Tag Archives: comparisons

A comparison of watch designs

Remember my video on watch bands? I intended to create a guide to watch designs and I got around to it last week. This video’s even longer than the last one; it’s almost 30 minutes! Get a cup of tea, sit down and get comfortable, because it’s going to take a bit of time to get through it!

Let me sum up my thoughts on watch design:

  • Elegant, classy
  • Simple, fulfilling its purpose as a watch, which is to tell the time and the date
  • Refined features that hint at the intricacies inside the case without flaunting them
  • Easy to use, easy to read: proper color contrast in the lettering and numbering
  • A joy to look at, makes you fall in love with it every time you see it
  • Sturdy, quality-built, lasts a long time (a lifetime even)

Watch the video for the rest of my thoughts and I hope you enjoy it and it’s of use to you!

Camera preview: Canon EOS 5D Mark II DSLR

I’m a little late to the table with my thoughts on the new 5D, but I have an excuse: I’ve been traveling abroad (see this, this and this) and only now managed to sit down and think about it. There’s also an advantage to this: I got to read through the other reviews that have come out before I wrote mine.

So, what sources did I consult?

  • The Canon website was the first place I looked. There’s the official press release for the new 5D, and then the 5D Mark II pages. (I looked at the press release back on September 20th, when it came out.) Canon has also published 1080p HD video clips shot with the new 5D on their website, and they’re definitely worth checking out. They make a point to specify that the clips were shot with a pre-production 5D Mark II, so they may not accurately represent the quality of the production camera.
  • Digital Photography Review put together a very detailed review of the new 5D, as usual. Their review was very helpful to me.
  • The Online Photographer talked about the quality of the 5D’s HD video, and he brought up a good point. I’ll mention it here because I felt the same way when I saw Vincent LaForet’s video: it just wasn’t very good in terms of realization. It didn’t tie together, it felt empty… In a way, this was to be expected when there were only two days to write it, produce it, film it and edit it. But the quality of the video from the 5D Mark II was definitely worth seeing.
  • Robert Reichmann from the The Luminous Landscape posted pre-production video shot with the new 5D and gave his first impressions of the camera. He was in a hurry as well, as he was leaving for a trip to Africa and had only 48 hours with the camera. He says that the video is very high quality (so high that MBPs playing the full resolution video will skip frames), and there is no jellocam effect, where you see balooning artifacts due to slow recording of the data by the CMOS.
  • PopPhoto chimed in with a quick preview that did a little feature comparison between the old and new 5Ds.
  • On Taking Pictures had an interesting first reaction. He pointed out that the AF system should have been improved. It’s still the same 9-point AF found on the original 5D, and it has its limitations, as I can attest.
  • Thomas Hawk wrote up his impressions. He’s excited and plans to get one as soon as they’re available.
  • I found out about a new review aggregation site while I was writing this post. It’s called TestFreaks, and it’s one of the places where I looked for other reviews of the 5D. So far, they’ve posted links to four reviews for this camera, out of which an Italian review was worthwhile, particularly their side-by-side comparison of the old and new 5Ds. The rest of the linked reviews simply spewed the press release, which involves no effort or thought whatsoever. But I think the site is useful as a place to check for reviews when you want to learn more about a product.

What about me? Well, I wrote about the original and new 5D back in August 2007, when I took a shot a predicting the features of its new iteration. And I also wrote another article a little over a month ago, on August 28, where I talked about the coming convergence of DSLRs and video, and predicted that after the launch of Nikon D90′s 720p HD video capabilities, 1080p HD video wouldn’t be far off. Amazingly, Canon had already been at work on that very same feature, and launched it with the new 5D shortly afterward.

