Hardware lineup for 2014

For the last few years, I’ve written a post about my “hardware lineup” – the tech I use pretty much every day (2011, 2012, and 2013). This year, Dan Delaney reminded me when he borrowed the idea (and I originally stole it from someone else…) so here’s the belated 2014 line-up…

Car: Volkswagen Tiguan 2.0 TDI Sport

I’m still enjoying my current company car even as it approaches its 2 year anniversary and am actively working to keep the mileage down as I may buy it at the end of the lease. Whilst I might be able to get a deal on a second hand Q7 or Toureg, this was specced up the way I wanted it  including a retractable towbar and I’m more than happy. Verdict 8/10. Hold (tied into a 3-year lease).

Phones: Apple iPhone 4S and Samsung Galaxy S3 Mini

Windows Phone 7.8 was a disappointment and the lack of apps for the Windows Phone platform means I’ve gone back to iOS for my personal phone (second-hand from the SmartfoneStore), although I hope to jailbreak it to get some of the features that are missing for me in iOS 7. Meanwhile, my company iPhone 3GS has been replaced with an Android model (the Samsung Galaxy S3 Mini), which is infuriating in many ways but at least lets me get experience of working with the other dominant mobile platform. (iPhone) Verdict 7/10. Hold – something new is too expensive. (Galaxy Mini) Verdict 5/10. Not mine to sell!

Tablet: Apple iPad 3G 64GB

Apple iPadMy iPad never replaced a laptop as a primary computer but it’s still great as a Kindle, for catching up on social media content, and for casual gaming (read, occasional babysitter and childrens’ amusement on long car journeys). I was disappointed to have to pay to replace it after the screen developed a fault, but there’s no reason to trade up yet, especially since we bought a touch PC for the family (read on). If anything, I might consider a smaller tablet (maybe a Google Nexus 7 or a Tesco Hudl). Verdict 5/10. Hold, although it’s getting old now.

Everyday PC: Fujitsu Lifebook P702 (Intel Core i5 3210M 2.5GHz, 8GB RAM, 320GB hard disk)

This PC is my main computing device and is a small form-factor replacement for the previous Lifebook I used.  I like it, but a BYOC scheme would be more likely to leave me buying a competitor’s PC. Just as well we only have CYOD! Verdict 7/10. Still hoping for a BYOC scheme at work but not holding my breath.

Family PC: Lenovo Flex 15 (Intel Core i5 4200U 1.6GHz, 4GB RAM, 500GB hard disk)

Lenovo Flex 15When it eventually arrived, I set this PC up with Windows 8.1, Office 2013 and an account for everyone in the family.  It’s been a huge hit – the kids love it and I find it really useful to have a PC in the kitchen/family room.  I’m glad I held out for a touch screen – Windows 8 is so much better with Touch – but I should possibly have got something with a bit more memory… Verdict 8/10. A bit underpowered but a good balance between price and form factor.

Netbook: Lenovo S10e (Intel Atom N270 1.6GHz, 2GB RAM, 160GB hard disk)

Lenovo IdeaPad S10Rarely taken out of the drawer – only used when I want to play with Linux (Ubuntu) or upload some new code to the Arduino. Verdict 2/10. Not worth selling, so keep for tech projects.

Digital Cameras: Nikon D700 and Coolpix P7100

Nikon D700Nikon P7100Although I’ve fallen out of love with photography, I’m sure I’ll get back on the wagon some time. A full-frame DSLR is still my favourite format and the D700 will be with me for a while yet. Indeed, it’s more likely that I would buy some new lenses and a flashgun before I replace my camera body.  Newer bodies offer video but I don’t miss that, and the low light performance on the D700 is pretty good. The P7100 continues to function as my carry-everywhere camera (it lives in the car), offering entry-level DSLR levels of control in a small package, although it’s not as responsive as I’d like and I increasingly tolerate using the iPhone instead (poor camera, but always with me). (D700) Verdict 9/10. Hold. (P7100) Verdict 6/10. Hold.

Photography PC: Apple MacBook MB062LL/B (Intel Core 2 Duo T7500 2.2GHz, 4GB RAM, 750GB hard disk)

Apple Macbook White (late 2007)My MacBook is getting old and, although I upgraded to a 750GB disk, I’m struggling with disk space whilst 4GB of RAM is starting to feel a bit light for big Photoshop jobs but new Macs are expensive. Still too expensive to replace, but as long as I’m not doing much photography, this will last a while longer… Verdict 4/10. Hold.

Media: Samsung UE37ES6300 Smart TV

Samsung UE37ES6300Our late-2012 technology purchase, this replaced an aging (c1998) Sony Trinitron 32″ widescreen CRT and Internet-connected television is now an integral part of my family’s media consumption habit with my children watching more iPlayer content than live.  The software is a little “buggy” but it does the job – as a half decent TV it’s more than adequate and I’m thinking of getting a 22″ version for the den (when we build one…) Verdict 9/10. Hold.

Media: Apple Mac Mini MA206LL/A (Intel Core Duo 1.66GHz, 2GB RAM, 120GB hard disk)

(+ iPad, iPhone 4S, various iPods, Altec Lansing iM7 iPod speakers, Samsung UE37ES6300) Apple Mac MiniNo change here since last year and I still haven’t re-ripped my CDs after the NAS failure a couple of years ago (although the Dell server I bought a few years ago has come out of retirement in preparation for that task). We bought a Yamaha PSR E-343 music keyboard for my son this Christmas so this PC may be brought back to life with Garage Band or as a media server as it takes up almost no space at all. Verdict 6/10. Hold.

Gaming: Microsoft Xbox 360 S 250GB with Kinect Sensor

Microsoft Xbox 360sI don’t play this as much as I should but my sons make more and more use of it, and bought me a copy of FIFA 2014 for Christmas, so the Xbox is starting to get a lot more use. No plans to replace it with a newer model though. Verdict 7/10. Hold.

