Saturday, June 23, 2012

Mobile Hotspots and Me

I've been using a mobile internet connection since late 2006.  I got a new mobile phone, the Samsung SPH-A900 or Blade.  (This was later Lex Luthor's phone on Smallville.  I felt so evil.)  The one feature that intrigued me was the "phone as modem" capability.  I did some checking and got it to work using Sprint's 3G EVDO technology.  It was faster than the 3 Mbps DSL line from BellSouth that I'd been using, except in PING response speed.

Once I had things set, I discontinued my DSL service and never looked back.  Then, I moved again to a rural community (to help with my parents) where Sprint had no 3G service.  Often, their 1.5G speed was worse than dial up.  They were slated for 3G service the month before I arrived, but something wasn't working and the technicians didn't understand what was happening.  In the middle of a freezing, snowy January they figured it out.  I would go from 2 Mbps to dial up speeds about once every 6 weeks, call customer service who told me that there was nothing wrong, but they would send me PRL updates, etc. and the phone would work better for 6 weeks.  There was "nothing wrong with their network" over an LG Musiq, LG Lotus, LG Optimus S, and finally the iPhone 4S.  I didn't draw the same conclusion about their network.

In these last 3 years, it's become slightly more stable, and with an iPhone having EVDO Revision A technology, I'd seen downlink speeds of 3 - 4 Mbps fairly regularly and I'd once or twice seen downloads through Firefox exceed 500 KB/sec.  Someone in the neighbourhood apparently got connected to Sprint recently and my numbers dwindled to unusable--shutting off the phone unusable.  Besides that, Apple's iOS 5.x mobile hotspot is unstable.

Back on June 6th, I decided to do something about the situation.  I ordered a Sierra Wireless Elevate from AT&T.  I'm not very trusting of the company since they were Southwestern Bell + PacBell + AmeriTech + BellSouth and who knows what other baby Bells.  I went against my feelings.

The device arrived on the 8th and it arrived with the SIM card installed and I just needed to tailor it to my needs.  Despite the slick marketing, it wasn't very fast using HSPA/HSPA+.  Granted, it was much better than unusable but for all their hype, it was barely faster than Sprint at best and it rarely achieved the best time, despite a lack of users.  Once they had as many users as Sprint, they'd be in trouble.  Then, they gave me the first bill and I was a bit shocked that they charged me for data usage while it was being shipped to me.  It wasn't that the money was so high, but that I was paying for time when I didn't have access to it.  Several times, it wasn't connected for whatever reason and a power cycle (power off/power on) was necessary.  This was a refurbished unit, so it should have been working much better.  I returned the whole thing and cancelled the contract.  I must pay for the usage but supposedly, I shouldn't have to pay for anything else--supposedly.  The usage was rather high.  In 10 days, I'd used slightly more than 2.5 GB--half my monthly allowance, and overages were $10 per 1 GB.

I went to a corporate Verizon store in the same town and bought a hotspot.  This was made by ZTE.  I was uncomfortable with all the complaints about the latest Novatel Wireless MiFi LTE device.  Verizon has a 10 GB plan for $80, as well as the typical 5 GB plan for $50.  This ZTE device (#890L) has been out about a month, so it might not be so foolproof, and I'm definitely a fool.  By the way, all of these devices support LTE, where you can find it available.  The ZTE device does not keep track of data used, so you're on your own to look for overages.

Unfortunately, I didn't take the computer with me, so I didn't get to experience LTE right away.  However, I wouldn't be returning to a house with LTE available so, did it really matter?  When I returned home, I set it to charge and connected and personalised it.  It worked fine but Verizon's EVDO/3G service is slower than Sprint's and it's just as overloaded as Sprint's.  Oops.