Let me first indulge myself and see how right (or wrong) I was in my own predictions about the 5D Mark II:

  • EOS integrated cleaning system (YES)
  • Live View (YES)
  • 16 Megapixels (NO, even better)
  • Up to 3200 ISO (NO, even better)
  • Increased battery life (YES)
  • Weatherproofing (YES)
  • AF upgrade (NO, unfortunately)
  • Increased zones for exposure metering (YES)
  • Shutter durability up to 300,000 cycles (NO, but still increased to 150,000 cycles)
  • 3″ LCD (YES)
  • Retail price $3,300 (NO, it’s $600 lower)

What I did as I read through the official specs found on Canon’s website and through the other reviews was to take notes of the interesting differences between the original 5D and the new 5D.

Original 5D 5D Mark II
12.8 megapixels (4368×2912 pixels) 21.1 megapixels (5616 x 3744 pixels)
DIGIC 2 processor DIGIC 4 processor
12 Bit A/D conversion 14 Bit A/D conversion
Pixel size 8.2 μm Pixel size 6.4 μm and reduced microlens gap
Native ISO capabilities 100-1600;
expanded capabilities 50-3200
Native ISO capabilities of 100-6400;
expanded capabilities 50-25600
Frame rate 3.0 fps Frame rate 3.9 fps
Shutter life 100,000 cycles Shutter life 150,000 cycles
- Full HD (1080p) movies encoded with H.264 codec and PCM sound;
1080p movie mode (1920×1080) records clips up to 12 minutes;
480p movie mode (640×480) records clips up to 24 minutes;
Single file size (for movie clips) is limited to 4GB
No internal microphone/speaker;
No microphone input socket
Has microphone input socket to record higher quality audio for video files;
internal microphone on front of camera, and built-in speaker on back of camera
Viewfinder coverage 96% Viewfinder coverage 98%
- Can use infrared remotes
Battery BP-511A;
up to 700 shots per charge;
1390 mAh
Battery life LP-E6;
up to 850 shots per charge;
1800 mAh
No additional batter info other than remaining charge improved battery status displayed on screen; camera can memorize batteries by their S/N and show you exactly how much power you have in each one.
- RAW shooting enabled in Auto mode
Exposure bracketing +/-2 EV Exposure bracketing up to up to +/-4 EV
- Creative Auto mode makes depth of field and exposure adjustments easier (for those that don’t bother to learn the basics…)
- Auto Lighting Optimizer evens out harsh highlights and strong shadows
- Peripheral Illumination Correction minimizes vignetting effects
Can embed copyright info but not intuitive at all Easier embedding of copyright info and photographer name in each photo taken with camera
Accessory shoe painted black, which leads to paint scratches as speedlites are mounted to camera Accessory shoe now left bare (metal-colored), which is better
2.5″ LCD, not very good at all in sunlight, low resolution 3″ LCD, great in sunlight, high resolution
Uses CF Type I and Type II cards Uses CF Type I, Type II, UDMA and CF+ cards
- Auto ISO (100-3200);
can be turned on everywhere but in M mode, which is the way it should be
- AF microadjustment
- Live View with three AF modes: passive (mirror flips down briefly to focus), contrast detection (mirror stays up) and face detection (self-explanatory)
No water resistance, although I have taken my 5D out in the rain and it did fine as long as I didn’t get it completely wet Water resistance (10mm rain in 3 minutes)
- Some dust resistance
2.5″ LCD, not very good at all in sunlight, low resolution 3″ LCD, great in sunlight, high resolution
No Quiet Shooting mode;
mirror slap is pretty loud
Quieter shooting mode available;
mirror will either lock up, or it will move slowly to the halfway position and close normally from there, creating less noise

How could the new 5D be even better?

