Thoughts

Solar windows finally feasible

Back in 2004, I wrote about an idea of mine, to integrate solar panels into house or apartment windows, and thus help offset the cost of electricity. I’m glad to say it’s come to fruition. The technology to do this has been discovered. Granted, it’s still in the research phase, and the efficiency of these 1st generation solar windows is only 1.7%, but I’m thrilled to see that it’s a workable idea, and look forward to the day when we can purchase these windows from a store, presumably with a higher efficiency and a long working expectancy.

Richard Lunt, one of the researchers who developed the new transparent solar cell, demonstrates its transparency using a prototype cell. Photo credit: Geoffrey Supran and Cosmic Log, MSNBC.com.

Thanks to RAPatton on FriendFeed, who made me aware of this!

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Reviews

Hardware preview: Apple iPad 2

Apple iPad 2

The new iPad 2 will become available on March 11th (see a neat video from Apple introducing it). In my post about the original iPad, I said the following:

“In spite of the failures of their predecessors, I think Apple will pull this off. I think the iPad will be very successful.”

I’m glad to see that I was right. Not that I had anything to do with the success of the device. The credit goes entirely to Apple, and to the people who bought it and used it so well.

I got to watch the March 2 keynote today (a few days later). Much to my surprise, Steve Jobs was on stage to present it. I was very glad to see him able to stand up and hold a meeting, given all the tabloid rumors about him — though I have to say he was skinny as a board. Thank goodness he’s still around. I hope he gets better, and continues to be around for a few more decades.

Here’s a quick summary of the salient features of the iPad 2:

  • 33% thinner than the original iPad (0.34″), and lighter (1.33 lbs)
  • Comes in both black and white finishes
  • Dual-core A5 chip, up to 2x faster
  • Graphics are up to 9x faster
  • Same great 10-hour battery life
  • Same 1024×768 display
  • 2 cameras (front and back) for video or photos, in HD
  • Magnetic smart cover designed specifically for it
  • Instant on
  • AirPlay to your TV via Apple TV
  • Video mirroring (up to 1080p) via $39 cable
  • AirPrint

My only disappointment with the iPad 2 is that it doesn’t have a Retina Display. Word on the grapevine is that they’re still difficult to make in that size. Who knows… It would have been nice if this iPad had it. Still, I believe iPad 3 will have a Retina Display.

iPad 2 Measurements

iPad 2 A5 Chip

I am however very glad to see that the iPad 2 does have a video camera — and not just one, but two. In my review of the original iPad, I said this:

“It’s very likely the next gen iPad will have a video camera, and it will have iChat as well.”

Glad to see I was right on that count as well. It was, after all, a logical step.

Facetime on iPad 2

iPad 2 Smart Cover Line-up

Smart Cover for iPad 2

There are some new accessories for the iPad 2, which will be offered in addition to the ones designed for the original iPad.

  • The Smart Cover, naturally, which comes in 10 colors, 5 of them polyurethane and 5 leather, as seen above (see the Smart Cover in action in this video)
  • The Digital AV Adapter provides an HDMI-out port with video and audio routed to it, in addition to a 30-pin connector which lets you charge the iPad while playing content to an HDTV
  • The iPad 2 Dock is designed for the thinner iPad 2, and also works with Digital AV Adapter

iPad 2 Dock

Of course, given that the iPad has Bluetooth, you can stick it in a dock and use the Apple Wireless Keyboard to type on it.

Apple Wireless Keyboard

The Smart Cover is so nicely designed.

iPad 2 Smart Cover (1)

iPad 2 Smart Cover (2)

iPad 2 Smart Cover (3)

The Digital AV Adapter will make it so easy to display content from the iPad on an HDTV.

iPad 2 Digital AV Adapter

iPad 2 Video Mirroring

iPad 2 Airplay

The iPad 2 will come in 16GB, 32GB and 64GB models, as well as WiFi-only or WiFi+3G (GSM or CDMA) models. My guess is that iPad 3 will have a combined 4G GSM/CDMA chip, eliminating the need to offer separate 3G models. The pricing grid for the various models (there are 18 possible models, given that there are two color finishes and two 3G providers), goes as follows:

  • WiFi-only: $499/16GB, $599/32GB, $699/64GB (black or white finish)
  • WiFi + 3G: $629/16GB, $729/32GB, $829/64GB (black or white finish, AT&T/Verizon)

Images used courtesy of Apple Computer, Inc.

