Monday, January 27, 2014

Windows Phone 8 / Nokia Lumia 521

My Galaxy Nexus got finally to the point of being unusable — it was almost impossible to charge, and neither Google nor Samsung seem to have any desire to support the phone. I went and plopped down $69 for a Nokia Lumia 521 at a local Microsoft Store (which turned out to be a kiosk in a mall food court, not quite competition to the nearby Apple store). I had eyed the Moto X, but $400 vs. $69 is a pretty big difference.

I'm on a grandfathered plan with T-Mobile, and traditionally it has made more sense for me to keep buying unlocked phones. Philosophically I also prefer paying for my service, then paying for my phone separately from it, without being locked into contracts that obscure the true cost of what I'm getting. Luckily T-Mobile makes this easy.

The Lumia 521

$69 for a smartphone with no commitment is a pretty sweet deal — or rather, one should set one's expectations accordingly. The Lumia 521 has no front-facing camera for video chats, has no hypergigapixel camera (5 MP), has no flash or autofocus light for the camera, has no acceloremeter, doesn't even have the FM radio found in every other Nokia phone I've had over the last decade. It doesn't have a trueblack screen. It comes in white, white or white.

It does, however, have a micro-SD slot taking up to a 64 GB cards, allowing you to download music, maps etc. It seems to work fine with my old Galaxy Nexus headset, which is good because it didn't come with one.

The phone consists of two parts. The back and sides are one continuous piece of plastic, similar to protective covers you can buy for other phones. To get to the battery, SIM and SD-card slots you simply pry it off the phone. The power button, volume rocker and camera shutter button are integrated into the cover. They have a surprisingly good feel, and it's noteworthy that the camera shutter is a proper two-stage affair.

The second part is the guts of the phone; only the camera lens and display are visible through the wraparound cover when it's on. Like some of the higher end phones in the Lumia line, the benefit of the wraparound plastic is that even if you scratch it, the scratches won't be particularly visible as there's no smooth surface to damage and the color is part of the plastic rather than a coating. I put the phone in my pants pocket without even a thought of a protective cover, although its price may have also encouraged me in this.

My initial impression was very positive. I had worried about the logistics of getting a new SIM card from T-Mobile (the Galaxy Nexus uses a mini-SIM, the Lumia 521 uses a micro-SIM; some other new phones have a nano-SIM. So much for that standard...) but it turns out this was a non-issue; there was a micro-SIM in the box with a phone number and URL. I punched it up in my mobile browser from my old phone, and within minutes my old SIM was deactivated and my new phone was up and going. Easy-peasy. Kudos to T-Mobile.

The phone comes with the SIM card, micro-USB charger, and super-short micro-USB cable, and some paperwork. No case, bag, or earbuds.

Compared to the Galaxy Nexus, the Lumia 521 screen is vastly better, although it's being lambasted as being fairly poor as far as current phones go. I have no complaints. You can't calibrate the touchscreen, although you can set the sensitivity. It's supposed to work even if you have regular gloves on.

Inexplicably, when T-Mobile had Nokia spin the Lumia 521 variant of the 520 model, they added some 4 millimeters in length. Internet wisdom suggests this is so they could print their carrier logo on it. Of course the one I bought from Microsoft has no logo on it. What this means, though, is that aftermarket covers and similar accessories meant for the Lumia 520 don't fit the 521. In fact, the selection of specific accessories is next to non-existent.

Battery life is considered poor by other reviewers, but it's no worse than the Galaxy Nexus was when new. If I don't use the phone for more than the occasional email and Facebook check during the day, I have more than half battery left by the time I've made it home from work. On the other hand, running GPS-enabled fitness apps and podcast playback in a forest with borderline cell coverage (meaning that the phone has to use full power on its radio) will suck half the battery in a matter of an hour and a half. It seems to charge back up quite quickly too.

Windows Phone 8

The user interface is amazingly smooth. Swipes are easy and smooth, and the inertia works as expected. Many of the basic functions of the phone, like unlocking, alarm clocks, contact list and so forth are as good as instantaneous. Night and day compared to my Samsung Galaxy Nexus.