  • AF should have been upgraded to something faster and more accurate
  • RAW files still CR2 format; it would have been nice to standardize on the DNG format
  • Color space options are still only sRGB or AdobeRGB; what about ProPhotoRGB?
  • HDMI Out miniport puts out great video but NO audio, which is unfortunate
  • Hand grip now slightly thicker, but space between grip and lens barrel slightly smaller, which means you may end up jamming your fingernails into the lens as you hold the camera, should you have thicker fingers. This was a point of contention with the 30D, was addressed in the 40D, and now I see it potentially coming back (though to a lesser degree) in the 5D Mark II.
  • No controls for video other than focus and exposure compensation once you start recording. It really does seem like the video mode was grafted onto the camera, as Luminous Landscape puts it in their review. Plus, the microphone input socket isn’t a pro-level socket, but a plastic one that can easily break if you’re not careful.
  • Recording video will drain the battery a LOT faster than shooting photos. And it will take up space. You’ll go through a single 4GB CF card in about 11-12 minutes if you’re shooting video. I guess this is to be expected given that the camera records full HD video on a huge 35mm sensor.

On the plus side, it’s interesting to note that I paid $100 more for my original 5D back in April of 2007 than what the new 5D Mark II will cost at retail when it hits the market. I bought my 5D for $2800 from Costco, and the new 5D will cost $2,700, but it will have all these incredible new features. Something to think about. I suppose I shouldn’t complain, since I did get about 1 1/2 years about of my 5D before it was rendered outdated by its successor.

So, will I be getting one? Not at the moment, no. My original 5D is still very usable, and I don’t have the deeper pockets of some other folks. I’m still without a good zoom lens. Coincidentally, the same great zoom lens that I like (EF 24-105mm f/4L IS) can be bought as a kit lens with the new 5D, so I definitely encourage you to get it if you don’t have it in your inventory. It will prove its versatility over time, and you will be glad you have it.

At some point in the future, I will be glad to buy the new 5D. Perhaps by that time they’ll have made the video mode more streamlined, and integrated it a little better within the menus and external buttons of the camera, not to mention that I’ll have had a chance to save up for it.

If you’d like to get it though, don’t let me stop you:

Photos used courtesy of Canon.

Camera review: Canon Rebel XTi DSLR

Released on August 24, 2006, the Rebel XTi is Canon’s newest entry-level prosumer DSLR. It’s an update on the popular Rebel XT, and it’s different from it as follows:

  • Slightly thinner body, heavier (2.56in vs. 2.63in and 510g vs. 485g)
  • Newer, re-designed sensor with higher resolution (10 megapixels vs. 8.2 megapixels)
  • Sensor cleaning technology (dust shaken off the sensor with ultrasonic waves)
  • Bigger display (2.5in vs. 1.8in)

I only listed the significant differences above. You’re welcome to compare the detailed specs if you’d like, right on Canon’s website. Go to the More Information section at the end of this post and use the links listed there to get the full specs.

Canon Rebel XTi (front)

In my reviews of other DSLRs, like the Canon 30D, the Olympus E-510, or the Olympus E-500, I criticized the Rebel XTi’s small grip, and I still think I’m right. It’s much too small to be held comfortably in a man’s hand, and that’s unfortunate, because the camera is great in every other aspect.

In spite of the camera’s small grip, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the photos it produced, and I wanted to share my findings with you. I avoided reviewing it until now on purpose — as I said, I was displeased with its body design — but after using it, I’m happy to say I would recommend it.

I made a video review of the XTi, which should help you get a better idea of the its dimensions. I discussed the camera at length in the video, and also did a side-by-side comparison between it and my Canon 5D. You can watch it below, or scroll past it to read the rest of my review. You can also watch it here, or download it if you like.

I should also mention I goofed in the video. I talked about the XTi having the DIGIC III processor, but it turns out it still has the DIGIC II processor. What I said about the differences between it and the 5D and 30D with respect to exposure value settings is still correct, so don’t disregard that. You may or may not be aware that when you do not adjust the EV settings on a 5D or 30D, and you shoot outside in bright light, the processor will overexpose the shot. The quick fix is to dial down the EV by 1/3rd, and that usually does the trick. But that’s not right. Shots shouldn’t be overexposed, and I’m glad to see the XTi doesn’t suffer from that bug. It exposes shots beautifully, and you’ll see what I mean when you look at my sample photographs below.

