Samsung NX11 and 18-55II Lens (First Impressions)

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: This has a high chance of RTFM errors.

The Long Version: The Samsung NX11 is not exactly cutting edge anymore, but I was able to spend a little time with one recently. It came with the 18-55 II lens, and I have to admit that it's my first time working with a standard zoom with that particular pair of focal lengths. What can I say? I lead a sheltered life.

My first impression of the NX11 is that it's a nicely built little camera, with a solid and nicely sculpted hand grip. The pedestal for the shutter button looks awkward but feels perfect, and the right-side strap lug is slightly recessed into the body. Cameras from makers with dozens of designs haven't exhibited that level of thoughtfulness. There's a distinct camera-ness to the NX11 – something that I don't see in a lot of the mirrorless cameras from other makers whose names start with an "S" – that I find reassuring in such an untested brand.

The NX11 keeps the SLR-esque design that sets it apart from the Panasonic GF series, Olympus Pens, Sony NEX, Pentax Q, or Nikon 1's. It has a flash-equipped fairing for its EVF that also houses a hot shoe, which is TTL-compatible with Samsung's own flash system. It uses an eye-sensor to toggle between the EVF and LCD, but I had to learn not to look through the top of my glasses to be able to trigger it. Otherwise switching between the LCD and EVF needs a trip to the menu. I'm not sure why they weren't able to assign this function to one of the sixteen buttons on the outside of the camera – the one marked "DISP" would have been my pick – or add another one specifically for the purpose, but I suppose they have their reasons. Not having enough input from actual photographers or sufficient design testing is a reason, isn't it?

The overall size of the camera is about the same as the Panasonic GH1 that I own, and without a measuring tape or an internet flame war to guide me, I'd say that the sensors look pretty close as well. The Samsung is a 14.6 megapixel camera – it's quite proud of that – while the GH1 has twelve pickles. The result is a pair of sensors that are pretty much equivalent, although the generational difference does give an advantage to the Samsung at high-iso settings. It's not a huge difference, but I'd be a little happier using the NX11 at iso3200 than I would with the older Panasonic.

I've been known to take photos in parking garages even when I'm not trying out a loaner camera, so it was a natural place to take the Samsung. The NX11 goes up to iso3200, and does it fairly well. The photos above are heavily cropped (but still not 100%), one from a JPG straight out of the camera, and the other from the raw file that has had auto-levels and auto-WB in Lightroom. I don't find the noise in the raw photo all that objectionable, and vastly prefer it to the noise reduction that the camera applies. This can be minimized in the camera set-up, but the best choice is just to shoot raw when image quality is the priority.

Focusing in the dark is a slightly different matter. Comparing the NX11 and GH1 at a 28mm-e, the Samsung at f/3.5 and the Panasonic at f/4 widest apertures, the GH1 could lock focus in scenes where the NX11 struggled or failed completely. This takes a pretty low light level, on the order of a 60-watt bulb on the far side of the living room, but the AF targets had plenty of contrast. For fun I tried my c.1999 Nikon F100 with an ancient 35-70/2.8 lens, and it had no problem at all in conditions that sent both mirrorless cameras running away screaming. Even my 2003 Olympus E-1 with its 50mm f/2 macro lens did a little better than the mirrorless cameras, but took much longer to do it.

The NX11 has (optional) distortion correction for its jpeg files, which is effective if something of an under-achiever. Normally I'm quite picky about this, but people who are using a good-enough camera for jpegs will be well served by it. For comparison I tried the 18-55 lens on the Sony NEX-5, and the distortion changes visible on its LCD when zooming in and out on a fluorescent light fixture looked like a seagull flapping its wings.

For those who want to work harder at post-processing, Lightroom/ACR includes profiles for the 18-55II lens which remove more of the distortion. For this class of camera and lens, 'fix it in post' isn't an unreasonable solution. I also have to admit that the 18-55 lens performs better than I expected it to. It's nicely balanced and suits the camera, and while the whole package isn't exactly petite, it's smaller-enough that I would prefer it to a Rebel or similarly-sized camera.