I had a download of over 800 MBs waiting that I wasn't going to ignore and since I was on the last day of the billing cycle (last day to start?), I tried downloading.  It showed 2 hours, 15 hours, 3 hours, 1 day, and levelled off at 6 hours and change.  Whoa!  I went to another location closer to the main road and it was just as bad.  (Since I wrote this in June, Verizon Wireless has implemented LTE service in town. I don't know if it's good or bad, but a friend has a Samsung Galaxy S III and it shows up as having LTE service available.  I guess I should have been more patient.)  I headed back toward the town where I bought the device, where LTE was active, and the download finished the final ~700 MB in 20 minutes.  I tried just after that and it recorded something a bit over 5 Mbps--not blazing speed in my experience, though there was a peak of 25 Mbps for maybe half a second.  That's not exactly what I'd expect from the nation's fastest 4G network but better than what I'd seen from their 3G network, of course.

One problem I've noticed with the ZTE 890L is that connected to EVDO/3G and using battery only, once disconnected it needs a power cycle to be usable again.  It doesn't happen connected to a power outlet.  Another odd thing I've noticed with the Verizon network in town is that they seem to be on EVDO Revision 0 instead of Revision A, even though they claimed years ago that their whole network was faster than Sprint's because they were on Revision A.

My exploration and experimentation is complete.  Sprint had the best speed in town and perhaps after their capacity and data speed upgrades, they'll be faster than Verizon here.  They'll probably be faster than AT&T, if AT&T actually get some customers and therefore, get the congestion.

I ended up returning the Verizon device about a week from when I bought it.  I'm now using another Sierra Wireless device from Sprint with a huge (over double the size) 3700 mAh battery for long life (and long charging) that cost $99.99 after rebate.  They call it "Tri-Fi", as it supports EVDO/3G, WiMAX, and LTE; the latter two being considered casually as 4G technologies.  I like that it keep track of data during the session, as well as overall usage.  I'll see how it works in a WiMAX environment since I'm planning a trip to Philadelphia.

Update 2014.03.02: This ended badly overall, and I've changed again.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Viewfinder cameras and enthusiasts

When I was little, I took my mum's Kodak Brownie Hawkeye in hand, looked through the viewfinder on the top of the camera, moved back and forth and side to side to frame my upside-down image.  Once perfect, I pressed the gray shutter release to hear a click, and proceeded to advance the 620 format film to the next shot.  Thankfully for me, there was no focusing and I didn't get any medium format quality images from the very plastic camera, even though the film was quite large.

That kind of camera doesn't work in the current, instant-gratification-seeking world.  We don't want to think about the image, we just point and shoot.  Indeed, that's what made Polaroid's instant photography more than an indulgence, and how digital photography (however bad, has wiped out film photography.

However, there is a market for enthusiasts' cameras and FujiFilm is up to their third model in the X line with the X-Pro1.  It's a compact rangefinder camera with a total of 3 available lenses.

The great thing about rangefinder cameras was that you could get amazing image quality, at some high equipment cost, once you were able to guess correctly.

Yes, i said "guess".  As with viewfinder cameras, you could never be certain you had things in focus.  You could use a tape measure to get the distance and set the lens accordingly and that worked fine for portraits.  Remember the photographer at your school having you sit on a chair or a box and he pulled the tape measure to you?

So, this lovely FujiFilm X-Pro1 is the type of camera that involves you in the process of photography, which is why it's an enthusiasts' camera.  No one just taking snapshots would want to deal with the mess.  It has auto focus but their X-series auto focus hasn't been all that reliable.  When it is, you're golden.  When it's not, you're wondering why you spent so much money.  You're probably wondering how to make better guesses in order to do the focusing yourself.

I found myself thinking about such cameras and the nostalgia.  I thought about the Mamiya 645 small medium format camera and can remember when it had an SLR-like viewfinder and fast shutter speed.  Time has passed and digital versions of medium format cameras start roughly at US$10,000, which considering what's below them, they might not be so expensive, although the market has changed recently.

However, more people seem to be entering the enthusiasts' market, thanks to mirror-less camera bodies, and some sharp lenses needing adapters.  Since the lenses don't have electronic contacts, they don't work closely with your camera and you have to be involved in almost every aspect of your photography.

