Showing posts with label computer. Show all posts
Showing posts with label computer. Show all posts


A Specific, Detailed Program on The Online Photographer

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: To be determined.
Yeah, but: Running out of ink scares me.

The Long Version: Today Mike Johnston wrote an interesting article on The Online Photographer, lovingly (and perhaps provisionally) titled "A Specific, Detailed Program for Absolutely, Positively Getting Better as a Digital Printmaker". Essentially, the Specific, Detailed Program is a daily exercise that's intended to become a self-guided course in making and examining inkjet photo prints, and should last for months or more.


Becoming a better printmaker is one of my big goals for this year, so this immediately piqued my interest. I'm also 70% of the way through another daily photography project, so I'm already in the habit of being in the habit of an ongoing task. Finding another fifteen or twenty minutes a day seems like an attainable target.

I'm committing to starting this no later than the beginning of June, and running it until at least the beginning of September.

I've decided to keep my prints on letter-size paper, both out of space and cost concerns. Somewhat countering the second point, I'll probably stick with my two favourite "for real" papers, even though they run about seventy-five cents per page. Saving sixty cents per print by putting ink on cheap plastic feels like it won't teach me as much about printing what matters to me.

I'll keep this post updated as the process goes on.

last updated 18 may 2012


Eye-Fi Pro X2 WiFi SDHC Card

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 1 out of 5
Yeah, but: I've finally found something that it's good for.

The Long Version: One side effect of having this little review blog is that it reminds me of how long I've owned different bits of equipment, especially if I'm thinking about writing a follow-up. I'll look back through the years and be amazed at just how much time has passed without me really noticing. Not so with my Eye-Fi X2 Pro card: it has been such an ongoing hassle that I was amazed to see that it has only been a year.

My first review of this card was mostly dealing with the experience of trying to set it up and make it work. I don't know if that process has improved any, but a lot has changed for the card and the software itself. It has gone through two major firmware versions, the client software that needs to run on the supporting computer has been updated, and I've routinely used the card in two more cameras.

One year ago the Eye-Fi card was a major nuisance to use. The connection was poor and I would frequently need to reboot my computer to force the software to reset, but the updates have improved the process to the point where I now only need to reboot every week or two. So right off the bat that's a real improvement, even if it's still not really good.

Using a camera that's 'Eye-Fi Connected' also makes a big difference to the experience. My unconnected Panasonic TS3 would happily time out and turn off during the data transfer. No pixels are harmed when that happens, but having to constantly tap the shutter button to keep the camera awake – or setting it to never turn off, which risks running down the battery in a moment of carelessness – goes a long way toward defeating the ease-of-use that the card promised.

Moving the card to my more-compatible Canon S100 was a big improvement. The camera won't turn off when there's a data link running, and it displays an icon on the playback image to show if that particular photo has been transmitted. Very handy. But sending 15-20MB raw files isn't a lot of fun, and the little battery in the S100 would quickly be depleted. My answer to that was to take the Eye-Fi card out of the camera and plug it into a USB card reader, which would then supply the power for long WiFi file transfer sessions. Something about that suggests that there's a fault in my problem-solving methods, but it was the best that I could do.

The Eye-Fi card has most recently come to rest in my Nikon D800. At last, it's just about perfect. Raw files go to my CF card, and small jpegs are sent to the SD card slot. The card has no problem with the 2.5MB files – "small" in D800-land is still a 9Mpx image – and the hefty battery is too big to be run down by the task. I just never bother turning the camera off, and the images are automatically downloaded onto my laptop and imported into Lightroom without me needing to do anything at all.

Except for rebooting the computer a few times a month, at least.

So it's with a certain joy that I can finally say that I've found something that the Eye-Fi card is good for. It took a year of work-arounds and making-do, but this $120 card finally lives up to its promise. Except that now it costs about $80. You win some, you lose some.

One other note is that the antenna in the Eye-Fi card is, by necessity, tiny. The closer it is to the WiFi router the happier it will be, but this is especially important for the direct card-to-camera transfer that the X2 Pro model allows. Essentially the camera needs to be no farther from the computer than it would be if it was connected by a cable, and closer is even better. But even this remains useful, since no actual cable is required, and was excellent when I wanted to work through the focus-tuning on my D800.

So that's it: an SLR, or other camera with big batteries, that has a secondary SD card slot to send jpeg files to, can be a good place to use an Eye-Fi card. Everything else that I've tried has involved unexpected inconvenience and occasionally considerable annoyance, and certainly not offered any great improvement over the standard plug-into-reader SD card experience that's available for much less expense. It's a very narrow recommendation, but I can finally say that if my Eye-Fi card stopped woking, I might actually consider replacing it with another one.

last updated 5 apr 2012


One Weekend with the Epson 3880

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: How interesting can setting up a printer be?

The Long Version: There's not a lot that I can add to the existing reviews of the Epson Stylus Pro 3880; over the past two years it's been in solid use by people who are better printmakers than I'll ever be. All I can really report on is the experience of upgrading to it. After all, as my mother always said, "Why would I want to listen to people dumber than me?"

The Epson SP3880 makes a powerful impression right from the very beginning: the box that it comes in is a monster, and it's not filled with helium. It's manageable with a certain amount of preparation, but it's not an impulse-buy item unless you already own one of those large "car" things and found a nearby place to park it. Personally, I just strapped it to my faithful folding hand truck and walked it a mile and a half – all uphill – to get it home. With that hurdle out of the way the next task was to set it up.

The Epson 3880 can make prints that are 17" wide, but the printer itself is only an inch wider than the 13"-carriage Canon Pro 9000 mk II that it replaced. This makes the SP 3880 quite easy to live with. The biggest challenge of installing it is finding and removing all of the tape that holds the various bits in place during transit. Canon uses orange tape, and I still missed a couple on the 9000; Epson's tape is a translucent dark blue that's not blindingly visible on (and in) the black and silver printer. I count 49 pieces from mine, including the ones that hold down the spacer blocks and foam, but your results may differ.

Epson includes a fold-out quick-start guide, which I used, as well as a proper spiral-bound manual. It's great to see a printed manual these days, and while I can't remember what I checked it for, I did look at it once when I was setting everything up.

It's one thing to read that the 3880's ink tanks hold 80ml each, and it's something else to see all nine of them together. The printer contains almost as much fluid as a bottle of wine, and given that they're somewhere north of $500 for a full set, it's a mighty nice bottle of wine at that. But on a price-per-millilitre basis, that still makes the 3880's ink cheaper than any other printer that I've ever owned. It's nice to have economies of scale working in my favour for once, even if these tanks are small when compared to the bigger printers out there.

Printing with the 3880 is quick and quiet. The question of print quality has been ably addressed by reviewers elsewhere, so as a newbie all I can add is that I've been impressed without being blown away. The 3880 is a very very good printer, but that still isn't an earth-shattering upgrade from a printer that's merely very good. What pleases me is the speed and predictability of the output, with durable prints that don't have any of the problems inherent in the dye-ink printer that it replaces. As my printing ability improves, I have no doubt that I'll learn more about just how good the 3880 really is.

