Thoughts

My thoughts on Apple’s iPhone CPU throttling

Updated 12/29/17: Apple has posted an official response to this issue on their website. It’s the right response.

Everyone’s chiming in on this issue so I’m not going to rehash it, but I do have a practical suggestion that addresses it. You know what’s going on: older iPhones with older batteries tend to run slow (see this post). I noticed it as well and thought, like most people, that we (my wife and I) need to replace our iPhones, because they’re getting too old to handle the iOS upgrades and respective upgrades to the mobile apps we use.

As it turns out, Apple has been quietly throttling the CPU speeds of our iPhones in order to compensate for the fact that older Li-Ion batteries can’t sustain the voltages needed for those higher speeds. It was watching out for us, but without explaining it. And as it turns out in life, a lack of communication will cause problems. They only offered the explanation after people got upset — so upset that now several lawsuits have been filed against them (see this post). Only two lawsuits are mentioned in that post, but in another story I read today, the total went up to eight.

I’m not feeling sorry for Apple. They’re big boys, they have plenty of money to handle the lawsuits and their “we know better” attitude toward the customers, as well as their closed system approach to everything they develop, has always engendered a certain amount of anger from its customers. What they can and should do now is to suck it up and offer a good defense in court.

All of this could have been avoided if they’d simply done something similar to the “Low Power Mode” option that’s already offered on iPhones. That is an elegant and caring solution to a problem that users encounter every day.

ios11-iphone7-settings-battery-low-power-mode.png

Something like this, let’s call it a “Battery Lifespan Advisory”, could be a feature launched with the next incremental upgrade to iOS 11, and it might let us toggle the “Automatic CPU Throttling” on or off when the battery nears the end of its projected lifespan. We could get a message on our screens, just like when Low Battery Mode is recommended, that would take us directly to the screen where we read an explanation and get to manage this option.

And that’s about all I have to say on this.

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Reviews

PowerEx MH-C9000 WizardOne Battery Charger-Analyzer

I’ve been using this advanced battery charger-analyzer for over a year and I love it. You can read my in-depth notes about it here and also see a video where I use it.

The MH-C9000 WizardOne Battery Charger & Analyzer is suitable for the casual consumer users, enthusiast and professionals. The WizardOne is capable of charging, conditioning, analyzing, cycling, forming and discharging one to four AA or AAA batteries, all while digitally displaying the battery capacity and voltage. All four slots can be operated independently in different modes and settings. Those seeing the unit for the first time will be struck by its large LCD screen, backlit by ultra-bright white LEDs. Measuring over 3.5″ by 1.5″, the display is more than three times larger than its closest competition and shows a wealth of information that is easy to read. In addition to the standard charging, conditioning and discharging, the WizardOne charger-analyzer also offers two unusual operations modes. The “Break-In” mode allows the user to input the capacity of the battery and performs a “forming” charge designed to properly break-in new batteries. The “Cycle” mode allows user to charge and discharge batteries consecutively while storing the capacity for up to 15 cycles. There are ten selectable charging and discharging current from 0.2A to 2.0A and 0.1A to 1.0A respectively. The charger also features four independent temperature sensors using Maha’s latest temperature rise detection algorithm in addition to the usual peak temperature detection. It also armed with additional patented termination algorithms found in other Maha chargers. The unit can be operated in a “basic” and “advanced” mode. In the basic mode, the user merely needs to insert the batteries with no further key press. The charger will select the appropriate settings automatically, making it suitable for the casual users.

Buy it here: PowerEx MH-C9000 WizardOne Charger-Analyzer

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Final tally of Energizer’s Advanced Lithium battery life

It’s been well over a year since I put the Energizer Advanced Lithium batteries in my Canon 580EX II speedlite. In February 2009, I was contacted by an ad agency working for Energizer, and invited to test out the batteries. I’ve been using them in my speedlite ever since, and they finally gave out about a week and a half ago, on June 10, 2010.

According to Lightroom, I have 1,209 photos in my library that were taken with the speedlite since February 4, 2009. That’s how long four of these Advanced Lithium batteries lasted in my speedlite! I think that’s quite impressive, both in terms of battery life (how many shots I could take) and shelf life (how long they lasted inside the speedlite).

Another thing to keep in mind is that I delete about 10-20% of my photos as I winnow. That means, theoretically, that I got about 1,330-1,451 photos with these batteries.

It’s also worth mentioning that I got 1,872 photos from my Canon 5D when I used these batteries in its vertical grip (six of them fit in there).

