Gadget / electronics

Comments/reviews etc on gadgets I've been playing with/bought

March 2012 was a jump forward for my photographic gear with the purchase of the new Sony Alpha A77 DSLR (SLT). There are plenty of websites out there that go into great detail about the features of the A77, so I won't go into depth here but to comment on my personal feelings on the camera and settings I use as I figure them out!

Focusing

What better subject to play with a new camera than squirrels at the Sheffield Botanical Gardens? The lively little guys would sometimes prove a test for the focusing of the Sony A100, but not so the the A77 with 16-15mm f2.8 SSM lens attached that came with the camera. That camera/lens combo was locking onto the squirrels with no problem at all. No doubt the plethera of focus points in the Sony A77 helped.

On reviewing the photos from the Alpha A77 however I was a little disappointed to see that the camera seemed to be missing focus, focusing instead of on the squirrels it was focusing in front of them by some way. Having spent so much on a camera + lens this was a big problem, until I found out about the A77's micro adjust feature. This lets you set an offset for each lens you use (up to 30 lenses IIRC) to correct this sort of issue. Having tweaked the micro adjust for the 16-50mm lens, focusing is now spot on.

Because the shots from this first trip were off I've not included any here.

Noise

A lot of criticism is directed at Sony cameras  over apparent image noise. While I can't compare to other brands of cameras like Nikon or Canon as I don't own their cameras, I can say I've been quite impressed with lack of problematic noise. This photo of a ferret I used as a test subject for the camera was shot at ISO 1600.

Ferret, taken with Sony A77

Firmware issues

My camera arrived with the 1.04 firmware onboard. Naturally firmware was low on my list of things to check, so first experience of the Sony A77 was based on 1.04.

At times the A77 felt a little sluggish to respond, noticeably around response time to changing the current shutter or aperture.

I since discovered there was an update available, so as soon as I had time I upgraded the firmware to the new 1.05 firmware.

You have to use Sony's software to load the new firmware into the camera. I'm not sure why Sony decided to do this, with the A100 an update was a simple matter of copying a file to memory card and booting up the camera. Of course the Sony software is Windows only - which causes headaches to folks like me who have opted to use Linux. So I tried doing the upgrade using a Virtual Machine instance of Windows XP, but that kept failing. It seems you have to use Windows running natively on real hardware for the upgrade to work properly.

Frustrating.

Anyway, I got the upgrade done on a borrowed computer and the camera seems a lot more responsive when fiddling with settings.




My settings

The Sony A77 has lots of tweaks and settings to play with to get it to behave just as you want, so I thought I'd better make a note of them in case I lose them for some reason.

Focus settings

The A77 has a fantastic feature called 'focus peaking'. Which, when switched on in manual focus mode, highlights areas of the image that will be in sharp focus, immensely useful when manual focusing or in macro mode. I have this turned up to high and yellow (yes, you can choose the colour!).

Setting the camera focus to DMF mode (camera menu -> 3 -> AF-A setup (DMF)) means when the camera has found focus it switches to manual focus immediately (just for that shot), in combination with focus peaking this means you get a highlight of what will be sharp when using AF. This works nicely when the focus mode knob on the front of the camera is set to 'A'.

Depressing the shutter release half way causes AF to kick in again.

Of course when the subject is moving a lot you may want to tell the camera to keep focusing and don't use DMF, in this situation I switch the focus knob on the front of the A77 to C for continuous focus, which will ignore the DMF setting.

Memory recall

The A77 has 3 user definable memory slots. I have setup 2 of mine, the first for single shot efforts when I have time to compose and think carefully about a shot. The second is for faster action use of the camera. These give me a quick and easy way to setup the camera for certain uses.

MR1 - A priority, single shot drive, local AF point select, ISO 200

MR2 - S priority, flash off, dive more: continuous Hi, auto ISO (limited to 1600), Zone focus mode

Button customising

Amongst the masses of customisation options in the Sony A77 is the option to reassign some of the buttons on the camera to have different uses meaning you can have exactly what you want where in the button layout. The only one I've tweaked is to change the AEL button to toggle spot metering as that seems like a feature I'd like to be able to quickly switch to as conditions change.

Other features/settings I'd need to change in a hurry (Shutter/Apeture/ISO/exp. compensation) all have dedicated controls already.

The Pioneer VSX 922 is a 2012 3D ready 7.1 AV Receiver.

The VSX922 provides a central control for all my devices that were plugged into TV directly, the xbox, DVD player, cable TV box all now plug into the Pioneer rather than the TV.

Why use an AV Receiver? 

Having all my media running through the Pioneer VSX922 means I can make use of features of the receiver for all my inputs. So upscaling of non-HD sources, surround sound, 'shaping' the sound is all handled by the Pioneer unit.

Specification / features

I won't go into great depth about features of the Pioneer VSX922 here, that info is readily available online, but I will mention features that I make use of.

  • Mobile control app
  • Upscaling of content
  • Connectivity
  • Audio profiles

Connectivity

This Pioneer has a plethora of connections including 6 HDMI in so plenty of room for all my HDMI enabled boxes (cable, xbox, DVD).
A front USB socket (nicely hidden when not in use) allows you to connect additional media devices such as USB thumb drives (or iProducts if that's your thing!).