Given my previous determination to move to the Canon Pro 1, buying the 3880 came as something of a surprise. The biggest disadvantage of the Epson, the ink wasted in switching between the two blacks, went from critical to irrelevant when a multifunction office printer joined the family. And with that out of the way the ability to make larger prints became too tempting to pass up. The established track record of the SP 3880, and its relative popularity, also ensures easy availability of ink and broad support from paper manufacturers. But what really cinched the deal was Epson offering a $300 rebate. Despite knowing that mail-in rebates are essentially scams, it's still hard to pass up the chance to have four-and-a-half extra ink tanks for free.

last updated 9 dec 2011


X-rite ColorMunki Display

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's better than the Huey…

The Long Version: It's been three years since I reviewed the Pantone Huey, and boy does that ever make me feel old. The Huey was a seriously first-generation device, while the X-rite Colormunki Display – a bad combination of words if I ever heard one – is so much more capable that there's absolutely no comparison. I'd say that I was embarrassed to have stuck with the Huey for so long, but the truth is that I stopped using it ages ago.

The Display – I can't go through that name again – is a compact unit that lacks the cord-wrapping base of the Huey, but comes across as a much more substantial unit. In place of suction cups it uses a counter-weight to hold it in place against the monitor, and with a bit of fiddling it did a pretty good job even with a monitor that can't tilt backwards. Running the "easy" profile took only about six minutes, and the software was quite happy on both on OSX 10.6 and 10.7.

One of the abilities of the Display is that it can match a second monitor to the main screen. The Huey could never get my Samsung add-on to look like my iMac, or even remotely colour-accurate, but with the Display it was easy. And when the time comes for something a little more complex, there's also an Advanced mode that allows more sophisticated controls. This has even managed to do the impossible, and I've reduced my iMac's monitor from its retina-scorching default minimum intensity to merely being very bright.

Although I can't compare the Display to other contemporary monitor calibrators, I can give it a solid endorsement over older and inferior devices. When I say it like that I suppose that's not exactly a breakthrough endorsement, but I really hadn't expected to be this impressed with the Display. Simple to use, effective, and able to coordinate multiple monitors – what's not to like?

last updated 4 dec 2011



Concept: 5 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: Mario, schmario.

The Long Version: I don't usually review things that I haven't used for almost twenty years, but one of the lingering injustices of electronic gaming is that the 1991 Mac/PC/Amiga classic RoboSport has never been reissued for a modern platform.

I started to play Robosport on a friend's Mac SE, long before I had a computer of my own. It and Spaceward Ho! were our favourite two-payer games, because they're both turn-based and would calculate the outcomes of everyone's actions without needing to be played on two computers or a fast network. The premise of RoboSport was a near-future televised sporting event that had teams of combat robots competing in special arenas. Not too shabby an idea, especially considering that this predated the radio-controlled cars of BattleBots or reality TV.

A team could be as many as eight robots, and each one could be armed with a rifle, machine gun, heavy machine gun, or missile launcher. The rifle robot had the best armour and long-range accuracy, the heavy machine gun had the most close-in firepower but the least armour, and the missileer had much better accuracy than the grenades that anyone could throw. While the game arenas had a top-down view, it wasn't necessarily omniscient – robots had distinct fields of view, cones of fire, and can't see past walls or obstructions. There were different maps, some laid out as ruins, others as suburbs, and some as computer circuitry. I mostly played capture the flag, hostage rescue, and last robot standing, but other modes included treasure hunt, where the robots need to hunt coins as well as each other, and "baseball" where they have to run bases by reaching certain waypoints.

So far it's just a basic-but-quirky squad-infantry game, but the fun comes from needing to pre-program each robot's moves. Stand here, look there; wait fifteen seconds and then throw a grenade before rushing into the next room; call shots on specific targets or just wait for targets to appear: it became a complicated dance with everyone reacting to what happened in the last round. Sometimes it worked out the way I'd expect, but usually the results were amusing and unintended. Opponents rushing past each other in doorways to take up defensive positions in the room that the other just left, a complicated outlay of firepower aimed at nothing while a lone rifleman plinks away from an unexpected direction, obliterating your own team with some badly thrown grenades – there's nothing to do but watch the results and choose your actions to program for the next round.

Computer games don't need great graphics, just good ideas. The computer that once ran Robosport had less power than a pre-WebOS Palmpilot, and my current phone has a higher-resolution screen. If some modern advances could be brought to the same game concept – better AI, network multiplayer, colour, not crashing all the time – I would buy it in a heartbeat. What's more, if it ran on a platform that I don't own, I would buy one just to play Robosport with. The irony of having it on an Android tablet would capture some of the inherent sense of humour of the game, so that would be just about perfect. Fingers crossed.

postscript: as often happens, in writing this review I've found something else. Looking for background on Robosport led me to the contemporary game Frozen Synapse, and playing it has been enough to keep me from Twitter for almost two days. There may be a review of it in the future, but for now I can say that no matter how good it is, it's still not Robosport.

last updated 19 nov 2011


Canon PIXMA Pro9000mkII

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's meant to be low-end.

The Long Version: First of all, I'd love to meet the person who came up with the name "PIXMA Pro9000 Mark II". It's a gem. And naturally there's another printer that takes completely different inks but with a name that's only different by one character. For the purpose of this review, I'll simply be calling it the "9000", which is not to be confused with the Canon 9000F, which is the flatbed scanner that I use for documents and medium format negatives. They sit side-by-side next to my desk and make a cute couple.

The 9000 is a 13" photo printer, able to handle cut sheets of paper 19" long. It uses high-end dye inks, which are supposed to offer the same longevity as midrange pigments. I have no way of testing that, but there are a couple of lingering dye-printer problems that the ChromaLife100 inks don't solve. One is that the ink needs time to dry: prints stacking up in the printer's output tray can stick together, and they shouldn't be judged for colour accuracy for a solid day. Handy. The other problem is that, once they dry, they really don't like getting wet. The fizz from an open can of soda can cause them to spot, and forget about handling a print with damp hands. For framed photos that stay in the house this isn't a big deal, but I'd never consider selling a print with that kind of weakness. Barnett Newman may get away with applying paint directly on top of masking tape, but I am not Barnett Newman.

The shame of it is that the Pro9000 is actually a very good photo printer. The output is visibly better than the Epson R1800 that mine replaced, with very good colour output, and I've been satisfied with its ability to slowly produce monochrome prints using only its black tank. It even has the ability to print in black when a colour cartridge has run out, so even though I'm currently out of everything except for black and cyan, it continues to print email confirmations without complaint.

I have to admit that I find the 9000 quite endearing. Canon's website, and many sympathetic reviews, have mentioned how quiet the printer is when it's working. They're absolutely right – often I won't realize when the print job is finished. It's harder to miss the beginning of the run, though, since it feeds paper with a pronounced "whirrr-THWACK!" It'll make me jump if I'm not expecting it.