Product photography is where I usually put cameras through their paces, and I learned a few things about the NX11 when I decided to do a Kleen Kanteen family portrait. That's where I fell over the NX11's exposure control. Being able to override the camera meter is essential for creative control, and a huge advantage for LCD/EVF cameras is that they can show exactly what the photo will look like. Not so much with the Samsung. Changing the exposure compensation doesn't alter the brightness of the pre-capture display, which is bad but tolerable, but the live histogram also doesn't change as the exposure compensation is adjusted. (UPDATED 4 oct: I've since been able to work with another NX11, and it performed properly, with both the display brightness and histogram responding to the exposure control. I'm not sure what the difference between the two was, but it's good to know that there's a fix.)

Colour reproduction and general image quality are quite good with the NX11. I didn't have enough time to spend with the camera to reach any solid conclusions, and there are much better sources to draw those from anyway, but I was satisfied with what the little Samsung could do. I would happily use it in the same way that I use my GH1 if I were to buy the NX11, which I won't, if Samsung had the same range of lenses available for it, which they don't. It's good at being the camera that it is, and that all I can really ask of it.

And penultimately, I do have to extend a note of compassion to Samsung. There's a tremendous shortage of letters and numbers for camera companies to choose from when naming products, especially when they want to convey the aura of modernity wrapped in fashionable shades of plastic. The letters "i", as in "iFunction," and "d", like in "DRIM processor" are particularly in demand. So I suppose it's inevitable that Sony and Samsung have picked very similar names for their new systems, names that just happen to sound reminiscent of the word "next". NeXT, of course, was the company that took over Apple Computer and installed Steve Jobs as its CEO, making it synonymous with revolutionary consumer electronics.

Naming snark aside, I have no doubt that someone who is committed to an NX11 can learn its quirks and navigate its limitations, which is always needed with any camera. I personally don't find it compelling, but that's also true for the EOS system and it appears to be doing quite well without me. As a former owner of an uncommon camera format, I wouldn't endorse buying into the NX system in the hope that it will eventually add the things that will make it right. If it's right for right now, then that's great and it will serve its owner well. There's no such thing as a universal camera, and there's no requirement to only own one at a time.

With my usual exceptional timing, the NX11 is discontinued and about to be replaced by the NX200 and (surely) another camera that shares the NX11's form factor. When spending time with it I wasn't looking at it as a buy/don't buy decision, but rather trying to learn a bit about the camera and system before I meet the NX200 and its siblings. Overall I like what I've seen, but there are a few issues that Samsung needs to improve before the camera is ready to be taken completely seriously. Hopefully the system will continue to grow and mature, and eventually break double-digits for the lens lineup. I can't see them rivalling the two big brands that make up the majority of the mirrorless camera market, but then people used to say that about Olympus SLRs as well.

Time will tell. Until then, there's no point in worrying or arguing about it. The NX11 is a decent machine and not a bad deal while it lasts.

The camera used for this review is an evaluation sample that I was able to borrow for a week; I had access to it because my day job has me standing around in a camera store. Samsung has no idea that I exist, and probably wouldn't care if they did.

last updated 4 oct 2011


Spyderco CF Caly3

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's a review with a surprise ending.

The Long Version: Sometimes I'll like something so much that I'll go out and buy something different. It sounds odd, but that's what happened when I started thinking about my Spyderco Native and the potential that it would have with a plain edge. I love the Native's blade shape, but life's too short (and funds are too limited) to keep re-buying the same things. So instead I picked up an unserrated Spyderco Caly3.

The Japan-made Caly3, née Calypso, has a cutting edge that's almost exactly the same as the Native. The profile of the back of the blade is slightly different, but where the two completely depart company is the handle/blade junction and the choil. The Native is like a typical knife, with the top of the blade aligned with the top of the handle, while the Caly is like a typical Spyderco knife with a pronounced curve that houses its opening hole. That combines with a modest choil to make a knife that's great to hold by the handle but not very easy to hold by the blade.

Spyderco has been doing some interesting things since I bought my first-generation Native, and the Caly3 showcases a lot of different materials. The liner within the handle is steel that has been drilled out for lightness combined with a carbon-fiber shell, melding the technologies that went into racing bicycles in the `70's and today. The blade is the ridiculously high-carbon ZDP189 steel that's laminated between two softer 420J2 steel layers, simultaneously optimizing it for the contradictory goals of high sharpness and low maintenance. The result is a visible and tactile line between the materials, which isn't the prettiest, but it's worth it.

