Friday, November 30, 2012

The angry pixel bus: digital photo noise

Today, I was in a camera store looking at some products and someone brought up the number of pixels between the Nikon D800 and the D4.  The D4 and its predecessors have concentrated on speed and image quality, while the D800/D800E and its predecessor concentrated on pixels.

This person mentioned something about most people not being able to understand about why pushing too many pixels onto a sensor didn't make sense.  I explained it to them, as I've been doing since 2004:  When you crowd more people onto a bus, you end up with a bunch of angry riders, and they become noisy.  Putting the same number of riders onto a smaller bus does not make for happier people, and you should see even more noise, all things being equal.  They asked to borrow that.

These days, we have buses with better seating capacity and more athletic riders, so we can have more pixels from that same sensor size with reduced noise.

Now, I hope people will remember that it was my analogy and not everyone else's.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Volkswagen service

I'm on my fourth VW, a 1999 Golf GLS with just over 140,000 miles.  It's been through the wringer, so to speak.  I spent over 30 visits because the power window regulator clips failed and the window would not close.  I have a new hatch in the back because of someone's carelessness when she ran into my car at a stop light.  Inside, things just fell apart.  Recently, the sunroof drains clogged and water was exiting through the door trim.  The center armrest door fell apart.  It continues.

On the 12th of November, I had the car serviced.  I was late for a major service, which was at 120,000 miles.  Many things needed to be handled.  When I made the appointment, I had requested that the forward side marker light be repaired, as it had been hanging.  King's VW of Loveland, Ohio missed the hanging light in their several walk-around inspections, but they noticed the missing radio antenna--a huge safety risk.

When the survey arrived and I completed it, the manager replied at how that side marker light had been repaired--as if they'd done exactly as they should have.  If they had, it would have been repaired on my initial visit, instead of focusing on the missing radio antenna.  I actually travel past another VW dealer to go there because the closer one is not as highly rated.  If haphazard care is what you get, why not go to the closer one, unless they really don't care about anything?

On the 17th of November, I was with friends in the Orlando, Florida area.  As I was leaving their house, the low beam headlight on the driver's side was out.  One of those had died about the same time four years earlier.  Unfortunately, there is one that is easy to replace and the other requires removing things to get to it.  (Volkswagen must think like GM or Ford.)

I really didn't want to mess too much, and I went to an Advance Auto Parts, thinking that their people might know immediately or be able to help me.  "We don't do that!" I was told in a most rude tone.  They replace wiper blades and batteries but not headlight bulbs.  Okay, fine, but rudeness, really?

I went down the road to David Maus VW.  They were new in 2008 when I was leaving the area.  I had been dealing with Aristocrat VW from buying the car through service for it.  At one point, they replaced their entire service department and they were no longer trustworthy.  However, David Maus dealerships were an unknown.  He was on tv telling people "whatever it takes" and I thought that he was just another one who couldn't be trusted.

So, I walked into the service department a few minutes early on Sunday morning.  The service advisor was quite pleasant, and patient as I explained things.  He quoted $59.95 for the bulb and labor.  If it was on the easy side, that was overpriced.  I also mentioned that my radio antenna was falling apart and I needed a replacement.  He would ask parts about that.

Quite a while later, he told me that they were close to finishing and the radio antenna would be $79.95 (I expected $39.99 - $49.99)  and they didn't have it in stock.  He suggested eBay.  That sounded better.  I had bought a universal kit for $9.99 and I couldn't fit the pieces together.  I am able to do IKEA or other do-it-yourself furniture but I'm not mechanically-inclined.

On checkout, he said that he went "to the back" and found "old antennas" and replaced mine for free.  I'm sure I thanked him, but my cynicism kicked in and I thought that it was some sort of gimmick to get my trust.  It was certainly better than Jimmy Bryan Mazda breaking something on my car so I'd have to return.

In the end, it worked out quite nicely because the radio antenna balanced the bulb being on the easy side.  If it wasn't, then, I really do owe the dealership some loyalty but they'd have that already for not being rude, and doing a good job.