The Windows Phone 8 Metro interface divides people. I dislike it intensely on my Windows 8 laptop. On the phone, however, it's great. I love the consistent visual look in apps and the consistent behavior of left/right swipes to move between screens. The transition animations are pleasing. Every other phone OS could do well to learn a lot from this.

I use relatively few apps, so your needs may be quite different. The Windows Phone 8 main screen has tiles on a grid. Full-size tiles are two cells high and four wide. Half-size are two cells high and two cells wide. Small size are one cell. For most apps you can pick which size you want to have. The tiles can be "live tiles" i.e. update information constantly and provide you the latest Facebook update, weather etc. at a glance.

...and here's the first caveat. Especially in this phone due to its RAM, you're limited as to how many apps you can have running in the background updating tiles. In practice this means you have to pick only a few. Even worse, in my view most of the tiles are useless, as they tend to only show one thing. The calendar only shows the next appointment. The Facebook tile only shows one update. The email app only shows the latest message. It's visually much prettier than Google Now cards, but Google's cards are vastly more useful, both in information content and their ability to change cards based on what's relevant. One attempt to make up the difference is the Here suite "My Commute" where you tell it ahead of time around what time you're typically going from where to where, and it'll prefetch the traffic and routing info into a live tile. This is similar to the Google Now card, though doesn't work quite as well in practice.

The second issue with Windows Phone 8 is the utter lack of customization. It goes to ridiculous lengths. For example, the phone has a volume rocker. It sets the phone volume. This is used for all alarm sounds as well as audio playback. To repeat — you can't set the ringer volume separately from the audio playback volume. There is no ascending volume either. There are no real themes to change the visual appearance of the phone, and you're pretty limited on what you can do with the lock screen. You can load your own ringtones easily enough, though.

In the Symbian era Nokia made great phone hardware, consistently let down by half-baked software. Has Windows Phone 8 changed that? I'd have to say yes and no. The operating system and the integrated Here suite of apps certainly are of higher quality than even Symbian^3. However, the apps are another story altogether. Here's a list of the apps I use, and my problems with them:

  • MyFitnessPal — It's just plain broken. You can't add entries to your food diary. Not that you can't add new foods; you can't add an entry of what you ate. They've been aware of it since early December last year, but so far no fix in sight.
  • Endomondo — I still miss the Nokia Sportstracker, but that aside, I used Endomondo a lot on my Galaxy Nexus, paired with a Zephyr HxM Bluetooth heart rate monitor (HRM). Surprise! For no obvious reason, there's no HRM support on the Windows phone version of Endomondo. No official response from Endomondo on their support forums that I can find. Instead I switched to Caledos Runner, but it's wretched and borderline unusable. It should be mentioned that the HRM pairs with the phone like a dream, and another Caledos app that does nothing more than show the current BPM works peachy.
  • Google+ Doesn't exist. Neither does Google Maps, Google Now, Gmail or virtually any other Google product. This kind of hurts.
  • LastPass — Works great.
  • Waze — The Windows Phone version is quite buggy. For example, pulling up your podcast app to pick something to listen to during a drive, then switching back to Waze causes it to crash. Navigating in an area with sketchy cell coverage causes it to crash. You get the idea.
  • Podcast Lounge — None of the podcast apps I used on Android appear to be available on Windows Phone, so I went with this. It's visually pretty, but it has some screens you can't get rid of (like a category directory pre-populated and non-editable), and it insists on updating a feed every time you enter the episode list. This takes a while, especially if you're out of coverage. "Now playing" is fairly well hidden as well, and not the default screen you get to when resuming the app from the background.
  • Yelp — I only use this to look for restaurants; I don't have a login. Works great.
  • Facebook — There is no Facebook app from Facebook for the phone, but Microsoft has cooked up their own. It's pretty slow and appears to have no way to do things like timeline review (links to it do nothing). It's usable, though.
  • Pandora — I had gotten rather used to Google Music instead, but had to switch back to Pandora since Google Music won't work. No problems, aside from occasional failure to return to playback after being interrupted by a GPS announcement or text message.
In fact, one of the most glaring annoyances is switching between tasks. I don't know if it's the limited RAM, the OS, or badly written applications, but you need to get used to the idea of switching from one application to another taking an inordinate amount of time. Even worse, a lot of apps, when brought back to the foreground, don't put you on the screen you were in when you backgrounded them, but act as if you had just started them from scratch. Some, like the built-in Here navigation work fairly well with it, taking a while to figure out what they were doing and resuming. Others, like Waze or Caledos Runner, just completely forgot that you were navigating or in the middle of an exercise activity, so you have to restart things every time.

