Updated: Tuesday May 13 2014
Hi guys, Alex here. Like many geeks, beyond the occasional request to resuscitate that decrepit beige vintage Windows PC under the neighbours desk, my advice is often sought on gadgets and services. Therefore, I have finally put this page together to help you and yours, and hope it is helpful. I am pretty busy, but will try to update Dovice at least once a month and improve the layout and convenience as time allows.
- May 12 2014 - DOVICE has moved to dovice.com - powered by Google sheets.
- (Digital) Content and gaming sections
I work for a company that is in the business of technology and infrastructure design. Further, for a while, I have had respect and a preference for Apple, Motorola and Panasonic gear thanks to each company's pedigree, history of innovation and build quality. However, within these pages, tips are 100% impartial. If a specific brand or model gains favor then that is coincidence and kudos to them. When it comes to computers, I am heavily biased towards Apple, because for all their flaws, their hardware is consistent, innovative, well built (does it creak?) and the OS does not constantly prompt you for upgrades, virus checks etc. OS X really does, on the whole, just work, and I would never advise anyone to buy a PC unless for gaming, CAD, Linux or tinkering with hardware.
Due to my connections with the industry, and to avoid a conflict of interests, I make no effort to profit from this site nor gain any insider knowledge that covers information that is not already in the public domain. I have no access to confidential information beyond my work, and if I did, I would not of course share it.
This is not the place for rumors, although there may be some speculation!
Other than big oil, big pharma and big processed foods, if there is one 'toxic, manipulative, do as little as they can to benefit the consumer' industry out there, it is anything to do with connecting you to your contacts or the Internet. People say, "It's getting better, I get more minutes and more data at a higher speed for less than a few years ago!" True true, but it's taking a long long time (consider this all started in about 1992), and the level of support, consistency and coverage is still unacceptable. Why? Because the sorts of people who run the telcos are visionless types who treat what they manage like a hedge fund, rather than a service to improve the quality of life for everyone.
Apple, Dyson, John Lewis & FedEx are all companies that prove it is possible to treat the customer with respect and make a decent profit too.
With coverage, speed and general service reliability often dependent on your location, I am only going to provide two tidbits of advice to UK readers:
- Do not get a contract phone unless you are 100% certain which phone and provider you want. If you are happy with the phone you have, then at the end of a contract, consider a sim only / month by month plan, where although you do sign a contract, you may terminate the agreement at any time with just one months notice. This is ideal if you just want to try out a provider or plan to move abroad, or to an area where coverage may differ. Either way, by law, if within the first 14 days you find the service does not meet your needs (poor coverage etc), then you are legally allowed to terminate.
- The best value today (January 2014) is the sim only One Plan from Three (UK) where you get more than enough minutes and texts, and all you can eat data for £18 a month. Best of all, when Three switch to 4G, there will not be any increase in monthly charges. All said, from a customer service angle, I have found Vodafone to be the best.
On a personal note, I won't be happy until coverage is almost 100% at 4G speeds such that it will be possible to upload and download speedily from the roadside, a train, a field or hill top. Else, what's the point of 'mobile' wireless? If you're in a city, (where mobile coverage is often good), chances are, you can pop into a café, pub, hotel or other establishment to hop on the WiFI, so all that 4G In The City is pointless! Do you watch Netflix when walking down Oxford Street? Thought not! But if you're in business, you need access to that cloud service 24/7 anywhere anytime.
We're not there yet!
What's the difference?
Productivity & creativity
- Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 (2014 Edition): High resolution display with precision stylus - think of it as a 10" Galaxy Note 3. The 12" Galaxy Note is due soon too, although the UK price is a lot higher than the 10"!
Content consumption & gaming
- Apple iPad air 32GB: Superb responsive display.
- Apple iPad mini (either version): Excellent aspect ratio for all applications
- Amazon Kindle Fire HD: Beware that Amazon's version of Android is very much focused on their ecosystem.
- Sony Xperia Tablet Z/Z2: Stunning understated all glass case, water resistant, fast, great screen, built in NFC and FM Radio. Even better when slotted into the Sony SFPDS5-CE Xperia Tablet Z Docking Station.
- Amazon Kindle Paperwhite: Daylight readable eInk display suited to books and documents only. Outstanding battery life.
- Apple iPad mini (either version): Excellent aspect ratio for all applications.
- Google Nexus 7: Superb high resolution colour screen, ideal for books and movies.
