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SONY beats Apple (and Samsung is too late)

Sometimes time makes a decision for you.  This happened to me today.  I needed a notebook.  Now.  My ageing Acer netbook (Aspire TimelineX, a 1st generation Intel Core ULV) has served me well for almost three years, but it will not last much longer: a battery charge does not last as long as it used to; the fan makes screeching noises; the intense use has taken its toll on the cheap case: the rubber feet have gone and the plastic is cracked.  While I have a solid track record of keeping notebooks running past their expected life using only a Swiss Army Knife, I can’t afford downtime in the coming months.  Time for a new notebook.

It’s a good time to be in the market for a notebook.  Last month Intel released Haswell, the 4th generation Intel Core that promises big efficiency gains (i.e. longer battery life) and better graphic performance.  Manufacturers have followed suit, refreshing their line-up and presenting their new models, sometimes with big fanfare. There are a few good trends: the race to the bottom of the last five years is over. Quality products are no longer a rare sighting. Solid State Drive (SSD) technology is gaining acceptance. Gone are the days of the low resolution 1366×768 “HD” displays. FullHD 1920×1080 is the standard (I would prefer a more productivity-oriented aspect ratio such as 16:10, or, even better, Google’s Chromebook Pixel 3:2) and higher density displays are becoming common, mimicking Apple’s Retina display. Touch technology has unleashed designer’s creativity with tablets and hybrid form factors, but I decided to stay with a tried and tested ultrabook.

So which ultrabook did I buy?  I started with a visit at the local computer stores.  Best Buy had the best choice, but the only Haswell-based models in stock were the new Apple MacBook Air in 11″ and 13″ sizes; and SONY’s Vaio Pro 13. At this time, the choice between Apple and SONY is easy: SONY wins.  The MacBook Air has come in age and the refresh did not address its weaknesses: low display resolution (1440×900 and 1366×768 for the 13″ and 11″, vs. 1920×1080 for all SONY’s models) and no touch.  Apple is falling behind.  Its only questionable advantage  is the use of higher-end Intel CPUs  (Core i5-4250U and i7-4650U vs. the i5-4200U and i7-4600U generally used by the competition).  The difference: better graphics performance (Intel HD5000 vs. Intel HD4400) at an added price of $50. Unless you are a gamer, the difference is much less important than the difference in display resolution.

Online the choice was a little bit wider.  On its shop, SONY offered an 11″ version of the Pro, but the Canadian site does not sell an 8GB RAM model (lucky Americans; when will these companies with global supply chains stop the ridiculous geographic discrimination?).  Although the 11″ form factor is my favourite, 8GB RAM are a necessity.  The 4GB RAM on my old netbook are used to capacity, even if I switched to a spartan LXDE desktop).  SONY also offered a convertible tablet, the Vaio Duo, with similar specifications and slightly more expensive.  I think that such hybrids are too heavy for a tablet and too akward for a notebook.  Probably one day one designer will crack the secret for the new form factor (maybe at Apple?), but until then I need to be productive and use the keyboard extensively on the road.  I’ll buy an Android tablet for media consumption (although, I have tried and returned a Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 half a year ago because it did not really feel “complete” to me).

The only other ultrabook meeting my requirements (FullHD or higher resolution, max. 13″, 8GB RAM, 128GB SDD, 4th generation Intel Core) and immediately available was Acer’s S7, with very similar specifications to the SONY and $150 more expensive (before SONY’s $100 discount coupon — enter the code SONYCJP at checkout, it worked for me today and I heard it is valid throughout August 31, 2013, but it may not work by the time you try it).  Web reports say that Acer has improved its build quality over the past two years, but I will believe it when I actually touch and see it.  The 3rd generation S7 model on display at Best Buy did not convince me.  Other manufacturers have announced their plans or even shown their Haswell-based lineups, but they have not trickled down the distribution channel yet.