Strangely, I got a call the next morning from a salesperson.  I say strangely because I was about 1000 miles from home.  Do people keep their car titles with them?  If I was buying a car locally, it would make sense.  I would go home, retrieve it and make progress in the sale.  I suppose I could just abandon my car 1000 miles from home, or give it to strangers.  In any case, I thought that it was amusing that they would attempt a sale from someone visiting the state.

Thinking back to my first two VWs, I used to get a lot of smart ass remarks from the dealerships.  Al Holbert, who raced Audi cars, had a Porsche/Audi/VW dealership in Warrington, PA.  I took my 1986 VW GTI there at around 30,000 miles for brake work.  It needed the two front brake rotors replaced.  I asked politely "What makes that happen?" and the service advisor answered "your foot".  He had a long day?  I had a long day!  If VW was doing surveys at that point, he'd get the opposite of a "Truly Exceptional".  I'd never had a car that needed rotors replaced at 30,000 miles.  That was exceptional.

You'd think if you were paying exceptionally high prices for service--the rates were often the same no matter the manufacturer--that you'd be getting people working between you and the mechanics who knew how to not infuritate customers.  Sure, Porsche hourly rates were nothing compared to Rolls-Royce but my car was about 25 % the price of the nearest Porsche model.

I'm guessing I'll be at a Subaru or Mazda dealer once I decide where I'm going to live next.  I can't just buy a car any longer.  There are no 50 state cars now, unless diesel cars fit that.

Update 2013.01.27: So, I just had the strangest experience this week.  The car was overheating in 17 degrees Fahrenheit weather.  I drove the car too far trying to get it home.  I was going to put water in it, but the water bottles I kept in the car were frozen solid.  The next morning, I had the car towed to Expert Tire, since 60 miles to a VW dealership was inconvenient.  They pulled things apart and found a distribution point that had cracked.  Why it was plastic is beyond me.  Given the state of extremes in weather and coolant temperatures, I thought the parts would be made of metal. They received a replacement part, which wasn't correct, and later that day received the correct part since they could send it back and match it.  The pressure test revealed no other issues.  I had the oil changed due to the extraordinary heat--all those adverts about engine heat breaking down oil got to me.

I ended up with a rental car from Hertz--not recommended too much--and have definitely decided against a Toyota Corolla.  My arms aren't long but the door was designed for someone with excessively short arms, as the controls and door handle were several inches back of what seemed natural.  What's more, I'm half-Japanese, so the car should fit me fairly well.

I've been considering a new car more and more, especially since my mum's house sold and I have the cash.  A reasonably local, highly-rated Subaru dealer has some Impreza Sport models at a reasonable price.  I also found a couple of 2012 VW Golf TDI leftovers at the dealership that does my service.  The discounts put them at almost acceptable prices.  They're all over $20,000--a line I'd never crossed in the past.  I also wanted to look at Mazda 3, but given the dealerships wanting to charge extra or play games, I'm not likely to bother.  Plus, I want a car I can keep in California and the diesels are ULEV II-compliant, and that's huge.  Will they last 14 years as my current Golf is approaching that age?  Will they be as shabby?  I'm concerned.  The Subaru Impreza is a more reliable choice, but will it have an emotional resonance?

Update 2013.07.17: I bought the VW Golf TDI and I've even been through the 10,000 mile service.  Since there wasn't anything really wrong with the car, it went smoothly and it was inexpensive for them and at no cost to me.  There is another service at 20,000 miles and I'm only about 4000 miles from that now.  I might have to have that done while I'm on a trip somewhere else.

Update 2014.11.14: I'm over 40,000 miles now, and it's been relatively fine, except for a botched 20,000 mile service (pinched the fuel filter--didn't reimburse me for the fuel) when I was on the road back in August 2013.

Now that I'm living in Northern California, I'm happy to have found a great service department within 15 miles or so.  There are three VW dealers within that distance, but only one is great.  They mentioned that they have customers from the San Francisco Bay Area.  That seems impressive.  You would think that they'd have great dealerships in a large metropolitan area but this one is in a small city of 200,000 people.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Waze is cutesy mapping and navigation

Crowdsourcing is something fairly new.  It requires everyday people to help supply information.  Waze, the maps and navigation utility app, uses crowdsourcing to get the job done.

