Sunday, December 22, 2013

What technology impressed me in 2013?

I'm usually skeptical of new and improved products.  Marketing people tend to gush wildly about how something insignificant is wonderful and miss when some small change has a huge impact, positive or negative.

It's been a crazy kind of year with odd things happening at all levels.  I didn't expect all the political stupidity, chest-thumping, etc.  I replaced a car and a water heater, added a camera system, and tried yet-to-be-released equipment.  I also drove over 7500 miles in two trips and never bought a drop of gasoline but drove more miles locally.

What I've listed here aren't the only things that impressed me, but those that had a significant impact on me.  I could add any number of other items that were interesting but had no substantial importance for me.


Diesel fuel seems a good alternative to gasoline and hybrid vehicles.  The use of fuel might not be minimal but you don't have to worry about a number of batteries that will need to be replaced and recycled carefully.  The price of the fuel can be a bit high, and there was one point where the price of gasoline was higher than the price of diesel--a situation I had not seen since the early 1980s when diesel-powered cars and non-commercial trucks were few.  The changes to diesel engines have been many but none more significant than the changes to glow plugs.  Way back when, I remember that people had to wait 20-30 minutes for the glow plugs to heat before they could start the engine.  In frozen climates, that would be an eternity of sorts.  Now, you step inside, start the engine, and go.  It has a bit of that diesel sound from the inside but not much.  However, people walking along the road seem to notice it.

Going from a 1999 Golf GLS powered by gasoline to a 2012 Golf TDI proved simpler than expected, even though I should have bought the manual transmission model.  This was my fifth VW and after the 1999 and all its mechanical and electrical messes, I didn't think I'd have another.  This 2012 is all grown up.  It's not just the +10 mpg over the old car but the fully independent rear suspension, heated seats, and so on, but the way it all fits, it's as though it's not an economy car any longer.

Photographically, I was busy.  I was photographing swimming, basketball, and wrestling in winter, and switching to baseball, softball, and track during the spring.

In order to handle swimming better, I added an Olympus ZD 35-100mm f/2.0 lens and an Olympus ZD 14-35mm f/2.0 lens for various other situations.  These are the heaviest lenses I've used on a daily basis but the image quality of Olympus' Super High Grade line lenses are impressive.

Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 lens

Seeing Sigma announce the 18-35mm f/1.8 lens shocked me a bit.  Sigma has its moments, but most of those moments aren't positive.  Usually when I see good feedback about their products, I think that the user doesn't have high standards for image quality.  However, for a few lenses (50-500mm, 105mm macro, 150mm macro), they've done well for a while.  They've become better lately, but I'm still not convinced enough to buy anything.  The threat of a color cast or back focusing keep me away.

The 18-35mm f/1.8 has received a lot of praise from outlets I trust.  The range of the focal length is somewhat small, even as I find the Olympus ZD 14-35mm f/2.0's range limited.  Of course, the further from 12mm you are, the easier it is to create optical magic without making the lens overly big or heavy.  As I recall, the lens isn't weather-sealed, so that saves weight and complexity and cost.  The lens is about 30% of the price of the ZD 14-35mm f/2.0.  Is the image quality as good?  I haven't tried it, and those who have apparently haven't tried the Olympus lens.  In any case, it was a bold move from Sigma.

I've been searching for a way to extend my wide angle possibilities and the 14mm (times 2 magnification factor) isn't all that wide at an effective 135 format 28mm.

Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 lens

I was invited to an event to use the new Olympus E-M1.  Since I've been an Olympus dSLR user since 2004 with the E-1, the E-M1 was meant to help me transition to micro Four-Thirds.  At the event, they had the yet-to-be-released 12-40mm f/2.8 PRO lens.  (When a company uses the word professional or otherwise labels any equipment in that way, I laugh.)  I've tried a few micro Four-Thirds lenses since February and I've found most of them to be craptacular, compared to Four-Thirds lenses, especially for the price.  A few exceptions, such as the 75mm f/1.8, 12mm f/2.0, and 45mm f/1.8 seem to be quite good, but not particularly suitable for me, as I require zoom lenses for sport.  So, when I was able to use the 12-40mm f/2.8 lens, I felt comfortable.  It fit between my ZD 14-54mm f/2.8-3.5 and the ZD 14-35mm f/2.0, in price and image quality.  This is the first zoom lens for micro Four-Thirds for which I have no reservations, and it's on my list to buy.

