is over, I'll be able to tighten it up a bit. The hand strap is different from a wrist lanyard - my usual choice - in that it actually increases my ability to hold the camera, instead of just being an insurance policy.

I've always preferred to hold cameras instead of hanging them around my neck; while I can appreciate the value of neck/shoulder straps for cameras that predate the invention of ergonomics, I find that hand-carrying heavy cameras is both easier and more comfortable. My subjective impression is that the hand strap also adds some solidity when shooting, making it easier to stabilize the camera for longer lenses and (very slightly) longer exposures. It's nothing compared to a monopod or in-camera image stabilization, but it certainly feels more solid. The compromise is that it makes it almost impossible to shift my grip enough to reach the arrow pad on my E-3's back. Life's a barter.

The irony is that I'm disappointed by the build of the Olympus HLD-4 battery grip, but like the camera-and-grip combination for a normal (horizontal) hand position when I'm shooting vertically. But to get the most benefit out of the larger grip surface, which helps when swinging the camera around, I've also had to commit to keeping the battery grip attached and losing out on the ability to switch the camera to its smaller native configuration. Sure, technically the grip strap can be removed, but it adds enough effort to the switch that I'm not likely to do it.

When DPReview.com wrote their conclusions for the Olympus E-330, they called the new feature of Live View "a solution looking for a problem". That's how I want to describe the idea of a hand strap as well. At least there's no way I can misjudge the future of DSLRs as badly as Phil Askey did; the Canon hand strap really is a specialized product for a very specific set of criteria. It works for me, and I'm happy that I have it on my E-3, but I'd never cripple my E-1's excellent battery grip by adding a hand strap to it. Different people, and different cameras, need different solutions.

Thermos Quick Charge bottle

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: Handy, but why did I buy one in the winter?

The Long Version: These bottles by Thermos solve the summer problems of metal water bottles: they warm up quickly and 'sweat' badly. In exchange for the insulation, they don't hold as much for their size, and because I can't feel the bottle get cold, I need to pay more attention as I fill it.

The bottles come in blue and red, with a glossy coat that does seem to scuff if it's handled roughly. Overall the bottles are quite attractive, easy to hold, and the plastic lids are comfortable to hold and use with a nice rubberized texture.

In my review of the Kleen Kanteen stainless bottle, I pointed out that the water in the container does not change its flavour, but that the bottle itself has a metallic taste. According to the google terms that bring people to that write-up, this is a common concern. The good news is that the plastic cap on the Thermos Quick Charge bottles gets rid of this problem. Just watch out how the cap is orientated when you take a drink, because it's easy to re-create a classic moment from the "Airplane" movies with it.


Sigma 150mm f/2.8 Macro & Olympus E-3

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: Whose throat is it, anyway?

The Long Version: I've now been using the Sigma 150mm f/2.8 DG EX Macro for four months - out of the six that I've owned it. My initial review dealt with the unpleasantness of learning that no shipping Sigma 150mm Macro lens will autofocus on an Olympus E-3 without a trip to the Sigma service center of your choice, so I won't dwell on that any more here except to say that you should make certain that the warranty covers your location, because you are going to need it. This review is just looking at the performance of the post-update lens.

Imagine an autofocus system is trying to catch a bus. Some lenses can sprint so quickly that they're never late for work, like the Olympus 12-60mm. Some get up a brisk run, holding their pockets so that nothing flies out. This would be the 11-22 or the 50-200. Some walk with dignity, thinking that if the bus leaves then it wasn't worth catching. The Oly 50mm f/2 macro comes to mind. The Sigma 150 Macro is the lens that stumbles and breaks its ankle.

To be fair, the Sigma is a macro lens, with an extremely long focus range that needs to be adjusted with great precision. It's not designed for speed, a goal that it achieves admirably. When it only needs to make minor adjustments, everything is fine and it works just like a normal lens. It does have focus-limiter switches, so it's possible to reduce the amount of hunting when it misses. These also serve another purpose: they can force the lens to shift its focus to the desired range. When the lens is at infinity when I want to take close-ups, or vice-versa, the boke(h) is so smooth that there's no contrast for the AF system to pick up, and the lens won't move at all. So cycling the power on the camera or flipping the focusing range is about the only way out. Sigma doesn't advise using the AF+MF mode on a 4/3 body, or adjusting the manual focus on the lens unless the body and lens are both in MF mode.

