July 23rd, 2010 by Mike Fulton
Posted in Apple, Tech

While it’s possible that next year will be even bigger, this seems to be the year of the eBook.  There were a plethora of new eBook readers announced at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, and a bunch more have been announced since then.  There’s not really a lot of variation among the readers themselves, but the competition is going to help drive down prices to the point where the cost of the hardware is no longer the biggest factor in a buyer’s decision making process.

Perhaps an even bigger reason to call this the year of the eBook is that virtually all of the main retail channels for book sales are now supporting eBooks in a big way.  Amazon and Barnes & Noble both have their own dedicated readers, while Borders has teamed up with several different manufacturers. 

One of the most important developments in this whole situation is the fact that these companies have realized that it’s ultimately the software (that’s the eBooks themselves in this scenario) that brings in the money.  So instead of trying to do everything they can to tie you into a specific piece of hardware, they have gone out of their way to make it as easy as possible to use the software wherever the user wants.  All of the big retailers have all made apps that allow you to read their eBooks on other devices besides the dedicated readers. 

For example, Amazon offers a Kindle application for the iPhone, iPad, and other devices.  Barnes and Noble has a similar reader app for Nook-compatible eBooks, as does Borders.  While each of these vendors have encoded their eBooks with their own flavor of DRM (Digital Rights Management), they’ve gone a long way to allow users to read their eBooks anywhere they want.

In particular, owners of Apple’s new iPad device are in eBook Heaven, with the ability to read Amazon’s Kindle eBooks, Barnes & Noble NOOK eBooks, Apple’s own iBooks, Border’s eBooks, and more.  Not to mention the wide variety of dedicated magazine applications that offer up concurrent E-releases of current magazines.

Leading The Pack: Amazon Kindle

Just over two years ago, Amazon debuted the first version of their Kindle eBook reader.  This wasn’t the first handheld eBook reader on the market, but it offered several innovations over previous portable eBook readers.  However, it ultimately wasn’t the hardware that was the real big deal.  The real paradigm shift came on the software side of things.  Previously, most eBook systems offered mainly a variety of reference titles and “classic” novels that didn’t have to be licensed because they were old enough to be in the public domain.  However, Amazon was able to leverage their position as one of the world’s preeminent book sellers to broker a wide variety of content deals with publishers.  As a result, from day 1 they were ready to offer a huge library of current titles in just about every genre, including many titles from the current bestseller’s lists.

More than anything, the Kindle represented the first time an eBook reader was capable of offering a reasonable selection of books that people actually wanted to read.  With all due respect to the classics, most people are looking for the next release in the Twilight series, not Treasure IslandAnd what’s more, bestselling titles were offered at paperback prices while the physical version was still available only in hardcover, giving avid readers a chance to recoup some of the Kindle’s price.

I looked upon the Kindle with great interest when it first came out, but several factors prevented me from buying one right away.  Price was an issue, of course.  But the biggest factor was the fact that Amazon was an online-only retailer.  The actual experience of reading on the Kindle was the most important part of this whole equation, and there was no way to try it before buying!  I had to know how the device was going to feel in my hands, how the screen was going to look, and most importantly, how the experience of reading books on Kindle would compare to reading paper books. 

Yes, there were other eBook readers available at retail that I could go check out in person.  But at the time, they all used a regular LCD instead of the Kindle’s “e-ink” display, which was purported to be much more clear and readable.

I wanted to believe in the basic idea of eBooks, but wasn’t sure if the Kindle was where I needed it to be, or if I needed to wait another generation or two.

While I was debating my purchase, Amazon released the next-generation Kindle 2.  The hardware interface was a bit more streamlined, and the operation was a little faster, but mainly it was not all that much different from the original machine.  So I was still unsure.

Here Comes Nook

As it turns out, the thing that finally got me to buy a Kindle was the introduction of the Nook from Barnes & Noble.  Other than having a secondary screen where some of your user interface choices are displayed, the Nook is very close to being essentially the same hardware as the Kindle 2.  Both units were about the same size and weight, and had the same size screen.  And ultimately, the software isn’t that much different either.  Not in the broad strokes, anyway. 

