What does it take to get a great photo?

Digital Photography School is one of the sites on my Google Reader. And today, they had a piece talking about what equipment is needed for a great photo.

Their point – it doesn’t matter what camera you have, it’s always a question of the person behind it. And while I’m a hundred and twenty percent in agreement with that perspective, I have an slightly different point of view as well.

In the good ol’ days of traditional film cameras, the biggest differentiators between the high-end professional cameras and the regular cameras were

  • The options of interchange-able lenses (and this meant you could have some really brilliant glass).
  • The perspective shift due to a viewfinder providing a different image from what actually is seen on the film.

Nowadays, interchange-able lens cameras are so easy to find at such cheap prices that the first point is invalidated. Secondly, even with the most simple digital point-and-shoot, what you see is what you get, considering that most of them have live preview which shows you the image seen by the sensor.

But, in the film world, a decent camera could take as good shots as a SLR because the quality of the film, the processing, the printing and the cameraperson could be the same and it didn’t matter so much.

In the digital world, the quality of the sensor makes such a difference that it’s hard to take the same shot with different qualities of cameras and get the same great photo.

For example, I took a photo of a table lamp at night through the glass with a Sony DSC H5. This a a nice camera, 7.2 megapixel sensor and a 12x zoom with Carl-Zeiss lens. In fact, it got a Highly Recommended rating at DP Review.

Here is the photo shrunk down to fit.

(Nice photo, no? Thank you, thank you. You can stop clapping now.)

But look at the cropped image at 100%.

Here you can make out the issues with the camera. Normally on a higher end camera, I would have used a higher ISO and a faster shutter speed to ensure that there is less shake. But most point-and-shoots and especially many Sony cameras have noise issues at higher ISOs. Even in this shot, you can see the noise in the image, at just ISO 200. But since I can’t use a higher ISO, I settled for a slower shutter speed. And the result is the shake in the image.

I took the same shot with a Canon EOS 1000D, and I could manage an ISO 800 and avoid the shake and the noise. And the 1000D really is the most basic SLR in the Canon stable. (Unfortunately, I don’t have this shot with me, since it’s not my camera but I will post it soon.)

And a few years ago when I only had a simple point-and-shoot film camera, some of the shots there were comparable to any shot (quality-of-image-wise) from a DSLR. The quality of the shot is another matter, you still need a good eye and a good hand. And that is immaterial whichever camera you may have.

Browser Shootout – Part III

Quickly on from Part I and Part II, here is part three of the great browser shootout. The browsers we are looking at are:

All the tests are done on a fully updated Windows 7 RC on a IBM ThinkPad R52.

The first tests I do is to start up the browsers and check the time till they are fully open and I am able to view a site. All the browsers were set to a blank home page so that this would not affect the load time. After they are open, I check the memory usage.

Then I load one by one the following sites:

For gmail and hotmail, I don’t measure the time to load the login page, but rather the time from login to the time I can see the inbox. In the case of hotmail, this is not the inbox but the main “activities” screen.

All the times taken before this are in seconds and you may take +/- 1 second error.

Following this I run the Acid2 and Acid3 tests. Considering that all the browsers here are Acid2 compliant, only the Acid3 has any meaning. Acid tests are a measure of the browsers ability to support HTML and CSS standards as defined by the W3C. Acid3 requires support for JavaScript as well.

Then I loaded up four different JavaScript test sites. At this point I again checked the memory usage. For Chrome and Internet Explorer 8, I will give the total usage of all the processes in memory.

The JavaScript tests were then run:

The JavaScript test from the V8 Browser comparison is a numerical score – higher the better; the other JS comparisons are in milliseconds – lower the better. The mootools test is actually a test to compare different JavaScript libraries, Mootools own as well as JQuery, Prototype, YUI and Dojo. This test acts as an indicator of real-world usage, since many sites use one of these libraries to run their JS. Note: IE8 failed the Dojo test completely.

Without further ado, here are the results of the tests.

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Of course, IE8 handily wins this one. The slow time of Opera may be due to the fact that it is still in beta.

