Google Camera – a review

April 17th, 2014

In my brief review of my new Samsung Galaxy S4, I mentioned that I was a bit frustrated with the performance of the camera. It takes excellent pictures outdoors or in good light, but its low light performance is less than stellar. Most of the pictures I’ve taken indoors suffer from either motion blur or are a bit out of focus.

So I was excited to hear that Google was going to release the stock Android 4.4 camera app through Play Store (if you have Android 4.4 KitKat). It was released today and I downloaded and installed it as soon as I got home. My first impressions are mixed.

The interface (and the features) are decidedly minimal. There are very few settings. You can pick three sizes for pictures, while the Samsung app gives five and a choice of aspect ratios (16:9 and 4:3), while the Google app allows 4:3 only. No JPEG quality settings unfortunately; I was hoping for that because the Samsung app doesn’t have that setting. Other settings are flash on or off, grid lines on or off (but they’re almost impossible to see anyway) and that’s about it. No HDR mode, although it should be available if one of their screen shots is any indication.

Google Camera

There’s an exposure adjustment setting, but I can’t get it to work.

So, a very basic camera, outside of the fancy modes (Photosphere, Panorama, Lens Blur) which I don’t have much interest in.

As for picture quality, it seems to be a bit better indoors than the Samsung camera app in its default Auto mode. Pictures I took indoors were slightly sharper with little or no motion blur. Outdoors the results were mixed. The Google app seemed to overexpose slightly compared to the Samsung app, but I didn’t take enough pictures in bright light to be sure of this. The Samsung app, with it’s HDR mode, can take excellent pictures in bright sunlight – I doubt the Google app can match it.

So to sum up, I’ll continue to use the Samsung camera app as my main camera app, but will use the Google app indoors for quick grab shots. (The Samsung app has a Night mode that does equally well, but takes a little longer to set up.)

I have read that Google is making the camera API available, so you’ll probably see people releasing filters and other enhancements to it in due course.

Sony is blowing it, again

April 16th, 2014

It looks like once again Sony is blowing a chance to grab a piece of a market or even develop a new one. They’ve introduced a big ereader with a 13″ screen, but are selling it for $1100, instead of the $300 or so that it’s probably worth. Who in their right minds is going to pay $1100 for a black-and-white ereader that Sony has limited to reading PDFs, when they could buy an iPad or Android tablet for half the price, or less? Sony claims they’re aiming it at “professionals”, but in the business world I live in, you have to get technology purchases past the accounting department first.

As MarketWatch point out, Sony is missing a big opportunity here. A 13″ ereader would be perfect for newspapers and a lot of magazines, even limited to black and white. And if it could display ebook formats, it’d make a wonderful ereader. But $1100? What were they thinking?

A short while ago I sat down in Boston with Giovanni Mancini, director of product development at E Ink, and got an early peak at Sony’s new “Digital Paper” product. This is basically the closest anyone has yet come to a digital piece of paper.

It uses E Ink’s new “Mobius” display and proprietary Sony technology. It is the size of a letter-sized piece of paper—which makes its screen more than four times the size of a regular e-reader.

It’s excellent. The screen is bright and clear and the page turns are fast. The product is light, about 13 ounces. The battery lasts for a month. It has a touch screen so you can mark up documents and so on.

This could be the future of reading. This could be the future of newspapers and magazines. (It’s so much better than trying to read the news on a tiny 6-inch screen, or, indeed, on a tablet). This could be the future of documents.

I know that 90% of the population no longer reads anything longer than 140 characters, and that those of us who still read, when we could be playing Angry Birds or watching that interminable shaggy dragon story “Game of Thrones,” are just a bunch of Luddite wierdos. (David Carr at the New York Times admits he is basically abandoning reading for watching TV.)

But some of us are still out there. And this is just what we were looking for.

The only problem? Sony just launched the Digital Paper in the U.S. with a sale price of $1,100.


Correy’s The Expanse to be TV series

April 15th, 2014

SyFy is going to do a 10-episode series based on James. S. A. Correy’s space opera series, The Expanse, which started with Leviathan Wakes. It’s a dark gritty series that represents modern hard SF at its best and could be great for TV if done right (say like the first or second season of Battlestar Galactica before it jumped the shark).

The NBCUniversal-owned cable network has picked up 10 episodes of The Expanse, based on James S.A. Corey’s book series that includes the well-known Leviathan Wakes.

The drama is described as a thriller set 200 years in the future and follows the case of a missing young woman who brings a hardened detective and a rogue ship’s captain together in a race across the solar system to expose the greatest conspiracy in human history.

The series hails from Alcon Television Group, with Oscar-nominated screenwriters Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby (Children of Men, Iron Man) attached as writers and exec producers. Sean Daniel and Jason Brown of the Sean Daniel Co. developed the pitch with Fergus and Ostby and are also on board to exec produce. Alcon co-CEOs Andrew Kosove and Broderick Johnson will exec produce alongside company president Sharon Hall. Alcon’s Ben Roberts will co-produce, while Ben Cook will produce. The series marks the first series order for Alcon Television Group, a division of Alcon Entertainment.