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Lists

Three cool jacket designs

Here are three innovative jacket designs.

Jacket with inflatable hood by Rahel Ritchie

Not yet in production, but I think it’s very cool. It’s got a built-in pillow so you can sleep while traveling.

jacket-with-inflatable-hood-1

jacket-with-inflatable-hood-2

jacket-with-inflatable-hood-3

[via LikeCool and Rahel Ritchie]

RuckJack

“Rucksack? Jacket? You decide.” Another neat convertible jacket design, this one turns into a rucksack, and it’s not expensive. Price is between £46-56.

ruckjack

[via LikeCool]

Vessel 3-in-1 jacket by Justin Gargasz

This innovative jacket is not only a backpack but also a tent!

vessel-3-in-1-jacket-1

vessel-3-in-1-jacket-2

vessel-3-in-1-jacket-3

[via The Design Blog]

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Thoughts

What’s next in data storage?

My recent musings on high definition and the state of the technology behind it have spurred me to think about data storage (not that it’s a new subject for me). But so far, I’ve commented only on what’s already been developed, and didn’t take the time to think about what’s next.

What’s the motivation behind this post? It’s simple. For Ligia’s Kitchen, it costs me about 10.5 GB for 5 minutes of final, edited footage of show, with a one-camera setup. What goes into the 10.5GB? There’s the raw footage (and sound files, if I use a standalone mic), the edits, and the final, published footage. When I use two cameras, the space needed can easily go up by 1.5-2.5x, depending on the shots I need to get. I shoot and edit in 1080p, and output to 720p.

My storage needs are okay for now. I’ve got plenty of space, and if I keep going at this rate, I should be fine. But… and there’s always a but, isn’t there… I have more show ideas in mind. And there’s the hypothetical possibility of shooting with a RED camera at some point in the future, if certain factors come together to allow it. So I’m thinking ahead.

Current hard drive technology (bits of data on disks) has certainly come a long way. Those of us who’ve been in the business long enough know what prices used to be like for capacities that are laughable by today’s standards. Back in 1999, I paid $275 for a 27GB hard drive. My laptop’s drive in college could store a grand total of 120MB. And when I began to learn programming, I’d load the code into memory from tape…

I remember being really excited about Hitachi’s new Perpendicular Magnetic Recording Technology, which came out in early 2006. They even had an animation on their website, which they’ve taken down since. That technology is behind all of the new hard drives that are on the market today, by the way. Hitachi came up with a way to get the bits of data to stand up (hence the term perpendicular) instead of lying down on hard drive platters, thus doubling the amount of data that could be stored onto them.

There are two roads ahead when it comes to data storage, of which one is more likely to succeed:

  • Optical storage (this is probably the future of storage)
  • Biological storage

Let’s first look at biological storage. One particular article made the rounds lately: researchers at the Chinese University in Hong Kong have managed to store 90GB of data in 1g of bacteria. While it sounds exciting, the idea of storing my data in petri dishes on my desk doesn’t readily appeal to me, and certain complications come up:

  • 1g of bacteria is about 10 million cells (that’s a LOT); one must start thinking about the potential for bio hazards when you work with bacteria.
  • The data is stored in a bacteria’s DNA, which means it’s encrypted (a good thing), but it’s also subject to significant mutation (a bad thing) and it takes a long time to retrieve it because you need a gene sequencer, which is tedious and expensive (a bad thing).

I’m not against this. Hey, if they can make it safe and fast, okay. But I believe this is going to be relegated to special applications. The article suggests the technique is currently used to store copyright information for newly created organisms (I wonder how many new bacteria researchers as a whole have created, and is it any wonder antibiotics have such a hard time working against them when we keep playing God). I also see this sort of data storage as a way for spies to operate, or for governments to keep certain secrets.

