Three-Way Lamps

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 1 out of 5
Yeah, but: Am I backwards?

The Long Version: Three-way lamps are lights with three distinct brightness levels, either by using three separate bulbs (as above) or by using a special bulb. The multi-bulb lamps will turn on one, two, and then all three; single-bulb lamps light a small filament, larger filament, and then both together.

In all of the lamps that I've ever seen the brightness cycles through low, medium, and high. This is the exact opposite of the way they should work.

When I first turn on a lamp, I do it because I want more light. The three-way responds by going to its dimmest setting. I then have to turn the switch two more times.

There are many times when I'll want less light. Whether reading at the end of the night, or setting a mood over dinner, when I'm finished that activity I want the lights to go out. Instead they go up.

Didn't anyone actually use one of these before putting it into production, and why has nobody created one that works properly?


Olympus 50mm f/2.0 Macro

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: There's no reason for a 4/3 shooter to not own one.

The Long Version: 50mm lenses are something of a cult classic, and it's a really big cult. There's a mystique about the Leica-equipped starving artist photographer - starving because they spent $5000 for a light-tight box - stalking the streets with a fast fifty lens, looking for decisive moments and refusing to crop their photos even though their viewfinders are woefully inaccurate. In this era of cheap slow zooms, the 'nifty fifty' lenses can be an affordable way to get better image quality without sticker shock. (True story: when I tell people the price difference between the Nikon 55-200 and 55-200/VR, I often get a stunned look and a feeble "...oh, I'm not a pro" response.) There's also an argument, typically oversimplified and overemphasized, that a 50mm lens gives 'normal' perspective and most accurately reproduces how we see the world.

Fortunately, the Olympus 50mm is completely above all that. In the Olympus world its focal length makes it a short telephoto, and it lands perfectly in the most poplar macro and portrait focal lengths for legacy film cameras. It's also not cheap, although its price is aligning nicely with the new generation of 50mm lenses, and it's far less expensive than macro lenses with similar fields of view for other formats.

The 50/2 is one of the smaller Olympus lenses, making it easy to carry in any bag and easy to use on any camera. The build quality is a very solid plastic with a metal inner barrel. When shooting at close distances it extends enough to make some ladies faint, but at anything farther than a few feet it's perfectly suitable for use in mixed company. It's fully sealed against dust and rain, and the barrel-shaped hood is deep enough to keep water off the glass. This makes it my second choice for shooting in bad conditions, and since the 35-100 is my first choice, there's no shame in that.

The 50/2 macro comes in second place a lot. I've been told that it's the second-sharpest lens from Olympus, with the 150/2 taking first place. It's usually grouped in with the 35-100/2 and the 150/2 lenses as the best choice for portraits. That may not sound like a great endorsement, but those other lenses cost five times more than the little 50 Macro - each. I actually bought the 50 Macro specifically for low-light portraits, and have used it as a general-purpose lens far more than for macro photography.

In addition to being much more affordable, the 50/2 is petite compared to the Top Pro monsters. It's a much easier lens to handle and not nearly as intimidating, which will often make it the best choice for portrait and candid photography. Its biggest limitation here is the absence of a focus limiting switch, so occasionally it will want to check to see if there are any interesting dust motes nearby. The better autofocus systems in the E-3 and newer cameras cuts down on this, but it's still not a great lens for fast action. 

Shallow depth of field isn't the strength of the four-thirds format, but the 50/2 is one of the better lenses for it. I've never hesitated to use it wide open at any focusing distance. SLRGear and DPreview have both done their own version of stringent testing on the optics, so I won't go into further detail here than to agree that this lens is nearly perfect.

The Olympus 50mm really needs to be considered alongside the 35mm Macro, since the difference between them doesn't seem that great. The 35mm was the second lens I bought, and it served me well for a long time. Like the 50/2, it's an exceptional lens: small and sharp, and less expensive than its bigger brother. But lenses cost more because they really are better. Once I had the 50/2, its faster aperture, weather sealing, and (relatively) better autofocus, combined with a focal length that I preferred, meant that the 35/3.5 only got used when I really needed 1:1 reproduction. The Sigma 150/2.8 macro (reviewed) also does 1:1 reproduction (the 50/2 is half-sized, 1:2) but with a much better working distance, so the 35mm Macro found itself a new home where it continues to provide exceptional value for the price. Compared to the Sigma 150/2.8, the Oly 50/2 isn't as good as a dedicated macro lens, but it spanks the Sigma for everything else.

