Chris Reeve Small Sebenza 21 Insingo

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: It cuts stuff – is anything else about it important?

The Long Version: Sebenza. I first heard its name in reverent tones when I joined the usenet alt.rec.knives eighteen years ago, and I've been seeing it mentioned, even if it's only as an aside, almost every time I've researched a higher-end folding knife. This is the knife: there are a lot of other really good pocket knives out there, a few costing more and most costing less, but sooner or later they're all compared to a Sebenza.

Making the jump up to the Sebenza wasn't something I did easily. I read every review I could find online, watched the beginnings of many YouTube reviews, and spent a few weeks going through my knife box to revisit some of the favourites that I've been neglecting since buying my Spyderco Caly3. I decided that the Small Sebenza would suit me best, and that it would make a great self-present for Christmas.

But echoing through many contemporary Sebenza 21 reviews was another word: Insingo. This is a Sebenza variant with a different blade shape that seems better suited to my typical urban-work tasks than the traditional woodlands-hunting drop point pattern. Apparently it's in low-volume production, despite not being mentioned anywhere on the Chris Reeve Knives site, so when I found a dealer with one in stock I grabbed it. In early September. I have impulse-control issues.

Reviewers invariably call the Insingo's blade shape "a modified wharncliffe", but doesn't come close to describing what it's good for. A wharncliffe – similar to the sheepfoot – has a straight cutting edge and a spine that meets it in a blunt point. The "modification" is that the Insingo inherits a subtle belly and has a narrow but unsharpened swedge. It's extremely strong with excellent penetration ability, and it's very easy to slip between the taped-down flaps of a cardboard box without hurting the contents. That's not as tacticool as the chisel-tipped tanto, I know, but how many of us actually need to stab through car doors?

Translated from Zulu, 'Sebenza Insingo' becomes 'Work Razor'. There's really no better description of the blade. It's not what I would choose for field-dressing a deer, but it excels at field-dressing cardboard boxes, which I'm much more likely to do. It's very hard to think of any warehouse or utility tasks where I would choose another blade pattern over the Insingo, and in the three months that I've owned it, the only other knives I've willingly used have had "Victorinox" stamped on them somewhere.

The Sebenza's handle design is simple, subtle, and effective. Very slightly concave on top and bottom, this slab-sided titanium feels solid without needing any particular grip to work well. It's a small detail, but it makes a huge difference; the Sebenza is easy to hold and I know from feel where it is in my hand. There's a finger choil on the bottom just in front of where the knife naturally balances when open, giving it a secure hold and a lively feel.

I was amazed to find that its handle is the same thickness as my broad and finger-grooved Caly3, because the Sebenza is noticeably more agile and dexterous to use. I actually work my way down a line of cardboard boxes faster and more confidently than I do with my Caly3 or Medium Voyager, which have blades of similar lengths. I hadn't expected that at all, but there's just something about the shape and balance of the Sebenza that works better – for me – than everything else I own.

The Sebenza's clip took a while to get used to. It has a secondary bend in it that seems sized to securely hold the top of a jeans' pocket, which is a sensible thing for an American-made knife to have. This gives it a strong hold, but also needs a little more care when putting it away. And for some reason the Sebenza's clip seems unusually willing to catch on my usual messenger bag or computer chair. But a simple hex wrench, included with purchase, is all that's needed to remove the clip to bend it back into shape. That same wrench can completely disassemble the knife for cleaning or maintenance, as well – there's no reason why this tool shouldn't last for decades.

The Sebenza is expensive, but the Sebenza Insingo – Sebingo – is my perfect knife. The blade is the right size, the handle has the right weight, its construction is flawless, and its pedigree is beyond reproach. The only criticism I can really level at it is how quickly the blue anodizing has worn from the thumb stud, but I was planning on sending it back to Chris Reeve to have it replaced with a silver double stud regardless. The fact that that might even be an option is pretty cool.

One thing I haven't been able to determine is if the Insingo is an attractive knife or not. No, it's not really relevant, but my Benchmade Stryker is almost ridiculously good-looking, and it wouldn't hurt if the Seb could keep up. The slab-sided swedge doesn't really match the aesthetic of the rest of the knife, and the blade profile is certainly unusual, creating a slightly odd combination. But the way it feels and works is very convincing, so that's enough for me.

It's too soon to know if the Insingo has satisfied my desire to own one really good knife, or if it has just set a new high-water mark for my budget and introduced me to a new manufacturer. It certainly isn't the last knife I'm going to buy – I've already picked up a couple of new little ones – but it has changed what I look for.

last updated 20 dec 2012


Nikon 1 V1, Part 2

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: Accepting limits and resetting expectations.

The Long Version: I bought the Nikon V1 only because it uses the EN-EL15 battery. My main camera is a Nikon D800, so this gives me two complimentary cameras that use the same charger, and now I have a pool of four batteries to share between them. It's a rare moment of system-building from Nikon, which they corrected by launching a brand new battery with the Nikon 1 V2. The J1/J2 also use a different battery that no other cameras take, making the V1 a rare gem.

Let me be even more clear: I don't care how much smaller the J1/J2 are, and I don't care if the V2 has better image quality (edited to add: it doesn't) or that it's even faster than the V1. I didn't buy the V1 as an endorsement of the CX format or Nikon's idea of what a mirrorless camera should be, or because I'm interested in it as a multi-generational camera system. I bought it as a small camera with a few little lenses that would compliment my heavy iron, creating a higher-quality alternative to my Canon S100 for travel and casual photography.

I also would not have bought the V1 if Nikon wasn't blowing them out at a fraction of their introductory price. This camera, with the 10-30mm lens, cost less than a decent point-and-shoot. The $900 launch price put this camera up against competition that it couldn't hope to beat, but now that a two-lens kit sells for half of that, the camera deserves to be reevaluated.

Most of the people who blindly hate the "Nikon 1" system and its CX format – but, admittedly, not all – have never used one of these cameras and just dislike it on principle. I went over my complaints about the V1 elsewhere, but what really frustrates me is that deep inside there's a really competent camera that's struggling to get out. I went from having just the discounted zoom kit to a full system, with two zooms, a fast prime, the adapter for my AF-S Nikon lenses, and Richard Franiec's custom grip, in just three weeks. The total kit still cost less than the Panasonic 7-14 for my GH1, too – it's hard to dislike that.

