Thursday, April 17, 2014

Sony Xperia Z2 vs. HTC One M8: My Choice

OK, so I have had hands-on with 2 of the most desired phones this month. And I have been swapping between them for an immersive experience. Which one would I choose as my next smartphone?

Frankly, it is a tough decision, because both models have their strengths.

Let's first talk about Sony Xperia Z2:

  • It's a better imaging smartphone. I prefer my images to contain more details, more pixels, so that I can crop and edit. 20.7MP might be an overkill, but 4MP is just too low for any manipulation. Z2 definitely has a better camera quality than HTC One M8, putting the gimmick effects aside. The latest DxO report also shows that Z2 delivers the highest score for a camera in a smartphone.
  • It is waterproof, so I can bring it along with me for water activities. Its power button is conveniently located. It has a dedicated camera button to initiate camera functions conveniently.
  • But its camera start-up is slower, the camera menu designs aren't intuitive, the phone rear plate is glass which increases the risk of damage, the ports are covered so it would be a hassle to charge. It also heats up faster, to the extent of auto-shutting down the camera.

What about the HTC One M8?

  • It is a more comfortable phone to use. Its width is smaller for better one-hand use. The sides are curved to fit in your hands.
  • The camera response is faster, which leads you to capture images faster. The camera features are fun and helps you create unique effects and content. The menu lets me adjust shooting controls faster.
  • The overall UX design is better than Sony. Take the dropdown notification, its quick settings list of icons contain useful information and additional feature to directly access the function for further setting changes. For instance, WiFi indicator shows the access point, and you can click the context menu to go directly to the WiFi menu for setting changes.
  • It's also clearly a faster phone because of a higher processor speed.
  • The front stereo speakers are awesome.
  • But the camera pixel resolution is the lowest, and despite the claims about larger pixel lower noise, the imaging technology has evolved so much that there are little difference. Personally, I would accept noise over lower resolution.

My Choice: HTC One M8

It's a decision with mixed feelings. On one hand, I love all the functionality and design. On the other hand, the camera has not enough pixels for zooming into details.

But when I ask myself which smartphone would be more interesting to show off, my answer became clear. Yes, Sony Xperia Z2 may have been lab-tested to be the best smartphone camera, but that's probably the only feature to brag about. The AR camera mode is also interesting to demo, though the real-life application is limited. As for 4K video, it's a feature that not many consumers would use, especially when you require a UHD display to see the advantage.

The HTC One M8 is certainly a better smartphone for the social network friendly person who likes to capture photos and to share online. With the unique features like UFocus, Dimension Plus, and Video Highlights, it's easy to impress. Although the camera pixel is just 4MP, the resolution is optimised to produce in-phone content without impacting the smartphone performance.

Therefore, I feel the HTC One M8 is a better camera overall. If you must have a good camera with high pixels for your smartphone, then your choice should be Sony Xperia Z2.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Portrait with Zoe Raymond on Samsung NX30

Zoe Raymond has been one of the first few models I've worked with and has been pivotal in honing my photographic style. It's been a privilege to document her growing years. Together, we have created many firsts in our own respective shooting milestones.

For a long while we had been busy with our own priorities, but we would keep in touch and "see" each other's online selfies, so it was quite refreshing to finally catch up with her in person last week. I reckon it must had been more than 2 years since we last met, as I noted she was still wearing braces back then.

After lunch we headed for a brief shoot with the lightweight Samsung NX30 mirrorless camera with 85mm f1.4 portrait lens, instead of my usual DSLR baggage. It was, for both of us, a rare shoot in recent memory. Personally, I have not been doing shoots, choosing to work on family-engaging activities like product reviews. And for her, she does mostly blog shop shoots and has not done any private theme shoots for a long time.

For our shoot, I left much of the poses and expression to her, with specific directions on the mood and feel. When I saw how the photos turned out, how she executed her expressions towards the camera, I saw the same her 6 years ago. The same way she poses, her use of facial muscles, her body language, except it's a lot more polished, more decisive.

Shooting with the Samsung NX30 has its advantages and challenges. On one hand, the total package is so light and the image quality 85mm f1.4 portrait lens is stunning. Editing the SRW (Samsung RAW) image is no different from my Nikon D600. The wide dynamic range, faithful colour rendition, low image noise, gives me flexibility in manipulating the output. I also love how the NX30 keeps up with my shoot while saving images in RAW+S.Fine JPEG. On the other hand, using the EVF under broad daylight did not offer the same shooting comfort as the DSLR. Through the EVF, it is harder to see if exact focus is attained, especially when handling large-aperture lenses like 85mm f1.4. The shutter blackout is also longer than my Nikon DSLR.

Samsung NX20, NX30 and Nikon D600.
But in the end the image quality is just brilliant and it totally doesn't break my back carrying photographic equipment for a lunch shoot in between work. More importantly, I do not have an equivalent lens for my Nikon.

Read her blog post about the shoot here - with more photos!

Sunday, April 06, 2014

HTC One M8 Review: First Impressions

The HTC One M8 has been a subject of numerous news leaks leading to the official announcement. It's definitely a good thing for HTC that the industry is so keen on the new HTC One even before its official launch. But that is hardly a surprise since the HTC One (M7) won numerous awards for its design and features, and people want to know if HTC can better the predecessor.