I'm seeing people, who would normally just pick up a dSLR with the kit lens and take a shot, thinking about the shot.  Using fixed-focal (not zoom) lenses, they have to walk forward and backward until they frame the shot.  Then, they have to adjust the exposure and they're thinking about the depth of field and they're really enthusiastic in a way that the dSLR in auto everything mode never pushed them.

It's amazing to me and hopefully, the prices will decrease once these higher quality cameras reach commodity status.  We had 135 format point-and-shoot cameras way back when in the 1980s and 1990s.  For US$50, you could get good quality shots that surpassed the 126 format and 110 format film from years ago, mainly because of the size of the negative, but they found other ways to make the experience inexpensive, even with disposables.

I'm hoping that all these pseudo-professionals carrying a dSLR and kit lens will become enthusiasts and actually become engaged in the photography.  Is it really fun if you just let the camera do everything but point?  FujiFilm, with their X-Pro1, is inadvertently pushing their enthusiasts a bit further and that's a good thing.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Schneider micro Four-Thirds lenses announcement

So, you may have seen elsewhere an announcement from Schneider-Kreuznach that they'll have a micro Four-Thirds 14mm f/2.0 lens available in the autumn of this year and two more lenses available in 2013.

Does this seem a disappointment?  I don't believe so, but what's interesting is that, from what I've read, they have an intention to produce the lens for the Sony E-mount also.  What's missing from the announcement is Samsung's NX-system, given their working relationship with the company.  I might be seeing more than there is but it seems too quiet.

My first thought was that Zeiss promised several lenses, all of the cine variety, but what Schneider-Kreuznach will be making has full electronic contacts and auto focus--at least, the 14mm f/2.0 shown today.  I suspect the other two lenses will be equally gifted.  Zeiss will remain the top choice for video with some amazing lenses allowing a lot of precise control.

I've already seen a few comments about the 14mm f/2.0 being too close to Olympus' own 12mm f/2.0.  Supposedly, the distortion on the 12mm is rather significant, although raw development software may compensate for that.  Personally, I think the current group of micro Four-Thirds lenses are very low end to satisfy the small and light crowd.  If you compare the Panasonic-Leica 25mm f/1.4 lenses for Four-Thirds and micro Four-Thirds, you'll see what I mean.  It may still be a great choice for micro Four-Thirds, but it's obvious which one is better overall.

I continue to see reviews and impressions of the Olympus E-M5 body, comparing it to dSLR bodies 3 times the price, favourably.  That sounds great, but are we to use adapters to have amazing lenses?  I'm unconvinced and keeping my money safe.

On the other hand, Nikon just introduced a budget 135 format lens: 24 - 85mm f/3.5 - 4.5.  This seems to confirm a budget 135/FX format body, the D600.  I guessed that the price would be around US$2000, but that now seems relatively high and I'm thinking more about $1700.  That will really push the D300s successor down and likely eliminate most of the economy bodies.  The only bad thing I'm expecting about the D600 is that it probably won't be weather-sealed.  Budget-minded people won't notice.

Returning to micro Four-Thirds, does it seem that Panasonic and Olympus have done the impossible?  They've taken the Four-Thirds system, put it on a diet, and made it tasty--so tasty that even professionals are biting.  Lens mount adapters help, of course, but between the E-M5 and DMC-GH2, micro Four-Thirds is being used in surprising places.

Update 2013.09.04: Still waiting for any Schneider lenses for micro Four-Thirds.  Since the other lenses available already are mostly mediocre (except for the Olympus 75mm f/1.8, 45mm f/1.8, and 12mm f/2.0), and the Zeiss film-making lenses, the format could really use some great optics.

Update 2014.03.10: Still waiting almost two years later, and the world is moving forward.  Tamron hasn't produced their 14-150mm lens either.

