Apple Maps Progress

 Vector 3D FTW! 

Vector 3D FTW! 

Unless I’ve been totally oblivious, Apple has added 3D vector graphics to my neighbourhood. Awesome, but it seems a little late given I live about 10 KM outside the downtown core of Toronto, Canada’s largest city by a wide margin. Still, it’s nice to see progress being made.

 No, Apple, that’s not my house.

No, Apple, that’s not my house.

Now, if only they could implement the correction I’ve submitted on where I actually live several times. The blue circle is pretty much exactly where I am as I write this (I’m not outside, but in the very corner of my house). The pin is where Apple thinks I live. Ugh.

Points of interest still need work too. Typing in a location name I know exists in Toronto and being given an option in Ohio or something is a little frustrating. It does seem to be improving though, albeit slowly.

I would rather work around around annoyances like that though, and stick with Apple’s Maps than use the alternative that actually used to occasionally give me directions to “sponsored locations” by default. That was really frustrating.

Posted on November 3, 2013 and filed under Apple.

Fuji X100S; Long Exposure

For lots more Fuji content, visit Fuji vs. Fuji, a site run by Yours truly.

 56 seconds @ ƒ/16 — Click to view larger on Flickr

56 seconds @ ƒ/16 — Click to view larger on Flickr

Long exposure photography is my favourite. I love the effect it creates with water and clouds, and it might be the last kind of photography that can’t natively be done with your smartphone, yet. I recently (finally) had a chance to put the X100S through its paces for long exposure photography and I came away very impressed.

Here’s why: 

My X100S with a B+W 10-stop MRC ND filter. 

  1. Built-in Neutral Density filter. This is the big one. David Hobby over at Strobist gushed about the ND filter, and for good reason, but being able to cut out 3 stops of light from an exposure for free is just as gush-worthy for long exposure photography. Add a 10-stop neutral density filter (I picked up a B+W 3.0 ND MRC 110) and you’ve cut 13 stops of light with just one additional piece of glass in front of the lens. This combination lets me do 90+ second exposures on overcast days at ƒ/11. And at 49 mm, even a B+W filter isn’t crazy expensive.
  2. No second noise-reduction exposure under 60 seconds. One thing that frustrated me about doing long exposure photography with my D700 was having to wait for the second noise-reduction exposure to finish. The D700 takes this second exposure at anything past 1 second if I remember correctly. At anything up to 4 seconds, it isn’t so bad, but even at 8 seconds, waiting for the shutter to close a second time gets old fast.
  3. Intelligent use of the LCD. Past 30 seconds, the X100S switches to Bulb mode. When you press the shutter, the rear LCD displays a handy timer for you. No more timing shots with your iPhone.
  4. Framing your shot. Using the LCD or EVF, you can happily frame your shot with that 10-stop ND filter attached. Autofocus works just fine, as does focus peaking and focus check. This is one occasion when manual focus is right up my alley. It’s fantastic. Note that the ND filter will confuse the optical viewfinder. The X100S will think it’s extremely dark and dim the OVF accordingly. If you’ve ever brought the camera to your eye with the lens cap still on and thought the OVF was busted, you’ll know what I’m talking about.
  5. Size & weight. Yeah, this doesn’t have anything to do with long exposure photography, but I can’t explain how much I appreciate the size and weight of this camera. Especially over the D700 + 24-70 combo I used before. And to think, I was actually considering a filter attachment for my 14-24. *shudder*  Sure, I’m missing the flexibility of a zoom, but I’ve found sticking with a single focal length for a while helps me preemptively “see” my shots before I set up my camera. 

Handy and intelligent use of the LCD while in Bulb mode.
No more iPhone timers for me.

Conclusion

If you really like the
35 mm focal length, the X100S might be the best camera on the market for long exposure photography. 

 85 seconds @ ƒ/11 — Click to view larger on Flickr

85 seconds @ ƒ/11 — Click to view larger on Flickr

 90 seconds @ƒ/11 — Click to view larger on Flickr

90 seconds @ƒ/11 — Click to view larger on Flickr

Posted on October 27, 2013 and filed under Photography, Reviews.