Okay, onto more cheery stuff, like optical storage. I’ve always thought there was massive potential here, and am glad to see significant work has already been done to make this a reality. There are two technologies which are feasible, according to research that’s already been done:

  • HDSS (Holographic Data Storage Systems), which so far can store up to 1TB of data in a crystal the size of a sugar cube, but doesn’t yet allow rewrites
  • 3D optical data storage, which so far can store up to 1TB of data onto a 1.2mm thick optical disc

These developments are very encouraging. Optical storage is safe, and its potential capacities are huge, possibly endless. And when you think about computer hardware, and how manufacturers are looking at using optical technology in the bridges and buses and wires inside the hardware, because it’s incredibly fast, you start to see how optical makes sense. Let’s also not forget fiber optic cabling, and its incredible capacity to carry data. It certainly looks like optical is the future!

So what’s going to happen to the standard 3.5″ form factor of today’s hard drives? Well, it’s likely that it will stay the same, even though it the storage technology inside it might change. We’ll have crystals and lasers instead of platters and heads, but they’ll likely be able to fit them in there somehow. I don’t think we’ll need to start keeping crystal libraries on our desks, like in Superman’s Crystal Cave, and sticking various-sized crystals into our computers any time soon, although it did look pretty cool when Christopher Reeve did it in the movie.

It really all depends on how soon this new technology will come to market. Right now, there’s clearly enough vested interest in the 3.5″ and 2.5″ form factors to motivate drive manufacturers to shoehorn the new technologies into those shapes, but if optical hard drives won’t be here for the next 5-10 years, then it’s possible that the form factor will change as well. We are after all moving to smaller, sleeker shapes for most computers, notebooks and desktops alike.

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Thoughts

What comes after High Definition?

Producing (set design, lighting, filming, directing, editing) my wife’s cooking show has gotten me thinking about what comes after HD, because there obviously is a large discrepancy in resolution between full 1080p HD and properly exposed 35mm film (up to 3500p) — as I already mentioned in my post on preserving classic movies.

Yes, high definition is a huge improvement over standard definition, which in turn was a large improvement over early television signals. But televisions and VCRs, in spite of their popularity, are a dismal failure in picture quality compared to what they replaced: film reels and projectors.

Nowadays, we’ve gained some foothold back when it comes to consumer/prosumer video quality. We have ready access to video cameras that will record in HD (at various qualities, given the model and the price), and we have newer computers and televisions that will allow us to play back those videos at their native (720p or 1080p) resolutions. Even websites have begun in recent years to allow us to play back HD videos, and the quality of broadband internet connections has increased to the point where one doesn’t have to wait a half hour or more in order to download/buffer an HD video and play it properly on their computer. We can even play back HD videos from the internet directly on our televisions, thanks to standalone or built-in media players.

But if we’re to get back to the quality of 35mm film and best it, we must keep moving forward. Thankfully, some visionaries have already taken the first steps and have come up with a camera that can record at a similar-to-film resolution: the RED One, which can give us 2300p of extremely high definition digital video. It’s not quite 3000p or 3500p (which would be the equivalent of properly exposed film), but it gets us pretty close, and it’s certainly much better than 1080p.

The RED camera captures each frame of video as a 12-bit RAW image, which means we, as videographers, have much greater freedom than before when editing the video, just like photographers do when they switch from JPG to RAW files. All of a sudden, white balance, exposure, recovery, blacks, vibrance, saturation, and tone adjustments can be made with much more accuracy.

One area where I’d love to see more improvement — although I’m sure it’ll come with time — is RED’s ability to capture more color depth, say 14-bit or 16-bit. Bit depth is still an area where improvement can be made across the board when it comes to digital cameras.

But let’s leave tech specs alone, and think about how we can edit and enjoy the videos we could make with a RED camera. That’s where difficulties come in, because you see, we still can’t properly do that, certainly not with consumer, and not even with prosumer equipment. No, we’d be looking at professional equipment and serious prices. The market just hasn’t caught up.