The CX format took a lot of grief for having a little sensor, but it does make for some small and cheap lenses. The Nikon 30-110 is slightly smaller and lighter than the Olympus 40-150, which shares the same field of view, despite having five more elements and built-in image stabilization. Putting the V1+30-110 next to a 70-300mm on my D800, or even a 55-200mm on a D7000, is eye-opening. No, the V1 won't give me the image quality that the heavies do, but I simply wouldn't carry the SLRs with those lenses for casual use in the city.

My entire V1 kit is something I can throw in a small 7L-capacity sling bag just in case I feel like using it. Then I add a toque, gloves, keys, wallet, my S100, iPhone, earphones, beverage, and snacks to the bag as well. No big deal at all. That same bag can just barely squeeze in the D800 and 70-300, with its hood reversed, but it would carry nothing else.

I can easily pack my Domke F6 "Little Bit Smaller" with a two-camera system. The D800 takes up a third of the bag all on its own. The FT1 F-to-CX mount adapter, 50/1.4G, and 105VR, hood reversed, occupies the middle third. The V1 with 18.5mm prime attached, 10-30 standard zoom, and 30-110 telephoto take up the final third. A couple of spare batteries and the charger that feed both cameras can happily fit in the front pocket of this small camera bag. Can anyone say "Road Trip"?

The V1 happily motors along at 5fps, with a buffer that holds 42 raw images, and can still use its wide-area phase-detect auto focus for tracking birds in flight. If that's not enough then it can drive at 10fps with centre-point AF calculated for each shot. If that's still not enough it can step up to 30 or 60fps, but at the expense of locking focus and taking its as-metered exposure from the first frame.

Stop for a second and think about that: this camera was launched in September 2011, back when the D3s was the king, and the big Nikon did 9fps with a 48-shot buffer. No, the V1 isn't nearly the camera that the D3 was, but you can't fault it for a lack of ambition.

Making this even better is that the V1 does it all with an electronic shutter that's completely silent. Other cameras are 'nearly' silent, like the leaf shutter in the Fuji X100, or the mechanical shutters in the average compact camera, but the whole Nikon 1 family can make absolutely no sound at all. The lenses are also very, very quiet when focusing; to my ear they're even quieter than my AF-S lenses. If I'm in a sound-sensitive environment – music recital, guest at a wedding, family gathering, audio recording – then there really is no other camera choice.

The CX sensor size does naturally have its downsides. It shows about three stops more depth of field than an FX camera. Its pixel density would work out to about a 74Mpx full-frame sensor, making it fairly demanding on its lenses. It shows high-iso noise – and mid-iso noise – fairly easily, and most lenses are diffraction-limited by the time they're zoomed all the way in. But this sensor size that's widely considered too small for a serious camera has set the compact world on fire within the Sony RX100, so it's not worth being too worried about.

I'll have more to say about the FT-1 – Nikon's F-lens to CX-mount adapter – in another review, but the small sensor does redeem itself for telephoto and macro photography. You know what they say: every silver lining has a cloud.

Another problem with the CX sensor size is that the 2.72x crop involves some rather awkward math. I wish Nikon had gone with a 2.5x or 3x just to make the system easier to grasp – quite seriously, if something is tough to explain in a store or in an ad, it's a problem. Rather than trying to multiply by 2.72 in my head, I use the simpler "(f x 3) - ((F x 3)/10)" where "f" is the focal length. Really, this is easier – triple the focal length and subtract a tenth.

Take the 105mm lens in the photo above as an example: one hundred and five times three is three hundred and fifteen. A tenth of three hundred and fifteen is thirty-one and a half, but we'll round down since focal lengths are just approximations anyway. Three hundred and fifteen less thirty is two hundred and eighty five. So a 105mm lens on the V1 has about the field of view of a 285mm lens on a full-frame camera. I'll leave it as an exercise for the reader to convert that to other crop factors.

(The "equivalence" arguments are boring and pedantic, but yes: depth of field at f/2.8 on CX will look like f/5.6 on DX or f/8 on FX, and iso400 on the V1 has about the same noise as iso1600 on a D7000 or 3200 on an 800. TANSTAAFL, h8rs.)

Understanding the battery life with the V1 isn't as simple as counting the number of photos per charge. The normal CIPA testing cycle gives about 400 photos, but that's based on a lot of pausing and review. I've taken over 1500 photos on one battery when using long bursts of consecutive shots to catch action, so apparently that barely taxes the camera at all. There's a lot to be said for having a spare battery whenever it's important, and the V1 doesn't have all-day endurance. But it does have better stamina than most of the compact or mirrorless cameras out there, and easily smokes my D800 when the heavy iron is depending on live view.

One neat feature of the V1 is the built-in intervalometer. I tried to do a time-lapse with my D700 once, but the incessant clicking of the shutter drove me to distraction, and all of those shots probably took fifty bucks off of the camera's eventual resale value. A bad idea all around. But combine the intervalometer with a silent shutter and one problem goes away; the fact that a Nikon V1 has zero resale value from the very beginning makes the other problem moot as well.

Accepting that the Nikon 1 system is likely to be orphaned and will eventually die alone and unloved really is liberating. Not only do I not have to worry about running up the shot count – not that the electronic shutter is likely to wear out – I finally have a camera that I can customize. I've used a pigment pen to black out Nikon's logo (after a few failed experiments with acrylic paint) and, although it's still a little glossy, the dye job has held up well and is easy to retouch. I've taped over the small V1 logo, which has the added benefit of stopping the accessory port cover from falling off. Richard Franiec's grip replaces the big silver "1" logo with a muted version, and vastly improves the V1's handling. Now the camera is really mine, and I feel a certain affection for it that I didn't have before.

Despite knowing a couple of photographers who exclusively use different mirrorless interchangeable lens format cameras, such as our friend Bill Beebe, I'm not nearly ready to give up my SLRs. I'm not even willing to give up my other mirrorless format, which is currently the old Panasonic GH1 and three lenses, or my little point-and-shoots. I like cameras. I can't help it.

A camera that can be used one-handed and carried in a pocket is very different from one that needs two hands to use, so something like the Canon S100 does fill a different niche – rhymes with quiche – than the V1. Trading image quality for convenience is a long and honourable photographic tradition. The practical difference between the S100 and V1 is that I won't print more than 5x7" from an S100 image, while I can push the V1 up to 18x12", so I only carry the S100 when fitting in a pocket is its main photographic requirement.

Owning a D800 – or really, any of the cameras that take an EN-EL15 battery – renders the shortcomings of the Nikon V1 irrelevant. Poor image quality in low light? I don't care. Relatively low resolution? I don't care. Extensive depth of field? I don't care. I have a bigger and better camera, a 'real camera' if you prefer, that takes care of all of that. When it's dark, or peak image quality matters, the V1 isn't the camera I would reach for. I would't endorse the V1 as an Only Camera, but with more modest expectations there's no reason why it can't play happily alongside others.