AdTrap Review — Trapping (some) ads

 The AdTrap tucked away in a cabinet beside my Motorola Surfboard SB6141. Only my Time Capsule is worthy being on top of the cabinet and that’s only because I don’t want to degrade the signal strength.

The AdTrap tucked away in a cabinet beside my Motorola Surfboard SB6141. Only my Time Capsule is worthy being on top of the cabinet and that’s only because I don’t want to degrade the signal strength.

When a co-worker sent me a link to the AdTrap Kickstarter page, I was compelled to back it, which is ironic as I was working for a marketing and advertising company at the time. I’m well aware that advertising serves a purpose—plenty of people are more than happy to put up with advertising in order to get a product or service for free or at a reduced cost. I am not one of those people. I prefer to pay (more) for a product or service to enjoy an ad-free experience. There is not a single ad-supported app on my phone, I skew towards premium, ad-free television and record shows so I can skip ads when needed, and I turn off terrestrial radio when ads come on, which is about 80% of the time it seems.

The problem with advertising is that 95% of it is terrible,1 irrelevant to me, the content and/or my current activity2 or a combination there of. This is one reason why I have a hard time feeling much remorse running AdBlock or purchasing a device like AdTrap. I happily promote ad-free products and services that are of excellent quality. I listen to podcast sponsors (at least the first few times) and sites I do want to support can easily be whitelisted.

But this is a post to review hardware, not discuss the current landscape of online advertising or the ethics around blocking many website owners’ primary source of revenue, no matter how broken or annoying the model is, so on with the review.

 Sorry, your AdTrap will not look this badass.

Sorry, your AdTrap will not look this badass.

Hardware

Like seemingly all Kickstarter projects, my AdTrap arrived late. The hardware also ended up not being the minimalist and sleek Razer-like prototype shown in the Kickstarter video. It’s worse. Quite a bit worse. It feels fairly cheap, the lights aren’t anywhere near as cool (no ground effects here) and, comically, it has a massive logo—which is terrible—plastered on the top of it like a big ad.

The lights were likely changed to provide visual feedback, but the prototype was so much better looking. The design could have been adjusted in nicer ways than it was, albeit more costly. Tiny LEDs across the front of the prototype, for example, with the ground effect light indicating the unit is online in addition to showing network activity. 

Aside from the lights, it looks and feels like a standard internet device; about as premium as a typical modem so average users probably won’t mind the final hardware quality. I imagine Kickstarter backers who waited for the device to ship were a little disappointed, if they even remember the prototype. 

Setup

Setup was as easy as advertised. *Snicker* I ended up power-cycling my modem, AdTrap, and Time Capsule a couple of times to get it going, but I don’t think I’d given the AdTrap long enough to fully boot. It takes a few minutes.

The icons that show where to plug each network cable are on the bottom of the device. This is the worst place as the unit has to be picked up and flipped upside down in order to see them. Fortunately this doesn’t have to be done too often.

The AdTrap, briefly online atop my Rogers-supplied HitronTechnologies modem/router—one of the worst pieces of hardware I have ever used.

One minor problem I had—and the reason why this review is a couple months late—is that I had a terrible HitronTechnologies modem/router combo from Rogers. I had explicitly turned off its WiFi broadcast in favour of using the vastly superior network created by my Time Capsule. This seemed to confuse it as I chose the “separate modem and router” method, but the AdTrap still saw the WiFi-disabled modem/router as a combo unit. I had been planning to purchase a separate modem anyhow, so I disconnected the AdTrap and waited for my Motorola Surfboard modem before trying to set it up again. I might have been able to get things working with the hardware I had, but I simply couldn’t be bothered to spend the time troubleshooting.

The UI to configure the AdTrap is usable and decent enough. It’s definitely not fully optimized for retina displays, but I can let that slide. For now.

Video with pre-roll. I especially like how the first line of the video is “We’re all being watched.” Uh, yeah. Ok. AdTrap to the rescue!