The Caly 3 is an incredibly sharp knife, in fact simply carrying a photograph of it is enough to accomplish many common cutting tasks. The blade has a flat grind – a continuous taper toward the sharpened egde, like a kitchen knife – which makes for an excellent cutting blade. Remember that once the sharpened edge is through the material, the rest of the knife just becomes a wedge, and sturdy blades with a steep grind can be like trying to cut with a doorstopper.

If carrying a knife with the intention of hurting someone seems like a solution instead of a problem, then you have some fundamental life-choice issues that a weapon isn't going to resolve.

The compromise with a thin flat-ground blade is that a narrow wedge is weaker than a steeper one, but with modern steels and light-duty knives this seems to be less of an issue. After a month of use the tip on my ZDP189 Calypso is still as perfectly pointed as it was when it was brand new. I still wouldn't suggest using the Caly to split firewood, but that's a bad idea for hunting knives too.

The cutting power of the laminated steel Caly is awesome; I've never used anything like it. I recently needed to cut through some hard plastic, and my first thought was to try to find metal shears. Realizing that I don't own any, my next move was to grab the Calypso, and it had no problem with the job. None of my other knives have the edge sharpness or the low-profile blade that made the cuts so easy. I do still prefer the overall feel and handle design of the Native, so my Caly isn't about to retire it completely, but it's great to have options to suit my different moods.

The Caly 3 is my first encounter with Spyderco's wire pocket clip; I've heard it called a "paper clip" and now can't think of it any other way. It's carries the knife much lower than the sheet-metal design, and I've had to re-learn how to take the knife out of my pocket. With the Native, and all of my other knives, I can grasp the end between my thumb and the first knuckle of my index finger, with the Caly I need to loop my finger down around the bottom of the wire clip and use it to pull the knife out. The new clip style holds the knife very securely, just like the old one did.

The opening action with the Caly isn't the smoothest, partly because of its metal-on-metal construction and partly because of the locking mechanism. The blade also scratches very easily, so while it starts off as a knife with selective aesthetics, it also doesn't really improve with age. Neither is an issue for a working tool; they make the knife slightly less pleasant to play with, but don't diminish its usability or cutting performance.

But after buying and reviewing two broadly similar knives, I'm not really in a position to strongly recommend either one over the other. The classic Native and the latest Caly models are both great, but it gets even better. Rumour has it that Spyderco is making a new model of the Native that updates its blade to the laminated steel and flat grind of the Caly3. The blade-handle junction of the Caly is best for people who primarily hold the knife by the handle, while the Native is better for people who like to choke up and hold it by the blade for fine work. Beyond that distinction it's hard to go wrong with either one – there just aren't any bad choices. Personally, I'm hoping that it will be a couple of years before I buy another knife, but you never know.

last updated 24 sep 2011


Kleen Kanteen 40oz Wide-Mouth Bottle

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: I'm still not such a fan of the spelling.

The Long Version: Metal water bottles are nothing new, and Kleen Kanteen has been in the business for a while. At last count my household owns eight of them, and the standard and insulated designs have already been the subjects of reviews. So I'll make this quick.

The latest addition to my Kleen Kanteen collection is the 40oz Wide Mouth bottle. Its signature design is spacious enough to let it fit ice-cubes through sideways, which is a great benefit, but one that's tempered by having a thin lip that's not quite as nice to drink from as the rolled top of the standard design. It's also worth noting that despite the prominent 40oz markings – 1182ml – the actual capacity that I measured is almost 200ml more than that.

As always, the steel doesn't change the taste of the water, and it's very nicely made. While all big bottles have the same diameter, I find the 40oz size is right at the limit of what I can comfortably hold with my average-sized hands.

This bottle recently had a misadventure. When I was last at the Leslie Street Spit I knocked the half-full Kanteen over, and it fell almost four feet onto broken concrete slabs and then skittered across a couple of fairly ugly rocks. While this treatment would probably have chipped the paint on one of their coloured bottles, the plain steel made it through with just a small dent and a couple of scratches. The plastic cap also took a gouge, but it's so minor that it barely serves to distinguish it from my other wide-mouth lid. I wouldn't endorse mistreating one, but I have no doubt that it can take a fair bit of abuse.

Just don't put it in the freezer and forget about it.

last updated 21 sep 2011


Leslie Street Spit (Tommy Thompson Park)

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: Far away, conveniently located.