But the problem is that it's not all bad. When this lens is snicking into focus properly it really does some beautiful work. Optically there's absolutely nothing wrong with it, and there's a reason why a 300mm-e lens is a popular focal length. It's fantastic for portraits and stand-off photography of all kinds, and as a macro lens it gives plenty of working distance. If you're working with insects, models who will be patient, or anyone else who won't be discouraged by your frequent bouts of self-referential swearing, this is a fantastic lens. But it's worth noting here that I've tried the Sigma 150 Macro in other mounts - on a Canon 5D, 50D, Nikon D80, and D700 - and while the focus travel speed is the same, the lens gets into focus in fewer steps. With the EF and F mounts, it's 'almost - done', with Olympus it's 'almost, nearly, a little more, okay, that's it.' I'd hate to anthropomorphize, but the Sigma-Olympus combination just seems to need more guesses to get to the right answer.

Of course macro photography is often done with manual focus, in which the Sigma excels. It's capable of a 'life size' reproduction, which translates to really, really big. Working distance at full magnification is about 8" from the front element, or 5.5-ish from the front of the hood. That's enough room to comfortably fit the Olympus 50/2 macro - with its hood extended -between the Sigma's hood and the subject. Not too shabby. Using the E-3's flippy screen and magnified live view makes manual focus a wonderful way to work. Add the Sigma's solid tripod mount and this becomes an exceptional combination for photographing really small things.

Sigma's tripod mount is awesome. It was one of the highlights of my first look at this lens, and it deserves a special mention again here. The collar is split with a hinge, and tripod lock knob is sprung and clips over a peg on the other half of the mount. The lock knob has a cam design that locks securely with half a rotation, which is much more elegant than the thumbscrews that other manufacturers use. The collar can be opened and removed quickly and without needing to disassemble the camera. There's a best-of-both-worlds aspect to this, because the Sigma 150 is quite small for its (effective) focal length and is comfortable to hold without the tripod mount, but it's long enough that using proper support makes composition much easier. When I'm hand-holding the camera I'll lock the collar around the strap on one of my Domkes, which is a quick and easy way to stow my monopod. The collar is even faster than a quick-release plate, so there's no reason not to use the lens in the best way for each particular moment. The Sigma 150 Macro goes from party to business faster than a speeding mullet.

I bought the Sigma because I wanted the Olympus 150mm f/2.0. I love the working distance for macros, and have a tendency for tight telephoto shots in my personal work, so it's a good fit for me. The problem is that I still want to buy the 150/2.0 - the Sigma has proven for me how suitable this focal length is without really giving me what I want from a lens. But I like the Sigma as well, and I still need its macro performance. So if I win the lottery, maybe I'll be able to have a head-to-head comparison, and can actually see myself keeping both of them.

One thing that I've found with the Sigma that cuts down on its utility is that every photo that I've taken at infinity with the 1.4 teleconverter has been soft - this isn't something that I've tested rigorously, as the results were bad enough from my one afternoon out that I haven't tried it again. (Despite ample evidence to the contrary, I don't actually make an effort to take bad photographs.) Shorter focal distances seem unaffected, but don't buy this lens thinking that it can be painlessly turned into a 210/4.0. I've also had occasions where the lens/camera combination won't respond to anything, and I need to switch the camera off and on again. And one afternoon my E-3 lost connection and displayed F-- twice. There's no pattern that I've been able to find, but these are just little things that I've never noticed with my menagerie of Olympus glass.

I've had a hard time coming to terms with the Sigarette. Using it reminds me of a computer industry expression about the value of having "one throat to choke". This is supposed to illustrate the value of having only one place to put the blame when something goes wrong; ironically it's a perfect reason to buy Apple computers, but it's almost invariably used by PC-Windows integrators. I suppose they have more things go wrong, but I digress.