Given my sort of use for the speedlite, where it sits in my bag and only gets used from time to time, I think these batteries are the perfect choice for it. Those who work in the studio quite a lot, or use their speedlites out at events may find that rechargeable batteries, which have a much shorter shelf life but can be recharged hundreds or thousands of times, work best for them.

If you’d like to give the Advanced Lithium batteries a try, they’re available from Amazon.

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Checking in with Energizer's Advanced Lithium Batteries

I can finally report on the battery life of the Energizer Advanced Lithium Batteries given to me in late January. I wrote about them on February 4th, and put them in my Canon EOS 5D’s battery grip a week or so after that. They worked until this past Saturday evening, April 25th. When I did the tally, I saw that I’d taken 1,872 photos with them. That’s not a typo. The vertical grip stayed on my 5D all the time, from the time I put the batteries inside it to the time I took them out, and that’s how many photos I got with the batteries.

While that battery life is very impressive, given the 5D’s 500-600 shot battery life with one of its single rechargeable batteries, or 1,000-1,200 shots or so with two rechargeable batteries in its vertical grip, it doesn’t tell the whole story. There are a few things I need to clear up first:

  • During these past few months, I’ve been shooting mostly landscapes. That means I didn’t take lots of photos in one sitting, which would have drained the batteries faster. I would expect that if I shot events, the battery life would have been significantly less.
  • For some reason, and I’m still not sure whether my vertical grip is to blame or the batteries, the battery life sensor kept giving a low battery notice the whole time the batteries stayed on the camera, from the time I put them in to the time I took them out. Sometimes the battery life sensor would even flash the really low battery signal, indicating the batteries only had a few shots left in them. Regardless, they kept on working until Saturday evening. Not sure whether this was because the camera expected 1.5V out of each battery, not 1.2V, or whether my battery grip, which had been sitting in a box, unused, for several months before this, is at fault, but that was my experience.
  • Related to the two bullet points above, the batteries gave out while I was shooting an event. It’s possible that they would have lasted even longer if they hadn’t been put through prolonged, continuous use. It’s also possible that if I stick them back in the camera, they might have enough life in them to let me squeeze off another several shots, but that would go against the conditions of my test, where I wanted to see how long they lasted without taking them out of the camera.

Whatever your mileage may be (and I encourage you to do your own testing), I’m very impressed with the battery life. While it was a hassle to keep the vertical grip on my camera the whole time (I prefer to shoot without it unless I’m doing events), it was an interesting experiment. I would recommend keeping a set of these batteries in your bag as a backup, just in case your regular batteries run out of juice. They have a long shelf life, and they won’t self-discharge like rechargeable batteries.

I also promised in my initial post that I would use them in my 580EX II speedlite. I’m keeping that promise. I’ve been using them in it since February, and they’re still doing fine. Again, I haven’t used the speedlite very much, because I’ve been shooting mostly nature stuff, but I did shoot a wedding recently and it worked flawlessly the whole time. I’ll let you know when those run out and I’ll tally up their shot life, too.

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Thoughts

Pitch black darkness

Last night, the power went out everywhere. Completely. I happen to be staying in a village in the province of Dobrogea, Romania at the moment, and just as I stepped out of the house to walk to my car, all the lights blinked out of existence. It was, as they say, a dark and stormy night, with nary a star in the sky, not to speak of the moon, which had probably been stuffed in thick sackcloth and kidnapped.

Do you want to know what things look like when you’re in the middle of a wide open field and everything goes pitch black? It looks something like this.

Pitch Black Darkness

It’s an eerie feeling, one that throws you for a loop, even if only for a few moments. I looked around, but there was nothing to see. I reached about me, and wasn’t sure where to reach for a wall or something to hold on to. Everything was black. Even the dogs went quiet. Then, someone in a house nearby stumbled over something and mumbled some sort of swear, then called out for a light from his wife. Others, elsewhere, called out to each other. Things came back to life, but it was still pitch black outside.

I pulled out my little spotlight, the same one I reviewed recently, and found my way to the car. I unlocked it, and the interior lights came on. I climbed in, sat down and turned on the engine. The dashboard lights came on, reassuringly. Then I realized something which sounds obvious to someone who doesn’t have to deal with a power failure, but is a downright epiphany when you’re in pitch black darkness: cars have standalone electrical systems; they do not depend on the grid for power; they make their own power. When the grid goes down, your car can still run, thanks to its battery and to the fuel that makes its alternator turn and charge that same battery. It’s an amazing system when you think about it. I don’t know what we’d do without it.