Much like Facebook, in the "neener neener, I'm not touching you" act Microsoft and Google appear to be engaged in, Microsoft has rolled Gmail support into their native email app (which, incidentally, is probably the best I've seen in supporting email services and being pretty functional). The phone integrates corporate Exchange contacts, Google and Google+ contacts, Skype contacts, Microsoft Live contacts and Facebook contacts. This is nice, though not quite as well done as it was on Symbian^3. It is also very annoying when people have bogus or old information on Facebook, as the phone won't let you edit or delete those entries. The contacts functionality works well in general, and Gmail support is usable, though it comes with all the usual IMAP/POP3 limitations.

Purchasing apps is dangerously easy. The app store, by default, charges your purchases to your cell phone account, so you don't have to add separate payment info.

One aspect where Android wipes the table with Windows Phone is the keyboard. Android has built-in a Swype-like functionality where you just swipe your finger on the keyboard, and don't have to exactly hit the keys. The Windows Phone keyboard requires you to actually hit the keys, and it doesn't allow you to enter numbers and symbols with a long press, you have to actually switch modes to do that. Swype is not available as an app, either.

The phone comes with speech commands. They're somewhat more limited than Google's, but appear to work about as well, i.e. when I try to navigate somewhere or send someone a text message, it works about half the time, and lands me in a web search window the other half. A special kudo goes to the text message functionality, though. When the phone is paired to my car and a text message arrives, the phone announces that I have just received a new text message from sender, and asks me if it should read it or ignore it. If I say "read", it reads the message, then offers further actions like reply, call. I can listen to the message and dictate a response without pressing a single button.


The Lumia 521 is an amazing value for money. It's clearly limited in hardware and in software, and some of those limitations may be severe enough that this is not the phone for you. It's not the phone for Facebook addicts, multitaskers, app-addicts or users of Google services. On the other hand, it's visually elegant and works well; the things it does it does well. The camera is basic, but surprisingly decent.

Microsoft's SkyDrive is a very reasonable Google Drive replacement; pictures can get auto-uploaded to it and the web interface is way nicer than Google's. Instead of Google's Keep, there's OneNote. There are also some media services under the X-Box and Zune labels, but I can't speak to those.

If you tend to use one app at a time, if the apps available are enough for you, and you just need a basic smartphone, it's hard to not see the Lumia 521 as a winner.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Perfect Camera Backpack: Clik Elite Obscura vs. Lowepro Primus AW

The only thing more difficult than taking a good photo is finding a bag for your photo gear.

Fine, that's hyperbole, but I've long been looking for a bag that meets my needs. In particular the challenge is to find a bag for "adventure travel" or hardcore touristing; it needs to not only carry my camera gear, but also a jacket and other layers, lunch, water, maps, souvenirs etc.

Lowepro Primus AW vs. Clik Elite Obscura
The best backpack I had found was the Lowepro Primus AW (AW is Lowepro-ese for having a rain cover, All Weather). It has a great carry system with a proper hip belt, sternum strap and load lifters. It also has a relatively large non-camera compartment, and a tripod attachment. It has served me well on multiple trips to Japan and elsewhere, but a few annoyances remained: the built-in tripod carry system was entirely inadequate for a medium-sized tripod (Gitzo GT2541 with Benro B0 ballhead). Its non-camera compartment was still too small, in particular it was too small to handle an A4 / Letter sized object.