The Long Version: The Leslie Street Spit, occasionally known by its formal name of Tommy Thompson Park, is an interesting piece of work. Built out of construction debris sixty years ago to allow shipping from the St Lawrence Seaway to use the Outer Harbour, it was never really needed and nothing much happened with it for decades. As it tends to do, nature took its course and eventually the five-kilometer, 1200-acre peninsula was turned over to TRCA, the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority. That's the body that manages the GTA's wilder spaces, including Rouge Valley, while it's Toronto Parks that oversees the spots with clipped grass and swing sets.

The Leslie Street Spit is hardly a typical park. Built as an infill project, it remains an active dumping site for construction waste during the week. On the weekends its wide potholed road is taken over by joggers, cyclists, and rollerbladers. One conspicuous absence is the casual strollers and dog-walkers: because it's a wildlife sanctuary pets are prohibited, and the spit is a long way from any residential areas. Although civilization is slowly encroaching on the industrial portlands, the TTC doesn't quite reach it and it's not the prettiest spot.

What the Spit does offer is car-free roads and flat ground, making it ideal for wheeled recreation, as well as walking paths closer to the shore. It has some excellent and unusual views of the downtown skyline, and it's a phenomenal place for birds. The wooded landward side has one of the largest colonies of ring-billed gulls in the world. One of the items on my to-do list is to take my audio recorder down there during the spring, because the sound can be quite unbelievable. It's rare to go there and not see at least one or two groups of sunhat-wearing binocular-equipped ornithologists.

The shoreline facing the lake has mostly seasonal vegetation, so it's not somewhere to go during the spring thaw. When the ground is still frozen, or when the weather's been dry and the vegetation has had a chance to become established, it's a fascinating landscape of brick beaches and debris. Concrete poles and tangles of rebar, truckloads of tile, ornamental pillars broken into sections – a few years ago I spotted a place where several toilets were emerging from the layer of earthen fill. I wouldn't describe this as a particularly safe place to fool around, as the rubble is often loose underfoot and there's little chance of prompt assistance should something go wrong. Break an ankle here and it's a very long walk back to the city; the elevation of the land means that the waterline is invisible from the construction road.

The Spit is a fascinating place. It's as far away from downtown Toronto as it's possible to be without actually needing to go very far from the city. It's where I went for a practice run before my trip to Coney Island last march; its winds were a good match for those coming off the Atlantic. I've been taking landscape photos there for years, and recently spent a couple of happy days photographing individual bricks. I've been making it my turn-around point for bike rides for over a decade, and hope to continue it for at least a couple more. The mix of isolation, protection, and neglect has made it a spot unlike any other in Toronto, and hopefully that won't change as the city reaches out to its waterfront.

last updated 18 sep 2011


Samsung WB210 Touch-Screen Camera

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's still a compact camera.

The Long Version: The Samsung WB210 is a remarkable camera, and probably one of the ones that will influence the market long after it's gone. While phones with cameras have been decimating sales of simple point-and-shoot cameras for a couple of years, the WB210 is the first one to jump the other direction and take the user interface from a phone. That also makes it the first one with a touch-screen to rethink the list-and-category structure of the typical camera's control menu and replace it with an icon-based system. Looking most like the "Apps" on a smart-phone, Samsung will tell you that it's the UI from their Galaxy line of Android devices, although some might dispute the fundamental origin.

The result is a touch-screen camera that's fundamentally different from the rest of the pack, and more usable than most. While there are still some interface issues that need to be thought through more carefully, that's also true of cameras that have had generations to mature. For a first effort I suppose I shouldn't complain too much, so I won't.

The biggest benefit of the icon-based design is that the little boxes can be moved around. There are three screens of them, accessed by swiping from side to side, and they can be dragged into any order or grouping to best suit the owner. Since most people will only use a fraction of what the camera can do, but will have a few features that they frequently use, this is a massive improvement over anything else that I've seen.

Also remarkable is the deproliferation of scene modes. Some, like Night Shot, give direct control over the relevant options – slow-sync flash, wide or narrow aperture, timer – instead of the silliness of having separate modes for night landscapes, night portraits, or 'starry sky' photos. Others, such as the Smart Filter or surprisingly entertaining Magic Frame will provide a preview of the options along the bottom of the screen, and it's easy to swipe through the different choices. The mass-foolishness of the scene modes on my TS3 is one of my lingering frustrations with that camera, so the WB210 is a welcome relief.

