Wednesday, September 28, 2016

BlackBerry to be a software-only company

Years ago, their phones were known as Crackberry because people were so addicted to the devices.  Now, you can barely see one.  Today, the company formerly known as RIM (Research in Motion) has given up on the hardware end of things.

Is this surprising?  No.  The people at RIM and Nokia both laughed at Apple's iPhone, considering it less than even minimal competition.

While both companies made some attempt at fighting Apple, it didn't work.  Nokia had already had the Symbian operating system, which was supposedly so much more but obviously, wasn't enough.  (It always looked to me as though Nokia had young children creating their icons.  I spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out my Nokia flip phone before looking at the manual.)

RIM bought QNX, a real-time operating system from the early days of the IBM PC.  They shaped it into a mobile operating system but as their hardware sales dwindled, it didn't make enough of a reputation to get important applications written for it.  Microsoft is still struggling with this problem, even though it's quite well known.

In any case, that famous BlackBerry keyboard may be no more.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Olympus E-M1 Mk II: Take my money now

I've been an Olympus user since around 1990, starting with an OM-1N.  I'd also had an IS-20DLX, D-300L (one of the first two Olympus digital cameras), C-2500L, E-1, E-5, and most recently, the E-M1.  I've shot a lot of high school sports with the E-1, E-5, and GH3 and skate park sports with the E-M1, Panasonic GH4, and GX8.

I attended an event to try a pre-production E-M1 and various lenses.  I wasn't happy with the compromise.  If you used the E-5 and was suddenly pushed to use the E-M1, you wouldn't be happy, either.  Thankfully, these things are optional.

The E-M1 has a tiny battery capacity--far less than the E-1/E-5's or GH3/GH4's capacity.  Add to that an electronic viewfinder that is always enabled, and the rear display that is accidentally activated too easily, and you have a requirement for several batteries per day.  I have 3 batteries for the E-M1 versus 2 batteries for the GH4.

The E-M1 Mk II has a larger capacity battery and a reworked grip, since that is where the battery resides.  (The external battery grip supposedly takes only one battery.)  This has a lot to do with 4K video recording but also with the enhanced auto focus processing.

The enhanced AF processing is important.  They're dedicating a quad core processor for auto focus.  They also claim 121 cross-type phase detection points and 121 contrast detection points.  That could help greatly.  Will that be as good as a dSLR?  Olympus will try to make it work.  I changed my methods to get focused shots, instead of depending on continuous/predictive AF and tracking that didn't really work.

On the other hand, Panasonic claimed that they didn't need phase detection pixels at all for the GH4, but their AF is a headache for me.  When I think I've got something in focus (sports don't slow down), I end up with something much larger in the background in focus far too often.

The E-M1 viewfinder was fairly good at 0.71x of 135 Format.  The Mark II viewfinder is supposedly sized at 1.48x and runs at 120 fps, which seems to be double the refresh rate.  The magnification is incredibly big, but the camera body isn't out and we may find that it isn't quite like that in real life.  Update: it's actually 0.74x apparently--slightly larger and/or more magnified than the original E-M1 viewfinder.

Increasing the mechanical shutter's maximum burst rate from 10 fps to 15 fps seems exceptional, but for me, the 200,000 shutter actuations (as good as the GH4) hits home.  I exceeded the 150,000 actuations with my E-M1 and had to have the shutter replaced.  At 10 fps, photos can be created very quickly and at 16MP, they take quite a bit of space.  At 15 fps and 20MP, that just makes things more intense.

The enhanced in-body image stabilization is rated at 5.5 stops, which allows the hi-rez 50 MP mode, good for still scenes.  Supposedly, the mode can handle some gentle motion.  Hopefully, it's as good as that of the latest Pentax bodies.

It looks like they've addressed most of my concerns, including the single SD Card slot, to make the E-M1 Mk II more like the E-5 successor that I expected three years earlier.  Then again, the E-5 was about 3 years late.

Of course, the Panasonic GH5 is equally compelling but for different reasons.  I wish I could replace my E-M1 and GH4 right now.

Update 2016.09.24: All of the previews I've seen so far seem as though the E-M1 Mk II is better than anything else near its size or specifications.  Don't put the marketingspeak in front of me, though.  I doubt salespeople from a company.  I'd love for it to be so amazing, but it has to work that way in my hands for me to believe it.