Shouldn’t homes have similar standalone electrical systems, just in case grids go down? Sure, we’ve made inroads with solar panels and wind turbines, and some homes do have batteries that charge up from the sun or the wind, but the overwhelming majority of homes in this world don’t have any sort of backup power. If the electricity goes down, they’re down as well.

We should really invest more into making each of our homes more self-sufficient. Each home ought to be able to function, at least for a period of time — say 4-8 hours — without grid power, in and of itself, from power stored in batteries or capacitors or in some other container of energy, so that people can carry on with their lives and at least have enough time to prepare for a prolonged power outage once the grid power goes out.

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Thoughts

Energizer's new Advanced Lithium batteries

In early January, I was contacted by an ad agency on behalf of Energizer. Would I be willing to get the word out about their new Advanced Lithium batteries, as a blogger and photographer? Sure, but I’ll need to try them out first, I said. I promised I would use them in my Canon 5D’s vertical grip and in my 580EX II speedlite, and see how long they last.

Energizer Advanced Lithium Batteries

Well, I just got the batteries. I picked them up at the post office a couple of days ago, and it’s time to try them out. I’ll let you know how things turn out in a little while. Just to keep things on the level, I was not paid to write about them. All I got from the agency was the batteries, as review units.

In the meantime, if you have something to say about the batteries, feel free to do it, either here on my site, or on the forum that Energizer’s already set up.

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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.

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Condensed knowledge for 2008-03-20

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Camera review: Olympus SP-560 UZ

The Olympus SP-560 Ultra Zoom is just about as good and versatile a camera as you can get, short of a DSLR. I’ve been using this late-model digital camera for the last month, and I’m very impressed with its design and capabilities. A detailed write-up is available below, as well as a video review (approximately 46 minutes long). Sample photographs are enclosed at the end of the review.

How is this camera different from the rest?

  • Amazing focal range (18x zoom or 27-486mm equivalent)
  • Great design
  • Image stabilization (both sensor shift and digital)
  • High ISO capabilities (50-6400 ISO)
  • Both JPEG and RAW shooting modes
  • Face detection
  • Shadow adjustment (brings details out of the shadows)
  • Uses AA batteries
  • 3-15 frames per second
  • 8 megapixels resolution
  • Timelapse (in-camera)
  • Alarm clock (yes, you read that right; it’s got an alarm clock built in)
  • Image editing (in-camera; lighting and redeye fixes, RAW and color editing, frames and labels, calendar creation, face selection and cropping, movie editing)

Let’s get to the details

I was impressed with the great design of the camera as soon as I pulled it out of its box. As a matter of fact, the first thing that attracted me to the camera was its design, and that’s why I requested a review unit from Olympus. I’m glad to say I wasn’t disappointed by either the camera’s design or its capabilities.

The SP-560 UZ is not a camera for a complete beginner to photography. In order to use it fully, you need to be comfortable with basic camera controls, and to know how to change camera settings. The people who will appreciate this camera will be those who want a long focal range, high ISO capabilities, great optics and print-worthy resolution. As a matter of fact, this would be a good secondary body for a DSLR user that wants to get extended focal reach without spending thousands on expensive telephoto lenses. They’ll be able to use their DSLR at close ranges and use the SP-560UZ to fill in for macro photography and far-away shots.

As soon as you look at the camera, you’ll notice something unusual: every portion of the camera that can be gripped is covered with soft rubber. The eyecup and the lens barrel are lined with rubber as well. You’ll also notice the great-looking metal frame on the side of the camera, with eyelets where the camera strap attaches. The frame not only makes the camera look great, but it reinforces the body as well, guarding against bumps.

This camera is called an Ultra Zoom for a very good reason. It has an 18x zoom. That translates to an equivalent focal range of 27-486mm. This was previously unheard of, and it’s one of the largest zooms out there. I believe the only camera that currently tops the SP-560 in zoom length is the SP-570, with its 20x zoom. It is also made by Olympus.

As you can see below, the camera features a 2.5″ color LCD at 230,000 pixels. The LCD display will compensate for exposure and WB changes in order to approximate the look of the finished photograph. It’s pretty accurate in real world practice, which is great, especially when you consider that other digital cameras like the Fuji S9100 do not have accurate LCD displays.

The controls are all well-placed and easy to reach and use, even in the dark. I found myself using them with no problems while shooting at night, after only a day or two of using the camera during daylight hours. One thing I love about Olympus is that they carry their design language through their entire lines. The mode dial, buttons and colors used for the symbols are all easily recognizable and perform the same functions on all their cameras. This means that once you’ve shot with any Olympus camera, you can pick up another and continue using it without having to worry about how to change settings and options. This makes their cameras easy and enjoyable to use.