After a couple of hours with the Samsung I learned to put the important "mode" icons on the right side instead of the top row, which makes it much easier to use the camera with only one hand. Naturally, the camera's shooting controls and menus are all on the left side of the touch screen. This is where I have to remind myself that I wasn't going to complain too much about the little design issues that hamper usability, and to be honest working with two hands isn't that difficult – even though it's not typically necessary with the more convoluted non-touchscreen compact cameras. You win some, you lose some.

The playback screen also shows a bit of the inconsistency that usually afflicts touch-screen cameras. The photos can be swiped through from one to the next, but the Android-approved pinch-zoom trick doesn't work. Instead, the usual method of using the zoom toggle will magnify the images or back out into a thumbnail view. Those thumbnails can be brought up full-screen by tapping them, which is the same result as using the zoom toggle, but further taps won't continue to magnify them. Instead, tapping most of the photo will show/hide the control icons, as it does in capture mode, while tapping either side will go to the next/previous photo in the sequence. When the photo is magnified the control icons are always shown, and tapping the edges of the screen is interpreted as a feeble attempt at a swipe, which in this mode will only scroll around the image.

Suffice to say that there are some aspects of the WB210's interface that could still be cleaned up and made more elegant. It would also be nice to be able to go into playback mode without needing to wait for the flash to recharge, but that might be asking too much.

Changing the shooting modes is done by pressing the stealthy "home" button on the camera's lower-right corner instead of the colourful icon on the top-left of the screen. That little bit of eye-candy is really hard to ignore, and even after days with the camera I'd still tap it by mistake – the UI designer's mistake, not mine –  which simply brings up a short description of the current mode. That was never what I wanted it to do.

Another big part of the learning curve was to remember which icons are touchable and which aren't. The ones on the left side are good, with the already-mentioned exception of the prominent multi-coloured "mode" icon at the top, which really looks like it should do something useful but doesn't. Instead the active icons are indicated by the subtle translucent-black button-shape around them. The icons on the right are just for information, and touching them does nothing – except that tapping any non-button part of the screen clears everything off of the display, which is nice. Tap again to bring them back.

I really missed having easy access to exposure compensation, as it's buried under the 'menu' icon on the bottom left of the screen. I find working with touch screens to be somewhat awkward – I've never owned a smartphone with one – and would prefer to keep a dedicated button for important controls. An EV toggle that could be tapped up or down would be great; while that's something I'd love to see on most compact cameras, the WB210's touch-screen makes it particularly difficult to adjust.

There are a couple of other things to know about the WB210. One is that it takes micro-SD cards, which seems foolish for such a big camera. Fortunately I had one in my phone that I could use to evaluate the camera before I had to give it back. Casio cameras also uses those little tiny cards, and I'm really not sure why. It took years of ostracization before Sony and Olympus finally standardized on SD cards, so having to face yet another oddball format just leaves me feeling exasperated.

The other quirk is that the battery charges while it's inside the camera, using the cable that connects from USB to the camera's HDMI port. While the camera does include an adapter, it can be charged from any USB source, including the computer that it transfers its photos to. Since there's only the one cable, that's the most convenient option, but make sure that the computer will still supply power when it's shut down. Samsung isn't the only one who does this, but it's just one more way that this camera declares that it's for casual rather than extended use.

Since there's no separate charger, there's really no reason to bother buying a second battery. Just plug the camera in whenever possible and hope it has enough power to last as long as it needs to. Did I mention that the WB210 takes its interface from a smartphone?

WB210 extreme telephoto, 288mm-e

I did something foolish for this review. Because I didn't get the chance to live with the loaner Samsung camera for an extended period of time, I actually took matched photos to see how its image quality compares to a completely different contemporary point-and-shoot. It's an unscientific comparison, of course, and after a few tries I completely gave up. Comparing compact cameras for image quality feels like choosing between a mason's or carpenter's hammer to hit my hand with. Either one sucks; what's important is the features. Chisel or claw, long zoom or waterproof: pick the right one based on the obvious differences and then just learn how to swing it. Sure, I'll skip getting hit by the big waffle-headed framing hammer if I have a choice, but the idea of picking a "best" is just wrong thinking.