- Samsung Galaxy Note 8/Note 8 Pro (Pro was announced at CES 2014)
- Chromebooks - If you are not a power user, that is, you do not rely upon powerful 'desktop' apps such as Photoshop, Lightroom, or are a gamer, then Google's Chromebooks come highly recommended. They are affordable, reliable (thanks to the fact they are solid state), boot up quickly and of course, all your data is automatically backed up into Google's cloud. If you damage or lose your Chromebook, then when you get a replacement, all you do is login and all your content will re-sync and you're ready to continue. This is similar to an Android phone. whereby all your content is synced with Google's servers.
- Apple Macintosh (Happy 30th!) - The key benefit of the Mac, specifically, OS X, is that unlike Windows, there is only one version. There is no Home, Office or Professional version of OS X, so your decision making is easier, and you don't need to worry that you will be missing out on features if you choose a lower priced Mac. The other benefit (over Windows) is lack of frequent pop-up panels asking if you would like to upgrade a feature or warn you of a virus. All said, the user experience (UX) of OS X leaves much to be desired. Unlike WIndows, there is no way to neatly snap windows together, arrange windows neatly or conveniently force a window to full screen. In a nutshell, OS X window management is a disaster! Why this is is an unknown. However, it is not enough of a con to discount OS X altogether. My solution is simply to leave everything open and use F3 to find stuff. (Shrinks all windows and provides an overview.)
- Windows (8) - The greatest benefit of Windows 8 is the touch screen functionality. If you or your kids have grown up on an iPad or other tablet (the irony!), then chances are, when you return to a laptop or desktop PC without Windows 8 (such as a Mac or non touchscreen Windows machine), you'll keep prodding or dragging the screen with your fingers! However, whilst some of the UX elements of Windows 8 are well thought out and intuitive, the OS is still not as robust, hassle free and safe as OS X. Long term, it is likely Apple will merge iOS (the OS that powers the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch) and OS X and therefore introduce touch screen 'computing' to iMacs and MacBooks. Gamers already know that the PC is the only way to go thanks to the ease and affordability of building something upgradeable.
- Laptops - Operating systems aside, the best all rounder laptop on Planet Earth as of January 2014 is the latest MacBook Air 13". A mix of outstanding build quality, light weight, speed, well designed trackpad, backlit keyboard, a sweet spot screen size (13") and a battery life in excess of 10 hours make the MacBook Air a very useful and capable machine. The SSD (solid state) hard drive makes it robust and faster than some pro laptops of a year ago. The only downside is that unlike the MacBook Pro, the display is NOT colour accurate. If you must go Windows, check out the Sony VAIO Pro with similar features and form factor to a MacBook Air, such as thin body, backlit keyboard, SSD, great battery life - plus a WIndows 8 driven touch screen.
- Linux - Most geeks who work for us have Linux running on their PC or laptop. As a designer, I don't know much about it, but Linux is from what I understand a superb way to learn about computers and engage with a technically literate open source community. If you are not technically proficient, choose another OS or check out Ubuntu.
5. TVs & MONITORS
Can a TV be used as a monitor?
Whilst a more technical reply will come later, in a nutshell, a TV display is designed for viewing moving images, therefore sharpness is not as important so lower quality panels and components are used. On the other hand, monitors (like that on your Mac or PC) are designed for the display of data, such as text, spreadsheets, illustrations and CAD (Computer Aided Design) drawings where detail and ease of reading text is paramount. Monitors therefore use higher quality components and a different technique to display the picture. This is why a 32" TV can be had for under £300 ($450), while a 32" monitor will rarely be less than £700 ($1000) and it won't even feature a built in TV receiver!
Who makes the best TVs?
If all you want to do is view pictures or video, then yes. Most modern TV's have a built in HDMI input, making connecting a computer or laptop convenient. Some TVs have built in wireless capability, so you can wirelessly stream content to them. However, TVs rarely come with a decent adjustable stand, so placing them on your desk may not be practical. If you are a graphic designer, photographer or videographer, then an IPS based dedicated monitor is ideal. Dell offer some superb monitors with versatile stands that allow you to position the screen at almost any angle.
What about Smart TVs?
This is a difficult one to answer. Like mobile phones, new models are being introduced all the time. It is generally accepted in the professional audio visual world that since Pioneer left the market, Panasonic make the highest quality TVs. I have found their products to be very reliable in general, far more so than other Japanese and Korean brands.
Unlike your PC, laptop, phone and cheap designer t-shirt, a TV is or at least was, like the washing machine, an item that remained in your home for 10 to 20 years! Therefore any additional bells and whistles such as Netflix, YouTube etc apps built into the TV are liable to become obsolete unless the TV is running an upgradeable OS, which currently, is not the case.