The 50mm Macro lens isn't the best for infrared photography. At narrower apertures it shows a distinct 'hot spot' in the middle of the frame. It's evident at f/8 and above, and I can just make it out at f/5.6, but I don't see it at f/4 or below. Sometimes it isn't an issue in real-world photography - the image above was shot at f/8 - but typically it is. IR requires long exposures, long exposures need tripods, and tripods encourage stopping down. This is particularly unfortunate because the 52mm filter thread makes an IR filter, like the Hoya R72 that I use, much more affordable. The 35mm gives better results, but the cheap 14-42 is (was) my favourite for IR on an Olympus SLR.

Miss Piggy provides me with my favourite photographic advice: "Never eat more than you can lift." The 50/2 is so easy to carry, and so unassuming to shoot with, that it would be worth the price even if it wasn't such an excellent and versatile performer. In many ways it's a very boring lens to use (and review), simply because it does everything so well and consistently that it becomes unremarkable. It is transparent in ways that go far beyond its remarkable clarity; if it wasn't for the occasional hunting and reassuring buzz of the focusing motor, you'd forget it was on the camera at all.

If the children are fed, the rent's paid, and you have an Olympus or Panasonic dSLR, you should own the 50mm f/2.0 Macro. It really is that simple.


Sanyo Eneloop Battery

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: They're not the most powerful, but they last.

The Long Version: Sanyo's Eneloops batteries are one of a new type of low-discharge rechargeable battery. According to the Wikipedia entry, there are now five different manufacturers making these cells, and they're marketed under twenty different names. I have no information about whether they perform the same, or if they're getting different ends of the quality curve. Either seems perfectly plausible, and I have no experience with the other names.

Stefan has already done extensive testing on these batteries, so I'd hate to make all of his ads and referral links go to waste. All I can really add is that potential buyers shouldn't be put off by their lower mAh rating. The flashes that I've used with them happily recycle and fire just fine, but with the added benefit of doing it after sitting in a drawer for a month or more.

Because the self-discharge rate is so low, these batteries have enough 'shelf life' to serve in electronics that normal NIMH or NICAD cells fall flat in. Remotes, clocks, backup flashlights, Powershot A-series cameras, and other items that have low drain or infrequent use are perfect for these bad boys. It's possible to become a disposable-battery free household, saving some environmental impact. Only you can decide if the added cost and effort is worth it.


Black Masking Tape

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: I may get unusually excited by these things.

The Long Version:Masking tape is a term that can include just about any moderately-sticky paper-based tape, but I'm sure that it conjures up exactly the same image for just about everyone: slightly shiny paper, about three-quarters of an inch wide, on a cardboard roll, cheap, and an aggressively nondescript light brown. The Scotch® Sealer Tape 2510 made by 3M is exactly like that, except that it's black.

Masking tape is duct tape for unhandy people. Neither are really used for their intended purposes, which they aren't even very good at, and their greatest attribute is that you already have it when you need something, anything, to do a job with. The jury's still out on whether it's more trailer to seal a cardboard box with duct or masking tape, but otherwise duct tape has a much better lobby group. Doing a google search on 'windows duct tape' brings up websites on terrorism and hurricanes. Sure, most of the advice is crap, but googling 'windows masking tape' gives less than half as many hits and they're about painting. How uncool is that?

But this stuff is black. So even if it's still cheap and utilitarian, the unusual colour defrays some of the dweeb demerit points. (Like having an unusual colour of Crocs.) And masking tape is really good at some stuff, so there's always a reason to have it around.

But my personal enthusiasm goes beyond simple novelty. As a photographer, I often shoot studio/still life shots of small items, and colour accuracy is very important. I can use black masking tape (or white tape, which I also have around here somewhere) without worrying about colour reflections. In my small lightbox black masking tape is an excellent lighting modifier all on its own, and I don't have to worry about it leaving residue behind. It's almost like having a low-tack gaffer tape.

3M is a massive company, and just searching for the number that's on the inside of the roll brought me to a page for red electrical tape. I eventually tracked it down to "Scotch® Sealer Tape 2510 Black", so that's a good place to start looking. Craft and office stores may have it in stock, or you can just save some time with the handy Amazon.com link which I'm shamelessly promoting.

(My father would probably get it cheaper on eBay.)