There are no computers that can display that kind of resolution at full screen, and there are no televisions that can do it, either. TVs and computers are still caught up in the world of 720p and 1080p. And to make things even more complicated, now we’ve got to worry about 3D video, which is nice for some applications, but from my point of view, it’s a distraction, because it adds yet another barrier, another detour, on the road to achieving proper video resolution across the board. Manufacturers, TV stations and filmmakers are jumping on the 3D bandwagon, when they should be worried about resolution.

So, what costs would a filmmaker be looking at if he or she wanted to shoot at the highest possible digital resolution available today (a RED setup)? I crunched some numbers, and mind you, these are just approximations. The costs are likely to be 1.5-2x that much when you account for everything you might need. On a side note, the folks at RED and at Final Cut Pro have worked together quite a bit to ensure that we can edit RED video natively, directly in Final Cut Pro, on a Mac. See this video for an overview.

  • RED One camera: $25,000
  • 35mm RED lens: $4,250
  • 18-85mm RED lens: $9,975
  • RED LCD: $2,500
  • RED CF media and cards: $1,500
  • RED rig: about $2,500
  • add extra $$$ for power, accessories, tripods, other media, etc.
  • RED video card, for encoding and editing video: $4,750
  • Mac Pro editing station: about $7,000-$12,000, depending on your needs, and you may need more than one of these, depending on how big your production is
  • 30″ display: about $1,000-$3,000, depending on your needs, and you may need more than one of these as well, depending on the number of workstations and your display setup
  • Final Cut Studio software: $1,000
  • HDD-based storage for editing and archival: $2,000-$20,000, depending on your needs
  • LTO tape or additional HDD-based storage for backup: costs will vary quite a bit here
  • Specialized cinema hardware and display for showing movies at full resolution: I have no idea what this costs, but it’s likely to go into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and not every cinema has it

So at a minimum, we’d be talking about an investment of more than $60,000 in order to work with a RED setup today.

But let’s not get tied up in talking solely about RED cameras. Clearly the entire industry needs to take steps in order to ensure that videos at resolutions greater than 1080p HD can be played across all the usual devices. Unfortunately, they’re still tied up in SD and HD video. Most TV channels still transmit in SD or lower-than-SD video quality (lower than 480p). It’s true, most have always transmitted at broadcast quality (500p or better) but we’ve always had to contend with a lot of signal loss. And nowadays, we still have to pay extra for HD channels, even though they should be the norm, and we should be looking forward.

To that effect, computer displays need to get bigger and better, computer hardware needs to get faster, computer storage needs to expand, media players need to increase their processing power, televisions need to get better and bigger, and broadband internet needs to get faster, ideally around the gigabit range (see this talk from Vinton Cerf on that subject), so that full resolution, 4000K video can move across the internet easily.

For now, if I were to start working on RED, I’d still have to output to 720p or 1080p and keep my full resolution originals archived for another day, somewhere in the future, when consumer-grade electronics have evolved to the point where they can play my videos and films natively.

I for one look forward to the day when YouTube starts to stream 3500p videos, and when we can all play them conveniently and at full resolution on our computers and televisions!

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POLLI-BRICKS reduce plastic bottle pollution

Plastic pollution is a huge problem. Most everyone has heard of the floating plastic islands in our oceans (the biggest is in the Pacific Ocean, but there are several others), all of which are made up of plastic bottles, wrappers, bags and other plastic waste that can float. They don’t break down. They only break into smaller pieces, which are still plastic and continue to pollute over time. For a wonderful primer on the subject, check out Dianna Cohen‘s talk at TED about it.

MINIWIZ, a Taipei company, has come up with an innovative “brick” design they call POLLI-BRICKS. They’re made from 100% recycled PET polymer (plastic bottles) collected from plastic waste reservoirs. This means that instead of ending up in the floating plastic islands, plastic waste can be re-purposed into bricks that can be used as building materials. Because they’re hollow and translucent (but not transparent, for those concerned about privacy), they have inherent thermal insulation, offer natural lighting during the day, and can be embedded with LED lights and solar panels for night lighting. They’re also durable, fire-resistant, interlock readily, and can be manufactured on-site. Check out the two videos embedded below, one recorded at CES by InfoWorld, and another showing how sturdy a small bridge built out of these bricks can be.