Servers and Storage: Raspberry Pi, 2x Netgear ReadyNAS Duo, various USB HDDs

The Raspberry Pi has replaced my atom-based infrastructure PC, whilst one ReadyNAS is used to back up my work and the other has still not been recovered from its multiple disk failure a couple of years ago.  I still need to consolidate the various USB hard drives onto the  3GB Seagate Backup Plus Desktop drive and sort out the various cloud-based services that I use. (Raspberry Pi) Verdict 10/10. What’s not to like about a computer that costs just £25? (ReadyNAS Duo) Verdict 5/10. RAID failures mean I’ve lost confidence.

Other tech: Arduino Uno, Canon ImageFormula P-215 document scanner

I’m still occasionally playing around with electronics using an Arduino – although I need to do more with this. I’m also slowly regaining control over my filing using the document scanner (and it’s very cathartic shredding old documents!) (Arduino Uno) Verdict 10/10. Inexpensive, with loads of scope for electronic prototyping and a thriving community for support. (Canon P-215) Verdict 9/10. Impressive scanner, although a little on the expensive side.

Potential new toys: Nest learning thermostatLego Mindstorms

Just as last year, I still have my eyes on home automation and tech toys but budgets (and other hobbies) mean they are unlikely to become real for a while yet.  A smart watch is a possibility too… just waiting for the right one…

Hardware lineup for 2013

For the last couple of years, I’ve written a post about my “hardware lineup” – the tech I use pretty much every day (2011, 2012) and I thought I’d continue the theme as we enter 2013.

In these times of austerity, there’s not a lot of scope for new geek toys (some more camera lenses would be great, as would a new MacBook) but there’s no harm in a bit of aspiration, and it’s always interesting to take a look back and see how I thought things would work out and how that compares with reality.

So here’s the tech that I expect my life will revolve around this year…

Car: Volkswagen Tiguan 2.0 TDI Sport

My company car was replaced in April (a nice 40th birthday present) and the Volkswagen Tiguan I drive will be with me for at least 3 years. Whilst there are plenty of more capabile 4x4s and the space afforded by a 7-seater might be nice at times, “the Tig” has been great – my family all love the high riding position, my wife is happy swapping between this and her Golf (she should be – they are practically the same underneath the covers!) and, whilst I miss some of the refinement of my Audi, I get a lot more for my money with the Volkswagen.  Putting a retractable towbar on this car has created new possibilities too, allowing me to use a 4-bike towbar-attached carrier for family cycle trips.

Verdict 8/10. Hold (tied into a 3-year lease).

Phones: Nokia Lumia 800 and Apple iPhone 3GS

Apple iPhone 3GSNokia Lumia 800My initial enthusiasm for the Nokia Lumia 800 waned considerably, after Microsoft announced its Windows Phone 8 plans and the handset lost 60% of its value overnight.  That means I won’t be trading it in for a new model any time soon and, depending on whether Windows Phone 7.8 ever makes it out of the door, I might consider looking at options to run Android on the (rather nice) hardware instead.  Still, at least we got an update a few months ago that, finally, enables Internet Sharing on Lumias (Windows Phone 7.5 supported this capability, but the Lumia 800 firmware did not).

I still have an iPhone 3GS provided by my employer (and my iPad) to fall back on when apps are not available for Windows Phone (i.e. most of the time) and, whilst I’m unlikely to get another smartphone from the company, I am considering a second-hand 4S to replace this as the 3GS is getting a bit long in the tooth now…

(Lumia) Verdict 5/10. Hold, under duress.
(iPhone) Verdict 3/10. Not mine to sell!

Tablet: Apple iPad 3G 64GB

Apple iPadMy iPad never replaced a laptop as a primary computer but it’s still great as a Kindle, for catching up on social media content, and for casual gaming (read, occasional babysitter and childrens’ amusement on long car journeys). I was disappointed to have to pay to replace it after the screen developed a fault, but there’s no reason to trade up yet and there’s still nothing that comes close to the iPad from a media tablet perspective (except newer iPads).

If anything, I might consider a smaller tablet (maybe a Google Nexus 7 or an Amazon Kindle Fire) but and Apple’s decision to stick with a 4:3 screen ratio on the iPad Mini means I have little interest in that form factor (it’s almost the same hardware as my current iPad, albeit in a smaller package). If I were to get a new tablet, it’s more likely to be something that could really be a laptop replacement – perhaps a Microsoft Surface Pro? We’ll see…

Verdict 7/10. Hold, although it’s getting old now.

Everyday PC: Fujitsu Lifebook S7220 (Intel Core 2 Duo P8400 2.2GHz, 4GB RAM, 160GB hard disk)

Fujitsu Lifebook S7220This PC is my main computing device. I’d love a ThinkPad, but the Lifebook is a perfectly capable, solid, well-built notebook PC, although I frequently find myself running out of memory with the number of tabs I have open in a typical browsing session! A recent hard disk failure meant my free space dropped (my 250GB drive was replaced with a 160GB one) but it’s due for replacement soon.

I’ll be looking for a smaller form-factor device to reduce the weight of my work-bag – at least until BYOC becomes a possibility (an ultrabook, Surface Pro, or a MacBook Air would be nice, but not available to me on the company’s catalogue).

Verdict 6/10. Unlikely to be with me for much longer now, although still hoping for a BYOC scheme at work.

Netbook: Lenovo S10e (Intel Atom N270 1.6GHz, 2GB RAM, 160GB hard disk)

Lenovo IdeaPad S10Yet again, this device has hardly seen the light of day. Usurped by the iPad, it now runs Ubuntu and is only ever used for tech projects (e.g. uploading software to my Arduino). My kids have one too but even they are frustrated by the small screen and tend to use my wife’s notebook PC instead.

Verdict 2/10. Not worth selling, so keep for tech projects.

Digital Cameras: Nikon D700 and Coolpix P7100

Nikon D700Nikon P7100I still love my DSLR and the D700 will be with me for a while yet. Indeed, it’s more likely that I would buy some new lenses and a flashgun before I replace my camera body.  Newer bodies offer video but I don’t miss that, and the low light performance on the D700 is pretty good, even 2 years after launch.

The P7100 continues to function as my carry-everywhere camera (it lives in the car), offering entry-level DSLR levels of control in a small package, although it’s not as responsive as I’d like.

(D700) Verdict 9/10. Hold.
(P7100) Verdict 7/10. Hold.