With the exception of the logistical issues around ink drying, I've been very happy with my 9000; it has done what I wanted it for and should have many good years of service ahead of it. It will need to find somewhere else to do it, though, since I've decided to move on to the Canon PIXMA Pro-1 when it's released. What can I say? I like its simpler name.

last updated 11 nov 2011


KB Large Type Keyboard Cover

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: Backlit, schmacklit.

The Long Version: When I first considered my 11" MacBook Air, the one thing that stood out as a significant omission was the lack of a backlit keyboard. The standard keyboard simply isn't particularly visible in low-light. Apple happened to agree, and has come out with a new backlit model, but upgrading doesn't make much sense when there's the Large Type Keyboard Cover in the world. It's made by the aptly named KB Covers, which suggests a certain expertise in this kind of thing. I ordered mine directly from them, and it shipped promptly in full retail packaging.

The cover is a thin silicone overlay that fits the 11" non-backlit Air keyboard. The newer backlit Air has a very slightly different layout, so make sure you pick the right one; naturally other models are available. It fits over the existing keys well, but the shallow 'chiclet' keyboard design means that there's not that much for the cover to hold on to. Turning the open laptop up-side-down will make the keyboard cover fall off, so don't do that.

As for function, the thin material adds just a hint of springyness to the keyboard action. It does change the feel as well, being slightly gripper than the plastic keys. It's not objectionable, just different – in a few days it becomes second nature. The biggest difference is actually to the sound from the laptop, since the Air's speakers play from beneath the keyboard. The form-fitting silicone sheet naturally doesn't do it any favours, both muting and muffling the sound, but really the Air isn't exactly an acoustical powerhouse in the first place. Web videos that might have been intelligible will now need headphones, but that's always been the case for music.

The large type cover is awesome; it's hard to look at it for the first time and not laugh. I have to admit that the really big letters did freak me out for a while – I don't touch-type, but can hunt-and-peck with only the occasional glances at the keyboard. I'd catch these big bright letters in the corner of my vision and startle myself with them. Since then I suspect that my typing speed has actually improved; going to the non-siliconed keyboard on my iMac feels odd and I make a lot more mistakes than usual.

In the interest of proper product testing I had some cookies. The ones that I buy from the sandwich shop are usually a little greasy, and I can always tell which keys are my favourite when I eat them while typing. (Yes, even with prompt use of a serviette.) I'm pleased to say that the keyboard cover actually didn't show any grease marks from the experience, so it not only protects but it also conceals.

The letters are bold and take up nearly the entire key, but with a good balance of black to provide a high-contrast field. The command keys in particular benefit from the large type cover, as they add the symbol that's used in the menus for the prevalent keyboard shortcuts. It's a neat trick to make the original marking larger as well as adding additional and useful information. Apple should be a little embarrassed that someone else's washable accessory does it better.

There are a couple of other nice touches on the keyboard cover. One is that there's a clear window for the light on the caps lock key to shine through, so that indicator is retained. Another is that the button markings on the up and down cursor buttons are drawn as properly spaced keys that are the same size as the left and right arrows, even though the keys themselves are oversized and sloped on the keyboard below. The fit remains perfect, but by not blacking out the space in between they become visually distinct and easier to use. Finally, for the touch-typists out there, the KB Cover makes the landmarks on the "F" and "J" keys even more prominent than on the original keyboard.

Nobody ever got fired for choosing Helvetica. It's a classic font that's familiar and easy to interpret, and a Mac-appropriate choice since PCs use an ugly cut-rate knockoff font to keep the price of their Windows operating system down. It also has the advantage of square letters that fit the keys very well. But there are other typefaces that are specifically designed for increased legibility for people with low vision, and others designed for signage or screens and other challenging conditions. Still, I suppose if something is going to be so visually bold then it's more acceptable if it's conservative. If KB had chosen Monaco or Comic Sans then I just wouldn't have been able to buy it, and that would have been a pity.

last updated 17 oct 2011


PopCap Games' Bejeweled 3

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: Don't start if there's somewhere you need to be.

The Long Version: One of the problems with Mac OSX 10.7 is that it broke the older non-native software that had previously been supported by Apple's Rosetta translator. While that OS upgrade's scheduled for a "cold, dead hands" date for my iMac, I have moved my Macbook Air to the new system. The reason why my iMac will remain frozen is the same reason why I needed a new game to play on my Air – Delta Tao's Spaceward Ho!, the stalwart of galactic conquest that single-handedly delayed System 7's release, never made the jump to the Intel architecture and can't run without Rosetta.

But never let it be said that I'm up-to-date. My new game of choice is Bejeweled 3, and while it's a current release the underlying game is quite old. I was playing Jeweltoy, the non-networked version, almost a decade ago. According to Wikipedia, its lineage can be traced even farther back to the Russian "match three" game Shariki, which was released for DOS in 1994. There are many different versions of the same basic game to be found now, but Bejewelled is the best one that I've played.

The basic idea is that game pieces can be moved one step horizontally or vertically if that creates a match of three or more pieces of the same shape and colour. Matching three makes them disappear and cascades new pieces into their place, while matching more creates special game pieces that have more dramatic effects. The basic gameplay is quite simple, but the execution benefits from sophistication and forethought.

Bejeweled can be played in both timed and untimed games, as well as in subgames with special rules and gimmicks. I prefer the untimed games, and typically play the "Classic" mode. This creates arrangements of increasing difficulty, and ends when there are no more moves possible. There's also the (new) "Zen" mode that will always have at least one move available, and so offers unending play. But aside from having nothing at all to do with Zen, or any other known form of Buddism, the game is still interrupted by some decidedly non-placid animations each time the levels change. In fact, the whole "next level" thing defeats the uninterrupted play idea. There are times when I just want to hear the stones clicking together, but for that this new mode is a disappointment.

Playing the timed modes provide more of a challenge and acutely tests reaction speed more than longer-term strategy. This mode benefits the most from being able to click-and-drag to swap positions, which is faster than the more contemplative click-and-click technique. I generally prefer games that progress interestingly toward my inevitable victory, which is why I still enjoy Spaceward Ho! after twenty years, but there's a lot to be said for getting more of a rush from a computer game. The timed modes do this quite well.

I was hesitant about Bejewled's $20 price tag – after all, this isn't The Sims, nor is it a feature film. But it's almost as addictive as the former, if not as involved, and remains entertaining long after a movie has devolved to basic cable. But more than the money, it also costs me several hours of sleep each week, and after a long session I see its patterns every time I close my eyes. Even with the relatively steep price, it's hard not to recommend Bejeweled 3 to anyone who likes puzzle games.

last updated 12 oct 2011


11" MacBook Air

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: Soon to be known as "the old model."

The Long Version: Maybe I'm just old-fashioned, but I don't expect laptops to be fast. I expect them to be small. I don't really understand the whole "desktop replacement" monster laptop appeal; it seems like an expensive way to buy a computer that's neither fish nor fowl.

The 11.6" Macbook Air is definitely a fish.