Now that the new HTC One M8 is unveiled, you can see that HTC retained the award-winning design and made some noteworthy improvements on the imaging department.

Specs (HTC One M8)

  • 5-inch Full HD 1080x1920 pixels
  • 2.5GHz quad-core Qualcomm Spapdragon 801
  • 2GHz RAM, 16/32GB user memory
  • 4MP UltraPixel F2.0 28mm Duo camera, BSI 1/3" sensor size
  • 5MP BSI sensor 88-degree front camera
  • 1080pFull HD video recording on both front and rear cameras
  • 2600mAh non-removable battery
  • 146.36 x 70.6 x 9.35mm
  • 160g
  • Android Kit Kat 4.4.2
  • LTE, WiFi a/b/g/n/ac, Bluetooth 4.0 with aptX, DLNA, NFC, aGPS, GLONASS, MHL, USB-OTG, Infrared remote
  • Uses nano SIM card
  • Supports microSD card up to 128GB

Design: Metal Unibody

The HTC One M8 is built within a single piece of smoothen metal which curves around the sides. It is certainly the smartphone that offers the best feel on your hand. I like the smooth finish which feels less cold to the touch and appears more durable compared to the matt finish on the older HTC One. I also like how HTC made the top side in black. Visually, it hides the IR port and the power button which can be placed to the side, as compared to the older HTC One where the power button in the middle looks just like the infrared port.

HTC has reverted to using the standard Android 3-button via on-screen. Personally, I would prefer fixed off-screen buttons, like HTC Butterfly S, so that I could access the buttons anytime on any app.

Duo Camera

The camera is another talking point for this new smartphone. It's the first smartphone with 2 cameras, allowing users to create unique post-processing effects:

UFocus - change the focus point after the shot. Actually, despite what is being claimed about able to refocus your photo after the shot, what the duo camera's second camera does is to capture depth information so that the post-processing engine can identify the focal plane to apply topical blurring and create the perception of an increase depth of field. You still need to make sure the main camera captures the image in correct focus.

In the photo below, you can see that in the original shot the cup is out of focus, but after applying UFocus, the cup remains out-of-focus while the background is blurred to give the impression of a re-focus.

This feature works best if your image is generally in good focus from the foreground to the background. Then when applying UFocus, it will further isolate the focal plane to create the DSLR-like depth of field.

Foregrounder - create special effect on a specific focal point. Again, using the depth information captured from the second camera, the app will isolate the focal plane so that the subject will not have the special effect treatment.

Seasons - apply special effects to simulate falling leaves from various seasons. You can save the effect as a video or a photo.

Dimension Plus - you can tilt the phone to change the perspective of photos you took, then re-save the photo. This is a rather entertaining feature, creating the perception of 3D cleverly achieved by applying pixel shift rather than true 3D captured with 2 equal lenses.

When shooting close-up images or when shooting with flash, or if the second camera is blocked, the above effects are disabled as they rely on the duo camera capture to assess the image for effects processing.

Camera Operation and Quality

On the camera operation, HTC One M8 now lets you easily change the ISO, EV and WB settings by pressing the menu button. EV can also be adjusted at 0.5 levels up to 2. There is even a full manual mode to let you adjust shutter and focal distance. There is very minimal shutter lag because the camera pre-focuses while you compose the scene, and does not re-focus once you press the shutter.

As for the camera quality, HTC One M8 images are tweaked to look good on the phone. There is adequate saturation and sharpness, and images tend to be on the warm side. Low light images are also not over-exposed to give the right look. Naturally, being a 4MP camera, you will not get to zoom in to details. If you use the images mostly for social sharing and not for printing or re-cropping, the HTC One M8 is good enough.

To help you capture the right white balance, HTC One M8 has 2 LED flash with different colour tones, white and warm. It certainly makes the image less cold like the usual LED flash effect.

Front Camera Selfie

The HTC One M8 front camera has the highest pixel resolution on a smartphone. At 5MP, it is even higher than the rear camera. Selfies owners will adore the HTC One M8. Note that in order to capture full 5MP, set the crop to Regular 4:3. The default Wide 16:9 crop captures only 3.7MP.

New Zoe

The idea of Zoe is to capture both burst images and video at the same time. On the HTC One M8, the feature is enhanced: instead of a fixed 3-second video duration, I can choose to record a longer video. However, like the previous Zoe, only 20 shots from the first 3 seconds are saved as 4MP still images.

Video Highlight

Earlier HTC models already have this time-saving video editing tool. If you are not familiar, the Video Highlight feature helps user to create 30-second video clip complete with thematic visual effects that is synchronised with the preset theme styles and music. What's fascinating is that the Video Highlight will use all the available Duo camera effects, like Dimension Plus, UFocus, Foregrounder, as well as Zoe footages, to create an amazing and impressive video clip.

HTC is also enhancing the Zoe as a cloud-based service so that you can share the videos and photos easier. Currently, the service is unavailable although the app is already pre-installed. While it seems redundant to install an app that doesn't yet work, this move actually makes sure the user gets the Zoe app updates the moment it is launched on Google Play Store. This is better than asking users to manually download the app.

Motion Launch

HTC One M8 has come up with its own version of LG "Knock On", allowing the user to wake up the phone and either unlock or to access to widgets or start the voice dialing.

Sadly, I am not able to disable some of the motion launch features as I would wish, or customise the functions I want to activate. But I'm sure this is something future software updates can be addressed.