I really wanted a higher density display.  At home I dock my 1366×768 Acer to a 1920×1200 display and I use both.  On the road I feel restricted by 1366×768 and I estimate that I will get along OK with 1920×1080.  Just OK.  Web reports talk of an Acer S7 model with a QHD+ 2560×1400 display.  That’s MacBook Pro Retina territory.  No trace of it in Canada.  The one I would have really wanted to try is Samsung’s 3200×1800 in the much publicized Ativ Book 9 Plus, traditional clamshell, or the more adventurous convertible sibling Ativ Q.  While the many reports are promising, there was no pricing or estimated availability.  At first I thought I could wait a week or two.  Then I looked at my schedule for the next five months and I realized that I will need time to make the notebook productive: decrapify and shrink the Windows partition; install a Linux variation; iron out the inevitable hardware compatibility issues.  Decision made.  I ordered a  SONY Vaio Pro 13.  I have not owned a SONY Vaio since an SR7K, back in 1999, that died an undeserving death inside a transatlantic container in 2003 after an adventurous life that has taken it to high mountain peaks in winter and diving boat expeditions in summer.  The SONY Vaio Pro 13 will be my first notebook with a decent display resolution since 2005 (HP nc6120 with a 1400×1050 SXGA+).  Can’t wait to try it!

Time

Time flies!  The holiday break is over (more on this later) and I am back to school.  Yesterday we were assigned to research and write a legal memorandum.  I scanned some relevant book excerpts.  This morning I arrived early and went to a quiet corner of the library to read them on my SONY eReader WiFi.  I lost track of time and arrived late for the 10:00 AM lecture.

The SONY eReader is an Android-based device; and in all pictures of Android tablets and cell phones there is this huge clock:

I understand the battery-preservation rationale for not displaying a real-time clock on an eInk display: each update of the clock would be equivalent to a page refresh and detrimental to battery life.  But a clock exists inside any device.  Why not make use of it?  How difficult is it for these user-interface genies that design the half-baked reader devices to add a screen where the user can query the current time and set an alert?

SONY Reader WiFi

The fall term is over, and so is the first batch of exams.  I now have a two weeks break, and I need it.  After the gratification of single malt scotch and cigars with a few discerning classmates; after a night at the movies; it is time to catch up with all the things that have passed me by during the last three months in school.  It’s geeky techno time again!

One of the most intense activities in law school is reading.  A lot of reading.  Most casebooks are still of the heavy old fashion variety.  Paper rules.  But we were also assigned about 2000 pages in PDF format to read, and in the spring there is a similar quantity coming.  A few weeks into the term I decided to buy an eReader to help me digest the stuff.  Time is a scarce resources and the eReader helps me make the most out of it.  It fits in my pocket and I can read anywhere anytime there is an opportunity.  And the eInk display is easier on the eye than the best LCD displays, enabling faster reading.  I timed myself 40%-60% faster.

eInk displays are not yet mature.  I wish my display was larger than 6″ and I wish it had higher resolution than 600×800.  The slow refresh rate is acceptable for reading books, though.  I found only two e-readers with larger displays:  the old Amazon Kindle DX (9″7 768×1024) and the new iRiver Story HD (7″ 768×1024).  Both had enough shortcomings for me to decide that they are not for me.

The 6″ format is great for reading e-books, e-newspapers, and e-magazines crafted for it.  But it is barely enough to read full pages PDFs scans, and even if the PDF book is not a scan, when selecting a larger font size the SONY reader slows down considerably when paging.

Nevertheless, the  SONY PRS-T1 is the only reader I came across who I did not qualify as useless, even though I like to think that my selection criteria are plain simple:

  1. Form factor.  I was looking for the most comfortable reading conditions possible.
  2. Must sync easily, ideally without extra bloatware installed on the PC.
  3. Good zooming function (to compensate for the small display).

Some readers would not connect with my Ubuntu Linux.  I was pleasantly surprised by the SONY Reader: once the USB cable is connected, it exposes the relevant storage areas as simple drives, like a USB key, and I can simply drag and drop or otherwise copy the e-book files onto it.  I can even back up the books I bought in SONY’s store, although they are DRM-crippled and if I want to access them on my PC, I must install Adobe Digital Editions, which luckily runs well on Linux with wine.  I ended up installing Calibre as well – it manages my daily news fix from the web and it even gets The Economist on my SONY Reader WiFi.

