Category Archives: Product Reviews

I think therefore I buy. Verdict and justification of my purchase

Fuji XP70 Waterproof Camera – refunded

I am going to Hawaii for a family vacation, so I need a waterproof camera to capture the beach moment of Marcus. I already borrowed one from my cousin, but I saw the Fuji XP70 on sales at Bestbuy for $180. Why don’t I give it a try, it’s always handy to have a waterproof camera when you have a little kid.

The spec of this camera is pretty good, on paper at least, waterproof up to 10m, shock proof up to drop of 5m, 16M pixel, 5x optical zoom and image stabilization. Long story short, after I used it for a week in Hawaii, I already refunded it. It is an OK camera and it is waterproof as advertised, but the image quality is worse than my 2 years old Canon S-100. It has much smaller aperture, so shooting under the sun on the beach is fine, but indoor photos all look blurry without using the flash. The most annoying thing about this camera is the long shutter lag, it feels like forever between I press the shutter and the camera actually takes a snapshot. I think it is even slower than my phone (Nexus 5). A camera is pretty useless if you can’t capture the right moment of the little kid.

There are other little things that I don’t like about this camera is the user interface is quite inconvenient. It is understandable that all the body has to be waterproof, so it limited the functions of the button. I am so used to the ring and dial interface of my S-100, I find it very tedious to pressing buttons many times just to navigate through the menu options. I end up putting the camera in auto mode most of the time because it is too much trouble change the setting back and forth. The waterproof button itself is not responsive, sometime I have to press twice to get camera going. I can avoid most of the buttons by staying with auto mode but I just can’t avoid the zoom buttons.

I don’t need two compact DC and I will have to get rid of one of them. I am happy with my old S-100 and it does not worth much selling it second hand anyway. I am not very happy with the XP70, I can refund for full price and I don’t really shoot photos in water that often. It is pretty obvious which camera should I keep. Maybe I will just buy another waterproof camera if I am going to Hawaii again. Alternatively, I can simply borrow the waterproof camera from my friends. It seems I know many friends also have a waterproof camera just sitting around and collecting dust 99% of the time.

ZTE Open Firefox OS

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First thing first, you have to really lower your expectation for not simply saying this phone is crap. It is not on the same league as the iPhone 5S or any flagship Android phone. It’s on the opposite end of the spectrum, a dirt cheap entry level smartphone targeting kids, poor people in developing countries or those who are still using a plain old not-so-smart cell phone.

I got an used ZTE Open from eBay for only $10, the shipping costs more than the phone. For $25 in total I paid for the phone, I think it is a very good deal. I definitely would not pay $70 for a new one. Actually unless you find a cheap unused one, I would not recommend getting the ZTE Open now. Although the ZTE Open is only 1 year old, its hardware spec is worse than my 3 years of first generation Galaxy S. The worst of all is ZTE no longer actively supporting this phone, there is no OS update from ZTE, you will have to build your own OS. The newer model ZTE Open C is a better choice if you want to try out the Firefox OS.

The only reason I get this phone is to try out the Firefox OS, an alternatively OS other than iOS, Android and Windows Phone. The interesting thing about Firefox OS is every apps is implemented in Web technology, there is no native compiled code. The ZTE Open comes with Firefox OS 1.01, and ZTE provides an update to 1.1. That’s the end of the official upgrade path, from this point onward, the user is on his own. I followed the instruction on the internet (xda developers) and upgrade my phone to 1.2 and then 1.3, which is the latest stable-ist release. Upgrading the OS is pretty straight forward, similar to flashing a custom OS into an Android phone.

My first impression of Firefox OS is so-and-so. I am not sure the sluggish response is due to poor software or poor hardware of my phone. All the basic feature is there, making phone calls, surfing the web, GPS, Wi-Fi, maps and it even comes with an app store. You won’t find your popular Android or iPhone apps there yet, but in theory any mobile website can be repackage as an Firefox OS app as long as it can run offline. Firefox OS is still not mature enough for serious use. The basic core features are usable, but it still lacks many user friendly features, such as copy-and-paste. If you just need a phone to make phone calls, check emails and looking something up from the web, it is not a bad choice. The 1.3 build I use has some annoying little bugs, such as no sound on my headphone when listening to FM radio, the keyboard always shows capital letters. I am sure those little bugs will be fixed in future releases.