There have been plenty of great reviews that look at the enclosure, construction, performance benchmarks, and all the rest of the specificity of the machine. I read them all, and now that I own one I don't care about any of it. Sure, I did spring for the ram upgrade and bigger SSD for the 1.6GHz model, but now that I have it none of the tech specs matter.

What does matter is that it's already connected to my home WiFi network by the time I have the lid open. It's usable from a cold boot after fifteen seconds. It weighs nothing, is happy in my Hadley Pro, and fits like a glove in a backpack that's so narrow that I have no trouble checking the traffic behind me when I'm on my bike. What really matters is that I consistently get five or more hours of web browsing, typing, music playing, and photo editing out of it. It's sprightly enough for any task that wouldn't be crippled by the small screen size – video editing wouldn't be any fun, for example – and although the screen is a little small, it's very good. This is no netbook.

This is the twenty-fifth review that I've written with my Air in the three months since I bought it, and it's made my prose clearer if less funny. (Editing will do that.) All of the images for my daily photo project have been run through Lightroom and uploaded from it, and I carry it with me on a regular basis. My previous laptop was a white 13" Macbook Amateur, and even though that's not a big machine, I would never have hauled around its five-pound self just so that I could do some writing during my lunch. Size absolutely matters, it's just that bigger isn't always better.

Like anyone who should consider the Macbook Air, I also have a desktop computer. It's connected to my scanners and printer, has terabytes of storage, and runs twin displays that are each bigger than my TV. No laptop is going to be a sensible replacement for that, so why try? Indeed, before I bought the Air I was shopping for one of those magical and revolutionary tablet computers, but fortunately I came to my senses in time. (No keyboard? How am I supposed to write anything?) Instead, I'm the fortunate owner of a computer that's powerful enough for me to do real work with and small enough to be with me when I need it. While putting my little AirBook next to a 17" MacBook Pro is good for a few laughs, I wouldn't trade machines.

One of those backlit keyboards would be nice, though.

last updated 24 july 2011


Eye-Fi Pro X2 Wireless SD Card

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 1 out of 5
Yeah, but: Incidentally, the card does work.

The Long Version: The Eye-Fi card seems so promising – photos wirelessly zipping from the camera to the computer, no cables, and no hassels. Ah, if only it was that simple.

The card can't be used without being registered, so the first step is to install the software and connect to the web server. This is 2011, and something as simple as creating a login ID shouldn't be a huge challenge. Supply an email address, type in the chosen password twice, and Robert's your mother's brother. Again: if only.

Following the supplied start-up instructions, I installed the included Eye-Fi Center software, upgraded to the latest version over the internet, and then I was greeted by the New Account screen. When I chose a password I was told that it couldn't be used, but no reason why. I'd try a different one, and then I'd be told that the card couldn't be initialized and would need to be ejected and reinserted. And again. And again. Different email addresses, different passwords, or any combination of information just failed over and over again with cutsey little error messages that remind me why I hate Flickr. On a lark I tried the "Forgot your Password?" option, and it accepted one of my email addresses and sent me a reset link. Okay, now we're in business – don't know how, don't know why, but it's progress.

(I need to interrupt myself with an aside about the handy supplied SD card reader, and note that the software needed is embedded in the card. This is great for my laptop, since it doesn't have an SD reader built in, and worked just fine. Plugging the Eye-Fi card directly into the combined USB hub and card reader that I use for my desktop produced no results at all. Plugging the card into one of the USB ports on that same hub, using the supplied card reader, worked just fine. So even if you don't think you'll need it, you need it: I'm not sure why, but it's magic.)

I used the supplied link to change my password (to one that I was trying to use all along) and got into the manager program and registered the card. It wanted to update the firmware on my card, and as Garfield once said, if the rope's around your neck you might as well jump off the horse. I start the firmware update, am told not to remove the card, and then my computer tells me that the card was improperly ejected.

Extremely worried that "I" might have just turned my expensive Pro X2 (now with twice the Pro!) Eye-Fi card into an ineffective paperweight, I logged back into the software service. Or at least I tried to: it wanted to do the bad password / reinsert card dance again, as it insisted that the card was unregistered and there was no possible way I could already have an account. After a couple more attempts to log in I gave the old "Forgot your Password?" trick another try. This time it swore it had never heard of me and refused to accept that I had ever existed.

I honestly don't remember what eventually worked. I spent a lot of time reading through the support forums, where pretty much every problem – and a lot of them sounded familiar – was met with a request to contact customer service. I formatted the card a couple of times and did a little dance, but essentially it eventually just worked when it wouldn't work before. It's not like I had that many options, or found some secret passcode: I wasn't really doing anything wrong, so there was nothing for me to fix. It just wouldn't work.

I bought the "Pro X2" model for two reasons: it transfers raw files as well as movies and jpegs, and it can link directly to a computer without needing to join a larger wireless network.

The second feature is a no-brainer. The point of a wireless connection is convenience and spontaneity; if I have to return to (or establish) a trusted network with a router then connecting while away from home becomes anything from difficult to impossible. I took and edited the photos for this review on my lunch break, which wouldn't have been possible without the direct-connection Ad Hoc feature that's only available with the most expensive Eye-Fi card. This is such a fundamental ability that the less expensive cards are just as hard to endorse as the most expensive one – there's no 'sweet spot' on the price/performance curve.

The other feature that's unique to the "Pro X2" model is the ability to transfer raw files. But here's my problem: the Eye-Fi Center software configures the card, and can't be set differently for different computers. I don't want raw files going to my laptop, which is slow with a small hard drive and itty-bitty screen, but having my GH1 automatically transfer its files to my Command Centre desktop while I'm still taking photos is really useful. My options are to either format the card before and after each use, and only have one computer running at a time to stop the card from transferring the same files to each one, or to accept that I will have to hunt down and delete the photos that I don't want to have littering each different machine.

This wireless thing is far less handy than I thought it would be.

last updated 30 march 2011


Twelve South's Macbook Air BookArc

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: Make sure you have the right one.

The Long Version: The BookArc from Twelve South has been around for a little while. There is one version that fits many different Apple laptops, including the previous generation of Macbook Air, by using interchangeable inserts within the same frame, and there's also a model to fit the now-obsolete iPad. The current 11" and 13" Air laptops – the October 2010 release – need their own specific model of BookArc that's tailored specifically to the thickness of those machines. While they have much in common, my experience is only with the one for the Air.

The BookArc itself is quite simple: it's a curve of steel with four little rubber feet and a rubber-lined fajayjay that the laptop slots into. The Macbook is held vertically, snugly but gently, with a footprint that's much smaller than what a horizontal laptop would take.

The idea behind this vertical hold is that the laptop can be used in "clamshell" mode, which just means that the lid stays closed while the laptop uses an external monitor and keyboard – it has nothing to do with Scientology. Unfortunately this is a good solution to the wrong problem. It's still clumsy, with the computer needing to start open, and then the laptop needs to be closed and moved around with all of the cables in place. Not tremendously elegant, and the reward for managing it with the Air is to use an underpowered laptop as a desktop computer. That's not much motivation if you ask me, but it's hardly the BookArc's fault. A more powerful computer, such as any non-Air Macbook made in the last two years, might make this more useful.