Even though the overall design of the camera is similar to that of the larger DSLRs that Canon makes, certain differences are there, and they are caused both by the price and size of the camera. For example, being used to the 5D, I missed the small at-a-glance display on top of the camera. On the 5D, it lets me know what my settings are without having to consult the LCD screen. I also missed the large settings dial next to the LCD that’s a staple on every other Canon prosumer and pro DSLR. I love that dial/wheel, and I miss it on every non-Canon camera I use.

The exposure value adjustment button, along with the drive settings button, are located next to the display instead of the top of the camera. There is no jog controller for the focus point selection, either. But you can’t have everything. The Rebel XTi is an entry-level DSLR, so you can’t have features that are normally found on the more expensive DSLRs. Plus, its body size makes it impossible to have the same button arrangement.

Canon Rebel XTi (back)

Despite my gripes, I liked the size of the body, and I liked the feel of the buttons. They had a soft, glossy surface that made it a joy to press them. The small body of the camera makes it possible to hold it very comfortably in the palm of your hand, and that’s a huge plus, because you can stabilize shots a lot better that way.

I really liked the quality of the photos from the XTi. I shot in RAW format, and I was very pleasantly surprised to see how well exposed the photos were, and how accurate the color reproduction was. I’ll show you some photos very shortly where I made no adjustments in post-processing other than adding meta-data, and I think you, too, will find it hard to believe that those were RAW shots straight from the camera.

I can tell you this: the RAW files made by the XTi have better exposure and color, right out of the camera, than the RAW files made by my 5D. It’s a shocker, yes, but it’s true. I suppose that’s to be expected. The 5D uses technology developed in 2005, while the XTi uses technology developed in 2006. But still, I had to see it with my own eyes to believe it, and being a 5D owner who’s shot tens of thousands of photos with the 5D, this was a hard pill to swallow. Having said this, would I give up my 5D for a Rebel XTi? I’m tempted, but no. :-)

On to the photos. These are two that I took in early afternoon light, which was bright and unforgiving. I shot in RAW and developed the photos in Lightroom. I had to do very little exposure adjustment. Can you believe how well the XTi exposed the photos and reproduced the colors? Can you believe the dynamic range of the sensor? I didn’t expect this from the XTi.

November afternoon

Light and shadow

Here’s another photo that shows off the dynamic range of the camera. I shot this with the wonderful 18-55mm kit lens. If you’re confused by my characterization of that lens, watch the XTi’s video review, and I think you’ll understand.

Go to the mat

Here’s a macro shot I took with the same 18-55mm kit lens. I was pleasantly surprised with the low noise at 800 ISO.

Cone job

I said it before, and I’ll say it again. I love the colors that I get out of this camera! Have a look at these two photos to see what I mean.

Knobular

Spoon!

I thought I’d put in a dog photo for good measure. This happy pooch posed for me in downtown Alexandria this past summer. I used Keith McCammon‘s XTi for the shot.

Smile for the camera

What else can I say? If I’ve missed anything, let me know in the comments. The Canon Rebel XTi is a great prosumer DSLR. You won’t have to try very hard to get wonderful photos with it, and its affordable price will help make your decision a little easier.

Gilded

Pastels

Buy the XTi

Troglodyte

Bohio’s


World at your feet

Etched in stone

Hand that feeds

Lens comparison: EF 24-70mm f/2.8L Zoom vs EF 24-105mm f/4L IS Zoom

Have you ever wondered how the EF 24-70mm f/2.8L and EF 24-105mm f/4L zoom lenses would do if compared side by side? Which one would come out as the winner in real-world use? Here’s my answer to that question.

First, some recommended reading:

Those two reviews of mine should give you a good idea of what each lens can do. Now let’s talk about how they do when they’re together. :-) Here’s a photo of the two lenses. As you can see right away, the 24-105mm is smaller in both height and girth — it’s shorter and a little narrower than the 24-70mm.

