TTC Token Holder

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: I'm going to take a pill.

The Long Version: For the past eighteen months, I've been using a keychain pill container to carry my TTC tokens. In a comment to that review, someone told me where to go to find the purpose-built token holder. It's a flat piece of slightly flexible plastic with grooves to hold tokens along both sides of it. It uses a friction fit, and can hold five on each side, for a total of ten tokens at its maximum capacity. Bought for $1.50 from the Gateway News at Bloor station, it's possibly the cheapest thing I've ever reviewed.

I've been using the token holder for two weeks, and while I like some aspects of it, I'm going back to my pill container now that this review's been written. On the positive side, I've really liked being able to slide a token out with one hand, and not having to take it out of my jacket pocket to do it. It's faster than the threaded pill container, and is less likely to devolve into a comedy routine if it gets dropped. It's a slim design that's easy to carry, and it isn't going to break anyone's budget.

I really only have two quibbles with the design. One is that it only holds ten tokens, and the two that are in the fifth position are barely gripped by the plastic edges. While they're surprisingly hard to dislodge, it is possible and has happened to me during my trial period. An easy design change - lengthening the gripper edges - would solve the problem, but the economics of needing new tooling means it will probably never happen. As it is, I wouldn't use the handy little loop on the end of it to attach it to my keychain. It can fit in my wallet, which keeps it secure, but it adds a lot of bulk and defeats the convenience of having it accessible. That leaves carrying it loose in a pocket or in my bag du jour, but I have enough challenges keeping track of things already.

My second quibble is that it only holds ten tokens, and they're sold in either batches of ten at the collector booths, or in eights at the vending machines. That puts a crimp in how often and when I can buy tokens; I prefer to stock up rather than waiting until I'm desperate. Since I only take the TTC when I've run out of other options - seven or eight times a week - that hasn't made my commute any easier. My repurposed pill container can carry nineteen tokens comfortably, and will take a twentieth in a pinch, which makes it simple to buy more whenever I have enough cash on hand.

The purpose-designed holder is cheaper than the pill container, and I can see how some people might prefer it, but I don't. Maybe I'll keep mine stashed with a small emergency token supply, or maybe I'll give it away as a prize in a contest. Life is full of options, which is always a good thing.


Bio-Life Automatic Dishwasher Detergent

Concept: 1 out of 5
Execution: 1 out of 5
Yeah, but: I'm a hard case.

The Long Version: Life Brand is the store line for Shopper's Drug Mart / Pharmaprix, and they have a huge range of products. (One of which I've reviewed before.) Most of them are quite good, offering cheaper alternatives to The Leading National Brands, even if they don't have Dave Nichol shaking in his boots. They've recently branched out with a line called 'Bio-Life', selling more 'eco-friendly' products. They're competing with brands like Method, which is also sold by Shopper's, as well as specialty lines from other stores.

My dishwasher is old, and not particularly great. Things need to be rinsed fairly well before they go in, and the myriad plastic lunch containers never dry properly. That might be relevant to my experience with the Bio-Life detergent - I have a hard time imagining that it would have ever made into circulation if the test labs results were as bad as mine. Every piece of hard-to-dry plastic comes out coated with a mottled white film. It smudges with handing; for these photos I've carefully polished half of it off with a paper towel. It doesn't seem to be left behind on things like plates and glasses, but it's hard for me to have much confidence in the detergent, and I resorted to re-rinsing everything by hand.

The detergent itself comes in little pre-measured doses, wrapped in a water-soluble packet. There is a cautionary note on the container that the bag needs to be kept closed and handled with dry hands. I can attest to both of those in my brief time using the product. The little bundles glom together when exposed to even modest humidity, which makes them easier to stack but harder to use. And the one time I picked up a pack with damp fingers - I hadn't seen the warning yet - I discovered that the wrap does indeed dissolve instantly on contact with water. Not the most user-friendly product I've ever seen, to say the least.

I suppose I don't seem that smart when I say that I actually tried four loads of dishes before I gave up on this stuff. For the last attempt I waited until the dishwasher was finished before running the rinse cycle again, just to make sure. No luck. The good news is that other brands of lower-impact detergent have worked in my machine without any issues, so it's not a problem with the idea, just this one particular product. But no matter who makes it, I won't be buying this style of water-soluble packaging again. Not a big deal, as big deals go, but I'm just a little bit older and wiser now.


Comparison of the 7-14 Ultrawides: Olympus v Panasonic

Olympus: 4 out of 5
Pansonic: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: They're both excellent.

The Long Version: I've been using the Olympus 7-14mm f/4.0 for ages; I reviewed it over a year ago, and gave it pretty good marks. I've only gained the Panasonic 7-14mm f/4.0 quite recently - my full review of it is now online here - and for just a few moments I had the chance to compare both of these awesome lenses. I was looking at four different things: sharpness, distortion, flare, and build quality. The Olympus lens was mounted to the E-3, and the Panasonic was attached to a GH1 shooting in the 4:3 ratio. And no, before anyone says that I should test something else or do something differently, I can't do a re-shoot. I don't own both lenses any more.