My bookarc is simply a reserved parking space that lets my pretty little Air take up less room on my chronically over-crowded desk while hooking up with its power supply. The fancy stand could conceivably be replaced by just about anything from a pair of bookends to a plate rail, but the BookArc does it with style. A simple job done well is all that I ask of it, and it delivers. And who knows? If my iMac does fold up its tent, I can always run my Air in clamshell mode for a day or two.

last updated 24 mar 2011


Shopping with Apple

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 1 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's so pretty.

The Long Version: It's hard to argue with success, and Apple has been so successful recently that it's turned Microsoft into an afterthought in a couple of huge markets. (Zune? WinPho7?) The mass appeal of its slick-and-shiny products is hard to deny; even in a mostly vacant mall of chain retail, the Apple Store invariably risks breaking the fire marshal's Maximum Occupancy restrictions. The stores' design reflects the aspirations of the company, with the current generation being even more clean and minimalist than the original "GapComputer" look. It's just unfortunate that this is far better in theory than in practice.

During slow times there's actually a chance of getting attention from the twenty-plus staff who are on the sales floor at any one time. They're helpful and fairly knowledgable, and the way they use wireless electronic payment terminals means that the whole transaction can happen without anything as unstylish as a cash register. Very slick. But without their time and attention, as a customer there's not much you can do.

I'm not a shopper, I'm a buyer. I like to walk into a store, find what I need, pay for it, and get out again as quickly as possible. This doesn't work in the Apple Store, because after I find what I'm looking for unaided, I'm stranded. There's no cashier, no line, nowhere to go next. Sleek and stylish turns into isolated and ineffectual. My only relief is that their system has broken down so thoroughly at the Toronto Eaton Centre location that one corner of the "Genius Bar" has become a semi-permanent cashier's desk, but there's still nothing to indicate this to the uninitiated, and people waiting to pay are intermixed with those who are waiting for an opening for tech support.

What really made Apple different way back then – I've been owning and using Apple computers since the mid-80's – is the idea that if the person can't get the computer to do something, it's the computer that's at fault, not the person. So why is it that when I go into an Apple retail store, I often leave frustrated and feeling that I must be an idiot for shopping there?

Internet shopping was invented for people who want to shop without the whole human interaction thing, but my recent experience with the online store was no better. When making an online-only Apple purchase – which I've used to create this whole review – I saw that expedited shipping would cost only a modest amount more than the standard service. I checked their shipping policies, where it clearly says that shipping for Canada (and the US) is handled by FedEx. Seventeen dollars for FedEx is a non-decision, so I went ahead with it. Sure enough, when I get the tracking information sent to me six hours later, it's an unmistakable number from UPS.

For reasons varied, personal, and deeply entrenched, I would happy pay an extra seventeen dollars to have something not ship with UPS. So I looked for the customer support e-mail address to vent a little tiny bit, and the only contact option turns out to be a toll-free phone number. That's not the same thing at all: if I'm going to take the time to register a complaint that's not going to go anywhere, I'd really prefer to put it in writing.

While I like Apple's products, I'm not nearly convinced that they're the best place to buy their own products from. When I have a choice, the local non-branded computer store and the big-box store are both higher on my list of places to shop. There's something to be said for supporting the people who are easier to deal with, even if their stores aren't as pretty.

last updated 9 mar 2011


Barnes and Noble Nook Color

Olympus Nook

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 1 out of 5
Yeah, but: Paper publishing is preferable to the Color Nook.

The Long Version: There's an interesting article on the NPR website, "Digital Divide Propels Barnes & Noble Past Rival", in which the author writes glowingly of the Barnes & Noble Nook Color and how it's opened up a gap between it and it's nearest brick-and-mortar rival, Borders. Based on my experience and the experience of my wife, the Nook Color is barely usable and not worth consideration in its present state. Which makes me wonder if the author actually used the Nook Color. I sincerely doubt Border's management will loose much sleep over the Nook Color, as the NPR article would have you believe.

It All Started...

My wife and I decided to give one another a Nook Color for Christmas. My wife is a veracious reader, and after 25-plus years in our current house, she's filled shelves, closets, and boxes with books of nearly every description. She's purchased so many books over the years that she could open her own (used) book store.

She wanted a Nook Color so she could ostensibly switch to e-books and save the space regular books consume. She, in turn, wanted to give me a Nook Color so I'd keep my hands off of her Nook Color; after nearly 30 years, she knows me all too well for the geek that I am, and she didn't want me tinkering about with hers. Her gift of a Nook Color to me was as much a defensive act as an act of love.

The decision to purchase the Nook Color was easy for us to make; we were drawn to it by its provenance and cost. We've been satisfied Barnes & Noble customers for many years, and have been a member of the Barnes & Noble discount club for almost as long as we've been customers. With that kind of good-will towards Barnes & Noble it was easy for us to purchase an e-reader made and sold by them. And at a cost of $250 the Nook Color is one of the cheapest color tablets on the market, far cheaper than the Apple iPad. It seemed like a very safe purchase to make.

When we purchased our Nook Colors I purchased mine on-line from Barnes & Noble while my wife purchased her's from Amazon. The Amazon purchase turned out to be problematic because of Amazon's 14-day return policy. Barnes & Noble had a much more customer-friendly return policy; their web site stated that they would accept any Nook Color return, if purchased after November 30th, opened or unopened, until January 31st, 2011.

Our Nooks were purchased on December 14th. We opened them Christmas day. After two weeks of working with the Nooks we decided to return them both by January 10th. Because of Amazon's return policy we were out of Amazon's return policy window. It is to the credit of Barnes & Noble that they accepted, for return, the Nook Color purchased through Amazon, and for that I am most grateful. But let me back up a bit and recount our experiences with the Nook Color and why we returned them.

Technical Specifications

The Color Nook is a color screen tablet computer. It is built around an 800 MHz ARM-core-A8-based Texas Instruments OMAP3621 processor with 512MB DRAM and 8GB of flash storage. The front contains a 7 inch diagonal 1024 by 600 pixel resolution capacitive multitouch color screen that is supposedly capable of displaying 16 million unique colors.

The operating system running on the Nook Color is based on Android 2.1, with extensions added by Barnes & Noble for the Nook Color. The specific Barnes & Noble OS version tested with the Nook Colors we had was 1.0.1. TheNooks initially shipped to us with version 1.0.0 installed. I downloaded the 1.0.1 version from Barnes & Noble and upgraded both via side-loading.

The Nook Color is powered by a rechargeable NiMh battery, which gave a practical limit of between five and six hours operation using the 1.0.1 OS release with WiFi enabled.

The exterior controls consist of an on/off push button on the top left, a pair of volume control push buttons on the top right, and a single control on the lower front in the shape of an inverted 'u', but meant to represent a lowercase 'n'. At the bottom edge is an industry-standard miniature headphone jack and a sub-miniature USB connector for both data and charging.