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This is a logarithmic scale, otherwise it would be difficult to show the usage. IE8 is a huge memory hog, using 824MB when loaded, nearly 4 times the usage of the next highest which is Safari 4. Chrome easily wins this with a usage of only 127MB at max.

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Most sites load pretty much the same on each browser, except on IE8 which consistently takes more time than the other four. Even hotmail, Microsoft’s own, is fastest in Firefox! Gmail also loads fastest in Firefox, but only by one second, well within the margin of error. Overall, Firefox comes in handily in first place, followed by Chrome and Safari 4 almost neck and neck. But these three browsers are easily the fastest and the difference in times to load these sites is so negligible in real usage, you can’t tell the difference.

The Acid3 test is very close. Opera, Safari and Chrome all do the 100/100. Firefox gets 93, but IE8 gets only 20! Although there is a problem with Chrome where you may see a “Linktest Failed” for a few seconds even after everything is complete until the page clears up to meet the reference.

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The v8 suite is Google home-grown to torture test the JavaScript engines of the browsers, but considering the lead that Chrome has over the other browsers, one wonders if it is actually designed to highlight Chrome, considering the other JS tests don’t show such increases.

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Again this graph is a logarithmic scale. All the times are in milliseconds. Here you find that IE8 is visibly the slowest in all tests, while Firefox, Chrome and Safari all are bunched together. If you go in for specifics, except for the SunSpider test (won by Chrome by a short head) and the Prototype test (won by Opera surprisingly), Safari 4 wins all the JS tests – whew!

So that’s the end of the tests. Finally, it comes out that all the browsers are pretty much equal when it comes to performance, except IE8. But even IE8 is head and shoulders above IE7 and IE6, so you should upgrade to this even if you are not willing to move to any alternative browser.

Which browser do I use? Primarily, Firefox because of the extensions I use – but I often use Chrome and Safari. I’m personally not a fan of Opera but that’s just me – it’s a very nice browser. Of course, there are still some sites which are nothing but IE compatible – so I still haven’t gotten the icon out of my quick launch.

Do drop me a line with any questions or queries.

Browser Shootout – Part II

Following on, after a long break, from my browser shootout – Part I can be found here – I finally got around to doing the tests themselves.

Before I go on to the shootout, let’s look at some of the standout features of the browsers here.

All the browsers now work towards standards compliance, which means, hopefully, that if you write a page which is standards compliant, it will work the same in all browsers. All the browsers now have newly (re)designed JavaScript engines. This means that sites which are JS heavy, like Gmail or the new Yahoo Mail, are rendered much faster than earlier. 

Two browsers, Chrome and Internet Explorer 8, maintain separate processes for their tabs, which means if one tab crashes, the whole browser does not go down.

Chrome, Safari and Opera have a speed-dial feature (sometimes called top sites or recently browsed), where when you open the browser it shows you a set of thumbnails of the sites you visited most recently. Safari’s implementation is the best, because it updates the thumbnail even before you click on it, so you have a near real-time view of the site even without visiting it.

Firefox, Opera, Safari and Chrome all support HTML 5 in some measure, including new features like support for <audio> and <video> tags. Firefox has a lot of support for HTML 5 video which you can see on this page. Unfortunately, you must you FF3.5 to view it.

Opera has a nice feature where you can see the thumbnails of your open sites rather than just the plain tab-bar, but this can be added via an extension to Firefox as well. Safari’s tab implementation is a little wonky. Normally I would expect that clicking on a link which is marked “target=_blank” (which on non-tabbed browsers would open a new window), should open the link in a new tab, but in Safari it works the old way unless you Ctrl-click. No other browser does this.

And the standout feature still is Firefox’s extensions and themes. None of the other browsers have anything close to this. The range of extensions is simply mind-boggling. In fact, you would hardly need half-a-dozen other stand-alone applications, because there would mostly be an extension for it. From chat clients to weather updates, world clocks, HTML validators, FTP tools – you name it it must be there. Or you could create one yourself!

Of course, Chrome will be adding a lot of this stuff soon, but there is a lot of catching up to do.

The tests themselves are a mix of loading speeds, memory usage and JavaScript speeds. Read about them in Part III.

