We live in a time where avenues for personal exploration and expression have never been greater: in a similar vein to when I was investigating smaller sizing options for pianos, I recently started looking at another kind of keyboard. Computer keyboards are still the default entry device for the digital world we live in, and chances are, you used one today. The mechanical keyboard space has many hobbyist fans and benefits from an innovative, tech-native community; given my experience with the Steinbuhler piano keyboard, I leaned in the direction of smaller form factors and better efficiency. And keyboards have been shrinking over time: the only keyboard I used when working was on the company-issued laptop, while the last full-sized keyboard I can remember seeing on a desktop was an entire decade ago.
The iPad and Favorite Apps
I’ve had an iPad now for three months. In that time, I’ve barely touched my laptop.
1. For content consumption, the form factor is compelling. The book analogy is apt – I hold it like a book, it’s closer to my face and eyes, and it encourages and facilitates sharing with others. I use it in a much larger range of situations than I would a laptop, and more often – in bed, on the street, at a cafe. It’s tactile – using my fingers to touch and interact and engage with media / content can seem more direct when compared to keyboard and mouse.
However, while it facilitates increased consumption, it isn’t always the best tool for efficient consumption – if I have a backlog of Google Reader articles I want to go through, I’ll use the keyboard and mouse on my desktop, which are vastly more efficient still for most tasks. Ironically, it’s given me a greater appreciation of how important the development of the mouse, keyboard and windows-based UIs have been to the overall advance of the computer age. The iPad encourages shallow consumption – if I need to analyze and synthesize information, this usually means flicking between several web pages and applications at the same time, which means my desktop.
Shooting RAW offers many advantages over using your camera’s JPEG processing, including the ability to increase the dynamic range of the original photo. It also means finding the right software to process the files into a format suitable for prints, and uploading to the web. I’ve been using Capture One 4 for over a year now, and been very happy with it.
I made the following notes when I was evaluating RAW converters, looking specifically at:
- the level of detail extracted
- ability to assign comparative ratings
- customizable sharpening
- noise removal
- batch processing
- color rendition for my Canon 400D files (.CR2)
- great workflow with Bridge
- excellent viewing and editing performance
- sidecar files (ie. the ability to save your edits in a file external to the RAW file)
- DNG format support (a standard for RAW files that is gaining wider support)
- doesn’t display red correctly for CR2 files, even worse when it’s converted to DNG
- conversion is slow
I don’t own a TV.
However, two months ago I bought a Dell XPS 420 desktop and a 30-inch monitor (3007WFP-HC). The machine is spec’d with 4GB RAM and the least inexpensive quad processor in Intel’s lineup, with a basic dedicated graphics card. All up, slightly less than $2.5K. This is a box for processing photos, surfing the web, playing the occasional game, and occasional work (IntelliJ at 2560 x 1600 = productivity).
What I didn’t expect to be doing was watching movies on demand. I joined Netflix last week, and discovered their all-you-can-eat movies-on-demand, which comes with all but their most basic plans. I signed up for the $8.99 1-disc at-a-time plan.
I remember what a buzz there was when Netflix first came out with its DVD rentals via mail plan. I can see what the fuss is about, having just got my first DVD in the mail, but online streaming movies are amazing. Sure, the online selection doesn’t approach that of the mail-out collection (it’s growing everyday), but that would be to miss the selling point, which is huge – if I find something I like, I wait all of 20 seconds before I start watching. Quality is on par with DVD, perhaps a little less, but eminently watchable on a 30-inch screen from my couch. I’ve been watching mostly foreign movies, and if my tastes ever ran into 80’s television sitcoms and series, or B-grade movies (they don’t, but if they did), I’d be all set too. $9 a month is simply a no-brainer.
Looking online, the major free-to-air stations like ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox are making available full episodes (some in HD) of most of their series (together with ads) as well. For music, I use Pandora or Slacker, and more and more radio stations are streaming their broadcasts online (which I listen to through this sidebar gadget). I’m typing this post listening to KQED and glancing at the Windows sidebar where I have the weekend weather, latest exchange rates, and time in Australia and Asia where friends and family are.
What I do miss TV for is broadcasts of live events (basically NBA games). Then again, that’s what friends with cable, sports bars, and HDTV, another amazing technology, are for.
Firefox and Adobe Reader replacements
I’ve been using Firefox for web browsing for the last year or so, but it has become a bit of a memory and resource hog for my slightly underpowered laptop (a Dell X1/Samsung Q30 ultraportable), which has only 512 MB of RAM – it doesn’t take that much to ratchet up its memory usage to 100 MB and beyond. Googling “lightweight browser”, two which came highly recommended were Opera and Kmeleon. Opera has a lot of the functionality of Firefox without having the need to download a bunch of plugins at the start, but I found it only slightly less memory-intensive than Firefox. Kmeleon on the other hand is small, and very, very fast (it’s built on the native Windows API) – it shares the same rendering engine (and same standards compliance) as Firefox, has fewer frills and conveniences, but just about everything I need when I’m surfing at home. For my laptop, it’s perfect – it’s free, offers incredibly speedy browsing, and gives me enough space to run other apps such as Word or iTunes.
