Sony Reader WiFi (PRS-T1)

Being an avid reader, I find it inconvenient to carry around heaps of books. Luckily, there is a solution for this: an e-reader. These devices have both improved in quality and steadily dropped in price over the last couple of years. I decided to bite the bullet and buy one.

There are plenty of options, some major product lines are: Amazon’s Kindle, Barnes & Noble’s Nook and Sony’s Reader. After some careful deliberation I choose Sony’s newest offering: the PRS-T1, known by the friendlier name “Sony Reader WiFi”.

Sony had a plethora of different Readers before, but decided to consolidate everything into this one new model, which is the first in the Reader line to offer WiFi. The PRS-T1 uses a six inch e-ink Pearl screen which offers excellent contrast and makes for easy reading in both natural and artificial light. The device is extremely light and conveniently sized for easy holding. Although, the cover with built-in light makes it quite a bit heavier. Nevertheless, there’s also a cover without light, and of course: if you want a cover you’d have to buy it separately: it’s not included in the package. The stylus can not be placed in the device, so it’s nice to have a cover to clip it on.

My main gripe with the device is the glossy border of the front panel which is somewhat annoying when reading under a bright light source. Additionally, the Sony Reader WiFi has a tendency to do full screen refreshes, which makes the e-ink screen flicker quite often. When reading books or navigating through the interface this is not really a problem. However, when browsing the web the screen often flickers two to four times when loading a page, which is distracting. On the bright side, the screen itself looks extremely crisp, the infrared touch screen is fairly responsive, and the pinch & zoom is a welcome feature especially when reading PDF files.

The Reader uses a stripped down version of Android under the hood, which is noticeable when navigating menus. The interface is well thought out: putting books on the device, or downloading them via Sony’s Reader store, is quick and effortless. Some of the options that are offered are quite nice, such as a choice between built-in dictionaries, quick search and hand-written note taking capabilities. The 2GB of built-in memory can be expanded with a micro-SD card, which is probably only useful if you want to use the device’s MP3 playback capabilities or if you store huge collections of books on there.

If it isn’t obvious yet, I am quite sold on this gadget. It’s affordable, quick, light and perfect for a polyreader like me. The Sony Reader is already widely available in the United States and will be available in the Netherlands in the coming week. This will likely become a popular holiday season gadget, and rightly so. Nevertheless, when I walked through a Barnes & Noble store yesterday, I felt both preemptive nostalgia and despair: am I walking through what will one day be a museum? There’s definitely value in holding a real book. Hence, I am feeling ambivalent towards the replacement of my beloved physical books with electronic “equivalents”.

2011-10-16-Barnes-NobleThe Graphic Novels section in Barnes & Noble

 

A quick final note on Amazon:
Amazon’s e-readers are quite popular in the United States. They come with free worldwide 3G, good quality screens and are very affordable. Until recently these models lacked touch screens. However, that has changed with the Kindle Touch. Amazon also recently launched the Kindle Fire which lacks 3G support. The Fire looks to me more like a tablet, not an e-reader. Amazon cites its broad selection of content as the Fire’s unique selling point. However, I have my doubts about whether that will convince anyone outside of the US. Amazon’s lack of support for the open ePub standard, dubious history with remote book deletions, and the recent controversy with their Silk web browsing acceleration, have convinced me not to buy their products.

Apples and Oranges

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People are often surprised that I do not own a single Apple branded product: how can someone that holds a degree in Human Media Interaction not have at least an iPod? Perhaps it is time for a brief explanation.

Did Apple invent the mouse? No, that would’ve been either Stanford, Xerox or Telefunken, depending on what you define as a mouse. But did Apple popularize the mouse? Yes, sir. And that is, and has remained, the strength of Apple throughout the years. Take something that is either obscure or that seems past its peak point and make it into something everyone wants to have. The grey laptop becomes the MacBook, the clunky walkman becomes the iPod, the drab PC becomes the iMac, the aging mobile phone becomes the iPhone, the failing tablet PC becomes the iPad: iWant!

Granted, Apple is good at making stuff that is easy and intuitive to use. They are willing to take risks with their designs which differentiates them from other major hardware manufacturers. They are also known for their decent hardware and software support. So far, so good, so what’s the catch?