Photography PC: Apple MacBook MB062LL/B (Intel Core 2 Duo T7500 2.2GHz, 4GB RAM, 750GB hard disk)

Apple Macbook White (late 2007)My MacBook is getting old and, although I upgraded to a 750GB disk, I’m struggling with disk space whilst 4GB of RAM is starting to feel a bit light for big Photoshop jobs but new Macs are expensive.

Still too expensive to replace, I think this will last another year, at least…

Verdict 4/10. Hold.

Media: Samsung UE37ES6300 Smart TV

Samsung UE37ES6300My most recent technology purchase, this replaced an aging (c1998) Sony Trinitron 32″ widescreen CRT and has given us back a lot of space in the living room! I’ve been really impressed with the Smart TV functionality (more on that over the next few days) and Internet-connected television is now an integral part of my media consumption habit.

In time, it may be joined by a sound bar (to improve the experience when watching films) but at the moment the TV’s built in speakers will have to make do.

Verdict 9/10. Hold.

Media: Apple Mac Mini MA206LL/A (Intel Core Duo 1.66GHz, 2GB RAM, 120GB hard disk)

(+ iPad, Lumia 800, iPhone 3GS, various iPods, Altec Lansing iM7 iPod speakers, Samsung UE37ES6300)

Apple Mac MiniNo change here since last year – except for the addition of a Smart TV – and I still haven’t re-ripped my CDs after the NAS failure a couple of years ago. I still haven’t bought the music keyboard and this PC’s role as a multimedia PC for the office with Spotify, iPlayer, etc. has been replaced by a Smart TV in the living room.

It may not be the most powerful of my PCs but it may be brought back to life as a media server as it takes up almost no space at all.

Verdict 6/10. Hold.

Gaming: Microsoft Xbox 360 S 250GB with Kinect Sensor

Microsoft Xbox 360sI don’t play this as much as I should to make full use of it but the arrival of BBC iPlayer and the death of our DVD player promoted the Xbox to be our living room  media centre, at least until the Smart TV arrived (and the two still complement each other). My sons are reaching the age where they play games too now, so the Xbox is starting to get a lot more use.

Verdict 9/10. Hold.

Servers and Storage: Atom-based PC, 2x Netgear ReadyNAS Duo, various USB HDDs

The Atom-based PC still provides infrastructure services for the home, whilst one ReadyNAS is used to back up my work and the other has still not been recovered from its multiple disk failure a couple of years ago. I recently bought a 3GB Seagate Backup Plus Desktop drive to replace an assortment of smaller USB hard disks and am preparing to supplement this with suitable cloud storage as we become more and more reliant on our digital assets.

Verdict 6/10. Hold.

New toys from 2012: Arduino Uno, Raspberry Pi, Canon ImageFormula P-215 document scanner

At the end of my 2012 post, I mentioned a few potential purchases and I did pick up one of the first Raspberry Pi computers, which is a fantastic hobby/educational machine to use with or without my children.  I also started to play around with electronics using an Arduino – which is great fun – and I hope to be doing more with both of them this year (more Raspberry Pi postsmore Arduino posts).

I’m slowly regaining control over my filing with the aid of a dedicated document scanner. It doesn’t matter to me that it’s portable, but the fast duplex scanning to PDF and multiple sheet handling (with very few mis-feeds) is a huge step forward compared with the all-in-one printer/scanner/copier I have in my home office.  Mine was an “Amazon Warehouse Deals” purchase (which saved me a few pounds) and the advertised condition suggested it may have a scratch or two but it seems to be in perfect condition to me. It will certainly be a big part of my push to digitise much of my paperwork this year.

(Raspberry Pi) Verdict 10/10. What’s not to like about a computer that costs just £25?
(Arduino Uno) Verdict 10/10. Inexpensive, with loads of scope for electronic prototyping and a thriving community for support.
(Canon P-215) Verdict 9/10. Impressive scanner, although a little on the expensive side.

Potential new toys: Nest learning thermostat, Romotive Robot, Lego Mindstorms

Of course, as a geek, I have my eye on a whole host of potential purchases and these were two that took my fancy in last year’s post, plus one more that I’ve had my eye on for a while (may be something for the kids to get and Dad to play with?).  In all honesty, I’m not sure that I’ll be buying much at all this year, but anything I do is likely to be in the general electronics, robotics and home automation field.

Three trips to London just to get one image right: I hope it was worth it!

Unless they’ve been living under a rock, it would have been difficult for anyone in the UK to miss the fact that the Olympic Games took place in London recently and that Team GB and Northern Ireland (Team UK surely?) did rather well.  In true British style, many of us (myself included) were deeply cynical about many of the decisions made by the Olympic organisers (I still think that the ticketing was a mess, and that sponsors got a little too much brand exclusivity for their money) but, as the medals came flowing in, our positions softened and the nation came together as one in a way that I honestly don’t think I’ve seen before.  Strangers spoke to one another in the streets (where I live in rural Buckinghamshire that’s normal – at least on weekdays when the commuters are at work – but not in London) and the universal common denominator of comment was no longer the British weather but the success of Bradley Wiggins, Jessica Ennis, Katherine Grainger or one of the many other athletes who have become household names this summer.

Less broadly publicised (although the Mayor of London Presents website is a good resource) were some of the surrounding events taking place in London during the Olympic (and Paralympic) Games and it was purely by chance that I attended a London Bloggers Meetup for a photo walk along the Thames taking in the light shows on many of London’s landmarks.  Actually, I didn’t really manage to attend – I started out with the group but, because I’m a photographer first and blogger second, I fell behind, missed the boat and ended up on my own photo walk (I still got a set of photos that I was pretty pleased with). Except for one of them, showing the Union Flag projected on the side of the Houses of Parliament, which looked OK in camera but was pretty awful when I got it loaded into Lightroom.

I know a bad workman blames his tools but that image is really fuzzy on one side – spoiled by my 24-85mm f2.8-4D lens which seemed good when I used to shoot on film, or on a cropped-sensor DSLR (my old D70) but which has shown itself to be very soft around the edges (especially at zoomed out and at wide apertures) since I switched to a full frame D700. Nikon say this there is nothing wrong with the lens (they still charged me a chunk of money to service it though) but Ken Rockwell also found it lacking in sharpness in his review so I’d have to say it’s a design “feature”, not a “bug”.