The first difference between the two lenses is huge: the Olympus is a hefty, imposing lens; the Panasonic puts the micro into Micro Four Thirds. The Olympus is something that really needs to be experienced - it's an awe-inspiring sight. In the hand the lens is absolutely solid and quite heavy, and the build is as good as anything I've ever tried. Even the metal lens cap demands respect: the lens seems destined to produce greatness. The Panasonic is petite by comparison, almost verging on 'cute', with a mostly-plastic construction and smaller lens elements that puts it a full pound lighter than the Olympus. It's an amazing difference, and it's even more incredible to consider that they're both constant f/4.0 zooms feeding the same sensor size.

Even beyond the difference in camera mounts, there's such a massive difference in the physical size and build that they're going to appeal to different audiences. If you want the smallest possible kit for the best wide-angle photography, there's no question that the GH1 (reviewed) and Panasonic 7-14 is the best choice. If you need something that will survive harsh conditions then get an Olympus 7-14 and E-1 or E-3. In fact, this might be the single biggest difference between them, so if size or weatherproofing is most important factor in your choice, skip the rest of this review and just buy the appropriate one.

Both lenses share an essential characteristic - big heads and little arms. Getting that huge field of view takes large, protruding front elements, and there's not much that the built-in hoods can do to shade them. This makes both lenses inherently vulnerable to flare, but the Olympus lens does a better job of suppressing it, and it's less prominent when it happens. It's still hard to miss, but not as bad as it easily could be. The Panasonic lens isn't as good, with its flare being brighter and more prominent in the frame.The Panasonic is on the left, and the Olympus is on the right: flare control is a clear win for the bigger lens.

What surprised me the most in the comparison was a problem with the Panasonic: the front element attracts dust like spam to a gmail account. With both lenses sitting upright, caps off and side-by-side, and the Panny would have specks of dust on the lens while the Oly element remained clean. It's possible that the majestic dome of the Olympus just sheds dirt through the force of its sheer awesomeness, like an ultrawide Henry Winkler, but I've also noticed that my cleaning cloths don't slide very smoothly across the Panasonic. Its coating is 'grabby', with problematic results.

Every little speck of dust, when caught in the wrong light, becomes a source of flare. In all of my time shooting with the Olympus, I'd never noticed this as a problem; with just a week with the Panasonic, it was obvious. With the flare test samples I never wondered which camera I was looking at, while for most other issues I'd have to check the metadata to be sure. Even in these tiny sample photos, dust spots are visible at the edges of the frame.

Optical distortion control has also been a traditional strong point for Olympus, and is one way that it's clearly superior to the newer Nikon 14-24/2.8. With the Micro Four Thirds format distortion is corrected on-the-fly within the camera, and Adobe Camera Raw adjusts the raw files automatically. But while the new m4/3 format has finally made it practical, it's not a new idea. Compact cameras have been doing it for some time now, and it was also part of the original 4/3 standards. With the Olympus E-1 the processing power needed for in-camera 'shading correction' made the camera unusably slow, and the distortion correction needed Olympus's own raw converter, which simply wasn't worth the effort.

As a result of the combined optical and electronic approach, the Panasonic is almost perfect for almost all of its zoom range. The Olympus needs a maximum '3' value in photoshop's Lens Correction filter, although the actual amount will change depending on the focusing distance and focal length. That's still an excellent result, but the Panasonic has the undeniable advantage of youth.

With the Olympus 7-14 review, the only strong optical issue that stood out was a certain amount of corner smearing on the ground when I'd shoot photos from a very low perspective. It's not quite corner softness: imagine a lens traveling through perspective distortion at warp speed, and that's about right. Whatever the actual source of the aberration - I'm absolutely nothing like an optics expert - the Panasonic seems to have less of it. Usually. When it comes to corner softness at more traditional distances, the Panasonic has a slight but slightly more definite edge. (Below, GH1 on the left, E-3 on the right.) That suggests that the amount of software tweaking that's being done to correct lens distortion isn't causing problems elsewhere. When looking at central sharpness, once again the Panasonic wins, but this time it's definitive.

There is a huge caveat with the sharpness comparison, though. The Panasonic camera has a slight resolution advantage, which was fairly easy to equalize for comparison, but the true test for sharpness would have had both lenses on a GH1. All that this comparison really shows is that the Olympus camera and lens wasn't showing as much detail as the Panasonic combination once the images had been processed in Lightroom 2. Panasonic bodies have a reputation for delivering more detail than Olympus cameras, and while this test is far from proving that true, it's also far from being a true test of the optics. If someone ever does this test with an adapter to put the lenses on the same body, believe those results instead of mine. I'm always happy to be wrong.

I'm going to do something that's very unusual for me: pick a winner in a direct comparison. The Panasonic 7-14 is the better lens, or to be more accurate, the GH1+P7-14 mostly beats the E-3+O7-14. Yes, the Panasonic 7-14 gives up the weather sealing and the 'I am a god' feeling that comes with picking up the Olympus lens. Yes, the Olympus E-1 and E-3 are better cameras than the GH1, even if the newer Panasonic produces better photos. The m4/3 kit comes across as a bit of a toy, a hobbyist's amusement, when they're set side-by-side. But the Panny still wins.