Olympus E-M1

When I first handled the E-M1, I was upset.  Olympus didn't produce another dSLR but that was half-expected by me.  The company, after the E-1 was released in 2003, had done some odd things, and it took until 2007 for them to release a replacement flagship dSLR.  They were planning to have something out in 2005, along with the original 14-35mm design (that never made it) but just couldn't get it done.  In 2007, they gave us a great-for-2005 dSLR, and in 2010, a great-for-2007 dSLR replaced it.

The E-M1 wasn't a surprise.  However, it wasn't exactly a replacement for the E-5.  While the electronic viewfinder is 99.9% as good as the optical viewfinder on the E-5, the rest of the camera body doesn't seem quite right.  It's smaller than even the E-1 and even slightly less than the Panasonic GH3.  The rear display panel cannot be hidden or otherwise protected, and it's not fully articulated.  The grip was small and angular, being built around a small battery.  Given that there are two powered displays, I'd expect the battery to be much larger.  The BLM-1/BLM-5 is not huge, and should have been used.  The grip was uncomfortable to me with my Four-Thirds lenses (being that they're heavier and larger, and optically better!), and there is more of an imbalance than with the Panasonic GH3 or Olympus E-1.

For the typical micro Four-Thirds equipment user, it seems too large.  For the professional using the Nikon D800 or Canon 5DMkIII, it seems really small and incredibly light.  It wasn't right for me, because the support for my current lenses wasn't good enough, and there aren't enough great, native zoom lenses yet.  Many people will find it exceptional, as the reviewers have.  However, I photograph sports, and I don't have time to think about the camera--I need to use it.  Maybe, next time.

Ricoh Pentax K-3

More to my liking was the Pentax K-3.  I've been looking for a replacement for the Nikon D300/D300s, and Nikon aren't making one, nor is Canon.  I'm not convinced that the D610 is enough of a camera body to do what the D300 did well.  While the technical appeal of 135 format is there, not much else is, especially for sports.  So, here is Ricoh, a brand of screwy products, who bought Pentax, a brand of great but inconsistent products, with a new APS-C sized dSLR.

On paper, the K-3 seems to be everything one would need to replace their D300, save lens compatibility.  It has a large buffer for raw images, blazing speed, a high density sensor with the 1.5x magnification compared to 135 format, and supposedly very good video.  (Right now, it has to be a paper comparison.  I've yet to find a store handling the product.)

It's much more than the Nikon D7100, Canon 70D, or Olympus E-M1.  I've been thinking, and thinking, and thinking about it.  In the meantime, there have been the typical weird Pentax-ish issues that may never be fixed.  There is also the lack of a fully-articulated rear display, which makes it less useful.  There are also some image anomalies that could keep it from being amazing, even though it has a lot of detail available, due to its lack of anti-aliasing filter.  You can however, sidestep moir√© patterns by turning on the fake anti-aliasing filter functionality using the Shake Reduction technology.  If Ricoh-Pentax can provide firmware fixes, this could turn into a camera body that will wipe out everything else from US$1000 to US$2000 and revitalize Pentax.  It's everything that the mythical Nikon D400 should have been.

Panasonic GM1

This micro micro Four-Thirds camera body has been the kind of thing people had wanted, but didn't dare to dream.  It's so small, it's too small to use the typical lenses easily without the additional grip.  For those of us who end up using our phone camera as a substitute for a high quality camera, this may cause a lot of people to re-think what they're doing, in order to get higher image quality.

At the moment, the 12-32mm f/3.5-5.6 lens is good but not great.  There are plenty of other lenses without the size advantage.  The 12-32mm lens makes the camera pocket-able.  This body has major appeal for me over the Panasonic GF6, G6, or GX7 because it is truly small.

Sony A7/A7R

Sony took poor, old, lackluster Minolta and turned its technology into something better, even better than average sometime.  When they brought out a mirror-less system camera line to compete with Panasonic in their age-old war, they didn't have much.  Unfortunately, they haven't made much progress either.  There are more lenses, but not many more.  They haven't kept pace with Panasonic and Olympus, and their slightly better image quality isn't appealing enough if you can't get the shot you want.

Enter the Alpha 7/Alpha 7R duo with 135 format sized sensors.  Is it a gimmick or is it a system?  They announced several FE-mount (instead of E-mount) lenses along with both bodies, so it's way ahead of Sony's NEX system in fulfilling hopes from the start.