If it was not for the front bezel, SONY’s hardware feels perfect.  Robust build,  lightweight,  fits in one hand when reading and in the inner pocket of a suit jacket when not.  I can read on the bus, in the car (when my wife drives), in the elevator, and in any quiet corner.  Even in the evening, when fatigue starts showing and I would be tired of holding up a book, holding up the SONY Reader is like holding a feather.

The bezel though is extremely annoying.  SONY’s own marketing calls the Reader WiFi “the world lightest 6” e-Reader with a lovably glare-free, paper-like display designed for hours of comfortable reading, even in direct sunlight.”  I wonder if the product designers actually tried to use it in direct sunlight, or even just under a bedside reading lamp.  The interference from the glare of the glossy plastic bezel is not conducive to “comfortable reading”.  The brushed aluminum plate with the SONY logo feels cold and uncomfortable under the thumb.  I wish they had used the same rubber as on the back for the whole front bezel too, it gives a comfortable warm grip.  My quick solution: stop the glare with opaque transparent cellophane tape.  The guys at the store tried to sell me a case or a jacket.  What for?  it would just make the eReader bulkier and heavier, and my wallet way too much lighter.  No thanks.

The software is a different story.  I wish Apple designed eReader software.  Like all other eReaders I’ve tried (and like all phones before the iPhone, and MP3 players before the iPod) the software is disappointing.  Navigation is awkward.  I can organize books in “collections”, but to do so I have to browse through the whole collection linearly.  The Reader patently ignores the best and simplest way of sorting things: the folders hierarchy that I have created on the flash memory when transferring the files from my PC.  For music (a nice extra on the SONY reader is the music playback functionality) it is even worse:  rigidly organized by albums, I think based on the MP3 metatags.

Sure, pinch and zoom works on the responsive touch screen, but it would be nice if the reader remembered which book I prefer to read rotated; what zoom I have been reading each book individually; and if it would keep the same position of the magnified window when paging.  Simple basic stuff, I think, and yet the SONY Reader, like all other eReaders that I have tried, can’t do it properly.  Sad.

But there is light at the end of the tunnel:  This SONY Reader is an Android device and indeed one of the criteria that tipped me to buy it were the first positive rooting reports.  Once rooted, it is possible to install alternative reader software and alternative bookstores, including Amazon’s Kindle for Android app.  Long live variety and long live competition.  So far I did not have time to toy with rooting.  Maybe over the holidays…

Despite the beautiful hardware, the SONY Reader made an unpolished impression on me. After a few weeks of use, the music player started randomly skipping from the middle of one song to the middle of another.  It became so annoying that I have stopped listening to music on it all together.  Maybe it is fixed with the most recent  upgrade.

Reading on the eReader is really a pleasure.  I even rediscovered recreational reading.  In a moment of despair at the complex legal texts, I hit the buy button and bought this book.  It was refreshing to find out that I can still read at decent speed and retain what I read.

Overall, the device does what I needed it for: it enables me to read in places and at times where I would not have been able to read conventional reading material.

Are Canadian Customers Second Class Citizens?

When I was living in Europe I would always look with a little bit of envy at North America: all the latest tech stuff was distributed first in America and the pricing seemed to be more competitive. I had high expectations when I moved to Canada. Expectations disappointed. The last one is SONY’s Z. According to SONY’s news release when it was announced at CES 2010, some models feature a 1920×1080 13″1 display. Neat. Made a note to self and waited patiently for the spring launch.

Spring has come, and SONY launched the Z, both in the US and Canada. The following screenshots were all taken March 15, 2010 during a frustrating shopping tour on SONY’s websites.

On SONY’s US website:

The ready-to-ship Signature Collection model is a whopping 4500$ (stop kidding us with the .99 thing) is the only one with the coveted 1920×1080 display.