When I saw the Clik Elite Obscura on sale through The Clymb, it seemed to address all these concerns. What followed was a year-long saga to actually get one; without going into detail, I can say that I was very impressed by the pre-sales customer service of both The Clymb and Clik Elite.

Last week I finally received the pack, and last weekend had a chance to load it up and hike a good six miles (close to ten km) with it. Here are my observations of the backpack.

The 2013 model came as black or white-blue, which I rather liked. The 2014 models comes in black or blue-on-blue; unfortunately I'm not at all fond of the new blue-on-blue, and so opted for the black one. The attraction of the non-black options is that it makes the bag look a lot less like a camera bag. Even black, though, Obscura looks a lot less like a camera bag than the Lowepro in general. Of course, with a tripod hanging off of it the point is moot.

The carry harness is not height-adjustable, and neither is the Lowepro. Both have well realized shoulder strap length, sternum strap and load lifter adjustments. The Lowepro's sternum strap isn't height adjustable, whereas the Obscura lets you slide it up and down a bit along the shoulder straps. Most importantly, both fit my 5'11" frame great. I had frequently used the Lowepro as an example of a superb harness, but the Obscura is clearly better. The material is an open-cell mesh that is very breathable and comfortable; there's a central air channel (or spine channel) with a mesh cover over a ribbed back plate.

The hip belt is asymmetric — one side has a zippered pocket that holds a wallet, keys, GPS or such; the other has a reinforced loop/handle and webbed loops. The loops are of varying sizes, but most will accept the Lowepro SlipLock system, which is great since it allows me to use my existing gear. The shoulder strap loops will also accept SlipLock accessories. Internally the Lowepro has no structural reinforcement whereas the Obscura has an internal aluminum frame. The sturdier padding of the Lowepro keeps it fairly rigid, whereas the lightweight construction of the Obscura benefits from the frame.

To carry water with the Lowepro meant either putting a bottle in the side mesh pocket, or putting a bottle in the main compartment. The Obscura has a side mesh pocket as well, but also has a dedicated sleeve for a hydration bladder, complete with a little loop on top for hanging the bladder on. The fit is really tight, though. I had a really hard time getting my partially filled 100 oz / 3 l bladder into the sleeve. The loops on the shoulder straps are too tight to fit a Camelbak valve cover, so routing the hose is another challenge — for my hike I just let the hose flop out the side. On the other hand, the bladder compartment has a large drain on the bottom, so if the bladder should burst or leak, the water will evacuate through the drain rather than seep into the bag. I'm not sure why this isn't common sense with bladder sleeves.

The Lowepro side opening has a large zipper pull, and can be opened and closed while the backpack is being worn. It takes a bit of practice and agility but taking the camera out and putting it back into the bag without unbuckling anything is entirely possible. The door faces right, so right-handers have an unfair advantage here. A Nikon D300 with L-bracket attached is about the largest body you can use with the side door. The Nikon D600 pictured is an easy fit. If the camera should be too large for the side opening, the Lowepro allows access to the camera compartment from the rear of the bag.

A Nikon D600 with a tripod plate attached barely fits through the Clik Elite Obscura side access panel.
In practice, the Obscura doesn't allow access to the camera while it is worn, instead you have to unbuckle the hip and sternum straps and swing the bag partially around. For one, the camera door zipper is small and the opening is tight even with a relatively small D600 without an L-bracket. If you have a camera too big for the side door of the Obscura, you're out of luck: there's no alternative way to access that compartment. The Obscura's door is on the left hand side.

The Lowepro camera compartment is pretty rigid, so having the main compartment filled has little impact on the space the camera occupies and vice versa. The Obscura camera compartment is basically just a partially padded internal pouch on the bottom of the bag, so if there's a lot of other load in the backpack, inserting the camera can require a bit more effort as you have to push all the other things aside. The flip side of this is that whatever room the camera isn't taking up on the Obscura is automatically available for other use.