For users who often hold their phone and doodle while the screen is off, this feature may get on their nerves since they would inadvertently wake up the phone when brushing their finger on the screen.

Battery Life and Extreme Power Saving Mode

The HTC One M8 has a 2600mAh battery and running on a top-speed 2.5GHz quad-core processor. Under normal to heavy use, I barely lasted the entire day, compared to my HTC Butterfly S with 3200mAh (your usages may vary, but I'm a heavy user). Fortunately, there are ways to improve battery performance by activating some of the battery saving features. During critical times, you may also turn on Extreme Power Saving Mode, which allows only essential apps to run. Once activated, you will be greeted with a 6-icon home screen with no access to other apps, menus or dropdown.

HTC BoomSound

Recent HTC owners will be familiar that their speakers are front-facing which delivers audio in your face, and with better stereo output. HTC One M8 BoomSound pushes the volume further so that you can really hear what you needed in noisy environment. While other smartphones may begin to introduce front-facing stereo speakers, the HTC BoomSound speakers delivers impressive audio quality from low-mid to the highs. HTC still leads in this aspect.

HTC BlinkFeed

HTC continues to enhance the BlinkFeed. It is the first smartphone company to actually embed the Flipboad-like social feed into the home screen, and now others have followed suit. The improved BlinkFeed lets you add more sources so that you do not need to use other apps to cater to your news needs. The bottom app tray also remains in view so that you can quickly start the apps. If you still prefer your own news feed app, BlinkFeed can be easily removed from home screen.

Transfer Data from Another Phone

HTC has provided several functions to make it easy for users of other smartphone brands to migrate their apps and data to HTC smartphones. This is something worth highlighting, because many people do face problems moving from one phone to another due to the apps and data.

HTC has also provided useful pop-up dialog boxes to help new users get familiarise with some features that may not be obvious. Experienced users may turn this off under Settings -> About -> Help.


  • The major weakness of HTC One M8 is that the rear duo camera does not have enough resolution for pixel-peepers to zoom in. So if you are capturing a scene with details like text or crowd (think IT trade shows), zooming in will not expose any extra details. This won't be an issue if you only use images for online posting or if you shoot primarily portraits. I have survived well on my 4MP HTC Butterfly S. 
  • Motion Launch gestures are fixed, and with one too many that may cause me to trigger the function unintentionally. I would prefer to be able to pick the gestures I want in order to minimise accidental gesture triggers. As I find the Motion Launch gestures too sensitive, I turned it off, which is a pity because I really like the idea of waking up the phone by tapping the screen.
  • Battery size of 2600mAh may not be sufficient for heavy users who want to maximise the powerful processor throughout the day. It's probably a conscious decision of HTC not to bloat the phone, but time will tell if the battery-processor proportion bodes well for the masses. It is certainly not enough for me, which means I will be charging the HTC One M8 during the day to keep the battery sufficient, in case I am shooting massive photos through the night or want to create Video Highlights.


The way I see it, content creation continues to be the driving force behind the HTC One M8 unique feature enhancements. By introducing a second camera to capture depth information, HTC One M8 is able to understand still images better to generate image perspectives in various dimensions, and use the data to auto-create awesome video highlights. In order for the phone to process the voluminous image files, pixel count has to be kept low.

Even if you are not fond of sharing videos and photos, HTC One M8 is an outstandingly designed smartphone that feels luxurious, classy and slim. With such quality creation, it is amazing that HTC One M8 remains competitively priced below S$1000.

Not What You Are Looking For?

If you needed a smartphone with high pixel-count camera, how about the Sony Xperia Z2 which I just reviewed? Or wait up for the Samsung Galaxy S5. Do follow me at my Twitter and Instagram for updates and photos.

Friday, April 04, 2014

Sony Xperia Z2 Review: First Impressions

2014 is off to a great start for smartphone market in Singapore, with lots of hype going to new product launches like Sony Xperia Z2, HTC One M8, LG G Pro2, Samsung Galaxy S5, and even non-mainstream brands like Xiaomi, Oppo. Each of these smartphones have some pretty unique features never seen before in previous models, and this is certainly something I look forward to review and share with you.

I generally do not blog about products until I actually experience it. So, among the above products, the first smartphone to land on my hands is the Sony Xperia Z2.

The Sony Xperia Z2 is one of the many hotly anticipated smartphones in 2014. It remains as the only smartphone that is safely waterproof, a large high-pixel camera sensor, and now enhanced with a more impressive display quality and battery life.

Specs (D6503)

  • 2.3 GHz Qualcomm MSM8974AB Quad-core
  • 3GB RAM, 16GB Internal Memory
  • MicroSD card slot
  • 5.2" Full HD TRILUMINOS 1080x1920
  • 20.7MP 1/2.3" F2.0 rear camera with flash, 2.2MP front camera, 4K movie recording
  • 3200mAh non-removable battery
  • 146.8 x 73.3 x 8.2 mm
  • 163g
  • Android Jellybean 4.4
  • LTE, Bluetooth 4.0, NFC, GPS, DLNA, USB-OTG, MHL,
  • Uses MicroSIM card
  • Provided earphones: MH410c headset


Following the same design blueprint as earlier Xperia Z models, the Z2 has a glass panel on both front and back. Just like Z1, Sony included a dedicated camera button, which is a clear indication that Sony wants the Z2 to be a serious imaging device.