Mozilla foundation has announced a $25 Firefox OS phone in the WMC this year. With this super low price tag and when the OS is more mature, I can see Firefox OS may get a place in this smartphone war. At least it has better chance to survive than Blackberry OS and Windows Phone.

My ZTE Open is now officially the guest phone in the house with a 7-11 pre-paid SIM card. It’s good to have a spare phone laying around for my parents or anyone visiting Vancouver.

Canon imageFORMULA DR-C125 Document Scanner

I had used many scanners in the past. My first scanner was a flatbed, I rarely use it since it is so inconvenient to use as I can only scan one page at a time. The second scanner was an all-in-one printer that comes with a scanner and a document feeder. The document feeder is handy but the scanning speed is quite slow, so I don’t use it very often too. Finally I got a document scanner, it is not a typical consumer scanner, it’s intended for small business market.

There are not many choices of document scanner out there, pretty much either Canon or Fujitsu. Both of them are equally good, both of them have very similar features and speed. The only reason I buy the Canon DR-C125 is because it is on sales at Amazon. The document feeder can hold 30 pages, it can scan up to 25 pages per minute and most important of all, it scans both sides at the same time. It so fast that it is actually faster than the big chunky photocopier-scanner at my office. The feeder also has a single sheet straight path to scan cards or thick paper. The only draw back of this scanner is it can’t scan books, so I still keep my all-in-one printer around just in case I need to scan a few pages from a book. Another down side of this scanner is the resolution, it only has 600dpi, more than enough when scanning documents, but when scanning photo the resolution is always higher the better.

Since I got this scanner, I start to digitize everything, turning my home into a paperless home. I like receiving paper bills but they take up lots of storage space, scan them. I have many old lecture notes that is probably useless but I don’t want to throw them away just in case I need some reference, scan them. Pat also digitized her sheet music library and get rid of 3 big boxes of paper. Moreover using a tablet to read sheet music is more convenient than carry around a big binder full of sheet music.

Oracle Virtual Box

In the good old days, when you want to play with multiple OS, you have to have multiple computers. I still remember the time I have a Windows machine sitting next to a Linux box. Then a little bit later, multi-boot allows the same computer running different OS. I tried that too, but it ends up I stick with the primary OS most of the time, I rarely boot into the secondary OS. Nowadays, running multiple OS in the same computer is much more convenient with virtual machine (VM). My host OS is Windows 7, and I can run 3 different OS simultaneously under each one’s own Window. It is kind of cool to have Windows 7 (a second copy), Linux (Ubuntu) and Mac OS X running on the same screen.

Virtual Box is a free software from Oracle, which inherited from Sun. It’s a type-2 hypervisor that relies on the host OS for low level functions. It is a bit slower than type-1 bare-metal hypervisor, but it has much better compatibity. I can use the USB and DVD-drive in the virtual machines and I can even create virtual LAN connections among those VMs. 3D graphics is probably the only draw back of type-2 hypervisor. Virtual Box works fine with 2D graphics, the VMs can play HD stream video without any lag. However, VM has limited 3D acceleration function, it has access to the graphics card on the host using DirectX9, good enough to play old games, but it not fast enough for latest games or Photoshop.

Another advantage of using VM is the saving snapshot of the virtual hard disk. Each VM has its own virtual hard drive and I can turn back in time simply by load up a saved snapshot. It is good to try out new or unknown software inside a VM first, so there won’t be any risk of virus or corrupting the Windows registry when uninstall the software. I always keep a copy of freshly installed Windows 7 virtual hard disk image and use it to try out anything new before installing on my host computer. It is also a neat trick to reset the trial period of some free software, especially those software that you only use once in a very long while.

