All posts in Reviews

Never loan a book. Give it away.

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Books can transport one to places and experiences like no other medium, but transporting the books themselves that accumulate over decades of reading is, to me, becoming less and less appealing.

I have always cherished my humble book collection from the common paperback reprints (mostly science fiction, art, theater, humor, popular science, and a bit of philosophy) to the rarer niche treatises (plays, pop ups and technical manuals for stage and closeup magicians.) While I will always admire a clever binding technique or a beautifully illustrated coffee table tome, my desire to own them as objects d’art is waning. I believe this is attributable to their increasing ease of acquisition.

Tracking down a desired volume was once a mini-treasure hunt. Whether it was a quick drive to the nearest Waldenbooks or a months of searching through the dusty shelves of used book stores, the search and discovery of the physical object was often as satisfying as the book’s content. Today a few seconds of Googling leads to an overnight delivery of almost any paper-bound compendium, if not the text and illustrations themselves digitally served up for instant perusal (in varying shades of legality.)

bookOne of the many upsides of this accessibility is that I find my previous desire to collect, if not horde, books has turned 180 degrees. Douglas Coupland is credited with saying “Never loan a book to someone if you expect to get it back.” My glass-half-full-of-karma paraphrasing of this quote becomes my new motto. “Always give your books away and don’t accept them back.”

Today I completed a delightful vacation-read, an autobiography of comedian Fred Allen, while on a Mediterranean cruise. Deck chairs are much more compatible with paperbacks than iPad e-books. Upon finishing the book, I inscribed it (or perhaps defiled it) with the following thoughts that may be of mild interest to the book’s next reader.

Dear Reader,

Fred Allen was one of the top American radio stars of the 1930’s – 40’s and was considered one of the sharpest comedy minds of his day. In “Much Ado about Me” he chronicles his earlier career, from his start on the professional “amateur circuit” in 1920’s Boston through his rise to national success in the Vaudeville “big-time.”

The book is also a fascinating glimpse into the unique lifestyle of Vaudevillian performers during the dying days of that short-lived (50 years) entertainment medium. Chapter 14 in particular, titled “The Life and Death of Vaudeville,” describes for the modern reader a vivid picture of the work-a-day life of “the acrobats, the animal acts, the dancers, the singers, and the old-time comedians who have taken their final bows and disappeared into the wings of obscurity.”

I finished reading this book while aboard the Norwegian Epic off the coast of Cannes, France and am subsequently donating it to the ship’s library. If you enjoy this oeuvre as much as I did please send me a note with your impressions.

Tracy
June 5, 2015

I included my email address and dropped the book off in the return slot of the ship’s library. My hand-scrawled message may see fewer actual readers than any message in a bottle ever cast to sea, but I do hope someday to hear from a reader on those same waters who found and enjoyed the stories in that book.

Vidpro Video Stabilizer Giveaway

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Last month I mentioned my buddy Jesse over at Jesse’s Gear posted this video demo of the cool VidPro SB-10 Camera Stabilizer for iPhone, Android and Digital Cameras. This week, he is giving one away to a lucky follower. The drawing is this Friday (Sept 30, 2013) so you have just enough time to hit up his site and check out the entry instructions, summarized below:

Step 1. Follow @jessepepin
Step 2. Tweet his review post
Step 3. Click REFRESH on your email client all day on Friday, just like the last scene of The Social Network, to see if you win.

VidPro’s $50 Steady Cam

Jesse’s Gear posted this video demo of the VidPro SB-10 Camera Stabilizer for iPhone, Android and Digital Cameras. The product name is heavier than the camera your likely to put on it. The aluminum alloy and steel construction look solid, and the price seems reasonable for all its bubble-leveled gimbal goodness.

The cost for this Merlin-esque apparatus is about the lowest I’ve seen for a stabilizer. I may have to grab one just to keep in my car for those unplanned shoots when a shakily-held iPhone is my only available ax.

Be sure to check out the rest of Jesse’s blog and you’ll wish that you had Jesse’s Gear.