A return trip to London a couple of days later with my family (sans DSLR and tripod but with my Coolpix P7100) gave me another go, which was better, but the P7100 just doesn’t have the low-light performance of my DSLR. With a couple of trips to the Paralympic Games planned (as well as a photography weekend coming up in North Yorkshire), I decided to splash out on a new lens (Nikon 50mm f1.4D) but only had one opportunity to shoot the projections on Parliament again.  The original Olympic show ended with the Olympic Games, but a re-worked version is currently running for the Paralympic Games, except that I’m busy at the weekends, and it’s not on this week because Parliament is in session. That left me with two possible evenings to try and get the shot and, as Amazon delivered my new lens so quickly, last Wednesday I was back in London for a wander around Westminster, culminating in lots of night shots on and around the Thames. This time I think I nailed the shot (I hope so anyway!) but it took two hours (8 viewings of the projection on a 15 minute loop) before I was confident I had the image(s) I wanted in the bag.

The final problem is that, when shooting the projection, the clock face of “Big Ben” is just too bright and the highlights are burned out. Unfortunately, the minus one stop exposure that suited the projections onto Parliament was not enough for Big Ben – and that needed to be underexposed by closer to 4 or 5 stops. Thankfully I was able to take two images in the few seconds during which the Union Flag was projected onto Parliament, grabbing shots at -1EV and -4EV (both at an aperture of f4 and using the same focus point). Then, working in Photoshop, I layered the two images, with the darker one on top, and created a mask to hide all but the clock face of Big Ben, allowing the main elements of the -1EV image to show and the composite image to be correctly exposed.

Union Flag on the Houses of Parliament/Paralympic Projections (9)

This is the resulting image and, although a wider angle would have been preferable (as would have been twilight rather than a pitch black sky), I can’t have everything, the weather was kind to me, and I’d rather have a sharp, correctly exposed, image!

DSLR sensor cleaning hints and tips

I started to write this post back in September 2010 but it’s been sitting in my drafts folder since then, waiting for me to check my facts.  Even so, as I found myself taking up more of my friend Andy Gailer’s time than I suspect either he or I would have liked (as he helped me to clean the sensor on my DSLR a couple of nights ago), I knew it was time for me to finally put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and finish this off…

It’s a fact of life that, the more often a lens is changed on an SLR camera, the more likely it is that some dirt or dust will find its way into the chamber. Back in the days of film it was easy – grit would scratch your negatives, but a few specks of dust were rarely a problem (indeed, the action of winding on the film moved the dust/dirt away from the active area). Ask anyone with a DSLR though, and they will almost certainly regail stories of frustration as they try to remove dust spots from their sensor (or at least the low-pass filter immediately in front of the sensor).

This post has a few hints and tips that might help you if you have ugly spots appearing on your images. I also recommend reading Thom Hogan’s excellent article on cleaning sensors.

Dust off reference image

I use a Nikon DSLR and it includes a feature called teh dust off reference image. The idea behind this is that, by taking an image that shows the dust spots, this can be compared with others and changes made automatically. It’s a nice idea, but it requires the use of Nikon’s Capture NX software. I don’t use Capture NX (I use Adobe Lightroom), so this feature doesn’t help much… I’m not sure what Canon (and other manufacturers) do, but probably something to be aware of if you have a Nikon DSLR.

In camera sensor cleaning

My Nikon D700 has the ability to clean its own sensor at startup/shutdown but I’m not sure how effective this is.  Even so, it’s probably worth leaving the option enabled – it won’t do any harm.

Arctic Butterfly

One tool in my friend Andy’s arsenal is his Arctic Butterfly. Basically a selection of brushes with a motor to spin off any dust, this kit allows skilled operators (i.e. not me!) to lift away dust by breaking the static bond that is attaching it to the sensor. You’ll need to lock up the mirror (the camera will usually have an option to do this in its firmware) in order to access the sensor.

It’s a useful tool and on at least two occasions now Andy has helped me to clean away most of the dust (there’s always some left behind). The downside is that the Arctic Butterfly is quite an expensive piece of kit.

Rocket blower

I spent at least half a day working through a multitude of boxes, drawers and even some more unlikely places hunting high and low for my Giottos air blower but I can’t find it anywhere.  If it doesn’t turn up soon, I’ll almost certainly replace it as it’s an excellent investment for blowing loose particles away.  The trick is to hold the body with the lens mount facing down, then blow upwards (so that any dirt falls away from the camera and towards the ground). If you’re lucky, this is all you need to do to clear away the dust, but never use compressed air blowers (the propellant can sometimes get squirted onto the sensor) and, certainly never be tempted to blow with your mouth! I found, to my cost, that even a dry mouth will result in saliva on the sensor… which leads me onto the next tip…

Sensor swabs

Sensor swabs can be used for removing stubborn stains (like saliva… or grease).  Available in specific sizes to suit full frame 35mm or APS-C sized sensors, I have used the Photographic Solutions Sensor Swabs Pro product previously, but my swabs seem to have gone AWOL with my rocket blower…

As it happens, Andy had some swabs from Visible Dust that probably did a better job – the main difference was that they needed to be  moistened with a special fluid instead of being pre-moistened and sealed in a foil packet.

Checking for the presence of dirt on the sensor

Regardless of the technique(s) used to clean the sensor, it’s necessary to check for the continued presence of dust/dirt on the sensor.  Some spots will be too small to view with the naked eye but, thankfully, it’s relatively straightforward to take a photograph that will show any problems.

  1. Take a picture of a plain object (e.g. a sheet of paper) from about 10cm away in good light. Make sure that you use the following settings:
    • A narrow aperture (e.g. f22) for maximum depth of field.
    • Zoom in as far as possible.
    • Focus to infinity (you may need to do this manually).
    • Some people suggest setting the exposure to +2.0EV but I tend not to do this as the dirt will still be visible on a grey image and over-exposing may blow out the image leaving no dust spots visible.
  2. View the image at 1:1 scale in your favourite image editing software. It may take a while to view the whole image (with several scans across and up/down) but it should be possible to see if there are any remaining dust spots. If the largest ones have gone and there are only a few left (especially at the edges), it may be advisable to cut your losses and leave them there…

Disclaimer: I feel the need, in today’s increasingly litigious society, to point out that this information has been given in good faith but that I can’t be held responsible for any damage to equipment as a result of following the advice on this website.