In use

Realistically, the flashing lights are an annoyance and it’s going to be in a cabinet where I can’t see it so the look of the hardware doesn’t matter a whole lot anyhow. What matters is, does it work? My answer after having the AdTrap online for a 2 days, 22 hours, and 38 minutes now is “mostly”. As of this moment, the AdTrap states it’s blocked 4,766 ads between my wife and me. I guess I’ll take its word for it, but here are what I’ve been able to observe and some samples where I think it’s fallen short:

Banner ads: I could replicate their video demonstration with typical banner ads (that no one looks at and are clicked on by accident at best). Plug the AdTrap in, refresh the page and *poof* the banner ads are magically gone. This is great. It leaves you with a cleaner, less distraction-filled browsing experience. Note that the ads don’t always collapse and not as reliably as with AdBlock.

This is what happens after I click to play on a MacBook Pro without Flash installed. Switching the User Agent to iPad gets around this. Without AdTrap installed, it would tell me I need to upgrade my Flash player.

Pre-roll: Ah pre-roll. The bane of every YouTube watcher’s existence. Countdown to skip is the “Skip-intro” button of today. Pre-roll ads have been eliminated in my use, but there’s a problem. I’m a Mac user. That shouldn’t matter, but it does because Macs haven’t shipped with Flash pre-installed since October of 2010 and that’s just the way I like it. This has an unfortunate consequence when AdTrap is running. Instead of a video telling me I need to have Flash installed, it hangs on a blank screen with text that reads “Your video will begin momentarily.” If I paste the link into Chrome, things work the way they should. As a side note, it’s just a little bit funny that the video on CNN about AdTrap and how it blocks pre-roll ads has a pre-roll ad.

Other ads: The annoying pop-behind ad on Pirate Bay3 seems to have been eradicated as have some “toasters”, those annoying pop-in-from-the-side-of-websites that appear as you scroll. How site owners don’t realize how disrespectful these are to their readers and their writers is beyond me.

“Hey! You just started reading that article, but here’s a distraction to assist you in not finishing it and moving onto something else so we can demonstrate to our advertisers how many page-views we get!”

Super.

Sadly, they’re still visible on sites like Macworld which is a shame. Macworld is also guilty of displaying social media garbage all over their site. PetaPixel is another example. Maybe I’m in the minority, but I would really prefer not to see any of this. If I want to share something, it’s really not that difficult. Cluttering up your site to encourage users to spam their social networks isn’t a great idea. Unfortunately, AdTrap does not block these out of the box. Maybe there is a way to configure it to do so, but searching briefly hasn’t turned anything up. For now, I’ll simply have to continue using AdBlock to manually remove social media icon spam from sites I often browse.

It could not be more obvious that these are ads.

Facebook is another site that is strangely still full of ads. The header of the right column actually says “Sponsored” and “Create Ad”, but these aren’t trapped? I find that a little odd. This has been acknowledged by the creators and will surely be removed in a future rule update.

Other sites I visit have ridiculously obvious ads that are still shown and iOS apps aren’t fully supported yet. Skype’s banner ad is partially removed, but the transition animation still happens and I’m not sure having the word “Advertisement” in hyper-link blue tucked in the corner is any better.

I haven’t had a chance to check how it works on Xbox Live yet. I recently disconnected my Xbox from the internet since I moved to Playstation Plus. Maybe one day I’ll hook it up again to check, but with the latest Live overhaul, I didn’t find the ads as obnoxious anymore. They’re still double-dipping though.

Rather than continuing to list what AdTrap currently misses, I’ve added a gallery at the end of this post with some screen captures of its blunders.  

Updates

While poking around the AdTrap forums, I noticed a post about Candy Crush Saga not starting with AdTrap installed. The forum admin advised the OP on how to whitelist the game and added a fix to the next update that would hit later in the day. That’s pretty awesome and gives me a lot of hope for the future of this product. The most recent update was automatically applied just a few hours ago. They’re rolling them at a really decent pace.

AdTrap Anywhere

This sounded like a really cool feature, but it turns out it’s not terribly easy to activate. The online setup mentions AdTrap anywhere, but nothing about how to get it running. If you read this forum post, you’ll find lots of scary disclaimers.

DO THIS ONLY IF YOU ARE CONFIDENT WITH WHAT YOU ARE DOING,
NO ONE WILL BE RESPONSIBLE IF YOU SCREW UP ANYTHING

Mmmmkaaay.