The Z2 look-and-feel is largely similar to previous Xperia models. There are of course overall enhancements, like the notification panel with quick settings icons, additional Sony-branded apps, customisations under settings.

Improved Display

The Xperia Z2 now matches the display quality of the other high-end brands. The reds are slightly richer yet do not look over-saturated.

Water Proof and Dust Proof

Sony Xperia Z series remain the best-looking and slimmest waterproof camera in the market. Yes, you can bring the Xperia Z2 with you for a swim or a bath.

Camera and Video Capability

The 20.7 megapixel camera remains one the highest pixel count on an Android device. And now with Xperia Z2, you can capture 4K videos. As for shooting effects, other than the usual SCENE modes, there are a handful of fun modes like AR effect, Time-shift, Background Defocus. You can also install third party camera apps to work directly with apps like Cam Scanner, Vine.

The image capture is not instantaneous because the camera re-focuses every time you press the shutter. But even under low light, the camera manages to do focus quite fast.

Using the Xperia Z2 to shoot at extreme low light situations, I find that Sony did extremely well in removing image noise, both front and rear cameras. It's the same magic that they did on their mirrorless NEX and the RX compact series. The bright F2.0 aperture helps in letting in more light at faster shutter, and the larger 1/2.3" compact camera-sized sensor contributes to reducing low-light noise. While the images appear smudged when zoomed in, you can't expect DSLR quality from a smartphone. I am certainly impressed that the Xperia Z2 camera holds that well in low light scenes.

To achieve DSLR-like background blur, you can capture your photos using Background Defocus mode. The camera will take 2 pictures of different focal length, and then applies blur effects to the background. The result is very believable.

Interestingly, the camera is always default to Superior Auto shooting mode, and in this mode, the camera resolution is fixed at 8MP. To shoot at full 20MP, you need to select Manual mode. Don't be misled by the name, for the "manual" mode simply means you can manually adjust some shoot settings like white balance, EV, setting resolution. There is no option to manually adjust aperture or shutter.

Front-facing stereo speakers

The Xperia Z2 speakers now face front so that you can enjoy clearer directional audio. Turning on the audio enhancements will increase the treble clarity. The speakers are so thin, you won't notice the grilles. This again aligns with the Sony Xperia's clean design philosophy.

Small Apps

Like earlier Xperia Z models, small apps are floating window apps activated under the "recent apps" page. This is useful if you want to do a quick check on things, like calculator, calendar, even Gmail. You can download additional apps from the Play Store.

Customise system icons to display in the system bar

Don't you wish you could reduce the number of icons in the system bar? Now you can! Xperia Z2 lets you do that to remove icon clutter. Finally you can choose to remove the persistent alarm or bluetooth icons.

Tap to wake up screen

This feature has got to be the must-have for every Android device this season, all thanks to LG. I am glad Sony has included this useful feature which you can enable under the display setting.

Simple Home launcher

If you prefer a simplified home launcher for the elderly or the young, the Xperia Z2 includes a second home launcher with large icons and fonts.

Battery Life

With a 3200mAh battery plus a myraid of battery saving modes (STAMINA, Low-battery modes, limiting background data) which you can enable, the Xperia Z2 can easily outlast you your busy work day. I am experiencing similar battery life with my HTC Butterfly S.


  • The biggest problem with Xperia Z2 is the heat build-up. The device gets really scorching hot when using processor-intensive apps. Consolation? You can dunk the phone into cold water to cool it down. You could also minimise the heat by activating battery-saving mode so the device does not run too much background tasks.
  • The Xperia Z2 screen seems to be less sensitive to touch compared to competitive models. I find myself missing key taps when I type fast, and often I had to repeat my pull-down action for the notification panel. (Post update 9 Apr 2014: firmware 17.1.A.2.55 appears to have fixed this issue.)
  • Finally, the problem of dust and fingerprint magnet which plagues all previous Xperia Z models remains, but this is easily resolved by applying after-market screen protectors.


I am thoroughly impressed with the camera performance of the Sony Xperia Z2. If you needed a capable camera for low light shots, you will be delighted with the noise level and colour details. The waterproof feature is a unique advantage, allowing you to use it in any wet conditions. The display quality is on-par with the leading smartphone manufacturers, and it has a large battery capacity.

Not What You Are Looking For?

Watch out for my upcoming first-look reviews on HTC One M8 and Samsung Galaxy S5 over the next few days. You may follow me at Twitter and Instagram @musicdiary for more photos and updates.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Bose SIE2 / SIE2i Sport Earphones

The Bose SIE2 and SIE2i sport earphones is one of the few earphones that I find comfortable for sports and just as good for normal music listening. The beauty of Bose SIE2/i StayHear ear tips is that unlike the usual in-ear phones where it relies on vacuum seal to keep the buds stuck to your ear canals, the Bose-design earbuds rest outside the ear with the mould extending into your ear canal to provide sufficient audio performance without causing the usual in-ear discomfort. The SIE2/i earphones stay snug on your ears throughout your workout, and there is no cable rub effect (microphonics).

The SIE2/i comes with several bright colours to suit your preference, and a Reebok fitness armband of matching colour to hold your music device or smartphone. My 5-inch HTC Butterfly S is unable to fit in it though, so the armband could probably fit devices around the size of the 4-inch iPhone. The SIE2/i cable length is only 80cm so that there is little extra cable when using with the armband. The package comes with an extension cable of 53cm length if your music device is carried elsewhere.