Windows 7 RTM

Windows 7 is now Released to Manufacturing.What does this mean? It means that computer manufacturers are starting to get copies Windows 7 that they can install on new machines to be sold some time later this year. In the meanwhile, regular users will have to wait till October to buy retail copies of Windows 7.

Some of you may have read my comparison of some of the new OSes including Windows 7 RC. However, this was not a real review of Win7. Hopefully, I should soon have Win7 installed somewhere, and I’ll give you a nice blow by blow account of this new OS. Stay tuned.

P.S. Sorry for the delay on the browser shootout. Coming soon.

Browser Shootout – Part I

Recently, Mozilla released the latest version of their highly successful browser – Firefox 3.5. In the last few months we’ve also had releases of Internet Explorer 8 from Microsoft, Chrome from Google and Safari 4 from Apple. And coming soon is the latest version of OperaOpera 10.

Before we get into the tests themselves, I thought I’d start with a brief history of the browser world and describe how each of these browsers got here.

In the beginning, Sir Tim Berners-Lee said “Let there be the world wide web” and there was. Actually, the beginnings of the web are a bit more complicated, but his basic idea was to have a collection of interlinked sets of data (pages, images, documents etc) using a simple protocol. This idea was used by Lee to create the world’s first web browser (also called WorldWideWeb and later renamed to NeXus). In 1993, the NCSA Mosaic web browser was created which soon spawned the then ubiquitous Netscape Navigator web browser. Oh how I miss the good old days of the big ‘N’!

Microsoft, which initially seemed to have lost the game, responded by bundling it’s Internet Explorer browser with it’s Windows operating systems. This shut Netscape out of the picture almost completely, and IE went on to reach a near 100% ownership of the browser market.

But again, Microsoft lost it’s way, and with the advent of new technologies and what with worms and viruses and trojans (Oh My!), which made use of the tight integration between the browser to spread, people were looking for alternatives.

Mozilla, which was a spin-off non-profit organization of Netscape, then created the Firefox Browser, which was fast, standards-compliant and extendable.

In the background, we had a Norwegian company, Opera Software, which also was building browsers. Unfortunately, it’s desktop browsers never became a hit, but it’s browsers for mobile phones and other internet access devices are very popular.

When Apple launched it’s Mac OS X, it also created the Safari browser. Originally, Safari ran only on Mac OS, but later was ported to Windows with Safari 3. The latest iteration is touted to be the world’s fastest browser (currently, of course!).

And search king Google, was also not resting on it’s laurels. Even though it gave a bunch of money to Firefox, it felt that it needed to do more in the browser market and released Chrome.

Internet Explorer 7, which by now had become the internet’s favourite whipping boy for not following standards and being buggy, was soon overhauled by Microsoft last year and they promised a new standards compliant browser – Internet Explorer 8.

So now, we have five different browsers each with a different history and different features all competing for the prize of the best and biggest browser on the web. In Q2 2009, the market share of these browsers was:

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As you can see, IE still has the lead with nearly 66 percent of the market share, according to NetApps. But there are rumours that IE market share has dropped quite drastically in the last month, but the numbers are yet to be analyzed.


Coming up next… Browser features!

Windows Vista vs Windows 7 RC vs Ubuntu 9.04

This post has been a long time coming. I installed Windows 7 RC the day after it was released, and Ubuntu the next day. Since I have an older laptop, I wanted to see how well it each would work.

My laptop is an IBM Thinkpad R52 - before the Lenovo buyout. It has an Intel Pentium M processor (1.7GHz), 1.25GB RAM and a 160GB hard disk. The disk is not the original disk, but is a Samsung ATA drive.

 Here in India, it is important to note that many of us eke out the most we can manage out of older hardware. I remember installing Windows 3.1 on a XT PC with 1MB RAM… aaah, those were the good old days! :)

But back to this comparison. The laptop originally came preloaded with Windows XP Professional. Unfortunately, it also came preloaded with a whole load of crap that IBM believed was essential to a good computing experience (NOT!). So, when I upgraded the RAM with an new 1GB chip, and I put in the new hard disk – I also decided to install Vista.