It's taken me four days to write this conclusion, and it's not the one I expected to reach. My reasoning behind it is that the Olympus 7-14 is mostly better at things that should be avoided anyway. Weather sealing doesn't include windshield wipers, and worse flare isn't that much worse than regular flare. So while the need to carry a Swiffer for the Panasonic is an annoyance, it's weaker in a situation that all wide-angle photographers already need to be wary of. In exchange, the Panasonic 7-14 is a full pound lighter, possibly sharper, and has zero distortion for everything except the ends of its range. It's also cheaper enough that it'll buy half of a GF1 or Olympus Pen. Naturally, if you're happy and/or heavily invested with Olympus cameras and lenses, their 7-14 remains an exceptional choice.

But there is another nagging little issue: competition. Nikon has the 14-24/2.8 for its full-frame cameras, which snags the high end of the market away from the Olympus. There's also the inconceivably awesome Canon 17mm TS-E., which takes the very high end away from Nikon. Coming up soon will be the Sigma 8-16mm lens, which will give a 12/13mm equivalent lens to the great unwashed hordes of APS-C cameras. Unless it's a real lemon, people who really need 114 degree ultrawide coverage won't have any special reason to buy either Panasonic or Olympus cameras - unless they want the small size that's still only possible with Micro Four Thirds.

Just three years ago there was absolutely nothing that could match the Olympus 7-14mm for any digital camera system. We live in interesting times.

You may also be interested in the thewsreviews' illustrated collection of observations on a wide assortment of lenses: "Quick Thoughts on Lenses for Micro Four Thirds Cameras".


2009 Toyota Prius

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: It just runs and runs and runs...

The Long Version: The recent press notwithstanding, the Toyota Prius is one of the best hybrid automobiles on the road today. This is my review of the 2009 Toyota Prius after 11 months and 18,000 miles.

2009 was the last year that the second generation Prius was manufactured. I got my copy in April 2009 due to the convergence of a number of circumstances; the local economy was pretty bad, which meant that the local Toyota dealership had unsold Prius' sitting on their lot, and the 2010 model had been announced, further depressing sales of existing 2009s. Finally, we'd walked onto the Toyota lot after a less-than-satisfactory experience trying to purchase a Honda 2010 Insight.

The wife and I were in the market to purchase a high-efficiency vehicle for me to use as a commuter car. I drive around 55 miles round trip to work during the week. Before the Prius I was driving a 2003 Kia Sorento. When I bought that car in 2002 gas was going for 88 cents/gallon. That price rose drastically over the years, through the 2004 and 2005 price shocks due to hurricanes, topped by the 2008 price shock due to the speculative bubble in the commodities markets. By mid-2008 gas in Orlando reach $4.14/gallon. It took between 19 and 20 gallons/week to fill the thirsty Sorento, so at gasoline's peak price I was spending $80/week to fill the car, or $320/month. Add to that the cost of gas for my wife's van and my two girl's cars, and I was spending $600/month for gas for the entire family.

We'd been looking at the Prius long before the 2008 gas spike. We'd been reading about the Prius' high gas mileage and excellent quality for years in the pages of Consumer Reports (CR), where CR has consistently rated the Prius as Recommended year in, year out. Before we bought in 2009 we'd gone to look at earlier models, and take them out for a drive. But we'd look at the family finances and come to the conclusion "not yet." But with what we went through from 2004 to 2008, we were more than ready. We just needed the right deal, and that came our way in April 2009.

From a practical standpoint the Prius is big and roomy on the inside. It's more than comfortable for four adults (like myself, my wife riding shotgun and my two adult daughters in the back). With the rear seats folded down it has a lot of rear cargo space, more than enough for two Labs, a week's worth of luggage for the wife and I (Labs don't need much, just their sleeping mats, their retractable leads, and puppy chow), and my Olympus camera gear. It's a great little touring car especially for tooling around Florida.

Gas mileage is great in my Prius, higher than the published 48 mpg highway/45 mpg city/46 mpg combined. With my driving I get 50 or more combined mpg. This value is on dry pavement in reasonable weather. When it's wet (summer rainy season) or if it's very windy (winter dry season) the combined mpg drops down to around 47. But that's still higher than published specs.

What makes it easy to hit higher-than-published mpg values is the center console that came on our model. The center console is a color LCD screen. It performs a number of tasks, such as showing instantaneous and average MPG (Consumption), how the electric and gas motors are operating with the battery (Energy), setting the air conditioning (Climate), picking your radio station (Audio), and showing a live-view of the back of the vehicle when placed in reverse. When not in reverse, the display defaults to Consumption.

If you pay attention to the Consumption display out of the corner of your eye, you start to drive like you play video games; you try to operate the vehicle to get the highest score (mpg) without earning the undying wrath of your fellow drivers. I'm no hypermiler, but I've learned not to bolt off the starting line after a stop, to slowly and evenly come up to speed, to coast whenever possible and as soon as possible, and to drive at or below the speed limit. I drive the speed limit on the side roads and city streets, while I keep the highway speeds at 65 or lower. 65 mph isn't the best highway speed (60 is), but anything over 65 leads to a 45mpg (or lower). All of this helps me hit my target mpg of 50. More than 50 is icing on the cake.