The SIE2/i audio quality is bright and clear, the bass is clean and subtle. The SIE2/i does not provide noise isolation, which is a good thing for runners so that they can be aware of the surroundings.

SIE2i is designed specially for iOS devices to support inline music and call controls. It's available in Singapore at the Atlas e-store for S$219. Non-iOS version SIE2 has just an answer/play/pause button and sells for S$179.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Bose QuietComfort 15 Acoustic Noise Cancelling Headphones

After reviewing the spectacular QC20 in-ear phones, I tried the Bose QC15, which is the other headphones with noise cancellation. The QC15 has been around for a couple of years and is highly recommended for noise cancellation situations like public commute and airplane.

I find the QC20 offers better noise cancellation and has the added benefit of using the earphones even without noise cancellation turned on. There is also a button to let in 100% ambient sound.

While the QC15 lacks these advanced features, it does have an outstanding battery life powered by a single AAA battery, which means there is no excuse to have a battery situation. It is also more comfortable to use for consumers who did not like in-ear phones (although the Bose earbuds wears like normal earphones but fits like in-ear).

Sound-wise, the QC15 has a brighter sound characteristics with clean subtle bass, while the QC20 is warmer.

Between the two, I would prefer the QC20. The QC15 retails for S$529 at the Atlas e-store Singapore.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

ASUS Transformer Book Trio: Android and Windows in One

Should your next laptop be Windows or Android? ASUS Transformer Book Trio has both!

After hearing so much about this techno-marvel, I finally received a review unit from ASUS Singapore to find out how well it works in real life.

2 devices in 1

The Transformer Book Trio is literally 2 devices fused into one. There are 2 sets of dedicated hardware to power up the Windows mode and Android mode, including the processors, Wi-Fi chips, power buttons, data storage, 3.5mm headphone in/mic out jacks, speakers, batteries, USB ports. It even comes with 2 separate chargers, and though you can charge both batteries via the keyboard charging port, do keep watch the respective charge indicators to make sure both batteries are fully charged. The only things they share are the display, the keyboard, and the left ports on the keyboard (phone jack and USB port).

Here's how the Transformer Book Trio works: both Windows and Android modes are run independently using their dedicated processors and hardware. You can choose to turn on one mode while leaving the other mode powered down. Each mode is aware of the other mode's wake status. Assuming both modes are powered up, pressing a keyboard button allows you to toggle between 2 modes instantly. When you undock the tablet from the keyboard, the tablet screen changes to the tablet mode, while the Windows mode remains active. When you dock back the tablet, you can switch back the screen to Windows mode and continue where you left off.

And unlike the Android-only ASUS Transformer devices, the keyboard portion which houses the Windows hardware remains powered up and running even though you undock the tablet. This is essentially the third mode: the ability for the keyboard portion to continue operating in Windows when plugged into an external display via the HDMI or the DisplayPort.

In a typical user scenario, when you are home, you can use the Transformer Book Trio as a Windows desktop (with external display monitor) and Android tablet simultaneously. When you are on the go, you can use the Transformer Book Trio as a laptop, toggling between Windows and Android modes back and forth.

Sounds awesome?


  • Switching between Android and Windows is fuss free, provided the system resources are not busy.
  • The Transformer Book Trio is 11.6-inch, with a larger matching keyboard dock than the usual Android Transformer size, and so provides a more comfortable keyboard experience.
  • The magnetic dock is easier to handle and has a more seamless rear panel, compared to the Android Transformer docks.
  • The product comes with 2 chargers so that both units can be charged concurrently.
  • Battery is able to last about 13 hours if only Android mode is running. When both modes are running, Android mode can last 8 hours while Windows mode can last 5 hours.


  • Switching from Windows to Android could be slow if the system is busy.
  • The Windows mode performs sluggishly despite running i7-4500U, most likely due to the relatively slow HDD instead of SSD.
  • Sharing of files between the 2 modes is not that convenient. It relies on existing Windows file sharing protocol. For instance, in Android mode, to access Windows mode folders, you need to enable the folders to share in your home network which requires login and password to gain access. In Windows mode, accessing your Android folders is via the media transfer protocol (MTP). If you want to share files when the tablet is undocked, both devices must use Wi-Fi hotspot mode which means the devices cannot be connected to your home network to access Internet.
  • The power key on the keyboard is easily mistakenly pressed, sending the Windows to sleep mode. ASUS should put the power button elsewhere instead of part of the keyboard.
  • I don't quite like the positioning of the rear camera. Asus assumes that consumers will only use the rear camera in tablet portrait mode. Imagine when shooting in landscape mode, you have to tell people to look at the camera below your left hand.

Target Market

The way I see it, the Transformer Book Trio caters to the group of consumers who understands the immense benefits of laptop-like Android experience but also need a Windows laptop to do things that current Android can't. This group of consumers would always use their tablets with a Bluetooth keyboard, with a total package weight of about 1kg and a cost of around S$800 (including a pretty book case stand and keyboard). They would also be lugging another separate Windows ultrabook of 1.5kg probably costing another S$1300. The price of this combo comes to over S$2100 and 2.5kg.