When we look at the rear lens elements, we can see some differences there as well. The 24-105mm lens is on the left. If you look carefully, you can see a baffle in place. The 24-70mm lens has no baffle.

It’s possible that the baffle is there in order to reduce possible flare effects, since the focal range is longer. It could also be there to baffle us — after all, it is a baffle. :-) It’s also possible that the optics aren’t as high quality as those in the 24-70mm lens — they’re both priced the same, but the 24-105mm has image stabilization and an extra 35mm of range. On the other hand, I’ve seen a very similar baffle on the EF 14mm f/2.8L prime lens, and no one can say that the 14mm lens is made with cheap glass. So the more likely explanation is that it’s there to reduce lens flare due to the increased focal range.

(By the way, the baffle can be seen even more clearly in this product advisory from Canon warning about unacceptable levels of lens flare in early builds (2005) of the 24-105mm lens.)

Here’s another look at the lenses side by side, this time with the lens controls visible. As you can see, the only thing that’s different on the 24-105mm lens is that it’s got the IS switch. The controls seemed a little thicker on the 24-70mm lens. As for their durability, I assume they’re both long-lasting since these are L series lenses.

Chances are you can already know that the 24-105mm lens is lighter than the 24-70mm lens. It’s no small difference, by the way. The 24-105mm lens is 670g, while the 24-70mm lens is 950g — that’s 280g of difference! While both lenses extend outward as you zoom, the 24-70mm lens is more top-heavy than the 24-105mm lens, and that makes a big difference in wrist fatigue — the 24-105mm lens is less punishing and can be held comfortably for longer periods of time.

The weight difference is remarkable to me because the 24-105mm lens has 18 elements, while the 24-70mm lens has 16 elements. Canon managed to keep the weight down even though they placed extra glass in there and added image stabilization.

There are some limitations to being lighter and smaller though. The 24-105mm lens’ closest focusing distance is 1.48ft or 0.45m, while the 24-70mm lens’ closest focusing distance is 1.25ft or 0.38m. It also looks like the general consensus is that images obtained with the 24-105mm lens are somewhat softer than those obtained with the 24-70mm lens.

Other than the difference in focal lengths, another obvious difference between them is the maximum aperture. The 24-70mm lens opens up to f/2.8, while the 24-105mm lens only opens up to f/4. That’s a full f-stop difference, or a 2x reduction in the amount of light that can enter the lens. This is where the baffle comes in again. Since the baffle itself limits the amount of light that can hit the sensor in order to reduce glare, it stands to reason that the aperture can’t open up any wider. Even if it did, we’d end up seeing the baffle contours in our photos.

What the 24-105mm lens has going for it is the built-in image stabilization, which, in my experience, more than compensates for the reduced maximum aperture. See the photo below. I took it completely handheld (I didn’t prop myself up against anything) at a shutter speed of 1/15th seconds.

I tried to get similar photos with the 24-70mm lens, and I couldn’t, not without leaning against something to stabilize the lens. The slowest shutter speed I could use was 1/30th seconds with that lens. As I concluded in my previous review of the 24-105mm lens, the image stabilization counts for a lot and makes the lens truly versatile and useful.

While I’m talking about versatility, let’s not forget that extra 35mm of focal range. At close distances (6-15 feet), you don’t notice how much it matters, but when you start focusing on things farther away (30-100 feet or more), you realize how valuable those extra millimeters really are!

Let’s not forget bokeh. Both lenses have gorgeous bokeh, but the 24-70mm produces a creamier bokeh. That’s because it opens up all the way to f/2.8, while the other only opens up to f/4. If you do a lot of close-range photography, in tighter spaces, and you really need that bokeh (portraits, etc.), the 24-70mm would probably be a better candidate. This next photo was taken with the 24-70mm lens.

If you’ve got a little wiggle room and can position your subjects further away from things (walls, trees, background), don’t discount the 24-105mm lens. Its bokeh is right up there with the best of them. Have a look below.

