Category Archives: Reviews

Reviews of products and services.

Hardware preview: ioSafe N2 NAS

ioSafe, the company famous for its line of rugged external drives that can withstand disasters such as floods, fires and even crushing weight, has come up with a new product: the N2 NAS (Network Attached Storage) device.

The N2 device comes at the right time. The market for NAS devices is maturing and demand is growing. Western Digital has even come out with a line of hard drives, the WD Red, specifically targeted to NAS enclosures. To my knowledge there is no such other NAS device out there, so ioSafe’s got the lead on this.

The N2 appliance is powered by Synology® DiskStation Manager (DSM) and is aimed at the SOHO, SMB and Remote Office Branch Office (ROBO) markets.

The high performance 2-bay N2 provides up to 8TB of storage capacity and is equipped with a 2GHz Marvel CPU and 512MB of memory. The N2 uses redundant hard drives as well as ioSafe’s patented DataCast, HydroSafe and FloSafe technologies to protect data from loss in fire up to 1550°F and submersion in fresh or salt water up to a 10 foot depth for 3 days.

Features:

  • Local and Remote File Sharing: Between virtually any device from any location online
  • Cloud Station: File syncing between multiple computers and N2 (like Dropbox)
  • iTunes Server
  • Surveillance Station: Video surveillance application
  • Media Server: Stream videos and music
  • Photo Sharing: Photo sharing with friends and family
  • Mail Server: Email server
  • VPN Server: Manage Virtual Private Network
  • Download Station: Post files for others to download
  • Audio Station: Stream audio to smartphone (iOS/Android)
  • FTP Server: Remote file transfers
  • Multi-platform compatibility with Mac/PC/MS Server/Linux

Hardware:

  • Dual Redundant Disk, RAID 0/1, Up to 8TB (4TB x 2)
  • 2GHz Marvel CPU and 512MB memory
  • Gigabit Ethernet Port
  • Additional ports for USB 3, SD Memory Card
  • User replaceable drives
  • Protects Data From Fire: DataCast Technology. 1550°F, 1/2 hr per ASTM E119 with no data loss.
  • Protects Data From Flood: HydroSafe Technology. Full immersion, 10 ft. 3 days with no data loss.
  • FloSafe Vent Technology: Active air cooling during normal operation. FloSafe Vents automatically block destructive heat during fire by water vaporization – no moving parts
  • Physical theft protection (optional floor mount, padlock door security – coming Q1 2013)
  • Kensington® Lock Compatible

Support and Data Recovery Service (DRS):

  • 1 Year No-Hassle Warranty (for N2 Diskless)
  • 1 Year No-Hassle Warranty + Data Recovery Service (DRS) Standard (for loaded N2)
  • DRS included $2500/TB for forensic recovery costs for any reason if required
  • DRS and Warranty are upgradeable to 5 years ($.99/TB per month)
  • DRS Pro available includes $5000/TB + coverage of attached server ($2.99/TB per month)

Operating Environment:

  • Operating: 0-35° C (95°F)
  • Non-operating: 0-1550°F, 1/2 hr per ASTM E119
  • Operating Humidity: 20% – 80% (non-condensing)
  • Non-operating Humidity: 100%, Full immersion, 10 feet, 3 days, fresh or salt water

Physical:

  • Size: 5.9″W x 9.0″H x 11.5″L
  • Weight: 28 lbs

The N2 appliance is being brought to market with funding obtained through IndieGogo. I know it’s hard to believe it when you look at their products, but ioSafe only has about 20 employees. Sometimes they have to be creative in the ways they fund their R&D.

The ioSafe N2 will begin shipping in January 2013 and will be available in capacities up to 8TB. Introductory pricing for the ioSafe N2 diskless version is available for $499 on Indiegogo ($100 off the retail price of $599.99) if you want to get your own hard drives.

I’ve also written about ioSafe Solo, the ioSafe Rugged Portable and the ioSafe SSD devices.

Camera preview: Canon EOS M

As I announced back in June of 2010, Canon has been at work on a mirrorless DSLR and they’ve finally launched it. It’s called the EOS M. It uses a new EF-M lens mount and its specs are pretty much what we expect mirrorless DSLRs to have these days. It ships in four colors: black (see above), white (see below), red and dark silver. Suggested MSRP is $799.

