Category Archives: reviews

Logitech HD Pro Webcam C920 review

I recently replaced the webcam I use for video conferences at Mozilla and since I’m going back to my roots a bit with this blog, I thought I’d post a review about it here since that’s what the old me would have done without blinking. ;) I previously owned a Creative Live! Socialize HD 1080p webcam for about 6 months, a full HD capable webcam with supposedly excellent quality. I was using Windows 7 at the time, and the webcam came with an app for changing settings like brightness, white balance, gamma and other stuff. It worked reasonably well, but it always struggled with reproducing natural colors in dim light. No matter how you adjusted the image settings, the camera would render almost black/white or something resembling sepia colors, with lots of grain.

Due to a little bed table accident at a hotel room in Mountain View, I switched from Windows to Mac a couple of months ago (which probably is a story worthy a separate blog post). This is when the limitations of the Creative webcam really started to become unbearable, because now I didn’t have any app to adjust the webcam settings anymore since there is no Mac support. Luckily there was another minor hardware problem with the webcam so I was able to return it to the store for a full refund. So now I was on the hunt for a new webcam again, this time preferably with Mac and Windows support (since I’ll hopefully be able to switch to Windows 8 at some point — I still hate Macs).

C920_CTG_3_610x645I quickly homed in on the Logitech C920 webcam after a recommendation from William Quiviger, but when looking up the specs of it, it turned out that it didn’t have Mac support either. I ended up in countless of angry threads online about the outrageous fact that the C920 didn’t have Mac support when its predecessor C910 had. Well, I ended up getting the C920 anyway because I didn’t like the idea of buying the previous generation, and Logitech’s own support reps on their site even mentioned in a thread that the support in C910 wasn’t that great. And everyone seemed to rave about the picture quality of the C9x0 in general, so I thought I’d take a chance.

And boy did this camera exceed my expectations! Sure, there is no Mac support in that you can’t modify settings like white balance, brightness, saturation, gamma, etc…. but the reality is, you don’t need it. This camera adjust perfectly to any lighting condition! I’ve used this in daylight, during nighttime with an energy light bulb, and even in the darkness with the cold light from my 24″ monitor lighting up my face. Regardless of light source, the camera just adjusts perfectly and renders colors that don’t want me to cover up my face in late night meetings with my colleagues overseas. In comparison, the Creative camera that I owned previously made my face completely blue due to the harsh monitor light.

So, although you can’t modify any settings if you’re on a Mac, I still highly recommend this webcam as it adjusts perfectly and has stunning image quality. I certainly have never used a better webcam. And if you’re running Windows, the webcam is probably an even better choice.

Kindle Paperwhite a step back in many aspects, still desirable

Back in October, I was a proud owner of a Kindle Paperwhite for about two days after a quick decision to return it. Here is my review of it based on our brief acquaintance. Despite this mostly negative review, I’m actually still thinking about buying one. If you own one, I’d love to hear about your experiences so far! Anyway, my feedback in summary:

  • Amazon’s quality control sucks, or the product was rushed to market.
  • There was uneven lighting across the entire screen of my device, but it wasn’t a big deal to me.
  • The claimed 25% contrast increase is simply a lie.
  • PDF support has taken a step back with some complex documents no longer loading.
  • The experimental web browser is harder to scroll with than the Kindle 4.
  • Amazon’s beautiful leather cover is much heavier than expected.

Quality control

I read many of the initial customer reviews on amazon.com before I got my own unit and many of them complained about uneven lighting, especially at the bottom of the screen. When I got my device, I was already prepared for the worst — part of me was even ready to be pleasantly surprised and say “the unevenness wasn’t so bad after all” like some others had written in their reviews on Amazon.

Unfortunately, the latter didn’t happen. I knew I would have to return it the minute I opened the sleek black package. When starting it up for the first time, I immediately noticed a gray little dot in the dark area of the boot-up image. Hoping that it was just dust on the screen, I tried to wipe it off with my finger, but that didn’t work. Then the screen flicked over to white for the introduction pages, and the little dot remained there, now appearing black. After some additional research (including using my Olympus 45mm lens reversed as a loupe), I could confirm that the dot was indeed some e-ink or dust particle that was “stuck” on the screen, underneath the light layer — in fact, it was even visible when the device was turned off. After I had discovered that spot, it didn’t matter that it was smaller than most dust particles. I had seen it and I couldn’t un-see it.