Earlier I wrote that during the gas spike of 2008, when gas was over $4/gallon, I was spending $80/week to fill my Sorento. With gas hovering near $3/gallon right now, I'm spending $80/month to keep the Prius filled, or what it cost to fill the Sorento in 2002. Yes, I've got a monthly car note I need to service, but a goodly chunk of that is being offset by the gas I'm not having to buy.

While most associate speed with noise, the Prius is unusually quiet, even when it's going very fast. Just how fast? Fast enough, quickly enough, quietly enough to land you into trouble if you're not paying attention to the posted speed limit. As a consequence I've developed the automatic habit of using cruise control, even on side roads and long stretches of city streets between stops.

My Prius is red, and statistics show that police love to ticket speeding red autos more than just about any other. I might as well paint signs on mine saying "Catch me, please." Remember, kids, cruise control is the most important feature of the car.

Would I buy another Prius? You bet I would. I've owned many brands over the years, and in spite of the current rash of trouble that has rained down on Toyota over sticking accelerators, I'm here to assure you that I'd rather have the worst of Toyota over many other manufacturer's best. The Prius has proven that it's safe, reliable, and a distinct pleasure to drive. The Prius may not be the cheapest, the biggest, the fastest, or the sexiest to drive, but with the right handling and the right attitude the Prius is the best overall automotive investment you can make right now. And as gas prices in central Florida continue their slow inexorable rise to $3/gallon and higher, my April 2009 investment is making better and better sense every day.

Camera equipment used
Top photo: Olympus E-3, 12-60mm SWD
Second photo: Olympus E-3, Sigma 30mm f/1.4
Third photo: Olympus E-P2, 9-18mm w/MMF-1
Forth photo: Olympus E-3, 12-60mm SWD


Pelican Micro Case

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: They're Peli Case Lite, but that's still pretty good.

The Long Version: Pelican Cases are legendary: waterproof, foam-filled, and indestructible. These aren't quite them.

The 'Micro' cases are a different idea. They're good for holding small items, but are designed for less stringent protection. Although they're not recommended for immersion, they're still called 'water resistant', and that resistance is impressive. I've kept one submerged under eight inches of water - approximately one kitchen-sink deep - for half an hour without any getting in. Pelican does still consider them crush-proof, but they don't include the abundant foam of the non-micro cases.

The Micro cases have a simpler construction than their full-sized siblings, with the waterproof - sorry, water-resistant - seal being part of the rubber liner for the bottom half of the case. Some have a thin lining, others have a thin wavy lining that gives a snugger fit, but not much more protection. The top of the case is lined with foam for the opaque models, but there are also ones with unpadded transparent lids. The idea is that it's easy to see the electronics inside, which is great for cell phones, as well as being an advantage for general organization and stock-keeping. It gives up some of the shock protection, but these cases really aren't intended to survive a bear attack. In exchange you get cases that are better suited for general use.

I typically use my Micro cases for heavy-duty crush protection when I'm carrying something delicate inside a larger bag. The 1060 is the largest Micro size available, and with internal dimensions of about 8" x 4" x 2", it snugly holds my Sony PCM-D50 audio recorder and Dead Kitten windjammer. The 1030 has outlasted the camera it was bought for, but now gets used for general odds-and-ends that I want to keep safe and dry. The variety of small sizes makes these cases great for protecting and carrying things, but even I wouldn't say that it's worth having Micro cases stockpiled around the house 'just in case'. I'll expand my collection if I ever become an avid kayaker; until then it's just nice to know that they're out there if I need one.


Lensbaby 3G (Olympus 4/3 Mount)

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 1 out of 5
Yeah, but: For Sale By Owner - $135, Cash only.

The Long Version: For sale is one Lensbaby 3G in Four-Thirds mount, which will fit all Olympus and Panasonic SLRs. Also included in the sale are all of the aperture disks, from f/2.8 to f/22; with no disk it's a fast f/2.0. I wrote the f/stop numbers on each disk, but new ones have it on them already. The lensbaby aperture changing tool has a magnetic tip and stores the disks under a retro film-canister lid. I'm also including the Heart and Star apertures from the Lensbaby Creative Apertures Kit, which add special effects on bright highlights. The CAK doesn't include a Unicorn aperture, but check eBay to see if anyone has made one.

Some people think the lensbaby is a waste of money, and that they can do the same effect in photoshop. But why waste your time and effort mimicking it when you could own the real deal? Save your creative energy for making new effects. Photos with bold saturation, vignetting, and inverted tone curves look awesome on Flickr and Photosig. It's a perfect diving board for going off the deep end. Not included in the sale is the little 'case' that originally came with the lens, but while the Baby is supposed to be stored in it, it was barely stronger than typical plastic packaging.

A lens that shifts and tilts isn't always a tilt-shift lens. The Lensbaby 3G is focused by squeezing and stretching it, and the 'sharp' portion is moved around the frame by wiggling the lens around. No matter how many people say it on the forums, this is not a tilt-shift lens. It can't change perspective or angle the plane of focus. It doesn't even have a normal plane of focus, it has a focus spot. Know what you're buying ahead of time to avoid disappointment.