An ace in the Obscura's sleeve is the Marsupial system. There's a second padded pocket attached to the inside top back of the bag. It's large enough to hold two 80-200 f2.8 lenses, or one and a body. The beauty is that this keeps the weight close to the optimal spot for carry, and it makes the camera gear easily accessible since it remains close to the top of the main compartment. If there is no camera gear in the pouch, it lies flat and takes up very little space. In the picture it has a 80-200 f2.8 and Nikon SB-600 in its carry case. You can also see the orange internal frame.

Another bonus the Obscura offers is a padded laptop sleeve inside the main compartment. It's just a hair too small for a 15" Macbook Pro, but it's fairly deep. There is no good way to carry a laptop on the Lowepro. When traveling, I usually have my laptop in a neoprene sleeve in the outside pocket of the Lowepro, but without tying the sleeve to the bag there's a real danger that it'll fall out, and tying it to the bag is a pain at airport security check points. The Obscura's laptop sleeve is felt lined and can be seen in the above picture just next to the marsupial pouch.

The Obscura has an outside top compartment with smaller zippered pockets and a key strap. This functionality is built into the main compartment and camera compartment in the Lowepro. The Obscura's external compartment is much more convenient, and can also be used to hold some additional items, like gloves.

There are four attachment loops on the corners of this compartment; the bottom ones can likely take some load, the top ones would stretch the external compartment and its zipper. These are probably best suited for a helmet, jacket, or other relatively light-weight item.

It warrants mentioning that in practice accessing the Lowepro's main compartment requires unbuckling the load lifters, this isn't necessary with the Obscura. Accessing the Lowepro's external pocket fully requires unbuckling another set of straps, which I in practice kept forgetting to buckle back up when I picked it up, and ended up with a tripod flopping around until I refastened them. Aside from the hip and sternum belts, there's nothing to unbuckle on the Obscura.

One important aspect for me is the tripod carry system, and the Obscura's is good. It consists of two velcro-fastened openings that run through a second outside compartment. One tripod leg slips in through a hole the top, through the compartment, and out the bottom. There are also two elastic bungees inside the compartment for further fastening the tripod, although with the Gitzo they are wholly redundant. It does its most important job well, and keeps the tripod stable and won't let it flop around on your back as you walk or jog or squeeze around spider webs.

The fit of the two pass-throughs in general is tight for the Gitzo, and might be a problem for a tripod that has bulkier locking mechanisms on the tripod leg. Removing and inserting the tripod takes a bit of work, so it's not just a matter of slipping it in and out; a smaller tripod would of course work better. With the tripod functionality in use the external compartment is somewhat spoken for, and accessing its zipper is tough since the tripod is in the way. Without a tripod the compartment is useful for a light jacket or similar item.

Slightly larger than the Lowepro, the Obscura is just under 22" tall on the exterior which should allow it to meet typical airline overhead bin size requirements as well.


Despite its drawbacks, the Obscura is now my main go-to camera bag for adventure travel. I hiked over six miles with it partially loaded (three lenses and D600 body, my tripod, a Goretex winter coat and a rain coat, hydration bladder, snacks and some other odds and ends, and it was the most comfortable backpack I've worn.

The space is vast, though not cavernous. My Mountain Hardwear Viperine 2 tent fits easily — I could load a body with lens attached, an extra lens, two person tent, sleeping bag, pillow, and mess kit in without too much trouble. At that point, though, not much else would fit.

The Lowepro is made from beefy recycled ballistic nylon, the Obscura is light-weight ripstop like your typical hiking backpack. In practice I doubt this makes much difference, unless you plan to test the packs against road rash.


  • Superbly comfortable to carry.
  • Tripod carry system allows stable carrying of a medium-sized tripod with ball head.
  • Hydration bladder pocket.
  • Easily accessed exterior compartments.
  • Great flexible space in the bag, seamlessly adjusting from camera space to general use.


  • Tripod carry system is a tight fit for a medium tripod.
  • Side opening for camera compartment is too snug for a lot of cameras and cannot be used while pack is worn.
  • Hydration pocket is tight, hose routing can be challenging.
  • Camera compartment is only lightly padded, and won't offer nearly the kind of protection the Lowepro does.
  • There are only limited external attachment loops. A few at the bottom of the bag, or very top for carrying a tent, sleeping pad or such would greatly add to the utility of the bag.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Heart Rate Monitor Madness

To keep track of my exercise, I've been using Sports Tracker on my Nokia N8, and the E-series phones before that. It's free, it works really well, and the interface is quite good. It maps my route, and depending on what kind of exercise I told it I'm doing, it guesstimates the calorie consumption.