New cameras, raw image support and Adobe software

In yesterday’s post about my Nikon Coolpix P7100, I mentioned that I’d had to invest in new software when I bought a new camera (as if a new camera wasn’t a big enough expense). As I’m reading about Adobe’s beta of Lightroom 4, I thought it was probably worth eleborating on this, as once of my friends also had a similar experience last year – and it’s something that pretty much all Adobe users will come across if they buy new cameras and shoot raw images.

Whilst some might argue that there is no noticable difference between a fine JPEG image and something generated from a raw file, the simple fact is that multiple edits on compressed files will lead to a gradual degradation in quality. I prefer to capture in the highest possible quality, work on that, and only save to .JPG at the end of my workflow (typically before uploading to the web, or sending to a lab for printing).

So, when I bought the P7100, I found that I needed the latest version of Adobe Camera Raw to read the .NRW (raw) images that it created. That wouldn’t have been a problem, except that Adobe Camera Raw 6.x doesn’t work with the software I was using at the time – Adobe Lightroom 2.x and Photoshop CS4. So I purchased Lightroom 3, although I have to make do without editing my P7100’s images in Photoshop – it’s just too expensive to upgrade at the drop of a hat.

It’s not just me – a friend who bought a Canon EOS 600D last year suddenly found that she needed to upgrade from Photoshop Elements 8 to Elements 9 in order to work with her raw images (she could also use Apple iPhoto… but it’s seriously limited for anything more than the most basic of edits).

With the coming of Lightroom 4/Photoshop CS 6, I guess we’ll see Adobe Camera Raw 7 and, if past history is any judge of what’s coming, I’ll expect that will not work with Lightroom 3 or CS 5. In effect Adobe is forcing us to upgrade their software, in order to use the raw capabilities of a new camera.

Obviously, Adobe would like us to all use its digital negative (.DNG) format for raw images (indeed, Adobe offers a free DNG converter) but, given that neither Canon nor Nikon – the two largest camera manufactirers – are showing any sign of moving away from their proprietary formats, that doesn’t help a lot.

There may be other tools to convert from the P7100’s raw images to .DNG or .TIF for working on, but I can’t help feeling Adobe’s decision to tie Camera Raw to certain releases of its software is a retrograde step, and it won’t encourage me to upgrade my software again until I am forced to (probably by a new camera purchase…).

Nikon Coolpix P7100: Great carry-everywhere camera with SLR-type controls but could do with being a little more responsive

For a while, I’ve been looking for a camera that will fit in my bag so I can take it anywhere, is inexpensive enough to leave in a car glovebox without fear of theft but is capable enough to replace my DSLR in certain scenarios (so, not a mobile phone camera…).

Then, on a photography trip to Cornwall last September, I broke one of my lenses, rendering my D700 next to useless (my 80-200 f2.8 is a good lens, but a bit long for everyday use and without my 24-85 f2.8-4 I was pretty lost). Lacking the funds to replace the lens (I’ve since repaired it and can wholeheartedly recommend Dave Boyle’s Camera Repair Workshop), I decided to purchase the camera I’d been waiting for – a Nikon Coolpix P7100, which competes with Canon’s G12 to replace the earlier Coolpix P7000 (adding a pivoting screen, although not the flip-out type found on camcorders – which is, arguably, a good thing).

Why the Nikon? Well, I have a Nikon D700 DSLR and a Canon Ixus 70 point and shoot (correction – had a Canon Ixus – as my son has claimed it as “his” camera) but the P7100 has a longer zoom range than the G12 (28-200 35mm equivalent) and a better LCD screen. Ultimately the longer zoom is what clinched the deal for me – although I would like to have gone down the Canon route.  Offering full control over images (e.g. aperture priority, shutter speed priority, manual ISO selection, raw capture and even a flash hotshoe) but also fully-automatic mode (and video), it’s a chunky “little” camera/video camera but still small enough to slip in my coat pocket.

The retail price for this camera is £499 and I originally paid around £423 on Amazon but, the day it arrived, I found the price had dropped to closer to £371.  I was just about to return it (unopened) and repurchase but instead, I got in touch with Amazon, who refunded the difference (saving shipping costs) although they did claim this is not normal practice.  Since then, it’s dropped a little further but I think I paid a fair price, given that it was a newly-released camera at the time.  Although I’ve yet to find a case to keep the camera in, it’s pretty substantial and should be able to withstand everyday knocks but I did decide to get a screen protector to cover the LCD panel.  Ebay came up trumps here with some protectors from Protection 24 Films.

So, is it any good? Well… that’s one of the reasons this post has taken so long to write (the comments on this DPReview post are worth reading). It is good, but I can’t quite make up my mind as there have been a couple of disappointments. I’m glad I didn’t get one of the new Nikon 1 series cameras – I don’t need to mess around with interchangable lenses on something for this purpose – but an entry-level DSLR costs about the same as the P7100 and that has no shutter lag/focus delay/ (the P7100 does – and that’s inconvenient when taking pictures of moving objects). Also, the noise levels are not great with noticeable grain at ISO 400/800 worsening rapidly above that (although they do look like grain, rather than the digital noise I used to get with my old D70) but I’d expected better in a camera from this day and age.

Even so, I was looking at my Flickr stream last night and realised just how many of my recent shots were taken on the little P7100. These two were taken last weekend in London and, considering I was holding the camera in the air and using some slow shutter speeds, have come out remarkably well:

An eye on Big Ben

London Eye

These were taken in Lincoln just before Christmas:

Exchequergate

Top of Steep Hill

Lovely Post Office

And these were taken early one morning in October just after I got the camera:

Mist rising over the Ouse Valley

Petsoe Wind Turbines at Dawn

Early morning balloon ride

The grain is noticeable in the full-resolution versions of the dawn shots, and there is some distortion (particularly obvious on the buildings in Lincoln) that I haven’t been able to correct in Lightroom (I need to work out the appropriate settings). I also had to update my Adobe software to use Camera Raw 6.x which meant a new copy of Lightroom (thank goodness for educational discounts) and that I can’t edit my P7100 raw files in Photoshop CS4 (that will be the subject of another blog post, I think).