Seeing my earlier update, it's amazing that we have three different OM-D series bodies now and the D600 has already been replaced, and there has been no D300s successor.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Helping while feeling helpless

Today, I went to Fairborn, Ohio to pick up a few Korean items such as the soup/spice base for ji gae.  I took the opportunity to eat at Cassano's Pizza, which is only blocks away from most of the Korean grocery stores.

While I was there, I noticed that the kind, hard-working woman who has always waited on me was wearing an arm sling and her face was bruised.  I didn't ask too much, fearing that this was some sort of domestic violence or an incident at work with a robbery.  I worked at another Cassano's location and you become accustomed in restaurants that unusual things happen.

Later, she was talking to another employee and she mentioned that she couldn't take time off because her electric bill was due and she didn't know how she would pay it.  After I finished my pizza, I bought a couple bags of Snyder of Berlin Salt & Vinegar potato chips.  As she gave me my change, I pulled out $30 to give to her.

I said "I know it's probably not enough to pay your bill, but hopefully, you'll get there much more quickly."  Since I only had about $6 more, I thought that I'd better keep some spare, in case I needed it.  After all, I was about 50 miltes/80 km from home and my car hasn't been the most reliable lately.

I had such a feeling of helplessness, hearing her troubles, seeing her injuries.  I wanted to solve her problems but could not.  We're each responsible for our own condition, are we not?  As I talked to her about the money and my hopes that she would find it useful, I cried.  It's a bit silly that I should cry more than she did.  It's so easy to fall from a good position, but some people are always struggling.  "It's their lot in life." I've heard and certainly, some people can help themselves more than others.  I'm lucky that my mind has worked rather well.  Even through my parents' illnesses, my mind kept working on solutions for them, but in the end, it was for naught.

Now, I can only help the living, although I will always feel a bit helpless.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Apple really should give away their products

You can't satisfy all of the people, any of the time.  Apple should give away their products, and even then, I don't believe they'd make some people happy.

I'm always amused in the weeks prior to new product announcements from Apple.  People see the rumours and they add to them fantastic bits that would never happen.  Then, when the presentation is finished, they feel betrayed that Apple didn't do what they wanted.

I'd think that most people would live in reality and understand from history that a company can only do so much.  Many companies are in business to make money, not to make fantasy products.  Am I correct?

Today, at World-wide Developer Conference, Apple introduced a new, slimmer version of the MacBook Pro, somewhat wedged in-between the form factor of the MacBook Air and the current MacBook Pro.  It's quite thin, but still has awesome graphics hardware, plus a much higher density display.

Those of us who regularly use Japanese, Chinese, Korean, or similarly intricate languages will find the new display useful, as was the display on the iPhone 4 and newer (third generation) iPad.  Of course, it requires a lot of graphics power to maintain the previous visual throughput and they included nVidia's GT 650M hardware to push 4 times the pixels.  I predicted something like this when they introduced the original MacBook Air, so it's good to see that they're introducing it now.

I'm still okay with the current MacBook Pro line and of course, the refurbished machines have dropped in price so this could be a great time to get a model from late 2011.  The newest MacBook Pro (regular size) has the same upgraded graphics hardware, so it would be more capable for 3D work and play, but my money is on the discount and not being sucked into the current, soon to be revealed, problems.  There are always new problems!

It's a bit unfortunate that not much was changed with the MacBook Air but there isn't much room.  Intel's pathetic integrated graphics hardware became a little less pathetic with the HD 4000 series, so the MacBook Air does better in graphics throughput that the MacBook Air that was using the Core 2 Duo and nVidia 320M integrated graphics, finally.  Were those 2 years ago?  Congratulations, Intel, you're only merely behind now, instead of really behind the rest of the world!

You have to wonder what would happen if Apple made AMD/ATI choices available.  I wouldn't expect miracles but AMD have some integrated CPU/GPU packages that are quite nice.  It might be interesting to consider what would happen if Apple completed their company by buying AMD, ARM, and Sony.  If AMD wasn't always on the edge, they might do much better.  Of course, buying ARM and Sony would lead to anti-trust issues, and someone might think that they were trying to eliminate the competition.  However, as big as Apple have become on paper, they could still grow and be manageable.