The one thing I didn't have for it, though, was a heart rate monitor. The way Sports Tracker funds itself is at least partially by selling the heart rate monitor hardware. In the past this was annoying to order outside of Europe — especially the United States — due to the high exchange rate and shipping costs; though that seems to have changed. Unfortunately they're sold out, with more coming possibly in June.

No problem, Polar and Zephyr make ones too, so I'll just get one of them. They're bluetooth, so interoperability shouldn't be a problem; specifically I'd seen people say they use the Zephyr HxM with Sports Tracker. The added benefit is that it has probably the best belt design of all the ones I've seen, and is sufficiently powerful that it will work up to 30' from the phone; the Polar one specifically appears to not even work if you stash your phone in a Camelbak for mountain biking due to its low power signal, and that's just silly.

Not so Fast!

Got the HxM in the mail. Their website is pretty horrid, but the hardware is very nice, and comes packaged professionally. Turned it on, paired it with the N8, done. Started Sports Tracker. Won't find the HRM. A bunch of more research indicates that the Symbian version of Sports Tracker only works with the Sports Tracker branded bluetooth HRM. As far as I can tell, it's a matter of default PIN which you can't change, although I may be wrong. Well, bummer.

Instead of sending it back, no problem. I have an iPod touch, so I'll just use that instead... except Apple in their typical aggravating fashion only supports a few special bluetooth HRMs, most of the ones you can buy will not work with iPhones/iPods, and many of the ones that do, replicate the built-in bluetooth functionality with an external dongle. Well, bah.

Allright, is there an app for Symbian that WILL work? Ah, indeed there is! It's called Endomondo. Their site has a way to send a download link to your phone (doesn't work) and says you can download it from the Nokia Ovi store (nope, not there.) Luckily they give a backup URL that does in fact work.


The app isn't half bad. It's a far cry from Sports Tracker, but it lets you customize what's shown in the four fields on the screen, and it gets the heart rate from the Zephyr with no muss or fuss. It won't flip the screen with the phone. The audio coach function appears to not do anything, and it has no provisions for stationary or indoor sports. That being said, it has a neat function where it maps your route, heart rate speed etc. in real time on their web site, if you have friends also using the product (or want to share with the world.) Unfortunately, unlike Sports Tracker, the sharing to social media function is fairly useless if you want to share anything but your map. It also doesn't even try to guess calories without GPS input, and the web page could use some serious UI design help.

What differentiates Endomondo from Sports Tracker is also the social aspect; you get much more of a feeling that the idea is that you share and interact on their site; they have discussion forums, friends can send you messages to your workout app, etc. For me, currently, that unfortunately isn't too useful, and somewhat ironic, considering the lackluster integration with Facebook / Google+.

Endomondo has also, as per their comments in the discussion forums, made the decision to not support the Symbian version due to the ramping down of Symbian by Nokia. While I can't blame them for the business decision, the app is as it is, and there won't be any feature updates, bug fixes, or support if a future OS update breaks it.

A remaining annoyance with Endomondo is that it doesn't disable the screen saver. So, using it on an elliptical or such, you have to unlock the phone every so many minutes in order to continue to see the screen. Not as big of a deal outdoors where you likely fish the phone out of a pocket, unlock, look at it, lock it and slip it back into the pocket.

Android to the Rescue

...or not. Partly to solve my desire to have the HRM display up while doing exercise on my elliptical, and partly because I wanted to see what Android devices are like, and some other rationalizations, I bought a Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7.0. Endomondo, SportsTracker (turns out there are two different products with the same name!) Zephyr Heart Rate... plenty of programs to choose from with official support for my exact heart rate monitor. Pair the belt to the tablet, no problem. Start the application. Hm. Nothing. Settings, HRM. Search. Fail.