Given SyFy’s track record, I’m not going to get too excited until I see some footage, but they certainly have some quality source material to work with. OTOH, the authors (Correy is a pseudonym for Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham) are very happy about it.

Samsung Galaxy S5 reviewed

April 14th, 2014

Samsung’s latest iteration of its Galaxy smartphone hit the stores in Canada this week. MobileSyrup, an excellent Canadian site, has a detailed review of the S5.

Samsung’s fifth-generation Galaxy S flagship takes a checklist approach to improving upon its predecessors. A less slippery back cover, water resistance, a more elegant software experience, a vastly improved camera and impressive leaps in performance contrast with hardware additions of dubious merit. The fingerprint sensor is useful but often frustrating, while the heart rate sensor feels superfluous, an example of Samsung’s profligate feature creep we hoped it would leave behind.

While the Galaxy S5 boasts one of the best Android experiences currently available, Samsung can no longer claim unchecked dominance over the market; HTC has upped its game this year, while Sony, LG, Motorola and others are quickly learning from past mistakes.

Having just upgraded my old Galaxy S to an S4, I’m feeling only mild pangs of gadget lust. The new phone does seem to have a better screen and camera and longer battery life, but all of the improvements are evolutionary. Still, an upgrade should be a no-brainer for anyone with an older phone.

Years of Living Dangerously

April 13th, 2014

It’s clear that climate change is going to be one of the defining events of this century, if not the defining event. The latest UN report on climate change makes it clear that we are running out of time to avoid catastrophic changes to our environment. We know what has to be done, but the political and social will seems to be lacking, as Years of Living Dangerously, a stunning new documentary by James Cameron shows.  It’s an eight-part series on Showtime, but you can watch the entire first episode on YouTube.

Here’s what Wunderblogger Dr. Jeff Masters had to say about it.

Beginning on Sunday, April 13, at 10pm EDT, an 8-part documentary series on climate change called Years of Living Dangerously airs on Showtime, the premium cable service. The previews I’ve seen show a top-notch production effort with stunning visuals. Starring are Jessica Alba, Harrison Ford, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lesley Stahl, and Thomas L. Friedman. The science is excellent, provided by climate science experts like Heidi Cullen, Michael Mann, Katharine Hayhoe, James Hansen, and Joe Romm. Dr. Romm promises: “This will blow you away. Nothing like this has ever been on TV. Indeed, this isn’t just landmark climate TV. It is landmark TV, in terms of its storytelling and cinematography and the way it uses experts and celebrities. This is not a talking heads show. This is like 60 Minutes meets Homeland or Game of Thrones.” After viewing the first episode, I have to agree—this is the most compelling documentary ever done on climate change. I like how the show focuses on the greatest threat climate change poses to civilization—drought. The causes of the 2012 Texas drought are explored by Texas Tech climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe. Harrison Ford studies how intensifying drought conditions in recent years in the regions surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, including Syria, have been linked to human-caused climate change. Could climate change have contributed to the outbreak of the brutal civil war there? The issue is explored in detail in this first episode of “Years of Living Dangerously

Update: As long as we’re on the subject of climate change, here’s a post on Naked Capitalism with some fairly alarming information. The video at the end discusses the problem of methane release from melting permafrost, which could accelerate warming to the point where human civilization might be at risk. Then there’s this video from Little Green Footfalls, which does a good job of debunking some of the denier myths we see far too much of in the media.

Dealing with the Heartbleed bug

April 10th, 2014

The Heartbleed bug that affects secure SSL conections to web sites made the news big time today when the Canada Revenue Agency took down the public portions of its web site, leaving millions of Canadians unable to file their income taxes online. I’m one of them – I was going to do it tonight. They hope to have the sute back up by the weekend.

But a lot of other sites were affected, as the list linked in this article shows. Read the article to find what you should do to mitigate the damage should it turn out that your data was stolen.

First, check which sites you use are affected. If you don’t want to read through the long list of websites with the security flaw, the password security firm LastPass has set up a Heartbleed Checker, which lets you enter the URL of any website to check its vulnerability to the bug and if the site has issued a patch.

Next, change your passwords for major accounts — email, banking and social media logins — on sites that were affected by Heartbleed but patched the problem. However, if the site or service hasn’t patched the flaw yet, there’s no point to changing your password. Instead, ask the company when it expects to push out a fix to deal with Heartbleed.

A big cause for concern is related to sites that have your sensitive information, such as Yahoo and OKCupid (most people aren’t logging into with private data). Both companies have since issued a patch to fix the security hole, so users with accounts with those companies — including Yahoo Mail, Flickr and so on — should update their passwords immediately.