Where’s the Netflix Shelf?

The more movies and shows Ligia and I watch on Netflix, the more convinced we become that Netflix lacks a vital feature. We call it the Shelf. Where is it?

The Netflix Shelf would hold titles we’ve seen and loved. It would contain two collections: a smart collection, which would automatically bring together the titles we’ve rated 4 stars or higher), but more importantly a manual collection, where we could add titles we’d like to watch again in the feature — movies and shows we really love, perennial favorites if you will.

Within the Shelf, we could sort titles by genre, keywords, actor or director (using the metadata added by Netflix staff or metadata we could add ourselves).

There were so many occasions we saw a movie, loved it, wanted to store it somewhere so we could see it again in the future, but didn’t want to leave it in the queue, cluttering up the list of titles we still haven’t seen. There was and is no place for them yet, and that’s regrettable, because it’s a lost opportunity for Netflix to create customer goodwill at a time when they need it.

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.

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.

Shaving: art versus design versus profit

Where’s the art?

When I think of shaving razors currently on the market, I think of cartoon fights where everyone pulls out a bigger gun. Razor companies are constantly trying to outdo each other with more blades. If it’s not the blades, then it’s a “microcomb”, or a vibrating handle… which brings all sorts of other imagery to mind, the kind that has nothing to do with shaving, unless you’re into weird fetishes.

It’s the same kind of approach that software companies use these days. Their code gets so bloated, because they never take the time to clean it up, that all they can hope for is that hardware manufacturers can throw more RAM and MHz at the problem so they don’t have to optimize their code. Apple took a different approach with the Snow Leopard operating system: they took almost a year to clean it up, throwing out the junk. That’s why I admire Apple.

Made better through improved design? Not really.

On the other hand, companies like Gillette and their competitors lost sight of the art of shaving and figured everyone was a nitwit who couldn’t learn to shave properly and couldn’t take care of their razor, so they overdesigned their razors for the lowest common denominator. In the process, the razor became a plastic toy, not a tool, a crappy little thing you throw away instead of something you respect and maintain, because it keeps you looking civilized.

Designed for profit? Thank you sir, may I have another?

Because it became a throw-away toy, their profit margins increased. Because the razors no longer lasted a lifetime, they could sell more of them. You just look down the line of razor models from the Gillette over the years, and you’ll see they get more and more plasticky, with less metal parts. If they have metal in them, it’s not in the head (certainly not where the cartridges attach to the handle); that part needs to be plastic so it breaks after a while.

Don't let its flashy looks fool you. It just can't compare to a good safety razor.

The cartridges have started to cost more as well. A pack of eight cartridges for the Gillette Fusion ProGlide razor (the latest flashy gimmick from Gillette) runs about $30 at Amazon. That’s $3.75 per cartridge, and from my experience, they last about 3-4 shaves. By contrast, a pack of 60 assorted safety razor blades costs $18. That’s 30 cents per blade, and they last about 6-7 shaves. (By the way, I’d recommend that pack for those learning to shave with a safety razor, because it’ll let you try different brands to see which blades work best for your face.)

The real deal.

Wait, it gets worse

They also polluted the environment with all that disposable plastic crap. Now you throw away the razor, not just the blades. And the blades aren’t just steel, which is perfectly recyclable, but they’re plastic and metal, which is annoyingly difficult to recycle, because you need to separate the two materials from each other, and it’s just not worth the trouble.

It’s such a shame. I used to admire Gillette about 10 years ago, before I got disappointed with all the stuff they’re doing these days. I still shave with a classic Gillette Safety Razor, pictured below. I still keep my grandfather’s Gillette Heavy Duty Safety Razor, and plan to use that when my own breaks down. Things used to be simple and beautiful. Where did they go wrong?

The classic Gillette safety razor.

If you’d like to learn how to shave properly, check out my wet shaving guide. And there’s also a video, embedded below.

Image of ProGlide Razor courtesy of Gillette. Image of Merkur Heavy Duty Safety Razor courtesy of Wikipedia.

It’s time to demand reliability from DSLR manufacturers

When DSLRs (and now HDSLRs) cost thousands of dollars, and the manufacturer makes a promise that the shutter in said DSLR is rated for 100,000 shots or 150,000 shots, I think it should no longer be a promise, but a guarantee, and the manufacturer ought to be responsible for the repair to a DSLR whose shutter failed before its rated number of shots.

Look at cars. Some cars cost little more than a top of the line DSLR, but cars have serious warranties. These days, some cars have 10-year warranties on everything. Historically speaking, even if most cars haven’t had good warranties on everything, they’ve had good warranties on the power train — on the basic stuff that makes them go.

On a DSLR, the shutter is part of the camera’s “powertrain”. Without it, the camera can’t take photographs, and a full-frame DSLR that can’t take photographs is a very expensive paperweight.