Built-in light

The uneven light shown at the bottom of the screen. (Photo by archie4oz.)

Yes, the lighting was uneven, too. My unit had stronger lighting in the lower-left corner, as well as some blotches with darker colors. The most off-white area was at the bottom where the four led light shines out. Some of that light in the center had a pink/blue hue. Then there were some subtle shadows at the top. Honestly, these color differences ddidn’t bother me much at all — when you pulled the light intensity down, you barely noticed it. And that’s how the screen should be used anyway, otherwise reading on the Paperwhite is as bad for your eyes as reading on a computer screen. Don’t buy the myth that one type of light is worse than the other depending on whether the light shines into your eyes rather than onto a surface and then into your eyes. The reason why your eyes can see things is because light particles (photons) hit the retina in your eyes. It’s the same with the Paperwhite. The trick to avoid fatigue is to keep light at a low setting so that the screen doesn’t shine brighter than the surrounding. This is easy to achieve with the Paperwhite with its many light levels, but, honestly, you can achieve that with virtually any tablet and mobile phone too. If you’re using an Android phone, check out my review of the Screen Filter app to learn how you can achieve incredibly dim brightness when reading with the Kindle app. But anyway, the Paperwhite has an adjustable built-in light that can get incredibly dim, making it suitable for reading in a pitch dark room. But at the bottom of the screen, there is a shadowy area that just doesn’t disappear regardless of the brightness setting.

As a side-note (literally), it’s funny that the margin settings of the Paperwhite don’t allow you to increase the bottom margin, given that the light is the most uneven there. Changing the margin only affects the sides of the screen. You can change to Landscape Mode if you really want to avoid reading on the uneven part of the screen. However, unlike the old Kindle 4, the Paperwhite will change back to Portrait Mode when you go to the Home screen, meaning you have to rotate your device back and forth when switching between books. Annoying. The Kindle 4 kept its rotation setting even on the home screen.

Contrast

About the claimed 25% increase in contrast, I can’t spot an improvement in any lighting environment. You’d think that 25% better contrast would be noticed immediately, but no. Comparing the Kindle 4 and the Paperwhite side by side with both devices turned off, showing the exact same ad cover, the Paperwhite screen is surprisingly slightly darker (the “white” area being more yellow) than the Kindle 4! If you use a strong flashlight on both screens, it’s easy to see the light emission layer on the Paperwhite, which is likely what makes the screen slightly darker/yellow compared to the Kindle 4 screen. Crank up the lighting to 5-6 (still a very low setting), and there is a noticeable increase in brightness. The contrast doesn’t increase though, since the black then becomes a little more blue instead. Maybe if you’re comparing the screens in bright sunlight you can see the improved contrast? But I doubt it.

Paperwhite to the left, Kindle 4 to the right. Real, actually white paper in between.

When it comes to measuring contrast, the only honest way of doing it is by measuring it in equally bright environments. This means that if Amazon is comparing the Paperwhite with the Kindle 4 — one with a built-in light and the other one without it — they have to compare the screens with the built-in light of the Paperwhite turned completely off. Based on what I can see with my own eyes, it seems like they just pulled a false marketing stunt and compared the Kindle 4 with the Paperwhite set to a reasonable brightness setting and placed them both in a dim room. Of course the Paperwhite wins in those circumstances, but that’s cheating.

Resolution & fonts

The increase in resolution is there, however, but I have to say the improvement is barely noticeable. You can definitely see it if you look for it, but when reading a book I never noticed it. I could see it when loading a busy PDF file with charts and tiny text though. Really, the most notable improvement in terms of readability is the new fonts. I loved reading with the Palatino font at the second-lowest size — that felt close to reading a real book. If the Kindle 4 had that font, I think I’d be pretty happy with continuing to read on that device.