Update 2016.11.01: Okay, at US$1999.99, I'm not quite as ready.  If it had been $1699.99, as I had expected--E-1, E-5 price--it wouldn't have been quite as off-putting.

I'm sure that they can't get the image quality out of it that is worthy of that price.  That said, if I was still making money and needed one, I would pay for it at full price, perhaps with a little resentment.

Is the newer sensor with 121 AF points that good that it is worth the extra US$300?

Of course, I can just wait to see what happens--anyone can--and I believe at this price that a lot of anyones will be waiting to see.

Update 2016.11.10: I'm amused to see some comments about the body.  I swear that you could take photos from a Nikon D810, a Sony A7R Mk II, and a Canon 1Dx Mk II, crop them to a 4:3 ratio and some people would complain about the photos' quality because of the "tiny/toy sensor".

I suspect a lot of people know very little and judge only on hearsay.  Did Ansel Adams brag about the size of his film?

About 10 years ago, I asked people why they only considered Nikon or Canon--they responded with something like "oh, my mother's ex-roommate's brother's friend's uncle uses one." and I would laugh because they didn't try anything and they didn't research anything but it was "clearly the best".

A lot of the comments I see relate to slow and casual photography--flowers and such.  Yes, a used Sony A7 will probably outdo the E-M1 Mk II, with the correct lens.

However, working at 10 or 12 fps, micro Four-Thirds excels.  I will admit that my heart defect gets in the way now, but it's very easy to use the E-M1 or GH4 to get good, and occasionally great, skate park shots.   When I could move easily, there wasn't anything else that could keep up with me.  The speed of the focusing has a lot to do with it and the stepper motors used are often extremely fast, especially in the fixed maximum aperture lenses.  This also helps with video, of course.

From what I've seen of samples, the E-M1 Mk II outputs much better ISO 3200 shots--the maximum I use.  I tried the Nikon D7200 ISO 51,200 and 102,400 and they were useful in getting shots that I couldn't get any other way.  It looks like the E-M1 Mk II does a decent job at ISO 6400 but not enough that I would regularly use those photos.  However, other people have told me with the original E-M5 that they went all the way to ISO 12,800 and the output was fine.  YMMV.

As far as the Sony A7 Mk II goes, I see it like this: the A7 Mk II is great for photographing flowers but the E-M1 Mk II will be great for photographing flowers travelling on a lorry going 100 km/h.

Update 2016.11.19: I got to handle the E-M1 Mk II and 12-100mm f/4.0 lens today.

The lens was quite good--surprisingly good for an 8.3x superzoom.

Handling the E-M1 Mk II, I wasn't happy.  Yes, it has a bigger battery but the grip is not great, for me anyway.  The battery looked odd, as if it was pulled out of a dumpster and re-purposed.  I saw some comment that the grip looked misplaced on a retro-styled camera body.  I agree.  They should have gone with an E-1 or E-5 style body but they would have to introduce a 3rd line of micro Four-Thirds camera bodies.

Usage didn't seem any different, but there is more customization--such as swapping the power switch and the multi-function lever.

The dual card slot was on the far edge of the rear of the camera behind a door similar to the one in the current body.  It seemed an extreme position.

In fact, a lot of the E-M1 replacement looks as haphazard as the original--or any of the micro Four-Thirds Olympus models.  I have no idea what they're thinking.  I appreciate the internals though.  I still like the E-1 dSLR best but it was technologically out-of-step even two years after it was introduced and the company took too long to introduce a new flagship.

Actually, they can take my money for a lens instead.

Update 2016.11.30: The reviews are looking fairly good, as expected.  The nasty comments are also expected.  People with other systems aren't happy that Olympus gets a lot of attention.  They don't know anything of the 1970s when Olympus was bigger and better than Canon.

It's comforting to know that the C-AF mode can keep up.  I wouldn't be using it since I had already modified my technique years ago when I started using the Panasonic GH3.  Imaging Resource did a good job of working with the E-M1 Mk II, giving a little insight into actual use and the pitfalls.

Update 2017.02.13: Apparently, the E-M1 Mk II is very picky about UHS-II cards, not working with many of them.  Then again, I see posts about some cards being recalled.  There probably have been too many made with sub-standard components, in order to make extra profit.  That doesn't excuse Olympus for their failure to be compatible, though.