Of course it would be nice to have a camera that combines cutting-edge DSLR performance with the size of a mirrorless camera, but that simply isn't going to happen for the next few years. Being small and quiet, with decent image quality, is really all I ask from my second-tier digital cameras, and that's all the Nikon V1 is ever going to be. I'm okay with that. You're invited to read 'part three' of this review, where I look at actual image quality, but for now I can say that it's sufficient, and that's enough for me.

last updated 26 sept 2013


Nikon 1 V1, Part 1

Concept: 1 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: Unquestionably the best camera of 2009.

The Long Version: The Nikon 1 V1 is a deeply flawed camera, and those flaws start with its name. The "Nikon 1" appellation is very difficult to search for, the "CX" format name has no traction, and the whole thing just sounds dumb. Nikon already makes three distinctly different operational tiers of SLRs, in two different sensor formats, and didn't feel the need for anything more than model names to identify them. The "1" in 'Nikon 1' is superflous and self-aggrandizing, and is probably an underlying reason why Nikon's small-sensor mirrorless format was so ruthlessly mocked by the camera intelligentsia.

Let's be clear: Nikon had it coming. From the marketing exhortation to "set your creative freedom free" to their offended "but we've been working on this for four years" stance, it's clear that they had no warning of the animosity that their 116-square-millimetre sensor and Sigma SD1-esque launch price would provoke. It was as if every camera-blogger and forum dweller had turned into Ken Rockwell, convinced of the indisputable rightness of their opinions based on something they read on the internet. I have to admit that I joined in briefly, decided that it was an evolutionary dead end, and then – like the rest of us Serious Camera People – forgot all about the system. Now, a year later, its price has dropped through the floor.

I have been mocked and derided for buying a V1, but I was shooting 4/3 sensors before they were cool. My photography has occasionally benefited from an antagonistic attitude, so the V1 suits this approach perfectly. But of course, not all of the initial scorn that the V1 faced was unwarranted. Far from it.

The V1 camera itself feels like it was designed by three different people who weren't on speaking terms. There are flashes of real brilliance here, which just makes its failings all the more frustrating.

The green 'power' light on the top of the camera is dark when the LCD is on – it's redundant, and thinking to turn it off is an elegant design touch. It's lit when the EVF is active, which is a great reminder that the camera is ready and drawing power. Yet even when the display button has been used to turn off the LCD there's no way to defeat the eye-sensor and keep the EVF active, so the EVF is always dark for a second when the camera is first brought up for use. Frustrating.

The camera's exposure compensation has a range of three stops in each direction, but there's no automatic exposure bracketing function. The camera is almost frighteningly fast to shoot, but there's no way to turn off the image review, or even to extend its duration should someone actually want to use that feature. This cripples the cameras' vaunted focusing speed and tracking. The Auto White Balance can be tuned to provide subtle colour refinement, but Active D-Lighting can only be turned on or off, with no level control. Only whole stops are available for setting a single iso sensitivity, but the auto-iso mode will use thirds of a stop increments; its ceiling can be set with three different maximum values, although it will never tell you what sensitivity it's actually using. And there aren't even any "Art" effects built in – which is a good thing, but it proves that this camera really did start its development an eon ago.

The appeal of the menu structure, which other reviewers have praised, escapes me. There's no apparent order or logic, settings that are likely to be changed frequently aren't located together, and there's no "my menu" list of recently used items to provide a shortcut. Yet the selection bar changes from yellow to red to warn the user that selecting "yes" after "format" isn't just another trifling choice. I've never seen another camera interface combining such poor execution with such thoughtful attention to detail.

It's absurd that a camera that offers pixel mapping, front and rear IR receivers for the wireless remote, and a built-in intervalometer nonetheless requires a trip into the menu to change the shooting mode. This inconsistency is my main frustration with the camera: if it was universally bad I could just write it off, but so much of it is better than this.

The V1's buttons and controls, few though they are, are still worth mentioning. Exposure compensation is one of the most useful photographic controls, and its button is the right side of the four-way pad – the three-o'clock position. It can be adjusted up or down by pressing the top or bottom of the control ring, or by rotating it like the command dial that it is. Setting a brighter exposure, which is an upwards movement of the on-screen indicator, is accomplished with a clockwise turn: that's rotating the dial "downwards" from the EV Comp button position. Completely counterintuitive.

The exposure compensation on-screen display is another of the V1's many almost-made-it design moments. It cleverly avoids clutter by only putting numbers at zero and at the ends of its range, and displays the currently selected value in white instead of black on the muted grey background. Very clear and easy to understand. But the LCD doesn't preview the effect of the change, and the V1 doesn't have a live histogram, so it's still a matter of guessing the correct setting before being able to see its results.

I'm not even going to discuss the "mode" dial – mine has been neutered by taping it in place. The only thing I really miss is having access to the better controls and options of the dedicated movie mode, and the extra few seconds to unstick the tape is a small price to pay for not accidentally using the Harry Potter or Auto-Cull modes. No, what really bothers me is that none of the three people who designed the V1 could think of a supplemental use for the dedicated "Trash" button when the camera is taking photos.

But I wouldn't take the time and effort to be this annoyed by the Nikon V1's faults if I didn't like the camera. In just a few weeks I've gone from essentially impulse-buying the deeply-discounted camera and standard zoom to owning a three-lens kit, an FT1 adapter for my full-sized lenses, and Richard Franiec's custom V1 grip. Clearly, despite its foibles and flaws, there's something very appealing about the Nikon V1 and the CX format.

After my first few weeks with the V1 I still can't decide if it's a good camera or not. It certainly has its frustrations; some of them go away when I'm using it, and others don't. There are a lot of good things going on with this camera, but I'm needing to learn how to use it in ways that I haven't faced with the many others that I own.

I have some very solid – although inevitably personal and subjective – reasons why this is exactly the right camera for what I do. I take a longer look at those, and possibly even discuss image quality, in part two.

last updated 11 dec 2012


Crumpler Noose Wrist Strap

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's neoprene, what's not to like?

The Long Version: The Crumpler Noose is a nylon and neoprene camera wrist strap that continues the companies' long tradition of unremarkable and bland product names. Available only in black, it's a mid-weight strap that works well on everything from full-sized SLRs down to mirrorless cameras and large compacts.