The amount of blur is controlled by the aperture, with the smaller disks reducing the edge effects and increasing the depth of field. A film-sized sensor will include more of the edges and has less depth of field, so if you really want the full toy-camera look, you'll need a much more expensive Canon, Nikon, or Sony to make the most of it. The Olympus version for sale has a more moderate effect, which is at f/2.8 for these pictures. It's still not really possible to blend Lensbaby photos into a series shot with a typical lens.

The Lensbaby 3G is the older model that looks like it's wearing a neck brace. You can see it clearly in the photo that I took with my phone. It's most like the current 'Control Freak' model. There's a movable front part for the final focus control when the three braces have locked the bouncy part of the lens. The threads on the braces let the 'sweet spot' be moved around, but I've never quite gotten it to work. It takes a new way of thinking, but it can create some cool effects.

I'm selling my Lensbaby 3G because I've barely used it in the last two years. It's a cool camera toy and can be fun, but it needs a more experimental creative type to really get into it. The 3G is the last one they made before they came up with the idea for the "Composer" model, which is the best one to get for an easier Lensbaby look. Its blur and focus control is better than the 3G, and it's also more robust and easier to carry. Since the Composer is so much better for $270, I'm asking only $165 for this barely-used 3G.

Cash and local sale only.


Joby Gorillatorch

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: I can't wait for the next generation.

The Long Version: As the name suggests, the Joby Gorillatorch is a flashlight that's built onto a lightweight Gorillapod. It's hard not to love that idea, even without knowing that its three little feet are magnetic. It's not the best flashlight I've ever used, with a strong ring in its light at close range, and taking an awkward three AA batteries in a hard-to-open body, but it is the most fun. At its full brightness its LED is quite respectable, and at the lowest setting it has essentially no spill. Like the Gorillapods, it can be wrapped around almost anything and positioned to point almost anywhere. Playing with the Gorillatorch makes me want to take up stop-motion animation, and they even come in different colours.

Each of my camera bags has a flashlight to help out when I'm composing and focusing with a 'live view' LCD, and the Gorillatorch is the one I use when I'm at my home base. It's just a little too bulky to carry with me, which is a pity because it really is a perfect task light. The `Torch is advertised as being able to go anywhere, and to test that out I've kept it stuck to a metal door for over a week. I wouldn't hesitate to hang it off the underside of a car hood, or wrap it around the pipes under the sink to fix that leak. It's not some commando-approved machined metal 'tactical' light, but it's bright, flexible, and reliable.

They've finally invented a viable replacement for a youngest child - it's a flashlight that holds itself.


Panasonic GH1 and 14-140 Lens

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's even more fun than it looks.

The Long Version: It all started with the Olympus E-330. That ugly duckling was the first SLR that could be used, awkwardly, like a cheap point-and-shoot. But even though it was lightly mocked at the time, 'Live View' has since been integrated - more or less - into most SLRs. And for years Panasonic has been supplying these revolutionary sensors to their Four Thirds 'partner' without getting any respect for their own 4/3 cameras, which always came off as poor copies of older Olympus models. But now the format has literally been redefined, and Micro Four Thirds is Panasonic's chance for revenge.

The Pansonic GH1 is the Mark II of the m4/3 world - an obvious feature bump of the first groundbreaking camera that added a movie mode. It still represents the 'high end' of these little cameras, being the only one on the market with a hand grip. Panasonic's GF1 and all Olympus models have fallen for an old-school rangefinder aesthetic, making them perfect for thin lenses but ungainly with anything larger. That's a really promising direction that appeals to a lot of people, but after significant flirting with the smaller form-factor, I picked the GH1. I know myself, and I love having accessories.

panasonic GH1, nikon 60/2.8 AF-D micro

While review sites and manufacturers try to work out an appealing acronym for the new technology, I prefer one that's been used for years. I was reading web musings about SLR-like cameras using electronic viewfinders way back when an eight megapixel sensor was a big deal. With the prescience of the people who pontificate, this new breed of reflex-mirrorless cameras were an established concept long before anyone actually made them. Electronic Viewfinder, Interchangeable Lens - they were called EVIL then, and it's still good enough for me.

While EVIL may not be the most marketable acronym, it's an accurate way to differentiate this new type of viewing system from cameras with optical viewfinders and interchangeable lenses, or OIL for short. Naturally, EVIL and OIL have a lot in common, and seem to be irretrievably linked - Olympus currently insists that it won't be moving its 4/3 cameras away from optical viewing, meaning that it will be splitting its resources to developing and marketing two different platforms. To quote Milton's horrible elderly mother in Cordelia Strube's great novel, "You say that now." It was her stock answer every time someone denied that they would let her fall into neglect and abandonment, and for some reason I can't stop thinking about it now... but I digress.

panasonic GH1, nikon 50/1.8 AF-D

There's two different ways to look at the GH1 - it's the largest micro-4/3 camera, but it's small for an SLR (excuse me, OIL), especially when equivalent lenses are added on. Physically, it's just a little taller than the GF1, but with the larger right-hand grip that makes it look like a Canon Rebel or SX20. With the 14-140 lens attached but not extended, the GH1 has almost exactly the same footprint as an entry-level OIL with an 18-55 lens. One of the cute little pancake lenses on a GH1 will still project beyond its grip and flash, letting it fit in almost the same box as a GF1 or Olympus Pen. The GH1's personality, and how people will approach it, can completely change depending on the lens attached to it. So there you are: it's stark raving sane.