PDF support

The PDF support has taken a slight step back. I immediately noticed that one of my 100+ pages PDF wouldn’t load. After trying to load it, the Paperwhite shows an error message saying “Unable to Open Item” because “The title is too large for available memory.” The K4 opens the PDF just fine. Also, flicking pages is surprisingly faster on the K4 when reading a PDF. Was the CPU downgraded or is it underclocked in the Paperwhite? The slowness when paging PDFs seems to be related to the complexity of the PDF. Try e.g. downloading the Olympus E-M5 user manual PDF and you’ll see what I mean. When reading normal e-books, page flicking is perhaps slightly faster on the Paperwhite compared to K4, but both devices are pretty darn fast.

Touch screen & experimental browser

I love the touch screen and don’t mind the lack of page turn buttons on the Paperwhite. However, this has unfortunately rendered the experimental web browser a bit useless, since there is no way to easily scroll down page by page anymore. Instead, you have to swipe like you would on your mobile device — but that’s not fun on an e-ink screen when a swipe only scrolls a few lines after about a second of blinking and thinking. Even if you switch to the (otherwise) very useful Article Mode, you can’t easily scroll down a full page with a single tap. The tap zones apparently only work in books. What a shame on an otherwise excellent (for being on e-ink) web browser. Of course, actually typing on the Paperwhite is a thousand times better than the Kindle 4 since that device lacks a keyboard. But actually reading a bookmarked web page is much more convenient on the Kindle 4.

Leather cover

Lastly, I also ordered the Paperwhite Leather Cover with my Kindle to complete the experience, and because I need some sort of protection when I’m traveling. The cover looks good, even though the leather felt a bit cheap and thin. The magnet with its auto-on feature makes it very convenient to use though. However, it was much heavier than I expected. With the Paperwhite in it, it felt disappointingly heavy, probably twice as heavy as my Kindle 4.

Also, the $40 price tag felt like a ripoff for what it was. For that kind of money, I’d rather spend it on a Saddleback Leather gadget sleeve, which has infinitely higher quality leather and a 100 year guarantee. Definitely a better option if you just want a case for protection when traveling or storing it. Or if you want a cheap protection that you keep on the device at all time, I recommend the MoKo Kindle Cover which currently sells for $12.99 (though was just $9.99 when I ordered mine a couple of months ago).

Conclusion

You already know I returned it, but honestly, I could have lived with the uneven lighting, the slight steps back in web browsing and PDF support, and the increase weight of the overall package. Ultimately it was the dead “pixel” that became the showstopper for me because I couldn’t stop looking at it and frankly I expected better quality control than that. Also, I was traveling for work and wouldn’t have time to allow Amazon to send me a replacement unit, so I decided to return the whole package, including the case. Amazon’s customer service was excellent and very understanding. Big thumbs up to hassle-free returns!

But here’s the twist: I still want this device. The main reason why is because I find myself reading mostly in dim environments. I live in Sweden, so it’s basically dark the entire winter (the sun sets at about 3:30pm this week), and I also read the most in bed. And the reason why reading on my Galaxy Note isn’t good enough is that it’s too tempting to switch to another task on that device, like browsing the web, reading my e-mail, or playing a game. I like the idea of having a device dedicated solely to reading, but the Kindle 4 unfortunately isn’t it because of its lack of built-in light.

I’m still monitoring the reviews on Amazon from time to time and it looks like the average score has gone up. Maybe it’s a good sign that they’re getting their quality control issues sorted out. I might order one again the next time I travel to the Bay Area, but I’ll skip the cover this time and buy something else to protect it. If you already own a Paperwhite, I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments section below.

My review of Olympus E-PM1

I recently purchased my E-PM1 as an “upgrade” from my 2-year old Olympus E-P1, which of course is a more high end camera in some respects, but was simply getting a bit old and felt slow to me. I put “upgrade” in quotation marks because the E-PM1 isn’t really meant as an upgrade from the E-P1 because the two cameras target separate customer audiences. But — and I hope my review will be able to demonstrate this — it certainly is possible to take this upgrade path if you’ve used the E-P1, as long as you’re aware of what you’re gaining and losing during the upgrade.