The root cause isn't entirely clear, but it appears that Samsung has taken some shortcuts with their Bluetooth stack, and as a result many simpler Bluetooth devices will in fact not work with many Samsung tablets and phones. Also, turns out SportsTracker (the one from Nokia) doesn't support the Zephyr HRM on Android either, although they do support the Polar one in addition to their custom HRM.

In Conclusion

The I like the Zephyr HxM. It's rechargeable with a little USB dock, so power sources are abundant. The strap is machine washable, the contact pads are some kind of metallic fabric that's perfectly soft and nice against the skin. The unit looks pretty sharp and is light, and when it works, it just works; I've yet to have it flake out in any sense. It snaps into the belt or the dock using normal clothes-style snap buttons, so it's easy to turn off (just unsnap it) when not in use.

However, I'm rather disappointed at the lack of interoperability: Almost nothing works with Apple devices; almost nothing works with Symbian. If you want to use HRMs with your phone, your best bet is to have an Android phone. And if you get an Android device, you have to find one with a non-broken Bluetooth stack. This may well be the deciding factor for when I look at upgrading my N8; looks like I'll be going the Android route, depending on how well I like the OS in general after having lived with the tablet for a while.

Sunday, October 9, 2011


For quite a while now I've been scandalizing my more literate friends by not having switched to an electronic form of reading books. As I was offered some e-books, however, I figured I might as well break down and see if I'd like it.

I've been very dubious about the ergonomics of e-readers, specifically the feel of them in the hand, and the experience of all the flashing of e-ink when turning pages, and managing books on the computer, and the very limited features as far as layout goes. I've also been loathe — and still am — to get a Kindle. Amazon's whispernet, ease of buying and browsing books, and offering a properly implemented cloud for storage appeal to me greatly, but their insistence on their own proprietary format, DRM, and lack of support of third-party books pretty much nullifies all that. Instead I went on Ebay and got a "cheap" Sony PRS-300 reader.

The PRS-300 is one of Sony's "Pocket edition" ones, meaning it has a 5" screen instead of the 6" one commonly found on Kindles, Kobo's, Sony's other models, etc. On the down side, it requires tethering via mini-USB for most anything, as it has no expansion slots or wireless. You do not, however, lose resolution, as the screen crams the same number of pixels than the larger readers do (and e-ink has a much higher media resolution than the pixel count).

The Sony reader also comes with software that is in typical Sony fashion absolutely horrible malware. On the upside, the Sony readers are well supported by Calibre, so I didn't even bother with the bundled software. The way I figure, if I can't get a DRM-free book in electronic format, I can just buy one in paper form instead.

I've now read about a book and a half on it, and my feelings are mixed. The page turning has become a non-issue, and is not bothering me at all. The ergonomics of the Sony are a bit dubious, but on the other hand its small size makes it pretty neatly manageable. The biggest gripe I have is about the quality of text. The e-ink advertising claims that the display has more contrast than a paperback, but to my eyes this isn't true, though it's close. The smallest font ends up being so ragged looking that I never use it, and even the medium one does irritate me somewhat, not only in the appearance of the font, but also in layout. Some of this may have to do with having pixel-peeped at LaTeX output throughout my college career. Glare is incredibly well controlled, and a non-issue; aside from the quality of text and perhaps the contrast, it really is a match of paper, at least visually. The texture, feel, smell, and sound of paper, of course, are missing.

It seems to me that with e-book readers history is repeating itself. Just like with HTML, the first noble attempt was to describe the content of the language; "This is a header", "This is a quote", "This should be emphasized" and so forth, and leave the details of what that means to the end device — since there was no way of knowing the end device's resolution, color, or even if it was a visual display at all, or a braille terminal or audio reader. Of course, this did not satisfy content producers who wanted control over their material, forcing everyone to enjoy that blinking headline. So, inherently, in an e-book you lose the art of typography and layout that may have been presented in a paper format, but conversely the readers do not appear to be sufficiently smart to format text in a particularly pleasing way themselves.