Given that I don’t want to lug a heavy (and expensive) DSLR rig around everywhere – its unlikely I would have taken some of these if I hadn’t bought the P7100, so it’s clearly a useful tool (I use it with my Joby Gorillapod too) but it’s worth bearing in mind some of the limitations before shelling out some cash. Those looking to expand their photography might prefer to get an entry-level DSLR and those looking for a point and shoot may well be happy with a cameraphone – the Coolpix P7100 attempts to fill a very small niche between these two form factors.

Hardware lineup for 2012

Last year I wrote a post about my “hardware lineup” – i.e. the tech I use almost every day so I thought I should really do the same for 2012.  Much of it’s still the same but there are some changes – it will be interesting to take a look in retrospect next year and see how my plans for 2012 have worked out. So, here’s the tech that I expect my life will revolve around this year.

Car: Volkswagen Tiguan 2.0 TDI Sport

My company car is due for replacement in the spring and I’ve ordered a Volkswagen Tiguan to drive for the next 3 years. I really like the Audi A4 Avant that I drive at the moment but it’s recently had a lot of money spent on it (new clutch and major service costing over £2,500 – thankfully not paid by me) and I’m not sure that a three-year-old car with 60,000 miles on the clock is  worth the money the lease company wants for me to take it on…

Due to price increases, another A4 with the same spec will cost me quite a lot more each month and, whilst the Tiguan is a little smaller, it’s also more practical (I looked at the Q3 too – but it’s “fugly”, overpriced and there is limited engine choice at the moment). With my growing family the addition of a towbar should allow me to take 4 bikes around on a carrier without scratching the car too.

Verdict who knows – it’s not been delivered yet!

Phones: Nokia Lumia 800 and Apple iPhone 3GS

Apple iPhone 3GSNokia Lumia 800I recently joined the 1.5% and jumped into the Windows Phone market. I like it – and want the platform to succeed – but really feel Microsoft has a long way to go. Thankfully I still have an iPhone 3GS provided by my employer (and my iPad) to fall back on when apps are not available or when the Lumia is just too infuriating…

It was a risk buying the Nokia Lumia but the hardware is lovely, the software will improve, and it was a major investment so, realistically, it’s likely to remain with me for the next 2 years! Meanwhile, I’m still hoping to get myself an iPhone 4 or 4S to replace the 3GS but the chances are best described as slim.

(Lumia) Verdict 7/10. Hold.
(iPhone) Verdict 3/10. Not mine to sell!

Tablet: Apple iPad 3G 64GB

Apple iPadNo change here – the iPad is my media tablet of choice and no-one else even comes close. I may be tempted by an Amazon Fire or the new (rumoured) baby iPad but at the time of writing this device is still great for occasional surfing, a bit of TV catchup, and social media on the move.  It’s also great for the kids to play games and catch up on vital episodes of childrens’ television programmes that they missed (using BBC iPlayer)!

Verdict 8/10. Hold.

Everyday PC: Fujitsu Lifebook S7220 (Intel Core 2 Duo P8400 2.2GHz, 4GB RAM, 250GB hard disk)

Fujitsu Lifebook S7220I’m still hoping for a BYOC scheme at work, but this PC is my main computing device. I’d love a ThinkPad, but the Lifebook is a perfectly capable, solid, well-built notebook PC, although I frequently find myself running out of memory with the number of tabs I have open in a typical browsing session!

When it comes up for replacement, I’ll see if I can blag something smaller (really need to be a grade more senior for that) and reduce the weight of my work-bag…

Verdict 6/10. Holding out for a BYOC scheme at work.

Netbook: Lenovo S10e (Intel Atom N270 1.6GHz, 2GB RAM, 160GB hard disk)

Lenovo IdeaPad S10Netbook, schmetbook. I hardly used this in 2011. I did install Ubuntu 11.04 on it and have a couple of blog posts to write before I use it to play with Windows 8. I bought the S10e for Windows 7 testing 3 years ago so it owes me nothing but the netbook form factor has been usurped by tablets and low-cost notebooks. My kids have one too but even they are frustrated by the small screen and tend to use my wife’s notebook PC instead

Verdict 2/10. Not worth selling, so keep for tech projects.

Digital Cameras: Nikon D700 and Coolpix P7100

Nikon D700Nikon P7100I still love my DSLR and the D700 will be with me for a while yet. Indeed, it’s more likely that I would buy some new lenses and a flashgun before I replace my camera body.

The P7100 joined me this year as a device to carry everywhere and it’s been pretty good, offering entry-level DSLR levels of control in a small package, although it’s not as responsive as I’d like.

(D700) Verdict 9/10. Hold.
(P7100) Verdict 7/10. Hold.

Photography PC: Apple MacBook MB062LL/B (Intel Core 2 Duo T7500 2.2GHz, 4GB RAM, 750GB hard disk)

Apple Macbook White (late 2007)This MacBook needs to last a while longer before I can justify its replacement but I did upgrade the hard disk in 2011 and it may get another upgrade this year. 4GB of RAM is starting to feel a bit light for big Photoshop jobs but new Macs are expensive. I’d better get saving for something new in 2013…

Verdict 5/10. Hold.

Media: Apple Mac Mini MA206LL/A (Intel Core Duo 1.66GHz, 2GB RAM, 120GB hard disk)

(+ iPad, Lumia 800, iPhone 3GS, various iPods, Altec Lansing iM7 iPod speakers)

Apple Mac MiniNo change here since last year – although both disks in one of my NASs failed and I need to re-rip my CDs for my music library (iTunes had already done a good job of mangling it). I still haven’t bought the music keyboard (maybe this year) but it’s lasting well as my multimedia PC for the office with Spotify, iPlayer, etc.

It may not be the most powerful of my PCs, but it’s more than up to this kind of work and it takes up almost no space at all.

Verdict 6/10. Hold.

Gaming: Microsoft Xbox 360 S 250GB with Kinect Sensor

Microsoft Xbox 360sI don’t play this as much as I should to make full use of it (although I am enjoying my latest purchase: Lego Pirates of the Caribbean). Hopefully the next few months will finally see iPlayer land on the Xbox at which point it will become a really useful media centre for the living room (it works with my aging SD TV).