In the end, it really comes down to your own, precise needs. I’ve heard of some people who only carry two lenses in their bag: the 24-70mm and the 70-200mm (both of which I reviewed here). They’re both professional-grade, L series lenses. They’re heavy, but they deliver the goods, and they’re versatile.

For my needs, I’d go with the 24-105mm lens. It’s lighter, has extra range, and has built-in image stabilization. I really enjoyed using it, and I seemed to get better photos with it than with the 24-70mm zoom. While it may not be as sharp, I didn’t notice anything that would turn me away from using it. I thought it was a superb lens and couldn’t believe the quality of the optics when I looked at the photos I got with it.

At least one commenter here asked how these two lenses compare, and I hope that I’ve answered that question in as much detail as I could give. If you have any other questions, pose them in the comments on this post, and I’ll try to answer them.

More information:

Discerning among LCD monitors

I’ve been looking at various LCD monitors lately, because I’d like to get one for my laptop. Truth be told, I’m more confused than when I started. There’s a dizzying array of prices among various brands, in the same size display, and not a whole lot of explanation as to why that is. Sure, every company touts their higher contrast ratio, higher brightness, more resolution, more inputs, etc., but that still doesn’t explain why the prices differ so much.

I’m looking at 20-22″ LCD monitors, and in that range, I’ve managed to find monitors in three price groups:

  • Around $250, I can buy this Sceptre or or X2gen (brands I haven’t heard of). I can also find similar prices from brands like ViewSonic, Samsung, Dell and HP.
  • From $600-900, I can get the 20″ or 23″ Apple Cinema Displays. The thing is, other than the distinctive design, the specs are actually less impressive than those of the much less expensive monitors in the first group.
  • Then, of course, there are brands like LaCie, with their professional LCD displays that start [*cough*] around $1,800 for the sizes I’m interested in.

So I did a lot of searching, and found out that manufacturers can fake the contrast and brightness measurements, so even though everyone touts their higher specs, you can’t trust them. Many of the monitors also don’t list a measurement that’s harder to fake, the gray-to-gray response time. I wanted to compare apples to Apples, if you will.

After a little more spec comparison, I found that the top of the line LaCie monitors list a spec that no one else seems to list, and that is the “gamma correction”. For example, their 321 LCD has 12-bit gamma correction. Less expensive models have 10-bit gamma correction. And that got me thinking: if, at least for LaCie, the price is proportional to the gamma correction bit depth, a higher spec there might be a good thing. But the less expensive monitors didn’t list it, and Apple didn’t list it either. What was I to do?

I gave Apple a call. After about 15 minutes of alternate talking and holding on the line for a sales rep while he consulted with the engineers, I got nothing but smoke and mirrors. Not that I think it was intended. I just think the rep didn’t have the info. He didn’t know what gamma correction was, and the bit depth of the gamma correction on Apple’s displays isn’t listed anywhere in the specs. The person he spoke with in engineering either didn’t know this or didn’t feel like sharing that bit of data. So the rep kept coming back to me with 16.7 million colors, which works out to 24-bit color.

I kept thinking, that can’t be right! Here LaCie is charging over $1,800 dollars for 12-bit gamma correction and Apple claims 24-bit on that spec at less than half that price? They would be an absolute bargain if that were true! But it’s not, at least not for that spec. I don’t doubt the Apple displays can show 24-bit color overall. But I still don’t know whether their gamma correction engine outputs 8-bit (the normal spec), 10-bit (the higher end), or 12-bit (the really high end), and this determines how well that 24-bit color gets displayed. This is important because the higher the bit depth, the smoother the color is. I’m a photographer, and I shoot in RAW. The files I get are either 12-bit or 16-bit color, and I can see some dithering in color tones when I look at the photos on my laptop’s screen. That means that even though my video card can display 32-bit color, my laptop’s effective display is less than 16-bit.