There are more videos posted on the MINIWIZ channel at YouTube.

[via Greenopolis]

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Reduce your waste with a toothbrush? Yes.

The Terradent toothbrush stands out from the pack of dental hygiene products out there not because of the complicated design of its head and the multitude of angled bristles, but due to the simplicity and thinking behind its design.

In two words, it has replaceable heads. When you need to change the brush, you don’t change the whole thing. You snap in a new head, and you keep the same handle. It’s beautifully simple and yes, it’s hygienic.

After you remove the old head, if you feel it’s needed, you can scrub the handle’s tip with a little soap and a brush, or you can pour some little hydrogen peroxide on it, to make sure it’s squeaky clean before you attach the new head, but don’t get hung up on it. As long as you replace the heads regularly, the toothbrush will be safe to use for years and years.

My wife and I have been using Terradent toothbrushes for about 4 years, and we love them. We only buy replacement heads, which is cheaper than getting the whole toothbrush and means we’re generating less waste. All that fancy rubber and injection-molded handles in today’s toothbrushes means you’re throwing away a whole bunch of plastic, every time you get rid of one. That’s a shame, particularly when the Terradent toothbrush proves it’s so easy to do the smarter thing.

I put together a short video demo of the head replacement on one of our toothbrushes, to show you how easy and simple it is. You can watch it on YouTube or above. I hope you’re going to think about buying one of them the next time you go shopping for your bathroom. They’re available at Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, or directly from the company’s website.

Image used courtesy of Eco-Dent.

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Hardware preview: Drobo FS

Updated 1/14/19: I have revised my opinion of Drobo devices. After experiencing multiple, serious data loss events on multiple Drobo models, even recent ones, I no longer consider them safe for my data.

As of today, the Drobo product lineup has a shiny new device: a network version of the Drobo S, called Drobo FS — a NAS device. Its performance is up to 4x greater than that of a DroboShare, which is going to be discontinued. The Drobo FS is a natural at shared file storage, network backup and private cloud applications. You’ll be able to manage it through the Drobo Dashboard application, which will detect it automatically once it’s plugged into your network.

New Drobo Line-up

Here’s how the Drobo product line-up is going to look from now on, sorted in ascending order by US list price (at time of writing):

  1. Drobo, 2nd Gen (2 x FW800, 1 x USB 2.0) $399
  2. Drobo FS (1 x Gigabit Ethernet, AFP/CIFS/SMB) $699
  3. Drobo S (1 x eSATA, 2 x FW800, 1 x USB 2.0) $799
  4. DroboPro (1 x Gigabit iSCSI, 2 x FW800, 1 x USB 2.0) $1,499
  5. DroboElite (2 x Gigabit iSCSI, 1 x diagnostics-only USB 2.0) $3,499

If know which model to get and are looking for a great deal, you can find the Drobo for $335, the Drobo S for $699, the DroboPro for $1,199 and the DroboElite for $3,495. The Drobo FS isn’t listed for sale yet at online retailers.

Details and Thoughts

The Drobo FS is an all-in-one file serving solution — hence the FS moniker. It’s a plug-and-play file sharing system that gives you the performance and self-healing data safety of the Drobo S, in a NAS package. It’s a 5-drive unit with a single Gigabit Ethernet port that supports Jumbo Frames, AFP, and CIFS/SMB, so it’s compatible with OS X, Windows and Linux. It runs on a dual-core processor — the same processor used in the DroboPro. In the Drobo FS, one core does the Drobo BeyondRAID stuff and the second core runs Linux and — this is the neat part — whatever DroboApps you decide to install on it.

It’s simple and safe data sharing, because, just like the Drobo S, it protects against two hard drive failures, not just one. It can also be customized through third-party DroboApps, which can turn it into a remote file sharing solution, a cloud storage solution, a media server or pretty much anything you’d want a NAS device to do.