If there's one lesson Apple's success has taught the industry, it's that the initial packaging presentation is important to establishing overall customer satisfaction. Apple's packaging presentation is legendary. B&N's is not quite as legendary, but it's still quite nice and earns points for not having required as many dead trees as some of Apple's more elaborate packaging excesses.

Color Nook Accessories Location

The Nook Color's box is simple to open. There are small magnets embedded in the lid and the opening to keep the lid closed or, when open, flat against the back of the box. The lid doesn't flop around.

In the lid itself is a simple box that is easy to pull out and open. It contains the Nook's four foot long USB to micro USB cable and a small wall wart to charge the Nook's internal battery. When the cable is not being used for data access, it plugs into the USB-style slot on the wall wart for charging.

Many more points are earned by the cable. The Nook use a standard micro USB connector, the same as many contemporary cell phones now use. It's a foot longer than an equivalent Apple cable (the Apple cable uses a proprietary connector into the iDevice), and it's a lot thicker and more robust. When not used to charge the Nook, the USB cable can be used to connect to a PC or a Mac and access the Nook's internal flash memory.

That's right; the Nook acts like an 8GB thumb drive when connected, and it's very simple to drag and drop content such as JPEGs, MP3s, and other electronic content to and from the Nook. From a data perspective, it's an open device. More points to the Nook for being so open.

Color Nook in Case Holder

What's clever about the box is that the end of the lid contains a foam insert with a slot cut out the same width as the Nook. With the box opened it acts as a simple holder for the Nook.


With all those good points, why were the Nooks returned? The Nooks were returned because their performance was awful. Whether it was trying to flip between the virtual pages of an electronic book, or trying to scroll a web page using the built-in browser, or trying to interact with the Nook in general, the Nook would either freeze during an operation, inconsistently recognize finger interactions, or scroll in a very choppy and annoying fashion.

In stark contrast, any iDevice you can purchase from Apple is buttery smooth in its operations and highly consistent and predictable in its interactions.

My wife is a very forgiving woman, and will blame herself for a device's intransigence before she blames the device, but after two weeks of fighting her Nook she realized it wasn't her and finally had me return it.

My experiences were far worse. Not only was performance choppy, but I lost track of the number of times I locked my Nook up with the built-in web browser. Every time the Nook locked, I had to hold down the on/off button to force the Nook to power down completely and reset the device. Then I'd power it back up again.

Other issues I had concerned it's inability to read any PDF I tried to load on the device, and the limited color range for JPEG images. The Nook would appear to open PDF files, and display the front page, but it would never display any other page in the document.

Remember those 16 million colors the Nook is supposed to display? The current Nook Color will only display a far smaller number; JPEGs that display smooth tonalities on most other devices (iDevice, Mac or PC) show up as step-wise color messes on the Nook, with dark areas completely black and light areas blown out.

To add insult to injury, the device I gave to my wife had to be exchanged December 27th when the Nook stopped playing any audio. My wife had set up an account with Pandora, and was enjoying the streaming music when it simple stopped playing. No reseting of the Nook would correct the problem; in the end we had to drive to a downtown Orlando store and exchange it.

Return and Final Comments

Let me take a moment to praise a local Orlando member of Barnes & Nobles staff; Tammy Randoph. Tammy works at our local Barnes & Noble at Sandlake Road and Dr. Phillips Blvd. When it came time to return my wife's Nook, Tammy credited our account for the device, even though we didn't have the receipt and it wasn't purchased at her store. It turned out that exchanging my wife's Nook "reset the clock" and removed the initial purchase record. According to Barnes & Noble's system it appeared as if her Nook was actually purchased on December 27th.

The other Nook had to be shipped back (free shipping) to Barnes & Noble for a full refund.

It's excellent customer service that makes us loyal Barnes & Noble customers, in spite of our negative experience with the Nooks.

The on-line press has been reporting since December 2010 that Barnes & Noble was near to releasing an Android 2.2 version for the Nook Color that would address most, if not all the issues we encountered with our copies. But as I was standing at the local Barnes & Noble to return my wife's Nook, one of the staff (not Tammy) remarked that if we waited until February, Barnes & Noble would release Android 2.2. When I realized this magic release was sliding to the right, I finally and completely gave up on this version of the Nook. I wasn't going to wait for a new OS release that might, or might not, make the Nook Color the type of device it should have been at its release.

I continue to be a loyal Barnes & Noble customer, and still enjoy the regular stop by the book store to browse and purchase books. But it's going to take a lot of work on the software side before I'll consider purchasing another Nook Color.
last updated 18 january 2011


Buying a Second Monitor

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 1 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's not the getting, it's the having.

The Long Version: I still remember when having a monochrome monitor that was green and yellow was the height of cool, and I still enjoy the computer games that I played on my Commodore 64 and Mac Classic. I'm hardly cutting edge; in fact, I'm of the "never too late to have a happy childhood" school. And in this case, I have a long-held envy of a friend's wicked-fast Mac IIfx that was running dual monitors. Yes, I know that my mid-2007 iMac with its 24" screen completely stomps that historical footnote, with power and pixels that are straight out of science fiction. I've still wanted a second monitor for many years.

I'd find myself standing in front of the displays in the happiest place on earth, trying to decide if I had enough room on my desk for a new toy. Invariably, I'd decide that I didn't know enough to make a good monitor choice, and would wander back to the flash drives and paper shredders. (Look for reviews of those soon as well.) The final straw was when I found some really good 'boxing day' deals on a local store's website. I started researching a few models, and that's where the trouble really started.

I'm a reasonably technical person. I know what Linux is, worked for a couple of IT companies, and enjoy finding highly complex solutions to simple problems. Within photography, I'm swimming in a sea of technical information, and even though much of it is meaningless and/or hype - Samsung calls the processor in its newest cameras "DRI Me II Pro", I kid you not - an abundance of information is out there. DPReview takes 27 pages to discuss the merits and shortcomings of the model bump of the model bump of the entry-level Nikon D40 - one of the most straightforward cameras on the market. People who think a lot about buying cameras truly did wring their hands over the Canon 50D dropping to 6.3 frames per second from the 6.6 of the 40D, and the image-quality ramifications of more megapixels. Photographic technophiles could even make the overclocking quake-benchmark-addicted slashdotter shout: "17'5 1RR3L3\/4|\|7, dUD35!". Eris knows I've come close to losing it a time or two myself.

Shopping for an LCD monitor was like hitting a wall, except that the wall is solid, impenetrable NOTHING.

Forget about trying to learn the differences between TN, IPS, and PVA technologies. The manufacturers websites wouldn't even tell me if the panels were glossy or matte. I abandoned one possible purchase after fifteen minutes of hunting for information because of a minor aside in a user review. It mentioned that not only was the height not adjustable, the panel didn't even tilt. Isn't that worth mentioning on the products' web page? It should probably be right under the note: "May Not Be Suitable For Normal Use". Perhaps my frustration is because I was mostly looking at Samsung, as I have found more useful manufacturers, but it should never have been this difficult. The best source of information, virtually by default, were the single-paragraph "I bought it and it's the most awesome / it broke and sucks in every possible way" tragicomedy of aggregated user reviews. Trying to find a decent screen was the most frustrating thing I've done since choosing a cell phone plan.