(For those who care more than I do, I've put some comparisons online: crops from the TS3/WB210 as shot, TS3/WB210 with auto tone and white balance; TS3/WB210/GH1 crops plus the full scene.)

WB210 at its 21mm-e special setting

Since I've already digressed into the idea that reviewing compact cameras is like hitting myself with hammers, this seems like a good time to go into more depth about the WB210's ultra-wide 21mm lens setting. It isn't part of the normal zoom range, and turns the camera into a fixed-focal-length machine with surprisingly little geometric distortion. This is a supremely cool idea, and would be the big reason why I'd buy one of these cameras for myself. The problem is that the mode has essentially no controls available. Things that are simple – or at least possible – in "program" mode just aren't permitted. Multi-area auto focus, fill-flash, exposure compensation, viewfinder grid overlay: all forbidden. The wide setting only allows the centre focus point and as-metered photos, with the added bonus of having the flash revert to its default "auto" setting every time the Super Wide Shot mode is selected. The flash actually does a pretty good job, but when I've turned it off, I expect it to stay that way.

It's also worth noting that, like almost all cameras on the market, selecting different aspect ratios does nothing but crop the image in-camera. So while an image that fills the WB210's abnormally wide screen may feel more satisfying, the stockier 4:3 image is actually 'wider' with a larger diagonal field of view.

The WB210 isn't exactly a macro monster; Canon compacts are still the best I've seen for that. But it's not bad, either, and handles itself fairly well. (See larger images straight from the WB210 and TS3.) As always it pays to learn the tricks of the camera: while the "close-up shot" mode only allows the centre focus point to work, the automatic "easy shot" has multi-area focus and will automatically switch into macro mode for close-ups. Handy. In fact, the Easy Shot mode is surprisingly useful, and even has the ability to recognize and automatically increase the exposure for scenes with a lot of white in them. It will also spot scenes with other dominant colours – blue sky, green grass – and react accordingly. Well, at least it will react, I can't swear that it's decisions are appropriate. There's only so much I can learn in a few days.

I have to say that I was impressed with the metering from the WB210. The photo is of a white sign on a concrete wall with the top and bottom in mid-day shadow, and I took it with no exposure compensation in the camera's Program mode. No tiny digital sensor is going to capture that dynamic range, and the whole point was to abuse the poor little Samsung. The sunlit concrete is essentially a mid-tone, and I fully expected the large shadow areas to make the camera overexpose and wipe out the sign. The WB210 didn't fall for my trap, sensibly dropping the shadow tones and preserving a comfortable little smidgen of room on the right side of the histogram. Impressive, especially for a $250 camera that spends so much of its energy on a nifty long lens and a touch screen with an innovative UI.

While Lightroom shows that just a bit of the blacks are actually clipped, it's not worth being too optimistic about recovering any of that shadowed area. It's still a jpeg from a compact camera, and it didn't react well to my attempts to persuade it to behave differently.

The lens on the WB210 is remarkable for its span but not quite as impressive in the specifics. Sharpness is decent across the zoom range, including the telephoto end – not "tack sharp", of course, but sharp enough for a hammer. My complaint is that it shows moderate to serious pincushion distortion at pretty much every focal length. This might not matter for a lot of people, but I really do take photos of brick walls for fun. The "exit" photo is taken at about a 50mm equivalent (9mm actual), which should be fairly well behaved, but isn't. While geometric distortion is a something that many lenses really suffer from, even when they're officially high-end – the Samsung EX1, to keep it in the family, or the Canon G-series cameras as well as their "L"-series standard zooms – I was disappointed to see that there's no part of the WB210's zoom range that I could use for photos that depend on accurate geometry.

But the fact is that I'm not the WB210's intended owner; it's a do-everything travel zoom that's quite happy just being the family snapshot machine. The interface makes it particularly suited to people who don't otherwise like compact cameras, find them too fussy and complicated, or think that they're generally incomprehensible. Granted, all of those also apply to me, but some opinions about point-and-shoot cameras transcend experience levels in exactly the way that expectations don't.

To try the Samsung in its natural environment, I took it for a field trip and put it through its paces at a kids' soccer tournament. It did okay, with reasonable auto-focus and shutter lag, but capturing moments that included a soccer ball was more a matter of luck than skill. Spotting my step-niece-in-law on the LCD wasn't too difficult, even in strong sun, but the sad reality is that any long-zoom camera without an eye-level viewfinder is difficult to aim. For comparison I also had my old Panasonic FZ18 out for the day, and while its autofocus lagged behind the Samsung, its design is still an advantage if its larger size is an option.