It’s high time we demanded that DSLR manufacturers come up with warranties for the more expensive DSLRs, where they’ll guarantee that the shutter and the motherboard (pretty much every part that takes photos and writes those photos to a card) will work for a certain amount of time.

If we don’t, we’ll likely run into the situation I’m in right now, where my Canon EOS 5D’s shutter started to fail at under 50,000 shots. Initially, photos taken at 1/6000 sec or higher (1/8000 sec) would come out black or almost black. Now, months later and at around 52,500 shots, even photos taken at 1/1000 sec are severely underexposed.

Have a look at three photos taken with the 5D. The first two were taken at 1/8000 sec shutter speed a couple of months ago, and the third was taken at 1/1000 sec shutter speed a few days ago.

It’s not right that the shutter has started to fail at half its projected life span of 100,000 shots. And what’s even more improper is Canon USA Support’s reply to me. They told me the shutter’s rated life is not a warranty, not even a promise, but an expectancy (an anticipation if you will).

What that means is they can advertise long shutter lives all they want, but they’re not accountable for actual, real-world results from its customers. It’s irresponsible, and it shouldn’t be allowed. When we pay thousands of dollars for a fancy DSLR, we as customers pay that money with certain expectations in mind. Those expectations entail (among others) a need for durability and reliability.

I propose that a set of benchmarks be set for the entire photography industry, where shutter life is one of the differentiating criteria. Processor and camera motherboard life should be another. Manufacturers would then have to offer warranties on these benchmark criteria. I propose 4 or 5-year warranties on the circuits, and on shutter life, the warranty should go as far as its stated life span. If it’s 100,000 shots, then by Noah, it should be 100,000 shots, end of story.

Bring back POP3 for Gmail, Apple

Due to some file corruption issues, I’ve recently had to re-install Snow Leopard on my MBP. Afterward, as I set up Mail, I found out there was no way to configure my Gmail account for POP3 access. IMAP was the only choice. I searched for this on the internet, and it’s a confirmed “design” behavior in Snow Leopard.

I really dislike it when I’m told by someone else how to manage my digital stuff. I’m an IT professional, and I like the POP3 protocol. I don’t care if IMAP is better. I use IMAP on my iPod Touch or iPhone or iPad or Nokia N95, and for those, it works great. But all I want to do on my laptop/desktop is to download my emails via POP3 and archive them by year, then move them into long-term digital storage. (I have an email archive going back to 1996.)

I also want to keep the emails in my Gmail account, so I have them in two places, just in case. You can’t do that with IMAP. You drag an email onto a local folder, and it’s gone from the cloud. I also dislike the fact that IMAP stores a local cache of the cloud emails, eating up space on my hard drive.

Thankfully, I was able to use Time Machine to retrieve a previous version of the Mail Preference file, restored it, and I was back in business with POP3. But everyone who chooses to do a fresh install of Snow Leopard (not an upgrade) is out of luck if they want to use POP3 for Gmail.

Now along comes Apple and says I can’t use POP3 for Gmail anymore, because they don’t feel like including it as a config option in Snow Leopard’s Mail. That really bugs me. It’s not like it cost them anything to have it in there. The code for POP3 was written more than a decade ago. It’s a simple, light protocol (much simpler than IMAP).

Apple, why are you forcing me to do something I don’t want to do? If I like using Mail and POP3 works for me, why take it away? That’s rude. Work on improving the OS, and making it do more, but don’t take away something as basic and simple as POP3!

The stats on Walmart

Neat infographic about Walmart. See below:

  • Last year’s sales: $405 Billion.
  • Walton family’s net worth: $83.6 Billion, out of which they give 2% annually to charities. By contrast, Warren Buffett’s net worth is $47 Billion, and he gives 78% annually to charities.
  • It has 1,400,000 employees.
  • The average salary of a Walmart employee is $20,774/year. The annual salary of Walmart’s CEO is $19,200,000.
  • Walmart’s “Buy America” campaign showcased “Made in America” banners hanging over imported goods made in China and other countries.
  • Walmart imports over $30 billion in merchandise from China every year.

Walmart: The Stats
Via: Home Loans

What happened to Sigma and FujiFilm DSLRs?

A few years ago, there were two companies which had some interesting opportunities ahead of them, if they chose to stay on course: Sigma, with its revolutionary Foveon sensor and lens-making know-how, and FujiFilm, with its remarkable Super CCD SR sensor and long-term experience with professional lens-making.

They didn’t stay on course. Sigma’s continued development of the sensor has been much too slow to keep up with the market, and FujiFilm seems to have dropped out of the DSLR game altogether.

Back in January of 2007, I wrote about the Sigma SD14, a camera I thought was revolutionary because of its capability of capturing every color (Red, Green or Blue) at every pixel, due to its layered Foveon sensor. This was something no other camera on the market had.