Thewsreviews: The First Year In Review

Concept: _ out of 5
Execution: _ out of 5
Yeah, but: It's a little early for a retrospective.

The Long Version: Thewsreviews is slightly over a year old. In a move that will surprise no-one who knows me, I missed its birthday.

`Thew's Reviews started because I needed a hobby. My life as a photographer began when I needed something to get me away from work, both literally and figuratively. It kept me sane and with my former employer beyond all expectations, but eventually it backfired and I accidentally got a job at a camera store. My creative outlet and frivolous forum-surfing turned into something that I had no relief from.

Writing is something that I've always enjoyed, but gave it up when it became clear that I suffer a crippling lack of anything to say. Writing reviews seemed like a good solution to that problem, and unlike every other hobby that has ever appealed to me, it's free. So this is my escape, and I just end up writing a lot about photography.

As a further irony, the photography for this site is one of the things that I really enjoy. I'm a product photographer at heart, and enjoy solving problems about how to present something. But for many of the reviews I'll go the opposite way, and post images that I'd never even put on a MySpace account. (It's not that I can't take good photos, it's that I don't want to.) Other times there are little jokes included in the photo, like the iPod peeking into the corner of a book on photo composition, or the way I left the word "Toshiba" in the photo for Helvetica. I used my TV as a black background for a DVD review. I think I'm funny even when nobody else does.

In one year, this site has had 12,000 visitors and 19,000 page views. It had a very small beginning, with only a handful of hits during the first two months, but in June `08 Keith joined the effort and it took off from there. This is the 89th post, and only the fourth non-review.

The most popular reviews vary over time, with the two scooter reviews being popular during the summer but losing prominence once the cold weather came. The Olympus 35-100 lens review is typically one of the most popular pages, with the Sigma 150 Macro also being a favourite, but the Oly 7-14 barely attracts anyone. Camera bags happen to be really popular right now. But even though they account for a lot of traffic, photography-related reviews are less than a third of the site's content. Keith's Maglite Upgrade is rarely out of the top five pages, and the Omega Seamaster page has turned out to be a surprise hit. I reviewed those two watches together because I didn't think it was worth looking at either one alone.

Some of the reviews are local to Toronto, and 17% of visitors are Canadian. That's also the same percentage of people who do not have English as their default language. 24% of visitors use Macintosh computers; Firefox accounts for about 40% of the browser share. Google accounts for nearly all visits, either through keywords or images, but I can see that there are a couple of people who keep track of the new content here. I hear that the weather in Florida is beautiful.

So thanks to everyone who's visited, and especially those who have left comments that aren't trying to sell me peni senhancers. Thanks also to Keith, who adds an important note to the site that keeps it from being completely self-indulgent. I realize that this site is just a tiny speck in the blog world, with fewer hits in a year than many 'small' sites get in a day, but I'm still amazed at the reach that it has. There are google search results that put this humble little blog above Amazon.com - and that's just absurd.

I'm going to leave the ratings blank on this one, so if anyone wants to leave a comment that suggests some, feel free. Just remember that something serviceable, decent, and reliable gets a ranking of "2", so mark low.


RIM's BlackBerry Bold 9000

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: Now I can't imagine having a phone without a keyboard.

The Long Version: There's already plenty of technical and feature-by-feature reviews of the BlackBerry Bold, as well as many forums that are dedicated to it. Instead of trying to replicate their efforts, this review is just my collection of personal observations.

First of all, a reality check: Yes, its nickname is 'crackberry', and yes, I do start to feel panicky and a little lost when mine is out of easy reach. But remember that it started its life as an overgrown alphanumeric pager that was the size of a block of soap. A large block of soap. (I remind mine of that to keep it humble.) Any addictive powers are the fault of the user, not because the device is completely life-changing. So if the internet and e-mail is something you can happily forget about for days, this is no big deal. But if being connected is feeding some deeper need, watch out.

Picking Fruit:

When it came time for me to choose a Smartphone, the obvious contenders were something from Research In Motion or Apple.

• BlackBerries evolved from a corporate tool, and still have a 'Business' connotation; iPhones are MP3 players with groovy touchscreens. Maybe older or hipper people can pull off an iPhone in a business setting, but I look young for my age, and pulling out an iPhone in front of a client would make me look like a n00b.
• Research In Motion is a Canadian company, and is based just a few cities away from me. I like to support the home team. (For what it's worth, my Bold was made in Mexico; iPods and iPhones are made in China.)
• The screen sizes are different, but the screen resolution is the same for the Bold and the iPhone.
• It has a keyboard. I've never liked touch-screens, as I prefer my buttons to stay in one place.