The great design of the camera becomes self-evident when you look at it from the top. Here you can see that the camera has a proper, nicely-sized grip, and the top controls are well-spaced. When you hold it in your hand, it’s well-balanced, even with the lens barrel extended. It’s a pleasure to use it.

Another couple of characteristics that become visible when you look at the camera from this angle are the lens specs: ED (which stands for Extra-low Dispersion), increases contrast and sharpness, as well as decreases chromatic aberration, 4.7-84.2mm is the focal range (27-486mm equivalent), and f/2.8-4.5 (aperture).

I find the aperture specs amazing. For a lens with this mind-boggling range, the aperture stands out as an achievement. First, the lens starts out wide at f/2.8, which is one of the highest apertures possible for zoom ranges at the moment. (f/2.0 is the lowest, but very few lenses have it.) Then, at its full focal range, its aperture is f/4.5 instead of f/5.6, which is the norm even for much more expensive lenses. Keep in mind this is not a professional zoom lens, but a lens built into a digital camera! That amazes me.

One of the buttons that’s visible from the top view is the Image Stabilization button. It lets you toggle IS on and off. I used IS extensively while shooting with the SP-560 UZ, and it’s definitely worth it. It works by stabilizing the image through shifting the sensor on the X and Y axis, and by providing an extra layer of digital image stabilization as well. It’s a must-have feature on a camera with this focal range, and the fact that it works so well makes it remarkably useful.

Another benefit this camera offers is that it uses AA batteries instead of the custom-made rechargeable batteries of other cameras. I consider this a huge plus in my book, since I can use my existing cache of rechargeable batteries and not have to worry about having to carry the camera’s charger along with me, or purchasing an additional custom battery for it.

The battery life is remarkably good – better than I’d expected. I was able to get about 275 photos with the camera after putting in freshly charged NiMH AA batteries. Keep in mind digital cameras use up batteries a lot more than DSLRs, because they have to power the LCD display all the time, and they also use electricity to power the zoom motor.

The camera is remarkably lightweight without batteries inside, and remains lightweight even with 4 AA batteries inside.

One other detail that speaks volumes about the quality of the camera’s build is the lens cap. You know how lens caps usually work by some latch or notch that extends outward and secures the cap against the lens barrel? Not with this lens. It was fitted with special felt on the inside, and this creates enough friction to hold the cap onto the lens barrel nicely. The result is a beautiful, fluid sliding movement when attaching and detaching the lens cap. It’s poetry in motion.

The camera is sturdy and weather resistant. I took it outside during a snowstorm and took photos while barely shielding it from the weather. It handled the situation without any problems, and even though it was dripping wet when I got it back inside, no damage occurred. I should mention the camera is not waterproof or weatherproof. Its build quality alone sustained it during the wet weather.

With every new Olympus camera I review, the on-screen menus seem to get better and better. They’re well laid-out, the colors are perfectly chosen to increase visibility, settings are easy to find — I’m impressed every time.

The picture quality is there, surprisingly. I say “surprisingly” because I expected the photos to be somewhat fuzzy, or some defects to exist in the lens given its extreme 18x zoom. I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered that the photo quality does not suffer at all, even with the extended focal reach. I saw no chromatic aberration, no fringing, no vignetting (if you see vignetting in my sample photographs, it’s because I added it in post-processing). The photos were slightly less sharp at the upper end of the zoom (14-18x), but the only way you can get sharper optics at those ranges is to pay thousands of dollars for them. Given this camera’s price, and the fact that the lens is built-in, the optics are great, and so is the photo quality. You’ll see what I mean when you look at the sample photographs shown at the end of my review.

A few issues

While high ISO noise is remarkably lower than on other digital cameras and even some DSLRs I have used, there is an odd transition that takes place in noise levels as one goes from ISO 800 to 1600, 3200 and 6400 ISO. Noise levels start to go up around 800 ISO and continue that way up to 3200 ISO, then are drastically reduced at 6400 ISO.

This is because resolution is cut back to 3.3 megapixels at 6400 ISO in order to cut back on noise. This is very effective and yields very usable photographs at that setting. The camera does not reduce the resolution at 800, 1600 and 3200 ISO, noise levels remain higher, and photos taken at those ISO settings, particularly at 3200 ISO, are not that usable. It would have been better to scale back on the resolution starting at 800 or 1600 ISO in order to cut back on noise levels at those settings as well.