My advice is that there is no harm in buying a smart TV, just as there is no harm in buying a 3D equipped TV, as long as it is within your budget and offers a good picture. But don't pay extra for 3D or smart TV functionality. Any smart TV features can always be added via an external box, such as Apple TV, Roku, Western Digital TV (WD TV), Google TV (dead?) etc. All of those can be upgraded. Best of all, they are not very expensive, so you can always buy a new box in the future.
Curved ladies & OLED TV from Samsung
Until you see one, this may sound like an unnecessary feature to make you spend more money on the latest technical innovation, but curved TVs do actually look incredible and draw you into the picture. My advice is to wait for the 4K versions (see next item) that are adjustable, such as those announced at CES 2014 by Samsung and LG. This allows you to switch between curved and straight view, the latter ideal when others are watching TV with you.
This may sound crazy, but whilst I would definitely recommend 4K over Full HD (got a Retina MacBook Pro or 4K monitor already? Check this out!), whilst the detail offered by 4K monitors and TVs makes viewing photos an incredible experience TODAY, it has been known for a long time that the best resolution for viewing content on a large display is 8K. In fact, 8K footage is already being recorded in Japan (as was 4K over a decade ago!) and Sharp have already shown an 8K TV. The human eye is attuned to a specific level of detail, and 8K finally reaches this, even on huge screens.
Of course, when standing far away from a display, the resolution hardly matters, however, with forthcoming interactive TVs that use gestures, styluses (yes!) and touch technology, you may well get up quite close to you display, where things may get too pixelated at low resolution.
For now, either buy the latest Full HD monitor or TV, or wait a year for the second or third generation 4K models that will be more versatile, better quality and much more affordable. If you're really not in a hurry, wait for 8K!
8K will become standardised much quicker than 4K thanks to the larger TVs and hidef projectors being developed to create more immersive experiences, such as those prototypes shown by Sony at CES 2014. Scaling up the display manufacturing and processors is not that hard because phones and computers already use ultra high resolution displays and powerful processors already, and will be able to cope without too much alteration by manufacturers. (Don't forget, your current high end digital camera already stores images at over 8K!)
TVs with built in DVD players
Stay away from store branded TVs. Unlike radios, iPod/phone docks and other products, a TV is expensive and going to be with you for a while. Choose from Samsung, LG, Panasonic, Sony, Lowe - or even B&O if you can afford it. Why? Because most store brands use poor quality components. Note the viewing angles and colours, often awful! And that's ignoring the dubious industrial 'design'.
Oh dear. Other than the fact that physical content distribution is obsolete (yes it is and no Blu Ray will not be around forever, just as videodisc died decades ago), if the DVD player fails, you'll have to take the whole TV in for repair. Stay away! Join Netflix and iPlayer and stream to your high quality branded monitor or TV. You know it's the future!
Although some phones do feature superb cameras - when in daylight and shooting a static subject - until lenses and sensors get a bit larger (difficult in a phone form factor), if you are serious about photography, or just want to ensure you can capture every special moment, consider a real camera...
In order of importance:
- Auto focus speed - Unless you shoot manual focus or only static subjects, a fast effective all conditions autofocus is essential, and even today, not every manufacturer is there yet, although on mid priced cameras, Panasonic appear to offer the most consistent AF performance.
- Handling - Does the camera fit your hand like a glove? Can you reach all the primary controls quickly. Better: Do your fingers naturally fall on the controls? Are there mechanical buttons and dials for key features such as exposure adjustment, ISO and White Balance (WB)? You don't want to have to dive into menus each time you want to make an adjustment, else you'll miss that 'Kodak' moment! The Panasonic G6 Micro 4/3rds camera has some key functions sensibly mapped to buttons on the rear. Pentax cameras feel great in the hand and offer the best ergonomics and build quality. Check out their K series cameras as an example. If you have the budget, the Fuji X series have received universal praise for superb handling (lots of quick access dials!) plus outstanding image quality thanks to Fuji's innovative sensor technology. In fact, Fuji have single handedly re-created the timeless retro look and feel of yesterday's range finder cameras. All said, the Fuji X series autofocus, buttons (not dials) and on screen menus do take getting used to, so get a lengthy hands on.
- Low light IQ - (Image Quality) When in a store testing a camera, try shooting without the flash in a dark area of the store, or by photographing a dark object, such as someone's black coat or jacket. Preview the photos on the cameras display and zoom in, or on your laptop. With the ISO set correctly (say, 800), how much noise is there? Does it look out of place in relation to the rest of the shot?