I did eventually find an affordable matte-screen PVA monitor that tilts and swivels. (Model "F2380".) Its image quality, in terms of sharpness, contrast, and nuance, isn't a match my iMac; and I've yet to be able to calibrate it to get rid of a cool shift to its mid-tones. I actually expected that last part because of something I read somewhere, and partially expected the other attributes because of my price range. The aesthetic of the display is greatly improved by some black electrical tape to get rid of a cosmetic light that flashes obnoxiously when there's no input signal. And maybe it's just me, but for some reason it doesn't use a half-inch of its screen when it's horizontal, but uses it all when it's vertical. Such is life. At least it tilts.

Since it's not good enough to be my reference screen, I've discovered that I prefer it set vertically. It takes up less room on my desk, which is no small mercy, but it's also a useful way to work. For Lightroom, I typically keep the second screen in Grid view, which speeds my sorting and ranking immeasurably. In Survey mode (top photo) it gives jumbo previews of two horizontal images, and in Loupe mode it lets me see a vertical image in all its glory. For Final Cut, it lets me mix ten stereo audio tracks in the timeline viewer without reducing the other windows to nothing (second photo), and the custom configurations can be quickly flipped to put the Viewer in the main window and still have lots of room to work. Even Spaceward Ho!, which I first played on a 9" screen, benefits from the tall arrangement. After only a week, I know I'd suffer if I had to give it up.

Mac IIfx, eat your heart out.


x-rite Colorchecker Passport

Concept: 5 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's not quite foolproof, but it's a big improvement over the stock setup.

The Long Version: Alright, so I'm a joiner - I'm okay with that. Last night when I saw Michael Reichmann's review of the Colorchecker Passport by xrite, nee Macbeth, my eyes went wide and I was bolt upright on the couch. I've had the full-size color checker chart for a while, and had nearly bought the credit-card version a half-dozen times. Its price stopped me - it's a lot of money to pay for something that will take a lot of wear and tear as I'd be subjecting it to use away from the protected confines of studio shooting. Sure, the Passport is actually more expensive, but it's a plastic clamshell design that's strong and self-standing. If the stores hadn't been closed, I would have had one last night.

Instead, I was out of the house before 10am on a Saturday - something that happens only once every couple of months and usually involves a cookie from Starbucks as a bribe. I was actually worried that the local Canadian Tire of camera stores would sell out. (Okay, so it's a very slim chance, but it is possible that there are that many Toronto photographers as skewed as I am.) Happily there was still a half-dozen in stock, and I was on my way back home after a quick detour to the Apple store to pick up a new iPod. It's easy to guess which one I unpacked first - yes, I am that much of a camera geek. I'm also easily distracted and absentminded, so I've added a couple of strips of silver/black reflective tape to help the all-black Passport stand out among the various black cards that I invariably have scattered around when I'm shooting jewellery.

Most photographer's reviews don't mention that the reverse side of the colour chart is a light grey white balance target. It is somewhat redundant, and feels a little like there was some blank space to fill. Perhaps it could be useful when the subject is too far away to use the smaller squares in the two colour targets, but I'm reaching to try to understand this one. It's also interesting that it's a much lighter tone than my various grey cards, so perhaps it's been corrected for the 1/2 stop underexposure that an 18% grey card will cause, but x-rite only calls it a white balance target. Regardless of that mystery, the Passport is a more practical tool than the older Gretag Macbeth card that's also in these photos. The larger charts' size and cardboard 'protective' sleeve makes it excellent for the main studio and not much else.

Taking a brief detour, I've put this photo in black and white to emphasize my favourite Lightroom white balance trick. Using the eyedropper tool is never precise, and I know that my monitor isn't calibrated well enough to judge the hue by eye. Lightroom has a handy "grayscale" button. I hit it, and if the visible colour doesn't change, then I know I'm good regardless of my monitor's accuracy. Easy-peasy.

The Colorchecker Passport is perfectly named - except for the missing U - as it is indeed almost exactly the size of my Canadian passport. Its thickness is half-way between a passport and a Moleskine notebook, which is another classic back-pocked item. It's large enough to be a useful size, but small enough to carry and hold. The design is a clamshell that covers a middle panel with the standard and WB targets on opposite sides, and the way the clasp is done it's simple to just open it to the half that I want to use. With all three panels open it's self-standing, and there are detents in the plastic hinges that let it stand at different angles. Someone put a lot of thought into how this color checker would be used, which is the exact opposite of the traditional and mini charts. I'm very impressed.

But wait, there's more! The Passport also includes a CD with software for building custom Camera Raw profiles. Sure, no big deal - Adobe Labs had a DNG profile generator out in 2008 that does the same thing. At least that's what I thought before I tried it out. I launched the xrite software, fed it the DNG of the (uncorrected) image above, and it automatically recognized the chart and did its thing. All I needed to do was name the profile it was going to create, and it even put it in the right spot for Lightroom to find it the next time it launched. (I'm using the format "yy-mm-dd Lightsource".) But I didn't even need to work that hard; it also includes a Lightroom plugin that creates a new profile without ever needing to see the stand-alone application. For comparison, I tried to use the Adobe Labs software, and gave up on the second step because I couldn't remember how to get it to work. Once again, xrite has just nailed the practical aspects of actually using their product.

After one day, I can't imagine doing any colour-critical photography without using this target. It's more powerful than a grey card and not much more difficult to use. The only problem I can foresee is that I'll be littering my Calibration panel with various presets, but smart naming will help with that. My xrite Colorchecker Passport is about to become indispensable.

Three-Week Update: Now that I've integrated the Passport into my photography, the results have been as good as I hoped. I've been using it for some of my casual photography, where it gives me a white balance reference even if I don't go all the way with a custom profile based on that particular moment of light. For product photography, I'll import all of the images, find the image of the Color Checker that I want to use, create a profile based on it, and then quit and relaunch Lightroom. Once LR reopens, I'll set that image (still open in the develop window) to the new profile and correct the white balance, go back to the library in grid view, select all images, and sync the calibration and WB. Then I'll tell Lightroom to build my 1:1 previews, and go make a sandwich. The sandwich actually takes longer than creating and using the profile.

Before I shifted most of my 'serious' photography to my Nikon, I had all four of my Olympus SLRs profiled using the Adobe Labs software and the full-sized colour chart. This lets me use any body with very similar colour results. There's no reason why I can't also do that with the D700, but now that I have the Passport, it's just as easy to create a profile for each specific lighting setup for even more accurate results. There's still significant value in doing a dual-illuminant profile - not least of which is that it can be included in a Lightroom preset - but ironically that will be more useful for my general photography than the really colour-critical work.

Compared to my stock profile that I'd created through the Adobe Labs software, the xrite profile (left) is significantly more saturated, and I'll also say that it's the more accurate of the two. That's not a huge surprise, since my Labs profile was created years ago and under different light; both are more accurate than the default Adobe profile. I will eventually get around to creating a 'generic' profile for my Nikon, but that won't stop me from taking and using reference shots for profiles and reality-check comparison.