There are some features of the WB210 that I really like. The range of the lens is great, and the single-focal-length setting is decent enough that I'm almost willing to forgive the fact that the digital zoom can't be disabled when in the "Program" mode. The whole category of compact cameras with long zoom ranges is a great idea, and the WB210 combines a modest price and decent performance with a few really neat tricks.The interface is an improvement over the standard compact camera, and an excellent rethinking of the typical design. Granted, I have a fairly dim view of how most compact cameras work, and the WB210 could really use a couple of extra buttons, but it's still a solid effort. While I can't say that I'll buy one, it does some things that I really wish my TS3 could do.

If I was coming from a cell phone or a short-zoom compact I'd probably be very impressed by the WB210, especially if I was already familiar with an iPhone or its Samsung equivalent, the Galaxy S II. I've waited a long time to find a camera that's better-enough than Penny's iPhone for her to use, and this little Samsung could finally be it. If nothing else, it has made me pay attention to this new brand and look forward to seeing what they come up with next.

The camera used for this review is an evaluation sample that I was able to borrow for a week; I had access to it simply because I work part-time in a camera store. To say that Samsung didn't solicit my opinion would be a massive understatement.

last updated 12 sept 2011


"American Signs" by Lisa Mahar

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 1 out of 5
Yeah, but: I'm getting old, and possibly grumpy.

The Long Version: I'm a photographer who loves signs, but it took me a very long time to pick up this book when I was last shopping at Swipe. I've been burned before, discovering over and over again that photo books with blindingly obvious and mundane titles contain noting more than blindingly obvious and mundane photos, and road signs are a popular topic for artless and automatic photography. When I did finally grit my teeth and pick it up, Lisa Mahar's book "American Signs: Form and Meaning on Route 66" blew me away.

The blurb on the back cover of a book can be very revealing, so that's a good place to start. I completely agree that "with its insightful writing, clear graphic diagrams, and hundreds of contemporary and historic [sic] images, American Signs is a singular reading experience and a groundbreaking study." It completely devotes itself to the study of motel signs, which reflect a distinct set of challenges as the business try to differentiate themselves from the competition and attract customers that they have never seen before and will likely never see again. Awesome.

The book looks at trends across about fifty years, breaking each era into its own chapter. All follow the same structure, making it easy to see and contrast the changes over time. It becomes a fascinating sociological study, showing changing attitudes through the names of colours and businesses, and tracking travel patterns through the height of the signs and the arrangement of their elements. The shift from vernacular craftsmanship to professional industrial design, the rise of branding, and changes in fabrication techniques are all within its scope. There are a couple of points that I can quibble with, such as naming a particular typeface that isn't depicted in the accompanying image, but the book serves its purpose as a general guide rather than a specific survey.

Possibly the best praise that I can give a book is that its insights have made a lasting difference in how I see and interpret the world. American Signs has certainly done that, and now when I look at the sign for a business I pay attention to the emphasis of "name" and "function". It's how each business subtly communicates how it sees itself and its role within the local community. My appreciation of that is directly because of reading American Signs, and I'm sure that Penny also thanks Lisa Mahar for giving me one more reason to be distracted when we're out together.

Back to the back cover. Signs "are complex pieces of design" and American Signs analyzes "their concept and influences, typestyle and color choice, form and composition, context and placement."

So with such emphasis on "typestyle and color choice" in the content of the book, I have to say that the typesetting and colour choices in American Signs are a huge disappointment. The majority of the book is set in what appears to be six-point type – an uppercase letter "T" is a mighty two millimeters high – as if Lisa Mahar was writing nothing more important than a series of captions. Most of the text is black on white pages, but occasionally it's reversed to an even lower contrast white on a red-orange page that echoes the cover. When the text is larger it's in that same accent colour on white, which turns out to be not much more legible despite its increased stature.

The typesetting for the introduction deserves special mention. Text elsewhere in the book is restricted to a single page, but the introduction spans better than ten pages and four double-truck photographs. That means that there's a double page of text alternating with each double-page photo, and any photo printed that large is clearly meant to be looked at. The elegant thing to do would be to end a paragraph before each photo spread, or at least finish the sentence. That way the reader can complete their thought, admire the art, and then rejoin the narrative with minimal mental disruption. Not only does that never happen, but twice the page break leaves the reader hanging on a hyphenated word. In ragged-right text. Seriously, who does that?