Don’t let this make you think the camera has high noise levels. As stated above, the noise levels are lower than on other digital cameras I’ve tried, including some DSLRs. The Olympus EVOLT E-500, for example, only went up to 1600 ISO, and the chroma noise at that setting was unbearably high.

I tried to get the time lapse feature to work on three separate occasions, and couldn’t. I followed the directions as outlined in the manual, and the camera simply wouldn’t obey my instructions. I’m not sure why, and if you’ve managed to get that feature to work, do let me know in the comments. Perhaps I did something wrong, but then again, I followed the instructions to the letter. I think this may be something that will need to get fixed with a firmware update. It is fixable.

The zoom motor is fast, which is needed for the long focal range, but fine zoom adjustments couldn’t be obtained for the very same reason. When I wanted to adjust the framing of a photo, the camera would move past my desired framing when I used the zoom lever, simply because it moved too fast. This is something you may want to keep in mind as you use the camera. Fine zoom adjustments are somewhat possible, but only through very short touches on the zoom lever.

Although RAW capability is present and it works, it’s not usable in situations where you have to depend on a decent frame rate. I used RAW for about a day on the camera, then promptly went back to JPG mode, because it takes over 15 seconds to write a photo to the card when using RAW mode.

The manual focus feature on the camera isn’t accurate. It’s really more like an electronic approximation of the focus, adjusted manually. I don’t think this issue is camera specific. It’s probably present on all digital cameras that don’t have a real manual focus ring on the lens barrel. The camera provides a little picture-in-picture magnification of the photo, in order to help you gauge whether things are in focus as you adjust it manually, so rely on that instead of the feet or meters gradation present on the side of the screen. This will work for close ranges, but will not work for things or objects that are far away. You’ll see what I mean if you try it out.

What you’ll need to do in those situations is to switch the AF to area selector, and to move the focus area to a point in the photograph that the camera can use to adjust its focus automatically. That way things will work properly. You’re pretty much on your own for sky photographs. Switch to a small aperture (up to f/8) and hope for the best there. Again, this is not a camera-specific issue, all non-DSLR digital cameras seem to have this problem.

A few wishes

I would have been thrilled if this camera had a hotshoe mount. It does have a built-in flash, but it would have been great if I could have put an external flash on it. It does, however, have the ability to work with external flashes wirelessly, so if you have those, you’ll be able to use them with this camera just fine.

I would have loved to see it use a remote control. It’s really nice to be able to photograph or start video recordings via remote control.

A dedicated button that could turn the face detection feature on and off would have been very useful. I know the IS button can be programmed to control face detection, but dedicated buttons for each feature are needed. Face detection is a hot feature and should be “featured” more prominently.

Last but not least, a manual focus ring would have been awesome. Maybe even a manual zoom ring — that would have helped with the battery life, although, like I said before, I’m not complaining about that. The battery life is already pretty great.

Video review

You can view it below or here. And you can download it as well.

Summary

This camera feels like a luxury item. Really, it does. It’s beautifully designed and finished, and overall, it works great. Its amazing focal range makes it a very versatile camera that’s worth bringing along everywhere, even indoors in low light. It can yield usable photographs without a flash at 6400 ISO, and that’s remarkable.

Don’t let my few gripes fool you. This is a great and highly usable camera. I really do wish I could have reviewed this camera during spring, summer or fall instead of winter, because you would have been able to see how well it reproduces color and handles details throughout the focal range.

The sample photographs are shown below.

Buy the Olympus SP-560 UZ

More information about the Olympus SP-560 UZ

You can view even more sample photographs taken with the SP-560 UZ by visiting these two posts of mine:

  • Vantage point photography, where I photographed North Bethesda from the top of a local skyscraper (skyscraper being used loosely here, but it was one of the tallest buildings around at 18 stories high)
  • January snowfall, where I photographed a recent snowstorm in our area
  • Watching the skies, where I took photos of my community
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Reviews

Camera review: Olympus EVOLT E-500 DSLR

For the past month, I’ve been testing out the E-500 DSLR from Olympus. It’s an entry-level DSLR with impressive specs for its class. These past 30 days or so, it has been my primary camera. It’s been everywhere with me, every day. I’ve used it in all sorts of conditions (indoors, outdoors, daylight, nights, cold, warm, wet and dry), and I’ve taken over 3,000 photos with it. So what I’m about to write carries a bit of weight — at least the sort conferred by such use. After you read my review, you’ll get to see sample photographs that I took with the camera. They’re at the end, so you may jump there right now if you’d like.