However, this will likely appeal to Sony fanatics only, as the rest of their equipment has.  That's unfortunate, as there is a chance that Sony won't mess this up, and they'll produce something that everyone would like to use.  There is a chance.

Google Nexus 7

Having had two of the 2012 Nexus 7 tablets, and having returned them within 14 days, I was uncomfortable with the idea of buying the new one.  I wanted a tablet, to be sure, but I didn't want a mess, and that was exactly what the 2012 model was.  Also, when Apple introduced their iPad mini for 2013, it was underwhelming and they raised the price.  Sure they used their latest 64-bit A7/M7 processors but having a lower color gamut display, higher density or not, wasn't worthy of a price increase.

I approached the Nexus 7 with caution.  I tried it at several stores.  There was no surge-pause-surge-pause as with the 2012 model.  There were even covers available.  It felt like a grown-up product.

I've used it quite a lot in the short time that I've had it.  It isn't quite a replacement for my laptop computer, but it is filling that void where a bigger display is helpful to get more information faster.  It's as good as the 2012 model was bad.  The only thing I'm missing is the grippy back from the older model.  I was interested in the EVGA Tegra Note 7 tablet, but nervous about nVidia's ability to provide a smooth processor experience, and not just raw power when it was ready.

Google Nexus 5 and LG G2

How could I think about tablets without thinking about the Nexus 5 and the G2.  They're big and powerful, and of course, they're directly related.  Had Apple not appealed to me with the iPhone 5c, I'd likely have the G2 now.  They're impressive phones with impressive displays, and they G2 has a bigger battery than the Nexus 5, so battery life on Android (with its "elegant multi-tasking") isn't as much of a problem.  I still liked the feel of the LG Optimus G over the G2 but I was nervous about the operating system updates for a year old phone.

Motorola Moto G

Motorola, as a subsidiary of Google, has started to impress.  It's been quite a while since the StarTac or RAZR hit the market and shocked everyone.  The various models Motorola has made over the years have been good but yawn worthy, and the company's software enhancements have made the phones more difficult to use, which is typical for Android-based phones from anyone but Google.

So, when the Moto X arrived earlier, I didn't think much about it.  It was a little better than average, but it seemed more like a phone for 2012 with options to customize the outside so you wouldn't think about the inside.

However, when they introduced the Moto G, it was priced like something for cost-conscious countries, but it worked almost like a premium phone, except when you bought it.  Less is more.

Apple A7/M7 processor combination

Apple has been surprising people for a while.  They bought a couple of chip design companies and it seemed as though they were going to design their own PowerPC processors for their computers because Motorola just couldn't handle it.

Instead, they've been working on processors for mobile devices, and extracting a lot of performance and battery life from what seemed to be unexciting processors.  The latest A7 processor with its 64-bit capabilities seems ready to handle almost anything.  Paired with the M7 motion processor keeps battery life good, while still being powerful.

What's more, they shocked the processor market with the 64-bit-ness.

Right now, the software to take advantage of the power is not quite there, and things have been a bit screwy, but this is typical of some new technology, don't you think?  I was uncomfortable enough to avoid buying the iPhone 5s to get the tried-and-true technology within the iPhone 5c.

What will impress me in 2014?

 I wonder about what will come.

I'm waiting on three micro Four-Thirds lenses.  Panasonic's 42.5mm f/1.2 and the Leica/Panasonic 15mm f/1.7 will be out, as well as Olympus' 40-150mm f/2.8 PRO (laugh with me at the "PRO" designation, please!) lens.

I expect that FujiFilm will replace the X-Pro1 and X-M1.  Whether they will provide their lens-specific enhancements (as with the X-E2) for the X-M2 will be anyone's guess.  The new 10-24mm f/4.0 lens specifically mentions the X-E2 in information I've seen.  That should be a great lens, especially if Fuji can diminish low light noise, since it's not an f/2.8 lens.

I'm waiting for a D7200 from Nikon, not that it's on the way, but since the D5300 is out and the Canon 70D and Pentax K-3 have arrived, Nikon need to push forward.  If nothing else, they could increase the depth of the frame buffer for raw images and call it the D7150, though that sounds more like a computer model.

Hopefully, Apple will correct their ridiculous issues with the iPad mini and put great displays in them, instead of the mediocre but denser displays that they're using.  I wasn't about to pay more for a lousy display.  I thought that they should buy Sharp and take control, but they don't want to have anything to do with manufacturing since they closed down the PowerMac factories years ago.

So, I have no idea what will impress me but I have some hopes for the year.

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