An often cited reason for not buying Apple hardware is that it is overpriced. This is especially true for laptops. Go to any other manufacturer and you will get a machine with equivalent specifications for a third or half cheaper than Apple’s offerings. In this regard: I always find it puzzling that so many students buy Apple machines. To find the reason for this we have to dig a little deeper. Although the days that Apple was making products for the niche of graphic designers and artists are over, they continue to have this exclusive air and feel to them: buying an Apple is like joining a club or becoming part of a family. Apple is one of those companies that successfully sells not only a product, but primarily a feeling.

I have to admit that I too like nice looking things and prefer brand name products over nameless equivalents. Nevertheless, even though MacBooks look gorgeous: I don’t have one. I think that Apple’s reputation for developing new and innovative products is nowadays a large factor in propelling their newly launched products to the forefront more quickly than those of other companies. Let’s face it people: Apple doesn’t hold a patent on good design, intuitive interfaces, and solid hardware. There are other companies that put out good well-designed products too, but people are less willing to consider them, since it is `not Apple’.

Design and reputation apart, my real gripe with Apple is their highly proprietary nature. They control everything from the nitty gritty details of the hardware to the highest levels of software. The main advantage of this model is that they have complete control over the user experience, which allows them to create coherent well-integrated products. The downside is that this level of control makes their systems very inflexible and stifles innovation by others. My primary reason for not buying Apple products is that I do not want to end up trapped in their proprietary, closed, and highly controlled ecosystem. Perhaps it is time for Apple to open up. They’ve garnered a large enough following to be able to do this, and it would no doubt be appreciated by many users.

Would I ever buy an iPod, iPad, MacBook, or other Apple product? I am not very brand loyal when it comes to computer stuff. Whenever I make a buying decision I evaluate competing products in a particular category based on their merits. If an Intel processor offers more bang per buck than one from AMD, I’d buy the Intel one and vice verso. In Apple’s defense: if I would have to buy a tablet now then it would certainly be an iPad. However, this is not because it is Apple, but because it is presently the best and most feature complete product in that particular category. I think that is a legitimate reason to buy a piece of hardware.

My advice: dare to honestly compare products, don’t get trapped in fanboyism: don’t buy Apple because it’s Apple, don’t become like this:

Video hosted by YouTube. Copyright © The Onion.

What do I think of the future of Apple now that Steve Jobs resigned as CEO? I think they will continue to do just fine. They have good bunch of professional people there, and there are and will continue to be, plenty of folks looking out specifically for their products. However, as in any industry, the niche of producing highly desired consumer products will undoubtedly be populated in the future by companies that we do not yet even know: the Oranges.

How to Shoot Better Film with your Mobile

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Many people have it nowadays: a mobile phone that includes a camera that you can use to shoot film. While the output quality of such a device is not great compared to a camcorder, DSLR or videocamera, it has one prime advantage: you always carry it with you. So, why not use it? Below are some tips for more effectively using your mobile device to shoot better videos.

Tip #1: Always record in the highest quality
Mobile phones have plenty of space available from the get go, and if not: they can easily be extended with a larger memory card. Hence, there is no compelling reason to use low quality video recording settings. As a rule of thumb: always set your mobile video application to the highest recording quality available, on modern phones this is usually 720p.

Tip #2: Leave the other camera settings alone
Camera applications come with a variety of manual settings, such as toning the image, tweaking contrast and brightness, or using digital zoom. I suggest that you stay away from these options unless you really know what you are doing. Most of these settings apply effects that are usually better applied in post-production during the editing process. By selecting some fancy looking effect you risk ruining your source material, as the effect of filters can often be difficult to see very well on a small screen. There can be circumstances where it is useful to manually adjust the white balance setting, but most of the time the built-in software will do fine on its own.

Tip #3: Record with sufficient light
The portability of cameras in phones comes at a cost: a tiny sensor – the part that actually captures the image. Unfortunately, small sensors make it very difficult to shoot nice film in the dark without significantly sacrificing image quality. Less light means that the exposure time will need to be longer to actually capture enough light. Mobile phones bring down the video frame rate dynamically in order to do this which results in choppy video: not exactly a feast for the eye. Besides this they usually also crank up the gain on the sensor which makes the image very noisy. So, it is best to record in sunlight if you can, or bright indoor light. Of course: sometimes this is impossible and you’ll have to compromise quality in order to actually capture a moment.

Tip #4: Keep it steady
Many people record while holding their mobile device with only one hand. My advice: don’t do that! Instead hold your phone firmly on both sides between your thumb and index finger. Some people have a steady hand and don’t require anything beyond this technique. However, if you are a particularly shaky person, try to lock your elbows against your sides, stand with your legs slightly spread and try to hold your breath for a couple of seconds to get a really steady shot.