The megapixel game isn’t everything, and I was willing to believe so in the case of the SD14. Its advertised resolution was 14 megapixels, but its true resolution was about 5 megapixels. That’s because each layer of its Foveon sensor (there are three layers, one for each color) only captured 5 megapixels. When you looked up the photos resolution in the EXIF data, it came out to 5 megapixels. When you zoomed in at 1:1, the photo still only covered a 5 megapixel area.

Sure, some people pointed out that you could safely increase the resolution of processed images,to 12 or 14 megapixels, and they would still have the quality you need, but in my book, 5 megapixels was still 5 megapixels, even if you could multiply it by 3 and get 14 megapixels.

Regardless of my disappointment with the camera’s real resolution, I still thought Sigma had a gorgeous sensor on their hands. The ability to capture color accurately at every pixel is something other sensor manufacturers only dream about. Their sensors don’t do that. Instead, they spread Red, Green and Blue pixels around the entire sensor area using a mathematical algorithm called Bayer interpolation, then they do some very serious calculations to de-mosaic the resulting image, make out the right colors, and give you as accurate a color reproduction as they can give you. The Foveon sensor didn’t have to do all that complicated stuff. Supposedly, it already knew which color belonged at each pixel, because it captured said color from the get-go. Wasn’t that an amazing capability?

Look what’s happened in the 3½ years since I wrote about the SD14… Sigma launched the SD15 only a few months ago, and guess what its resolution is? It’s still only 14 megapixels if you play their multiplication game, or 5 megapixels if you go by the book. Sure, they upped the ISO sensitivity to 1600 from 800 (3200 in extended mode), which is still not enough, but the AF is still only 5-point, and the max shutter speed is still only 1/4000 sec when other cameras in the same category offer 1/8000 sec. And there’s no video, HD or otherwise.

Another tell-tale sign is that B&H Photo is out of stock on it, and I don’t think it’s because it sold too fast. About the only thing the SD15 manages to do well, given the demands of today’s marketplace, is to look pretty.

When you look on Flickr, no one is using the SD15. That should tell you something right there. And SD14 usage waned over time, as was expected, although the quality of the images posted with the camera is still remarkable.

In case you aren’t already thinking it, let me sum it up for you: Sigma’s DSLR offerings have fallen behind the times by at least a couple of years, if not more. Some might say they came out with the DP1 and the DP2, and those cameras are interesting in their tiny little niches of the market, but they still offer subpar performance in low light, and they still don’t record video (unless you count tiny 320×240 video as real video).

I’d like to ask the folks at Sigma this question: What in the world have you been doing these last few years? You dropped the ball. You didn’t stay on course. You had an amazing sensor in your hands, but you failed to develop it properly while others have taken their inferior Bayer pattern sensors to incredible heights of performance. Your Foveon sensor ought to develop 14 or 16 real megapixels now, on each of its three layers. It should go to 6400 ISO or 12800 ISO natively. It should record HD video. Then it’d be competitive in today’s marketplace. Instead, it’s the same little sensor I saw more than three years ago, dressed up in a relatively new camera body.

In early 2007, FujiFilm also launched a new DSLR. That camera was pretty amazing in its own right, like the SD14, except the FujiFilm FinePix S5 Pro actually met the demands of the marketplace of that time.

It had a wonderful resolution of 12.34 megapixels, an 11-point, 7-area AF system, a 14-bit A/D converter (most DSLRs at the time were still at 12-bit), ISO sensitivity that went all the way up to 3200 ISO natively, and 1/8000 sec max shutter speed.

Most of all, it had a revolutionary sensor developed in-house by FujiFilm. Here’s what they said about it in the S5 Pro press release:

“Fujifilm’s Super CCD SR II will be updated to the new Super CCD SR Pro. Using a unique layout of twelve million paired photodiodes (6.17 million larger ‘S’ photodiodes for main image information, combined with 6.17 million smaller ‘R’ photodiodes for bright area information), the S5 Pro will deliver improvements in noise, dynamic range, colour and tonality. Further improving the capability of the sensor, a new, improved low-pass filter will ensure that moiré and noise are kept to an absolute minimum. Fujifilm believes improvements in these key areas will be of more true value to professional photographers – the challenge is quality of information, not quantity of information.”

In layman’s terms, it had both large and small photodiodes, clustered together in a beautiful geometric pattern, to capture as much image information as a single-layer sensor could capture, and a powerful engine to analyze that information and turn it into beautiful photographs.

People who used the S5 Pro loved its image quality. And even now, when you look on Flickr, you see that people are using it, and the quality of the images they post is quite nice.

So what has happened since 2007? It looks like FujiFilm dropped out of the DSLR market altogether. The S5 Pro is listed as discontinued on their website, and there’s no other model to take its place. None. Instead, FujiFilm is focusing on regular digicams, and seems to be leaning toward cameras that exploit the higher end of the focal range (15-30x zooms).