Put your iphone into supervised mode via Apple Configurator

Uh, what? This apparently wipes your phone. Wiping would be necessary to exit this mode.

… will NOT work unless you have forwarded the port (TCP:5555) through.

Ugh.

Backup your iphone *IMPORTANT*

Just how risky is this?

Known Issues with Adtrap Anywhere...

Right. No thanks.

In short, it sounds like an awful lot of work for not enough return. Maybe when the product lives up to its slogan of an “Ad-free internet” and it doesn’t break a bunch of other services, I’ll reconsider.

Wrapping Up

My AdTrap says it has 2.20 GB free and honestly, I have no idea what for. I’m not a big modder or a scripting guy so I can’t imagine doing a whole lot more with it then whatever is pushed to it via updates. Maybe I missing out on its full potential, but it’s just not worth the time for me.

 It’s pretty interesting to see the stats evolve over time and my wife’s influence on things as her browsing habits are  very  different from mine.

It’s pretty interesting to see the stats evolve over time and my wife’s influence on things as her browsing habits are very different from mine.

Additionally, I can apparently adjust the clock speed. Why would I want to do that? Again, I have no idea. There is no mention of either of these features on the website. Searching for “clock” in the forums did turn up one result. It seems increasing the clock speed will net me an extra 50 MB of traffic throughput. However, I have no idea which of the 3 higher clock speed settings will get me that. Poop.

Hacking and modding aside, the AdTrap is described as a “zero configuration device” so that’s how I chose to review it. 

It had been so long since I backed it that I actually had to go through the 49 Kickstarter Project updates to find out how much I had paid. I missed the early-bird levels, the first at $99, the second at $115. I got mine for $120 and now they sell for $139. Is it worth it? If you watch a lot of video with pre-roll, for $100 I’d say it was. I used to close any web page that attempted to force a commercial on me. At $139 I’m not blown away with its capabilities and consistency just yet. The internet is far from “Ad-free”, not that I expected them to achieve so lofty a goal. It’s still early days though and I’m confident things will improve as rules and the firmware are updated. There seems to be a lot of activity with updates rolling out steadily. It will be interesting to see where AdTrap goes from here.

Gallery

Below is a gallery of some of AdTrap’s hits and misses. Click to embiggen and for a brief description.

1 The reasons for this include the vast majority of marketers who don’t know what they’re doing, media buyers who advise their clients based on what makes the buyer more money vs. what is actually best for the client, and pompous Creative Directors who are more concerned with their ego and winning awards than what might be best for their client.

2 Facebook ads suggesting I “Like” Samsung, a company I happen to despise are a worthless annoyance. Further, ads for me to buy something when on Facebook are an irrelevant interruption and should be served in places where and when I might be inclined to buy things.

3 My use of Pirate Bay is restricted to things like downloading Downton Abbey after in airs in the UK so my wife can watch sooner—we pay for the channel Downton Abbey eventually airs on in Canada—or episodes of shows that we may have missed, but again, are paying for.

Posted on October 20, 2013 and filed under Reviews, Advertising.

“Haystacks”

I thought this handheld panorama would be fitting to use as the first cover image for the Squarespace template I recently switched to, Devlin. The photo was taken from the top of “Haystacks,” a favourite fell of Alfred Wainwright’s to explore and where his ashes were scattered. Now it’s a favourite of ours too.

If you ever visit The Lake District, and you should, this hike shouldn’t be passed up.

“…for beauty, variety and interesting detail, for sheer fascination and unique individuality, the summit area of Haystacks is supreme.
This is in fact the best fell-top of all.”

— A. Wainwright

Posted on October 12, 2013 and filed under Photography.

Fuji X100S; Review

For lots more Fuji content, visit Fuji vs. Fuji, a site run by Yours truly.

In my previous post, I mostly reviewed the Fuji X100S as a street photography camera at which it excels. I still need some time to properly review it for landscape and long exposure work (teaser, you can capture the milky way and what appear to be shooting stars), so this post will be my general impressions. Nothing crazy technical, just my user experience. I’ll also make comparisons to the X-E1 and—more ridiculously—the D700 I used before this camera.