Since I've been on a trip from Eastern Indiana to the Orlando, Florida area, I thought I'd try the app on iOS.  A lot of people raved about it before Apple brought their new maps to iOS, and since then, the suggestions have become a call to arms, virtually.

So, here I was on a trip I estimated at about 1000 miles one way.  I've driven it probably 12 times and lived in the Orlando area for 11 years, so there was hardly a chance of being truly lost, and that's a good time to try something new.

I was somewhat amused by the marshmallow like character with the teething device to show a newbie.  There are many different levels of users.

As I drove from my town to Hamilton, OH a couple of times, and then, to Cincinnati, it was somewhat helpful.  Of course, the maps will allow you to see the roads ahead, so you can make wiser decisions about lane changes before you try to cross 3 lanes full of traffic to make your turn on time.

I noticed a couple of problems:
  • At an intersection, it will sometime ask you if you're in traffic, when you're stopped at a red light "We detected a slowdown.  Are you in traffic?"  They need a red light button to tap.
  • It often changes the orientation 90 degrees and then, to 180 degrees from your actual orientation, showing you headed from whence you came.  Of course, it flips you back when you start to move.  It's rather dis-orienting.

Driving from Cincinnati, OH on the trip to Chattanooga, TN, I didn't notice much of a problem.  You can warn of objects on the road, on the side of the road, and also warn of police.  Considering shredded tires and cars slightly off to the side, this can be advantageous, especially in pouring rain and darkness.  I've noticed that the police are sometime not where it says that they are, so maybe the police are using the app too?

Most of my experience from Chattanooga to Orlando, FL was similar until I left I-75.  I had not lived in the area for four years, and I wasn't sure that the tolls hadn't increased a great deal.  Remembering that they didn't take bills over $20, I decided to go toll free, even at a longer ride.

When I tried the navigation, just outside Orlando near Ocoee, it gave me two options: use Florida's Turnpike or use Florida's Turnpike.  I didn't investigate further for the same reason.  It never gave me an option to take a local road, and I couldn't just tap "No tolls" or "Local roads only" because there was no such option.  You can go into settings and choose to not use toll roads.  That will work fine in Florida but getting across Pennsylvania is tough without the PA Turnpike.

I asked a question in the forums, especially after I ended up taking the toll road partway and it was directing me toward an exit that was marked electronic tolls only.  The first answer I got was rude, like "It's not an auto pilot.  You need to use your brain."  That's a great first impression.  (My second impression of him was worse.)  I've been using navigation apps for 6 years and someone (who was an area Waze manager), tells me I'm an idiot for expecting an app not to give me ridiculous information.  I guess because it's free, I should give it more latitude?  Telenav gave me bad advice and I had to ignore it also, since I was going in the correct direction.  (Why does Telenav always start by telling me to "turn around"?)  In any case, had I no clue about Florida's Turnpike, I might have trusted the app.  Instead, I took an exit I knew to be safe.

If this is all about the people, and there are so many smartasses using the app, I think there isn't much reason to expect real help.

I was interested but now, seeing that it's cute and amateur-ish, I'm inclined to just use Telenav again, regardless of their issues.  There are other alternatives also like Garmin, TomTom (suppliers of maps/map components to Telenav and Apple), and since yesterday, Nokia's Navteq mapping solution Here.  Eventually, Apple's data-conscious maps will work just fine.  Google's maps are still available through a browser, if I want to be at the wrong block on the wrong side of the road, wondering why the road name doesn't match.

I've tried Nokia's Here and it's not here yet.  I can't access my contacts and that makes it more difficult.  Obviously, nothing is great.

Update 2014.12.05: I've used Waze from coast to coast and it is good enough, especially after it was acquired by Google.  It has become better in searching for businesses, for navigation.  Reporting problems has become more useful.  I'm amused that it asks me if there is a slowdown when I'm at a stop light that is red.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Holy shhh...WiMAX!

Having just written about 4G or faux G this week, it's interesting to see WiMAX work well here in the Orlando, FL area.