However, there’s one important difference with the Nook.  While the Kindle was sold online only (at the time), the Nook was going to be available in each store of the massive B&N chain.  If not anything else, this meant I’d have a chance for a hands-on experience before laying down any cash.  Looking at the Nook would answer a lot of questions about the Kindle. 

Unfortunately, when B&N put these huge “Nook COMING SOON” displays into the stores, they didn’t actually include an operational Nook in the equation.  At least not at first.  But then in mid-December while picking up a stack of new magazines, I noticed a line of people at the Customer Service desk.  They were all waiting for a chance to try out the fully operational Nook that was now on display.  So I got in line and had a look myself.

The Nook turned out to be a very nice device in most respects.  The main screen was very readable, and the secondary color touchscreen also looked pretty good.  However, while the hardware looked good, there were several things about the software that ended up pushing me towards the Kindle. 

First, the Nook’s user interface seemed a bit awkward and inconsistent.  The design seemed like it didn’t really quite know how to make the most of a touch-screen system.  The screen real estate was under-utilized.   Last, the system seemed slow to respond to my input, and also seemed to buffer the input.  So I’d press something on the menu, wait a bit while nothing happened, then I’d press again, and the system would eventually end up processing both times I’d hit the screen.  Ultimately, I learned to be more methodical.  I’d tap the screen, wait for it to finish, then tap again as needed.  That worked better, but underscored the slow response time.

I was last in line to look at the demo unit, so I had a good 10-15 minutes to try things.  Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that the Nook would probably be a really nice machine some day, after a couple of software upgrades.

My Kindle 

At this point, I didn’t know for sure if the Kindle’s software would be any better than the Nook, but I hadn’t really heard anything too bad in any of the reviews I’d seen, and at least my concerns about the hardware had been put to rest.  So I decided to take the plunge and ordered the Kindle 2 a few days after checking out the Nook.  It arrived a few days before last Christmas.  

I decided that the only really fair test of this new device would be for me to go cold turkey with regards to paper books.  At least for fiction, since I’d already determined that things like computer books didn’t work on this smaller screen size.  So I put aside the stack of paperbacks awaiting my attention and bought several new titles on the Kindle.

The Screen

One of the reasons I waited to buy the Kindle was that I was concerned about the size of the screen.  I wasn’t really worried about the sharpness of the text, because I knew that the screen resolution was about 4x as many pixels per square inch as a typical computer monitor.  But I was afraid I would find the screen size to be too small.  For a long time, I thought I’d only be happy with the larger Kindle DX, with its 50% larger screen.   But the higher price of the DX was just a bit too much for me to jump into without having had a chance for a hands-on demo.

When I got the chance to try out the Nook, which has the same size screen as the regular Kindle, I decided the screen size would not be a major issue.  Actually,  for reading fiction, the screen size of the Nook and Kindle is just about perfect.  At the smallest text size, the screen is quite readable, and holds about 95% as much text as a page in a typical paperback book.  And it is just small enough to fit into my pocket.

However, for non-fiction, especially things like computer books, I definitely wish the screen was bigger.  As a general rule, any non-text content seems a bit too small on the regular Kindle.  The same is true for many non-standard bits of text, like source code listings in a computer book.  This also applies to many documents stored in the Adobe PDF format, since the current version of the Kindle software offers no capability to zoom and pan around the page.

The main issue that I have with the screen is that I wish it had greater contrast.  Instead of a true black text on white paper look, you get a dark grey text on a somewhat lighter grey paper.  However, I do have to say that the screen is quite readable and I’ve never noticed any particular eye strain when reading, even after an hour or two.

Battery Life

The main variable with battery life depends mostly on how much you use the 3G radio.  The main reason to use 3G is so that you can sync your reading progress with other Kindle software/hardware, and for when you want to do shopping/browsing from the device itself.  For general reading, you can turn off the 3G radio to conserve battery power.

My experience is that with the radio on, from a full charge you can expect the battery to last a good 5 days or more.  It charges via USB with the included cable in a couple of hours, so as long as you pay at least a little attention to keeping the device charged, it should rarely be a problem.

Given how good the battery life is, it’s a shame they didn’t put a big solar cell on the back… you’d never have to plug it in then!