I have a feeling that given their price range, the Apple Cinema Displays are either 8-bit or 10-bit when it comes to gamma correction. If they’re 8-bit, then they’re overpriced given their specs, and they’re charging hundreds more based purely on design. If they’re 10-bit, that’s interesting, and it warrants a closer look.

So, as you can see, I’ve gotten nowhere. I’d love to have a reason to buy an Apple Cinema Display, but it’s got to be a good reason, based on facts, not sales fluff. I like Apple but I’m not a fanboy. At this point in time, I can’t see why I should spend more than $1,000 on an external monitor, so that rules out the LaCie LCDs and the other high end displays. That means if Apple can’t offer me a compelling reason for their higher price, I’ll go with one of the less expensive monitors and see how things work out. If and when I do, I’ll blog about it, so stay tuned. And by all means, if you’ve got some ideas about this, do let me know.

Getting good site stats

I’ve been using both Google Analytics and FeedBurner‘s own Site Stats service simultaneously for the past couple of months, and I thought I’d give a comparison of the two.

They both use little JavaScript snippets that you copy and paste into your web pages. They’re both good at eliminating false traffic (bots, etc.). That’s where the similarity ends.

Google Analytics gives more detailed feedback that’s targeted toward marketers and webmasters. It’s also tightly integrated with Google’s AdWords program, so you can track the success/conversion of your campaigns. But, it’s got so many options and menus to dig through, that it’s hard to use overall. You really need to spend some time learning it.

On the other hand, FeedBurner’s Site Stats service is simple and easy. They present the data in a way that’s easy to understand. And while at first you may think you’re not getting all of the data that Google Analytics provides, in practice, I’m getting all the data I need. It’s just organized so much better, that I need to go through less menus to get at it.

Want to know the best part? FeedBurner’s Site Stats provides almost instant feedback on what’s going on with your site. Yesterday, one of my posts about Zooomr got dugg, and made it to Digg’s front page. It was already more than three hours since it had been dugg, yet Google Analytics provided me with no data to indicate the Digg traffic. FeedBurner was right on top of it. I’d been getting data almost instantly and could monitor the traffic very nicely. This has been the case all along. I’ve been using Google Analytics since May of 2006, and I knew there was a significant lag, so I couldn’t use it to monitor my live traffic — I could only tell what happened to my site afterwards.

As any web developer will tell you, the ability to monitor your site traffic live is a huge benefit. What’s even more important is the ability to get great customer service. FeedBurner provides that, and has done so from the start. When I email them, I know I’m going to get a reply from a real, live, person, not a bot, and not a canned reply. That’s really cool. That’s why, even though their Site Stats service is free, I opted to purchase their detailed feed stats, and pay a little every month for that. It’s much better to pay a little and get something worthwhile, than always go with free and get what you pay for.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not knocking Google Analytics. It’s a great service. But Google’s getting bigger and bigger these days, and they’ve never made it very easy to get in touch with one of their “humans”. Just a few days ago, I had a question about my AdSense account, and needed to get in touch with a person, because I couldn’t find the answer in their documentation. I emailed them and got an auto reply back, which said I should reply back with certain further information if I wanted to reach a human. I did that, and I got what looked like a canned reply, so I’m not even sure if it was a human being, or another auto reply. Not fun, and my problem still didn’t get solved.

On the other hand, I know the FeedBurner folks. I met a few of them in person, and I know the others via email. They’re real, helpful people. So if I were to recommend a stats service to you, I’d say go with FeedBurner’s Site Stats. That is, unless you absolutely must monitor your AdWords conversion campaigns through Google Analytics. Or use both services, and do your own comparison. I think in the end you’ll be happier with FeedBurner, like I am.

Zoom Search Engine: a powerful and inexpensive search engine for your website

Zoom Search EngineI’ve been using the Zoom Search Engine for over a year, and I’ve been very happy with it. But today I realized I hadn’t told many people about it, so I had to fix that.