I ran a test at last night and got over 10 Mbps (I've even recorded over 13.5 Mbps).  This is exceptionally good considering that I'm inside a motel room and the 3G connection is fluctuating between 3G and 1xRTT.  10 Mbps is also faster than I've seen from Verizon LTE, by about 4.8 Mbps.  What Verizon has here, I really don't know.  Sprint apparently doesn't have LTE here, as that would have connected.  I may find it somewhere else in the metropolitan area.  Hmm...Oviedo, FL certainly doesn't have access to WiMAX--it barely has 3G service in my friends' house.

It's great to see a download that would take hours, take just minutes instead.

I must say that it's great (sarcasm) to be home where the service barely works at all--and Sprint doesn't think there is a problem.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Give me the real 4G!

It seems that people are so starved for data (or merely terribly impatient) that 4G mobile data can't come soon enough.

I consider how few companies had a 3G presence in the U.S.A. in late 2006 when I got my first 3G data-capable phone and things seem much less advanced for 4G than faux G today.

Given that AT&T and T-Mobile hammer home this message that they have 4G everywhere, and that even LTE itself is not truly considered a 4G technology by ITU, the U.S.A. has very little coverage that's not close to old technologies.  HSPA+ can deliver great speeds but supposedly it's inefficient or they wouldn't be trying to replace it.

I remember looking back to the iPhone launch in 2007 and AT&T had little in the way of 3G coverage.  Verizon's more recent advertising ridiculed AT&T's 3G coverage.  When AT&T realized that it looked ridiculous, they stopped naming places where they had 3G and started telling everyone that they were covered for data access.

I used WiMAX the other day, and if you don't know, WiMAX was the initial 3.5G data technology that was used by Sprint/Clear/ClearWire in the U.S.A. and had thriving networks in several other countries before LTE was available.  WiMAX in the U.S.A. was hampered by some really terrible frequency that allowed it to reach a good distance outdoors but not work much indoors at all, unable to penetrate walls with any consistency.

In my experience, I haven't seen much difference between the speed of WiMAX and LTE in this area.  Both hovered around 5 Mbps download speed for me, on Sprint and Verizon, respectively.  Once Verizon completes their rollout of LTE, that will likely change, as they'll have a similar number of towers, plus a faster technology.  Of course, Sprint isn't sitting still and with the boost of Softbank, maybe they'll have some decent LTE coverage by the end of 2013.  Maybe, we'll all have some decent LTE coverage by then.

My mobile hotspot supports WiMAX and LTE, plus 3G, so I'm mostly prepared except that Sprint will add a lower frequency once they decommission the last of Nextel's iDEN network, which operates at 800 MHz.  Unfortunately, the mobile hotspot doesn't cover Sprint's lower 3G frequency either, so when things get rough, the tough have to pack it up and forget the internet.  (I was wondering why my phone had better connections than my dedicated, data-only device.  Now, I know.)

I wonder how 4G coverage will change 2G coverage.  There are still places where I see no 3G coverage but I understand that AT&T are re-purposing their 2G towers for 4G spectrum in metropolitan areas.

This weekend, I'll likely be on the move and I should pass through Atlanta (stuck on I-75 isn't much of a place to test), where Sprint already has LTE active in some state of service.  Whether I'll actually find coverage or not will be interesting.  I'm likely to find WiMAX coverage in the Orlando area (10-13Mbps on I-drive!).  WiMAX was a mixed bag in southeastern Pennsylvania, Delaware, and southern New Jersey.  At my motel in Wilmington/Newark/Christiana Delaware, WiMAX was the only reliable technology.  Voice calls were absolutely horrible but I was getting 4+ Mbps from WiMAX in the same location.

If I look back to my entry into 3G data in the second half of 2006 to now, it took probably 4 years for 3G to be strong enough to be considered everywhere.  Can we wait until 2015 or 2016?

Update 2013.10.26: It's nearly a year later and AT&T is claiming to have the fastest and most reliable LTE network.  Verizon seems to have the most coverage, although putting LTE on 1 tower is not really coverage, is it?  Sprint has started their LTE network and they've changed greatly by being 70 some percent owned by Softbank telecommunications of Japan, and Sprint bought Clearwire, of which they were already a majority shareholder and customer.  T-Mobile has accelerated their network buildout by buying MetroPCS and their LTE network.  Still, it's mostly Verizon and AT&T at this point.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Nikon is on a roll, like butter and jelly

I'm glad to see Nikon clawing their way back from the depths of despair.