The User Interface

The hardware side of the Kindle’s user interface is just about perfect for me.  The layout and operation of the various buttons is just fine, with one exception.  The left side of the screen includes buttons for “Next Page” and Prev. Page”.  The right side has a button for “Next Page” but no “Prev. Page” button.  We do get a “back” button which SOMETIMES does the same thing, but not always.  I think we’d be better off with symetrical buttons for next/previous.

The Kindle’s software user interface is a mixed bag.  Operating the menus is mostly easy and intuitive.  But I felt like they took the easy way out with the main listing of books.  Everything is shown in one long alphabetically-sorted list.  You have a couple of different sorting options and some very basic filtering, but it really is the bare minimum.  As long as you’ve only got a small amount of content, it’s not too bad, but as the list grows to several pages, I find myself wanting more options for organizing everything.

We should be able to assign each book to a category or attach keywords, and then define viewing filters based on whatever boolean combination of categories or keywords you want.  If I want the main listing to show only books tagged with “SCIFI” or only books tagged with both “SCIFI” and “STARTREK” I should be able to do that.  Furthermore, I should be able to define and save different filter sets so that I can switch back and forth quickly.

Book Shopping

Shopping for books on the device itself is something of a mixed bag.  Overall, if you’re looking for something specific, finding it is fairly simple.  However, if you’re wanting to browse around without a specific title in mind, then to be honest you’re better off using your computer and web browser.

Oh, there is a built-in web browser, so technically you could browse the Amazon website that way from the device itself, however, I had mixed results using it, and Amazon refers to it as “beta” so for now I would not consider that a mainstream solution.

One nice feature of the Kindle setup is the ability to download samples of books so that you can read a chapter or two before buying.  This only works when browsing the Amazon website, however — you cannot download a sample from within the store browser on the Kindle device itself.  Otherwise, this is a great feature.  The only real downside here is that when you’re done reading a sample and decide to buy the book so you can continue reading, the price of the book is not shown.  You have to exit the sample and do a fresh search to get the price.  Personally, I would have made sure that the price was shown prominently EVERYWHERE the user has the option to buy the book, but apparently the Kindle’s designers either disagree or they managed to overlook this idea.

In Conclusion

The whole eBook thing still has some rough corners but it’s off to a good start.  I would say that the biggest problem right now is the fact that there is a lot of content that isn’t available in eBook format yet.  There are many reasons for this, such as the fact that there are still a number of publishers who haven’t gotten on board with the idea of eBooks in general.  And even with the publishers that ARE offering eBooks, there’s a bunch that still haven’t wrapped their brain around the idea that eBooks don’t really follow the traditional publishing business model. 

The other big problem has to do with pricing.  I don’t mind paying $9.99 for a brand new release that’s otherwise only in hardcover, but asking me to pay $7.99 for an eBook when the paperback edition is the same price is just wrong.  Especially when it’s some title that’s been out in paperback for years and years.

It’s not the huge kind of wrong that prevents me from buying ANYTHING, but I have to say I’d buy a crapload more older titles if the prices made more sense.  But I’ll get into that in another article, another day.

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November 18th, 2009 by Mike Fulton

The new Fuji Real 3D W1 digital camera is generally available only in Japan so far, but one of them recently made its way into my hands and I’ve had a few weeks to play around with it.   Perhaps the first thing I must tell you is that I’ve not seen an English-language version of the user’s manual, so it’s entirely possible that I may be wrong about certain things regarding the camera’s operation.  However, the user interface menus are in English, and I’ve found much information from Fuji online.

At first glance, if you don’t look too carefully, the W1 looks like any number of other point and shoot digital cameras, albeit somewhat more bulky than most recent models.  But if you look a bit more closely, you’ll notice the “3D” logos here and there on the case.  And when you slide down the front cover, you’ll reveal not one but two separate lenses, and it finally sinks in that the W1 is a 3D-stereo camera!

The camera’s two lenses are 77mm apart, or approximately the same distance as a human adult’s eyes.  Coupled to each lens is a 10mp digital CCD image sensor, giving each 3D image a total of 20 megapixels.  However, for comparison purposes, I’m going to be treating it like a 10mp camera since that’s what you’d get in regular 2D mode.

Controls

The back of the camera features a fairly large 2.8″ LCD display, but it’s not just any LCD.  This is actually a 3D display that provides you with a fairly good idea of how the 3D image will look.  On either side of the LCD is a vertical row of buttons that allow you to bring up the various menus and move through them.