I've seen a lot of comments of how the E-M1 Mk II doesn't work as well as it should.  The production models don't seem to be as agreeable as the test models.  I can understand that.  Before the E-M1 was available, I was using some, with a group, and when I got mine, it seemed that things that had worked well on the pre-production versions weren't working so well on mine.  Firmware updates have solved a lot.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

For me: tvOS 10 good, iOS 10 on hold (iPhone 7 and iOS 10 now)

Yes, September 13, 2016 has come and gone.

tvOS 10:

No one seemed to mention that Apple TV generation 4 was getting an update on the 13th but it was there just the same.  It would seem to have been about 500 MB, although I didn't check too closely.

I'm usually leery of updating too quickly but tvOS is so unstable that I want every update at this point.  It's a lot like the early days of Mac OS X where I was eager to be able to print for the first time, copy reliably to a CD-R, or some such basic functionality.  Way back then, I had to switch back to MacOS 9 a lot.  With tvOS, you just have to live with what is there.

The update itself went smoothly.  The only real change I've used is the dark theme.  There was an informational display prior to being able to use the update and the only other one I remember at this point was searching with Siri.  I tried using Siri initially but it didn't really help.  I still don't have it enabled on my phone, either.

Performance has been improved somewhat.  The Galaxy on Fire: Manticore Rising game is a great indicator of how well the Apple TV and tvOS are working, as were the older games in the series.  I haven't seen as much of a slowdown when things get busy.  I believe I saw only one Network Connection Lost error while I was playing.

Within a month or so, Apple should make another update available to fix some bugs and improve performance further but it's going to be a rather long time until they get a production quality product.  Sadly, it may take until the 6th generation Apple TV product before it's truly Apple-like.

iOS 10:

If people look at my history, they'd see that I'm generally slow to update iOS because of so many early adopter problems.  With almost every major release of iOS or Mac OS X, there have been problems connecting to WiFi.  This wasn't really a problem for me with Mac OS X because in the early days, I was connected by Ethernet cable.  Of course, trying to use a networking cable is quite impossible at this point for an iOS device.

Thankfully for many people, iOS 10 was not easily available.  Some people have had trouble with getting the update from the servers and Apple has already updated (10.0.1) the update, due to (bricking) problems.  I remain skeptical and slow to update.  When version 10.1 is made available, I'll be more willing to update my phone.

While there are some enhancements, I didn't see anything compelling for me.  What would compel me to update would be some huge security flaw in 9.3.5 and it seems as though things are stable with security problems being fixed in 9.3.4 and 9.3.5.

Update 2016.09.20: macOS Sierra (10.12) has been made available, so it seems that everything is finished, except for the bug fixing.

If Siri access is the main reason for the new version, I'm not sure I would bother.  I don't use Siri or the phone, and when I tried it on Apple TV, it was less than helpful.  I used to use the PlainTalk interface way back in MacOS 8.5 around 1998, which was especially helpful when I was getting ready in the morning.

According to reports, iOS 10 is being implemented much more quickly than iOS 9 was.  I saw some article title which seemed to be complaining that iMessage has become the MSN Messenger of iOS.  Having used MSN Messenger, I hate to think about that.  However, it doesn't surprise me.  After years of working to make things simple, Apple seems bent on making things convoluted.

Update 2016.09.26: Encrypted iTunes backups created on a Mac or PC are protected by a password that can potentially be brute forced by password cracking software. The backup method in iOS 10 "skips certain security checks," allowing Elcomsoft to try backup passwords "approximately 2500 times faster" compared to iOS 9 and earlier operating systems. 

 iOS 10 is up to 10.0.2 already, with several bug fixes.  I suspect that there are plenty of more minor bugs and the fixes are being collected for version 10.1 instead of being sent in incremental releases.  I'm not ready to take chances.

I got a quick look at it on an iPhone 7 display at Target last night and didn't notice enough of a difference to form an opinion.

The iPhone 7 click-less Home button was interesting but didn't feel like the same technology used in the Mac click-less trackpads that work so well.

Update 2016.10.05: Verizon customers are having trouble keeping LTE active.  Apparently, the problem has not been solved with the iOS version 10.1 beta release.   Apparently, this is a problem that has been there for some with earlier phones.

I'm still not seeing a reason to change my iOS version.