Verdict 9/10. Hold.

Servers and Storage: Atom-based PC, 2x Netgear ReadyNAS Duo

My Dell PowerEdge 840 has been retired to save energy (although it could still be wheeled out for any virtual machine workloads to test infrastructure scenarios) and, as I already mentioned, one of my ReadyNASs has suffered a multiple disk failure (waiting for me to sort out some warranty replacement disks) but, once recovered, these machines will remain as the mainstay of my computing infrastructure. Cloud storage for my photos is still too expensive so I’m likely to add another NAS at a family member’s house to maintain an off-site backup.

Verdict 6/10. Hold.

Potential new toys: Nest learning thermostat, Romotive Robot, Raspberry Pi

These have taken my fancy and I’m seriously considering them all in 2012. Only time will tell what I buy (and when) but I’m sure you’ll hear about my exploits on the blog!

Hardware lineup for 2011

This is a bit of a copycat post really but I saw Mike Taulty and Phil Winstanley‘s hardware lineups and thought it was a good idea. So, here it is, a summary of the technology I use pretty much every day and how I see that changing this year.

Car: Audi A4 Avant 2.0 TDI 170 S-Line

Audi A4 Avant 20 TDI 170 S-LineMy wife and I have been Volkswagen fans for a few years now (we find them to be good, solid, reliable cars that hold their value well) so, a couple of years ago, when I heard that Volkswagen and Audi were being added to our company car scheme, I held back on replacing my previous vehicle in order to take advantage. I did consider getting a Passat but the A4 (although smaller) had a newer generation of engine and lower emissions, so it didn’t actually cost much more in tax/monthly lease costs.

After a year or so, I’m normally bored/infuriated with my company cars but I still really enjoy my A4 – so much so that I will consider purchasing this one at the end of its lease next year. My only reservations are that I would really like something larger, sometimes a little more power would be nice (although this has 170PS, which is pretty good for a 2 litre diesel) and I do sometimes think that the money I contribute to the car might be better spent on reducing the mortgage (I add some of my salary to lease a better car than my grade entitles me to).

Either way, it’s on lease until I hit 3 years or 60,000 miles, so it’s a keeper for 2011.

Verdict 9/10. Hold.

Phone: Apple iPhone 3GS 16GB

Apple iPhone 3GSI actually have two phones (personal and work SIMs) but my personal needs are pretty basic (a feature phone with Bluetooth connectivity for hands free operation in the car) and I recycled my iPhone 3G when I was given a 3GS to use for work.

After having owned iPhones for a few years now (this is my third one), I don’t feel that the platform, which was once revolutionary, has kept pace and it now feels dated. As a result, I’m tempted by an Android or Windows Phone 7 device but neither of these platforms is currently supported for connection my corporate e-mail service.

The main advantages of this device for me are the apps and the Bluetooth connectivity to the car (although I needed to buy a cable for media access). I use Spotify and Runkeeper when I’m running but there are a whole host of apps to help me when I’m out and about with work (National Rail Enquiries, etc.) and, of course, it lets me triage my bulging mailbox and manage my calendar when I’m on the move. Unfortunately, the camera is awful and it’s not much use as a phone either, but it does the job.

I could get an iPhone 4 (or 5 this summer?) but I’d say it’s pretty unlikely, unless something happened to this one and I was forced to replace it.

Verdict 3/10. Not mine to sell!

Tablet: Apple iPad 3G 64GB

Apple iPadAfter several weeks (maybe months) of thinking “do I? don’t I?”, I bought an iPad last year and I use it extensively. Perhaps it’s a bit worrying that I take it to bed with me at night (I often catch up on Twitter before going to sleep, or use it as an e-book reader) but the “instant on” and long battery life make this device stand out from the competition when I’m out and about.

2011 will be an interesting year for tablets – at CES they were all over the place but I’ve been pretty vocal (both on this blog, and on Twitter) about my views on Windows as a tablet operating system and many of the Android devices are lacking something – Android 3 (Gingerbread [correction] Honeycomb) should change that. One possible alternative is Lenovo’s convertible notebook/tablet which runs Windows but features a slide out screen that functions as an Android tablet (very innovative).

I may upgrade to an iPad 2, if I can get a good resale price for my first generation iPad, but even Apple’s puritanical anti-Adobe Flash stand (which means many websites are unavailable to me) is not enough to make me move away from this device in 2011.

Verdict 8/10. Hold.

Everyday PC: Fujitsu Lifebook S7220 (Intel Core 2 Duo P8400 2.2GHz, 4GB RAM, 250GB hard disk)

Fujitsu Lifebook S7220My personal preference for notebook PCs is a ThinkPad – I liked them when they were manufactured by IBM and Lenovo seem to have retained the overall quality associated with the brand – but, given who pays my salary, it’s no surprise that I use a Fujitsu notebook PC. Mine’s a couple of years old now and so it’s branded Fujitsu-Siemens but it’s the same model that was sold under the Fujitsu name outside Europe. It’s a solid, well-built notebook PC and I have enough CPU, memory and disk to run Windows 7 (x64) well.

Unfortunately it’s crippled with some awful full disk encryption software (I won’t name the vendor but I’d rather be using the built-in BitLocker capabilities which I feel are better integrated and less obtrusive) and, even though the chipset supports Intel vPro/AMT (to install the Citrix XenClient hypervisor), the BIOS won’t allow me to activate the VT-d features. As a result, I have to run separate machines for some of my technical testing (I’m doing far less of that at work anyway these days) and to meet my personal (i.e. non-work) computing requirements.

My hope is that we’ll introduce a bring your own computer (BYOC) scheme at work and I can rationalise things but, if not, it’ll be another two years before I can order a replacement and this will soldier on for a while yet.

Verdict 6/10. Holding out for a BYOC scheme at work.

Netbook: Lenovo S10e (Intel Atom N270 1.6GHz, 2GB RAM, 160GB hard disk)

Lenovo IdeaPad S10In its day, my netbook was great. It’s small, light, can be used on the train when the seatback tables are too small for a normal laptop and I used mine extensively for personal computing whilst working away from home. It was a bit slow (on file transfers) but it does the job – and the small keyboard is ideal for my young children (although even they could do with a larger screen resolution).

