Archive for April, 2011

I buy a Lumix GH1

April 10, 2011

I’ve been happy with my Canon SX10 IS for a few years, but while attempting to take pictures at a cold Mardi Gras parade up here in Burlington, Vermont, the zoom system stopped working.  I kept getting a “Lens Error” message, and had to coddle the thing in order to get any pictures at all.  Figuring that some lubricant had gotten gummed up, I sent it in to be serviced, but neither the service personnel nor the folks at BestBuy seem to understand English.  When I complained that the camera was not working at 35 degrees, the store manager wondered out loud whether the camera was intended to work at such a cold temperature.  Where do they find these people?  The camera returned from service with no change in behavior.

While at BestBuy, I considered upgrading to the latest in the Canon line, the SX 30, but the morons at Canon made the display (in the view finder) about 1/4 the size of that in the SX 10.  How can you take a good product and intentionally make it worse?  I called Canon, and pointed this out, and the support guy basically said “Oh.  Yeah.  I see what you mean.  Have a nice day.”   I decided I was done with that line of cameras.

While the Canon has been great in the super-zoom department (25 mm to over 500 mm effective range), takes OK movies, and can take closeup pictures to within 1 cm of the front of the lens, it does not shine when it comes to low light situations (pun intended).  If you try to push the sensor sensitivity (ISO) past about 100, you usually end up with so much colorful noise in your picture that it is not worth showing anyone.  So, hand-held non-flash pictures are impossible at night with that camera.

A friend of mine, Ray, suggested a number of alternatives, but I’m fairly picky.  I want an articulating LCD screen on the back of the camera (most digital SLRs do not have this feature), did not want to spend $5K or $10K to get a decent “system”, and wanted an Electronic View Finder, a feature that most DSLRs have discarded for reasons that I cannot fathom.

There are a few very small and light high-end cameras out there from Sony and Olympus, but many of them lack the EVF feature. But once I read about the Panasonic Lumix GH1 and GH2, I was intrigued.  Both are part of the Micro Four Thirds camera series that many manufacturers (Panasonic, Olympus, Sony) are supporting.  Micro Four Thirds lenses give you twice the “zoom” of 35mm lenses, so a 100 mm Micro Four Thirds lens behaves the same as a 200 mm lens on a 35 mm camera.

The GH2 is virtually unavailable at this time, and sells at a huge premium (camera body and lens for $1,800 at the moment) over the GH1 (I bought a body and lens for $1,000).  I now have the body and an effective 28 mm – 280 mm lens, a 300 mm – 600 mm lens, and a 90 mm large aperture lens that I mount using an adapter.

The EVF is wonderful: bright and detailed (at over 1 MPixel).  The articulating LCD is perfect (although the GH2 adds touch-sensitivity).  The camera system focuses very rapidly, and can continue to auto focus even while shooting an HD movie.  The two options of HD movie formats each have problems (the AVCHD format is very difficult to edit, and the motion JPG format is limited to 8 minute clips), but the quality is quite good.  The 28-280 lens is quite convenient (although I miss the macro ability that the Canon has), and the 300-600 gives me enough “reach” to take decent nature photographs.  This camera has two shutter buttons, one for stills, one for movies, just as the Canon does, but unlike the Canon, it cannot take a still while taking a movie.

You can see a frame clipped from an HD movie here:

And here is a shot of a squirrel: zoom in and look at the detail in the fur:

LED Projects, the sequel

April 10, 2011

I now have both of my aquariums lit by high intensity home-brewed LED lighting systems.  One system has five LEDs, while the other has 10.  I’m pleased both by the illumination (everyone agrees that the tanks look much better than with either fluorescent lights or with the metal halide and actinic lights) and the small size of the lighting fixtures. I have been used to huge lighting fixtures sitting atop the tanks, but these are so small (less than 2″ tall) and narrow (just 6 inches across) that you barely notice them.  Access to the top surface of the tank, for feeding or maintenance, is also much better.  All in all, a great move, and at perhaps 1/3 the cost of a retail system.

I’ve written the Arduino software to control the lights, so that they ramp up slowly at “dawn” and back down at “dusk”, but have not added that feature yet.  I should have that done by the end of April.  I also have the LED lighting system set up for installation under the cabinets in my kitchen, but need one full day when I can finish the wiring, since I do not want to get caught with that project half done.

ViewSonic gTablet, eBooks, Kindle, etc

April 10, 2011

I’ve been tempted by the iPad, but can’t justify the high price for a device that I did not expect to use that much.  I am not that “mobile”, so portability (as much as that is possible for a device that does not fit in your pocket) was not an issue.  I’m also not a fan of Apple’s control-freak attitude towards the iPad apps. I’m curious about reading eBooks, and considered buying a Kindle, but the physical UI (buttons) struck me as problematic the two times I’ve handled it, and I wanted decent visual response times, and color.

I saw some reviews of the ViewSonic gTablet.  Most of the reviews were fairly negative, but one claimed that the problems had been fixed this spring, and I figured it might be fun to hack the thing, since there were lots of articles about that process on the web.  At $300, it was a $200 savings from the cheapest iPad. All of my friends who have ‘Droid phones are pleased with them, and the gTablet uses the Android OS.  The Internet is always there, and in a moment of weakness, I ordered a gTablet, knowing it would be larger and heavier than the iPad. I bought from Buy.Com (but it was being sold by Tiger Direct); I could have bought from Amazon (but sold by someone else).  Nothing is as it seems.

If you had been sitting with me during the first 30 minutes after I received the tablet, you would have seen me laughing out loud as every application (and I mean every application, including the web browser) crashed.  I was about to return it when I turned it off and on; I could have done a factory reset, too, but didn’t have to.

After the power cycle, it behave properly.  First of all, it asked me the series of questions that it should have asked when I first turned it on (accept EULA, select time zone, etc), so it must have powered up strangely the first time.  Secondly, there were fewer apps visible, as if it had discarded some of the original settings.  But it started to run without crashing.  At this point, I have no desire or plans to load new firmware into the ROMs.

I’ve spent a few hours learning about the Android OS (it is pretty difficult to do some things elegantly when you don’t have a real mouse), learning how to find and install apps, and learning how to acquire eBooks, and convert PDFs to eBooks.  I installed a few free games, but they were either fairly lame/boring, or crashed immediately.

First off, there is no hope of reading a PDF on the tablet.  Adobe’s PDF reader is stunningly brain dead, for a device that is so small.  While you can zoom in, this forces you to manually pan across and down each page, which is tiring and unnecessary.  Score zero for the folks at Adobe, who should have known better.

I also installed a few free eBook reader apps, but they also uniformly were unable to handle the scaling and zooming issues.  Amazing and ridiculous.

In the end, I installed the Kindle reader app (which is fine) and purchased a book from Amazon for $2.50 to get started.  That worked quickly and easily, and reading the book is a pleasure.   Finally, someone who knows how to do something right.

Getting PDFs onto the gTable/Kindle took some more work.  I had to install MobiPocket Creator to convert the PDFs into eBook format, and then move the PRC files over to the Kindle folder on the gTablet, but that was relatively painless.  I now have a series of PDFs available to read, including a free eBook I found in PDF format, and some notes about the impending technical singularity, which I will bring to a discussion this afternoon.  So, it may end up that the tablet is useful after all.  I can also use it to look up info using WiFi during the discussion.

I’m quite pleased with the gTablet, but so far am only using it as an eBook reader and to look stuff up on the web.  Perhaps I will end up using it for other purposes, but the awkward data entry UI makes that seem unlikely.  I’m sure that the iPad is better in a dozen ways, but this was a reasonable way for me to get started with this technology.