On the upside, you can have a pile of books in the device, instead of cluttering up your room, and managing your library with something like Calibre is nice and powerful. Also, you can enjoy instant gratification, and get the next installment in a series in a matter of minutes or seconds, rather than waiting a few days for the mail (or making a trip to one of those elusive brick-and-mortar stores that likely won't have what you want on their shelves anyways.)

In short, then, I'm still on the fence. Perhaps, in a few years the technology has either advanced sufficiently, or obtaining books in a reasonable format has become easier and cheaper, making it worthwhile. Alternatively, there's certainly room for a visionary to produce a reader that has the capability of producing superior text layout and a compelling tactile experience, much like Fuji did with it's X100 camera. Until then, I'll use my Sony when I can or have to, and keep dealing with physical books.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Microsoft Image Composite Editor

Since the abilities of a lot of existing bitmap formats aren't well suited for stupidly huge panoramas/gigapixel images or high dynamic range composites with 48-bit color depths, there's been development of new formats that pack better than jpeg, support deeper and wider color, and smarter tiling. As part of this Microsoft Research has released a really neat and free tool, Microsoft Image Composite Editor that allows you to output to some of these formats. Bottom line is that it does panorama stitching really well, and for free.

Since the resulting pictures were kind of huge, I uploaded two panoramas in the HD Photo, a.k.a. JPEG XR format. The viewer requires Silverlight.

Composite of Eagle Lage near Tahoe, California.

Composite of Emerald Bay at Lake Tahoe, California.

Below a plain old Flickr version:
Emerald Bay

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Networking Tidbit of the Day - Self-Defending Networks

This following presumes a bit of knowledge of networking, including DHCP, MAC Addresses (watch the capitalization and don't confuse with Apple Macs, relevant later), and Ethernet switching.

Some years back Cisco Systems kept running these kind of annoying ads with the CEO's daughter doing bad stuff on the network and the network preventing damage from happening. While very hand-wavy and low on details, there has in fact been a push over the past decade to add more intelligence towards the edge of the network to sanity-check what's going on and prevent some malicious activity or just malfunctions from affecting other users.

In that vein, one of the shiny features that Ethernet switch vendors started to offer a few years back is called DHCP Snooping. The basic idea is that the Ethernet switch sees when a computer boots up and requests an IP address, then keeps track of the response, and makes sure the computer on a given port only uses the IP address it's supposed to have. Additional benefits come from having a mapping between a physical switchport and IP address without having to correlate various other tables.

It also catches a couple of other oddities, as it happens, as evidenced by the logs this morning:

Dec 21 09:40:02 EST: %DHCP_SNOOPING-5-DHCP_SNOOPING_MATCH_MAC_FAIL: DHCP_SNOOPING drop message because the chaddr doesn't match source mac, message type: DHCPREQUEST, chaddr: 0025.4b8e.xxxx, MAC sa: 0025.4bab.yyyy

Ugly gobbledygook, right? What it means is that the switch saw a DHCP request come in for a MAC (hardware) address (chaddr) different from the address that sent it (MAC sa). The idea behind the block is that there are very few legitimate reasons why one computer should act as a representative for another; the computer wanting an IP address should ask for it itself.

And, indeed, looking up the first six digits from those MAC addresses reveals that the computer in question is an Apple, which explains what's going on (if you happen to know how some Macs do their networking.) The machine is a laptop, which has a wireless network interface (Airport) with one MAC address and a wired interface with another MAC address. The Apple in question tries to get addresses for both of its interfaces, both the wireless and wired, and the way Steve Jobs has decided this should work is to send any requests like this out all of the the interfaces; the wired interface requests IP addresses both for itself and the Airport, and the Airport requests addresses both for itself and the wired interface. This makes sense in a home or small business where all networks are the same segment, but it breaks badly in an enterprise where this is not the case.

The Ethernet switch sees the wired interface send out a request for an address for the wireless interface, and refuses to forward this request, which from our point of view is the right thing to do, because if the Airport in the laptop manages to get an address from the wired network, it won't work, and then an unhappy faculty/student/staff will be calling the helpdesk.