I have to be honest and say that I never even looked at an iPhone when it came time to buy. I think I have a pretty good idea of their strengths, and have used one briefly, and it just wasn't for me.

Ontario has only three real cell-phone companies: Rogers, Telus, Bell, and Virgin. When shopping between them I got the same feeling that I get when I'm dealing with banks: it's fundamentally expensive, everything costs extra, and there's nothing I can do about it. (Note that Canadian banks haven't been imploding recently, and world events make me begrudge them their multi-billion dollar profits much less. That means that I actually like banks better than telecommunications companies.) Occasionally a newspaper or consumer-advocacy group points out how expensive our cell-phone plans are, especially data rates. While the plan that I'm on with my new BlackBerry is expensive, it's only half-again what my old phone cost, which makes it a relative bargain. What's not discussed is the price of the devices themselves. For the 'regular' price of a new Bold, I could walk into one of the big-box electronics retailers and walk out with a 15" laptop. Sure, it would run Windows, but it would still be a full-fledged computer. Can anyone tell me honestly that the price of a phone without a multi-year service contract isn't meant to be punitive?

Disjointed Thoughts On Living With a Blackberry:

When I was a kid, we had a Commodore 64 computer. One of my favourite games was called "M.U.L.E.", which I loved for the opening theme. (This is what state-of-the-art looked like twenty-five years ago.) One of the first things I did with my new Bold was copy over the MP3 of it and set it up as a ring tone. I know nothing about this sort of thing, but it was easy.

I use a Mac, and the software that RIM provides is pretty basic. As a consequence, it's much more limited as a business tool, and more importantly, it doesn't sync with iTunes. Apparently there's other software that's better, but I haven't tried it out. It would be nice to have a replacement for my iPod, but the Bold just isn't up to the task even if I was able to get all of my playlists moved over. The controls just aren't as good as the ones on my Nano.

The GPS function is something that I was really looking forward to, and it hasn't been a disappointment. The provided mapping software is decent, and can show my direction and speed. But there's also this thing called Google Maps, and it's a free download. It let me track where I was using satellite imagery when I was out on a roving photo shoot a few weekends ago, something that the car-based units couldn't do. It didn't improve my photos, but it was cool and made for a prettier drive.

I'm currently addicted to playing Freecell, which I downloaded after I grew tired of the game of Klondike that comes pre-installed. The Bold has really nice graphics and a decent processor, so it does better than most computers did a mere fifteen years ago.

The security features of the Bold is one of the things that annoys me. It can be set to require a password after it's been idle, but the longest time-out is an hour. All I want is for it to be unusable if I lose it, so locking after four or six hours would be plenty. Also, if I hit the space bar (or any other letter key) to wake up the phone, it enters it as the start of the password - so I typically need to delete it before actually typing the password, increasing the hassle of process. Security needs to be used to be effective, and it needs to be easy to be used - there's a fine balance that RIM has missed on this one.

Hitting a key when the phone is sleeping (that is, when the screen is off) but not locked simply wakes the phone, so going to an application or using a speed-dial number takes two button presses. That's fine, but it's not how it behaves if the phone is locked, and the two states - LCD off but not password protected, LCD off and password protected - look identical. The fastest way to annoy me is to have a button or a device behave differently in different contexts, especially when there's no way to know which to expect.

Browsing the web on the Bold is pretty good. It can't handle Flash, which is unfortunate but not uncommon. (It does mean that I can't format a review or upload photos to blogger directly from my phone, putting an end to my live-blogging review dreams.) I also find that I prefer 'Column View' for just about every page I visit, but there's no way to set that as a default in the built-in browser. I've often read comments that Opera Mini is a much better browser, but I personally haven't found it easier or faster. That may indicate more about my level of sophistication than either web browser, but so far I don't see any compelling reason to not use the BlackBerry's own browser.

E-mail is what BlackBerries live for. If I send an e-mail with either my POP or gmail accounts, I'll have a copy on my phone as soon as the 'sent' confirmation pops up on my computer. Setting it up to use my different e-mail accounts - six of them - was as easy as setting them up on my computer, although it does take some acrobatics to get rid of the "sent from a blackberry on the parasitic advertising (replace with carrier name) network" that can't be done from the handset. My only other problem was that there has been one period of slow mail delivery, which left me feeling panicky and a little lost.

