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


Spyderco CF Caly3: One Year Later

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: You had me at "laminated steel".

The Long Version: A year ago I bought a Spyderco Caly3 CF, so it's time for a quick update to the original review. To recap just a little, my reason for buying the Caly is that I really like my old Spyderco Native, but wanted a plain edge; my conclusion was that they're both great knives, and I couldn't really recommend either of the current generation over the other.

Well, the reality is that I carried the Caly almost exclusively for half a year, and only started using the others again when I noticed that the Caly was wearing through the back pockets of all of my jeans. The very similar Native almost never made it out of the house; my second choice was my clip-point 3" Voyager, and occasionally I'd carry one of my 4" Benchmades for variety.

The Calypso is the most sophisticated and functional knife I own. It has an excellent blade and a superb handle; the carbon fibre scales have enough grip and the thin profile carries extremely well. Yes, I wish that the scales at the pivot end wouldn't wear through my jeans quite so quickly, and the broad blade makes it difficult to accomodate my phone in the same pocket, but those are easy to forgive in exchange for such a great shape.

A slightly larger issue is that the open/close action isn't particularly smooth, and sometimes emits a slight squeak. It's not ideal, but it has never been annoying enough to make me investigate possible solutions, let alone enough to discourage me from carrying and using the knife. And after a year those are the only little quibbles that I have.

I've even become accustomed to the deep-carry pocket clip, which none of my other knives have. The last time that I carried my Stryker I realized that I was taking it out of my pocket by wrapping my index finger under the bottom of the clip, a la caly, instead of by grasping the butt of the knife between thumb and knuckle, which was my old method.

The refinement of the Caly's construction is really remarkable. It's easy enough to design a knife that works well when it's open, but look at the way the closed blade merges into the handle. It's perfect. There are some really exceptional knives that miss details like this, and it makes the Caly3 very nice to handle and carry.

The Caly's flat-ground blade is amazing, being able to slice exceptionally well and being easy to insert between the flaps of a sealed cardboard box. Because, let's face it, I'm no Survivorman wannabe: I use knives for breaking tape, cutting cardboard, stripping labels, and otherwise opening things. But I do actually use a knife on a daily basis, and the Caly3 has handled every task I've tried. I do occasionally need to sharpen the awesome ZDP steel that makes up the core of the laminated blade, but it does hold and edge significantly better than the ATS134, 154CM, or AUS8A steel in my other knives.

Size is always a contentious issue – look at the excitement when Apple offers an extra half-inch – and a lot of the appeal of a certain knife will depend on how it's being used. For box-breaking duty I like to keep my index finger along the side of the blade as a depth control, and the Caly's blade and handle design is as large as I can comfortably hold without over-extending my average-sized hand or gripping the knife by the sharp bits. Even the Spyderco hole comes into play here, providing a better grip for my thumb.

It's possible that the Caly3 really could be my perfect knife – or, at the very least, one of my perfect knives. No matter how good the Caly is, I accumulate knives because I enjoy them, not because I have some life-critical task that can't be done with my current selection. So the fact that I've just gone ahead and ordered yet another knife isn't a criticism of the Caly3; in fact, the one that I've picked out to complement it is an overwhelming testament to its excellence.

But that's a review for another day.

last updated 14 sep 2012


Joby Gorillapod Micro 800

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: Long-term testing may revise those numbers.

The Long Version: I'm one of those "magical purchase" people – I have this idea that bridging the distance between me and perfection is just a matter of finally finding the right thing to buy. For many people this causes a proliferation of unused home exercise equipment, for me it results in an aberrantly high number of tripods.

But the real insidious nature of this thinking isn't that it never works: it's that it sometimes does.

The Joby Gorillapod Micro 800 is one of those vexing exceptions. It's a tiny tripod that can stay attached to a small camera without making it unwieldily. Although I've only owned mine for a little while, it has let me take better photos more easily, and I haven't had to sacrifice anything in exchange for having it with me.