E-500

The E-500 feels good in the hand. It’s light (about 435 grams for the body, plus another 75-100 grams or so for the lens). It has a great grip. It just feels right when I hold it in my hand. One of my complaints with the Canon Rebel XT, another DSLR in the same class as the E-500, is that it’s too small. It feels like it was made for a woman’s hand. I can’t quite grip it right. Not so with the E-500.

EVOLT E-500 DSLR (top view)

My test model came with a 14-45mm, 1:3.5-5.6 kit lens. Given the sensor size and optics, this is equivalent to a 28-90mm lens on the 35mm system. While the aperture specs of the lens aren’t impressive, its optics and construction are. I’ve held other kit lenses in my hand, and they felt pretty flimsy. This one doesn’t. It has weight to it, and it’s solid. The mount is made of metal, and it feels like a quality product over all. Yes, in order to make the lens affordable, Olympus needed to pare down the specs, but they didn’t skimp on materials and optics, and I’m very glad for that.

Camera body and lens

Zuiko digital lens

The controls of the camera are easy to use and well-organized. It’s interesting to see how each camera manufacturer designs the interface they think is best for their cameras. Olympus chose to group most of the controls within easy reach of the right hand fingers. There is a main mode dial which can be rotated with the thumb and index finger, and a control dial right next to it that can be rotated with the thumb. Once I got used to the controls, and it took very little time, everything I needed to use frequently could be adjusted easily, and I liked that. My only gripe here is with the White Balance button, which I think is a bit close to the thumb rest and can be accidentally pressed as the camera is held. But as I used the E-500 more, my thumb learned to rest away from this button and things were fine. Incidentally, it would have been nice if the thumb rest were rubberized.

Mode and control dials

WB, AF, ISO and Metering controls

The user manual is great. I like the way the E-500 manual is laid out. It’s organized by sections and indexed well, so I can refer to specific topics right away. Things are also clearly explained, and I know all too well that’s not always the case with other user manuals.

The E-500 has some surprising features for an entry-level DSLR. I was impressed most of all with the supersonic wave filter (SSWF) sensor cleaning. Olympus was the first company to introduce this feature on its DSLRs a couple of years ago, and other companies such as Sony, Pentax and Canon have only more recently followed suit. The SSWF uses ultrasonic vibrations to shake dust off the sensor every time the camera is turned on. This reduces (and may even eliminate) the need to to clean the sensor, though your mileage may vary. It all depends on how much you’ll switch lenses, and how careful you are when you do it. In case you’re worried, the camera has a sensor-cleaning mode that lets you gain access to the sensor for manual cleanings.

Camera and lens mount

I was pleased to see the camera had four bracketing modes: AE (exposure), WB (white balance), MF (manual focus) and flash. These modes let you vary (or bracket, hence their names) those characteristics when used. For example, AE bracketing will let you take three shots with varying exposures (dark, medium, light). You then choose the best one and delete or keep the others, as you wish. The other modes work the same, and they vary the other characteristics. This is useful for those situations when you’re not quite sure what will give you the best shot possible. Realize though that flash bracketing can get to be pretty annoying for your subjects if they’re people. No one likes being flashed repeatedly. So find the flash intensity that works, do it quickly, then stick with it.

The 2.5-inch LCD screen was a great addition to the E-500. It’s clear, big and displays photos very well, and for its time (2005), fairly unique. Olympus also spent time organizing the menu functions well, and after a short learning period, things are easy to find. The viewfinder is a different story, at least as far as I’m concerned. I found the display of the aperture and shutter information to be hard to read, because it was off to the side instead of at the bottom of the shot. Apparently, I’m not the only one to notice that shortcoming. I also noticed the eyecup (the little rubber piece around the viewfinder) was a little shallow for my eyes, and ambient light distracted me from my shots, particularly in daylight. Thankfully, I see that Olympus offers a bigger eyecup for folks like me.

LCD and other controls

The battery life was surprisingly good. I don’t know if my experience was a fluke, but I managed to get over 1,600 shots on a single charge, and over 400 of those shots were with flash. That’s impressive! I should clarify that on the first charge, I got only 350 shots. But then first charges on all rechargeable batteries don’t last that long. So after I drained the battery that first time and recharged it, the second charge lasted for over 1,600 photographs. And when the camera refused to take more shots because of the depleted battery, I turned it off, then back on, and squeezed more shots. I did this four times, and got an additional 30 shots with a battery that was supposed to be dead. Again, I don’t know if my experience was the norm, but if so, this would be a fantastic selling point. Yet I don’t see battery life mentioned anywhere in the Olympus literature or on their website.