Update 2016.11.05: About three weeks ago I switched to the iPhone 7, and naturally, iOS 10.  It's up to version 10.1.1 now.

It's not exactly finished.  Software Update, for example, can't count and has different numbers outside than inside.  IMO, humble or not, iOS is almost right when they move to another major version.  iOS version 9.3.5 was good but still needed some work, but here I am waiting for them to get to a stable, quick, fully-functional version.  iOS 10 should be really good around June.

Having iMessage plug-in apps is interesting, but are they really useful?  Automatic birthday celebrations are interesting also.  I suppose I worked in software development too long to find these things great.

I was browsing my photos that had been saved to my Mac and found that there were video files for most every photo.  This has something to do with Live Photos.  Unfortunately, the Camera app defaults to this behavior and until iOS 10.2, you're stuck with it each time you start the app.

I paid for the Camera+ app a few years ago and it's back on my phone now.  It's good to be able to handle post processing in the same app I'm using to capture the image.  I just have to remember to save to Camera Roll.  I also have Snapseed but that works after the fact and is still confusing after quite a long time.

Notifications are driving me up the wall.  For a brief moment (iOS 10.1?), the notifications were separated by app and I could clear notifications for a single app and leave others.  This doesn't work right now and I either leave or clear them all.  I believe there is a way to slide to the left and delete individual notifications, though.  I seriously doubt that Apple will ever get these working smoothly--it's only been 9 years, right?  It's like the MacOS/Mac OS X/OS X/macOS Finder application.  It has traits of the 1984 Mac's Finder but was re-worked in 2000 with the NeXTStep fusion.

tvOS 10 is interesting.  I've been able to make folders of apps.  It works fairly smoothly.  Otherwise, I'm still seeing performance problems.  I thought that the A8 processor was capable of handling the iPhone 6 Plus, so why can't it handle the Apple TV box and output a 1920x1080p signal without slowing down?

Apple have a long way to go.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Time for a Phone Upgrade? (Oops! Did it!)

I dislike when people use "upgrade" when they mean switch.  However, it's become part of common use English, unfortunately.

It's been almost two years since I switched phones.  I was unhappy with Sprint but the Verizon salesperson tried to sell me a more expensive plan, I guess to help his quota.  This upset me and, having done my research, I explained the plan he should have been suggesting, and it was like someone was talking to him in the ear piece--everything he said from that point was robotic.

The iPhone 5c was a good phone and I miss it, but the two band LTE wasn't enough with Sprint and since Sprint offers three band LTE many places I go, the extra bandwidth is useful, especially when their service is bad.  It still doesn't help with those areas where Sprint still hasn't added LTE and, in California, those places are many.  They decided to spend the money to help the area around their Overland Park, Kansas headquarters where almost no one pays.

In any case, seeing 68 Mbps not far from home is great.  Verizon has LTE Advanced service around here, but not here.  I've seen around 40 Mbps at home and it might be even better not far from here.  I wonder if I could see over 100 Mbps with a newer phone in one of those LTE Advanced service areas.  My problem at home is that I'm on the edge of a roaming area for Sprint--about 6 blocks from the center of town.  They have refused to add a tower near the shopping area that would help.  They occasionally turn up the power on the tower near the skate park but they don't have enough capacity to make it work well.

The iPhone 7 Plus is actually faster than some of the latest 12 inch MacBook models using Core M processors.

 Since the iPhone 7 pre-orders will be available in a few hours, I'm wondering if I should consider it.  I looked at the Sprint website a bit earlier and it said that I was eligible for an upgrade.  However, they didn't mention iPhone 7 at all.

I usually stay away from the latest Apple hardware but the iPhone 6 has been good.  I considering the iPhone SE but I remember how I struggled with seeing small details on the display.  The iPhone 6s would be fine, I'm sure, but don't I want the extra power and extra battery life?

I believe that the iPhone 6s is unnecessary and the iPhone SE is too small for my eyes and the iPhone 6s Plus is too big for my pocket.  (If you're wondering, Android 6.x didn't work well on my 2013 Google Nexus 7 tablet, so I doubt I want it on my phone, even though the LG V20 looks desirable.)

Who knows?  If I wait, I'll lose the chance to get an iPhone 7 pre-order.  If Sprint's web site never shows it, I'm thinking that the Apple web site will show Sprint as an option.