That’s a losing battle as far as I’m concerned. High zooms suffer by default of aberration and other artifacts as one gets above 15x. And in order to get the proper magnification in a smaller camera body, the sensor needs to be made really small — so small that you run into noise issues and photo quality suffers even at low ISO and close ranges.

What FujiFilm did makes no sense to me. They have incredible know-how in the production of professional, high quality lenses. Their Fujinon lenses are used in satellites, in high end telescopes and in broadcast-quality TV cameras and camcorders. They have the know-how to design really nice camera bodies. I used the FinePix S9100 and I loved its body design. And you only need to look at their current digicam models (S200EXR or HS10), at they way the controls are positioned and the grips are designed, to realize that Fuji knows a lot about camera body design.

When it came to digicam design, they also had what was a big plus over other camera manufacturers. Most of their zoom cameras had manual zoom and focus, and the ability to use regular AA batteries. A manual zoom is just nicer than a servo zoom. It’s more responsive, more controllable, doesn’t eat into the battery life, and it’s more reliable over time. And isn’t it nice when you’re in the field and your camera runs out of juice, that you can just pop in a couple of AA batteries and keep on going? That’s such a practical design aspect, but people tend to forget it when they focus purely on battery life.

Now you look at their line-up, and only two cameras still offer manual zoom: the S200EXR, which B&H Photo says was discontinued by the manufacturer, even though it’s still listed as an active camera on the FujiFilm website, and the HS10. The rest all offer electronic zooms, which I don’t like.

Keep in mind all the good things I told you about FujiFilm’s know-how, and let’s look at the S5 Pro again. The sensor and the engine was clearly Fuji’s. But the body design aped Nikon’s body design. And the camera was made to work with Nikon’s lenses. It’s as if FujiFilm didn’t want to own the very camera it made, the camera which contained its revolutionary sensor. This makes no sense to me. They knew how to make fantastic lenses, but didn’t make them for their own flagship DSLR. They knew how to make fantastic camera bodies, but didn’t make one for their own flagship DSLR. Does that make sense to you?

I wrote to FujiFilm PR in January and March of 2007, asking for a review unit. They were willing to send me one, but they didn’t have any lenses to loan me. I needed to supply my own Nikon lenses for the camera, and since all my equipment was Canon, that was no good. I gave up on reviewing the camera. And I bet you I wasn’t the only reviewer who would have liked to write about the S5 Pro but was turned off by the lens issue.

I’m really sorry to see that today, FujiFilm isn’t even developing their revolutionary sensor any more. Sure, they’re using a variant of it in some of their point-and-shoots, but that’s like saying your lawnmower has a Lamborghini engine inside. You can’t get the performance of a true Lamborghini engine from a tiny, cramped 2-cycle engine made to cut grass, and in much the same way, one can’t expect to get the true performance of the large sensor found in the S5 Pro from a tiny 1/1.6-inch sensor.

Don’t tell me CCD sensors are inferior to CMOS. They each have their pluses and minuses. CMOS sensors were thought to be inferior to CCD just a few years ago, but there was a real R&D push to make them better, and look at them today — they’re incredibly good. Don’t tell me you can’t get great video from CCD sensors. Professional camcorders use either CMOS or CCD sensors to record full HD video, depending on the model and brand, so I know that’s possible.

I know that with continued R&D effort, both the Super CCD SR Pro sensor and the Foveon X3 sensor could have been improved greatly, making them competitive and even dominant by today’s standards.

I feel bad for FujiFilm and for Sigma. They went wrong in their strategy, and I don’t know why they aren’t taking steps to redress. Perhaps FujiFilm feels the market is already too competitive and has enough business from its other sectors. And it could be that Sigma is focused on its lenses, and is satisfied with only a niche of the DSLR market. I don’t know, but I would like to find out more. If anyone has any additional information, please chime in.

Stats about cigarette companies

The following infographic presents some interesting facts about big tobacco:

  • The largest US tobacco company, Philip Morris International, is the 94th most profitable company in the country.
  • The top three US tobacco companies made over $50 billion in revenues in 2009.
  • China is the largest cigarette producing country in the world. Tobacco companies from that country made over $443 billion dollars last year.
  • Federal tax on a cigarette pack has gone up from 5 cents in 2002 to $1.01 in 2009.
  • Many life insurance companies in America are major stakeholders in tobacco companies.

Cigarette Companies

Stats about pharmaceutical companies

Have a look at the infographic below for some sobering facts about pharmaceutical companies in the US. Here are a few snippets:

  • The cost of prescription drugs rises 12% every year; they now cost 3x more than 30 years ago.
  • The markup on prescription drugs varies from 5,000% to 225,000%! That’s pure profit these companies make on every pill they sell.
  • Big Pharma spends over $20 billion per year on advertising for their drugs.

