Saturday, July 29, 2006

CoolHints - today for Ricoh, Archos and even Apple!

OK, today I am inaugurating a new feature of this blog - I am calling it CoolHints since it's simply about suggestions for great products that should be done (very soon) by simply changing or adding something very simple to an existing product - but since it is 'directed' to an existing product it's not a generic wish in search of a company but instead a very specific HINT for a specific company - they can take it with no strings attached (at most I would like from time to time to get my hands on the new product for a review) ... or they can spend huge amounts of money on overpaid managers and marketing 'experts' and then just ask why nobody buys their latest products that have failed so pathetic :)

I got the original CoolHint idea when reading some posts on the dpreview Ricoh forum - one of my web friends is now a regular visitor and big R4 fan - and in quite a few threads here, here and here a lot of great photography-related suggestions were made about how Ricoh should improve R4 and the next models - and while I am also a fan I can't stop thinking that I only got the R4 as an 'all time in my pocket camera' and while I would certainly want some (most?) of those suggested photography-related features the one function that might actually dramatically raise Ricoh sales would be a new mode - the R4 has a photo mode, a video mode and a voice memo mode but a GREAT NEW FEATURE (that would actually sell it to many NEW customers) would be a new MP3 PLAYER mode !!!

It makes a lot of sense - the R4 is very small and many of the owners are taking it everywhere and today a 2 GB decent SD card is about 50 US$ so you can EASILY dedicate 1 GB from it to your favorite MP3 (or OGG) songs or audio books, you can attach the case to your belt and just listen to them when you have nothing better to do !!! And in the first version Ricoh should TOTALLY forget about DRM models - just support MP3, nothing fancy, don't "overdo it" (but USB2 high speed is needed; also use decent headphones and a standard connector). Obviously such a mode is only usable on very, very small cameras and if the R5 will not have it I can bet that the next generation Panasonic FX (or Casio) will have it and steal Ricoh sales! (actually I believe that I have already seen a Benq with something like that - but the size was too big and the photo part was awful). Also recording to WAV files (in voice-memo mode on the R4) is sooo last century - why not recording to a more decent format ?

The second CoolHint in this post is also related to MP3 players and goes to Archos - almost two years ago they had a major hit with their Gmini XS200 - a 20 GB HDD-based MP3 player that was then extended to XS202 - a 20 GB MP3 player with better battery life, and then XS202S - a 20 GB MP3 player about 2 mm thinner - can you see a pattern here ? :)

Now, two years ago 20 GB was HUGE (at that time the size was the same as the iPod mini - which only had 4-5 GB, and HALF the size/weight of the 20 GB normal iPod) - but today that is nothing to write home about - so my very strong suggestion to the nice people from Archos is to have a look on the net - Seagate, Toshiba and their old-time partner Hitachi have ALL launched (or at least announced) single-platter 1.8'' disks using the new "perpendicular recording" technology with AT LEAST 40 GB in capacity (I believe Seagate is saying something about 60 GB, and all have models with 80 GB or more in two-platters configurations).

So now is the moment for a new Gmini XS240 (or even XS260/280 if you go for the 60/80 GB model) - since it will be a "drop-in extension" of the old model it will need NO NEW research or technology - AND SHOULD BE DONE BEFORE OCTOBER !!! (only if you want to keep any market away from Apple and soon Microsoft, if you don't and some moron upper manager believes that only the AV series can save you then you should just tell that to your investors!) A new color screen might also be a good idea but is not a must and should actually be avoided if it will not be perfectly visible in both low-light and strong direct sun or if it will delay the product!

The final CoolHint goes to Apple, is also about a MP3 player and I even had another post on this matter here - the entire idea is that everybody thinks it will be cool so why does it take so long to make an all-screen iPod ?

My only extra suggestion is that iTunes could still be the default option but just for a change make it an USB standard mass storage device on which people can just copy a bunch of MP3 files - Apple is maybe the market leader today but that is changing much faster than people might think so now it might be a good time to actually LISTEN to your customers ... I can even remember a time when Apple was the market leader in personal computers and today some people are 'proud' with a market increase from 3.3% to 3.4% :)

Friday, July 28, 2006

Teach your old XP some Vista-like tricks :)

OK, Vista might need a new powerful (and probably expensive) computer and on top of that is always late, so for the moment why not getting 90% of the security improvements on your old computer running your old Windows XP ? Unfortunately those "tricks" are only helping on the security part (you will not get the 3D eye-candy from Vista), are providing most benefits for people running with administrative rights with Windows on NTFS partitions and also will not work in Windows 2000 - but if you fit the above conditions (most XP instalations do) the programs described below WILL WORK NOW, ON YOUR EXISTING SYSTEM !!! (with only minimal changes in your existing workflow).