Comparatively, Transformer Book Trio weighs 1.7kg and costs S$1998. You can practically use both Android and Windows from a single keyboard and display, so there is no need to set up multiple keyboards and displays on your workspace just to get things done. Plus, it is possible to use both devices at the same time when you connect the keyboard dock to an external monitor.

Visit the microsite for more product information.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Jabra Solemate Max: Wireless Speaker Review

If you have not heard (pun intended), Jabra is the official sound sponsor for Audi Fashion Festival 2014 (happening on 14-18 May) in Singapore. They are showcasing the limited edition Ink Treasure Revo Wireless headphones which are available for hands-on experience from 16 April to 18 May at ION Orchard Atrium. Check out my review on the Revo Wireless headphones here.

Also available during the event are the Jabra Solemate series. I have previously reviewed the Solemate and on this post, I shall be reviewing the newest upsized Solemate Max.

The Spec

- 2x 3/4" silk dome tweeters, 2x 3" mid-woofers, 1x 235x92mm passive radiator
- Frequency response: 120-20,000 Hz
- Weight: 3kg
- Dimension: 302 x 102 x 138mm (LxWxD)
- Dust, shock and splash proof
- Battery up to 14 hours (talk/music)
- Battery charging time: 2.5 hours
- Bluetooth 3.0, AVRCP, headset profile, NFC
- Pair up to 8 devices, with 2 active devices connected at a time
- Supports mobile phone charging via USB cable
- Supports USB audio
- Package contains: speaker, USB cable, 3.5mm audio cable, AC charger, quick start guide

The Design

The Solemate Max follows the same design outlook as the other Solemate series: sturdy metal speaker mesh, a rubberised thick "sole" that lets you place it on any surface without fear of damaging the speaker. The 3.5mm stereo cable tugs snugly underneath for you to use it if you need it. On the side, you will find the power button, the line-in jack, the microUSB port for audio, the standard USB port for charging your smartphone, NFC chip for quick pairing, 2 LED indicators for Bluetooth and battery. A separate DC power plug is located nearby for charging the Solemate Max.

On the top of the speaker, you will find the playback control buttons (play, previous, next) that are not present in other Solemate models, as well as volume controls plus a battery/answer button. You can see from the photo below that the Solemate Max is designed to tilt up at an angle, but it's not very obvious from afar. Unlike the smaller models, the Solemate Max has a thick rubber handle to handle the unit easily.

The Solemate Max claims to be dustproof and splashproof, and unlike the other Solemate models, does not require a soundbag to get the protection.

The Sound

The Solemate Max sound quality is a lot more impressive than its smaller siblings. It delivers louder volume, sounds clearer with mid-high bias. I was expecting the bass to be a lot more impactful, but it didn't happen. So on the whole, the Solemate Max will be able to bring the house down with its clear sound, but will not satisfy the bass lovers.

The App

When playing music through the Jabra Sound App, you can activate Dolby Sound Expander which makes the music output sounds a little more optimised. You can also use the Sound App to play YouTube videos to enjoy the enhanced Dolby sound. If your current music player does not have a built-in equalizer, you can also use this app to tweak the audio. It also have functions to manage the Solemate Max settings, like turning off voice prompts, or changing voice prompts gender.

Another interesting feature on the Jabra Sound App is the Social Jukebox, where your peers can determine the songs to play over the speaker by voting the songs. First, you create a Jukebox playlist (with an option to password protect). Then you create the playlist of songs available in your device. Finally, you share the playlist URL, and the recipients will load the playlist via the browser. The mobile-optimised site lets the user view the playlist by artist, album, genre, songs, and most importantly, "like" the song. The home page will display the top favourites to encourage other users to check them out and add to the vote.

I thought the implementation is very effective through the simple act of sharing the Jukebox playlist over an easily-accessible web link. You can potentially allow anyone with the link to vote and influence the sequence of songs to be played.

Solemate to the Max

Solemate Max makes good use of the size to include additional features like playback controls, NFC pairing, USB charging for smartphones. The sound is also improved to cater to the consumers looking for loud and clear sounds, though the subwoofer effect is still lacking for its size. I like the Social Jukebox feature to allow peers to determine the playlist, and its ease of carrying around thanks to the large handle.

About Jabra Solemate Series

Coming in three sizes, these portable speakers from the Jabra Solemate series make it easy for fashionistas to party it up anytime and anywhere. Not only do their Near-field communication (NFC) and Bluetooth functions make pairing with mobile devices a breeze to do, but these boom boxes can also deliver high quality sound, especially with the Jabra Sound app – which works with the Solemate Max and Solemate. The app enhances your aural experience by adding full Dolby® sound to any music, from playlists to streamed content from YouTube and also allows one to adjust the equalizer to boost bass for dance tunes and treble for live performances. And it gets even better; with a new Social Jukebox feature in the app, party hosts can create playlists and share them with guests through a Facebook events page. Guest can then vote for their favourite songs to be played at the party, and become collaborative DJs for the night!

The Jabra Solemate Max is retailing at $438 and is now available at Apple premium resellers Epicentre, Infinite, iStudio, Nubox; at selected Challenger stores, Gadget World, Tech@Vogue, and all other authorised Jabra resellers.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Samsung NX30 Mirrorless Camera: Review

Long time followers to my blog would know that i have reviewed all the previous Samsung NX cameras since its first NX10 and conducted dozens of Samsung NX workshops covering all their NX models. The last NX camera released by Samsung in Apr 2013, the NX300, was to me, a leap for NX-series mirrorless camera. But Samsung kept NX owners waiting for another year before another pro-grade NX camera is released.