Yes, my last birthday put me on the wrong side of 37, and my eyesight has never been the best. But reading the minuscule little text in anything but brilliant lighting is impossible at any comfortable distance. The vast deserts of white space that could otherwise be put to productive use just makes the designers' adherence to its layout grid all the more senseless. Typography is supposed to invisibly enhance the content of the book, not substantially diminish it. That the format of a book specifically about communication and information design would fall down so badly is a real pity, because American Signs is "a groundbreaking study" that deserves to be read and appreciated properly.

last updated 7 sep 2011


Toronto Fire Services Scanner

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: This isn't just strange, it's strange-even-for-me.

The Long Version: I blame Roman Mars. His radio/podcast 99% Invisible profiled the streaming web audio from "You Are Listening To…", which combines live radio chatter from the police departments of various cities (New York, Chicago, Los Angeles) with a stream of ambient music. It's a surprisingly effective mix, but as much as I like ambient music – and who doesn't? – I wanted something more lively and more local.

That's why I found Radio Reference and its scanner audio for the Toronto Fire Services. I was very quickly hooked on the feed, and will often have it playing even when I have other music on. To help the radio chatter make sense I've been learning a little more about the TFS and how it designates its trucks; I now some idea of the difference between a Rescue and Pumper (most Pumpers carry foam as well as water, while a rescue will carry more tools) and a Tower and Aerial truck (towers are rare but have an articulated platform and more reach). I'm still not quite sure what makes the Highrise unit of the South Command remarkable – I imagine that they're crewed by the best stair-climbers, but I'd love to know how their equipment is different.

A fascinating picture emerges from combining the live audio feed with the list of active incidents. As an outsider and civilian, I have little to no idea what's involved in being a firefighter, and have only been able to watch them work a few times. But now when I hear the sirens going past I can check out what's happening; recent calls in my neighbourhood have been for someone who lost consciousness at a restaurant, a chemical spill, and a garage fire. These are significant events with lasting impacts for the people involved, while for the fire crews and dispatchers these are part of the routine that's handled capably and without undue excitement. The mix of minor cataclysm and mundane administration is a little confounding.

Naturally, the feed for the Fire department isn't a cornucopia of good news, and there's one call in particular that I wish I hadn't heard. But I've certainly gained a new appreciation for the Toronto Fire Service – and not because of their headline performance at the rare major fire, but because of all of the little things that affect peoples' lives without ever making the news. Stuck elevators, medical calls, power lines down, alarm checks: it's the unglamorous but important day-to-day work that impresses me. And it's a good thing, too – with the stunning performance of the Blue Wall at and after Toronto's G20 conference, it's time for a new hero. I can only hope that Mayor Dob Ford's "Gravy Train" sloganeering achieves its inevitable collapse before he does something foolish.

last updated 5 sep 2011


Small Bobino Cable Buddy

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: Buy a bigger one.

The Long Version: Cable management is one of those little problems that causes a disproportionate amount of annoyance. Anyone with earphones will be familiar with the constant battle to untangle them and keep them that way; the Bobino "cable buddy" is one of the better options that I've tried.

Made of flexible plastic, the spool is both utilitarian and durable. It has a notch on one side to nest the cable in, and then the remainder wraps between its two sets of horns. The spool is elegant, simple, and has a surprisingly small capacity.

I use the smallest size, which isn't big enough to completely wrap my earphones around. Instead I'll double them up, locking the earbuds in place by wrapping the cable around it, and just letting the excess cable hang free. Since I rarely need the full length of the cable, some of it just stays wrapped around my little Bobino. That has the happy feature of keeping the excess cord out of my way even when I'm using it, which turns out to be surprisingly useful.

For all of this to work the cable needs to be wrapped and unwrapped each time it's used. That's actually just about as involved a process as untangling the earphones would be, so there's not much of a gain in total convenience. But for protecting the cable, and for not looking like a goof on the subway, the Bobino is a real win. There may not be an ideal solution for keeping cables untangled while still accessible, but the Bobino is the best one that I've tried.

updated: I've now bought a bigger one.

last updated 1 oct 2011

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