What we have here is a failure to communicate, or at least a failure to optimize. And because there's two companies involved, it's impossible to say who's at fault. (Sigma.) The 150 Macro focuses more quickly on bodies from Canon and Nikon, so is Olympus autofocus inherently bad, or has Sigma failed to give the same care and attention to the four thirds mount? Really, it can be argued either way. (Sigma.) But the end result is that this lens is as good as it will ever get; Olympus isn't likely to rework their AF for Sigma, even though they are both nominally members of the 4/3 format, and Sigma isn't likely to start caring about the performance nuances of a lens that doesn't even work right out of the box.

Ultimately this is a very different animal from the Olympus 50mm macro, and there's a place for it in the four thirds lens lineup. When the camera and lens get along well, it produces some wonderful photos at all distances. It's sharp, distortion free, has great colour, and gives beautiful boke(h) in front and behind the plane of focus. But it's not a poor man's 150mm f/2.0, no matter what SLR Gear says. They've probably never actually tried the Sigma 150 on a 4/3 body, and are just going from the results that they've seen on other brands. It just doesn't work that way. In fact, I'll place a wager that even after reading all this, when you try the lens in person you'll still be surprised at just how balky the autofocus can be.

But don't say I didn't warn you, and enjoy.


Motorola RAZR V3 Cellular Telephone

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 1 out of 5
Yeah, but: Has the whole world gone mad?

The Long Version: I'm one of those people who was caught by the ultra-thin form factor of the Motorola Razor, or as the hip call it, MOTORAZR. It looked like no phone before it, and even though it wasn't actually much smaller, its thinness was revolutionary and so much more modern than those blocky ones that it sat next to on the display shelves. It was an expensive phone, but the price-with-contract was good enough to get me off of my grandfathered billed-by-the-second plan into a contract that had less features and was more expensive. It was also the first contract I had signed for phone service, so I also wasn't anticipating the massive drop in customer service that came with being locked into one company. But I had my new phone, and it was good.

It was the beginning of the end.

I've had my Motorola phone for two years, eleven months, one week and six days. I know this because there's a hundred dollar penalty if I up and leave before the full three years is served. So three years and one day from when I signed that contract, I'm moving to a new company and getting a new phone.

When people ask me why I'm so enthusiastic about replacing my current phone with a new one, I tell them that it's an original 'Razr'. Whether they work for my provider, or my future provider, they just nod their heads in complete understanding.

The sound quality's not very good. The programming is bad. Menu options are in odd places. The screen can't be read in anything approaching daylight. The battery life was never very good, and after a year or so the rechargeables won't store enough power to get me though an easy day. The alarms can't be silenced without completely disabling them, meaning that it constantly needs to be reset for events that happen every day - like waking up in the morning. The chime on the low battery alarm can't be silenced without silencing the phone's ringers as well. Hitting a button to silence the ringer when I'm screening calls doesn't stop the phone from chirping at me to tell me that I missed a call. And the sound quality's not very good.

Great design idea - lousy phone.

The launch of the Razr V3 marked a sales peak for Motorola, which they still haven't surpassed. For a very good reason, since so many people bought the stupid thing. It could have been great, and maybe the new Motorola phones - including the RAZR derivatives - have come close to that. I'll never know; the vast number of Motorola phones that my current carrier offers is one of the three reasons why I'm leaving them in fifteen days.

Has the whole world gone mad?

There's a new phone that I'm looking at, and the company advertises it as having a GPS. I'm a sucker for satellite navigation, so I asked about that feature and tried to get some idea of its capabilities. If it could replace my hand-held Garmin, I'd be thrilled. But apparently I was over-ambitious, because eventually the sales person said to me "It's not a GPS, it's a phone."

Let's play fill-in the blanks: It's not a _________, it's a phone.

Camera? Video camera? Music player? Portable TV? Web browser? Two-way pager? Walkie-talkie? Radio? E-mail client? Photo viewer? Personal Digital Assistant? Video game?

The amount of things that so-called phones can do is amazing. Kids and adults alike have their Crackberries and iPhones, when just a few moments ago they were exclusively for executives and/or tech geeks. I was looking at other reviews of the MOTORAZR, the cutting edge that's oh-so-three-years-ago, and found this gem: "Even though it doesnt have a full QWERTY keyboard like most phones..."

WTF? Most phones have typewriter keyboards on them? When did I get so old?

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