What's not manageable are the fanatics.  Since the announcement, some are crying, others are laughing, and still others are angry, but Apple never seems to leave people emotionally blank.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Schneider-Kreuznach and micro Four-Thirds

Supposedly, an announcement is coming in the next week from Schneider-Kreuznach about lenses they're making available for the micro Four-Thirds format.

I have a few questions about this like:

Will these be electronically compatible, fully usable with auto exposure and auto focus?
What happens to Samsung's NX-system, if Schneider-Kreuznach adds to micro Four-Thirds?

When Panasonic added a low end (micro Four-Thirds) professional video camera, which is high above the micro Four-Thirds still camera bodies, to their line, it set a new tone for the format.  Suddenly, a number of cine lenses became available, even to those using the DMC-GH1 and DMC-GH2 bodies for video recording.

Now, the sense of putting a US$3000 lens on a US$800 body may not seem reasonable but given what you can do with a properly-hacked GH2, it's not completely insane.  It's also not completely different than taking a US$3000 body and adding an US$8000 lens and professionals do that all the time, don't they?

I still don't see me getting into the video business, though trying video may give me a better, more flexible perspective on still images.  I've barely experimented with the Live View functionality, even though I can see limited use for it for photographing animals or shooting over a crowd.  (Should you be hovering a heavy dSLR and heavy lens over someone's head, trying to get a shot into the crowd?  Justin Bieber might hit you, if he doesn't like it.)

In any case, Schneider-Kreuznach could really change the balance of things if they offer lenses that are fully compatible with micro Four-Thirds, so that they work with auto focus and auto exposure.  Their lenses have been Samsung's only hope to get more serious users buying their NX-system.  If they lose that exclusivity, it would doom the mostly-sinking ship, and provide micro Four-Thirds a new boost against Sony's NEX-system, if Sony's format isn't included in their plans or the announcement.

They made their announcement and I wrote about it in this post.

Monday, June 4, 2012


Adorama has sent me a couple of flyers and e-mails with some wild accessories for iPhone 4S.  iPhone 4S, seriously?  I was thinking that when I turned the page.

Here is the link to their page:

I was noticing a few things in particular:

  • Holga has a lens filter kit $29.99
  • Steadicam has a device for making smoother videos $179.95
  • Schneider Optics has a case and 2 lens set $189.00
  • Cineskates rolling tripod for video US$284.95

These aren't really cheap items, except the case/filter kit, and they're not toys really.  Can you imagine doing serious work by using 10 iPhones with various angles of view to record a scene?  I couldn't do it, but if people could work with Super 8 film, why couldn't they do it with 1080p recordings?

Add to these hardware products a number of enhanced still and video software products on iPhone itself, and you've got a capable on-the-go studio.  Once again, it's not for me, but if you're creative and lacking money but have several friends with an iPhone, it could work.  Who says you need US$5000 and up for video equipment?

As a long time (8 years) dSLR user and someone who has done a lot of photography since the 1970s, I wouldn't have an iPhone as my camera, but for people who want a snapshot, it's quite good.  I would imagine that the video capture is quite good, as well.  The head-to-head phone tests I've seen rate the iPhone 4S camera as one of the best.  Seeing What Digital Camera engage in such tests makes me laugh because I never thought phone cameras would be so good so early.  They're my go-to magazine and if they're taking it seriously, there could be something to it.  Maybe this digital revolution will continue.

The only trouble I see in using an iPhone 4S for serious photography/videography is that the phone needs a serious case and I'm not sure most of the special purpose cases will keep the glass from breaking.  There have been some faint rumours of an Apple camera, about the time Polaroid showed their Android-based camera, but I doubt Apple will get into that business again.  The QuickTake series died along with the Newton OS/Messenger/MessagePad lines but you should never count against Apple.  Who knew that they'd be the most valuable company (on paper, at least) in the world.