Upscaling

The Pioneer VSX 922 features 1080p upscaling, meaning it can improve the quality of non-HD inputs to make the best use of your shiny hi-definition TV.
I've noticed a significant improvement in image quality since I've been feeding signals to the TV through the VSX922 rather than directly to the TV.

Mobile control app

Using the network connectivity of the Pioneer VSX922, I am able to control the unit using my Android mobile phone. A simple download of the iControlAV2012 mobile app from the Android market place, a couple of clicks and presto - no longer a problem if I can't find the remote control straight away! This relies on the VSX922 and your phone/tablet being connected to your network to function.

There is also a version of the app for iPhone users apparently.

Audio profiles

As you might expect for a unit that is intended to be the centre of your home entertainment setup and controlling the surround sound system, the VSX922 has a series of what I call 'profiles'.
These seem to be comparable to presets on an equaliser.

This AV receiver remembers which profile you last had set on each input, so I can switch my xbox input to always use the 'game' mode and the Cable TV input to always use 'action' or 'entertainment' profiles.

This results in a slightly different sound shape, it may (but I'm not sure) tune the image processing to particular input types. I need to read about that and find out!

Conclusion

I've only had the Pioneer VSX922 for a couple of days, but so far I am suitably impressed. This is the first seperate/'proper' AV receiver I've owned and the difference it makes in quality of sound and image to my previous setup (all in one DVD/Surround sound unit) is very noticable.

The Pioneer VSX922 won countless awards (eg best of 2012 at this level) and seems to be widely regarded as one of the best AV receivers in it's price bracket ("budget" end of AV Receivers at around £250 at time of writing - March 2013).

I certainly have no regrets in splashing the cash on the Pioneer VSX922.

Also consider

The Onkyo TX-NR515 seems to be worth considering at this level too, but in my reading of reviews prior to buying the Pioneer VSX922 the Pioneer came out on top in sound/build quality.
However the Onkyo TX-NR515 has one or 2 more HDMI sockets and can do upscaling to 4k rather than "just" 1080p.

After 5 or 6 years of using an old iPaq 4150 with seperate GPS bluetooth receiver I decided it was time to update. The maps were out of date and taht version of the TomTom software doesn't allow updates, the hardware was flakey and iffy battery in the iPaq meant cables everywhere in the car.

So it's time to upgrade.

Decided on the TomTom XXL largely down to the large screen compared to other devices. I had considered using Google Maps on phone but the screen is tiny in comparison (not to mention at the time of writing Google Nav simply isn't up there with TomTom software).

While the TomTom XXL comes with maps of Europe, I can't see me using them so I shalt comment on that.

TomTom XXL UK & Europe, in use

Used properly for the first time last weekend (17/4/2011) to travel from Sheffield to Walsall. The screen is not only large but lovely and clear. I found the lane guidance feature was fantastic, one of the features that I'd be missing if I relied on Google Navigation on an Android phone. Though no doubt Google will add that in later versions.

There were one or two occasions where the lane guidance didn't seem particularly clear, but not so bad as to send me the wrong way.

GPS lock with the satellites was pretty quick, certainly better than my old iPaq + bluetooth receiver solution.

In the box

The TomTom XXL comes with a mount for the car screen, a charging cable for the car, a USB cable but no mains adaptor. I can't see the lack of mains charger being a problem however.

The Quickport screen mount for the car is nice, but if you have a deep dashboard it can mean the device is out of reach to change anything without having to move/stretch so really should be stopping. A minor irritation that will be sorted if I can find a mount with a neck to hold the TomTom XXL further away from the glass.

At the moment the mount feels a bit fiddly to take on/off the windscreen, but I put this down to the XXL's very large screen rather than the mounting system itself.

TomTom Home

Donwloadable from the TomTom website, this software allows you to update your TomTom device with data such as map corrections and for some devices camera locations etc

There are limitations to this software... after the initial update of maps to your XXL further updates are based on a subscription model. While not extortionate at around £40 a year, it is an irritation.

The main issue I have with the TomTom Home software is the fact it can only run on Windows or Mac operating systems. So despite the fact the device itself runs Linux, you cannot run the TomTom Home software on a Linux system. Whie it will start on WINE, USB support is a sticking point rendering this redundant as a solution.

I'm aware there are a few open source/free projects trying to work on this TomTom Home/Linux issue, but as yet I've not had a chance to try them out.

So, if you run a Linux PC and want a GPS unit, think carefully about how important the device updates are for you and whether you are prepared to run a Windows Virtual Machine (£license) or dual boot just for TomTom.


New phone agogo

Just aquired my new phone (April 2010) a Motorola Dext on Orange.

The Dext is running on a version of the Google Android operating system. As you might expect from Google it is fairly easy to find your way around, not sure it it's as easy as the iPhone devices, but then again I don't wear kid gloves ;)

The Dext has both touch screen input and a small QWERTY keyboard for that tactile feedback you wouldn't get with a touchscreen device.