One other nice design feature that's worth mentioning is the little identifiers on the creative white balance target. The neutral squares are square with a little protrusion in the middle of one side; the warm/cool squares have one corner notched out, with + or - signs in varying size to indicate the amount of shift. This makes it easier to quickly tell what adjustment is being applied, even if it's a little out of focus. It's such a useful indicator that it took me three weeks to spot it. You know what they say about photographers: we have a gifted eye for detail.

Incidentally, Michael Reichmann's website has always been a favourite of mine, even when I haven't agreed with him. (Can we say Olympus E-1?) He's certainly one of my top three influences for the writing, format, and approach of the camera portion of thewsreviews. I was working in the camera store when he bought the viewfinder for his GF1, and while I recognized him immediately, I didn't say hello. Maybe next time.


LaCie Rugged Triple Interface HDD

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: Just one word: Plastics.

The Long Version: LaCie is an established maker of hard drives, computer displays, and accessories. Their displays are noted for being hard-core high-end devices, and their accessories are stylish with frequently good industrial design. You would think that their storage division would get the best of both worlds, and produce hard-core drives with good industrial design - and sometimes you'd be right. Unfortunately, the Rugged drive really isn't all that impressive.

Designed by someone who quotes the wikipedia entry about himself for his bio page, the Rugged drive does look very impressive from afar. Rubber bumpers and a silvery case looks very resilient, and its 2.5" (laptop-sized) drive makes it portable despite its padding. But the silvery case is plastic, not heat-dissipating metal, and I've seen one of these drives with its case bowed inward from heat.

I have no doubt that LaCie knows a whole lot more than I do about laptop hard drives and heat management, so I'm not worried about the construction from a long-term reliability standpoint. A metal casing might be prone to bending if it does get dropped, while plastic can be more resilient. But considering the robustness of the other LaCie drives that I've seen, and its compact metal-bodied competitor from G-Tech, it's a disappointment just the same.

(As an aside, the sticker says that the warranty is "Void if Broken". I'm sure they mean it's void if the sticker is broken, not the drive....)

This Rugged drive is the "Triple Interface", which means USB, Firewire 400, and Firewire 800. Firewire is the fastest, but since it's designed to be a portable drive, it's nice to be able to connect with a printer cable if I need to. It draws power from the computer, so there's no A/C supply needed, which is another major advantage for portability. For laptop users this is perfect, and it's a great way to shuttle files between multiple computers. But for people with a single desktop computer that does most of the work, there are other (better/cheaper) options out there. For mobile users, there are also other (better/pricier) options as well.

By my own criteria, I'm not someone who should be using one of these drives, but I bought two of them. They're my "In Case of Fire" backup disks, so it's important to me that it's easy to grab in a hurry, I can fumble it on the way out the door, and then plug it in anywhere. A second Rugged drive lives somewhere safe off-site, and I switch them every month. These do the job even if they don't leave me inspired, and I suppose that's enough.


Iogear USB Hub & Card Reader GUH286

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: I have one simple request. And that is to have sharks with frickin' laser beams attached to their heads!

The Long Version: I wouldn't have thought that it would be this hard. Having a reader that can handle all of the various memory card formats and also lets me plug in my iPod and printer's USB cables shouldn't be a big request. After all, multi-card readers are cheap and plentiful, and USB hubs are cheap and plentiful. But no matter how much I looked, I couldn't find a combination one for sale in Canada.

Enter my semi-annual odds-and-ends order from B&H. They sell the Iogear GUH286, which is a useful product with a decidedly unappealing part number. It can read just about anything with electrical contacts, and has five USB ports. Two are on the front, three face the side, and there's also a short cable with a mini-B USB connector on the back that can connect to suitably-equipped devices. It even has an auxiliary AC power adapter to charge any connected devices even when the computer is off. It does absolutely everything I want it to, adds a couple extra ideas on its own, is well built, and costs less than $35USD.



Western Digital My Book Premium II RAID Drive

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: I'm rounding up.

The Long Version: As an aspiring photographer I need a lot of data storage, but my camera-buying hobby doesn't leave a lot of money for the unsexy practical stuff. So for many years I've economized by assembling my own external hard drives from empty enclosures and standard desktop hard drives. It's an oddly PC-Clone thing to do for a longtime Macintosh owner, but for once the idea of lower cost and interchangeability in exchange for reliability seemed like a good deal. But when it came time to get a RAID drive to store some of my photos, I wanted something I could trust. I spent a little more and went with a prebuilt drive from a reputable brand name.

What I bought was a MyBook Premium II 1TB drive from Western Digital. It's a pair of 500GB drives in an enclosure with a USB/FW400/FW800 interface, and has the ability to be used in RAID 0 (striped to a single 1TB volume) or RAID 1 (mirrored to a single 500GB volume) configurations. The difference between the two settings is that striping gives a faster disk but with twice the chance of failure; mirroring has only half the capacity but its redundancy lets it survive the death of a single drive. Reliability is more important than capacity for me, so I went with the mirrored setup, which has been a very good thing. Twice.

The case is metal with ventilation grills on the top, back, and bottom. It also has a fan which is quite happy to run as much as it needs to, even if it means running all day, even when the computer is idle, and even when it's propped up on a section of souvenir rail from the White Pass & Yukon Route of Skagway, Alaska to allow airflow through the bottom of the case.

The WD MyBook is designed to have its drives swapped by the owner, and this doesn't void the warranty. The entire procedure can be done with a #1 Philips screwdriver, which isn't as good as a Robertson, but it'll do. There are only four screws to open the case, one to open the drive cage, and then four more screws to hold the drive on the tray. It's an easy procedure, and aside from the time it took to get to the local hard drive store (and the eighty bucks) it was quick and painless.

But it's testament to the customer service from Western Digital that the warranty replacement procedure is even easier. When my My Book failed the first time, I simply filled out their on-line form and they sent me a replacement unit right away, even though I live in Canada and bought the drive from America. It's a nice touch that they send the replacement before needing the defective one back, and that they replace the whole unit even when it's only a single drive failure. True, their support website is slow to load and always seems bogged down, but there's lots of specific information about the different ways these drives can fail. They even use the lights on the front of the drive to show error codes. For example, alternate flashing means that the RAID is critically overheating, and the lights chasing themselves in circles means that it's attempting to rebuild one of the drives. 

The warranty for an assembled Western Digital external drive like the My Book series is only one year; the identical SR16 Caviar Blue SATA hard drive - like the one that I bought to replace another failed drive in my Premium II product - has a three-year warranty when it's not sold assembled in a WD case. So my assumption that a drive from a reputable manufacturer would be more reliable than one that I assembled myself may be misguided. Fancy that. 

I'm sure there are plenty of good reasons to buy one of these drives, even though it means spending more money on a premium product that the manufacturer doesn't stand behind, and even though assembling an equivalent unit from an empty case with a RAID controller and loose drives is no more than a half-hour's effort. I'm stumped, but if you can think of any please hit the comments section below.

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