The BIG IDEA is that the vast majority of today programs-related security problems (that excludes social engineering in which the user is dumb enough to provide himself the means to be hacked) are coming from your browser or similar internet-related programs running in interactive mode and the implementation of all the real threats requires writing some code/files on your disk (running as a user that also has administrative rights) - and the first SOLUTION to that is coming from Microsoft itself !!!

DropMyRights is a small program written by Michael Howard and published on the MSDN Security Developer Center that can solve all the problems above but requires a little tweaking - that I consider very simple, limited and worthwhile ! All you need to do is to download and install DropMyRights from the link above and then create new shortcuts (or edit existing ones; and the MSDN article is even having screenshots of that) so that you will run your browser(s) (Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, Opera, whatever else), your email program(s) (Outlook/Outlook Express, etc.) and your messengers (Yahoo Messenger, MSN/Windows Messengers, Google Talk, AOL IM, GAIM, etc.) with non-admin rights !!! Also keep in mind that you should run using DropMyRights any new and unknown program from the net and you might even run MS Office programs like that (especially when opening some totally unknown document with internet jokes and so on).

There are two main things to remember - some programs might handle multiple instances in a rather unusual way and starting a second non-admin instance when already having one instance running as admin might not work as expectd; ALSO remember that running as a non-admin will not let you save files in other places than MyDocuments and will not let you install (or sometimes run) ActiveX stuff - installing new stuff will not work (in messengers too) and obviously you can't do Windows Update like that :)

This is probably the best approach for experienced users that can easily analyze when some action involves certain risks (and will not forget to run their browsers from the non-admin link), but there are some other solutions for less technical people - probably the next best thing is a small program called RunAsAdmin - from here, here or download from SourceForge ! While the main idea of the protection is pretty much the same as in DropMyRights (which was probably the original inspiration, see here) the implementation is now a little on the reverse side - you just run ALL programs as non-admin by default and just have a very quick/simple way to start programs that require admin rights - that approach might be slightly safer and will work better for less experienced users but care must be taken since unusual things might happen when complex programs are not quite non-admin-friendly !!!

Obviously Windows XP does already provide the precise same approach taken to the extreme with Fast User Switching (not available in all configurations) - you just keep two sessions running - one for the admin stuff and one for everything else, and then with WIN+L fast-switch from one to another - you might loose some minor things like copy + paste from one to another, but is probably the safest one "out of the box"! And if you only have Windows 2000 using separate users is probably the only safe approach for the moment - but on 2000 you don't get the fast user switching so things are rather ugly :(

So now you have it - security tricks without buying anything - hardware or software :)

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

More and more people switching ... can Apple see the trend ?

Well, Apple managed to sell more notebooks than in previous quarters - which is not such a great achievement since for the last 1-2 years Apple notebooks were quite pathetic (and so were the sales), 'culminating' with the end of 2005 when everybody knew the PowerPC Apple route was a dead end - so the only reason why somebody would buy an iBook or PowerBook was to just have a relict of some old times :)

Far more interesting is the "switching trend" - my feeling is that most of the buying was done by die-hard MacZealots or eventually newcomers dumb enough or rich enough to buy for the feel-good sentiment of being different / special - the same way some people feel special for buying a 5000$ Rolex "since their time is invaluable" ... but obviously forgetting that a 75$ solar GShock will be 100 times more accurate than the "Rolex Superlative Chronometer", last longer and survive far tougher conditions :)

Anyway, in spite of the huge effort Apple was doing to encourage switching platforms the most interesting (and important) defections were NOT towards OSX but instead the other way around - this year probably the first of the major ones was Mark Pilgrim, then Cory Doctorow and so far the latest seems to be Bryan O'Bryan - and the most interesting part is that following the links will provide some clues on the reasons behind those dramatic changes for people that in the past were so major disciples of the Apple monopoly !

It is not without merit to note that ALL those top-line defections were from OSX towards Linux - which is a very clear sign that the most important thing for those (rather experienced) people was now the OPENNESS (or lack thereof) of the platform (and of their own personal data) - just another confirmation that Apple would have been a far worse monopolist than M$ if they haven't failed so pathetic :) Next to that there were also the problems with the zealots and generally the fact that the entire platform is to be entirely controlled (especially any form of profits) by just one player - Apple itself!

Apple might still have a shot with their media monopoly - but that chance is getting smaller and smaller and my own feeling is that Apple is going the same route as Sony - more and more failures and a final survival based only on a very small group of rich zealots milked for their money in exchange for the pathetic "feeling different" reward ...

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Top-cool MP3 players and more ...

Today it seems fashionable to make lists of best or worst products (for 2006, really, when did this year end ???) and so on, so why not a list of the best MP3 players a non-fanboy can get for their real value and features ?! (at the middle of 2006 - give or take a few weeks).