Rather liking the touchiness of the Dext, but still find the real keyboard a great tool that I'd struggle without. Confirming my fears and reassuring me I was right to choose the Dext over other Android 1.5 handsets.

Contacts

Once I had gone through the required(!) Motoblur registration I setup my Facebook/Twitter/gmail accounts. I was previously syncing my contacts and calendar with Google tools on my Nokia N85 over the air and found it immensely useful, replacing the need to plug in phone to sync to PC.

The process in the Dext is painless (as presumably it would be in other Android devices), just enter account info and off it goes and populates the handset with calendar/contact info.

The number of contacts has soared now though as the Dext brings in contacts from Facebook that may not be in my Google accounts, it even did a half decent job of merging Facebook contacts and matching them up with existing gmail contacts. Smart stuff. I think this is Motorola's Blur application that runs over the top of Android that is actually doing the work here rather than Android itself.

Having so many contacts makes the screen flick/stroke action very powerful for skimming through the extensive list quickly.

Improving battery life of Dext

Out of the box of course the Dext is all singing with lots of stuff turned on. My Dext chomped through the battery in no time. I think the first charge lasted 3-5 hours tops.

So, given the very poor battery life out of the box of the Dext this was to become a priority to sort out. After a couple of days and some experimentation with settings things are improving. It can now manage a full day(!) of light use.

A few things to do:
- turn off GPS/WiFi/Bluetooth, just enable them when required
- optomise the 'off peak hours' setting, I *think* the phone only syncs with external stuff during peak hours so increase off peak to reduce syncing
- for ease of switching extras on/off I installed a few toggle switches on one of the home pages. I am using 'oneclick widget' from the marketplace which seems better behaved than some of the others and provides matching widgets for each toggle
- there is a setting to use/not use data in the background for syncing stuff. I leave this on, but imagine a significant improvement on battery life could be had if you turn off and only sync when access an applciation (eg gmail/twitter)

Recommended Moto Dext applications (apps)

  • ViewRanger - paid for software I had been using previously on Nokia N85. Uses GPS hardware to plot position and routes on Ordinance Survey maps. VERY useful on the hills. Their support is fantastic too!
  • Ringdroid - snip your mp3s to create your own ringtones. Awesome app!
  • Shop List Free, does what says on the tin. By John O'Conner/Jeff Potter
  • Runstar - track your running distances via GPS. Incorporates music player.
  • GTask. A task list that has categories and syncs with Google mail
  • Handcent SMS, a texting client, superior to the built in one
  • Opera mini, web browser
  • Google Maps
  • Pkt Auctions eBay, as the name suggests, a tool for EBay activity
  • Twidroyd - a twitter app with background syncing
  • WiFinder, WiFi network finder
  • WiFi Buddy
  • WiFi analyser, help choose the strongest WiFi signal to connect to
  • oneclick widget, add widgets to home screen to toggle stuff with one screen tap
  • SystemPanel, monitor what the Dext is up to
  • Bluetooth File Transfer
  • File Manager, not sure if that's the name it's listed as in Marketplace
  • PDF Viewer
  • Libra (track your weight loss/gain)
  • MyFitnessPall (comprehensive calorie counting)
  • The out-the-box music player seems to do most of what I need, but I'd like one with which I can specify "only play music from folder xyz" - suggestions anyone?

Motorola support is limited

I discovered quite early in my Dext use that it doesn't seem to support tethering. This it seems is a feature of a later version of Android.

Not to worry, Motorola announced they would be upgrading the Dext to Android 2.x in the future. Motorola have since stated they will NOT in fact be offering that upgrade.

Queue lots of upset Dext users (myself included) complaining to Motorola. Not providing the update is one thing, but to say you will then u-turn on it is what has annoyed so many.


Early 2014 I upgraded my phone to a Sony Xperia Z1. So far I'm quite happy with it.
On their phones Sony provide a music player helpfully called "Music".

The Xperia Z1 comes with Sony's Walkman application installed as its music player.

Shuffle mode on Sony Music player

Initially I couldn't find how to play my music in shuffle mode, so tried a couple of other players.

Google play music did a reasonable job, including a store, but it didn't seem obvious that I could download the tracks I have purchased to store on my PC with the rest of my collection (I have since set its save location to the SD card and tracks can be lifted from there). That put me off.

After trying a couple of other players I ended up trying again to find the Walkman shuffle mode. The first screen I had assumed was just about buying tracks/playing streaming music. I think that's where the confusion came from.

The current (Oct 2014) way I use "shuffe all" is to go to the menu (tap the walkman icon, top left), select library, swipe left/right 'til you get to the 'songs' list.
The Shuffle option's at the top of that page:

Sony Walkman Android app homepageSony Walkman Android app menuSony Walkman Android app Shuffle All


Organising music on Sony Xperia

I cheat.
I don't actually do my music organising on the xperia device but on my PC and sync the playlist files across to the phone.

As of yet (Oct 2015) I've not found a way to play all music in a particular genre, indeed that has been confirmed by the Sony Twitter account.