I like the Noose because it's a sensible size and well made. Many of the neoprene wrist straps on the market have cuffs so wide that they could be used for pulling heavy carts, but then the strap connects to the camera via a plastic quick-snap buckle. (Yes, I'm looking at you, Op/Tech.) The Noose costs a bit more than its more primitive cousins, but it also isn't embarrassing to use, which is a big win.

Crumpler doesn't include the hardware to attach the Noose to lugs that use split-rings to hold the webbing, such as many Nikon cameras. These should come with the camera, so it isn't a big deal; the attachment ring that I'm using in these photos is from a Domke strap, sold separately.

I'm not used to this in a wrist strap, but the Noose has a distinct front and back: it's designed lie flat around your wrist and across the back of your hand. For this to work I need to put my hand through the front – top? – of the loop. I'm used to straps that dangle from under my wrist, and I still get this wrong after a week of frequent use. But the Noose is worth the effort to get right. And rest assured, unlike its namesake, it's not self-tightening.

This strap also has a built-in pocket to hold an SD card, which is cleverly tucked into the flap that's secured with the red snap button. I was initially worried that using it would add some stiffness to the strap, but then I actually forgot that I had put a memory card into it, so that allayed my fears. There's just no reason not to tuck a spare / cheap card into it for emergencies.

So: it's comfortable, no bigger than it needs to be, adds a useful feature that others don't provide, and looks pretty good while doing it. I have to say that I'm quite pleased with it. If I ever decide to stop carrying my D800 on a shoulder strap, then I'll be back to talk to the helpful people at Aden Camera – my local store – and pick up another Noose.

last updated 4 dec 2012


Joby Griptight Smartphone Mount

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: They need to be everywhere.

The Long Version: The Joby Griptight is a clever little device that spring-clamps to a phone, folds flat for storage, and attaches to any tripod. It's a natural with the Joby Micro 250 – the smaller model of the Micro 800 that I've previously reviewed – which is how I typically use it.

When attached to one of Joby's Micro tripods it will only hold a phone in 'landscape' mode. Now, I rarely use my phone for photos or video, but this is perfect for propping the phone up on a table for watching videos. I've used this product for watching a couple of episodes of The Nature Of Things, so owning it has actually made me smarter. I've never said that about any other photographic or phone accessory, so that's a win right there.

The nice thing is that the Joby Griptight is that it's brand-agnostic. Many iPhone-specific tripod adapters won't even work with the phone in a case, but even my bulky Speck Candyshell Grip case – yes, terrible name – fits with no problem. I even borrowed an Android phone from the only person I know who has one, and it fit with no problem as well. I measure its widest span at about seven centimetres, which should accomodate just about anything that can be sensibly carried in a pocket.

I usually try to have something insightfully critical of the products I review, but in this case I'm coming up empty. It's not going to become a family heirloom, but it's solidly built and the judicial combination of metal and plastics keep it light. This little thing is actually the reason why I finally bought an x-mini capsule speaker: they combine to create my end-table home theatre. The Griptight is a good solution to a simple problem, and it folds down and stows easily when it's not needed. How could anyone not like that?

last updated 2 dec 2012


X-Mini II Capsule Speaker

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: I'm not the first to say it.

The Long Version: I've been reading reviews of little speakers for a while, and the X-mini capsule speaker kept coming up as one to buy. It can be tough to find in a crowd of others that now share its expanding-ping-pong-ball design, so when I happened to find it in a local store I decided it was time.

The speaker has the slogan "sound beyond size" moulded right into the top of it. I'm not a fan of ostentatious displays of marketeering, so this bugs me, but it's a tough slogan to argue with. This one little speaker can play loudly enough that I can hear it throughout my little apartment and worry about disturbing the neighbours. Impressive.

What's even more impressive is that the X-mini keeps up a surprisingly good sound quality almost all the way through its volume range, losing only a modest amount of definition when everything's fully cranked. But its entertainment value makes up for that: heavy bass will have the speaker jumping around and skating across tables. It's hard to dislike anything that happy.

And if one speaker isn't loud enough then there's the option to add more. These things can be daisy-chained together to hook multiple speakers to a single source. The sound remains mono, but it increases the headroom. There may be a second X-mini in my household's future – officially it would belong to Penny, but we're often in the same place.

Also included in the retail package is a carrying case and an unusual cable. It's USB-A on one end, 3.5mm audio on the other, and USB-mini in the middle. With the mini USB plugged into the speaker, then the audio end can plug into a sound source for a longer connection than what its short built-in cable provides, or the USB-A end can be plugged into a computer or charger to recharge its internal battery. But audio won't play through a USB-USB connection: there's a handy little instruction sheet that says so, but I still fell for it a couple of times.

The underside of the Mini shows its controls and the neatly stowed audio cable. (The volume dial is on the other side, not visible, opposite the power switch.) They missed an opportunity here – having the bright blue 'power' LED line up with something useful, like the On/Off switch or volume dial, would make the speaker more intuitive to control. But that's about the only criticism that I can come up with, especially considering the sound-to-price ratio that this little thing provides.

I've been very pleased with the X-Mini as an extremely small and easily portable speaker. It's loud enough to provide some music for a backyard family gathering, and good enough to be an improvement over my laptop speakers. The next time I travel it's guaranteed that this little thing will be coming with me.

last updated 26 nov 2012


Canon Powershot G15

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: Warranty honoured – crisis averted.

Counter Opinion: I had a scare a couple of weeks ago – my Canon S100 stopped working, leaving me without a decent compact camera in the middle of a vacation. I immediately started an emergency round of camera-shopping, and thought a lot about what I had learned in over eighteen months of carrying and using a compact camera every day. While I wasn't too fond of Canon at the time, the Canon G15 was simply too good to ignore.

The G15 – pronounced G-one-five in honour of the G-one-x – is a smaller camera than the G11/12 was, mostly because it has lost the flip-out LCD screen. While I do like that the camera is now almost slim enough to put in a pocket, I really hate that the flippy screen is gone.

Let's be honest: Canon's G1x experiment has been a failure. It's big, clunky, and slow; the improved image quality has proven insufficient to overcome its limitations and price. But it has a flip-out screen. Removing the flippy screen from the G15 feels churlish – the marketing equivalent of Canon taking their ball and sulking home. We've already seen Canon intentionally stripping away features to create a cheaper counterpart for their entry-level SLRs, but doing it to their once-premium compact camera is just plain mean.