Roland R-MIX – The Photoshop of Audio Editors?

Roland’s new R_MIX audio editing software centers around a real-time visualization of the sound, or what Roland calls “color coded clouds of energy and harmonic matter.”

But lets put aside corporate concocted buzz phrases for the moment. The Roland demo video above is full of them, but starting around 1:40 you will find some impressive demonstrations of the programs power and ease of use. Just drag a box over an energy cloud and start manipulating that part of the audio mix. You can quickly find and isolate instruments, changing pitch and speed for learning a complex guitar lead for example, and even creating minus one, vocal-free songs.

Want to pan the recorded singer left while you harmonize in the right channel? No problem. Draw a box around her undulating harmonic matter (!) and you can drag her around to stereo field as you like.

A “simplified version” called R_MIX Tab is available for iPad in the App Store. So far it is gathering mixed reviews.

Top 5 Steve Jobs Action Figure Alternatives

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Missed out on the first batch preorder of Steve Jobs collectible figures? Live in a US state where it’s legality is questionable? Fear not, we’ve collected a few alternatives simulacrums to address your 1/6th scale Jobsian obsession. Continue reading →

Paper Camera App

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In a maze of phone camera apps, Paper Camera stands out as a fun image processor. Given the right source material, it can create impressive images with a hand drawn look. For the “drawing” above. I started with a 3D render (by Preston Brousard) from a video we are currently producing. This image processed particularly well with Paper Cameras Sketch Up (above) and Gotham Noir settings.

Other presents include Comic Boom, Half Ton and Old Printer. Slider controls allow you to adjust contrast, brightness and line weight. Check out the original image and a few others in the gallery below.

Interesting that Paper Camera does it’s image processing in real time, so you can see the image effect live displayed in the camera preview. This app is a bargain at 99¢ for iPhone and still a steal at twice the price on Android.

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Spacial thanks to producer, director Gary Hayes for turning me on to this app.


Apple’s Magic Mouse – Elegant, Functional, Unusable

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It would be all too easy to sprinkle prestidigitation metaphors throughout an article on Apple’s new Magic Mouse. References to “disappearing” buttons, “amazing” design are obvious. So lets get straight to the point, clear and simple. Apple has created a mouse so perfect that it is unusable. Ok, so much for clarity.

This may be Apple’s most elegant current product. The compound curves of plastic, aluminum and space converge at each edge with a beauty and precision unparalleled in consumer electronic devices. The technology of touch is integrated is a uniquely usable fashion. All pre-purchase doubts about a touchpad mouse dissolved within minutes of use. Scrolling, swiping and sliding quickly become second nature. The low-profile is challenging at first, and require some getting-used-to time. The utility this mouse provides would make it worth the effort, if not for one fatal flaw.

miceThe Magic Mouse places it’s optical sensor in an unusual place. In use, it falls right under the fingertips. Logically this would seem to be the ideal spot for a device used for pointing. This location was never possible with rubber ball mice. The size of the track ball required the point of control to fall deeper in the palm. When optical mice swept through the industry replacing ball mice, they simply mimicked the same positioning.

The control point of my current mouse (Macally IceMouse) is right under my first knuckle. The Magic Mouse moves that point more than an inch further from the palm. This small shift is enough to completely change every gesture my muscle memory has been imbedding for the last two decades. In particular, side-to-side motions, fulcrumed from the wrist, are magnified dramatically and would require relearning as much slighter motions.

Perhaps a secondary preference control could allow a separate tracking setting for smaller side motions. Until then, the retraining required for using the Magic Mouse would be comparable to relearning to draw left-handed.

Consumer Reports Rates Samsung as Top Netbook

consumerreportsjune09Consumer Reports is a well known source in the US and Canada for impartial and well researched product reviews and ratings. This month, they filled one of their 50+ testing labs with small, lightweight, cheap netbook computers. One of these, the ASUS Eee PC, even became the cover boy for the issue.