DroboApps available at launch are:

  • Wake-on-LAN
  • NFS
  • iTunes compatible media server
  • UPnP/DLNA media server
  • BitTorrent client
  • Web/HTTP server
  • FTP server
  • rsync server
  • SSH client
  • DroboApps Admin Utility
  • and more, including this next app…

Data Robotics has partnered with a company called Oxygen Cloud, which has written an app that turns the Drobo FS into a “personal cloud”. No matter where you are in the world, you can map your Drobo FS to your laptop and access the files you’ve placed on it over a WAN connection between you and the Drobo, handled by the OxygenCloud app. You can set varying levels of access and give multiple users the ability to access various file sets. The app promises to be intuitive, easy-to-use, and to provide fine-grained controls for data access. It also provides a gateway for cloud backup to either a second Drobo FS or a cloud storage provider like Amazon, Mozy or RackSpace. The app is still in beta, will be released in May, is going to be free for a single user and will have a licensing cost for multiple users.

Keep in mind though that the quality of the WAN connection depends entirely on the quality of the broadband connection you’re using to connect to the Drobo. If, like me, you’re on a 30 Mbps fiber optic connection, you should have very little latency, but if you’re sitting at a crowded hotspot somewhere, tied into a 2 or 3 Mbps asymmetric connection that only gives you 512-768 Kbps upstream, then you’ll experience a fair share of latency. In other words, you’ll double-click on a file that sits on your remote Drobo, which is on another continent, and it’ll take a bit of time until it’s read and opened by your laptop. Just FYI, so plan accordingly.

On the front and sides, the device is identical to the Drobo S. Of course, I think it’s beautiful. Gorgeous, actually. On the inside, it’s got 5 drive bays, once again, same as the Drobo S.

Only the back is different. Whereas the Drobo S has four interface ports on the back (1 x USB 2.0, 2 x FW 800, 1 x eSATA), plus the power supply connection, the Drobo FS has a single Gigabit Ethernet port and the power supply connection.

I am very glad to see that it has a power switch. I would have liked to see one on the regular Drobo as well. Who knows, perhaps at some point in the future, it’ll happen. I do think it’s important to have a less expensive, entry-level Drobo, so I hope the base model stays in the lineup for some time to come. I’m also glad that, as I predicted when I reviewed the Drobo S, the same design language was used for the Drobo FS. I like this maturation of the original language, and I look forward to seeing it translated in the enclosures for the DroboPro and DroboElite in the future.

For reference purposes, I’m including the indicator chart for the Drobo FS here. It’s also available in the Drobo FS Data Sheet. It’s standard stuff if you’re already used to the Drobo S, but it differs a bit from the regular Drobo, as that model only has single-light indicators which don’t light up in half-half colors.

The Drobo FS formats the drives using the EXT3 file system, but you won’t need to worry about that. You won’t be asked to format the drives or to choose what file system you want for it, because it’s a NAS device, and it can talk to your Mac, PC or Linux box without any problems. You simply put drives into it, it’ll format them by itself, and share the volume onto your network. Easy as pie.

You can have up to 16 shares on the Drobo FS, and up to 32 users connected to it at any one time, though Drobo recommends up to 16 users as the optimal number for proper performance. This should be plenty for busy professionals or small businesses and workgroups, which together with consumers are its intended target users.

Since it’ll work over both wired and wireless networks (once you plug it into a router, naturally), I asked Data Robotics what sort of typical uses people can expect out of it. File sharing, such as documents, presentations, spreadsheets would be no problems at all, and that goes without saying. I asked, for example, if movie playback would be a problem. Not at all, they said, with one disclaimer: if you’re on a WiFi network, make sure it’s a WiFi-N network. This is not a limitation of the Drobo FS, which can offer maximum read performance of around 50-55 MB/sec (with Jumbo Frames), but a limitation of the bandwidth of a WiFi-G network. So that’s really neat!