- Lens & lens selection: The innovative Sony NEX series (now renamed Alpha) were/are let down by a limited lens selection, so no matter how great the sensor and how small the body, you ended up having to stick a huge great big lens on the think precision engineered body to get the same results as a larger camera, making the whole exercise pointless! On the other hand, Micro 4/3rds cameras, mainly available from Panasonic and Olympus who pioneered the format, offer a superb range of quality lenses, without the need to attach special adapters to take advantage of lenses from other formats - something that you have to do to benefit from Sony NEX cameras. If you are looking for a compact or bridge camera, with a non removable lens, then simply apply the first 3 essentials (above) and you'll end up with a camera that suits your needs, and may even fit in your pocket.
- Built in flash: This is a personal preference, but I enjoy using fill flash to shoot subjects with the sun behind them. Screw on external flashes (such as on Olympus E-M and some Sony NEX cameras) are a nuisance. If you are a pro and need a real flash, then of course, a hot shoe is essential too.
- For videographers: 50/60p for smoothness of footage and ability to capture still frames, manual exposure control, manual focus, silent lens mechanism.
Full frame (FF) APS-C or Micro 4/3rds?
Considering What matters (above), which of the leading sensor formats you choose depends on your personal or professional needs. Until the recently launched groundbreaking Sony A7/A7r cameras that offer a full frame in a relatively compact body, the only choice was a large bulky DSLR from Canon, Nikon, Pentax etc. However, now, unless you are a landscape or studio photographer requiring large ultra high megapixel results, the APS-C and Micro 4/3rds formats will suffice, allowing you to benefit from the convenience of a smaller lighter camera. The image quality is hard to sell from a full frame DSLR in most situations. Need evidence? Browse Flickr and other photography sites, download the originals and 'pixel peep'!
I am not explaining the difference between these formats because you can research that elsewhere. Gawd bless Google! :)
WiFi equipped digital cameras
Be honest, unless in a studio using professional gear, how many times have you used the WiFi upload/tethering feature on your camera? We're willing to bet you tried it out when first acquiring your camera, and although impressed with the technology, were frustrated by:
- Fiddly setup - with or without NFC assistance
- Problems logging on to the local WiFi network
- Slow upload/download and/or remote viewfinder operation
- General inconvenience-VS-potential issues!
Therefore, you resorted to using the USB cable or storage media to download images from the camera to your device. And for remote operation, a simple physical remote shutter release combined with a fully adjustable articulating display was probably where you ended up.
Our advice is not to choose a camera purely on the grounds it has WiFi/wireless until the following:
- The camera can connect to your phone, laptop DIRECTLY using an AdHoc/P2P connection, that is, you do not need to first connect to a fixed WiFi signal, such as that in your home, office or a café.
- The syncing speeds are as fast as a physical connection
- Everything works seamlessly - something that will probably take a few generations of products from the industry
Far more important to choose a camera with a large sensor, fast lens and speedy operation, so you don't miss that great low light shot of your niece/son/friend behaving well/badly/dangerously!
There are exceptions, in particular when it comes to high end cameras, such as the Panasonic GH3 and specific studio quality cameras, such as those from Nikon and Canon. These offer well designed remote control applications in camera and on iOS and Android, but still, if there is no direct WiFi connection, setup can be a pain, and re-connecting equally so.
Dovice camera picks
Panasonic G6 + 14-140mm zoom + Articulating touch screen + 50/60p video + Mechanical controls + Nice grip + Fair price = Perfection
Don't forget, like everything on Dovice, I only list gear that has received good reviews from the media, public and/or me! :)
- Studio/Professional: Nikon D3/D4 series. Canon D1 series. Sony A7/A7r.
- Low light: Nikon D3/D4
- Outdoors/exploration (wet/dirt etc): Olympus E-M1 or E-M5. Pentax K series. Panasonic GH3. Sony RX10 (amazing constant f2.8 lens) - All are splash proof. Pentax lacks articulating display.
- Holiday/Travel: Sony RX10. Panasonic G6+14-140mm zoom. Olympus EM-5 or EM-1+your choice of lens. (I am not up to date on Olympus lenses, but they are superb, as are any from Panasonic, Leica, Carl Zeiss etc with the Micro 4/3ds mount.)
- Street photography: Fuji X100S, or if you can afford it, the X Pro. Sony RX100MK2. (The original RX100 lacks an articulating display, making shooting from the hip less practical.) Samsung EX2F with f1.4 lens (I have one, love it!) Pentax MX-1 (Discontinued in stores, but available on Amazon), I wanted one, but don't like to buy online (too much hassle to return if it goes wrong), so got the Samsung instead. Support your local bricks-n-mortar, buy anything over £50/$75 on the high street!