The magazine article is short and sweet, presenting the pros and cons of lightweight computing. It brings up good points about usability and should be helpful in deciding if a netbook will satisfy your computing needs. They conclude that netbooks are sufficient for most typical tasks with the exception of video editing and gaming. I disagree with one of these conclusions.

consumerreportsnetbooktableDespite the upfront cover honors for the ASUS, it did not walk away with the competition. It ends up as one of the three Consumer Reports Recommended units, but shows up fourth on the list of all netbooks compared. First place goes to the offical tracyevans.name netbook-of-choice, the Samsung NC-10.  Click on the image to the left for a condensed version of the comparison table, or buy the magazine for all the details.

For the most part, I agree with CR’s conclusions. They gave Sammy highest marks for screen quality and for Portability, a category based on battery life and weight. No argument there. Both ASUS, Sammy and all but one tested netbook received the lowest rating of Poor for speaker fidelity, bass response and loudness. The HP Mini 1030NR’s speakers were rated as Fair. I think the ASUS speakers are slightly less awful than Sammy’s, but Poor is a good description of both.

The ASUS and the Samsung have slugged it out before on this blog. Note that Consumer Reports rated the ASUS Eee PC 1000H, not the  1000HE, which is the one I used for my comparison. Had they rated the later model it may have appeared higher on the list. Improvements in the HE version include the very comfortable “chicklet” keyboard as well as longer battery life.

Consumer Reports is an interesting publication with a unique business model. The magazine is published monthly by  Consumers Union, an “expert, independent, nonprofit organization whose mission is to work for a fair, just, and safe marketplace for all consumers” based in Yonkers, New York. The organization generates more than $200 million in yearly revenue, has a staff exceding 600, and over 50 state-of-the-art testing laboratories. They accept no advertising in the magazine and purchase all products reviewed at retail.

Netbook Game of the Week – World of Goo

world-of-goo-1This weeks Netbook Game of the Week is World of Goo, the 2008 Independent Game of the Year, from indie developer 2D Boy. WoG is an intellectually challenging physics simulator. Sound fun? Then how about this? You stick gooey balls together to build stuff and solve puzzle. Better?

Each level presents an intriguing new area and a logistical challenge to solve. You become a structural engineer as you invent and build precarious bridges and teetering tower, which the Goo Balls swarm over in their climb to safety. Remember the tower of ants in Indiana Jones 4? Kind of like that, but much cuter. Managing you resources of the number and placement of balls, balancing the and weight and sway momentum of the structure, and taking the wind and other environmental factors into account is all part of the highly enjoyable game play.

Parallels to the Amiga game Lemmings are many, and that is a high compliment. In this 1991 classic mono-skilled Lemmings (builder, blocker, exploder) would direct the single-file marching line to their goal by altering terrain with bombs, digging tunnels and parachuting of precipices with umbrellas. The World of Goo is inhabited by different species of Goo Balls that stick together and tear apart in different ways. Goo Balls are just as charming as any green-haired Lemming, and they have a language all their own. Goos must be Apple Computer fans since they often triumphantly shout “Ihnatco” upon completing a difficult task or reaching the summit of one of their Jellloish edifices.

world-of-goo-1Netbook owners can fully enjoy World of Goo since it plays smoothly on Samsung’s Atom processor. It looks and sounds just as great as it does on more powerful PCs. While the track pad works fine for early levels, you will want to switch to a mouse for the later challenges. Be sure to set your trackpad to Tap and Drag and disable those silly scrolling zones. For more info on tweaking your track pad, try Jez’s tips and tricks at SammyNetbook.com.

This game is smart, with beautiful 2D graphics, and a wonderfully cinematic score. The full soundtrack is available here as a free download. A quirky story winds through the game drawing leading you from one level to the next. Don’t let the Indie moniker fool you. This is a triple-A quality title. One would never guess that is was conceived, written, programmed, illustrated and scored by just two guys. World of Goo is a triumphant achievement in compelling game play, graphic design and music. It is well worthy of the industry praise heaped upon it.