Tip #5: But, use gentle motion as well
Any motion in your video should be a deliberate choice. Try to avoid jerky movements and keep it nice and smooth. You’ll primarily want to use panning motions: rotating the camera from left to right or right to left. Other motion includes tilting: up-down. Optically zooming is impossible with at least all mobile phones I know of, and: please do not use the digital zoom as it leads to really poor quality video. Although with a fixed lens you can’t really zoom, you can use your arms to create a limited dolly-shot effect1: move them outwards from your body to the subject your filming to dolly in and back towards your body to dolly out.

You can’t really use a tripod or monopod with most of these devices, but you can be creative and use other tools or your own body to create great shots. For example: bend your knees and from that position slowly stand upright while you pan or tilt the camera. You can get very nice motion shots with this technique. Try to avoid walking if you can, or walk very slowly. Also, if you have a car kit or dock you can reverse mount your mobile phone in these to create shots from fixed spots, but: take care not to damage your phone.

Mobile phone camera’s, like many professional camera’s nowadays use CMOS sensors. The downside of these sensors is that they are subject to rolling shutter. This means that when you pan the camera quickly, or something moves quickly,  an object that is standing straight in reality appears skewed in the recording. This is the reason why your movements should not be too fast. See the video below for a demonstration of this effect.

Tip #6: Frame properly with the rule of thirds
A simple rule of thumb famous in both photography and film is the rule of thirds. Imagine two equally spaced lines in your image horizontally and two vertically as shown here:
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The idea is to use these orientation lines to properly align your subject. For a close-up shot the top horizontal line should be aligned with the eyes of the subject and either the left eye should be aligned with the leftmost vertical line, or the right eye with the rightmost vertical line. When taking wider shots the whole body may line up with one of the vertical lines, whereas the head is placed at one of the top intersections as in the image below. Of course, your subject need not be a person, but can be any object.

Third Rule

Tip #7: Don’t rely on the phone for quality audio
The biggest caveats of shooting film with a mobile telephone is not so much the image quality, but rather the abysmal sound. Most phone manufacturers seem to think that people play back film shot on a mobile phone with that same mobile phone, and for those instances the audio is just fine. However, for listening on the Internet, let alone playback on home theatre equipment, the sound just plain sucks. Unfortunately, there is not so much you can do about this. However, if you have the money you can consider buying a portable audio recorder. Many people, including me, own a Zoom H1 for such occasions. Devices like these are also pocket-sized and can easily be used to record high quality audio anywhere. You need to sync it up in post-production of course, but this can make your recording of a gig you went to that much more memorable.

So, now you have enough tips: start shooting some video 🙂 As with anything, the trick to getting better at this is doing it a lot, making mistakes and learning from them.

Notes:
1) Technically speaking a dolly is a construction of some sort that allows the camera to move forward or backward, usually on a rail. While things shot with a phone are all strictly handheld the shot type is still a dolly shot.

Casings

It is no secret that I use casings for the portable stuff I carry around. Some people dislike these things as, according to them: why slap a cheap case on an expensive, nice looking device? This is a good point, and: that’s why I like my casings to be well designed.

A while ago I bought a Noreve case for my mobile phone. They have models for many phones and a wide range of colours and materials to choose from. If you like your phone to dangle around your waist: they have nice clip-ons for that as well. As far as my casing is concerned, the pros: well designed, solid and has a nice feel to it. The cons: colour gets a bit darker after a while, the edges are not very well protected, and there’s a useless, overly tight, pocket inside for holding business cards. However, I am nitpicking, overall I am happy with it.

Another casing gem that my brother pointed me to is a Dutch designed case for holding credit card sized cards: the secrid card protector, winner of a red dot product design award. The cards `fan’ out of the case making them easy to pick out without even opening the surrounding wallet cover: see the image below. It is a very small wallet, which is actually a good thing: I found out that I carry a lot of useless stuff around, and a smaller wallet forces you to make choices and kick-out the things you hardly ever use. Furthermore, because the shell is made of metal it prevents unwanted reading of RFID chips that are being embedded in such cards at an ever increasing rate. The pros: small, rigid and looks pretty. The cons: it’s a bit heavy, the slide-out mechanism seems robust, but it uses a lever which may wear down over time. Additionally, it only holds up to about six cards, which may not be enough for everyone. Even though they have a `double’ version available: that, for me, kind of defeats to point of having a small wallet. Nevertheless, if you’re concerned about RFID, or just looking for a new stylish wallet: the secrid is recommended.

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