I tried out the Olympus Master software included with the camera, and was less than impressed with its features. I stuck with Adobe Bridge and Photoshop for post-processing my photos thereafter. Incidentally, I wouldn’t advise you to download the photos from the camera to your computer by connecting the two with a USB cable. (This is true for just about any recent DSLR, by the way.) It’ll take forever, particularly if you shoot in RAW format. Because camera manufacturers haven’t updated their USB connectivity hardware, the most you’ll get is the equivalent of USB 1.1 speed. Get a card reader and use that instead. The speeds will be USB 2.0, and you’ll be happy.

I was disappointed to find that the camera’s ISO range only went from 100-400 natively. Yes, the sensitivity can be boosted up to 1600 in whole steps or 1/3 steps, but still, given that other cameras in its class (such as the Nikon D50 and Canon Rebel XT) offer native ISO up to 1600, the E-500 should do so as well. I should note that two noise reduction features are included on the camera. They are useful when using higher ISO settings. One is a noise filter that can be coupled with the ISO boost and works automatically, and another is a noise reduction feature that can be turned on and off as needed, regardless of the ISO setting. Although the noise filter did a good job at 400 and 800 ISO, it couldn’t help much at 1600. The noise reduction feature also wasn’t very helpful unless one used it with long exposures.

Time and time again, as I used the E-500, I found myself wishing for better low-light capability. I tend to take lots of shots in low light conditions, and I prefer not to use the flash, because it’s either disruptive or annoying. When I took photos of people, I found my friends covering their eyes or squinting. And of course, it’s not practical or desired to use the flash when doing street photography at night. Flash would ruin a neon sign, and would shed a harsh light on details best lit by ambient light. Maybe I’m just spoiled in wanting to do handheld night or low-light photography, but those are my expectations.

The autofocus works well and is fast given that it’s only a 3-point AF. That’s important because manual focus is too tedious to use by itself, unless you’re dealing with subjects that won’t move for some time. I also found that the focus ring on the kit Zuiko lens was best used for fine focus adjustments, not for everyday focusing tasks. There were, however, some occasions when the AF didn’t quite work, including daylight conditions. I was never quite sure why, but those times were few and far between. Autofocus was slower in low light, and at times, undesirably slow, by a factor of 3-7x when compared to daylight AF speeds. On the E-500, there is an option to use the flash as an autofocus illuminator (as on other DSLRs), but I didn’t find it useful. It didn’t cut down on the autofocus time at all, and only introduced a strobe-like light that preceded the shots and annoyed my friends even more. So I’d recommend that you plan for long AF times in low ambient light, and realize that you’re going to miss some photo ops because of it.

On the other hand, the built-in flash is surprisingly strong, and that’s good news for those occasions when it does need to be used. I was shocked to see it that it filled a room of 20’x20′ and provided ample light for most shots. Like other reviewers, I was surprised to see that I could not get red eyes in my subjects even if I wanted to, and even when not using the red-eye preflash.

The E-500 has a nice calendar feature built into the photo review mode that lets you view the shots you took on a particular day. I liked that a lot. I also found myself wishing for a bulk delete feature for a particular day. Here’s the scenario: say you take lots of shots, then download them to your computer, and you take more shots the next day, without realizing that you haven’t deleted the other shots first. With a bulk delete feature, you can select all of the shots from the previous day and delete them en masse, without needing to go through and selecting each by hand. But this is just wishful thinking and not a vital feature on an entry-level DSLR.

For those who need it, the E-500 has a mirror lock function that’s called Anti-Shock in the camera menu. It allows you to eliminate the minor vibration caused by the mirror movement as you press the shutter, and it’s useful for macro or night photography.

A surprising feature on this camera was the presence of two custom reset modes. Ever used a car where you could set your seat and steering positions, plus other settings, then store them? This is the same concept. You can choose to adjust certain camera functions, then store them into one of the custom resets. When you want to use those settings, you simply select that reset mode from the menu, and all other settings but yours are wiped out. This can prove useful for day/night photography, when you’d want features like the noise reduction turned off or on, respectively. Or for multiple users of the same camera.

Even though the camera is not dust and splash proof, I can tell you from direct experience that it is a sturdy camera that will work in some pretty harsh conditions. The stated operating temperature of the E-500 is supposed to be 32-100 degrees Fahrenheit. I’ve used it in temperatures as low as 10 degrees Fahrenheit, and it worked great. The user manual says the transitions between temperatures and humidities shouldn’t be sudden. Well, they were sudden, and the lenses didn’t fog up. They worked fine, and what’s more, the camera worked fine. I used it once while it was snowing. Snow accumulated on the camera and lens body, and when I got inside, it melted, leaving drops of water everywhere. I wiped them off, and the camera continued to work just great. I didn’t have a chance to use the camera in dusty or excessively warm conditions, but I certainly put it through its paces here in Washington, DC, and it hardly missed a beat.