In Canada, only the customizable Z model is available:

And when trying to customize it, big disappointments follow:

No 1920×1080 display available. Nowhere. To be fair, also US customers have a limited choice: it’s either the goodies-bloated Signature Edition or no 1920×1080 (see custom US model options below). But at least US customers have that choice. Not that it is a good choice: to get the coveted display you must also buy a Blu-Ray writer, Windows 7 Ultimate, 8GB RAM, and half terabyte of SSD (with the scant information available you can only hope it is not one of  these).

Still, US customers get better treatment than Canadians, even if it is no secret that machines for the US and Canadian markets all ship from the same warehouse. Look at their customization options below: If a Canadian customers wants 4GB RAM, he must fill the two available slots with 2x2GB. The later upward path to 8GB? throw away the 2x2GB and buy 2x4GB new. The US customer gets 1x4GB module, so that he has one free slot for the later upgrade to 8GB. Isn’t that unfair? Where is consumer choice?

To be fair to SONY, in the few years I’ve lived in Canada I’ve seen this practice at almost all notebook makers. When I bought my HP nc6120, I had it shipped to a US address because the 1450×1050 high resolution display was not available to Canadian customers. The global village is not there yet.

Fluffy White Stuff

I’m rediscovering the pleasure of pure photography. No CPU cycles have been used on the following images, with the exception of resizing (on the full images) and cropping (on the detailed excerpt) with GIMP. The images are all JPEGs, straight out of camera.

First sprinkles of fluffy white flakes, just as I am visiting Montreal. Robert is visiting from Curaçao and we’re having a good time at my uncle. I’ve taken my SONY Alpha 850 on an early evening stroll through the neighborhood. All of these are handheld. SteadyShot is fantastic. The first picture is ISO 1600 F/3.5 0.4″, detail below.

Next one is ISO 200, same exposure settings:

There are limits to SteadyShot too, especially when the shooter is not wearing appropriate clothing for the freezing temperatures. Next one is 60mm, ISO400, F/4.5 0.6″:

and indeed, the 1:1 crop from the full 24.6 megapixels reveals the operator’s unsteadiness: Earlier I tried some indoor images, with the Minolta 5400HS (it fires, but it does not take TTL values, so need to adjust manually for it:

I’m impressed by the level of detail. All of these are out of camera JPGs with no further processing.

I enjoyed my afternoon, even if I found room for improvement with the camera and I hope somebody at SONY reads this and take action, because these improvements should be very easy to implement with a firmware upgrade.

At first sight, i felt that summarizing under the DRIVE button both the drive and bracketing function is a smart move. Generally, the SONY Alpha 850 user interface is very well designed. Hit the drive button and the front wheel will rotate between nine functions:

  1. Singe-shot advance
  2. Continuous advance
  3. Self-Timer (and the rear wheel switches between 2 and 10 seconds self timer)
  4. Exposure bracketing: Continuous (and the rear wheel selects the EV stepping and number of steps – unfortunately an insufficiently broad selection)
  5. Exposure bracketing: Single (same as the above)
  6. White Balance bracketing (again with the rear wheel selecting the details)
  7. Dynamic Range Optimization advanced bracketing (again with the rear wheel selecting the details)
  8. Mirror lockup
  9. Remote Commander

The problem with this, other than the limited bracketing range, is: how can I  bracket on a self-timer (as I could do with my five years old entry level Canon 350D)? Or have a Mirror lockup on a remote trigger? And why are some settings (like exposure bracketing) repeated?

The issue that bothers me most is that if I set the camera on exposure bracketing (either continuous or single), I must hold the trigger down  until the last picture in the bracket (continuous) or press the trigger three time (single), unlike the Canon 350D where in continuous mode triggering once just let the whole bracket run.

If I was given the opportunity to redesign the SONY Alpha 850 DRIVE button, I would keep the same elegant and intuitive two wheels approach, with the first wheel selecting the drive-related function to manipulate and the second wheel selecting the appropriate parameter.