Here goes.

Autofocus

“Blazing Fast!” You can’t click past search results without reading those words about the X100S. It’s true that the phase detection autofocus of the X100S is very fast, but it comes with a huge caveat. In the Fuji Guys’ “Top Features” video, Billy says:

“once you move it (the AF point) past from the centre of the focus points … you kinda lose the phase detection side of the focusing.”

By “sort of” I’m pretty sure he means “entirely”. Commenters had Billy confirm that it’s the centre 3 x 3 grid of AF points that use phase detection AF. Outside of the grid, the camera moves to contrast detection which is noticeably slower. Maybe it’s fast compared to a point & shoot, but for me, coming from a D700 with pro lenses, it ain’t fast. Is comparing a compact camera made in 2013 to a pro body and lens combo from 2007/2008 fair? Maybe not, but it’s the camera I came from. If memory serves, I can also say that the D300 and 17-55 ƒ/2.8 combo handily bests the X100S in AF performance. Given what I’ve heard about where AF speeds were with the X100 (non S) when it came out, Fuji is definitely on the right track as far as AF performance is concerned.

Close Focus: Browsing around on either Fuji X Forums or Fuji X Series lead me to a post about AF errors and the close-focus capabilities. It was suggested that after you get within 3-5 feet of your subject, it’s a good idea to switch Macro mode on, particularly in low light. I haven’t tested this enough to know for sure if Macro mode solves the problem consistently, but I can say that I have run into issues where the camera looks to have focused on my close subject when in fact, it’s focused on something pretty far in the background. I can also say that Macro mode is *way* slower. The camera seems to rack through the entire focus range every time I focus and it feels interminable. For inanimate objects it’s no problem, but using this as a solution when you’re taking close up candids at dinner with a group of friends or something, forget it.

A photo of my 24 ƒ/1.4 shows the dreamy effect of shooting in Macro mode wide open. For the right subject, it could actually be quite pleasing. Click to embiggen.

Another thing of note when in Macro mode is hazing. You’ll need stop down to ƒ/4 if you want to avoid the dreamy effect, but stopping down does the trick.

Manual Focus

I’m not much of an MF shooter, but I can echo all the folks creaming themselves over how nice focus peaking is. If manual focus is your thing, you’ll like the X100S. Yes, there could be options for the peak colour, but otherwise it’s fantastic. There’s also “focus check” where the camera shows you a highly zoomed view of the area you’re trying to focus on. It works, but usability-wise, it’s not for me. I prefer to leave it off and check manually on occasion using the middle button in toggle switch (above the main D-pad).

Picture Quality

I won’t be pixel-peeping, shooting brick walls, or doing any head to head comparisons here. A lot has already been written about the X-Trans sensor, how great the pictures it produces are, the sharpness, the colour, etc. It’s all true. This camera produces very sharp images with pleasing bokeh at large enough apertures and fantastic colour rendition. The high ISO performance is superb, but I’ve lowered my auto ISO max down to 3200 as the noise reduction at 6400 is too aggressive for me. Plus I’ve managed to get sharp photos at 1/4 of a second. Handheld. Seriously.

 There’s something about the way the internals of cameras, and Fuji cameras in particular render colour. It’s extremely difficult to replicate via Lightroom.

There’s something about the way the internals of cameras, and Fuji cameras in particular render colour. It’s extremely difficult to replicate via Lightroom.

Speaking of auto, I decided pretty early on that I would be letting this camera do as much work for me as possible. This includes shooting *gasp* JPEG. I know, I know, I can get more out of RAW, but it also means I have to process the RAW files and that takes time which is something I value. Sometimes I really enjoy spending hours tinkering with RAW files, but sometimes—and especially with casual shooting—I don’t want to have to process my photos. It’s been nice to shoot JPEG again and just shoot.

Fuji also give you the option of rendering each exposure in 3 different “Film Simulations” almost instantaneously. I love the functionality, but it could be extended even further to allow only 2 simulations or more than 3. Maybe banks of film simulations sets.