Virtual Box is very easy to use, just follow the on-screen instruction. First you need create a new VM, allocate some memory and CPU cores to the VM, then create a new virtual hard disk, mount the OS installation disk, fire up the VM and install the OS as usual. If you are too lazy to install the OS, you can download pre-installed virtual hard disk image file from the web. My computer has 16GB of RAM, so I allocate maximum 4GB of RAM to each OS and I can have 4 VMs running at the same time without any problem. The OS running in the VM stays idle most of the time, unless you are doing some heavy number crunching tasks in more than 1 VM at the same time, you won’t even notice any performance hit to your host computer.

Virtual Box + Virtual Desktop works really well with each other. I usually put the VM in a virtual desktop and run it in full screen mode. It feels like the OS is running from a native installation instead running inside a VM.

Nexus 5

My old first generation Samsung Galaxy S is at the end of its life, it is so slow that it becomes unusable. I have been waiting for the new Nexus 5 since rumors shows up in the summer. The Nexus 5 exactly fit my need. a no-frill unlock phone at a very reasonable price. The hardware specification of Nexus 5 is comparable to flagship phone from Samsung, HTC or Sony, but it’s almost $200 cheaper. The best of all, I know I will always have the latest Android OS update.

When Google announced Nexus 5 on Halloween, I ordered it once it is available on the Play Store. I believe my order is one of the first shipment. I got my Nexus 5 last Friday. Before I had my new phone, I already read tons of review on the web, so nothing comes up as surprise since I know exactly what to expect. The phone has the fastest CPU in the market, it runs very fast compare to my old Captivate, but I couldn’t tell much speed difference from my Nexus 7.

The battery capacity is not as big as Samsung or HTC, but good enough. On the first day after I got the phone, I unplugged it at 7am and it runs out of juice around 6pm after of a full day almost non-stop use. Today is a normal work day, I left the WiFi and LTE enabled, made a few phone calls, go online a little bit during breaks, and I still 70% of battery at the end of the day. No bad.

The major disadvantage of Nexus 5 is the camera. It is good, but not great. Definitely not as good as other flagship photos. The optical image stabilizer works well when you are taking still photos and try to hold your hand steady, but it not so useful if you are taking action shot. The auto-focus is very slow, can’t really capture my son’s movement fast enough. I read on the web it is a software problem, so hopefully it will be fixed in the next update.

I don’t see any special feature of Android 4.4 KitKat. Google changed the home screen again, and make it fully integrated with Google Now. I can say “OK Google” to the phone under home screen and it will start Google Now automatically, no need to press any button. I think it is more like a gimmick and it only works on English(US), not even English(Canada). Does “OK Google” sounds very different in Canada compare to the States? I really miss the customization enhancement of the Cyanogenmod, I am so used to the short cut icons on the lock screen and configurable docks screen in the launcher. The true gem of Android 4.4 is the ART compiler hidden under developer features, which runs much faster than the Dalvik pre-compiler in other Android. Too bad that it crashes WhatsApp, so I can’t turn it on until WhatsApp fix the problem.

The lack of a SD-card slot is always a sore point in Nexus line of devices. But base on my previous experience with my old Captivate, which has support SD-card, I probably won’t miss it that much given that I ordered the 32GB model. The internal memory is more than enough for photos and mp3. After 3 years of use, I didn’t even fill up the internal 16GB of memory of my old phone. The external SD-card ends up being used as a dump for mp3s that I rarely listen and too lazy to delete. The only scenario I would ever need more storage space is storing movies during flight, but I can always solve the problem by using an OTG-USB SD card reader.

Overall, I am very happy with my new Nexus 5, but it is not a phone for everyone. It lacks the bells and whistles of Samsung or HTC, it is not an exciting phone, it is just a plain work horse phone. It totally does not make sense to get a subsidize Nexus 5 from the carrier and lock yourself into a 2 years contract. The last bit of dilemma of owning a Nexus 5 is about to flash or not to flash, that is the question. Since I am always getting the new OS upgrade, I don’t have a need to flash the phone. On the other hand, I do miss the enhancement of other customer ROM. I guess I just need to find a way to install launcher and lock slider from Cyanogenmod without replacing the OS. I tried install the launcher from CM10.2, which is based on Android 4.3, but it does not work well, it crash when I tried to configure the screen size.  I guess I have to wait until CM11 is released and try again.