The camera’s user interface, to be perfectly honest, seems rather dated.  My sister had a Fuji digital camera 7-8 years ago and it doesn’t seem like this camera was much different as far as the UI goes.  And to be honest, I thought that her camera’s UI was kind of clunky even then.

Perhaps the main problem is that there are certain things in the UI that are buried a few levels down that really need to be available at the top-most level if they’re to do the user any good.  One example is setting manual exposure control.  More on that later.

Exposure Control

The camera supports ISO settings from 100 to 1600 in 1-stop increments, and you can either set it manually or have the camera set it automatically for each shot.  I’ve used it mostly at the automatic setting and from what I’ve seen, the camera does a fairly good job at selecting what speed to use.

The first real gripe with this camera is the level of difficulty involved in controlling your exposure settings.  There is a manual exposure mode, but you have to go through several menus to set the shutter speed and the lens aperture.  It’s OK for making manual exposures when you’ve got plenty of time, but not so much in other situations where speed is a factor.

Another issue is that the lens only has 3 aperture settings.  They vary depending on where you have the lens zoomed to, but at the wide range they are f/3.7, f/5.0, and f/8.0.  For maximum telephoto the range is f/4.2, f/5.6, and f/9.0.  It’s rather an odd selection.  The first two choices are only 2/3 stop apart, and the last two are about 1-1/2 stops apart.  I can understand why f/8 might be the smallest aperture on a camera with a small image sensor and short focal length lenses, but why not give us standard 1/2 or 1/3 stop increments on the aperture choices?

The situation is better with shutter speed control, but oddly the range varies depending on the selected aperture.  On manual control, the low-end of the range always starts at 1/2 second.  On automatic, the low-end can be as much as 4 seconds, but it’s not entirely clear about what circumstances are required.  At f/8, you can go as high as 1/1000.  At f/5, you can go as high as 1/640.  And at f/3.7 you can go to 1/500.  In all cases, the speed is adjustable  in 1/3 stop increments.

Electronic Flash

The W1’s built-in electronic flash is fairly small, and placed directly in between the two lenses, making red-eye a virtual certainty in many low-light situations.  Fortunately, like many small cameras these days, there is a red-eye reduction mode where the flash will flicker several times immediately before the picture is taken.  This causes the irises in your subject’s eyes to stop down, reducing the possibility of red-eye.

One thing I liked is that because the camera doesn’t use a focal-plane shutter, there is no restriction on flash sync and shutter speed combinations.  You can use the flash at any desired shutter speed.

My general impression is that the built-in flash is a bit underpowered.  I didn’t really have a problem with range, but when taking several shots in a row, even with several seconds between each shot, there were many occasions where the flash didn’t fire because it hadn’t yet recycled since the previous shot.

The built-in flash isn’t ultimately that much different from those found on most other point and shoot cameras.  But many other cameras at the W1’s price point include some option for using external flash, and the W1 does not.  You can use the built-in flash to trigger an optical slave connected to an external flash, but that’s about it.  This is a serious shortcoming for me.  The camera is big enough that a hot shoe on top would have worked, and an external PC flash connection would have been nice as well.

The Lens

Uh, make that “lenses” I guess.  The two matched lenses provide 3x zoom capability.  Fuji claims that it’s the equivalent of a 35mm camera’s 35-105 zoom lens, but frankly it didn’t seem that wide at the low-end.  It seemed more like a just slightly wider than “normal” lens field of view, rather than being truly wide-angle.  At the high end it’s a moderate telephoto.

The lenses are adequate if not spectacular, but it’s a shame that they don’t go wider at the low-end of the zoom range.  Why don’t camera manufacturers seem to want to give us wide-angle lenses on these point and shoot models? Whenever I’m taking pix with these cameras, I’m always backing away from the subject to get everything in the picture.  And that places a bigger strain on the built-in flash, and it also increases the chances of getting red-eye.  Why don’t they realize that these small cameras are often used to shoot groups of several people from just a few feet away?  On this camera, as well as 3 other P&S digital cameras I’ve owned, the “wide angle” end of the zoom was never more than barely wider from what would be considered a “normal” lens.