In a similar vein, I looked for an Adobe Reader replacement, and found the free and open source Sumatra PDF – it runs as a standalone EXE without the need for installation, and is tiny – 800K is all the disk space it takes. Again, blazingly fast relative to its predecessor, simple and minimalist, while still meeting my rather modest needs.
My new cell phone has a 320 by 240 landscape 1.9″ screen, sharp and bright, that actually makes for a decent experience viewing web and WAP pages (or at least as decent as it can get on a sub-2″ screen). The landscape orientation is a real boon when it comes to writing messages and viewing photos as well. Since my mobile plan currently offers me unlimited web access, I’ve been looking at various websites that offer mobile versions of their content over the last couple of weeks – whenever I’ve had time to kill on the train, walking from place to place, and even in the office. This new-found ubiquity of access hasÂ actually changed the way I view and use the web – I can’t imagine having a phone without this feature in the future.
Some compromises are, of course, necessary to make reading a full news article for example, possible on a cell phone.
Digital Asset Management is becoming a big deal for many photographers, professionals and occasional shooters alike. I hadn’t really thought much about it before, but my recent acquisition and subsequent digitizing of historical family photographs brought home to me the need for a tool that would allow me to treat the collection as a library – complete with cataloging, search and organization functionality. A comprehensive survey of the DAM software market can be found here.
My basic requirements were:
- Flexible labeling of photos – multiple labels, and ability to specify a label hierarchy
- XML export of the catalog – including labels and their hierarchy
- Support of open standards (IPTC, XMP) to avoid vendor lock-in
- Ability to write these tags to the image files (or sidecar files), for the same reason
I popped into Bic Camera on the weekend, and got what I think is a bargain on a digital camera. Bic is selling the Fujifilm F31fd compact digicam, if you take into account their loyalty points and current campaign, for roughly USD170 – that’s about $50 cheaper than I can find on pricegrabber, and it’s probably worth noting that it’s initial release MSRP was USD399. Widely considered the best camera by far for low-light/no-flash pictures (and best-in-class battery life, at a rated 580 shots per charge), at the price it was hard to resist. With the current emphasis on megapixels by camera makers (it offers a “paltry” 6 megapixels worth of resolution), it’s hard to imagine another camera like this being introduced in the market again, at least for the time being. I really missed having a compact camera around on a recent trip to Malaysia – this one fits the bill nicely.
I have about 4-500 old family photographs from about 50 years ago that I thought would be great to digitize and distribute among relatives that are spread around the world – considering my paternal grandmother came from a family of thirteen, that’s a lot of interrelated history there.
So I got a Canoscan Lide 600F scanner from BIC Camera last night (178,000Â¥ – including 10% back in points, about USD135) – the salesman told me that the warranty and software were only good for Japan, but that I could download the drivers online. Sure enough, they were there on the Canon website, and I didn’t even bother opening the packaged CD. The device itself is relatively slim, and wonder of wonders, doesn’t need its own power supply, running off USB bus power (you need to use the provided USB cable though). The software was rather painless to install and get going – a machine restart was necessary for me, but not mentioned in the install guide.
I used Canon’s CanoScan Toolbox downloaded online, and for batch scanning of prints, it’s a breeze. Simply layout up to ten photos on the platen, and the software automatically straightens and crops correctly, provided you follow its guidelines of 1 cm between the platen edge and other photos – in this it does a great job. You need to set the correct orientation in a preview screen after scanning, and before saving – some way to automate this would’ve been nice. Perhaps the interface could have been a little cleaner, there’s a memory leak problem if you attempt to scan a number of times in the same session, so you need to restart sessions each time – not a big deal as I mapped one of the scanner buttons to bring up the Multi-Scan mode. Anyway, testament to how efficient the workflow was – I started last night and was done this evening getting through 478 photos, 4 x 6 and smaller.
Quality-wise, nothing to quibble over – scanning at 600 dpi, a 100% crop is shown below (without any sharpening). I’m very impressed with the technology and the whole experience.
Now to start mailing those CDs out…
Making a start
Well, I spent a little time over the last couple of days evaluating blogging options for the website, and eventually settled on WordPress (what a great name for a blogging platform!).
Some of its pluses:
- It runs off PHP, which means it runs on my current web host (which also provides MySql instances on the same plan). The learning opportunity was a big part of going with WordPress, as opposed to being hosted on blogger.com or wordpress.com.
- XML-export of posts.
- Wide user base, established community, theme and plugin availability.
- Open source.
MovableType (another great moniker) was another option, but dependency on Perl, a much larger installation, a seemingly more powerful but less user-friendly dashboard put it behind WordPress (it’s also not open source, but for me that’s not a big deal). I did like its ability to publish multiple blogs from a single installation.
I was able to FTP-publish to my site from blogger.com, and liked its simplicity, but in the end wanted something that I could tweak under the covers a bit more.
After that, it was a matter of hacking away at the default theme to get it looking the way I wanted (a lot of inspiration coming from this great WordPress site), which took actually much longer than I expected. It’s been a good experience though, as it’s given me exposure to working with stylesheets, server-side includes, PHP, and inter-browser differences (the theme looks much better in Firefox than it does in IE). And it’s been just the impetus I needed to bring better organization to the site.
The site does seem slower with SSI, as do the blog pages in general, and in particular the admin pages. Looking around, this wp-cache plugin might be an option for better performance.