Pharmaceutical Companies

Changes in TV viewing habits

The BBC reported recently on how TV viewing is becoming a more social experience. When I read through that article, I said, hang on a minute, I had an idea back in October of 2005 along the same lines… I called it audience-inclusive advertising, but the thoughts I wrote in there can be applied to other content on TV, like shows, which is what’s currently happening.

It’s fun to read through my original article and see how much of the stuff has already come to fruition. Here’s one:

A site can be set up and maintained by a consortium of advertising agencies and brand owners or a neutral body, that would either track viewer product preferences through data mining and random surveys, or would actively encourage users to register and provide product preferences. Alternately, existing user data could be compiled from various databases.

Now we have Facebook and Twitter, and advertisers love to mine their data sets for user product preferences, to give them surveys (think of all the annoying quizzes on Facebook), and collect data on them every time an app is authorized. So this has already happened.

Through the medium of the website, brand owners can also take a cue from the users about the kind of products they need to advertise, this time in a more direct way, through hard data. Even more, they can more easily survey the users about the kind of new products they want to see.

Think of all the fan pages set up on Facebook by companies and brands. You can become a fan, learn more about the company, and be surveyed, live, about your preferences. Beautiful.

Another way to keep the audience is to offer prizes for watching the ads and picking through clues that are weaved through both the ads and the shows. Entries can then be registered on the show’s site or at this main site for a chance to win something, perhaps even products featured on the show, or something as banal as an actor’s coat, or the actual bottle of perfume used by an actress on the show. These aren’t things that cost much but mean a lot to the audience.

Do you notice how many product giveaways there are on Facebook and Twitter? Companies are giving away not just stuff that doesn’t cost a lot, like an actor’s wardrobe, but they’re giving fans cars, computers, cameras, TVs and other things that cost a fair bit of money. And it’s all done for the purpose of keeping users (fans, if you will) tuned into the company’s platform and brand.

It’s also fun to see what stuff didn’t get implemented (yet?), but I’ll let you do that by reading through my original article.

Camera review: Olympus PEN E-P2 DSLR

The nice folks at Olympus sent me a PEN E-P2 DSLR for me to review, and I got to use it for about a month. As I usually do with the cameras I review, the E-P2 became my primary camera. I took it everywhere with me, and I shot both photos and video with it. A succinct description of my thoughts on the camera goes as follows: superb design, diminutivewell-made, clearly thought outreliable and a joy to use.

Details

This camera made me think seriously about switching to it permanently, and using it as my primary camera all the time. I loved it so much I didn’t want to give it back (I did give it back in the end). I loved everything about it. Even its few flaws pale in comparison with the advantages it gives you. I’m not the only one who raves about it. My wife loved it too. Other photographers loved it. People on the street would stop me to ask about it. And it’s no surprise, because it looks really good.

Raoul, using the Olympus PEN E-P2. Photographer: Thomas Hawk.

All that wonderful design and the overall good looks wouldn’t mean much without actual performance, and boy, this camera really delivers! The photos are superb, wonderfully well exposed, details are great at 1:1 (100%), low light performance is beautiful, even with the fairly slow (f/3.5-5.6) kit lens, and auto white balance is right on the money (not too cool in low light, which was the case with earlier Olympus cameras, and not too warm, either).

The PEN E-P2 isn’t perfect. There are a few sticking points. The two you’re likely to notice are battery life and autofocus failure in low light.

I’m used to battery life that hovers around 500-700 shots per charge. Perhaps that’s why I usually take that many photos when I visit a place. Or perhaps it’s just a coincidence, I don’t know. I do carry a spare battery when I shoot with my usual camera, so that means I can usually take 1200-1500 shots before I’m out of juice. The E-P2’s battery runs out around 250-350 shots, and it may run out faster if you take a lot of photos in rapid succession. That was a bit of a surprise to me, and since I didn’t have an extra battery, it did limit the amount of shots I could take. So, my advice to you is to get an extra battery (or two) depending on your shooting habits.

In low light (and I mean fairly low light, with little contrast between lighter and darker colors) the E-P2 will keep searching, trying to focus, and it will finally give up after a few seconds. You can overcome this if you use a faster lens, or if you switch to AF+MF or MF. That way you can choose to focus manually after the camera says it can’t do it, or you can start focusing manually right away.

Expecting the E-P2 to shine all around is a mistake. No camera is going to be perfect. In every camera ever made, some features were taken out, or couldn’t be put in at all. I look at the E-P2 as I look at my MINI Cooper S. It’s diminutive, the design is gorgeous, and the performance is great for my needs. I didn’t buy my MINI expecting it to perform like a Hummer, and by the same token, you don’t buy a PEN E-P2 expecting it to work like a Nikon D3X or a Canon EOS 1D Mark IV. They’re different cameras, designed for different purposes. When you buy an E-P2, you expect it to be light, versatile, stay out of the way, take good photographs (great photographs, actually), and to shoot HD video. It does all those things beautifully, and more.