If you're on the fence about an Olympus Pen or Panasonic GF1, try it in a camera store that will let you switch the pancake lens for the 45-200 or another longer zoom. Rack it in and out a couple of times, and the appeal of the GH1's grip becomes apparent. While it's not as sexy as the washboard cameras, the extra leverage is great in the hand. It won't pass for a compact camera, but as soon as anything bigger than a pancake lens goes on, nobody is likely to mistake any micro-4/3 for a happysnap. Of course, if you're unlikely to use a larger lens, then the little cameras are justifiably popular.

The 'prism' hump houses the electronic eye-level finder, which has very high resolution and is a blessing in sunlight. Even though the LCD is very good, I only use it when I don't want a composition that's 5'5" from the ground. That in itself is fairly frequent, and has been enough to make me turn off the auto-sensing switch to activate the EVF when it's brought near an object. Closing the LCD face-in activates the EVF, and opening it turns on the LCD. While it's a hindrance for chimping, it's easier to use a camera that isn't trying to be overly helpful.

panasonic GH1, 14-140 @ 73mm, f/5.8

When I start to look at specifics, not everything is rosy. I did a rare thing, and ventured into the forums on Amazon's camera website, and discovered that I'm not the only one with loose lugs. The attachment points for the shoulder strap wiggle slightly on mine, and apparently some have failed outright. Even accounting for the echo-chamber amplification of web forums, it seems to be a common issue with earlier camera bodies, although newer ones have been fixed. A trip to the spa is needed for a retrofit, so I know mine will go in for service this summer. Not a happy time, to be sure, and if I actually used the shoulder strap to carry the camera it would be a much higher priority.

The strap attachment is also a design failure for a completely different reason. It's exactly the same as on the G1, a metal stud with a metal split-ring triangle to attach the strap to. Apparently nobody influential at Panasonic thought about the self-noise from metal-on-metal links during video recording. Considering that its movie mode is the big step-up feature of the GH1 over the G1, and the cost of its video-optimized 14-140 lens with its continuously-variable aperture, that's a huge little oversight. Fortunately, there are plenty of aftermarket straps that can fix the problem, like the one that I found at a local shoe-repair place, 2 for $3.

I haven't quite come to terms with Panasonic's controls, and there are some odd decisions built into them. I'm not sure why the AF mode selection merits its own dial, while AF points, position, and tracking mode are accessed through a separate button. 'Film Mode', which is irrelevant for raw capture but effective for movies, has its own button, but changing the aspect ratio of the sensor is buried in the 'quick' menu. The quick menu itself is reached by a button that's awkwardly behind the shutter, while the multi-page full menu is accessed easily though the centre button on the four-way controller. Canon got their cameras right years ago, and they reverse these positions.

Another annoyance that I have is with the control dial on the front of the camera. It's very clever, and can be pressed like a button to toggle its function. But cameras, like art, shouldn't depend on being clever to work. It's impossible to know what variable the wheel will be controlling without looking at the camera and thinking about what's in yellow instead of green; even if it's always used for controlling the same thing, it can be bumped in the bag or just in general handling. It also means that the dial needs to be turned with a minimum of pressure, otherwise the function can be switched even while the wheel is turning. I get tired of writing this: the fastest way to annoy me is to make a control behave differently based on conditions that aren't immediately obvious. A simple two-position toggle switch to change the wheel's function - perhaps in place of the quick record button - would be an immense usability improvement.

On the positive side, I love the way the drive-mode selection works. It's a lever around the front-right of the mode dial, and is easy to flip from position to position. Single shot and self-timer are at the two ends, right where they should be, and bracketing is on there as well. Have I mentioned recently that I needed to set the bracketing on a custom function button on my D700? Way to go, Panasonic. And while I'm at it, I like having the Chimp button back near my right thumb, where it should be. The GH1 is a camera that can be used with a single hand when needed, leaving the other free to control the lens or adjust the LCD. Very nice.

panasonic GH1, 14-140 @ 140mm, f/5.8

Micro Four Thirds cameras are being defined by their lenses, and in this case, the 14-140 has a lot to answer for. It's big, heavy, expensive, and doesn't test nearly as well as the 20/1.7 that has seen the GF1 flying off the shelves. There's no getting away from the fact that it's an inherently dark lens that needs its image stabilization just to get out of bed some days. Still, it's smaller and better than any 18-200mm lens, and the m4/3's in-built correction further helps it out. All you APS-C users, just try to imagine a 10x zoom lens with essentially no chromatic aberration or optical distortions. Even without a test bench, I can see that it's a little softer at its full telephoto reach, but that's true of almost every long zoom. On the other hand, take another look at the photo of that nasty-looking pigeon. I got lucky with the distances, but look at how the foreground and background concrete just melt into each other. This is at f/5.8 on a sensor that people irrationally claim has 'too much' depth-of-field. Not too shabby, even though the photo is otherwise worth deleting on sight.