Video Mode

While waiting for the camera to arrive, I was really looking forward to creating 3D videos.  Unfortunately, I have to say that I’m a bit disappointed with the video capabilities.  You have a choice of 640×480 or 320×240 for either 3D or 2D movies.  Why no high-definition mode?  This omission is a serious shortcoming these days.

Aside from the lack of high-def mode, there are a few other issues.  First, you cannot zoom while recording video.  I cannot even imagine why this restriction is in place.

Otherwise, the main problem is that you have no control over compression settings.  The camera seems to be stuck in a fairly high compression mode.  I don’t see it all the time, but you do sometimes get compression artifacts in the video.

The camera creates standard Windows AVI files for video, using Motion-JPEG compression.  Who uses Motion-JPEG any more?  Even cellphones use H.264 these days, so what’s the deal here, Fuji?  It’s really a shame they didn’t use some variation of MPEG-4 H.264 compression.  That would have provided much better quality video for the same amount of memory card space.

With a 16gb card, the camera tells me that I can shoot for a bit over 15 minutes in 3D/640 mode, and up to about an hour in 2D/320 mode.  The camera can only create files up to 2gb long, which is the nominal maximum size of a file using the FAT32 filesystem.  Some other cameras get around this by simply chaining multiple files together as needed, but Fuji declined to do that here. 

Shooting With It

One of the first things you learn when shooting the W1 is that if you really want the 3D effect to work, there are certain rules you have to follow.  First and foremost is, keep the bottom of the camera parallel to the ground.  If you tilt it more than a few degrees, the image just won’t look right unless you turn your head to match when viewing.  Tilting forward or back is OK, as long as you don’t tilt from left to right.

Of course, “no tilting” means you cannot do anything but  “landscape” mode shots.  No turning the camera 90 degrees for a “portrait” shot.  This can take a little getting used to, and I didn’t always remember this idea when shooting my first few batches of pix.

Other than that, shooting with the W1 isn’t much different than shooting with most other point and shoot cameras.  Oh, you do have twice as much chance to accidentally cover a lens with your finger, but you’ll see that on the viewscreen if you’re paying attention.  This sounds like a joke at first, but it’s not entirely.  For some reason, the two lenses aren’t centered on the front of the camera.  They’re offset to one side, with one lens right up against the edge of the front of the camera.  So in fact, it’s not all that hard to cover up one of the lenses with a finger if you’re holding the camera with both hands.

Viewing Your Images

So how does one view the images created with this camera?  Well, there are several options.  First, it is possible to make 3D lenticular screen prints.  Remember those 3D trading cards you had when you were a kid, the ones with the grooved plastic overlay where the image perspective would change depending on the angle you looked at the card?   Fuji tells us that there are print-making services that can take the W1’s MPO image files and create such prints.  I’ve not done that, but it seems to be something that might be useful occasionally.  It’s significantly more expensive than “standard” prints are, however, so it’s not something you’ll do with every memory card you fill up.

Fuji sells an LCD photo frame that has a 3D LCD screen similar to that on the camera, albeit larger at 8.4″ diagonal measurement.   However, it’s rather pricey at $499.  (Not to mention that Fuji seems to have problems keeping it in stock in their online store.)

Another possibility it to use NVIDIA’s 3D Vision stereo glasses with a compatible monitor and NVIDIA-based video card.  This is how I’ve been viewing my images so far. If you don’t mind wearing the glasses, this will be the best option for many since the image size will be much larger than the photo frame.  Plus, you can get a good 20″ or 22″ monitor and the glasses for around the same price or just a bit more than Fuji’s 3D photo frame.

(Disclosure: I do subcontracting work for NVIDIA and in fact obtained the W1 camera through them.) 

In Conclusion

This camera is a study in contradiction.  On the one hand, the ability to create 3D images is really cool, and with the right subject matter the images are just amazing.  On the other hand, when using the camera, you sometimes get the idea that the designers were so in love with the 3D capabilities that they just plain forgot about making sure that the rest of the camera was just as cool as the 3D stuff.

If the ability to create 3D images is your primary reason for being interested in the W1, then the camera’s shortcomings in other areas are probably something you can live with.  But if you are primarily looking for a good camera first, and think 3D would just be a nice feature to throw into the mix, you may want to wait another generation or two for the 3D capabilities of the W1 to be combined with a better all-around camera.

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