I thought I’d place some weight on the DxOMark ratings for the E-P2 after I saw them, but in the end, it wasn’t a concern. It’s like the iPad, you see. You don’t get it until you hold it in your hands. Then it clicks. It’s the same with the E-P2. After you begin using it, you get it, and you don’t want to let go of it, because you know you can get great pictures with it, and you love the way it works, and the way it feels.

Even my wife, who doesn’t like taking photos with my Canon 5D, because she thinks it’s too much work to get the camera set up and adjusted, and doesn’t like it even when it’s on full auto, loved the PEN E-P2 and was able to take great photos with it. That showed me that Olympus was able to strike a great balance between a DSLR that will cater to the needs of a pro through its many buttons and manual settings, and will also please the amateur by assisting them unobtrusively as they use it.

We’d do well to remember a few things about Olympus here:

  • First company to come out with a self-cleaning sensor for a DSLR
  • First company to come out with Live View for a DSLR
  • First company to come out with magnified view for TTL MF on a DSLR
  • First company to come out with the idea of capturing video and photos with same DSLR sensor. I call it the “idea”, because what they did was to capture Live View video shown on the camera’s display via the main sensor, and the leap from that to recording video from the sensor is a fairly small one.
  • First company to come out with the smallest DSLR on the market. The E-420 was the first one, and now the PEN picks up Olympus’ famed lineage of analog cameras and takes it digital.

Even though larger companies like Canon and Nikon are reaping the benefits of implementing things like self-cleaning sensors and live view and magnified focus assist, and HD video, it’s really Olympus who did the hard work to bring these features to the market. Their implementation of these features may not be the flashiest or the loudest, but they were first.

I’m going to repeat a few things I wrote in August 2008, in an article entitled “DSLRs and video to converge“, after the Nikon D90, the first DSLR that could also shoot video, had been launched:

As good as the [Nikon] D90 is though, it will soon be eclipsed. Why? Market forces. How long do you think it will be before we’ll have a DSLR that can record 1080p HD video? Or how about an even smaller and thinner DSLR than currently possible? How about a DSLR that looks and weighs about the same as a point-and-shoot, but gives you photo quality that’s equivalent to (or exceeds) today’s DSLRs? It’s all coming.

Keep in mind the time when I wrote those things, and what came afterward. Just a few short months later, the Canon 5D Mark II came on the market, and it could record 1080p video. The floodgates had opened. And now we have a smaller and thinner DSLR than ever thought possible (Olympus PEN), one that looks and weighs about the same as a point-and-shoot camera (Olympus PEN), but gives you photo quality that exceeds that of other DSLRs. And there’s a huge difference in sensor size between that of a typical digicam and that of a PEN camera, as you can see below. (The sensor of the PEN camera is on the right.)

Here’s what else I said back then…

You know where else I’ll be proven wrong? Back when I attended the Olympus E-3 launch party, I talked about the camera’s (somewhat) limited 10 megapixel resolution, and I thought they had reached the limitations of the Four Thirds 2x cropped sensor. I thought the sensor’s surface area was too small to get more resolution out of it. But now that Canon has proven you can get 16 megapixels out of a 1.6x cropped sensor, I don’t see why you can’t get 12 megapixels or more out of a 2x cropped sensor.

I had my doubts about whether or not the Olympus engineers would be able to squeeze proper low light performance out of the four thirds sensor while increasing resolution, given the sensor’s size when compared to a full 35mm sensor, but they’ve done it! The PEN E-P2 goes up to 6400 ISO if you want it to, and the photos taken at 1600 ISO are definitely usable. Even the ones taken at 3200 ISO look pretty good to me. I’d reserve 6400 ISO for daylight use, such as when you want to take a high-speed photograph. Nighttime photos taken at 6400 ISO were fairly grainy, but then again, I was using the slower kit lens, whose aperture stops at f/3.5.

One last quote:

Wait, it gets even better. The current aspect ratio of Four Thirds cameras is 4:3. The aspect ratio of Micro Four Thirds cameras will be 16:9. That’s the same aspect ratio used in movies. Where do you think that’s going? It means your photos and your videos will have the same aspect ratio, and the line between photography and videography will get even more blurred, and it’s quite possible that in the near future, we’ll have 1920×1080p HD video recorded by a tiny little DSLR with a tiny little lens on it.

Okay, I was wrong about that one. Things are even better now. The PEN E-P2 will let you shoot at the following aspect ratios: 4:3, 3:2, 16:9 and 6:6. It shoots 720p HD video at 16:9, and it’s only a (short) matter of time before the PEN will be able to shoot 1080p HD video, as predicted. Keep in mind it will still be the tiniest little DSLR on the market, with a tiny little interchangeable lens on it, and that will make all the difference.