A defining point for the m4/3 lens mount is that it can be made to wear almost anything. Using a Voigtländer F adapter, I've tried the GH1 with just about every current Nikon AF-D lens, as well as every Panasonic G-series lens on the market. (Group write-up to come.) My overall impression with manual focus is that it's good to have the option, but without the camcorder-feature of 'peaking' for focus confirmation, even the magnified live view isn't the most reliable. I've come to use the changing colours of chromatic aberration to tell me if I'm in front or behind my target, because 'in focus' doesn't always mean 'sharp' on a sensor with double the pixel density of a D3x or D300s. Cheap legacy glass isn't going to produce results as good as the modern stuff, even though it's frequently good enough, and gives a huge increase in the m4/3 options.

panasonic GH1, 7-14 @ 14mm, f/5.6, iso1600

The other common-knowledge fault of the 4/3 size sensor, aside from having things in focus, is that they're weak at high sensitivities. This is a case of 'time heals all wounds'. DxO says that it matches or beats the Canon 7D on a per-pixel level, which is not a bad boast to make. It's still not going to win in a toe-to-toe fight with a D700, but for its size it's a brilliant little performer. The tonal range and detail from the GH1 is at least as good as my Olympus E-3, and its raw files can withstand more exposure adjustments. That's a very good thing, since I often find that I want to boost the exposure by as much as 1EV when I'm working with its photos in Lightroom, even though I'm watching the histogram when I shoot. I haven't yet decided if that's because the metering is inherently conservative, or if my D700 has completely removed my ability to evaluate a scene for myself. I have been trying to adjust the jpeg profile ('film mode') to better reflect the actual sensor levels, but without much success. Why, in 2010, are we still saddled with a histogram that displays information based on an arbitrary tone curve and 8-bit clipping levels?

Something very special about the GH1 sensor is that it's only the second camera on the market - its cousin, the LX3, is the other - that has a sensor that can capture different aspect ratios. (Updated: just a few days after this was written, a few more Panasonic P&S cameras have gained this feature.) Four Thirds User has a great page on the subject, but here's the short version: with just those two exceptions, every other camera simply crops down from the same rectangle to produce other shapes. A camera that produces a 4:3 image that's 4032 pixels wide will capture 3:2 or 16:9 images that aren't as tall, but they'll still be 4032 pixels wide. Panny don't play that.

For the GH1, 3:2 images actually gain 128 pixels across - 3.2% - while 16:9 images are 8.8% wider. This conserves more pixels in the narrower formats and preserves the angle of view, so that a 16:9 'panoramic' photo actually includes parts of the scene that are outside of the 4:3 image. For people who are used to shooting with 3:2 ratio OIL cameras, this EVIL machine will still provide 11.4 megapickles in their legacy ratio, and the equivalent focal lengths will be composed the same way. If you're an architectural tourist, the GH1 will give the cathedral-friendly squarer format; if you're hiking for hours before sunrise to capture that vast badlands landscape, you can exchange that huge rectangle of blank sky for a wider print.

Coupled with the 7-14mm lens, the variable aspect sensor might make the GH1 the best practical wide-angle camera of the last decade. It lets the GH1 blend seamlessly with whatever ratio your project needs, whether producing work for the web, print, or are shooting stills that will be incorporated into a video or movie. The only part that has stumped me is the 1:1 aspect ratio option. I know some photographers see this as a great feature with their E-P2's, and I can respect that. I've used it to shoot photos for upcoming reviews, and it was more convenient than cropping. But that's the source of my confusion - all the GH1 does is crop the image, and it actually captures less height than the 4:3 aspect ratio. Okay, so it's only eight pixels shorter, but it's still weird.

panasonic GH1, 20mm f/1.7

For personal and professional reasons, I read a lot of camera reviews. (Okay, I read the conclusions page of a lot of camera reviews. Who has that kind of time?) When I first started toying with the idea of a micro four thirds camera for myself, I was blown away by the raves that the Panasonic GF1 was getting. There are a lot of good cameras out there, and there are plenty that produce better images, but the GF1 was being credited with making the reviewers enjoy photography again, even to the point where they've bought their own after sending their free sample back. (Here at thewsreviews.com, we buy the product and then review it.) The Olympus E-P2 is also generating a huge amount of enthusiasm, and people who would never have considered getting a Four Thirds OIL are picking up their EVIL cameras. Manufacturers who once me-too'ed their way into the market with legacy lens mounts are hurrying to create entirely new systems based on the EVIL idea. While it's still too early to distinguish a revolt from a revolution, there's no question that the combination of small size, great sensors, and interchangeable lenses has started a fire.

So with the distinct impression that the GF1 is a great camera and riding the wave of the future, I didn't buy one. Call me stubborn.

For people who are just looking for a compact package with great image quality, the smaller cameras are perfect. I knew from the beginning that I'd be happier with a 'system' camera and additional lenses. The Panasonic GH1 combines the best of the GF1's autofocus and high-resolution LCD with the better eye-level viewfinder of the E-P2, and adds a lot of great features of its own. The tradeoff is a larger size, but it's not really any bigger than the other cameras with their optional viewfinders and the same lenses. It's more expensive than the stock Pens or GF1, but adding viewfinders or equivalent lenses quickly equalizes that as well. The one thing that the GH1 won't ever have is the sex appeal of the smaller cameras, but it's finally time for me to embrace getting older.