I am not one of those who does not like Vista. Yes, it sucks in a lot of ways, but in many ways it doesn’t. It is the natural progression of the Windows Product Line, with a few stupid ideas thrown in. Let me not really rant about those here. But oddly enough, it ran faster than XP (maybe because of the lack of IBM crapware).

There is an interesting aside to note here, though. On all my XP machines, I have noticed that after a few weeks/months of usage, it starts to slow down. And no matter how much you try to clean up the system, defrag, regclean and everything, it still never gets its sprightly edge back! Maybe it’s just me, but with Vista, after 8 months, I still am at the same speed I started out with – it’s not fast, but hey – it’s consistent.

So, now I decided to install a triple boot system (Vista, 7 and Ubuntu).

Installation

No points for guessing what happens here – Ubuntu wins hands-down! 36 min for the Ubuntu install. Unfortunately, the first disk I burned came out corrupt – even after the verify, so I had to burn a second disk. But, even if you include the total burning time, it still came to only 50 minutes (including the time to figure out the disk was corrupt).

Windows 7 RC came in a distant second – 1 hour 23 minutes and Vista came in nearly 10 minutes later at 1 hour and 31 minutes. And of course, this was not the end of the installation for either Windows OS. The drivers, the drivers… the drivers nearly drove me MAD! In fact, there is still some device on the Windows 7 system that it hasn’t yet figured out although I’ve thrown everything I had at it. But it finally works, so that’s bearable.

But the problems don’t end with installing the drivers. This laptop has an Intel 900 GMA chipset, so there is no WDDM display driver for Vista or W7RC. And there is never going to be one. And this bug I lay squarely at Microsoft’s door. If Ubuntu and even a hacked Mac OS X can run all their graphics properly on this chip, why did MS have to raise the bar so high? So, now I don’t have all the fancy whiz-bang stuff that both these OSes are supposedly famous for!

Boot Time

Again, Ubuntu wins the day. It takes just 27 seconds to get to the login screen while Vista takes just shy of two minutes and W7RC takes 2 min 39 sec to reach the point where I can enter my password. All of them, however, just take an additional 10 seconds to get to the main desktop.

The nicest part about Ubuntu was that it gave me a proper progress bar. I always knew how much of the boot process was complete, unlike with the Windows OSes. Why they can’t get this simple thing right is beyond me.

One thing I didn’t quite figure out with Ubuntu, though, was why it always turns on the Bluetooth on the laptop when booting up. I always have to manually turn it off. Hmm…

Shutdown

It still goes to Ubuntu, but not by such a large mark. Ubuntu – 10 sec, W7RC – 11 sec and Vista – 21 sec.

Battery Life

I did this by running a simple video in VLC with all the brightness at maximum and no shutting down/standing by of anything. Windows 7 wins this one – nearly 2 hours. Vista comes a respectable second with 1 hour 49 minutes. And Ubuntu comes in last with an hour and forty minutes.

Usage

This is the part where the OSes character changes. I have certain problems with Ubuntu which prevent me from choosing it (out of the box) as my primary OS. Firstly, the fonts suck. They are far too large. Secondly, Evolution (the Outlook equivalent) has too much space occupied by the chrome and less by the email/appointment/task that I am looking at. Thirdly, I don’t want to have to download a 500 MB of updates every three days. Can’t we just collate the updates? Fourthly, the Bluetooth thing – see above. And finally, the Thinkpad keys don’t work correctly.

Now, don’t get me wrong, all of these (except maybe the Evolution problem) can be fixed with a little tweaking – but not everyone can tweak the OS that easily. Even I had trouble with the keymapping. If all these could be fixed out of the box – Ubuntu would be the best OS on my laptop. Of course, I’d have to give up Photoshop (sorry, GIMP doesn’t really cut it yet) – but that would make it possible.