For a MP3 player SIZE MATTERS - so instead of mixing all MP3 players together I will eventually name a top dog in each size-based category, eventually with some 'also running' mentions and some quick reasons behind each choice - and at the very end there will be a few words on why the new M$ Zune might not change things so much ...

So let's get started - the very first category is USB-stick-size MP3 players - the iPod Shuffle was always a very bad choice in that category (big price for the memory provided, no screen, equalizer or anything else) yet somehow only recently we have finally seen some valuable contenders - and the winner is ... the Samsung YP-U2 - it is just the ultimate memory stick that has them all !!! (with the right firmware tweaks - shame on Samsung for not providing everything by default! also the availability of the 1 and 2 GB models worldwide leaves a lot to desire!). There are many other MP3 players of the same size but too often the designers leave out the USB direct connector so we will not even mention those ...

A second category is that of very small flash-based players - in this category the USB connector is no longer required and the screen is very important but the size and weight is essential - this category was mostly initiated by the iPod Nano but (as with all Apple products) after the initial start they just could not provide enough value for money - so the absolute winner here (so far) is the SanDisk Sansa e2xx series - better than the competition in almost every single aspect of a real-world MP3 player ! There were also a number of alternatives from lesser or better known names but while Apple is very happy generating an industry of expensive cases and protectors for their products they would rather force you to buy a new iPod every year or so instead of providing a simple replacement battery !!!

Those two categories pretty much close the flash-memory-based choices available in 2006 (the rest of the year will at most see some 8 GB models launched), so the remaining MP3 players are hard-disk based; it is however not fair to place all them together so we'll have to create at least 3 extra categories to correctly cover the desires and needs of most users.

Initially I was thinking that a separate category for players based on 1'' or smaller disk-drives will not be needed since the competition from flash-based players is just too strong - but currently you can get a Creative Zen Micro or one Archos 1xx series for at least 30-40% less money than a flash player of the same capacity - so for certain users those might be perfectly valid choices! (just be careful not to drop them too often).

Then we have a category of small (yet with decent storage) but mostly music-oriented players - even today my very first choice would go to Archos 2xx (20 GB so far but a 40 GB version at the end of the year might not be impossible) since it is so small yet so perfect for somebody that just wants music! If you would like more you might also take a look at some other (seriously bigger and more cluttered) alternatives - in order the Creative Zen Vision M or even the fifth generation ipod (you might want the older 4th generation if you only have firewire).

And we are now to the final category - where small size only means that you want something much smaller than a notebook and eventually with better battery life :) Again the winners are some not-so-well-known models - the Archos AV 500 , the Cowon A2 and eventually the Neuros 442 - all have large screens, multimedia and USB-on-the-go capabilities (with a special mention for iAudio X5 - smaller screen but apparently better USB-to-camera connectivity; too bad none of those has RAW picture capability since it will certainly be a huge hit for many pro photographers - especially the 100 GB Archos version!).

A lot of noise was done recently by the "Microsoft iPod killer" - I was looking at that as the last hope for breaking the Apple monopoly but it seems that more likely people will be seriously disappointed - apparently Microsoft was designing the new features in order to please the music industry - while some hopes remain (and I'll have to wait for the real thing to emerge) I am afraid that so far I was never impressed with a product that places some (more or less hidden) interests before what the consumer wants :(

Friday, July 21, 2006

Start selling your Apple stocks :)

In case you missed it - the latest financial results from Apple were published in the last days - and after the initial 'media frenzy' settled a little the 'second look picture' is not so good - it seems that 2006 is indeed the year when the iPod dies :) OK, I used that line since it's catchy - the truth is that iPod will not die anytime soon but it will (soon) have the same fate as the Mac - it will become statistically irrelevant !

In itself that is not so surprising and initially many analysts were happy with the Apple growth from the notebook market - that one is however very misleading since it might very well be a 'one time hit' (I know that 'one hit wonder' sounds better but the only wonder on the MacBookPro is how much heat can it generate on your lap with all that inflated price) - the rise in sales was compared with previous quarters that were quite bad and IMHO it's only a direct result of sales to the 'traditional MacFans' - once that 'resource' is depleted sales will dramatically fall (most likely after the next semester when 'back to school' then 'end of year' sales will keep things at a decent level, but after that things might not be very nice).

There are a few things that might also help a little - iPods with bigger drives, maybe even the elusive 'full screen iPod', maybe even the 10.5 OSX upgrade - but nonetheless the trend is quite clear now - downwards ...