I like to have different tasks for all of my different cameras. I have far too many of them, so if a camera doesn't offer something compelling, then it won't get used. That was the situation that my E-3 found itself in last year: my D700 gives better image quality, metering, and autofocus, while my E-1 is tougher and quieter. It hung on because of my superb Olympus SHG lenses, but even they weren't getting much use. They were just too big and too valuable for casual carry-anywhere photography.

Which brings me to my GH1. It's a camera that's perfect for carrying, and creates great images. I can slip an entire kit in my little Billingham bag without it getting a second glance, and I rarely wish that I was carrying anything else. While I can't boast that I ran out and bought my own Panasonic after reviewing it, I did give up my Olympus 35-100 to pay for the GH1, and I've replaced my Olympus 7-14 with its Panasonic equivalent. That was a huge decision, but as Miss Piggy once said, 'never eat more than you can lift'. The GH1 is a very good little camera, it's different, and it really does make photography fun again.

You may also be interested in the thewsreviews' illustrated collection of observations on a wide assortment of lenses: "Quick Thoughts on Lenses for Micro Four Thirds Cameras".


Meguiar's Headlight Restoration Kit

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: You Must Have A Variable-Speed Drill

The Long Version: We own a 2002 Honda Civic, and the plastic headlight covers were already faded and yellowing when we bought it in '05. Cars parked outdoors like ours suffer the most, and I imagine that the brutal Texas summers we enjoy don't help matters.
But the days of sealed beam headlights made of glass are just about over, with small halogen lighting elements, plastic reflectors, and plastic covers being the norm.

After a vehicle swap last year my girlfriend's father (who lost his tact shortly before retirement) told us: "Your headlights suck! Can't see shxt at night."
We agreed, and began a casual search for a solution.

Option 1 was new covers from Honda but this was quickly rejected on the basis of our aversion to going without electricity or food for a month.
Option 2, naturally, was used parts. However, I soon realized that a donor car has been sitting outside in the same bad weather as ours for just as long. No such thing as indoor pick-and-pull junkyards.
Option 3 was spotted while driving around town: A sign on a small business offering headlight restoration. We thought we had a winner, but again the price was much too high. But at least now we knew that it was possible to fix our old and faded headlight covers, because if they can do it, so can we.

You'll note that I still hadn't used the internet effectively, but as I mentioned above this was a casual search for a cheap solution, and I really didn't know what I was looking for.

Then one Sunday afternoon I was going through the stack of newspaper adverts and while scanning one from O'Reilly's (AutoZone/PepBoys-type autoparts place) I spotted a sale price on the product under discussion here.
A quick internet search yielded positive reviews, and a few weeks later we saw the same kit at WalMart for $20 and tossed it in our cart.
We were both very excited about this purchase and couldn't wait to get home and try it!

I recommend masking off your paint with much wider tape, unless you're careful and skilled like me.


You tightly chuck the pad into your variable-speed drill (mine is a 24volt Black & Decker), apply some of the PlastX compound to the pad, and try your best to keep it under control and at a nice medium speed as you polish away the road and weather damage on a small area of a few square inches. Repeat as you work your way over the entire surface, then start going over larger areas to blend and finish the job.
I spent less than 15 minutes on each headlight after noticing that there was only minor refinement with each extra application, but it looked like you could keep going as long as you felt necessary for desired results.

My original idea was to do only one headlight and take photos of the resulting difference in light output using my camera in manual mode, in an attempt to quantify how many stops of light were being lost "before".
Well, that plan gave way to finishing the job while there was still daylight to work under and getting everything cleaned-up before dinner.

Therefore, what follows is subjective and without hard data, but informed by my experience as a photographer and rock band lighting tech:

Holy Crap!
I had NO idea we were losing so much light, but I should have.
A little embarrassing, actually.

The difference after dark was instantly shocking as I activated the headlights against our garage door, and our amazement continued once I backed into the street.
Distant murk was now lit up like it was supposed to be.
My semi-educated guess would be that we could see three times as far.

Once you have the drill-mounted pad, bottles of the PlastX compound are around $5.00US, so an enterprising young man might go into business for himself.

It wasn't all that difficult for me to give this product a pair of "4" ratings.
Saved me a LOT of money, worked as advertised, and was quick and easy.
This stuff also works on helmet visors and motorcycle windscreens, boat windows, and even plastic aquariums.

Highly recommended!

Updated March 31:

I just finished doing another car's headlights, and this time it was after dark so I was able to quantify before and after using my camera's exposure meter and Photoshop.

This is before treatment:

And this is after:

For this test I placed a white foamcore board 4 feet away from the headlight and put my camera on a tripod against the bumper.
In manual mode I set exposure for 0EV for the "before" photo, then left it there for "after", at which point my meter read +1 2/3EV.
(Both exposures are 1/50 sec at F5.6 and iso100).
This equals approximately 3 and 1/3rd times the light, which is a significant improvement.

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