Nexus 7 (2013)

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Finally the wait is over, I bought my first tablet. I’ve been waiting for the right one for over a year, I want a tablet with powerful specification and yet at a reasonable price. The iPad is way over my budget, and I don’t like the gimmicky line-up from Samsung. The first Nexus 7 almost meet my requirements, but I want a better display and a more powerful CPU.

The new Nexus 7 is just the right answer. It has higher pixel density than Apple’s retina display, the same resolution as my 24″ monitor. The CPU is top of the line quad core Qualcomm processor, on par with the flag ship smartphones like Galaxy s4 or HTC one. I bought the 16G model since the 32G model is not yet available in Canada, and lack of a micro slot is probably the biggest down side of the nexus 7. I intend to use it mostly at home, where I can stream files directly from my computer, so I am not very concern about the storage size. When I am traveling, I am get an USB cable and use external thumb drive, it is not very elegant but it works fine.

I pre-order my Nexus 7 from Bestbuy.ca and I got my tablet delivered right on July 30th, the first day that the Nexus 7 is on sale. (It already sold out, for now) I ready have an Android phone, so setting up the Nexus 7 is pretty straight forward. Log into my Google account and all my existing apps are downloaded and installed automatically. The tablet is up and running within 10 minutes. It feels just like my old phone, except it runs much smoother and has a bigger screen. I can’t tell anything real different in the new Android 4. , in fact I miss those little handy customization of Cyanogenmod 10.1, such as lock screen shortcuts, scrollable dock bar, etc.

The Nexus 7 lacks the wow factor, when I show it off to my colleagues, their comment is yet another Android tablet. My wife is not impressed by its relatively small size, she thinks only a 10″ iPad is a real tablet. It seems the only person fascinated by the Nexus 7 is baby Marcus, he prefer it over my old Android phone and mom’s iPhone 5, probably just because the Nexus 7 is bigger. I am quite happy with my new tablet, I don’t have to sit in front of the computer to surf the web or watch video. I am actually writing this blog using the tablet lying on the sofa. Typing with the on screen keyboard is not as fast as using a real keyboard, but good enough for light usage.

I am looking for a few accessories for my Nexus 7. First I need case and cover if I want to carry it with me outside of the house. Then I need to get a Bluetooth keyboard, so I can replace my laptop for simple note taking or writing tasks. Last I want to get a USB docking station to charge the tablet on my desk.

Windows MCE Remote + Windows Media Center + Media Browser

I hooked up my old computer to the TV in the living room to watch downloaded movies and TV. For a very long time, I used it like a normal computer with keyboard and mouse. However the typical computer user interface is not designed for a dad holding a baby. I need a more user friendly solution to use the computer on the TV. I bought this generic made-in-China Windows MCE remote on eBay for $12. Any MCE remote properly works or less the same. I like this one because it is cheap and I can control the mouse cursor and buttons through the remote.

The MCE remote works with the Windows Media Center (WMC) comes with Windows 7 installation. It is pretty much a full screen media library browser and multi-media player. WMC on its own is pretty useless other than showing baby photos. With the help of just a few plug-ins and free software, I can turned my download library into something looks like Netflix.

First, I installed K-Lite Codec Pack, both the 32 bit and 64 bit version, since WMC in runs 64 bits. This Codec allow me to play pretty much any media files inside WMC. Then I installed Media Browser, so WMC can display files in my media library. The WMC built-in movie library only recognize Microsoft file formats and ripped DVDs. However, it can only display the filenames and directory by default. It does not know which file is what movie. To add the final touch, I ran Media Scout to set up the metadata for my media files. It pulls the movie title, description, poster and all sorts of information from imdb.

Now I can sit back and relax in the couch, browse my movie library at ease while holding the baby with one hand.

Canon PowerShot S100

My trust old Canon SD-500 is not good enough to take baby photos. I desperately need a new pocket size camera. A large DSLR is not very convenient to carry around while you have to take care of a baby. I have been waiting for the price drop of Canon S100, which was its flag-ship pocket size camera. It has large 2.0 aperture at 2.0, high ISO 16000 and fast focusing and shutter speed, which is important to capture the moment in all lighting conditions.