Windows 7 just doesn’t do it for me, I’m afraid. Mostly because all the nice things about W7RC require that I have a laptop with a WDDM driver. So I don’t get all the fancy mouseovers, the nice popup stuff and all that. And since I don’t get all of that, it doesn’t have enough to make it more worth my while than Vista. There are all sorts of nice ideas included in W7RC like the pinned menu and the fast shortcuts and the idea of doing away with the system tray, but a lot of the stuff needs to work on my system before I could enjoy it. It works on my desktop, and I like it there, but on this system – naah. (I like the new Solitaire though – finally cleaned up after 15 years!)

So, finally we come to Vista. Which is the system I use primarily and I like it. Yes, there are a lot of things to dislike about it – the stupid implementation of the UAC, the backward compatibility breakages (especially with stuff like VNC), the lack of the WDDM drivers. But overall, it works. It works fast on this system – faster than XP at least (and since I don’t have a standalone XP license, I cannot put XP on the system). I like the new explorer – it gives a lot of flexibility and overall it has enough eye candy (even on this system) to make it nice to look at.

But I keep switching between Ubuntu and Vista. Depending on my mood, I guess. However, W7RC is relegated to the outhouse for the moment. Although, I am planning a browser test next – IE8, FF3.5, Chrome, Safari and Opera. And I’m doing this test on W7RC! Stay tuned.

Continuing with the TyTN II

Continued from here…

One of the things I was worried about when I got a slider phone was whether it would be sturdy, and here I can most unequivocally state that there is nothing to be worried about. While I haven’t tried throwing it about or banging it on the floor, I have not been overly cautious, and there have been no squeaks or rattles at all.

The other thing that I like, as I said earlier, is the WiFi. It makes using email and other internet enabled applications simpler and faster. But there’s an odd problem with WiFi on the Kaiser. As it was shipped out of the box, the performance/power setting for WiFi was 50/50, but I was unable to browse. Later, when I moved it to 100% performance, I had no issues.

But coming to browsing – when is M$ going to ship a decent browser with their mobile software? I want something fast but useful. When I try browsing with IE mobile, it sucks. Then I tried Opera Mobile, which is nice, but sucks because it is too heavy. Maybe when Fennec gets released, it will do for the mobile web what Firefox did for the desktop.

And as I see it, the problems with the Kaiser are mainly with the OS. Even the keyboard problem is a software problem – mainly. Adding a calendar event – go to calendar, click menu, new, and then enter the details. In PalmOS, just go to calendar, tap on a time and start typing. It’s quicker to create complicated events in WinMo, but for a basic event, Palm wins hands down.

It’s very similar throughout the OS – whether it’s contacts or tasks or messaging. And then there are such glaring inconsistencies. For example, cut and paste. In some applications, I can tap Menu->Edit->Cut/Copy/Paste. In some others I can just hold down the centre button of the d-pad and a context menu pops up, and in other cases I have to tap and hold on the screen for the context menu. Why can’t we have one consistent method (or preferably all three in all apps)?

The biggest advantage, though, with regards to the OS is the flexibility of installing a huge variety of 3rd party applications. Even though it is claimed that PalmOS has more applications available (especially free ones), most of them are now outdated and not maintained. WinMo applications cover a whole lot of ground ranging from ones that almost completely hide the underlying OS like SPB Mobile Shell, to others like Fring and Dashwire for communication, to proper RTS games like Age of Empires. And unlike with the iPhone, anyone can make software (the SDK is free to download) and you don’t need to use iTunes to add applications. And of course, Apple won’t be around to stop you from selling the app you make.

It’s much nicer to use the Kaiser than most other smartphones that I’ve seen, especially because of the touchscreen+keyboard combination, but it’s not perfect. It’s not as neat and clean as the iPhone, but it is functionally more powerful. It’s not as simple to operate as a Blackberry, but is more extendable. So, for now, I like it – mainly because there is nothing really better out there. But if it were up to me, I’d want a Treo Pro running Android (in about six months when the hardware and software settle down)!

My time with a TyTN II

So, as my previous post indicated, I am now the proud owner of an HTC TyTN II (aka Kaiser) Windows Mobile phone. I am a big fan of Smartphones and for the last few years I have had a variety of Palm Treo devices ranging from a Treo 180 to a Treo 650.