I’m going to be blunt, because the late arrival of this camera is frustrating. The only innovative feature I can see on it is its Hybrid CMOS AF System, which is located right on the sensor. Other than that, this is another mirrorless DSLR in an already mature market, albeit a highly anticipated model from a large manufacturer.

Canon took their time to take the plunge. My guess is they wanted the other manufacturers to “work out the bugs” in terms of the feature set and pricing, then they matched what the market wanted to see. They didn’t stick their neck out there to try something new. They let others do the hard work while they kept fiddling with the EOS Rebel line and tested the waters (partially) with the PowerShot G1 X and its large sensor.

Design-wise, the EOS M is pleasing. It’s thin, it’s got a nice profile, it’s not cluttered and it’s simple to use.

Back to the features:

  • Full HD movie mode with Movie Servo AF: this means accurate and noiseless focus tracking of subjects when using the EF-M lenses with the new STM (Stepping Motor) technology.
  • 18 megapixels: this was predictable given that all of Canon’s lower-priced DSLRs are also at the same resolution.
  • DIGIC 5 image processor
  • ISO 100-6400 in movie mode and 100-12800 in photo mode; they’re both expandable to 12800 and 25600, respectively.
  • Hybrid CMOS AF: innovative, but let’s wait and see how it performs in real world conditions; Canon DSLRs have had plenty of focus issues lately, this being just one example.
  • Compatible with full line of EF and EF-S lenses via adapter which preserves all AF and IS functions.
  • 1,040,000 dot, 3-inch LCD with touch AF
  • Scene Intelligent Auto, Creative Filters, Multi Shot Noise Reduction
  • Stereo microphone, manual audio adjustment, wind noise filter
  • Total recording time per scene goes up to 22 minutes

Watch out for the following:

  • A notable MIA among the accessories is a viewfinder, like on the Olympus OM-D EM-5 or their PEN line of mirrorless DSLRs, like the E-P3. That means using the EOS M in glaring sunlight is going to be somewhat frustrating.
  • Stills frame rate is 4.3 fps.
  • Video frame rate at 1080p goes up to 30 fps. I want to see a Canon camera go up to 1080p/60 fps.
  • Computer connectivity is still USB 2.0. This is one area where Canon could have pulled ahead of the pack and gone with USB 3.0.
  • Battery life is average for a mirrorless (about 230 shots or 1.5 hours of video). Given my experience with Canon HDSLRs, I’d say real world battery life when shooting video is more like 30-45 minutes.

Let’s have a look at the accessories. The camera ships with an EF-M 22m pancake lens.

You can also get an EF-M 18-55mm lens for it.

Here’s the mount adapter I mentioned earlier.

And here’s a diminutive speedlite designed for it, the 90EX.

Here’s how the camera looks with the speedlite mounted in the hotshoe.

So, should you get this camera? If you’re already heavily invested in Canon gear and want a small, easy-to-carry camera, the decision is simple. If you aren’t, then there are many models on the market with various differences in design, feature sets and price that may make them more appealing to you than this particular camera. The decision is yours after you look at all of them, and I do encourage you to look at all of them.

If you do end up getting the camera or some of its accessories, I’d appreciate it if you’d use one of the links below:

Images of EOS M courtesy of Canon. 

Sigma SD1 DSLR

My thoughts on Sigma DSLRs

I made a video follow-up to my past articles on Sigma DSLRs (see this and this), where I talk about where Sigma is today and why I think they’re lagging behind the market by 2-3 years.

Sigma’s R&D has not developed new DSLRs fast enough to keep up with market demands and the wonderful capabilities of the Foveon sensor are not put to proper use.

The Foveon sensor is remarkable in that it captures RGB color at each pixel due to its three plates (vs. a single plate in regular sensors). It is supposed to give much more accurate color reproduction than regular sensors.

Unfortunately, because Sigma has not worked fast enough to create DSLRs that can truly compete with those made by more popular camera makers such as Canon and Nikon at all leves (including, but not limited to low light performance and HD video), its DSLR arm now finds itself in a terrible slump.