As an independent production it will have no national ad campaign or movie tie-ins, so spread the word to your game-playing friends that this is not one to be missed. The DRM-free game is available for $20 at the 2D Boy website as well as on Steam. There is also a full first level demo available for PC, Mac and Linux.

UPDATE, March 25, 2009: World of Goo is now part of the MacHeist bundle. MacHeist is a $39 collection of Macintosh software that includes amazing apps like Kinemac,Wiretap Studio and  iSale. It is a limited time offer so bargain shoppers should hurry over to the site and check it out.

UPDATE, March 26, 2009: World of Goo took top honors yesterday for Downloaded Game of the Year at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. Congrats again 2DBoy.

Samsung NC10 Field Test – Part 2: Back Yard

samsung-on-patioToday I travel to the far reaches of my back yard, braving Texas misquotes, for further Samsung NC10 field testing.

This is the first time my NC10 has ventured beyond climate-controlled conference rooms and coffee shops. Well up to the task of backpacking it in the wild, Sammy is like a cheap date that I can take places I wouldn’t consider taking a $2,000+ laptop.

The solid build quality inspires confidence, while the light weight form factor is easy to manage. The hinge feels just right with a spring indention that keeps the lid securely in position when closed, and a tight fit that holds any viewing angle.

The sun hangs low but bright in the clear afternoon sky. With it shining directly on to the Samsung’s matte screen, yet the screen is comfortably readable. In fact it looks great from about half-brightness up to full. Very impressive.

My Airport network pops up in seconds in seconds and I am automatically logged in and online. The signal strength is identified as “very good.” Even further out into the yard where the signal weakens, the Samsung has no problem picking it up.

keyboard-in-the-grassTesting the laptop in an actual lap however requires some effort to avoid “lap topple”. The weight of the screen tends to tip the unit backwards.  This is not a problem on a solid surface like a table or desk, but my less level lap requires holding down the front of the book to stabilize the keyboard. This makes typing cumbersome and tiring. Switching from the deck chair to the patio table restores Sammy’s balance and my blazing typing speed.

Speaking of the Samsung’s keyboard, it is one of the best I have tested to date. Before buying the NC10, I tried almost every netbook keyboard on the market. Most felt “wrong”, cramped and uncomfortable. The standout was the ASUS, which had a nice springy feel and well spaced keys. The Samsung keys feel just as good, but with a better layout.

The combination of great keyboard, bright readable screen and superior design style swayed me toward the Samsung, but the ASUS is a quality unit as well. In the next field report, I will comprare these two netbooks head to head. Stay tuned.

Samsung NC10 Field Test – Part 1: Coffee Shop

samsungatpanera_smallThe specs are great, the reviews are glowing, and it’s a leader on style points. But until I put hands to keys and use the Samsung NC10 in its natural habitat, it’s all hearsay. So begins this series of field reports as I brave the wilds of coffee shops, waiting rooms and economy airplane seats in an effort to document the real netbook experience.

Today I am at a Panera Bread in Sugar Land, Texas, just outside of Houston. Flipping open my shiny blue netbook, I notice that I have the smallest computer in the place. Cool. A press of the power button wakes Sammy from her slumber. Firing up Firefox I am easily and quickly connected to the free Wifi. Total time from bag to surf, less than a minute. Not bad.

Task One – Waste Time on the Web

As I peruse a few web sites the limitations of netbook life are immediately felt. The screen is small. No surprise that the 600 pixel height will take some getting used to. But it is a fair trade off considering the portability and poundage.

puny-atom-processorPerformance-wise, it is a winner. The puny Atom processor has just enough oomph to cruise through the majority of sites thrown at it with ease. Flash animation plays smoothly. Both Flash and QuickTime videos play without a hitch. Occasional screen tearing seems to be the fault of the video chip or maybe the screen refresh rate. It is noticeable, but far from a deal killer, as I watch partial screen Hulu shows and full screen QuickTime video trailers. Add a good set of earbuds, and you have quite an entertainment package.