The front wheel would cycle between

  1. Trigger (single shot , continuous shot, remote control)
  2. Timer Delay (with the rear wheel selecting one of 0, 2, or 10 seconds)
  3. Exposure Bracketing (with the same functionality as it is now, but only once, leaving the choice of single or continuous shot to the Advance selection)
  4. White Balance Bracketing (with the same functionality as it is now)
  5. Dynamic Range Optimization Bracketing (with the same functionality as it is now)
  6. Mirror Lock Up (on/off)

Saving three steps, while keeping functionality. Or actually, expanding it, since it would be possible to use Mirror Lock Up with Remote Trigger and Bracketing with Timer Delay.

When Bracketing in continuous trigger mode, a single click on the trigger button should run the whole bracket – no need to hold it depressed.

This would be just to catch up with my old Canon 350D. I think more can be done to offer the discerning expert more functionality from this great camera.

Next thing I would do is expand Exposure Bracketing. I’d make it more explicit, separating it into two options. Exposure Bracketing Stepping: a selection of 0EV (no bracketing), 0.3EV, 0.5EV, 0.7EV, 1.0EV, 2.0EV. And Exposure Steps: a selection of any number from 0 (no bracketing) to 9, so that if I set 9 steps at 2.0 EV stepping I get a real HDR shot of -8EV,-6EV,-4EV,-2EV,0EV,+2EV,+4EV,+6EV,+8EV.

The icing on the cake would be the addition to the Trigger menu of a fourth option: Time Lapse. Then expand the Timer Delay selection from a limited set of 0,2,10 seconds to a continuous selection from 0 seconds to 3600 seconds. However this one would break the beautiful, elegant, simple and effective physical metaphor of the two wheel, because ranging from 0 to 3600 in steps of one on a single wheel is unlikely to be practical. But there are other solutions for it.

All of this should be feasible with a simple firmware upgrade. It’s software only. SONY actually delivers the software to do this: Remote Camera Control is bundled with the camera. But it requires a USB cable and a laptop / netbook – an unacceptable extra weight and battery drain in many shooting conditions. Come on, SONY, you can do better!

It’s a SONY (with Minolta Genetics)

I really should not be writing this post now. Too many critical deadlines before year’s end. But I could not resist. I upgraded. And the new toy is too attractive. Upgrading to SONY and not to Canon is specific to my situation. YMMV: you may find similarities and differences to your own situation; or you may want to skip to the rest of this post, describing what I like (and dislike) in the SONY Alpha 850 and how it plays with Ubuntu / Free software.

Why This Time I Choosed SONY over Canon

In a nutshell: another case of vendor lock-in. Sort of.

Before switching to digital I was shooting with a Minolta Maxxum 700si, hence my interest in SONY. I kept the very good Minolta lenses and accessories over the years. Adding similar capabilities to a greenfield system would set me back of at least 3000$. Their resale value had plummeted with the fortunes of Minolta’s photo division.

I also have a Canon 350D, with lenses and accessories. The Canon was primarily a business tool and the investment was limited (as in: ROI is bigger if the investment is smaller). It still serves me well but is at the end of its useful life.

The decision to go Canon in 2005 was partly motivated by the 350D game-changing nature (although I kept shooting film with the 700si). But first and foremost it was frustration with Minolta’s digital products hopelessly trailing Canon and Nikon by a generation or two, leaving users like me orphaned. Eventually Minolta went out of the dSLR business and SONY acquired the leftovers.

From the beginning it was clear that SONY was aiming for the top. And it got there. By 2008, in slightly less than three years, SONY caught up with rivals Canon and Nikon in the main markets. But that year I was not ready to buy a new dSLR yet: I needed FullHD video recording and preferred a dedicated camcorder over Canon’s 5D MkII.

In the autumn of 2009 I was in the market for a new photo camera. SONY and Canon launched two game changers: both the SONY Alpha 850 and Canon 7D offer radically more features than ever at a price tag of 2000$. And they represent two different approaches to the market.