Sprint really wants my iPhone-related money.  They changed their Sprint Zone app on iOS, at least, to display whether a person is ready for an iPhone upgrade.

While the desktop web site timed out a bit, the mobile app + mobile web site seemed to be working quite well.  I'm still trying to figure out about my leased phone, since it says that there needs to be a trade-in.  I'm two months from the end of the lease, and after two years, I really don't want to keep the phone, even though it works just fine.  Verizon quoted me something around US$35.00, which is much less than I could get elsewhere, if I put work into it.

I'm still thinking about it.  Pre-orders have been live for more than 1 day.  Supplies are becoming somewhat scarce.  Apple have changed the selections--AT&T and T-Mobile versions cannot be used on Verizon or Sprint because they supposedly don't include CDMA functionality.  You can go the other way with an unlocked phone on Verizon or Sprint.

Update 2016.10.10: Okay, so I looked at the diminishing battery life on my two year old iPhone 6, plus the fact that I'm having occasional trouble charging it and decided that paying around US$1.50 per month for an 18 month lease isn't a bad thing in order to replace the phone.

The 32GB model was a bit short on capacity and the 64GB model now has 128GB, so that's what I ordered.  According to Sprint's information, they had the Gold models ready for immediate shipment.  Compared to two years ago, that's quite the reverse.  The silver was the only easily available model.

I tried one at a Target store the other evening and it was quite powerful on a game I already use and one I have considered buying--namely, Asphalt 8 and Warhammer 40,000 something.  The phone was impressive.

Less impressive was the new, immobile Home button.  Unlike the trackpads on the latest MacBook Pro series, it doesn't feel as though it is moving at all.  I realize that the depth isn't available but then, the haptic feedback is supposed to provide this feeling of depth.

I also ordered a couple of different color cases from Ballistic.  The price for each was only US$19.99, which was incredibly inexpensive, considering I paid US$34.99 for my last Ballistic case.  While I won't see much of the gold, one of the cases is completely black, while the other is gray and white.  Sure, I could get something really colorful but the 6+ feet of drop protection is more important to me.

No Floppy Drive? No Headphone Jack? What Are Apple Thinking?

Apple has been pushing the envelope for a while.  Remembering the iMac and then, the PowerMac, Apple removing the floppy drive was viewed as horrific.

How would we transfer information?  CD recordables weren't that common.  There was a new bus--USB, instead of Apple Desktop Bus that connected the keyboard and mouse.  We could connect other peripherals but there were only 40-some available at the iMac launch.

When I got my PowerMac G3, with the ugly blue front panels, I needed some way to load things from floppies.  I bought some Imation (3M) drive that could utilize floppies and a special, high capacity drive.

Here were are about 17 years later and Apple has removed the headphone jack on the latest iPhone models.  They've included an adapter so that you can use your current headphones with an analog cable.

This change was important in order to make the iPhone dust- and water-resistant.  With higher resolution audio, getting rid of the analog headphone jack made sense.  For years, people have been using a personal headphone pre-amplifier to listen to Classical music.  This change should make everyone happier in the long term.  Hopefully, high resolution audio over Bluetooth will be satisfying also.  Certainly enough people use Bluetooth speakers and car audio systems that communicate over Bluetooth.

I can imagine that early reactions will mostly be negative, even from people who don't use their headphones at all (such as those who hold their phones slightly away from them, on the horizontal).  People don't like to change.

Update 2016.12.19: I've had my iPhone 7 for around two months now.   There have been a couple of times when I wanted to lie down and listen to music with headphones while I was charging the phone and I couldn't.  Oops.  I ended up buying an Altec-Lansing Bluetooth-enabled speaker.

It has not been a huge problem.  Even the included ear buds are good.  I've tried the adapter with my Sennheiser CX300 Mk II ear buds and the sound is good.  There is no scratchy, static-y sound using the adapter, something I experienced with some ear buds and the headphone jack.

Even Walmart has Bluetooth-enabled headphones and ear buds.  Prices go anywhere from US$20 to around US$300, from what I've seen.  I suspect you still have to go somewhere around US$100 to get high quality sound.  Finding good, strong music transmission will likely be the problem.  Somewhere, I have a pair of Motorola headphones--S9, perhaps--from nine or ten years ago.  They were never great but they would do in a pinch.  I used them while mowing the lawn mostly.