But there's a practical and objectively sensible reason to resent the removal of the flippy screen from the G-One-Five as well: this camera is legitimately good at 'macro' photography. (Which, incidentally, is a huge shortcoming with the G-One-X.) Canon's G-series has long been known for their touching-the-lens focusing ability, but the reproduction ratios on earlier models would quickly fall off as the focal length gets longer. Shooting close-ups at wide angles is great for special effects, with wildly exaggerated perspective and proportions, but a more realistic look needed close-up filters on an adapter.

The G15 mostly solves this problem, keeping a good close-focusing ability through most of its zoom range. This makes for photos of small subjects with a much more realistic sense of proportion, and lets them be taken from a more reasonable working distance. A flip-out screen would make the G15 an automatic purchase for anyone who does tabletop small-product photography, but instead I'm left with the prospect of recommending the Nikon P7700. A Coolpix. I can't believe the world has come to this.

Aside from that one huge and glaringly massive shortcoming, there's a lot to like about the G15. It's not actually all that much bigger than the S110, and it doesn't have a touch screen, which is enough of a reason to pick it over its smaller cousin all on its own. Interestingly, the G15 also lacks antennas for GPS and WiFi, so the short list of features that will appear with the next model is pretty clear.

The G15 retains the lousy optical viewfinder that has graced every G-series camera since the sequence began, which remains slightly better than nothing even as it's one of the last cameras that includes one at all. Canon isn't winning a lot of innovation awards recently, but there's a lot to be said for reassuring predictability.

The other signature of the G-series, and larger advanced compact cameras that follow its lead, is ample exterior controls. These are useful and appreciated, although dedicating a button to changing the metering mode seems like an odd choice. And for the life of me I can't figure out why nobody – not Canon, Fuji, or Nikon – has thought to put a stronger detent under the "0" position on their exposure compensation dials. Sadly, the G15 remains a compact camera to be looked at and worked around rather than a photographic tool that can be used seamlessly and reflexively.

One positive trait about the G15 that really stands out is its speed. It's not going to replace an SLR, but there's a definite snappiness to it that my S100 lacks. The lens is also a huge improvement over the status quo: even it its full extension it's a relatively bright f/2.8, but it still escapes the need for a lens cap that hobbles its bright-lensed competitors from Panasonic and Olympus. This keeps the G15 in the realm of one-handed pocket cameras, which is why I would consider it as a worthy replacement for my S100.

The other reason why I'd stay with Canon for a pocketable camera is its "Safety Shift" over-exposure protection. It's one of those little things that barely merits a mention elsewhere, but coupled with the built-in neutral density filter, it opened up a whole new range of long exposure photography options for me. Since I don't expect a pocket camera to be able to do high-quality work, and the G15 is no exception, it might as well be fun.

But my flirting with the G15 came to nothing. Canon decided that my faulty S100 was covered under warranty, so I won't be needing a new point-and-shoot after all. With my pocketable camera needs covered for the foreseeable future I've found myself thinking about the Panasonic GX1 – about the same size as the G15, and the body is actually cheaper, but with substantially better image quality. Maybe there is going to be a new daily-carry camera in my future after all.

Counter Opinions are quick "sales counter" product reviews.
As always, viewer discretion is advised.
Last updated 12 nov 2012


Canon S100: Lens Error Update

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: Poop happens.

The Long Version: Of course I wanted to think that it would never happen to me. One hundred and seventy-five days after I bought my little S100 compact camera Canon put up a notice that some may "encounter a lens error caused by a disconnected part inside the camera". (Here's the full announcement for both Americans and Canadians.) After 296 days of owning this camera, it was my turn.

With 4823 photos to its credit, my S100 became the first camera I've ever owned to actually stop working.

But at least it didn't fail on a Saturday afternoon, half-way through the trip to New York City that marked my two-year wedding anniversary, leaving me without a decent small camera as the city prepared for hurricane Sandy and using my iPhone to take photos to document my travails as I travelled home by bus, right? But of course that was exactly what happened, and I wasn't overly impressed by the experience.

In almost three hundred days of use my S100 has picked up a few battle scars. The silver finish on the flash housing is wearing away from being put in and out of its case – and the occasional pocket – although I don't think I've ever actually used the flash to take a photo. The white duct tape that covers the self-timer lamp is showing its age, but the white reflector tape on the side of the camera, which both increases my night-time safety and smooths over a badly set screw, still looks pretty good. I can only imagine that these adhesives are going to give the Canon Service techs fits.

My time with my S100 has taught me two things. One is that I really do enjoy having a good-quality small camera that can be used with one hand – sorry, Fuji. The other is that the combination of a tiny sensor with a compromised zoom lens means that I won't be printing anything sizeable from its files. Knowing those two things is liberating – it really means that I'm looking for controls and design, not Seriousness Of Purpose. I have enough of that elsewhere in my life.

My biggest complaint about the S100 is its f/5.9 aperture at the long end of its lens range. Somewhat perversely, my favourite thing about the camera is how easily it does long exposures without needing me to fuss with its exposure settings. I keep my long exposure setting saved as my program preset – ND filter on, two-second self timer, fifteen second exposure, minus one-third EV, zoom in slightly – although I wish it had additional 'custom' mode dial positions so that I could program in different options as well. The new Canon S110 improves on none of that. I'll have more to say about the Canon G15 in a few days, but the short version is that it's what I'll be looking at if my S100 needs to be replaced.

The service advisory makes it clear that this repair is covered even after the camera is out of warranty, as long as they don't discover some reason why it shouldn't be. And indeed they fixed at no charge – but tell that to the $14.25 that I gave to Canada Post. When I sent my Panasonic GH1 in for warranty service, which was also for a known manufacturing fault, they had the decency to cover shipping. And no, they didn't actually fix the problem, but nobody's perfect.

If my enthusiasm for the S100 helped persuade anyone to purchase one, and the first and second digits of the camera’s serial number are any number from "29" through "41", I'm sorry. But the good news is that there still aren't really any cameras that are better than the S100 for anything close to the same price or size. Even with its faults, I'm pretty sure I would have ended up with one anyway.

last updated 10 nov 2012


Nikon D800 – Half-Year Edition

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: Like the world needs another D800 review.

The Long Version: I was intending to do a six-month D800 update, but given how much has already been said about the camera I found myself at a loss. So, a month late, I've decided to just quickly touch on the enduring highlights of what I've learned from this incredible camera.