Canon with an APS-C sensor and the continuation of the photo/video hybrids that seem to appeal to the general public. SONY with a full frame sensor and a camera completely designed for traditional photography.

Convergence of photo and video is a good thing that will happen when the manufacturers will get it right. For now SONY’s approach wins if you ask me. In my opinion Canon’s design will need another iteration or two before hitting a sweet spot. There are many. Same camera with a full frame sensor would be one. Lighter and smaller form factor like Sigma’s DP1 around the same APS-C sensor would be another one. I wish my camcorder had an APS-C sensor. For now, I don’t see myself using a dSLR to capture movies – I need a tiltable display and I need a weight distribution that allows me to ergonomically and steadily hand hold the device for a few minutes. From my perspective, the 7D is almost right for photography: only the sensor size is wrong.

SONY on the other hand might have cut a few things from it’s flagship A900 to fit the A850 in the right price envelope; but it got the most important details right. The full frame sensor expands my creativity range beyond the APS-C sensor.

SONY Alpha A850: The Pros

  • Usability. SONY has added a layer of usability on top of the recognizable Minolta DNA. I did not need to read the handbook to start shooting and even to start accessing advanced functionality.
  • Ergonomics. Most functions are quickly and easily accessible, and are sorted logically.
  • In-body SteadyShot applies to all lenses. My good old Minolta lenses not only got an extended lease of life, they are more useful when shooting hand held and in low light conditions.
  • Intelligent Preview helps deciding on the right exposure.

SONY Alpha A850: The Cons

  • SteadyShot must be manually de-activated when shooting on a tripod, else the pictures will be blurry. I fell for this one on my first shooting day.
  • Bracketing limited to -2/+2 EV, like Canon. When will SONY learn from Pentax? Also Nikon has improved bracketing.
  • No speed improvement when limiting capture to APS-C size. What’s the point, then?

SONY Alpha A850: The Nuisances

These are no real disadvantages, just stupid details that could have been handled better in my opinion.

  • Handbook lack important technical details, e.g. about the difference between the RAW and cRAW format (is cRAW lossy or lossless compression?) or the effect of creative mode on the RAW file (none – it only influences the JPEG and the default RAW conversion parameters). But who cares? Who reads handbooks anyway?
  • Memory Stick. SONY is a sore loser on this one. The dead weight and space occupied by this relic of proprietary  technology could have had better use for a second compact flash slot, with switching functionality like Canon and Nikon. Stupid but not critical.
  • Proprietary USB plug. Sure it also features a composite video on the same plug, but what’s the point of displaying the camera’s output on a 640×480 low resolution display when it already has a built-in LCD with better resolution and an HDMI output? I rather have a standard USB plug. I don’t really use the USB (nor the video output) – just extract the compact flash card and plug it into the card reader.
  • No support for my old Minolta 5400HS flash. It syncs at a paltry 1/200; and it does not set the exposure right. I’ll have to buy a SONY flash next year. Support for the 5400HS would have been too good to be true.

Software

SONY has a track record for being very proprietary about its products and file formats. I feared they would not play well with Free software and I was ready to return the camera if it could not fit in my workflow.

The good news is that SONY’s own Image Data Converter SR plays well with Wine on my Ubuntu 9.04 notebook, even at its underpowered 1.6 GHz. There were a few display hickups, most notable the Area Selection Tool. I did not try the Remote Camera Control and I did not like the Image Data Lightbox.

RAWstudio is my favorite RAW converter in Linux. I don’t know what SONY does to its RAW files, but using the in-camera’s white balance in RAWstudio yields a washed-out picture with a reddish color cast. A slightly better result is achieved with auto white balance:

The problem affects also LuminanceHDR (formerly qtpfsgui). This time the color cast is cyan.

Results

While I prefer to shoot RAW, I shoot RAW + JPEG initially until I am confident that my workflow can process the RAW files. So the following 1:1 crop is from a JPEG, slightly edited with GIMP.

The SONY Alpha 850 is truly mouth watering! But now I better go after my prior obligations…