Their latest offerings, the SD15 and the SD1 have not sold well, unsurprisingly, and I hope they do something amazing soon in order to catch up with consumer expectations.

Nokia: from a bright past to a dim future?

A few months ago I bought a Nokia X3-02 “Touch and Type” cellphone, and I’m sorry to say that I’m disappointed with it. I’ve been gradually let down by it over time, and in the end, it’s just not what I’d hoped it would be. In the store, I was dazzled by its small, thin design (I love thin phones). I loved its metal shell as well. It felt the proper weight as it sat in my hand.

After I took it home, I started to see the defects. This was a brand new phone mind you, and already one of its clamshell latches (on the back) refused to close properly. And the more I used its touch screen, the less I liked it. I’m accustomed to working with quality touch devices like the ones on the iPod Touch, the iPad and the Magic Trackpad. The touch screen on the Nokia X3 is just not as good. It feels like a sad, cheap imitation of a great original.

Granted, this is Nokia’s first touch-and-type device, as they say in their intro video for the phone.

But they have other touch screen devices in their product line-up. They’ve had time to perfect their touch screens. Why launch a phone with an inferior touch screen?

Once you ask that question, then you have to ask a bunch of other questions as well:

  • Why are they using so many versions of their operating systems on their phones?
  • Can they come up with common design elements and aesthetics on their phones, to make them seem like they’re part of the same product line-up? Because right now, if you were to look across the whole Nokia line-up, you wouldn’t know all the phones are from the same company unless you looked at the logo.
  • Can they reduce their product line-up to something more manageable? Why have a gazillion phones? What’s the point of that? I understand the need for targeting products at various audiences and at different price points, but do you need tens/hundreds of phones to do that? Why not have at most 10 phones in the line-up?
  • Why launch the phones with lackluster features? As an example, the X3 has a 5 megapixel camera, but it’s a sad facsimile of the 5 megapixel camera on my old Nokia N95, which was launched in 2007. And there are less in-software options available on the phone, so it’s even harder to get better photos out of the camera. It also doesn’t have a flash.

Another thing I quickly discovered about the X3 is its annoying sleekness. Normally, a sleek phone is a good thing, but somehow, the X3 has the annoying characteristic of being very likely to slip out of your hand. You’re afraid to hold it by its top half, because you’ll press the on-screen buttons. You can’t hold it by its lower side, because that’s where the keypad is. So you hold it by the sides, but they’re rounded and thin, so the phone slips right out of your hand and falls to the ground. To its credit, it’s pretty sturdy and unless it’s going to fall on bare concrete, it’ll probably be fine, but the design was not well tested before it was launched.

Another problem which I discovered, and I’m not sure if this happens on just my phone or on all the Nokia X3 phones, is a software bug that lets the built-in @Mail application access the internet when the phone is on a WiFi connection, but will not let it access the internet over WAP or GPRS. I’ve sent the phone in for service and it remains to be seen what Nokia will do with it (if anything).

I can’t help comparing the phone with my Nokia N95, which as I mentioned above, was launched in 2007.

I bought it in 2008, brand new, unlocked, and have been using it ever since. I’ve used it, by my count, on four different mobile networks, one in the US and three in Romania. It worked just fine on all of them, did what it was supposed to do and it has served me well. I’ve recorded more video and shot more photos with it than I remember, and some of those videos and photos came out quite nicely. I still use it today, though it’s now my backup phone.

The N95 is Nokia at its best (for its time). It was compatible with a ton of cell networks, was even capable of 3G speeds, could use WiFi networks, had a 5 megapixel camera with a built-in flash, a ton of options for manipulating the photo software, recorded video at 640×480 resolution in stereo sound, it could play music and movies, it had Bluetooth, Infrared and USB 2.0 connections, it could use MicroSD cards, it had a second camera for video calls or video conferencing and best of all (for me) was the ability to sync it with my Mac using iSync and tether it to my MBP via Bluetooth.

The only things I didn’t like about the N95 were its operating system, which was (still is) a bit wonky, and the incredibly expensive apps (at the time) on the Nokia (now known as Ovi) Store.