So what’s the Zoom Search Engine? It’s a beautiful piece of software written by WrenSoft, an Australian web software company. Here’s what I think is amazing about it:

  • It’s inexpensive: the Standard edition is $49, and the Professional edition is $99. (I have the Pro edition.) There’s also a free edition for smaller sites. A side-by-side comparison of the different editions is available on the WrenSoft website.
  • It’s small in size, but feature-packed. The executable is 1.65 MB. Bloatware this is NOT. It is small and it packs a powerful punch. If you don’t believe me, install it, then run through the various options. There are a LOT of them!
  • It does the job — no crashing, no malfunctions. In over a year of serious use, with it running daily to index a lot of files for most of that time, it didn’t crash once. It just did its job.
  • Tech support is great, and included in the price of the software. I needed to contact them twice to ask them about some advanced configs for the app, and they responded within 12 hours. What’s more, they actually solved my problem. There were no excuses and no passing the buck.
  • It’s a scalable piece of software. Not only will it index small, simple sites, but its indexing engine can use ASP, PHP, JavaScript or CGI. The CGI engine can be used for enterprise sites – we’re talking hundreds of thousands of pages here! Not only will it index sites hosted on web servers, but it will also let you put a search engine on a site that runs off a CD or DVD.
  • It spiders and indexes most document file types with the aid of free plugins that work with the paid editions of the software. They’ve got plugins for Word, WordPerfect, Excel, PowerPoint, PDF, Flash and FlashPaper, and Rich Text formats. Having used all of these plugins over the last year, I can tell you they work a treat. They certainly do the job, and there’s no false advertising involved.
  • It’s a customizable and flexible piece of software. You possess the search index. You have access to the actual files used by the search engine, and you can tweak the engine and the index as you please. You can adjust everything. I can’t think of any other solution on the market that will let you do that. When it comes to this, it beats Atom and Google and any other solution, hands-down. Google’s search appliances are a black box. You can play with the options, but you don’t have access to the search technology. You can’t pop the hood and have a look at what makes their searches tick.

So how exactly have I been using the Zoom Search Engine? It’s been powering the site searches on Exprimare and the Road Management Catalog, among a few others. While Exprimare is a fairly small site (it’s my consulting/portfolio site), the Road Management Catalog is a big site in terms of the content, file types and number of pages. It belongs to the World Bank, and vendors of various road construction, measuring and testing equipment have accounts where they submit company information and upload brochures in various file formats. The Zoom Search Engine’s job on that site is to index all of the uploaded files, all of the various companies’ info, the regular site pages, and to make them all available in the search index. It’s been doing a wonderful job over the past year, and I love it. I’ve scheduled it to run every day, and to index all of the files. When it’s time for it to start, it does so automatically. It spiders the site, builds the index, uploads it to the site through FTP, then closes automatically. I don’t have to do anything other than adjust search parameters here and there as the need arises.

Here is a screenshot of the main app window, just as it’s indexing the Road Management Catalog. Once it’s configured, it spiders the site (you can set it to start multiple threads so the indexing goes faster) and then it goes about its business.

Zoom Search Engine

When it’s done, it gives you an index status report, to let you know what it found. It also outlines in red any indexing errors, such as files or pages it couldn’t download or index.

Zoom Search Engine

If I had to talk about the many configuration tabs, I’d have to reproduce their user manual. Instead, let me just show you a screenshot of one of them, the Indexing options. How cool is this! I get to decide what gets indexed, what gets boosted, and how words get joined. And this is just a small sample of what the app can do.

Zoom Search Engine

A lot more screenshots are available on the WrenSoft site. Their support section is extensive, a forum is also available, and their tech support is only an email away.

The Zoom Search Engine is an amazing product, and well worth its price. As a matter of fact, I’d call it underpriced. It’s a tremendous value given its functionality. So if you own a site and have been looking around for a suitable search engine, don’t settle for something that’s overpriced or inflexible. Get something that’s been tried and tested, something that’ll work, something you can use on a daily basis and tweak until you get just what you want.