The new S110 came out and the S100 drops to $330. The S110 is a newer model, but the image capturing hardware is identical to S100, same aperture size, same sensor, same image processor. The only difference is S110 comes with new useless feature such as wi-fi and touch screen and takes out old useless feature in S100 such as GPS.

The initial batch of S100 has lens retraction problem that the lens may stuck in cold weather due to poor QC. The problem is fixed in newer S100, so I am not too worry about this problem. Although it had affected my friend’s S100 and it’s a pretty bad experience.

The control is pretty much the same canon standard camera pocket size controls. It has two extra ring control that makes selection faster. The most important of all is it can take decent picture without using flash in normal indoor lighting condition at night. The fast focus and shutter response time works almost as well as my big DSLR camera. Perfect to capture the interesting moment of the baby. As usual, there are tons of useless capture mode and filters built-in to the camera, like color shift, fish eye effects, winkle to shoot etc. However there is a few features that I actually found useful, such as high dynamic range, auto facial detection. It also support taking HD video, which is good enough to replace a standalone video camera.

In general, the S100 is a very good camera. Highly recommended. S110 is newer and may have more useless features, but it is also $100 more expensive. Although S100 is no longer the flag-ship pocket camera from Canon, but it definitely gives the best value for the money.

Wansview NC541W Wireless IP Camera

I was looking for a baby monitor, but most of full feature baby monitor are quite expensive. Good one with infrared night vision easily costs over $200 and it only comes with one screen, each extra screen costs at least $100.

When I was at the Richmond Night Market the other day, one stall caught my attention. It was selling generic made-in-China wireless IP camera. What a perfect baby monitor, it comes with everything I need. It has infrared night vision, remote control of the camera angle, two way audio and it only costs $80. I am sure I can find it cheaper at eBay, but for that price, why don’t I just give it a try.

It works like charm. The IP camera is very easy to setup, just plug it in, setup the WiFi password and it is good to go. The IP camera comes with software for PC and MAC that support multiple cameras at the same time and recording of the video. For extra screen, the IP camera also function as a mini webserver, so I can log into the IP camera and view the video feed from any computer or smartphone. If I set up the port routing in my modem, I can even see the video when I am away from home.

The performance is better than I had expected. For 320×240 resolution, I get close to 15fps. The frame rate drops down to about 5fps for 640×480 resolution. The frame rate does not drop when I view the video both on my computer and my smart phone at the same time. The audio is clear and the night vision is pretty amazing. For $80, or even cheaper, it beats any baby monitor out there in the market.

Bluetooth mini keyboard

I have a Logitech wireless keyboard for my living room computer that hooks up to my TV. It is working fine for a long time but now I have a small problem. It is too big for me to hold the baby and type at the same time. Moreover, the keyboard is sitting on the coffee table when not used. If I bend over to pick it up with the baby sleeping on me, this motion makes the baby uncomfortable and very often wakes him up. I need a smaller wireless keyboard that is easy to use.

I got this Made in China Bluetooth mini keyboard on eBay fro $15. It is pretty small, smaller than my palm. The keys feel like cheap calculator, but it gets the job done. It is very easy to setup, just plug in the Bluetooth dongle and pair the device. I didn’t test explicitly the range of operation, but it works fine with the distance between the couch and the TV. It uses built-in Li-ion battery that charges via micro USB cable. The battery can last 3-4 hours of non-step use when fully charged. Since I usually only need to type in something quick, the battery can last pretty long if I remember turn off the keyboard after each use.

With this latest addition, now my baby station is fully equipped. It is a rocking recliner chair with very comfortable armrest and built-in footrest. There has a pouch sitting on armrest that enables me to have full control of the TV and the living room computer within arms reach. The pouch houses the TV remote, the cable box remote, a wireless mouse and the Bluetooth mini keyboard. Now I can keep myself entertained even if I have to hold the baby for the whole night.