Fast forward four years, and what has Nokia done since then? The software for their phones is still wonky and still looks the same, I’m still confused about where to find certain phone or system options when I look for them, their new phones still only have 5 megapixel cameras (some still sell with 2 megapixel cameras, like my wife’s new C3), most of their phones record almost unusable 3gp video with crappy sound (the X3 is a prime example) instead of mp4 or mov files, and I’m sure I could keep adding to this litany of complaints if I tried. Meanwhile, other phone manufacturers are doing unbelievable things with their phones.

One other thing comes to mind: Nokia Maps. In recent years, Nokia keeps advertising this app and the fact that their maps are free, but what they fail to mention is they’re not really usable. Sure, the maps are free. You can download them from the Nokia website at any time. But the maps are no good without an extra internet option on your phone’s monthly plan, and more importantly, you also have to pay extra in order to get the driving instructions (the voice guidance files and the step-by-step turns). So really, all the maps are good for is to give you general guidance about your whereabouts. But they won’t tell you how to get to your destination unless you pay more. Sure, you could futz around with your mobile phone, zoom in and out of the maps and eventually figure out how to get there, but that’s not going to be possible if you’re driving.

To be fair, I haven’t used today’s equivalent of the N95, which would be the N8 (or the E7). How much do you want to bet the Maps app has the same shortcomings on those devices as well? They’re supposed to be better. Unfortunately for them, they’re still using the Symbian OS, which from my experience is wonky and ill-organized, as mentioned above. I’ve heard Nokia plans to launch a new smartphone this year that uses a new and better OS. We’ll see how that works out.

There is a saving grace for Nokia though. Do you know what my favorite phone right now is? I’m using it and I love it. It’s the Nokia E63. Yes, I know it’s old, and it’s actually a hand-me-down phone (I bought it for my wife about 1 1/2 years ago), but I love it.

It’s got a surprising amount of options (if you keep digging through the OS screens). The camera is only 2 megapixels and the video camera only records at 320×240 pixels, but as far as the rest is concerned, it has the same options as my Nokia N95, and it has the incredible bonus of an actual keyboard. Of course, I can sync it to my Mac, just like the N95 (and unlike the X3, which still has no official sync plugin).

I never realized until now how useful an actual keyboard is on a phone. Sure, the virtual keyboard on an iPod Touch or iPhone is nice, but there’s something wonderful about pressing actual rounded buttons. I was so frustrated with buttoning on keypads and using predictive text (which sucks for anything other than simple messages). Now I can easily send emails and text messages from my phone at any time. It’s made my communication so much easier!

As a matter of fact, do you know what our current phone line-up is? It’s this: a Nokia E63, a Samsung Ch@t GT-C3222 and a Nokia C3. Notice something common across all of them? They all have keyboards. I think the Nokia keyboards are better designed. The buttons have rounded edges so it’s easier to press them. But there’s no mistaking the productivity gain from having an actual keyboard on a phone.

So what’s the point I’m trying to make? The point is this: phones with keyboards are awesome. Nokia should focus on them. If they’ve got to use their kludgy old Symbian OS, then simplify it and put it on nice phones with nice keyboards and nice cameras. That will work well and won’t disappoint. And if Nokia’s bent on imitating Apple and putting touch screens on their phones, they should work on the quality of those touch screens. They should make sure they’re just as good or better than what Apple’s got. I know that’s a hard standard to beat, but if they shoot for that, they’ll probably end up with 80% of what Apple’s got in terms of touch screen functionality, and that’ll do just fine.

I’ll end on a final note, with a pet peeve of mine. If all these phones from Nokia have Nokia Maps and access geo satellites, why in the world aren’t they geotagging the photos I take with them? This has been bothering me ever since I bought the N95. It started as a nagging wish on the back burner, but now it’s a full blown pain in the derriere kind of thing. The iPhone’s doing it. Now consumer-grade digital cameras, cheap ones, come with built-in GPS chips. Here Nokia’s had this in their phones for 4 years or more, and they still haven’t bothered to do it right. It’s not even a hardware upgrade. It’s just a software upgrade that checks for an internet connection, goes out, gets the geo coordinates when the camera app is activated, and applies them to the photos. And if there’s no internet connection, then the photos don’t get geotagged. How hard can it be? Sadly, this is yet another example of Nokia’s inefficiency.