First of all, that whole "megapixels don't matter" thing is a myth perpetuated by people who are selling old cameras. The D800 lets me take photos that no other camera has, including the excellent D700. Compared to the ten and twelve megapixel cameras of my past its resolving power is just spectacular. My personal hallelujah moment came when I went to clone out a speck of dirt, and on enlarging the image to 1:1, I saw that it was actually a gnat – and not only could I count its legs, I could see their shadows.

The sensor is so good that I occasionally use DxO Optics as a front-end for Lightroom 4. It has superior lens correction and differential sharpening, among other benefits, which squeaks better photos out of Nikons' non-phenomenal lens lineup. The cost of the software is about the same as the difference between the D800 and D800E, so I'm happy with that trade.

My personal best battery life was 1600 photos on one charge. Conditions were good: a warm day, using an 85/1.8D and 50/1.4G, only occasional LCD use, and no live view. But a few days later I burned through half of a battery by taking 120 shots and letting my Eye-fi card transfer the small jpegs. Life is complicated, battery life doubly so.

Now I just plan for one battery per 64GB memory card under normal conditions. It works out pretty well, and I only carry a spare under exceptional circumstances. If I really want to squeak the most power out of a battery then I'll add on the grip, which lets me run one all the way down without missing a shot. That's also a great addition for Live View, which is power-hungry and slow, but worthwhile for precise focusing. Life's a barter.

With the notable exception of Live View, the D800 is a very snappy little camera. I'm thrilled to say that despite its slower burst rate the actual shutter-mirror mechanism of the D800 is just as quick as the D700, if not even faster. I judge my shutter speed by the sound of the camera and the mirror blackout, so this is something I care about a lot.

But in Aperture-priority and with Auto Iso enabled the shutter speed almost never drops into the range where I can hear the difference in its duration. And the best part of Auto Iso is that setting a new minimum value, or turning it off, doesn't require a trip into the menus. This is a huge improvement from the previous generation.

I let the camera automatically run up to iso6400, and if it goes that high then it clearly needed to do it. While I watch my dynamic range a bit in very low light I never worry about noise.

A lot has been said of the need to upgrade hard drives and computers for a D800. My 2007 iMac isn't the happiest these days, but it's not about to be replaced, and boosting the capacity of my Drobo is a non-issue. All that I really need from my existing photography support equipment is a way to put bigger paper through my Epson 3880. That's not a bad problem to have.

I started using film cameras because I wanted digital files that would print better than what my 12Mpx digital cameras could do. Even though 135 format resolves less detail than those cameras could, a 4000dpi scan holds up to a lot of enlargement. But now that I'm used to the D800, those little 20Mpx scans seem quaint. My medium format gear doesn't make it out of the house much, either.

The new 24Mpx D600 is promising camera, but if someone offered me a brand new one and $1000 cash for my lightly used D800, I'd say no. Cameras like this are something special.

last updated 23 oct 2012


Buffalo Bus Station

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 1 out of 5
Yeah, but: A bus station without amenities is a curb.

The Long Version: While I'm far from being a world traveller, I have developed a certain appreciation for bus stations. I've been through the one in Buffalo, New York, on several occasions, and I was recently lucky enough to spend four hours in it during the middle of the night. Writing a review seemed like the only sensible course of action.

Bus stations require certain amenities. First of all, there needs to be a comfortable place to wait. It needs adequate restrooms, some food options, and a place to buy traveller's necessities. All of this should be prominent and close to where the buses load and unload – ideally, within sight of the platforms. It needs to have good wayfinding and information, be clean and welcoming, and be kept in good repair. Buffalo actually manages to do much of this reasonably well, despite fundamentally being a bus station.

Buffalo's bus station – officially the Buffalo Metropolitan Transportation Center – seems to have been designed by someone who's really fond of international airports, because the seating is arranged in rows with enough space to stack weeks' worth of luggage between them. And the generous open space has no bearing on where the doors are for the bus platforms, which might have made sense, leaving the whole result oddly off-scale for the people within it.

With chairs set only the middle of the hall, Buffalo doesn't have any seating for people who prefer to have their backs to something solid. This might make it easy for the station's police to keep an eye on everyone, and discourage certain elements of local commerce from setting up shop, but it's a tough spot to be in. I wouldn't consider listening to music through my earphones in this layout – it would be far too easy for someone to come up to be from behind while I'm unaware. I hate surprises.

The bus platforms are signed according to carrier, but if you want to know where to wait for the Greyhound to Toronto or New York you'll need to ask the helpful attendant. And then the bus might still need to pull in somewhere else – such is life. At least the station designers realized that the weather in Buffalo isn't always pleasant, and the waiting area is indoors with double doors to keep the wind out. If only it was always like this.

Food options are a mixed success. Vending machines provide the most reliable service, and there's a change machine located in a completely different part of the building for people who don't have those archaic dollar bills. There's also a small take-out operation, quite literally a hole in the wall, that provides food that's not robust enough to be dispensed by robot. I didn't see hours posted for it; it was open past 3am when I was there most recently, although when I've passed through on other nights it has been closed. Finally, there's a small restaurant-like operation that's occasionally open – with different hours each day of the week – that I've never been lucky enough to experience.

There's nothing resembling a convenience store, magazine stand, or drug store for any other necessities. There are a few power outlets scattered around that people were able to use to recharge various devices, though, which is always nice to have. They're not conveniently located for travellers, having been intended for power-washers and floor polishers, but at least they aren't kept locked up.

The restrooms in the Buffalo station are another level of experience. Prominent and close to the platforms they solve two problems, and the mens' is able to accomodate quite the crowd if it needs to. But its barrier-free walk-in intentions must not have taken sight lines into account, because the entrance has been retrofitted with an oversized stall door. From the interior it blends into the wall of stainless steel doors, making it into a lobster trap for the tired, disorientated, or intoxicated.

To add to the ambiance, instead of having a sign marked "EXIT" this concealed door simply says "PULL". Yes, pull. It doesn't have two-way hinges, and being one of the few patrons to understand what the sinks were there for, getting through this door is not an appealing prospect. I'd hook it open with my boot, or hope for someone else to swing it open, and use my elbow to defend myself from it.

The bus station also houses the city transit bus, running under the NFTA banner. It took me a while to find out what that stands for: Niagara Frontier Transit Authority. I hadn't realized that Niagara is still a frontier, and haven't heard that term used to describe a civilized border in years, but I suppose it fits. Indeed, I did go from the pinnacle of Canadian urban sophistication to the American hinterland in less than two hours.

But the NFTA name struck me for a different reason. After all, this is Buffalo the City, named after Buffalo the Animal, which has a particularly brutal and genocidal history on the western frontier. I wouldn't expect them to want to remind people of that, but I've been wrong before.