Trackpad Issues

The trackpad size is stingy but just large enough to be useful. A bit more height would have made a big difference. Perhaps cutting the height of the numeric and function key rows to half or smaller would have been a good design decision. That would have left more room for the mousing surface. Reducing the size of these lesser used keys would not hamper the typing experience like some have done by compressing all the keys (I’m looking at you, Lenovo IdeaPad).

samsung-trackpadThe main problem with the trackpad however is not the size or width. It’s the depth, or rather lack thereof. Positioned almost perfectly flush with the palmrest surface, it is impossible to locate by touch alone. When your finger crosses the edge of the pad with no tactile feedback  has the effect of making the cursor feel unresponsive or stuck. You have to take your eyes off the screen to realize your finger is off the pad, reposition your finger back on the pad, and slide again continue you cursors journey. Repeating this exercise several times per minute is unfortunately standard procedure on the NC10.

With so much thought and good design put into the best-in-class keyboard, lets hope that Samsung addresses this interface shortcoming in the next product cycle.

More to come…

In part two of the Samsung NC10 Field Test, we will look at screen quality and go hands-on with the keyboard quality on the NC-10.

The Zoom ZFX – Part 2 : The Software

zoom_interface3Continued from Part 1.

Previously we looked a the impressive Zoom ZFX hardware. But hardware was only half of this “total guitar package” … the better half!

The Sights

The software is graphically rich with colorful illustrations of stomp boxes, amps and such. The art style is about equal to most modern music interfaces, maybe a half-generation behind interface leaders like Apple and the latest Line 6.

The spiral notebook on the left contains an extensive library of amps, cabs, effects and tools. There is no shortage of mix-and-matchable gear simulations with all the usual sly names that reveal their original “inspirations” without inviting copyright infringement lawsuits.

Plop a piece of gear into place by dragging its image from the pages of a notebook to one of three windows on the right representing your rack, live room or stage floor. The descriptions of the gear on the notebook pages is a nice touch, as is the split signal routing that can be accomplished with items in the Tools area of your notebook.

The Sounds

The sounds are a mixed bag, but that is to be expected when so many factors intertwine such as lots of effects, near infinite connection options and personal taste. Most of the presets lean toward extreme effects and crunchy distortion, but there are many good clean sounds to choose from as well. Most of the sounds I played with did not have the richness and depth that I get from my PODxt, but I do get the feeling that if one lived with this software long enough, one could find good tone.

The Smells

zoom_86percentSo what’s not to like? In my opinion, enough. The interface is very twiddley. You are constantly scrolling around and selecting from large menus through tiny windows. It feels like looking at the interface through a hole. There will be lots of zooming in and out just to tweak a few virtual knobs on your peddles.

With just four or five effects it is annoying at best. As your setup grows in complexity, all the mousing quickly becomes overly cumbersome. If Zoom was trying to simulate the experience of repeatedly bending over to adjust a real pedal board, they nailed it. Using these unnecessarily restrained view of the gear feel like looking through a narrow slot, like a doorman of a 1920’s speakeasy sliding open a viewing slit to see who Bugsy sent.

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The total package is very cool. The sounds are interesting but even if I could force myself to live with the interface, it is the performance where everything falls apart. This is what reveals the 1.0-ness of the software.

The crazy lag, the CPU hogging and the crackly sound left me cold. The handy CPU guide in the upper left corner of the interface hovered between 70% and 80% at startup. This is before sending any sound through it! My computer performance and screen refresh fell correspondingly. I am not quite sure what this 80% represents since my System Monitor reported Zoom taking up a 35% of system CPU. Either way, it was bogging down the system and produced unusable lag.

The Verdict

I like Zoom. I have always liked their higher end products and I really wanted to like the ZFX. Perhaps if I fiddled with it longer, I could coax more performance out of it. But life is too short to beta test commercial products. I look forward to checking back in a few months in hopes of an improved version 2. Until then, the search goes on for my office guitar system.

 
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