I've downloaded an applet that lets me automatically check the weather conditions and forecast. This means that I can actually know what to wear before I need to make that decision - which may sound simple, but it's the biggest thing that I've missed since I started waking up to my cell phone instead of a clock radio all those years ago. The big advantage of the cell-phone alarm is that it will go off even during a power failure, and I'm a big fan of reliability in my life-assistance devices.

'Texting' is such a disappointing term when I consider what might have been. I was working for a computer company back when BlackBerries were brand new, and some of the techno-executives made a point of telling each other that they'd 'RIM them later', and 'RIMing' customers was seen as a way for people to increase their sales. I do wonder why that term never caught on.... (and the answer, should you google it, is seriously NSFW.)

"Bold" is a dumb name for an overgrown alphanumeric pager.

When I was doing my pre-purchase research, I found that the bits of the reviews marked "sound quality" typically talked about the speakerphone and music. For use as an actual telephone, the sound from the earpiece is pretty good, and much better than the MotoRazr that I endured for so long. The other person's not quite so lucky, because the microphone is at the bottom-right corner, which usually lines up with the middle of my cheek. It picks up a lot of environmental noise, and I need to talk more loudly, which has always annoyed me when I'm around other people who are using BlackBerries.

The other charming habit that BlackBerry users have is keeping their heads buried in their screens while they walk. There seems to be some fundamental incompatibility between typing and walking in a straight line. Yes, I have one, but no, I don't do this, and no, I'm not going to accept full responsibility for your collision-free journey. Look where you're going, and if you need to check an address or your current GPS position, get out of everyone else's way first.

The Bold is able to use a WiFi connection for data, but not for voice calls. I can't really say that I notice much difference in speed between my home broadband and the mobile 3G for the sites that I visit, which means that the performance bottleneck is in the device, not the network. (The 'EDGE' network is noticeably slower.) It's pretty fast, but larger pages like Conscientious or The Online Photographer do take a while to load. We're still at the point where the fact that the dog can talk is amazing, regardless of what it says: I'm okay with it being a little slow to load a satellite image and mark my exact position on it when I'm standing on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere.

I've never been able to touch-type, but I've gotten so good at the hunt-and-peck method that I'm pretty quick and can actually do it (briefly) without looking at the keyboard. Typing on the Bold is taking a little adjustment - mostly with uppercase and punctuation - but I've been astonished at how completely it has devastated my ability to type on my two Macintosh keyboards.

I recently used the supplied charger for the first time, even though I've now owned the device for two months. It's not that the battery life is that great - I usually charge it every night, but can go for two days without it running out of power - but it uses a USB charger, which I already had plugged in for my old phone. In fact, I have four different USB chargers scattered around the house, including 12V/car plugs, and my iPod chargers with the ability to take a standard or iPod compatible cable. This means that when I travel, my iPod, Hyperdrive storage device, and Blackberry can all use the same charger. I love standardization.

The USB plug on the RIM charger made me laugh, though. It's helpfully labeled "UP" to show which side faces up when it's being plugged in: nice. But there's also an arrow pointing at the connector: dumb. Did they have problems with people stuffing the wire into the USB port? Or does it mean that the charger should only be plugged in vertically, with the blackberry resting on its edge? I have to assume that nobody actually tries to do that, so there's no harm done aside from giving me something to laugh at. It's a win all around.

My data plan allows 500MB per month of downloads, but is unlimited for the first three months. So I've been using the Bold exactly the way I want to, without any concern for my bandwidth. So far I've yet to break 30MB in one billing period. Having it join my home WiFi network does cut down on my metered data usage, but there's still no way I'd be going over my limits. I think I'd need to be a heavy GPS user before I'd get into trouble, because the Bold can't store its own maps and must download them on-the-fly. But even if the amount of data used wasn't an issue, I'd still rather store maps on the handset, because there is a delay when trying to scroll around on the map. (This seems to be a limitation within the hardware, so probably will not change.)

I bought the official BlackBerry silicone skin for my 9000, which comes in a set with one black and one white. I like it better than the (cheaper) generic ones, and it has a better fit. This may be the subject for its own review in the future.

While I may have some quibbles with my BB Bold, overall I'm really impressed. Now I can't imagine having a phone without a keyboard.

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