The big RAW converters were a little slow to support the X-Trans sensor and even now, conversions aren’t quite up to the level they are with Bayer sensors. At the time of writing, my understanding is that CaptureOne is currently best at converting RAFs. I’m a Lightroom user and I own Aperture. Both support Fuji’s latest cameras and are improving. To date, DxO has said they aren’t going to bother with support for the X-Trans. This is surprising and disappointing, but there you have it. As mentioned, I went JPEG with this camera, but plan to do some RAW shooting and tinkering. In the small amount I’ve done so far, I found converting RAF’s in Lightroom 5 to be perfectly acceptable.

Hardware

The styling and the feel of Fuji’s recent cameras is outstanding. People actually do ask if it’s a film camera. The buttons, knobs, dials, and switches are all satisfying to use, but might be problematic if you have sausage-fingers. The shutter release button seems a little loose and this is emphasized if you add a soft shutter release like I did. Otherwise the camera oozes quality, however, Fuji cameras are built much more for style than they are durability. During the first week of our recent honeymoon/vacation, I had the misfortune of setting my tripod down, camera attached and one leg not fully kicked out, on uneven ground. The tripod tipped and the camera fell about 2 feet and landed almost squarely on the shutter release/power switch. Both popped right out of the camera, rendering it inoperable for the rest of the trip. That was a bad day. $480 is what Fuji Canada charged me to fix the camera and, disappointingly, I’ve lost about 8 months of warranty as any previous warranty is void and a new repair warranty takes its place when a repair is done. This would work out better if my warranty was about to expire. Not so great if you’ve just bought the camera.

Aside from the shutter release/power switch, the camera suffered only minor scuffs so I was left thinking the finish was pretty resilient. Nope. Shortly after while walking through some loose scree I lost my balance and my wife’s X-E1 bumped some rocks. The camera didn’t hit hard at all, but it was left with a bunch of nicks and scuffs. The bottom line is these Fuji cameras aren’t built to stay looking new. Unless you really baby them, they’ll show wear and quick. This may or may not be a problem. Some people really like keep they’re gear looking perfect. I’m never happy about the first scuff or scratch, but afterwards it becomes sort of liberating to be able to just use things. That’s where I am with my Fuji. In both of my unfortunate mishaps though, had I been using my Nikon gear, I’d still have been shooting with my camera and my wife’s wouldn’t have shown as much wear.

Comparisons & Conclusion

I bought my Fuji intending to supplement my Nikon system which included a D700, 24-70 ƒ/2.8, and 14-24 ƒ/2.8. I loved my D700. I suppose the fact that I sold it (the lenses are also listed for sale) is the second biggest compliment I can pay the Fuji. The difference in size and weight can’t be overstated and the Fuji sensor keeps pace with the D700 overall.

The biggest compliment is that I’m shooting again and enjoying photography. For the last couple of years, photography became a vacation activity along with a few events I’d shoot and some portraiture. It almost wasn’t a hobby anymore. It felt like work. Having to lug a camera that size around (yes, even with a prime on it) wasn’t appealing to me. I left it at home. And while everyone goes on about the iPhone replacing dedicated cameras, it hasn’t even come close for me. The iPhone is still a “last resort and the occasional video” sort of device for me. In my opinion, the X100S smokes my iPhone 5 for even the most casual shooting.

I used the cash from the sale to start building a Fuji system which includes the 14 mm ƒ/2.8, the 35 mm ƒ/1.4 and the 18-55 mm kit lens along with my wife’s X-E1 so far. My thinking is that I can use those lenses on the X-E1 until an X-Pro1 successor is released. That day can’t come soon enough though ’cause while my wife absolutely loves her Fuji, and it’s certainly a capable camera, I don’t really like the UX compared to the X100S. I don’t like the AF button on the left, that a minimum shutter speed can’t be set for auto ISO and the X100S feels faster. 

Now I’m hoping the X-Pro2 or whatever it’s called leapfrogs the X100S in performance and usability while adopting its button layout. I’ll then add the 56 mm ƒ/1.2 and the 10-24 mm ƒ/4 to the lineup for a very complete and capable mirrorless system.

So long, Nikon. It’s been a great 6 years.

Posted on October 8, 2013 and filed under Photography, Reviews.