Nowadays my netbook it sits on the shelf, unloved, replaced by my iPad. It was inexpensive and, ultimately, consumable.

Verdict 2/10. Sell, or more likely use it to geek out and play with Linux.

Digital Camera: Nikon D700

Nikon D700After a series of Minoltas in the 1980s and 1990s, I’ve had Nikon cameras for several years now, having owned an F90x, a D70 and now a D700. I also use my wife’s D40 from time to time and we have a Canon Ixus 70 too (my son has adopted that). With a sizeable investment in Nikon lenses, etc., I can’t see myself changing brands again – although some of my glass could do with an upgrade, and I’d like an external flash unit.

The D700 gives me a lot of flexibility and has a high enough pixel count, with minimal noise and good low-light performance. It’s a professional-grade DSLR and a bit heavy for some people (I like the weight). It’s also too valuable for some trips (which is when I use the D40) but I always miss the flexibility and functionality that the D700 body provides. Maybe sometimes I think some video capabilities would be nice but I won’t be changing it yet.

Verdict 9/10. Hold.

Photography PC: Apple MacBook MB062LL/B (Intel Core 2 Duo T7500 2.2GHz, 4GB RAM, 320GB hard disk)

Apple Macbook White (late 2007)It’s been three years since I bought my MacBook and, much as I’d like one of the current range of MacBook Pros it’ll be a while before I replace it because they are so expensive! In fairness, it’s doing it’s job well – as soon as I bought it I ungraded the hard disk and memory, and whilst the the CPU is nt as fast as a modern Core i5 or i7, it’s not that slow either.

For a machine that was not exactly inexpensive, I’ve been disappointed with the build quality (it’s had two new keyboard top covers and a replacement battery) but Apple’s customer service meant that all were replaced under warranty (I wouldn’t fancy my chances at getting a new battery from many other PC OEMs).

I use this machine exclusively for photography and the Mac OS suits me well for this. It’s not “better” than Windows, just “different” and, whilst some people would consider me to be a Microsoft fanboi and an iHater, the list of kit on this page might say otherwise. I like to consider myself to have objective views that cut through the Redmond or Cupertino rhetoric!

So, back to the Mac – I may dive into Photoshop from time to time but Adobe Lightroom, Flickr Uploadr, VueScan and a few specialist utilities like Sofortbild are my main tools. I need to sweat this asset for a while longer before I can replace it.

Verdict 5/10. Hold.

Media: Apple Mac Mini MA206LL/A (Intel Core Duo 1.66GHz, 2GB RAM, 120GB hard disk)

(+ iPad, iPhone 3GS, various iPods, Altec Lansing iM7 iPod speakers)

Apple Mac MiniMy Mac Mini was the first Intel Mac I bought (I had one of the original iMacs but that’s long gone) and it’s proved to be a great little machine. It was replaced by the MacBook but has variously been used in Windows and Mac OS X forms as a home media PC. These days it’s just used for iTunes and Spotify, but I plan to buy a keyboard to have a play with Garage Band too.

It may not be the most powerful of my PCs, but it’s more than up to this kind of work and it takes up almost no space at all.

Verdict 6/10. Hold.

Gaming: Microsoft Xbox 360 S 250GB with Kinect Sensor

Microsoft Xbox 360sI’m not a gamer – I sold my Playstation a few years ago because the driving games that I enjoyed made me feel ill! Even so, I was blown away by the Xbox with Kinect when I saw it last month. I bought myself a 250GB model and now Kinect Adventures and Kinect Sports have become family favourites (with a bit of Dance Central thrown in!). I can’t see myself getting into first person shooters, but I can see us doing more and more with the Xbox, particularly if I can use the Connect 360 application to hook into my media library. The final piece of the jigsaw would be BBC iPlayer on Xbox – but that looks unlikely to come to fruition.

Verdict 9/10. Hold.

Servers and Storage: Atom-based PC, Dell PowerEdge 840, 2x Netgear ReadyNAS Duo

As my work becomes less technical, I no longer run a full network infrastructure at home (I don’t find myself building quite so many virtual machines either) so I moved the main infrastructure roles (Active Directory, DHCP, DNS, TFTP, etc.) to a low-power server based on an Intel Atom CPU. I still have my PowerEdge 840 for the occasions when I do need to run up a test environment but it’s really just gathering dust. Storage is provided by a couple of Netgear ReadyNAS devices and it’s likely that I’ll upgrade the disks and then move one to a family member’s house, remote syncing to provide an off-site backup solution (instead of a variety of external USB drives).

Verdict 6/10. Hold (perhaps sell the server, but more likely to leave it under the desk…).

Reading EXIF data to find out the number of shutter activations on a Nikon DSLR

A few years ago, I wrote about some digital photography utilities that I use on my Mac.  These days most of my post-processing is handled by Adobe Lightroom (which includes Adobe Camera Raw), with a bit of Photoshop CS4 (using plugins like Noise Ninja) for the high-end stuff but these tools still come in useful from time to time.  Unfortunately, Simple EXIF Viewer doesn’t work with Nikon raw images (.NEF files) and so it’s less useful to me than it once was.

Recently, I bought my wife a DSLR and, as I’m a Nikon user (I have a D700), it made sense that her body should fit my lenses so I picked up a Nikon refurbished D40 kit from London Camera Exchange.  Whilst the body looked new, I wanted to know how many times the shutter had been activated (DSLR shutter mechanisms have a limited life – about 50,000 for the D40) and the D40’s firmware won’t display this information – although it is captured in the EXIF data for each image.

After some googling, I found a link to Phil Harvey’s ExifTool, a platform independent library with a command line interface for accessing EXIF data in a variety of image formats. A few seconds later and I had run the exiftool -nikon dsc_0001.nef command (exiftool --? gives help) on a test image and it told me a perfectly respectable shutter count of 67.  For reference, I tried a similar command on some images from my late Father’s Canon EOS 1000D but shutter count was not one of the available metrics – even so the ExifTool provides a wealth of information from a variety of image formats.