Samsung NX cameras are designed to empower the users with flexible shooting controls, something that every old school photographers would appreciate. I love the number of direct hardware buttons to let me adjust aperture, shutter, ISO, white balance, shooting drive, exposure compensation, and so on. The i-Function lets the user adjust settings by turning the lens ring. The wireless file transfer function works better than other competitors.

Despite the excellent shooting controls, the NX hardware development remain somewhat stagnant over the years. Meanwhile, other manufacturers are already progressing. The Nikon 1 series offer astounding 30fps with continuous auto-focus. The Sony NEX series has the best high-ISO low-noise performance. The Olympus OM-D EM1 comes very close to DSLR shooting experience due to accurately fast AF and short EVF black-out. The Fuji X-series is the favourite for art photographers because of the film-like dynamic range. Each of the brands have a unique feature that attracts a specific target segment.

So, when Samsung finally announces the NX30, I was eager to get my hands on it. I want to find out how much Samsung has improved on their top-end NX model.

For existing NX10/NX11/NX20 users 

Here are a list of features that Samsung has improved upon its flagship line:

  • Design fit for serious shooters. Samsung beefs up the hand grip, provided a taller mode dial for easier handling, a more protruding shutter, a better-contoured bulge at the thumb rest. It is an absolute comfort to hold. There is no need to spend extra cash to buy a separate hand grip like what other manufacturers have done.

NX20, NX30 and Nikon D600

  • The NX30 touch screen experience feels responsive and lag-free. With touch screen, it becomes so much quicker to manage settings, browse images, make on-screen selections, type on the on-screen keyboard.
  • Battery remaining indicator is shown in percentage values. Now I know exactly how much battery remains and plan my charge more effectively.

  • A rather useful notification panel, inspired by Android UI, displays storage and battery level, and allows adjusting of brightness quickly. No longer do you need to navigate into the menu to just adjust the screen temporarily.
  • iFn Plus, a new customised feature for users who want to use iFn button to call other menu functions other than aperture, shutter, ISO, WB. Now I can use the iFn button to adjust quality, set video multi-motion, or disable touch operation quickly.
  • I am able to set minimum shutter speed when using Program or Aperture mode. With this, the NX30 will auto-select the appropriate ISO only within the shutter speed I desire (minimum shutter speed is disabled when ISO is not Auto)
  • I can now disable the Mode Help Guide, so that I can switch modes quicker. Previously, whenever I turn the mode dial, the animated UI appears with help text which may be helpful to beginners but slows down mode changing.
  • You can configure to shoot automatically in defined intervals, activated under "self-timer" shooting mode. After all, interval shooting is a variant of timer shooting.
  • There is an option to disable touch operation, which disables the use of touch screen during normal shooting. Yet the NX30 automatically re-enables touch operation when user presses a button to go into function selection mode. This is a clever design: naturally when you press a button, say ISO, to adjust setting, you would want to use the touch screen.
  • New Smart Modes: Multi Exposure, Smart Jump Shot, adds more creativity options without big effort.
  • RAW processing: when shooting with RAW, the NX30 does not freeze as long compared to the earlier models, as it flushes the buffer faster to allow new RAW shots. However, when buffer is used more than half and you try to playback images or change shoot settings, the screen freezes with "Processing". This behaviour is no different from earlier NX models, except that there are more buffer to prevent this from occurring too often. I find that shooting bursts of 4 RAW+SFine images are fine, but anything more would hit the buffer problem. Using a faster SD card might mitigate this issue.

For readers new to Samsung NX

For others who have never touched a Samsung NX camera before, here's a brief list of the unique features that entice you to try out the NX30:

  • Dedicated buttons for fast shoot controls. Aperture and shutter is easily adjusted using 2 separate wheels. Changing ISO, white balance, AF area, AF type, EV, shooting drive, are done via dedicated buttons and dials.

NX series have similar buttons for ease of upgrade. 

  • iFn. It's a button on the camera lens that lets you access the common shooting controls like aperture, shutter, ISO, EV (exposure value), WB (white balance) and adjust using the lens ring. For intermediate users, the i-Mode lets you adjust the depth and contrast without requiring any technical knowledge.
  • Myraid of creative shooting modes. For non-serious users, you can fall back on the 16 Smart Modes, like landscape, fireworks, portrait, action, panorama. Some modes like portrait will auto-apply skin softener effect.
  • Picture Wizard is a shoot setting that lets you capture images with customised colour tone, saturation, sharpness and contrast, or choose from presets like Vivid, Retro, Classic.
  • 20.3MP APS-C CMOS sensor, delivering higher image details than Micro Four-Thirds and smaller sensor formats.
  • Hybrid AF, combining contrast detect and phase detect AF to achieve faster AF.
  • 1/8000s shutter speed, 9 fps (frames per second) full 20.3MP resolution, or 10/15/30fps at 5MP
  • Unique tiltable EVF lets you shoot at challenging angles. Although the tiltable 3-inch Super AMOLED screen is more flexible, the EVF is better for composing shots with better stability and less distraction.