Two feature requests for Apple’s Pages

I sent the following enhancement request to the Pages team via the Apple website and figured it’d be a good idea to share it here as well. Perhaps you have some suggestions for me, something that could help me in the meantime?

  1. Better memory management. My wife and I write graphics-rich books (recipe books, piano methods etc.). Currently, there is no way to layout an entire book in a single Pages document, because after 5-7 pages or so containing digital photographs imported at print-ready resolution, Pages runs into a memory management bottleneck and every keystroke takes 1-2 seconds. We’re forced to either work on individual pages as separate files, which makes pagination and text flow a real hassle, or to divide the book into sections of a few pages each and basically run into the same pagination and text flow issues.
  2. Support for offset printing in Pages. It’s great that I can export to digital book formats (ePub, PDF) but what I really need is support for export to offset printing methods. When I export to a PDF from Pages, the text is never 100% black. It’s a mixture of colors, which is a disaster in the making for offset printing and necessitates a lot of work on the resulting files after they’re exported from Pages, just to get them offset-ready. Please include a one-click PDF export for offset; call it what you will, but make it work.
I know Pages is not supposed to be a full-featured design and layout application, but it could almost fill those shoes if these two things were resolved.

How to watch Netflix from abroad

At the start of 2009, when I left the US to spend most of the year abroad, I was an avid Netflix subscriber, and I looked forward to being one even as I lived abroad. There was a loophole in the Netflix protocols which allowed my wife and I to watch movies from outside the US (see this post), but they plugged it very quickly — within three days after I wrote about it.

I was, needless to say, very disappointed. Here I was, a US citizen, with a US mailing address, a US bank account and a US credit card, wanting to watch movies legally instead of downloading them from torrent websites, not able to do it, just because my IP address happened to be from another country. This was not fair. I cancelled my subscription. In hindsight, my anger was unnecessary. The situation is probably a result of certain stipulations in their contracts with the movie studios.

Still, there’s obviously a need for a legal way to watch movies online, right? And until Netflix (or another company) decides to open up their servers to paying customers from all over the world (which I hear might happen), here’s how to watch Netflix from abroad, right now.

You’ll need:

  1. A US credit card and a US mailing address. If you’re from the US but you happen to be abroad, great, you’re in luck, because you probably still have both of these. If you’re not from the US, see if you can make some arrangements with friends in the US.
  2. A VPN connection that will give you a US IP address, or a DNS Proxy Service subscription which will make Netflix and other US streaming sites think you’re based in the US. 
  3. A computer that’s compatible with Netflix Streaming. At this time, I believe only Mac and Windows computers can do it. The last time I tried it, a Linux machine wasn’t compatible. You could get a Netflix-compatible device or media appliance but if you want to keep things simple, stick with a computer.

That’s all you’ll need.

The DNS Proxy Service is a fairly new offering and is, in my opinion, the easiest way to configure your device to watch Netflix from abroad, without installing any additional software or configuring a custom VPN connection. You simply change the DNS servers for your network card (see these instructions).

Now let me talk a bit about the VPN service. In the two years I’ve spent abroad, I’ve used two services: AceVPN and HideMyNet. I’m currently using HideMyNet for my VPN service, and I’ve been using them for the past four months. Both cost about the same, but from my experience, HideMyNet has faster, more reliable service.

I started out with AceVPN but after several months, I started getting a lot of buffering messages when watching Netflix (you know, where you wait for it to load up the movie). It would take minutes, sometimes 5-10 minutes to load up a movie, and toward the end of my subscription with them, the movie would stop playing multiple times as we watched it, and we had to wait for it to rebuffer. It was annoying, particularly when the movie stopped playing during a gripping scene. Who knows, perhaps they were experiencing growing pains or temporary issues with their servers…

Out of the blue, the folks from HideMyNet contacted me to see if I wanted to try their service and write about it. Disclaimer: they offered me a 1-year subscription to give an honest opinion about their service. I told them I would, but that I’d need to try out their service thoroughly before I spoke about it, and if I found anything negative, I was going to reveal that as well. That was back in April of this year. It’s now August, four months later, and after all this time, I can definitely recommend them.