The company seemed forever doomed to produce adequate digital SLRs, until the D300 arrived.

While I was not surprised by the D4 or the D800, the D3200 was a surprise.  The D5200 had to arrive just to hold off Canon's latest consumer entry.  I don't see it as good or bad but with the D7000's metering and auto focus, it should grab mind share and hopefully, market share.

I was really hoping to see the replacements for the D300s and the D7000.  As far as I'm concerned, the D7000 is the entry level, as I won't work without dust and splash protection.  Apparently, a lot of people can't wrap their minds around what seems to be a fact--that the D600 is the entry level (feature-wise) FX/135 format frame model.  It's priced above the D300s for a reason, the sensor is more expensive.  They can't put everything in there and charge a cheaper price.

Does this mean that the D300s won't be replaced?  I believe a replacement is still on the way but it all seems a bit crowded now.  Hopefully, they'll bring a sensor with superior image quality and an extended ISO sensitivity range, rather than push a huge number of pixel sites.  I would expect that the D7000 replacement would share the sensor, but there will be improvements similar to what the D800 got for the D300s replacement and nothing so grand for the D7000 replacement.

I'm still confused about what Nikon are doing with their lenses.  I was reading a few reviews on the 70-200mm Mk II and I wasn't impressed.  For that much money (and weight), I think it should wash the dishes, in addition to cooking a meal.  It's not a bad lens, but I would expect wide open goodness, the kind you couldn't find on another platform.  I'm reading similar reviews for other lenses.  Canon would like you to believe that their lenses are superior, but of course, they're not.  They're just a different exterior colour.  Since Sony are trying something similar with the exterior of their lenses, they should all do it.  I'm sure Pentax with have some Lego-like coloured lens bodies to brighten the day.  I saw the Olympus micro Four-Thirds 12mm f/2.0 has a special edition black body for an extra US$300.  That's serious money, just to match the lens to your camera body.  I'd rather buy some lens from Schneider-Kreuznach for that kind of pricing.

In any case, kudos to Nikon for presenting some fine equipment.  I hope that 2013 finishes their expanded lineup although 2012 would be ideal.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

iPad mini will probably drive full-sized iPad sales higher

I wrote earlier in the year that I wanted a 7.x inch iPad since the 7 inch Android tablets just weren't right for me.

However, after trying Apple's iPad mini (rumored since the second generation iPad was rumored), I don't think it's for me.  Sure, it's a good size, but there are too many compromises at the current time, even as a refurbished device, for me to buy.
  • Device width: it's a bit too wide for my hand and so, it's slightly uncomfortable whereas the Nexus 7 is just right.
  • Screen resolution: I've known that it would be 1024x768 for over a year and the bigger the display, the less great any resolution is.  Does an HD tv look better at 70 inches than at 42 inches?  No.  It's the same 1920x1080.  You have to sit further away to not see the problems with the low resolution.  1024x768 also won't play 720p resolution (1280x720) movies correctly since it has to downsize them.
  • An older processor: mind you, the screen resolution drives which processor is needed but not putting better hardware into it seems odd, unless you're planning next year to put a better, but still old processor into it and call it improved.  I could see where they have plans to replace the A5 with the A6 and leave the price the same.  No, thanks.
  • Price: I'm all for companies making a fair profit but Apple, you're trying to re-coup all your costs at once.  Even a $30 cheaper price would have made the compromises easier to swallow.

Half of me wants to drive to Cupertino and ask people in charge what they were thinking.  Yes, it's as portable as I wanted.  Yes, it integrates with my current software for iOS.  No, it's not what I want.  For the price they're asking, I'd get a refurbished third generation iPad for a bit more money and be rather careful trying to use it in tight spaces.  Yes, the performance of the fourth generation is excellent but this is about price--and dock connectors, too, which are also about price.

The other half of me wants to be a renegade and somehow push iOS into my Nexus 7 tablet, so I have a great tablet and a great operating system.