So, with great trepidation, and not much choice about it, I have jumped the sinking Palm OS ship and jumped straight on to the Microsoft bandwagon. So this review deals both with the Kaiser (when I say Kaiser, I mean the TyTN II) as well as with the Windows Mobile 6.1 platform.

For those of you who don’t know (or to refresh your memory), the specifications for the Kaiser are:

CPU:          32bit Qualcomm MSM7200
CPU Clock:     400 MHz
ROM capacity:     256 MiB (accessible: 145.2 MiB)
RAM capacity:     128 MiB
Display Type:     color transflective TFT , 65536 scales
Display:     2.8 " 240 x 320 Touchscreen
Networks:     GSM850, GSM900, GSM1800, GSM1900, UMTS850, UMTS1900, UMTS2100
Data:         CSD, GPRS, EDGE, UMTS, HSDPA
Expansion:      microSD, microSDHC, TransFlash, SDIO
Bluetooth:     Bluetooth 2.0
Wireless LAN:     802.11b, 802.11g
GPS Services:     Assisted GPS, QuickGPS
Main Camera:     3.1 MP
Secondary Camera:     0.3 MP
Battery Capacity:     1350 mAh
Keyboard: Sliding and tilt

If you’re not really technically minded, it means that this is a fast device, with a touchscreen and a slide-out keyboard which tilts up to make it look like a laptop. To top it off, it’s got connectivity anywhere in the world and it supports 3G, 3.5G and WiFi data.

For a person like me, the last one is really great, since in India we don’t have 3G and getting on the net from one’s phone otherwise really sucks.


So, the first thing I did on getting hold of the Kaiser was to upgrade the software from Windows Mobile 6 to 6.1. (Okay, okay, I’m a geek – sue me!). I was not really curious to see the difference between 6 and 6.1 and all the reviews said that 6.1 is far better, so there it was: I went to the HTC website, downloaded the update, plugged in my phone and voila everything worked – wonderful! Updates on the Treo were as easy, so it’s quits between the two.

One of the nicest things about the Windows Mobile OS is the home screen. It’s got a lot of stuff to see at a single glance and is easily customizable with a variety of plugins from a huge number of developers. I like the default HTC home page, but it is a little limited. Unfortunately, HTC decided that since they were going to ship a top-of-the-line phone they would not add the customizations that they had put on their slightly lower-end phone (the touch) like the Touch cube and the finger friendly optimizations. Luckily a number of developers have spent a long time working on porting all these applications, and now I have a really nice home screen similar to what you would get if you follow this thread on xda-developers. (btw xda-developers is clearly the best place to get started if you have an HTC phone).

Unfortunately, the phone dialer isn’t half as nice. On the Treo, the buttons were nice and big and SEPARATE! Here, the buttons are not nice, not very big and touching each other, so with my thick fingers, I often end up typing the wrong number. The good part about the dialer is that it tries to figure out my contacts based on the letters I type, so if I type 234, it finds ADItya sengupta. Since this is a clever device, if I type 273, it finds Aditya SEngupta. This is very useful, considering that I really don’t want to slide out the keyboard to find my contacts by name.

And this is the biggest problem on the Kaiser – the keyboard. As keyboards go, it isn’t bad. It has a nice tactile feel and the buttons are big and nicely spaced and you can feel the press of each button. But Windows Mobile sucks here. When I slide the keyboard, sometimes the screen rotates almost instantly, but sometimes I have to wait for it to realise – oh! the keyboard is out, the keyboard is out – and then run around madly wondering what to do next before it changes the orientation. And then, there’s the problem of auto-complete. Until I disabled it, auto-complete was making typing so slow that it s e  e   m  e  d to take forever to type a single word! I guess it’s useful if you’re using the onscreen keyboard or the transcriber, but using the hardware keyboard with it sucks. Also, the other funny thing. If I use the onscreen keyboard when the physical keyboard is hidden away, it still shows later when I slide out the physical keyboard!

On the Treo, on the other hand, the keyboard was much smaller and more difficult to type on, but it never needed to be slid left, right, up or down. It was just there, which made it easier to type!

Ok… this is getting to be a long long post, so let me cut it here. More in the next installment…