Another interesting Buffalo experience was to have an armed agent of the government approach me and ask to see my papers. Politely, of course, and when I said that I was returning to Canada he lost interest, but this has happened before when I travel by bus, and I always take offense. It seems a little odd that these blanket stop-and-question episodes don't raise the hackles of the live-free-or-die crowd, but I have to wonder how much of a difference it makes that it's immigration enforcement doing the work. Another happy thought.

Being a border town, Buffalo sees a fair bit of traffic as a waypoint, but not much use as a terminal. That's a bit of a pity, because the station is well-situated in downtown Buffalo, and that's an area that could really blossom with more tourist and commercial activity.

A bus station without amenities is called a curb. The Buffalo station is functional if unwelcoming, capable of handing high volumes of stopover passengers but without the deeper considerations that would make long layovers more bearable. Long-distance bus travel is always an arduous task, and the stations need to be very durable, making this a very tough bit of architecture to succeed at. Buffalo isn't as good as Chicago, Syracuse, or New York; I'd say that it's about on par with Detroit. But it's vastly better than the Toronto Coach Terminal, which happens to be my home station.

last updated 12 oct 2012


Canon Powershot S110

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: The S100 was the series apex so far.

Counter Opinion: Today I met the Canon Powershot S110 for the first time. I own and really enjoy the S100 – my full S100 review is here – so I'll jump straight to my executive summary: assuming the slower f/2.0~5.9 lens can be tolerated then the S110 remains an excellent choice despite its modest differences, and even fewer improvements, from the S100.

Feel free to stop reading now if you like, but as always, I do have some subjective opinions as well.

First, the paper changes: A Wi-Fi antenna replaces the built-in GPS. The geo-tagging feature is one that I've left enabled on my S100, but fewer than 600 out of my 4300 photos show any location data, and I know some of it is wildly incorrect. On the other hand, wifi connectivity is something that I had with my eye-fi SD card, but I stopped using it because its power draw was unsustainable with the little NB-5L battery that the S100 and S110 both use. I'll call that change between the models a draw, pending word on how well Canon's engineers have handled the power management problem, but for now I'd keep that card reader handy. (Having a second battery is just good hygiene.)

The touch screen is well done. I like that it's a consistent and natural interface that lets menu items be selected directly through the screen as well as with buttons, while the menu structure and options still remain essentially unchanged across the past decade. That's a huge plus. The touch-to-focus feature was fun the first time, but by the fifth time it was frustrating: every time I picked the camera up I would change the focus zone. That would be the second thing I'd want to disable if I ever bought this camera – right after the sounds, but before the AF Assist lamp – but that's not an option. The touch-screen and touch-to-focus appears to be a mandatory feature.

I also suspect that the autofocus is just a smidge faster than it is on the S100, but I can't prove it; unfortunately I haven't been able to test the S110 in low light, where the S100 tends to embarrass itself.

Physical changes: People must have really loved the handling of the S90 and S95, because the finger grip that Canon added to the S100 is gone again with the S110. The black version at least has a grippy finish, but the new-for-2012 white option is slick paint. Counteracting that is a better thumb rest, but it shouldn't be an either/or choice. Richard Franiec is going to love this camera.

Another ergonomic problem that must have plagued the S100 was the easy-to-find power button, because it has been moved slightly and made smaller. The back panel functions have remained the same, but the domed buttons of the S100 have been replaced by flat buttons that are harder to find by feel. The S110's profile is also slightly boxier than the 90/95/100, and it has had the jimping ridges along the ring control and mode dial replaced with some industrial-style knurling. This provides something of a stylistic tie-in to the Canon G1x, which is an odd choice considering its sales success. Or lack thereof. Overall, I have to say that the S110 avoids the slightly luxurious feel of the S100.

My two biggest complaints about my S100 haven't been resolved. The ring control is still laggy – the camera isn't able to 'stack' commands, so if it can't call up the on-screen indicator for what the ring controls, then turning it has no effect. The other problem is the f/5.9 aperture at the telephoto end of its lens range. With those two hanging over it the S110 remains a camera to be anticipated and compensated for, and no matter how good it is, it doesn't overcome being a point-and-shoot.

And the world changes: Canon pulled off a cute trick with the S100: they snuck in an extra generation that Olympus and Panasonic didn't have an answer to. That newness made the S100 better than the XZ1 and LX5, and its smallness ensured that it appealed strongly to a market all on its own. Today the Olympus XZ2 remains big, Panasonic has gone the wrong direction with the LX7, and Nikon – never a serious competitor with its compacts – has chosen this moment to G7-ify its P310 and remove its raw mode. The G15 and X10 are both much bigger cameras, and don't really play in the same space as the S-series.

The only real competition that I see in the pocketable high-IQ category is the unreleased Fuji XF1. I've been able to use one and was impressed, and it's certainly an upcoming camera to watch for, although it will be hard to justify its launch price. Finally, there's also the Sony RX100, but calling that 'competition' to the S110 is being kind – it's in its own class as far as both quality and cost is concerned, even though it's only slightly larger than the S110. If the price isn't an issue, then the RX100 is an easy call; if it is an issue, then the S110 is also an easy call. That's not a bad way to solve a dilemma.

I can't say that the S110 is the best on the market any more, but if you can't find an S100, it's not a bad substitute.

Counter Opinions are quick "sales counter" product reviews.
As always, viewer discretion is advised.
Last updated 5 oct 2012


Nikon D600

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: I'm not buying one.

Counter Opinion: The more is see and handle the Nikon D600 the more impressed I am. I'm having a hard time imagining a better entry into Nikon's world.

Yes, it's expensive, but not overwhelmingly so. Today the D600 and 24-85mm lens costs a little less than what my first SLR did, which was the Olympus E-1 with 14-54mm lens, and I used that for years with just the addition of a cheap macro lens. That's not a bad deal.

Alternatively, buy the D600 body and add the trio of new f/1.8 primes (28, 50, 85) for an awesomely capable set that's still not that big or expensive. Swap one of those fast primes for a macro – the 50/1.8G for 60/2.8G, or 85/1.8G for 105VR – and that base is covered; add an SB-700 flash, a couple of SD cards, and don't buy anything else for a half-decade.

As a D800 owner, I do still see the value in the heavier iron. The higher top shutter speed and flash sync speeds are things that I've used just this week, and printing 16x20" photos at a little over 300dpi certainly doesn't suck. I also already own an MC-30 ten-pin remote, so that's a cost savings right there. Although I am jealous of the D600's ability to use the non-astronomically-priced ML-L3 wireless remote – life's a barter.