- Video: Panasonic GH4/GH3 (or G6 if budget constrained). Sony RX10 (I insist on an articulating display that can face forward, so the G6 appeals to me over the RX10 whose display does not flip forward.) Ageing but still superb Canon 5D MK2. All of these cameras have an external Mic input, vital if you wish to do reporting type videography and obtain better quality audio.
- Just generally rather lovely: Olympus O-MD E-M1, period.
7. MESSAGING & SOCIAL MEDIA
Updated: Feb 26 2014
With the acquisition of WhatsApp by FB, some of you may feel like migrating. There are two apps that have already become pretty popular away from the UK and US, namely Telegram
and Line. The former looks like a WhatsApp clone, but is more secure. Line is Japanese, and this is obvious in it's slick and fun execution. Plenty of 'stickers' (oversized emoticons) that probably appeal to young girls. Telegram is more mature and benefits from WhatsApp style instant notification of message delivery, whilst Line has Skype like voice and video calling.
I would say use both!
Social media and kids
Like cocaine, using social media for communicating can initially be appealing but in reality has a toxic effect on one's well being. Humans used to communicating and interacting in person with one or two people at a time have been thrust into a cold impersonal environment where your every thought or activity is broadcast to any number of people. Worse, it is all archived. Children can be very cruel, and whilst on the playground any bullying or teasing is limited to a small group, online, an individual can be humiliated in front of hundreds of 'friends'. Hence so many suicides amongst young people today. So, if you are a parent, I would ban outright any use of social media until your kids are 18 or so, but that's just my opinion. Far better to encourage them to join real world clubs and societies and use voice calls to interact with each other - as we have done to date.
8. SECURITY & PRIVACY
You Dear innocent well meaning consumer have been betrayed by both the state and some online services. In the case of the latter, this is because companies are obligated by unethical law to do whatever they can to ensure the best return on their stockholders investment - including selling your soul. To be fair, you always knew your intimate details/drunken disrobed escapades would be distributed across teh interwebs in return for a free service, so really have no cause for complaint.
However, when it comes to state surveillance, or to be more precise, state sanctioned archiving of just about everything you say, share, store or do online/over the phone - we do have a problem. If you are too young/naive/trusting etc to see why this is a problem, we'll let time and your ageing process provide enlightenment when at some point in your future some peeping loser digs something up: "What the f***? How did they know that? Where did that image come from? We were snogging in a side street/car park/corner of a pub/hotel corridor in the early hours, who could have seen us? That was a private moment, not to be shared ! It was destined to be a unwitnessed event in the trillion year history of the Universe, just like in the wild and free plains of Africa - away from CCTV, loser voyeuristic journos and council jobsworths. Noooooo!!!!"
Of course, your fiscal and data integrity can be compromised by eCommerce. After all, your credit card details are hosted by Apple, Google, Amazon and others, so if they are hacked, or an insider gains access (possible, happens), then you will probably find out after your bank informs you there have been suspicious activity on your account. This is not so bad, you will always be reimbursed once your bank is satisfied there has been fraud so it is not worth worrying about really if you are with an established brand.
The issue that I have been researching on your behalf for the last few months (and as part of my work) is what level of access to your online service accounts app developers have to your details. You will have noticed when you fire up some apps for the first time they prompt for access to specific information, such as:
- Location information
- DropBox or other preferred cloud storage service
What to do
This is done using industry standard authentication systems such as OAuth and (supposedly) ensures the secure (https) interchange of information between your device and any 3rd party service the app communicates with. Conceptually, (I am still trying to get to the bottom of this!), a developer could view your account data, including emails, contacts, location, (Google etc) documents, DropBox and other cloud stored content. Yes, your intimate/confidential/priceless/valuable information. More on this as I have it.
This is a tough one. As we all know now thanks to the good work of Edward Snowden (hero decent guy), the NSA, GCHQ etc have so much power (paid for by the energy companies who are effectively the governments of the world) that even if you keep everything on a secure USB stick, with nothing on your hard drive or in the cloud, if someone wants access to it, they will get it. And if they cannot hack into your memory stick, then by law, the police have the right to force you to provide access. Of course, unless you have broken the law (naughty images, stolen intellectual property etc), there is nothing to worry about. What should be of concern is misuse of this power by the energy companies who may attempt to spy on protesters - or the gutter media who peek into your private life to obtain increased advertising dollars from voyeuristic eyeballs.
The only way around all this for your peace of mind is to extract yourself from (or never connect with) the digital world. This actually feels quite good. Switch your phone off and leave it in a drawer for a day, and see how relaxed you feel laying on a beach, strolling around in a pretty town centre or out in the countryside, without a care in the world! #disconnect = :)
Feel free to ask questions or comment below, or direct to me via email or on twitter @oflife