  • Editing images is easy on the NX30 after you take the shot. From cropping to resizing to adjusting brightness, contrast, colour tones, there is no need to download the images to your PC for simple editing.
  • Able to charge the NX30 with portable battery pack via micro USB. You can even use the camera while charging. The NX30 battery is rated 1410mAh and is not compatible with earlier NX models.
  • Wide range of lenses. Today, there are NX lenses that cover 10mm to 200mm. Apart from the usual 18-55mm kit lens, there are rectilinear fish-eye 10mm, wide-angle prime 16mm, 20mm, 30mm lenses, the ultra wide-angle zoom 12-24mm f4-5.6, the all-in-one zoom 18-200mm f3.5-6.3. There are specialty lenses like macro 60mm f2.8, portrait 85mm f1.4, 2D/3D 45mm. There is even the high-end professional zoom 16-50mm f2-2.8 lens (below).

Huge lens 16-50mm feels at ease with large grip of NX30.

  • Bundled with Adobe Lightroom 5. Samsung bundles Lightroom 5 worth over S$200 to let you enhance your photos easily. I also use Lightroom to edit most of my photos.

A little post processing goes a long way.

Wireless Photo Sharing

Like other Samsung smart cameras with Wi-Fi, you need to install the Samsung Smart Camera app in your smart device (phone, tablet) to do wireless photo transfer to your smart device:

  • MobileLink: selectively transfer images from camera to device. NX30 now lets you transfer to multiple devices at the same time, instead of doing one device at a time.
  • Remote Viewfinder Pro: allows you to control the NX30 with live view from your smart device. NX30 now lets you select PASM shoot mode and adjust shoot parameters (aperture, shutter, EV, WB, AF mode, etc.)

Snapped this image using the Remote Viewfinder. See my finger on the on-screen shutter?

  • Baby Monitor: allows the NX30 to alert you on the smart device when it detects sound.
  • Email and Cloud Sharing: you can send images from NX30 to emails, Facebook, Picasa, YouTube, Dropbox and Flickr. Thanks to touch screen, it is a lot easier to type messages before uploading.

The NX30 has a new and amazingly easy way to transfer images to your NFC-enabled smart devices.

  • AutoShare: basically works like Eye-Fi or Flucard, every photo taken on the NX30 is immediately transferred to the smart device. The session remains connected even when you change shooting modes or playback mode, until you terminate the session manually or switch off the camera. To active AutoShare, just press the dedicated button next to the shutter.
  • Photo Beam: while reviewing photos in playback mode, whenever you find an image that you want, just bring the NFC-enabled smart device (with Samsung Smart Camera app running on background) to the left side of the NX30, and the wireless transfer will be initiated. There is no need to initiate any function on the NX30 - just tap your smart device and the file gets in it!

Image Quality

At low ISO, the NX30 exhibits great image tonality. Since the earlier models, I have had no issues with low ISO and when I shoot in RAW, I get the same image control as my DSLR. It's the high ISO that I was not pleased with earlier models. So here I shall focus on high ISO comparison.

When studying the image in high ISO, the NX30 image processing engine attempts to eliminate ISO noise by applying noise reduction which results in loss of image details. But it is still better than the NX20's chroma noise.

The NX30 also delivers more punchy images. But if you prefer otherwise, you can always use one of the Picture Wizard presets to fine tune.

Also, when images are well-exposed, high ISO shots are very usable.

Due to lack of other camera brand models on hand, I am unable to make further comparisons. But referring to the Nikon 1 AW1 I reviewed earlier this month, the Samsung NX30 is definitely better at high ISO noise and image details.

For Better and For Worse

The NX30 does not resolve every issue that bugs me from the earlier models.

  • Playback files are sorted by descending order, which means the earlier photo is to the right, unlike most cameras that sort playback files in ascending (earlier photo is to the left). This sort order cannot be customised. I also do not like the grouping of burst-shot photos in folders during playback, and would prefer to have an option to disable this.
  • I don't find the new shutter drive dial very useful. Reason is that for some of the shutter drive mode, I would still need to go into the settings to make changes. For instance, there are 3 continuous shoot settings, 4 bracketing options.
  • EVF and touch screen have different colour tones. EVF colour looks neutral but touch screen is more saturated. 
  • Highest auto ISO remains at ISO 3200. I would prefer it goes higher, and hopefully I can get my wish via firmware updates.
  • Battery drains pretty fast, though the percentage indicator is a saving grace which allows me to manage my usage better. Fortunately, I can keep shooting while plugging on external charging source.
  • High ISO image quality is still incomparable to the premium DSLR which I am familiar with.

Competently Professional 

My top favourites of the NX30 has to be the outstanding grip which balances the weight when using heavy lenses, and the Photo Beam feature which allows me to transfer images just by tapping the smart device during photo review. I also find the touch operation highly responsive, smooth and well-thought. The battery percentage indicator is also very much appreciated. The NX30 has certainly made photo sharing a lot more convenient, something which pleasantly surprises me.

Other cameras may appeal to consumers with their retro or modern design, but Samsung NX30 will wow the serious photographer who appreciates the ability to capture and share images with speed and ease. I am elated that Samsung has made the user interface faster to satisfy users like me who are too used to the DSLR way of things.

Is the NX30 too pro or bulky for you? Samsung just announced NX Mini, the slimmest interchangeable lens camera. Check back my blog soon for review.