While I’m on the subject of video, do you want to know what else sets the PEN apart from other DSLRs that can shoot HD video? The fact that you can choose between several auto-focus modes, or image stabilization modes, or adjust both aperture and shutter speed, and apply live art filters to the videos, in-camera. I don’t know of another DSLR that lets you do this. As a matter of fact, you can shoot video in P, A, S or M modes, and you can adjust the aperture live, as you’re shooting. You can adjust the zoom, and if you have AF tracking enabled, your subject will continue to stay in focus. And you can see or preview all of the adjustments you’re making, on the screen or in the viewfinder, instantly.

Hands-on Video Review

I put together a hands-on video review of the E-P2, which includes the unboxing, a run-down of the camera’s exterior and its accessories, initial impressions and sample photos and video taken with it.

Olympus PEN E-P2 Hands-on Review

Specifications

While you can find all the specs you’d want and more on the Olympus PEN website, I’ll point out the more important ones here:

  • 12.3 megapixels resolution (4032 x 3024 pixels)
  • SSWF (Super Sonic Wave Filter) dust reduction system
  • Micro four thirds mount (of course)
  • 17.3 mm x 13 mm LCD screen, 3 inches across, 230,000 dots, 100% FOV
  • 11-area AF System: Imager Contrast AF (S-AF, C-AF, S-AF+MF, MF, C-AF+TR)
  • Shutter, 60 – 1/4000 sec or up to 30 min in bulb mode
  • 3 fps drive, up to 10 sequential RAW images or 12 sequential JPG images
  • TTL Image Sensor Metering: 324-area multi-pattern metering, center-weighted or spot-metering, EV 0-18
  • Flash synchronization: 1/30 – 1/180
  • Photo ISO: Auto 200-6400 or Manual 100-6400 in 1/3 or 1 EV Steps
  • Movie ISO: Auto or Manual 160-1600
  • Color Space: sRGB, AdobeRGB
  • RAW, JPEG, RAW+JPEG for photos
  • AVI for videos, 30 fps, limited to 2 GB per file, 720p HD (1280 x 720 pixels), 480p SD (640 x 480 pixels), max recording time 7 min for HD, 14 min for SD video
  • Wave Format Base Stereo PCM/16-bit, 44.1 kHz for sound
  • SDHC memory card recommended (can use older SD cards, but they’re not recommended for HD video)
  • Live View, 100% FOV, 7x or 10x magnification assist for MF
  • Image Stabilizer for photos: 3 modes (2D, Vertical and Horizontal), up to 4EV steps compensation
  • Image Stabilizer for videos: shifting electronic image (aka Digital IS)
  • Aspect ratio: 4:3, 3:2, 16:9, 6:6
  • Battery life: up to 300 shots
  • Dimensions: 4.74in (W) x 2.75in. (H) x 1.37 in (D) / 120.5 mm (W) x 70mm (H) x 35mm (D) (excluding protrusions)
  • Weight: 11.1oz/335g (body only), 13.6/385g (body, battery and media)

Sample Photos and Videos

I took the camera with me to the Flagler Museum and The Breakers in Palm Beach, to the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens in Delray Beach, to the Boardwalk on Hollywood Beach, where I met with Thomas Hawk, and to the Vizcaya Museum in Miami. If I had gotten it sooner, I’d have taken it with me to Las Vegas as well. I also used it heavily inside and outside the house. I shot photos and video with it in all sorts of light conditions — like this video on shaving. After an initial winnowing process, I have 954 photos taken with it in my photo library, and 2½ (149 minutes) of HD video recorded with it.

I didn’t get the chance to edit and publish all of the photos and video clips taken with the camera yet, but I will get to all of them in the near future, and will post them here on my blog, so stay tuned for that. Until then, here’s a good selection of what I’ve already edited.

This first photo shows what you can get right out of the camera. I set the E-P2 on i-Auto, and as you can see, the light is a mix between strong daylight and shadows. With other cameras, you’d get more contrast between the light and dark areas, and you wouldn’t see so much detail on the tree bark, for example. But the E-P2 was able to keep the sky blue and still give me vibrant, light greens and browns in the shadowy areas, which is great.

Notice again how it was able to render great detail in the shadowy areas, even when shooting directly into the sun.

Notice the fine detail and soft bokeh in this macro photograph of a palm frond. This was taken with the 14-42mm kit lens. Even though the lens is said to focus properly only from 0.25 m/0.82 ft to infinity, when the camera was set to Macro mode, it could focus much closer, up to a couple of inches away from the subject. Keep in mind this is not a point-and-shoot digicam that you can set to Macro and be done with it, but a DSLR with an interchangeable lens, which is much more complicated and normally has limitations on what it can do. After all, that’s why these lenses are interchangeable, because they’re built for specific purposes. Yet this kit lens proved to be much more versatile than I thought.

These are colors obtained right out of the camera. If you’d like to see the specifics of a photo, feel free to download it and view the EXIF data, it’s included in each sample photograph.