I do have a few pieces of advice for you:

  • If you’re not sure how to set up a VPN connection as L2TP or PPTP on your Mac, go with OpenVPN and Tunnelblick. Check out their setup instructions for the details. If you’re on Windows, setting up an L2TP connection is super easy and takes only a few minutes.
  • Make sure to ask their Tech Support which of their servers would be faster for you. Here’s some general advice I got from them on this issue: “Generally you want to connect to whichever server is closest to you [geographically]. If you’re in the EU you should try our DC and NYC servers. If you’re in Asia you should try the Seattle or LA servers. If you’re in South America you should try the Dallas and LA servers.” 
  • They currently have a limit of two simultaneously connected devices, so keep that in mind. I believe Netflix has the same limit, but if you were, for example, watching Netflix on one computer and browsing the internet on another, both through their VPN service, you wouldn’t be able to, for example, connect a third device (computer or phone) through the VPN service until you disconnected one of other two.

So there you have it. That’s how you can watch Netflix from abroad. It’s simple, it’s easy and it’s legal.

On a side note, I can’t understand why movie studios prefer to hang on to costly and outdated ways of distributing content, and thus encourage piracy, instead of promoting lower-cost, easily available methods of renting or purchasing their content, for any customer, anywhere. There are many people who would rather pay than use torrents, but the cost is either too high, or there’s no way to pay even if they wanted to. Thank goodness for VPN technology, otherwise I’d start thinking about using the torrents as well.

Initial thoughts after installing OS X Lion

I thought I’d jot down a few thoughts about OS X Lion, having just installed it on my MacBook Pro. I looked forward to getting it for months, and as luck would have it, I happened to be out of town with little internet access when it was released on the 20th.

  • The upgrade was painless. I bought it from the App Store, it began to download, and when it was done, it ran and finished without any bugs.
  • Without a media disc of some sort, or at least an image file, I am somewhat concerned about a re-install of the OS, should I need to do a fresh install. I hear there’s going to be a Lion Flash Drive available for sale in a month or so, but short of paying for that as well, is there some way for me to burn Lion on a DVD or make a bootable flash drive?
  • Overall, I like it. The design is more refined. It feels like a more mature OS.
  • I like the full-screen functionality of the apps.
  • The login screen is interesting. It’s a departure from what we’ve seen thus far. I like it, but I’m not sure what to think about the round thumbnails for the accounts yet. I’m used to square thumbnails. Photos are rectangular. Square photos? They used to be en vogue in the late 1800s. But who knows, maybe those round thumbnails will grow on me.
  • I do wish iCloud were launched at the same time as OS X Lion. For example, I don’t know if I did something to cause this, but every time I start up Safari, it wants to log me into MobileMe, where I don’t have an account. (I only have a .Mac email address.) If iCloud had been available right now, this glitch wouldn’t have occurred, because .Mac and MobileMe would have been unified already. And I think more people are going to run into it as they poke around in the new OS.
  • The hidden scrollbars are great, but they’ve changed the direction of the scrolling, haven’t they? It’s counter-intuitive… and yet it’s not. You now push up with two fingers on the trackpad to scroll down, and pull down to scroll up. If you think about it, it makes sense, but it’s been the other way around until now, so it’ll take a while to get used to it.
  • I like Launchpad. I think it’s a visually appealing way to present a list of all the Apps on my Mac, and to allow me to easily choose which one I want to run.

A couple of pieces of advice before you upgrade:

  • Run Software Update to make sure you’ve got the very latest version of Snow Leopard and whatever other updates you need.
  • Run Time Machine to make sure all your stuff’s backed up, just in case something goes wrong.

For those who like this sort of thing (I do), I’ve included a couple of before and after screenshots of my “About This Mac” window.

Before the upgrade to OS X Lion
After the upgrade to OS X Lion

That’s it for now.