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Small cool news ... even if some of them might look bad :)

Today Panasonic is trying to prove me wrong in my megapixel prediction - they have just launched FZ50, LX2, FX50, FX07 and FX03 - all basically upgrading with more megapixels some corresponding previous models - but the trick is that actually the images just have a large amount of in-camera noise reduction and I expect that the in-depth reviews that will soon surface to just show that more is not always much better ... That being said FX50/FX07 pair (the difference seems to be 99.99% just the LCD size) looks like a decent upgrade for FX01 and for people that can afford it the new LX2 (probably together with the almost identical but even more expensive model that will probably come under the Leica name) might be a good camera to carry inside your pocket - but most existing LX1 owners (and also some Ricoh R4 owners :) ) will not feel ANY pressure at all to upgrade!

It is however fair to also say that even if the megapixel benefits will be probably invisible over older models correctly processed with a good noise-reduction program, the ordinary customer (on his first digital camera or upgrading his older 2-3 megapixel camera) will still get a decent deal - since 99% of the users will never care about any digital postprocessing, so for them the in-camera noise reduction will just be a large bonus!!!

Since we are on photography here are two other very nice Ricoh R3/R4 links that I might have missed with my original R4 post - a Ricoh Caplio R3 review with a LOT of valuable information and hints (and the site has many other interesting pages) and a second Ricoh Caplio R3 review ! (R3 is pretty much an R4 with an older sensor, LCD and firmware - but the tricks on those pages are also very valuable on the R4 - Ricoh cameras seem to reward users that are not afraid to learn a little). And here is another interesting page - it is called 'Enough already with the megapixels' :)

And back to the world of computers - in a previous post I was suggesting it might be a wise move for Microsoft "to use the huge pile of MS money and buy a few small companies with 'power user toys' that should be added as optional features in the higher-end versions of Vista" - probably BillG is not reading my ramblings but I am still happy that Microsoft has just acquired one of my favorite small software companies - Winternals/Sysinternals - well done Mark and Bryce !!!

And since this post was so much about newer photo stuff not being so much better than the older things I will end with some words on how some of the new stuff that looks terribly wrong is also not so bad after all - if you take a look at the link you will see a rather interesting article by George Munday decrying the direction taken by the latest business models in professional photography - but while I understand the pressure on the author I certainly can't agree with his conclusion that the business model is deeply flawed - much cheaper content is simply the natural evolution that we see today in ALL aspects of life (including hardware, software, music, film and so on) and content creators of all kinds will just simply have to learn how to live with that !!!

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Is the future of digital photography (in part) already here ?

Just a short time ago I was rambling about some of the things that I would like to see in future digital cameras - and somehow the future is now coming much, much faster than expected :) The bad news are that no new or amazing non-Bayer sensor was launched (but at least for the moment I can still hope), however the good news are that what I was calling 'cumulative exposure mode' / 'multi exposure mode' is already (partially) here !

The technology is now coming from Casio (another small player - remember how I was saying that most revolutionary ideas will not come from the major players?) and instead of using it for a much higher dynamic of the image they use it for something a lot different - it is now called "anti-shake" (you can see some pictures here) and in theory the image taken with a short exposure is used as a non-shaken base on which color is added from the long exposure image - the results are not so great (and IMHO are vastly inferior to both sensor-based and lens-based image stabilization) - and the camera itself is not so amazing after all - both here and here you can see that my prediction on the megapixel race on small sensors is for the moment quite true :(

But the most important part of the story is HOW EASY that idea is to implement - I believe that in the most basic form a simple FIRMWARE UPDATE can add a 'dual exposure mode' to most of the decent digital cameras from the last year or so by simply taking two images as fast as possible one after another - the first with a (very?) short exposure time and the second with a (much?) longer one - and then just provide a PC-based program to 'join' them together for either better 'sharpness' (as Casio is trying to do in-camera) or just for a much better dynamic range !!! And yes, many cameras already have an "auto-bracketing mode" but only a few have a usable bracketing range and probably no camera is optimized for the minimum time between shots - and with only 2 images a smart firmware can take the second shot only 1-10 ms after the first even without any extra special RAM while with the standard 3 shots you either need a LOT of fast RAM or the delay will be in the 200-500 ms interval (or worse - meaning 'as fast as you can push again') as it is with most cameras :(

And speaking of "High Dynamic Range" imaging or HDR - there are at least two links that I should have added to my previous post but I will correct that mistake now - one is to the High dynamic range imaging page from Wikipedia (and contains lots of links itself) and the other is a page called The Future of Digital Imaging - High Dynamic Range Photography - and on that page you can see what amazing results a "tone mapping filter" might be able to do with the right input (maybe even the two images from the firmware-only suggestion from my previous paragraph!)

So in conclusion - even if digital cameras are becoming almost disposable there are still hopes for interesting things to be seen in the near future :) Maybe even a 'cumulative exposure mode' in which the first image is read from the sensor without 'erasing' it and the longer exposure is started 'on top' of the initial image - but probably not possible to be done on 'normal' sensors :(