This next photo is unedited once more. It’s what the camera gave me at 14mm (28mm effective) and 1600 ISO. It was a fairly dark room, and I shot this against a bright window with early afternoon daylight (2 pm) coming right at the camera. Notice the detail and lack of noise in the darker areas.

This was a particularly dark room. It appears well lit only because I shot this at 1/20th of a second and 1600 ISO. Notice once more how vibrant the colors are, and how good the auto white balance is.

This next photo shows that you can get some neat bokeh effects if you play with the manual focus. The photo is unprocessed, as the camera made it.

Another reason to like the PEN E-P2 is that I can take great portraits with it. Yes, you’ve got to love the bokeh you can get with really fast lenses like the Canon EF 50mm f/1.4, but you’ve also got to love the clarity of an Olympus camera. The whole face is in focus, and every minute detail can be seen if you zoom in. It feels like you can almost touch the skin of the person whose portrait you’ve taken. It’s a great characteristic, and I noticed this way back when I was shooting with the Olympus C-3000Z, as you can see in this photo from 2005. The photo you see below is of my wife, Ligia, and once again, it’s right out of the camera. It’s incredible how brilliant the colors are.

Here are a few more portraits I took of her with the PEN E-P2. I love this camera.

Here are a few more sample photos taken at Vizcaya, in Miami.

A few sample videos (shot in 720p HD) are embedded below. There are more on the way, as mentioned above. I used software motion stabilization on a fair number of the clips, as I shot them handheld, without a tripod or any other sort of external stabilization device, and I foolishly forgot to activate the in-camera stabilization.

Tea Ceremony – Morikami Museum

On the Beach at The Breakers

A Tour of the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens

Accessories

When you buy the PEN E-P2, I recommend you definitely get the following accessories:

  • Li-Ion battery (PS-BLS1) — get an extra one or even two of these, depending on how many shots you need to take per session
  • MMF-2 Four Thirds to Micro Four Thirds Adapter — this is a must-have accessory, as it lets you mount any four thirds lens onto any PEN camera
  • 16 GB SDHC Card — get whatever brand you like, but make sure it’s SDHC
  • VF-2 Electronic Viewfinder — if you didn’t get this in a kit with your PEN camera, it’s really worth getting, as it will pivot up and act as a WLF (Waist Level Finder); you can see me using the PEN E-P2 with the VF-2 mounted onto it and pivoted upward in the second photo from the top of the article.

These next accessories come down to personal preference. Get these if you like them:

The current selection of micro four thirds lenses is somewhat slim, but it’s growing. And the beauty of having adapters like the MMF-2 I listed above is that you can use any regular four thirds lenses with PEN cameras, so you don’t have to buy extra micro four thirds lenses if you don’t want to.

But what if you’re heavily invested in Canon or Nikon gear, and would love to get a PEN camera? That’s okay too, because there’s a Canon lens to Micro Four Thirds mount adapter. It’s the same if you’re a Nikon shooter. There is an adapter that will let you use Nikon lenses with a PEN camera.

Two companies out there make these kinds of adapters: Novoflex, a German company, and Fotodiox, an American company. Since I’m heavily invested in Canon EF lenses, I called Fotodiox and asked them what they have for me. They have a specific Canon EF lens to Micro Four Thirds mount adapter, but it does not let you control aperture, so you’ll be shooting wide open. They did tell me they’re working on a specific adapter for Canon EF lenses that will let you mount them to PEN cameras and control aperture and auto-focus, just like you would with a normal lens. They said the price for it would be around $300 when it comes out later this year. That would be a very cool adapter, if it indeed delivers on its promise!

Then I called Novoflex and asked them whether they have a Canon EF to Micro Four Thirds adapter, but they don’t. They do have a Canon FD to Micro 4/3 adapter, which if I’m not mistaken will let you mount EF lenses as well, but you’ll be shooting wide open, without the ability control aperture, and of course you’ll be focusing manually.

I also found out that Canon makes a nice, simple metal EF lens to Micro Four Thirds mount adapter, and it’s only $40! So if you don’t mind shooting wide open and using manual focus, then definitely get this adapter, because it looks sturdy and it’s inexpensive.

Summary

It’s time to wrap things up. What can I say, other than what I’ve already said? I’m in love with this camera!

A number of significant design and engineering ideas from Olympus came together beautifully in the digital PEN: diminutive size, great sensor, beautiful design, IS, SSWF, Micro Four Thirds, HD video, light and capable lenses, a whole host of features design to make things easier for the photographer, and beyond the hardware, a tangible sense of soul, a certain something that binds you to the camera as you begin to use it.

Just like the analog PEN revolutionized the way people thought of cameras and of how they took photos, the digital PEN is a wonderful continuation of the PEN legacy, a beautiful leap through time, from film to the digital world of today.

Images of PEN E-P2 used courtesy of Olympus. The PEN E-P2 can be purchased from Amazon or B&H Photo.