Olympus E-PM1 “Mini” with the new 14-42mm lens.

I’ll focus this review on the differences (good and bad) between the old E-P1 and this new E-PM1:

E-PM1 advantages:

  • Much faster focus algorithms – even with the same lenses, the E-PM1 focuses noticeably faster. With the new lenses, it’s faster than any non-dSLR camera I’ve ever used.
  • Extremely lightweight and small – I think I managed to shave off another 100 grams of total weight in my camera bag with this upgrade! (For our fine Americans, 100 grams is approximately 1/2 cup of sugar, or 3/4 cup of all-purpose flour. I’ll leave the mpg calculation as an exercise for the reader.)
  • Much improved kit zoom in terms of size and focus speed/noise. Although the lens mount is in plastic, it doesn’t seem like there will be any problems with worn out mount connections.
  • Slightly, slightly better high ISO performance, though this is only confirmed by reading professional reviews.
  • Up to 5 fps burst mode – really impressive.
  • Nicer menu interface (though menu layout is mostly unchanged).
  • Comes with a useful snap-on flash that I’ve really missed on the E-P1 at e.g. very dim party nights. Now I just have to remember to bring it along with the camera. :)

E-PM1 disadvantages:

  • I definitely preferred the retro design of the E-P1, but I was happy to give it up in favor of a much more portable package.
  • There is absolutely no grip on the E-PM1, making it a bit hard to hold. You can essentially forget about holding the camera with just one hand.
  • For some reason, Olympus leaves out a basic orientation sensor in their simpler models, which means that if you take photos in portrait mode, you have to manually rotate the photos on your computer. Not a big deal, but I can’t understand why they would take out such a basic feature — there’s not a single mobile camera phone out there that doesn’t include it, so it can hardly be a size (or cost) issue.
  • I really miss at least *one* more programmable Fn button, or at least the freedom to assign *any* feature to the one that exists (the Rec button). For some reason, Olympus decided to omit certain essential features that you can assign, which means that some combinations of direct button access aren’t possible.
  • The video mode is crippled in the sense that it’s no longer possible to re-focus while recording by e.g half pressing the shutter (or assigning the AEL/AFL lock button to focus). It’s possible to program the AEL/AFL function (which can be assigned to the Rec button) to re-focus while in Manual mode when taking photos, but for some reason Olympus forgot to inherit that feature when switching to video mode. So, the only way to re-focus while recording a video is to give the control over entirely to the camera’s hunting focus algorithms by switching over to continuous focus. This is a shame, really, and it makes the video feature much less useful to me.
  • The screen, while higher resolution than on the E-P1, actually ends up being a disappointing experience because of its aspect ratio. This is a widescreen (16:9), while the E-P1 had a lower resolution 4:3 screen. Because both screens are labeled as 3″ sized, the widescreen actually ends up being a lot smaller if you still shoot your photos using the sensor-native 4:3 aspect ratio. (This is the same thing that happened a decade ago when you compared an old 28″ TV with the, then, new 28″ widescreen TVs — the latter ended up being a much smaller screen in most practical purposes.) If would be nice if Olympus gave you the option of only seeing 16:9 cropped version of the view when framing a photo, while still actually recording the full frame (this is admittedly possible if you shoot in RAW, which I never do).

My old retro-looking E-P1 (sold).

All in all, by selling my old E-P1 and (with a little help from Michael Verdi) buying the new E-PM1, I ended up spending an additional ~220 USD, which, all in all, feels like a pretty cheap upgrade. The E-PM1 is better than the old E-P1 in many important respects (to me) such as overall size/weight, autofocus speed, and flash — but it’s admittedly a step back in some others. As an interim upgrade until the “next big thing” comes out, it feels like a good choice to me in the end. But if you own an E-P1/E-P2 and plan to hold on to your next camera upgrade for a long time, I would suggest you wait until sometime like a future E-P4 is announced, which may be a far more significant upgrade with (supposedly) a much improved sensor.