I want to talk about the four-thirds standard for a bit (also see the Wikipedia entry for this). The E-500 is built on this standard, so a little background information will help you understand the differences between it and other DSLRs a little better.

As you may know if you own a DSLR, once you’ve bought it and invested in the various accoutrements that go along with that camera body, you’re stuck with the brand, so to speak. You’ve spent thousands of dollars on extra lenses, and if you want to switch to another brand, you’ll need to spend money not only on a new camera body, but on another set of lenses as well. That’s not fun, and most people can’t afford to switch brands, especially if they’ve invested heavily in lenses and other camera accessories like speedlights, batteries, etc. Hence, camera manufacturers are pretty happy (financially speaking) that lens lines aren’t inter-compatible (unless you use special mounts that may or may not work or give you the same image quality), because they have long-term, guaranteed customers.

Olympus came up with the four-thirds standard so they could make lenses that are interchangeable, and can be used by any other camera back built on the four-thirds standard, and they wanted to design them specifically for use in digital photography. But according to Wikipedia, the four-thirds standard isn’t entirely an open standard:

Four Thirds is not an Open Standard, however, as it does not meet the “allowing anyone to use” criteria commonly accepted as the definition of an open standard. It also does not meet the criteria that the standard itself and any associated intellectual property be available on a Reasonable And Non-Discriminatory basis.

So while the standard is good, Olympus needs to be more open about its use in the industry. There also seems to be a drawback. According to Wikipedia, even though the smaller sensor size allows for smaller and lighter lenses, it’s also to blame for the high noise I experienced when taking shots at higher ISO settings. Apparently the sensor just isn’t big enough to function well in low light. Whether that’s accurate, or whether this issue can be solved through creative engineering, I don’t know. What I do know is that I’m not happy with the performance of the E-500 in low light, particularly when shooting without flash, at shutter speeds above 1/25 seconds. But again, my needs are probably more stringent than those of the entry-level DSLR user.

4:3 CCD sensor

This next point is entirely subjective, but I find the 4:3 aspect of the photographs I took with the E-500 more pleasing to the eye than the more prevalent 3:2 aspect found in most photographs. (The 3:2 aspect carries over from film photography.) Have a look at your computer monitor or TV. Chances are (unless you have a wide screen monitor or TV) that you’ve been looking at images made for the 4:3 standard for quite some time, and you didn’t even know it. This aspect ratio has been in use in that medium for decades.

The 3:2 aspect helps the photographer frame a landscape shot a little better, because it’s wider, but when I look at a vertical shot taken with that aspect, it seems as if one side is lopped off. As I said, this is entirely subjective, so I invite you to make up your own minds about it. I ask you to leave brand loyalty aside, and to judge which aspect looks better in each mode. I prefer 4:3 in portrait mode, and I’m on the fence between 4:3 and 3:2 in landscape mode.

So, given all of this camera’s features, capabilities and limitations, does it allow its user to take good photographs? I think so. I was pleased with the color reproduction and image quality. And I’m willing to let you judge this for yourselves as well. As I mentioned, I took over 3,000 photos with the camera, and I posted several of them below, at the end of my review.

EVOLT E-500 DSLR (side view)

Enough talking, let’s wrap things up. Overall, the E-500 is a solid DSLR. It’s sturdy, has a good grip, it’s got good battery life, and the image quality is great. I like the 4:3 aspect of the photos, and I like the fact that the lenses and body are interchangeable with other brands, although currently only Olympus, Panasonic and Leica make DSLRs and lenses based on the standard. That’s about five camera backs altogether, at widely varying prices, so there’s not a whole lot of choice, although that could change in the future. The sensor’s performance in low light is not up to my expectations, and that could or could not be related to the four-thirds standard. Time will tell. I think that it’s a bargain for its class. The current market price hovers around $650 for the body and two lenses, the one I tested and another, the 40-150mm f/3.5-4.5 zoom. I hear that’s a great lens. Bottom line: if I weren’t so bent on being able to use it in low light situations, I’d get one myself.

Here are the sample photographs, as mentioned above.

Valentine for my sweetie

Musing on a fragile life

Those dark shadows that haunt us

Life, reflected

I have this idea

1640 at sunrise

Chat by the country fence

Solitude is peaceful

Waterpainting

The three

Brothers in arms

Green power

Blue mountain

Urge to splurge

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