There is one use they don’t recommend for it though: editing movies. Because it’s a network device, and certain video codecs have very particular performance requirements, official word from them is that people should get a Drobo S or a DroboPro for that. They say, and I quote, “unless a person is very, very familiar with video codecs and their performance requirements, they should not use the Drobo FS for video editing”. Furthermore, and this is very important, “if you want to use Apple’s ProRes (any of their family of 5 codecs), DO NOT try to edit video on a Drobo FS”. So please keep that in mind.

Performance-wise, it’s much faster than a Drobo + DroboShare combo (about 4 times faster), with sustained throughput of 30-40 MB/s. Data Robotics recommends that new buyers check for firmware updates, as they’ve made a number of improvements to the Drobo FS firmware since preparing the units for the first shipments. For comparison purposes, the sustained throughput you get from a Drobo S is 70-90 MB/s when using the eSATA connection.

The Drobo FS gives you about 75% of the performance of a DroboPro, which uses iSCSI. The extra 25% performance is eaten up by the overhead of translating everything for the file sharing protocols (AFP and CIFS/SMB). That’s not a Drobo-only limitation. That’s what happens on any device that has to deal with typical file sharing protocols — they slow things down.

Another neat feature of the Drobo FS is that it will give people the chance to choose a range of time after which the drives will spin down. Those who are concerned with energy use can opt for something like 5-10 minutes, while those who need performance can opt to only spin them down after 30 minutes or 1 hour of inactivity, or more. With the DroboShare, this option wasn’t available, but there was a DroboApp you could install that would periodically write and erase a few bits of data to the drives in order to keep them from spinning down.

Specifications

  • Drives: Accommodates from one to five 3.5” SATA I / SATA II hard drives of any manufacturer, capacity, spindle speed, and/or cache. No carriers or tools required.
  • Interface: 10/100/1000 Ethernet Port
  • Supported data transfer protocols: AFP and CIFS/SMB
  • Dimensions: 5.9” wide x 7.3” tall x 10.3” long
  • Weight: 8 lbs. (without power supply, hard drives or packaging)
  • Includes: Drobo FS, CAT 6 Ethernet cable, external power supply (100v-240v) with U.S. 110v power cord, User Guide and Quick Start Card (printed), Drobo Resource CD with Drobo Dashboard application, help files, and electronic documentation.
  • System Requirements: Apple Mac OS X 10.5.6 or greater; Microsoft Windows 2003, 2008, XP, Vista, Windows 7; Unix/Linux client that can connect via CIFS/SMB

Pricing

Suggested retail prices for the Drobo FS are as follows:

  • Drobo FS, base configuration: $699
  • Drobo FS + 4.5 TB bundle (3 x 1.5 TB drives): $999
  • Drobo FS + 7.5 TB bundle (5 x 1.5 TB drives): $1,149
  • Drobo FS + 10 TB bundle (5 x 2 TB drives): $1,449

Images used courtesy of Data Robotics. The Drobo FS will be available from major retailers such as Amazon, B&H Photo, NewEgg, CDW, Synnex, Bell Micro, Ingram Micro and datarobotics.com.

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Camera review: Olympus PEN E-P2 Micro Four Thirds Mirrorless

The folks at Olympus sent me a PEN E-P2 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 had to 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 camera with a fairly large sensor and a mechanical shutter 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.

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Places

The dancing Fountains of Bellagio at night

Most people will likely tell you the Fountains of the Bellagio Hotel and Casino are easily the coolest thing in Las Vegas. I agree. They are spectacular. I have never seen excess put to better use — and let me tell you, a huge lake that shoots water hundreds of feet in the air, in the middle of the Nevada desert, where any water demands a high premium, is excessive. These fountains left me breathless, awestruck, every time I saw them, and we made sure to catch several shows while we were there.

This is one of those shows, filmed by me at night, from the Northeast corner of the lake, at the intersection of Las Vegas Blvd and Flamingo Rd. The fountains danced to a famous tune crooned by Frank Sinatra, called “Luck Be A Lady”. Enjoy!

Watch video on YouTube | blip.tv

Wow. That is one word that really says it all when it comes to this.

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