In an odd digression from their recent design trend, the shutter button on the D600 isn't as aggressively sloped as on their other 2012 cameras. I'm not sure that it means anything, but it does suggest that the D600 was in development before the new ergonomics were nailed down for the D4/800/3200 designs. Coupled with the D600's quick availability it's fairly clear that Nikon was sitting on skids of these in anticipation of Photokina – and the hubbub over the D800 dying down.

There are a couple of clues that makes me think that the D600 is the FX companion to the D7000 rather than a D800-lite. One big one is that the D600 uses the MC-DC2 remote instead of the ten-pin connector of the 'pro' series. This suggests that the D800 also needs a 'pro' DX companion that could finally replace the D300s, in the same way that the D700/D300 worked together. I could see the difference in control layouts between the D800 and D600 being enough to discourage people from using those two as a pair. As it stands, though, the image zoom in/out buttons are reversed from the D7000, as they are on the D800 and D4 compared to their predecessors, so clearly a model bump in the D7X00 line is in order.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, IQ: I haven't scrutinized it but have no doubt that it'll be excellent. DxOmark has already ranked its results among the best in the world – pushing the top Canon camera out of the top twelve in the process – but in all honesty, there's hasn't been a truly bad camera made in many years. The Olympus E-510 is the last one that comes to mind for me, with its ability to record about one stop of highlight detail above the midtone; if anyone knows of any more recent than that, please let me know.

The biggest D600 news for me is that Nikon has finally included a half-decent a thumb rest. It's not as good as the 5DmkII, but it's a sign that perhaps someone at Nikon has picked up a second-hand F5 from eBay. I do find the hand grip a little narrow, but the thumb ridge makes up for a lot. Including a 100% viewfinder is a strong statement about how highly Nikon thinks of this model, despite its lack of a round viewfinder; Canon missed that mark on its upcoming 6D 'competitor'. The D600's shutter is even a bit quieter than the one on the D800, which is another nice touch.

Nikon has built themselves a very appealing little camera.

Counter Opinions are quick "sales counter" product reviews.
As always, viewer discretion is advised.
Last updated 25 sep 2012


Youtube Product Reviews

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 1 out of 5
Yeah, but: Hey, internets.

The Long Version: Here's something I don't understand: the Youtubed single-take video review. I've been shopping for a new pocketknife recently, and these things are the dominant form of experiential information about it. Let me tell you, most of them are just plain bad, and many of them are much worse than that.

Coughing, bumping the camera, um, let's see, dropping things, focus hunting or locked on the wrong thing; um, background noise, hiss and wind noise; shaky camera, um, I don't know if you guys can see this; helmet-POV, hand-on-each-side demonstrations, um, webcam, hey youtube; missed framing, drifting auto exposure, fidgeting; dumb catchphrases, um, random backgrounds; bad video and worse lighting; scantily researched, improvised, self-indulgent and rambling presentations.

Seriously, I've seen considerably higher production values – and better scripting – from some very average efforts at amateur porn.

Writing a good review is hard work: look at just how rarely I accomplish it despite my many attempts. Taking photos is also an acquired skill, and one that most casual reviewers lack. That's usually okay, since the goal is description, not art, and a still photo can be puzzled out or skipped over as the viewer prefers. But when people take a video camera out to the garage because they think that it's easier than acquiring and/or combining those two other skills, bad things happen.

Making a good video is a lot of really hard work, which is why I don't do it. I can't say that I won't ever create a video review – they have their place and can draw a lot of attention – I absolutely promise that it won't be recorded with my cellphone.

last updated 24 sep 2012


Spell Tower for iOS

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: Time flies. Seriously.

The Long Version: I encourage people to think that when things go quiet around here that it's because I'm working on something big, like world peace or a major camera-related review. Sadly, though, it often just means that I've found a new computer game.

These days I've been playing Spell Tower, by Zach Gage, which is a neat little game for iOS that Penny got me hooked on. It's a word-finder remove-the-blocks puzzle, with different gameplay modes that allow free play on a fixed board or various reverse-tetris don't-reach-the-top challenges.

I don't seek out stress, and usually play the "no pressure" game. I do terribly at Scrabble but reasonably well at Boggle, and I'm pleased to say that the technique is more like the latter with some of the odd not-really-words of the former. All told, a fair trade.

The user interface is good, but in my case is limited by the phones' screen size. I'll occasionally select words that I wasn't trying for, usually while on my way to building something that would have given me a higher score, simply because I have a hard time accurately hitting the little letter boxes on my iPhone screen. I'm pretty hopeless at dragging to select the letters, especially when doubling back and working on diagonals, but tapping is just a little better. An "undo" command would be a very, very nice addition.

Tapping is also good because it shows the points total before committing, and sometimes there are better combinations that aren't intuitive. I played one game where "hugs" was worth fewer points than "guns", so it's good to check.

The game has American overtones in other ways, too: "zed" isn't an acceptable word, despite being used in almost every English-speaking country, but the nonsense word "zee" is. "Jesus" is a recognized word, but my nephew's name isn't despite also being mentioned in the Bible. I accidentally discovered that Shri is an alternative spelling for Sri, which is an Indian honourific derived from Sanscrit; I still have no idea what a "bez" is despite it earning me sixty points. This is one reason why I detest high-level Scrabble games, but at least with Spell Tower these can be discovered by happenstance. I still feel better about completing games when I can use all of the words in a sentence, though.

I have to say that I really like the font that Mr. Gage chose for the display. It's very easy to tell "E" from "F" and "B" from "R" despite having all of the letters in majuscule. There's also a white-on-black "night colors" option that tames the screen brightness, which I prefer to the standard display. That's useful enough to let me forgive the too-loud-by-default sound effects.

A nice touch is the list all of the words found during the game, presented along with a link to the iOS dictionary if it's a legitimate one. I'm routinely surprised by just how few words there are when the game is finished – it always feels like there should have been more. I've yet to actually time myself playing a game, but I suspect that it's considerably longer than it feels like, as well. That, at least, can be a good sign.

All told, Spell Tower is a simple and enjoyable little game that easily justifies the price of the download. There is room for a little more refinement in the interface, but that's true for me, too. Highly recommended.

Updated 26 September: I just downloaded an update and now it has locked all of the levels until I go through the tutorial or score a certain number of points in various things, and it resets itself to the maximum effects volume. That's just obnoxious – I've marked its score down accordingly.

last updated 26 sep 2012

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