The branding decision that resulted in the "Gorillapod Micro" name is unfortunate, since it bears absolutely no resemblance to Joby's famous (and often badly copied) line of flexible Gorillapods. It really should be called the "Joby Micropod" and promoted more prominently on their website; I went looking for it after seeing one that someone else owned, and it was remarkably hard to find. I didn't know its full name at that point, and for some reason it doesn't rate a front-page photo.

Joby does redeem themselves somewhat by encoding the weight capacity into the full name, though: the JGP Micro 800 holds 0.8kg – 800 grams, 1.75 pounds – and is intended for Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Format ('MILF') cameras. There's also the Micro 250 – 0.25kg – that's more size-appropriate for point-and-shoot models, but I'm happy to have the bigger one.

When on a mirrorless format camera, such as my Panasonic GH1, the Micro 800 just blends in with the bottom of the machine. There's simply no need to ever take it off. I can even leave it attached to either of my little compact cameras when I tuck them in a pocket, although the folded legs do extend beyond their bodies. I don't mind this – it works as a more effective hand grip – but the smaller, lighter, and weaker Micro 250 is a good option if that's likely to be an objection.

There are a few functional compromises in exchange for the low profile of the simple and sleek Micros. One is that its 'positioning ball' has only a limited range of movement – if this was a big tripod it would be called a levelling base. So forget about astrophotography or portrait orientation, but very few people actually use little cameras for either of those tasks.

The other thing that it can't do is lock itself in place: there's no adjustment to the tension of the positioning ball or legs. In practice this isn't much of a limitation, but it may mean that cameras with off-centre tripod mounts, or long lenses, won't play well with the Micro even if their weight isn't completely out of bounds. Conversely, I can rest my three-pound Hasselblad on the Micro 800 quite comfortably, although I wouldn't use it for long exposures. So holding power is quite good, although the idea of twisting the camera against the full tension of the Micropod does take a few days to feel natural.

But the lack of tension adjustability is a faint little concern in the back of my mind. My Micro is still fairly new, but I'll either update this review or write a follow-up with the results of longer-term use, probably in six months or so.

The design of the Micro 800 is quite satisfying. It weighs enough to feel solid and strong, but not so much as to be objectionable. The rubber feet are grippy enough for good traction without snagging on fabric if it's being carried in a pocket or bag. And the design of the pivot, as well as interlocking flanges and grooves on the legs, should let it withstand quite a bit of wear and tear in daily use.

There is one choice to make when using the Micro: how tightly it should be attached to the camera. There's a coin-activated screw slot on the bottom, and when it's used to attach the Micro to the camera then it won't unscrew during regular use. The other option is to just use the legs of the Micro to twist itself into place, but then it can unscrew depending on how the legs and camera are turned. I usually don't use a coin to tighten the tripod screw, but if I was only using the Micro on one camera, I might make that occasional extra effort.

I own a little beanbag, a Manfrotto "pocket tripod", three small tabletop tripods, and two gorillapods. I use none of them on a regular basis, and despite developing a certain affection for long exposure photographs with my little Canon S100, could never bring myself to carry any of those bigger devices with me when I was just taking advantage of impromptu opportunities. Now that has completely changed. The Micro 800 is easy enough to use, and useful enough to have, that I will switch it to whatever little camera I happen to be using that day. The result is that some of my photos have become much better – almost like magic.

Added: I've now had a chance to play with a Joby Micro 250, and it's pretty awesome, too. Plenty of strength for a point-and-shoot camera, merges perfectly with the base of my Canon S100, and even had an attachment that would let it hold my phone in its case. One – or two – of them have been added to my 'must buy' list.

Added Again: Proving that I'm more prescient than I think I am, I have indeed bought two of the Joby Micro 250. The first was with the Griptight phone mount, which I've reviewed, and the second time was just the 250 tripod when I lost the first one. My Micro 800 is still going strong and is now used with my Nikon V1 system.

last updated 17 nov 2013

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